Monday, March 31, 2014

Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.1: All Cheerleaders Die, School of the Holy Beast

Someday, the first day of BUFF will be held on a day when you can tell that spring started a week ago, because the sun is shining and it's unexpectedly warm, especially in comparison to the winter that we just endured. 2014, however, was not that year; instead, it's one where it's maybe not a great idea to arrive at the Brattle somewhat early in time to beat the crowds to pick up the passes you purchased on Kickstarter, because you're just going to wind up standing in another line waiting for the box office to open while your fingers get kind of numb, and of course it won't be open at the half hour before the screening that you might expect.

That is the way of the festival, and two movies after a full day of work and a stop at the Million Year Picnic for the week's comics (a heavy load, as apparently every publisher was trying to boost their profits and the end of the quarter) left me kind of drained by the time the second feature started. I got through School of the Holy Beast following the story, which is better than I sometimes do on my last movie of the night, but I kind of wondered where various characters went. Which was maybe better than All Cheerleaders Die, where I was alert enough to see it jumping the rails.

"Psychic Cheerleaders: Dawn of the New Age"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

The short that played before All Cheerleaders Die is an obvious companion piece, with two cheerleaders with magical items that let them do impossible things. It's a goofy bit with a satanic frat party, that mostly works because of goofy non-sequiters, like corn being something illicit. It's probably a little more self-consciously silly for my tastes, the sort of short that acts like its eccentric premise is self-evident, but it's an amiable enough nine minutes.

Watch it here

All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

All Cheerleaders Die is a notably sub-par exploitation movie, but I will probably end up discussing it more than many of the better films that played the festival because the way it goes about being disappointing is just absolutely maddening. There's enough talent and ambition here for the movie to become a smarter-than-it-looks delight, and yet the movie they actually make, while energetic, seems to aggressively dispose of the film's early wit and insight. You would think the filmmakers would have this sort of thing figured out, seeing as it's the second time they have made this movie.

It starts with AV-club girl Mäddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey) doing a video segment on her friend Alexis Anderson (Felisha Cooper), only to have the bit end with Alexis dying in a horrific cheerleading accident. Three months later, senior year is about to begin, and Alexis's best friend Tracy (Brooke Butler) has taken both her position as head cheerleader and her boyfriend Terry (Tom Williamson), and a glammed-up Mäddy tried out the squad, saying she wants to see what Alexis loved about it. In reality, she's looking to ruin their lives from the inside, but when she miscalculates... Well, it's a good thing gothy ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is around to bail out Mäddy, Tracy, and sisters Martha & Hannah Poklin (Reanin Johannik & Amanda Grace Cooper). Well, at least it seems like a good thing...

There's a supernatural twist early enough on to be mentioned without it really being a spoiler but which is is a good enough jolt to keep somewhat under wraps. What actually happens isn't that important, but the way the movie shifts as a result is: Up until that point, what was going was kind of interesting character-wise, with the audience sort of in Mäddy's corner by default only to see that while Tracy may be kind of shallow, she is intriguingly human. After things get weird, though, the interplay between Mäddy, Leena, and Tracy (and the boys) becomes less about them than plot devices. Even the part of the story that gets more interesting as a result - the sibling rivalry between Hannah and Martha - eventually fizzles out. That could have been its own movie, but gets played out too fast, and the characters involved are just some more generic pieces of a horror movie rapidly losing the subtext that makes it interesting.

Full review at EFC

Seiju Gakuen (School of the Holy Beast)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, 35mm)

Dang, but this is a horrible time to drift off during the late movie, because the odds that I'll get another chance to see this sort of pinky violence movie on screen and on film any time soon are fairly low, let alone this particular one. That's a genuine shame, because for a movie whose purpose is to get a bunch of naked flesh on a cinema screen, it's good-looking and highly watchable for a number of other reasons.

The plot isn't much, but it gets the job done - Maya Takigawa (Yumi Takigawa) is a likable enough twenty-year-old libertine who joins a convent because she wants to dig up the truth on what happened to her mother. There are priggish nuns and ones who are there more or less against their will and are happy to cause trouble, and while none of them are really great actors, they've got charm to go with their sex appeal and can handle the tasks they are given.

It's kinky enough fun, with just enough story to keep it from feeling like just nude scenes strung together (although I did notice characters coming or going). It's also kind of weird to think that Toei, a studio which is much more respectable these days (I gather that their animated features tend to be the most family-friendly), was once known for this sort of exploitation.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

This Week In Tickets: 17 March 2014 - 23 March 2014

Quiet week, what with being busy at work and having a good chunk of my weekend claimed.

This Week in Tickets

Not particularly complaining, mind you: There have been weeks at work when I have worried I'm not doing enough to be kept on, and the weekend was a chance to see a whole bunch of my immediate and extended family, if the reason for it is because my youngest brother and his wife are moving to Chicago for a new adventure and everybody who lives in the area is looking to wish them well. I won't lie - even though I didn't see Matt & Morgan as often as I'd like given that we can get to each others' houses with one bus line and a bit of a walk, it's going to be kind of different not having them nearby.

So, that made for a quiet movie-going week. I went to the Belmont World Film series to catch Ilo Ilo on Monday, which was kind of weird at first for much the same reason that the previous week's trip to West Newton was (the first leg of the trip out there was, once upon a time, my commute to work), but it was neat to visit the Studio Cinema in Belmont and catch a pretty decent film from Singapore.

Because the send-off party was at another brother's in Maine, it ate a bunch of the weekend, so I had to schedule my movie-going around that. That meant catching both Particle Fever and Grand Piano on Friday night, but those were both good choices: The former is as inviting a documentary on searching for the Higgs Boson as you're going to get (and, happily, still playing in Boston), while the latter is a thriller with a ridiculous premise that does a much better job than you might expect in using how unusual it is to the film's advantage.

After that, I went to Maine and spent some time verifying that my nieces are the cutest nieces as well as seeing all my brothers, many cousins, et al. On the way, we stopped at this place in the New Hampshire border, because Matt really likes pinball. I did manage to clean his clock at Burgertime, though.

I got back home just in time to head out to Arlington for what turned out to be the last in the Gathr Preview Series, Hide Your Smiling Faces. Pretty good way to go out, though it's a shame it was never able to get much traction.

Up next: The Boston Underground Film Festival.

Ilo IloParticle FeverGrand PianoHide Your Smiling Faces

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gathr Previews: Hide Your Smiling Faces

I must admit... I was kind of surprised to be greeted at the screening for Hide Your Smiling Faces with a comment about how I was there for the last hurrah, if only because they had charged my credit card for another three months of membership just the week before. Apparently, the decision to shut the series down happened quickly - there's still a page for it on Gathr's website, and TBD listings for four screenings, including one tomorrow. A representative was still coming to screenings and offering memberships just a few weeks ago.

It's not surprising, though - I have been the only person at some of these screenings, and only a few times has the crowd been able to pack the Underground, much less the actual Regent Theatre. I can only guess why it didn't work out in Arlington - for one, it's in Arlington, and for many in the Boston area, that's the wrong direction to ask many people to travel for an evening's entertainment after work; for another, there seemed to be very little attempt to reach out to the various groups that might be interested in seeing independent movies early (or, in many cases, in the only theatrical screening they'd get) in the Boston area. I presume that the other twelve or thirteen venues had similar situations and turnouts, which is a shame. There were some duds among the movies shown, but some very good ones as well.

Supposedly, they are looking at reviving the series in the fall, possibly on a different schedule than weekly. I'll miss it, but I'm kind of shocked it survived this long.

Hide Your Smiling Faces

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2014 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews, digital)

Dead things appear early on in Hide Your Smiling Faces, as three kids poking around an abandoned building find a dead bird and do not exactly treat it with respect. It's a good starting point for writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone's first feature, a fine look at rural kids confronting mortality.

Those three kids are Eric (Nathan Varnson), his younger brother Tommy (Ryan Jones), and Tommy's best friend Ian (Ivan Tomic). It's summer vacation, they're old enough not to need a whole lot of parental supervision, although you can argue whether that's a good or bad thing when Ian shows the brothers his father's pistol. The man chases Tommy and Eric away, and a few days later, Eric and his friend Tristan (Thomas Cruz) find Ian's body.

This could be the start of a mystery story, and maybe something like that is going on behind the scenes, but Carbone keeps the focus clearly on the kids' perspective, so if there's talk of an investigation, it's not filtering down to that level. Instead, the fact of Ian's absence takes the focus rather than the circumstances, and in some ways it seems to be affecting Eric more than Tommy. Part of that may just be the fact that Eric has Tristan to play off, and a story that goes in an interesting direction there. For the most part, summer goes on, but there's a pall, and added significance to everything from learning to swim to the mean neighbor threatening their dog.

Full review at EFC

Friday, March 28, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 March 2014 - 3 April 2014

Taking advantage of a day off to hit the early show at BUFF to see if this goes much faster/smoother when I am not trying to do it at midnight.

  • The Boston Underground Film Festival continues on through Sunday, with some pretty exciting stuff: I can certainly vouch for Doomsdays on Friday night, which is followed up by The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears by the folks who did Amer a few years back. There's some interesting stuff Saturday, but the closing night is the really interesting one: I sort of avoided Love Eternal at Fantasia, as there were always other options that looked like they were more my thing, but am very much looking forward to The Congress and Blue Ruin. It's all at the Brattle Theatre, who will be closed from Monday to Thursday to recover do some renovations.
  • There's a bit of strangeness at the multiplexes as well, with Darren Aranofsky's Noah the week's big opener. It is, apparently, a somewhat non-traditional telling of the tale, with Aranofsky not shying away from the stranger, more troubling parts of the Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls, enough that the studio is having a little trouble marketing it to the religious the way certain other recent movies are. It plays at the Capitol, Apple, Jordan's (Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Boston Common (including Imax), and the SuperLux.

    The other major opening is Sabotage, with David Ayer directing Arnold Schwarzeneggar and a pretty impressive supporting cast as a DEA task force only to find that some members of the squad are treating it as a heist. It's at Apple, Fenway, and Boston Common. Fenway and Somerville also pick up Bad Words, which expands to more screens nationwide, while Boston Common has The Silence of the Lambs playing Sunday and Wednesday. Many theaters will also be doing a Captain America double feature on Thursday (or at least early screenings of the much-anticipated sequel).
  • The Coolidge is back to a different movie on each screen, as Le Week-end opens upstairs. It features Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a long-married couple revisiting Paris for the first time since their honeymoon, and not always looking on each other fondly. But, hey, it's Paris, and if you're going to fall back in love anywhere... Jeff Goldblum plays a supporting role, and the film is also at Kendall Square and West Newton.

    The Coolidge's "Elvis month" of midnights wraps up with a 35mm print of Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch's set of interconnected stories passing through Memphis, Tennessee. The Coolidge also has a Monday "Science on Screen" program with Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker introducing Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and science on-screen every day as they will be running Particle Fever in the 14-seat GoldScreen. There's also an IFFBoston preview screening of Under the Skin on Wednesday with director Jonathan Glazer in person.

  • In addition to Le Week-end, Kendall Square, is also opening Cesar Chavez, Diego Luna's biography of the famed leader in civil rights and agricultural labor. Michael Pena has the title role, with America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, and John Malkovich giving support (it also opens at Boston Common). They also have Oscar-nominated animated feature Ernest & Celestine, and in what is becoming a happy trend, this story of a bear and mouse who become friends will alternate between English-dubbed screenings and subtitled showings in the original French.

  • The Somerville Theatre mostly live events on the big screen this weekend, but there is a pretty great screwball double feature on Sunday with It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday. The other Centennial screening is Arabesque, with Stanley Donen directing Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren on Thursday. In between, the first team-up of
  • Somerville Subterranean Cinema, All Things Horror, and IFC Midnight happens on Wednesday, with real-time thriller The Den playing a couple of shows in the screening room.

  • The Harvard Film Archive finishes up The Glitter of Putrescence - Val Lewton at RKO, which is kind of sad because I'm sure a lot of the BUFF folk would have liked to be there. This weekend's features are The Ghost Ship (Friday 7:15), Isle of the Dead (Friday 9pm), The Seventh Victim (Saturday 7:15pm on 16mm), Youth Runs Wild (Saturday 9pm), Bedlam (Sunday 5pm), and The Leopard Man (Sunday 7pm); all are in 35mm except where noted. On Monday, Leonard Gardner visits to screen Fat City; he wrote the screenplay for this movie that is part of the John Huston series that mostly finished a month and a half ago.

  • It's all about the Boston Turkish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, film-wise, with screenings on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, continuing through next weekend.

  • Despite what some online listings indicate, Apple Cinemas is not running the Ridley Scott/Tom Hanks/Mia Sara/Tim Curry Legend this week; it's a Telugu-language film from iMovieCafe. Queen continues to stick around for late shows.

  • The Gathr preview program came to a sudden end last week, but the Regent Theatre will still be doing occasional film screenings. On Tuesday, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton plays, documenting the LA-based record label Stones Throw Records.

  • This week's Belmont World Film Series presentation is Only When I Dance, a documentary on two teenagers in a Rio favela who aim to become world-famos dancers. One of them, Irlan Santos da Silva, now performs as part of the Boston Ballet and will be on-hand when the film screens at the Belmont Studio Cinema on Monday.

  • Emerson's Bright Lights is having some fun on Tuesday, screening The Big Lebowski in the Paramount Theater's Bright screening room, with mock-White Russians being served, bowling shirts encouraged, and prizes being given out. They're back to digging up interesting obscurities on Thursday with Chasing Rainbows, a documentary on how the LGBT and Evangelical movements first started clashing in Hawaii.

  • Surprisingly, that's not part of the Boston LGBT Film Festival, which also kicks off on Thursday night, about a mile away the ICA. The opening night film is To Be Takei, a look at Star Trek co-star George Taeki, who has become a gay icon since coming out later in life.
My plans? BUFF (like, now), then maybe trying to fit Sabotage, Noah, Ernest & Celestine, and Le Week-end in afterward, and also choosing between The Den and Under the Skin on Wednesday.

Ilo Ilo

I've gotten a bit better about not missing programs at the various local theaters as I build "Next Week in Tickets" every week, so I was able to keep the annual Belmont World Film program in mind as it approached. It's an interesting program which does a fairly impressive job of getting movies that almost certainly would not have much other visibility in America at all up on the big screen, and supports them with guests to put what we see into context.

The trouble, at least from my perspective, is that it's out in Belmont, which means a non-minor trip for me, especially since I'm arriving from Burlington. I think the only bus route that goes by the place is the 73, which can be somewhat erratic in scheduling. The good news, though, is that the Belmont Studio Cinema is not a bad destination. It's run by the same guys as the West Newton Cinema, and it's actually kind of intriguing how they seem very willing to try different things, both in different locations and as something doesn't seem to be working. For instance, the last time I saw something at the Studio, they had computers set up along one wall of the lobby, doing a "cyber-cafe" sort of environment. Those are gone now (for the better - it's already a pretty cramped space), but they have opened the "Cafe Burrito" next door, with the theater's website making it clear that bringing one's order in from there is quite okay. They have even removed some seats from the single, fairly large auditorium to install tables; they're dotted around the room rather than concentrated in a particular area, which is kind of a neat choice.

I do kind of wonder, since there's no connecting door between the cinema and cafe, what the reaction would be if someone brought a pizza from the restaurant on the other side of the building in. On the other hand, that would be pretty unwieldy unless you sat at one of the table seats, whereas the burrito, I found, will fit nicely in a cupholder.

The movie itself was pretty good, and I found I liked it and saw more upon further reflection, and that tempers some of my dissatisfaction with the post-film discussion a bit. The guest was an immigration reporter who immediately started speaking about certain types of exploitation that weren't immediately evident in the movie, although they were important with a bit of time to mull it over. In general, it didn't feel as though she had seen the movie or boned up on the specifics of this in regards to Singapore to prepare beforehand. That was fine, in that a lot of people in the audience were less interested in discussing the movie as opposed to the issue anyway. Even by that standard, though, it was a lot of people with fairly vague opinions or memories of newspaper articles they read months ago.

I ducked out before the discussion was finished, which I almost never do, but the next bus would have been something like a half-hour later. There's certainly a good chance I'll be back some other time for this series or just to see another movie at the Studio sometime soon - big, single-screen theaters are a rarity that deserve support, and the ready availability of actual meal-type food at a reasonable price is certainly a draw when the movie is going to be your entire night out.

Ilo Ilo

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2014 in the Studio Cinema (Belmont World Film, digital)

You can finish Ilo Ilo and come away feeling like you've seen something more uplifting than it really is, and it would not shock me if a fair amount of people identified with the parents of a problem child, especially in the film's native land of Singapore. The tone of this film is carefully managed, enough so that it does not necessarily feel like it is condemning the exploitation of foreign workers depicted - at least, not until the pieces have been separated, added up, and put back together.

The kid on question is Jiale (Koh Jia Ler); he's constantly in trouble at his school and not much less trouble at home. Mother Hwee Lang (Yann Yann Yep) and father Teck (Tian Wen Chen) are stretched thin as it is, so they do what a number of families in a similar position do and hire a servant. A placement agency send them Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who had left her own child with family back in the Philippines to take this job, and while Jiale initially treats her even worse than his parents, a bond eventually forms that Hwee Lang finds threatening.

There's a scene a bit past the midpoint of the film that initially comes off as just sort of darkly funny: Jiale has been given a clutch of cute baby chicks to raise as pets for his birthday, and as he runs out to the balcony to play with them, the camera swings back to the living room to remind the audience that the family was having fried chicken for dinner. It doesn't quite become the movie's central metaphor, but the meaning isn't hard to extract as things play out a bit more; Teresa may feel like part of the family, but given that Hwee Lang is holding onto her passport "for safekeeping", she is in a bit of a cage as well - and a housemaid can be a luxury in the same way as a pet chicken.

Full review at EFC

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Particle Fever

You know you live in Cambridge, MA, when the opening night screening of a documentary on the physicists working on the question of the Highs Particle draws a packed house. It probably didn't hurt that the theater was on the Red Line's Kendall/MIT stop, but I've still seen tumbleweeds roll through cinemas playing surer things.

Having guests helps too:

Mark Levinson & Dr. Sheldon Glashow

That's director Mark Levinson on the left and Nobel Laureate Dr. Sheldon Glashow on the right, taking questions after the movie. There actually weren't a whole lot of questions asked; I suspect that a lot of the folks in the audience were either conversant enough with the subject matter to not require explanation or (as is sadly the case for me), not really qualified to ask about the science. Kind of a bummer for me; as much as I would not necessarily have understood the resultant conversation that well, it might have been fun to hear. Given the crowd, it wasn't the same sort of Q&A as a film festival, where it's often the process of making the film that is of the most interest to the audience. Levinson did mention that they had a parallel track following another one of the four experiments taking place at the LHC, but apparently Monica, Fabiola, and Martin were enough - and that they were lucky that those core characters were at the LHC for just the right amount of time to give the movie a consistent "cast" from start to finish.

It was a nice talk with "Shelly" Glashow, though. He's 81 but looking fairly spry, talking about how these days, neutrinos are his favorite particles and how he and several friends & colleagues did the work that Peter Higgs built upon that led to everything in the movie.

I liked him, and that's one of the things that made a big impression on me with this movie - it portrays science, even cutting-edge science that beggars the imagination at both ends of the scale, as something regular people do. Brilliant regular people, but there's no reason for a young girl in school to not want to grow up to be Monica Dunford, and the occasional foibles of the theoretical physicists are charmingly human, rather than evidence of how different these guys can be.

Particle Fever

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, DCP)

Lots of sci-fi movies will have scenes of scientists frantically scribbling on chalkboards, with the directors at a loss for how to make this exciting. I don't envy them their task; it's usually being done by a new character in a detour from everything else going on, and the stuff being written or said is likely to make those who would find this activity thrilling snicker. Particle Fever has people scrawling on chalkboards too, but it's people we know after they have spent some time explaining just what is going on and showing us just how amazing the world's largest physics lab is.

That would be the Large Hadron Collider, a seventeen-mile ring on the border of Switzerland and France, built to accelerate protons in opposite directions to see if their collision produces a free Higgs Boson, a particle predicted by the standard model of physics but never actually observed when filming started. It is an awesome place, if only for the scale of the thing: Director Mark Levinson and his crew recite the dimensions we've all heard from magazine articles, but allow the place to impress us on its own. It can't help but do so; this is what everyone who designs a set for a science fiction movie is trying to capture, from the incongruously futuristic buildings in the middle of farmland to the five story tunnels packed with hand-soldered electronics to the great-looking control center. The environment pulls the audience in, letting us see how big and coordinated and cool the project is.

Levinson has quite the amiable group of subjects, who mostly fall into two groups David Kaplan is the theoretical physicist we see the most of (in addition to narrating when that's necessary, he's also a producer on the film who shares the "a film by" credit with Levinson), and he introduces us to two others: Savas Dimopoulos, a Greek-American mentor week works on Nobel-level projects, and Nima Arkani-Named, a Princeton professor considered one of the top minds of his generation. Monica Dunford, an American postdoc at the LHC working on CERN's Atlas experiment, is the experimental physicist we see most often, joined by coworker Martin Aleksa of Austria and Fabiola Gianotti, the experiment's director. A large part of the reason why the movie works is that this core group is very easy for laypeople to connect with; Kaplan and Dunford especially are shown to be able to explain what's going on in a way that makes the audience smile. Having this distinct and likable set of personalities (no condescension, ugly academic rivalries, our forced eccentricity), makes it a lot easier to connect the work they're doing to the world we live in, no matter how arcane the theories in question seem at first.

Full review at EFC

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Grand Piano

I wanted to have this up early enough to direct people to the Brattle Theatre's remaining screenings of it, but there turned out to be less time for writing than I hoped this weekend, and then when I got home on Monday... Well, I knew there was going to be something going on with the sewer, but I didn't expect it to be "get out of the house and stay out all night" bad. It's on VOD and Amazon right now, and will be on video soon enough. It's fun with a crowd, though, and it's disappointing relatively few will get to see it that way.

It's kind of curious, since I would kind of figure that Elijah Wood and John Cusack with their names at the top of the credits might get it a bit more of a theatrical release, but apparently that's not the case. For whatever reason, Wood never really managed to turn Lord of the Rings into stardom, although he's worked steadily. Cusack is the really strange case, though - he was a steadily popular guy in the 1990s and into the 2000s, and then right around 2005, more and more stuff started going straight to video, without much in the way of a real theatrical bomb until The Raven in 2012. Did Hollywood just decide with The Ice Harvest that he couldn't open a movie on his own, although he might be a useful part of an ensemble or boost something that might already have a bit of an audience?

Anyway, this goes straight to video, and I noticed that it had the sort of credits that really stretch to make a 90 minute running time, and I'm starting to wonder it there's an unintended side effect of the rise of video on demand going on here, with short running times becoming more popular. I have seen a number of indie/foreign movies lately - especially genre films - that are in the 75-95 minute range and sometimes doing everything it can to get that far, and until relatively few years ago, that seemed to be the length of animated movies or comedies that were considered fairly thin (or features the studio had no faith in and thus cut down so that one more screening could be fit into a single day). Movies under 100 minutes seemed insubstantial - that was a TV-movie length, not long enough to be the centerpiece of an evening out. Someone selecting a movie from a TV or website menu, though, might tend to want the shorter length, though; it fits in a schedule ("I've got time to watch this before going to bed" or "I have an hour and a half to kill" or the like).

I'm not necessarily opposed to this - you can probably skim through this blog and find many cases where I argue in favor of the 75-minute horror movie, for instance - but it seems like a shift that may just grow more pronounced as more filmmakers decide that streaming or VOD is where their movies will spend most of their lives.

Anyway, I dig it, and I can only hope that it does well enough for someone to pick up The Birthday, an earlier film by Eugenio Mira that I quite liked at my first or second visit to the Fantasia Festival in 2005 which doesn't appear to have ever made video in the U.S. I didn't recognize Mira's name when I saw it on Piano, but the two having the same director makes a lot of sense.

Grand Piano

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 Match 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

Grand Piano is evidence that, with enough creativity and energy, a clever filmmaker can make an exciting thriller out of what may seem like unlikely activities and situations. In this case, it's a man playing classical piano before a hushed auditorium, and the very improbability of the situation makes the whole thing exhilaratingly unpredictable.

The pianist in question is Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), arguably the most brilliant of his generation, though he has not played in public for five years after a disastrous recital of one of his mentor's most difficult pieces. Tonight, though, he's giving a special charity/memorial performance, spearheaded by his movie-star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), with longtime friend Reisinger (Don McManus) conducting and their friends Ashley (Tamsin Egerton) and Wayne (Allen Leach) in the audience, using a special eight-octave piano. And as if that wasn't enough pressure, his sheet music has a message scrawled on it saying that his and Emma's lives are forfeit if he plays one note wrong, with an earpiece so that the mastermind (John Cusack) can make sure Tom doesn't try anything clever.

Seems ridiculous, right? And it is, but writer Damien Chazelle and director Eugenio Mira make sure it's clear from minute one that "Clem" is plenty serious about what he's threatening, even if his motivations and endgame are kept close to the vest for quite a while. And while there is a certain level of incredulity displayed by everyone who becomes involved in the plot, none are ever given much opportunity to actually start poking holes in it on the audience's behalf (well, maybe a henchman played by Alex Winter does, but it's more complaining about how much legwork is on him than questioning the plan's viability). Once things have been set into motion in this way, the audience gets to switch over to problem solving mode along with Tom, and that's fun because not only are the puzzles they have to solve different than the ones that frequently appear in your typical thriller, but the solutions are almost guaranteed to require bold actions on the heroes' parts.

Full review at EFC

Monday, March 24, 2014

This Week These Weeks In Tickets: 10 February 2014 - 16 March 2014

Man, the Sci-Fi Festival should not cause the sort of cascading can't-get-stuff-finished effect. But, here's five weeks, just in time for it not to be six.

10 February - 16 February
17 February - 23 February
24 February - 2 March
3 March - 9 March
10 March - 16 March

This Week in Tickets

Festival pass means twenty or so movies in a week, which is busy, even though snow and other things made for a (relatively) truncated week. So, once more with lists:

Monday: Bunker 6 & Dragon Day
Tuesday: The Tragedy of MacBeth & Echo Drive
Wednesday: Point B & Los Últimos Días
Friday: The Perfect 46 & Senn
Saturday: Armistice & The Search for Simon
Sunday/Monday: First Men in the Moon, Westworld, Coherence, The Power, Europa Report, Silent Runnin, The Truman Show, Electric Dreams, The Visitor, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Grabbers, Children of Men, and Flash Gordon

Lists of lists. Criminy.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Well, the second half of the marathon was midnight to noon; not sure when we stop calling that Sunday night and when we start calling it Monday morning. I watched Snabba Cash Thursday night .

After the marathon, sensible people would go home, sort of grind out the day, and then go to bed at around 8pm, so that they could be ready to go to work the next day with no ill effects. I, on the other hand, decided that yes, I would head out to the Regent Theatre in Arlington for the weekly Gathr preview screening, and it was actually a fairly good decision - Next Goal Wins is quite a fun documentary about the American Samoa national soccer team, and we got to see it pretty early; it will apparently be part of the sports sidebar at Tribeca next month. I did drop unconscious pretty much the moment I got back, though.

Much of the rest of the week was about getting timing right - I got to Kendall Square just in time to see Like Father, Like Son during its sadly brief Boston run on Tuesday, and then the regular work-from-home day on Thursday allowed me to see Beijing Love Story at one of its few (inconvenient) times during the first week of its run; I was actually fairly surprised that not only did it get a second week, but a full slate of showings during that week; it must be China Lion's most successful day-and-date release by now. Then, on Friday, the location and time of The Wolf of Wall Street actually lined up so that I could see it on my way home from work and be done by 10pm or so, rather than be exhausted by the time it was over. It's a long one, but one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while (even if friends & family were shocked that "funny" was the first adjective I used to describe it).

Saturday turned out to be a crazy, MBTA-intensive many movies in many separate municipalities days: I started off going to Boston Common for the (relatively) cheap screening of The Lego Movie, then took the Red Line to the edge of Cambridge to see Snabba Cash II at Apple (I had watched part 1 after getting back from Beijing Love Story on Thursday night so that I'd be caught up). After that, it was a pretty easy walk to the Capitol Theatre in Arlington for Pompeii, and then I think I took a bus that stopped near Davis Square to see 3 Days to Kill at the Somerville Theatre. I probably could have done something else at 9:30-ish, but I was done enough for the week to stay in Sunday.

The Wolf of Wall Street

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2014 in Capitol Cinema #1 (second-run, DCP)

The Wolf of Wall Street was a tough movie to fit into the schedule, with its three-hour runtime meaning it either started before whatever else I was doing was finished our it guaranteed a late night. So it wound up on my "later" list until it changed venues to one with a more commute-friendly schedule, at which point I saw and pretty much loved the thing. It didn't exactly make me wish I had seen it earlier - this thing was still too big a chunk of movie to get seen again during its theatrical run - but if this blog's stated policy was not "ranking movies is stupid", it would have been near the top of my list of the year's best comedies.

It sounds me somewhat that people got so up in arms about this movie. Part of it is being able to say "eh, I've seen cruder" in response to the accusations of depravity leveled at it - imagine, if you will, Takashi Miike's take on the same material - but part of it is the question of just how someone can come out of it with the idea that there's any approval of what is happening on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio is addressing the audience in character, basically saying "I am a horrible person who does bad things", and if he doesn't get enough of a comeuppance, that's sorry of the point. Wall Street may have become a different sort of game since the time this movie chronicles, but the basic attitudes are still the same, and this should make us angry at the people involved, not the movie.

The movie, after all, is hilarious, a constant barrage of gags that seem too absurd and over-the-top to be true executed with perfect comic timing. DiCaprio is delivering note-perfect smarm, and there's nobody in the large cast who isn't on the same page as Martin Scorsese. The film does admittedly begin to wear at a certain point - an aborted deal with the Feds proves to be an example of when a screenwriter should collapse actual events because the next fifteen minutes or so are the definition of wheel-spinning, even if crazy and exciting things do happen. Still, this is a huge chunk of good movie. It's vulgar and ridiculous enough to cover its anger, but still a delight.

The Lego Movie

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2014 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, RealD)

This came out the week of the sci-fi festival, which meant that I got an extra week to have expectations built up as nearly everybody I read online said with varying degrees of astonishment that it was not just good, but great, and maybe it was a little much. It is a pretty darn spiffy animated picture, though, with some fun surprises, an off-kilter sense of humor, and a tendency to gently nibble at the hand that feeds it.

It's not truly vicious self-parody, but there is something brilliant about the way the movie does skewer the idea of Lego sets being something that encourages kids to follow instructions to make this one thing, and the first time WildStyle starts building something out of the environment is a "ha! this is great!" moment. As someone who has been prone to sniff at both the comic-book and silver-screen versions of DC superheroes of late, both Superman snubbing Green Lantern (made doubly clever by having Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill of 21 Jump Street, also directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, voice the pair) and the mockery of how exaggeratedly dark Batman has become (and how "dark" is confused with "sophisticated"), seemed enjoyably pointed. It's not an angry sort of satire; in fact, it's almost the opposite, pointing out that it's okay to be cheerful and excited about creating. Some of the jokes may not be great, but they all come from a good place, which becomes more and more clear as the film goes on and the full idea behind Lord's & Miller's concept reveals itself.

There are a bunch of great gags in the movie, both right up front and in the background, and the filmmakers do a nice job of balancing how building the whole environment out of Lego is both limiting and liberating. It is kind of chaotic when the action starts, although that may be a matter of me sitting too close and off-center for a 3D movie (I'll probably go for the regular 2D Blu-ray). It also made me recall something my sister-in-law said about wanting adventure but not violence for her daughters, and there are times when The Lego Movie seems to be a bit off there, needing more building and less explosions. It's a ton of fun and smarter than it initially looked, though, and still worthy of a true all-ages recommendation.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2014 in Capitol Cinema #4 (first-run, RealD)

I suppose, if I gave a little more thought than "will probably be pretty in 3D" to Paul W.S. Anderson films when deciding whether to see them, I might be a bit encouraged by his not having a writing credit on this one; after all, his movies tend to be good-looking but dumb. After seeing it, the flaw in that line of thinking became clear: The script for Pompeii (by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson) is as stupid as any, but lacks the sort of inspired weirdness that occasionally crept it's way into the Resident Evil movies, or even Anderson's version of The Three Musketeers.

The front half, especially, is rather dull, finding various ways to put good-looking Milo (Kit Harington) and Cassia (Emily Browning) together but not really do anything with the obligatory attraction they display. There's a noble gladiator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and a dastardly Roman (Kiefer Sutherland), who at least have personality, but aside from Sutherland's decision to be five times as intense as anyone else in the movie, we're biding time until the one-two punch of Milo & Atticus in the arena and Mount Vesuvius exploding.

And, sure, at that point the movie enters Anderson's wheelhouse and starts to become more fun. Anderson does 3D as well as anyone, so there's a very well-established sense of space while the gladiators fight, and then really lovely destruction as Pompeii gets squashed between bombs and ash on one side and a tectonically-triggered tsunami on the other. That Sutherland is running through all of this acting crazy and violent is almost enough to overlook how little every kid that the heroes rescue and reunite with their parents will get to enjoy their good fortune. It's fine disaster spectacle, but the filmmakers don't seem to realize what sort of ending this cataclysm has, and this don't get the time lined up right.

This Week in Tickets

It wasn't quite a repeat performance the next week, but there were some similarities: Did the Gathr preview on Monday (this time, the interesting The Forbidden Kingdom), fit a couple of movies in based on when I could (Tim's Vermeer on Tuesday & The Monuments Men on Thursday), and then bounced all over the place on Saturday.

First stop was Reading, where I saw Stalingrad at the IMAX theater, and I must admit, I had been kind of worried that I would be the only person in a huge theater. Not quite the case, though. I actually had a little bit of time to spare before heading to Brookline for a subtitled screening of The Wind Rises, after which point it was time to take the 66 bus to Harvard and the Red Line from there to Davis, and I was about fifteen minutes late the screening of Normal - but, fortunately, there was a Q&A with the previous one that ran late. I wound up being the only person for the 10pm show.

Then, Sunday, I saw Her at roughly the last minute possible, getting back to the house just in time to watch the Academy Awards. I joked before sitting down that I wanted to make sure I could be outraged in real time, before discovering that it really was one of my favorite movies of the year. As a result, I was pretty darn happy when it did win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The Monuments Men

* * 3/4 (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2014 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

There are few crueler ways to describe a film than "forgettable", but that's literally the case for me and The Monuments Men; I proceeded straight from Pompeii to Her when writing this post, coming back to this film when stumbling upon the ticket stub. It's not a bad movie in any way, but for something with both a memorable concept and a platoon of charismatic movie stars, including a director who has shown some talent for this sort of thing, it sure blends into the scenery for those who see several films in a week.

Why is that? I'm not sure, but it may be a matter of neither letting one of those movie stars take the wheel nor letting them bounce off each other as a cast. Matt Damon, for instance, is separated from the rest early, and the others eventually break into smaller groups whose stories are entirely too separate. It winds up making the film feel like an anthology where few of the segments get to have a strong climax, but director George Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov aren't able to get them pushing in one direction for the big finale, either. The passion behind the story's central plot - the need to save centuries of art before war destroys or steals them - could use a bit of pumping-up, too.

That said, the talent involved is almost certain to create enough good moments to lift the enterprise above average. Hugh Bonneville, for instance, gets a great sequence that could easily stand on its own if lifted from the rest of the movie. Bill Murray & Bob Balaban get two, and while the first may be a little disappointing for being somewhat disposable, the second is a crackerjack dinner scene that quietly brings the intensity that so many other segments lack. And it almost goes without saying that Clooney, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin are going to make some sort of positive contribution. And that's how things end up; nobody ever detracts from the movie, but there's just not enough tying it together to make it fully satisfying.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2014 in Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

There is a mostly-forgettable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the "character" half of the episode involves Data attempting a romantic relationship with a member of the crew, which ends with him telling her that she's occupying some small percent of his processor cycles and her sadly saying "well, at least I was in there somewhere." Her has a similar scene, but it's far more interesting and satisfying because Spike Jonze, even though he is making a movie about human emotions and alienation, is actually much more sophisticated in his science fictional thinking: Rather than this being a sad moment about how Data will never be truly human, it's a moment to consider how Samantha is something fundamentally different.

That's not all it does; this isn't just a story about how the Singularity looks from an average guy's perspective, so Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) gets rather worked up about it as well. It's a wonderfully awkward scene that both gives the audience a reason to empathize with Theodore and signals that what initially seemed like a somewhat predictable story was going to go different places. Jonze could have told the obvious sorry about how a guy whose last relationship ended badly retreats into something synthetic and undemanding, but he doesn't - or at least, he doesn't do it in the most obvious way. Instead, he's telling one about how love can come from unexpected places, with the caveat that this can create is own problems and meet with outside resistance.

Not necessarily as much as one might expect, though. The first time Theodore nervously mentions that his new girlfriend Samantha is an operating system only to get "her, that's cool" as a response, it almost seems like a meta-joke - the movie zigged where you thought it was going to zag - and it is, but it's also a canny bit of futurism. Sure, the customary thing to do would be to play future prejudice as a metaphor for present-day racism, but the idea that acceptance would be closer to the default position for our children and grandchildren is both charmingly optimistic and a believable extrapolation. Jonze build his entire future out of interesting tend and potentially-subverted expectations, from a skyscraper-filled skyline that still looks like Los Angeles to the jobs that professional writers will be taking. Even things like costuming and hairstyling play with the audience this way: They may come across as nerdy in the present, as one might expect from the story about a man falling in love with a piece of software, but they are so consistent across the film that it becomes clear that those choices are mainstream for the film's setting, nudging the audience to a different view of these characters.

The characters are interesting and well-played up and down the line, even without the world-building Jonze does around them. Joaquin Phoenix, for instance, is almost always on-point as Theodore both with his initial melancholy and the initial bemusement and later happiness he finds in his interactions with Samantha. It's an underplayed performance that nevertheless always let's the audience in on what he's feeling. Scarlett Johansson's vocal performance as Samantha is impressive, too; unlike many actors playing computers, she isn't stuck trying to sound like a speech synthesizer - in fact, she and/or Samantha Morton (who performed the role on set which likely guided Johansson even if Jonze decided it just didn't work well enough to scrap it) are allowed to put enough sighs and other non-word sounds in that an in-story reference is necessary. There's always a youthful delight in discovery in her voice, even when it's clear that she not finding what she discovers cheerful. There's also some very nice supporting work by Amy Adams and Chris Pratt as Theodore's friend, and memorable scenes with Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde as the past and potential future women in his life.

Her is got some well-merited praise and an equally deserved Oscar for being a sweet, emotional story that resonates even if one is not a particularly big fan of the science fiction genre, which is why I was so surprised at just how important that genre is to it. As much as the performances and the feelings they evoke are the most important part of the movie, they are made more real and fascinating by the way Jonze works so hard on building his world in all its details, creating a future that intrigues us for being much more than just an allegory for the present.

This Week in Tickets

The Gathr Preview Series moved from Monday to Sunday for a few weeks during March, so this one wound up with two screenings: On My Way on Monday and Tiger Tail in Blue on Sunday. Same basic area, but the first was in the main theater upstairs and the second in the "Underground", with pretty much just me there.

In between, there was a preview of the new Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the Brattle to finish of their retrospective of the director's work. Tough to see much else during the week, what with it being crazy at work. In fact, other than a foolhardy triple feature on Friday while waiting for something to run - Jimmy P. & A Field in England at the Brattle and then Almost Human at the Coolidge with plentiful guests, I was kept busy during the weekend, too. I did give A Field in England a second shot on Saturday night, as I conked out the first time through. I was still busy Sunday, although I finished in time to go see Non-Stop on Sunday. When they've got you working over the weekend, an action chaser is a good idea.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2014 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, DCP)

Non-Stop is not exactly a great thriller; it's got a script that leans quite heavily on things that need a bit more explanation than the hand-waving they get and has several characters blurt out their life stories while others are left thoroughly generic even though they act like they've got some connection to Liam Neeson's air marshal Bill Marks. It does a little better in some areas than others and has somewhat less action than one might expect from the trailer.

That's not wholly a bad thing, though; director Jaume Collet-Serra has worked with Neeson before and seems to understand that he's not really an action star so much as a tall guy with a strong, intimidating voice who is best off when his fights end quickly and decisively. So he's actually in a pretty good situation here, tasked with solving a locked-room mystery from the inside, acting just pushy enough that a heel-turn plot twist is never out off the question. It's not quite the ideal match of performer and tough-guy material as he got in Taken - there's something a bit off about this alcoholic mess that keeps him from ringing completely true - but he's kind of fun in his growling determination.

Part of the fun, I think, is that Collet-Serra and the writers know both the common genre rules and how they are most frequently broken, and assume that the audience does too. That lets them play the Marks-may-be-in-on-it game, and also have a ton of fun with Julianne Moore as the woman sitting next to him as the flight starts. The filmmakers know that we know that the villain in a mystery is usually the best and most respected character actor in the cast, because who else are you going to trust with breaking down on the stand or suddenly reveal themselves as a complete bastard after an hour of earning the audience's trust? So they plop this very recognizable movie star right in the middle of a bunch of unknown and vaguely-familiar faces, let her be quite chipper, and make sure they're shooting things ambiguously without being too obvious about it.

The movie doesn't go all-in on self-awareness, thankfully, playing its set-pieces fairly straight and having things pop up that are fun in their own right. It could do a bit better at villain-revealing time, and not for the reason some spoiler-happy twerp gave on EFC (no group should be off-limits), but it's fun, and just what I needed that afternoon.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Seen at 6:45pm in Somerville Theatre #1 on Friday. Not actually stubless, but the thing jumped out of my pocket from the wind the next day, and I was not chasing it down in the road.

Another busy work week, although I got to sample some of the good stuff they've been doing for the Somerville Theatre's 100th Anniversary starting with Seven Samurai on Thursday, then The Bridge on the River Kwai on Friday, and A Face in the Crowd on Saturday.

That was just part of another busy Saturday, which had me heading out to West Newton for Omar first (only place playing it on the only day I can get there), getting back downtown just in time to see Veronica Mars (worth the money pledged!), heading up the Red Line for A Face in the Crowd, and then making a shockingly short trip for a Saturday marathon: Downstairs for The Demon's Rook. Unfortunately, I was good and wiped out by that point, so I missed a bit of that one resting my eyes, and was well ready to go home after.

I had been sort of fretting about Sunday, not wanting to miss one of the bigger-name previews in the Gathr series for the annual Chlotrudis Awards ceremonies and the after-party, but it turned out I didn't have to worry; The Raid 2: Berandal disappeared from Gathr & the Regent's schedule without any sort of warning, leaving my evening free, although I didn't stick around much for the party; my terrible hearing in crowded rooms was at its worst.

The awards themselves were pretty good, although I wound up not voting both because I neglected to pay my membership dues in time and because there were only a few categories where I saw the full field and I just didn't have the time to catch up during February and March. I don't feel too bad about it; I did nominate, and I tend to feel that the actual awards in these cases are a necessary evil to focus attention on the nominees. The ceremony itself was okay, although it played into a few things I'm not wholly comfortable with: Being the 20th annual awards, it became as much a celebration of the group as the movies, and that was weird for me. Plus, although I joke about how much the group can be in the tank for Canadian film - and how that's one of the ways the group often seems to represent certain members more than others - or how a lot of groups like this can define themselves more by what they feel they're above than what they actually like, the embracing of it was weird for me. Hopefully next year will be more about how awesome and under-seen The Past was (or, you know, whatever is in its position next year) and less about how awesome we are for watching small films because the mainstream is so unimpressive.

Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Celebration, 35mm)

Akira Kurosawa's biggest and most famous samurai epic is one heck of an evening at the movies, and while I'm partial toward loving movies such as this for how they are unabashedly entertaining, it is a great movie for plenty more than just being a fantastic genre movie. You can absolutely sit through Seven Samurai and come away loving it for how Kurosawa has made a flawless samurai movie with impeccable polish, and in fact I'd kind of hope that most people enjoy the pure fun of it seen that way first. Later viewings can reveal the rest of what's going on and make it even better.

The first time through the movie, it's easy to look at Toshiro Mifune's "Kikuchiyo" as the comic relief, the enthusiastic and athletic would-be samurai who often screws up but has his heart in the right place. Look closer, though, and the film is, in some ways, all about him. He's a peasant who wants to be a samurai because while peasant farmers are respected far less than their crucial contributions to society merit, the opposite is true of samurai. The opening act of the movie, before Takashi Shimura moves front and center as the leader of the band of ronin, is full of warrior arrogance, and even those who opt into the mission are not immune. The samurai are better than the bandits that they are brought in to fight, and the peasants' meekness has not done them much good, but it is abundantly clear that admiration of the samurai is based on an idealized image as much as their actual importance.

This doesn't mean that Kurosawa drains Seven Samurai of the sheer fun of watching a samurai movie, though. In fact, it's one of the most entertaining you'll see. He lays out the story with such admirable simplicity and clarity that it initially seems like there may not be enough there for a three-hour movie, but the time fills pleasantly as characters start to accumulate, interact, and methodically prepare for the final act's action. He frequently displays an exceptionally light touch - it's the sort of movie that catches one by surprise by just how funny it is, and often because of broad slapstick at that - but is always able to reverse course so that the serious action with life-and-death consequences are the right sort of jolt when they resurface. He then caps things off with an extended battle that excites at the man-on-man level but also engages at the larger, strategic level.

Result: Thrilling adventure movie with the requisite comedy, romance, and genre triggers to be a major crowd-pleaser, but which gets more intriguing and complex every time through.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Celebration, 35mm)

It's been a while since I last watched this one, and looking back on what I wrote five years ago, this film seems to be kind of like Seven Samurai, in that it was something I saw as mainly a grand adventure the first time around. Now, it comes across as a black comedy that smoothly gives way to action as the end approaches, and I wonder if that is a common reaction, or just a case of me either being superficial five years ago our too anxious to be clever now.

"Black comedy" is how it played this time through, certainly, an elaborate satire on the very idea of there being rules for war that civilized nations follow. The back-and-forth between Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa's Colonel Saito is still kind of absurdly classist, but also droll, especially as Hayakawa shows Saito getting absolutely no pleasure out of Nicholson building his bridge for him, to the point where it seems like he will wind up committing seppuku out of shame, even if he has technically succeeded. This is also the source of one of Alec Guinness's two best lines - "if I were you, I should have to kill myself" - the brilliantly set up cap to a great exchange.

The adventure side of the film is just as good; David Lean took to big, wide-screen adventure pretty quickly, and when he goes for pure thrills, it's plenty beautiful with no loss in stakes from all of the wit that came before. It's not quite all serious action at this point; William Holden is still playing a sensible everyman in the midst of people committed to the point of mania. The mission itself, at least, is exciting to go with not insane, and builds to one of the greatest finales in film.

Veronica Mars

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2014 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, digital)

As mentioned above, I contributed to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, but I don't figure that makes it any sort of issue to review it fairly; it's not like we're getting a percentage of the gross or anything more than (in my case) a fairly pricy T-shirt, poster, and Blu-ray package - not even a Fandango code for a free ticket. It does, obviously, mean that I'm a fan of the original series, so, yes, I'll put that card on the table.

So, how does it play for a fan such as me? Pretty well. Veronica is likely the best role of Kristen Bell's career, and she's well aware of this, but she's also smart enough to not just repeat what she did ten years ago. This iteration of Veronica is more genuinely cheerful than she was as a teenager, but the inner hard-boiled private eye is never far from the surface, and it's fun to watch her inner fighter come out, especially since, as is always the case, this part of her is a decidedly mixed blessing: She can't just make things better, but has to destroy her foes, leaving a trail of destruction through her own life as well.

The mystery story she find herself in this time is not bad either. The script is kind of transitional, with one foot still in high school and the other with Veronica and her friends starting to look at the local class struggle with adult eyes. Visually, the movie looks like something about halfway between television and cinematic, but not bad at all for a film made for not much more than a few new episodes of the series would have cost. It's a bit overstuffed with reference for the fans, but should not be particularly difficult for newcomers to get into - heck, given that it inserts new characters in as classmates we just didn't see during the series, it can be just as easy for both groups.

When it hits the end, it feels just as much like a pilot for a new series as a one-time catch-up, and I am quite okay with that. The movie is fan-service in that it makes sure to cram everything the fans remember from the series and might want revisited, but it's certainly sharp enough to grab a new audience's attention, especially since the best features of the original - witty writing from creator Rob Thomas and the great father-daughter combo of Enrico Colantoni and Kristen Bell - are still front and center.

A Face in the Crowd

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Celebration, 35mm)

Andy Griffith built a long career out of being a familiar, likable presence on screen, and it's easy to discount that, and a bit unfair that it takes something like A Face in the Crowd to get people to realize that he was, in fact, quite the terrific actor, with more range (or, perhaps, more flexibility within his range) than you might expect.

He plays Larry Rhodes, a vagrant that well-meaning young Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) puts on her radio show, and while he may be little more than a hobo, he's got an uncanny knack for having an audience, until he's worked his way from radio in rural Arkansas to national TV, where politicians want to use his common-man charm to advance their favorite sons. In some movies, this would be a story of a simple man corrupted by the fame machine, but writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan aren't looking to let anyone off that easy; Rhodes is willing to take what he can grab from the start, and his anti-establishment characterization toward the beginning may be as much a canny way to build credibility as a simple country boy trying to learn the rupees of this new career.

While Griffith does his fantastic job of revealing the monster underneath this charming exterior (while making that public face easy enough to like that the viewers find themselves almost as much in "Lonesome" Rhodes's thrall as the people inside the picture), Schulberg & Kazan are tearing the system behind him a new one. It's prescient in some ways, predicting the extent to which political candidates will have their images polished and how campaigns will be built around television several years before the Kennedy-Nixon debates. The movie isn't just barbed satire, but kind of racy given what usually came out under the Hays code, and while many movie of its ilk would go further today, there's never insufficient zing here; the audience always know just what it's seeing.

A Face in the Crowd is a bit of an anomaly in Griffith's career, interesting in no small part because it winds up playing off the persona he created for himself. Having Walter Matthau pop up later on in the movie doesn't hurt, either.

The Demon's Rook

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2014 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Somerville Subterranean Cinema, digital)

As I said up top, this is where I hit the wall in my plans to see four movies on one Saturday. I certainly got the gist, and didn't really feel like I missed anything specific. Not that there's necessarily a whole lot to miss; it's a movie about demons attacking people in bloody ways, and it should satisfy folks who like blood, gore, and monsters done with practical effects.

That is what writer/director/star/special effects guy/everything else James Sizemore is going for, though, so if your goal is ninety-odd minutes of violence committed by guys wearing a lot of prosthetic makeup, you are in luck. Most folks who make gore movies have favorite effects; for Sizemore, it seems to be ripping skin off with the teeth. That's not all he does by a long shot, though, as there is plenty in the way of stabbings and mayhem as well. The main attraction, though, is clearly the elaborate demons he creates, with facial appliances massive enough to completely swallow the actors whole. They look disgustingly great and come in impressive variety.

You get the impression that he has created an elaborate mythology with these guys all having names and specific ambitions, but while the story may start out in an interestingly peculiar place (a young boy is taken to a different dimension to learn the ways of magic from a good demon), I don't recall a lot of details. After Roscoe returns, there's a lot of introducing new sets of characters to be slaughtered/zombified and then going through with it. There's not a lot of good acting to be found here, although Sizemore is at least authentic-seeming as the returned Roscoe - he's got the look and bearing of someone who hasn't seen another human being since he was a pre-teen but has nevertheless become a powerful combat wizard. He's no better when given lines than anyone else, but he sells the central conceit well enough.

I'm not quite sure what got in the way of my seeing this at Fantasia last year - could have been another movie, could have been the need for sleep - but I probably would have enjoyed it more with a big, enthusiastic crowd. It's a fun treat for fans of the weirdo horror movies most popular on the 1980s, but not great if that's not pretty specifically your thing.

... and that gets us up to last week. The next one will come much more quickly, and ere's hoping that the next film festival (which starts Wednesday) doesn't wind up kicking up such a delay!

Bunker 6, Dragon DayMacBeth, Echo DrivePoint B, The Last DaysThe Perfect 46, SennArmistice, The Search for SimonSF/39
Next Goal WinsLike Father, Like SonBeijing Love StoryThe Wolf of Wall StreetThe Lego MovieEasy Money II: Hard to KillPompeii3 Days to Kill
The Forgotten KingdomTim's VermeerThe Monuments MenThe Wind RisesStalingradNormalHer
On My WayThe Grand Budapest HotelAlmost HumanJimmy P.A Field in EnglandNon-StopTiger Tail in Blue
The Demon's RookOmarVeronica MarsSeven SamuraiA Face in the CrowdChlotrudis Awards

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 March 2014 - 27 March 2014

This week, things get weird.

  • The primary source of weird will be at the Brattle Theatre, where The Boston Underground Film Festival starts up on Wednesday night (the 26th) for five days of edgy independent film. The first couple of days are looking like a mixed bag to me, but it wouldn't be BUFF otherwise: Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson team up for All Cheerleaders Die opening night, with a special restored 40th anniversary presentation of School of the Holy Beast, a Japanese pnky violence nun-spoitation classic (I seem to recall hearing that this was a 35mm print, but the site currently doesn't say anything about that). Thursday features an "animation for adults" block, documentary My Name is Jonah, and Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell?.

    To be fair, the Brattle are priming the pump beforehand. The Martin Scorcese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema finishes up from Friday through Saturday, with new restorations of Man of Iron, The Constant Factor, Blind Chance, A Short Film About Killing, Austeria, and Pharoh. . In addition, Grand Piano, featuring Elijah Wood as a concert pianist charged with playing every note in his comeback performance perfectly lest he be killed, will play the last show of the day from Friday to Monday. Then on Tuesday, it's the monthly Trash Night,, this time featuring Class of 1999, which unlike many of their "sub-cult" selections actually has some interesting people involved (Malcolm McDowell, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach). Crappy video, talking back at the screen, and commercial interruptions will all be included.
  • On the other side of Harvard Square, the Harvard Film Archive will offer a refined strangeness with the start of The Glitter of Putrescence - Val Lewton at RKO, an end-of-month retrospective of one of the greatest producers of B-movies in history. This week's entries include Cat People (Friday 7:15pm), The Curse of the Cat People (Friday 9pm), I Walked with a Zombie (Saturday 7:15pm), Mademoiselle Fifi (Sunday 5pm on 16mm), and The Body Snatcher (Monday 7pm). Most are in 35mm, as is the final film of their "Fortunes of the Western" series, Woman They Almost Lynched.

    On Sunday night, the Archive is the first stop a three-evening visit by Ben Russell & Ben Rivers that will jump around Cambridge. That first leg has them introducing the documentary they directed together, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which combines a look at three distinct environments with artist/musician Robert A.A. Lowe. Monday night, they are at the Brattle with a collection of their short films, and Tuesday finds Russell and Lichens at the Middlesex lounge for a spontaneous performance of music and 16mm projections.
  • That takes us to the no-man's-land between Central and Kendall Square, where the Landmark Theater cleans house and compacts what is left into fewer theaters to make room for an eclectic range of new openings. The biggest may be Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the first half of the latest work by Lars Trier, featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg as the title character, recounting her life to the man who rescued her from a mugging. It also features Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Udo Kier, Shia LaBeouf, Connie Nielsen, and Stacy Martin. No-one under 18 will be admitted, and Volume II is due on 4 April.

    Another pretty nice cast (performing much less explicit sex) populates The Face of Love, in which Annette Bening plays a woman who falls in love with a man (Ed Harris) who is the exact duplicate of her late husband. Robin Williams & Jess Weixler are in it, too. There's also Bad Words, with Jason Bateman directing and starring as a 40-year-old who cheerfully causes chaos by injecting himself into elementary-school spelling bees; Kathryn Hahn plays the reporter trying to figure him out and Rohan Chand the kid amused by this weird competitor. It also plays at Boston Common.

    More? More! The one-week booking is for Particle Fever, a documentary on the search for the Higgs boson directed by Mark Levinson, a former physicist himself. He'll actually be on-hand for the screenings Friday & Saturday evening, with an extra added guest in the person of Nobel Laureate Dr. Sheldon Glashow for the 7:05pm show on Friday.
  • They also have The Lunchbox, in which Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan (Irrfan Khan) become connected when the lunchbox Ila sends to her inattentive husband is delivered to Saajan's office by mistake, leading to an attraction being struck up via exchanged notes. It also opens at the Coolidge (though all but one show daily is in the screening room) and West Newton.

    The Coolidge also picks up Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me for matinees as it leaves Kendall Square, while their midnights include the monthly infliction of The Room on Friday and True Romance in 35mm on Friday and Saturday. Sunday morning brings a Talk Cinema screening of Le Week-End at 10am, while Tuesday's preview from the New York Film Critics' Series, Breathe In, is at a much more civilized 7pm and features a "captured-live" talk featuring director Drake Doremus and cast members Fecilicty Jones, Guy Pearce, and Amy Ryan. Tuesday night also features a screening of Rehaii-Liberation (or just Rehaii), a film inspired by the story of women in Pakistan who have received microfinancing support by the presenting Kashf Foundation. And Thursday's Francophone Film is Haiti, Land of Fire, a stage spectacle depicting nine periods of Haitian history.
  • Things are pretty conventional at the multiplexes, though. Muppets Most Wanted follows up the very successful "re-introduction" of a couple years ago by putting them on tour in Europe, where they find trouble in the form of an international criminal who's a dead ringer for Kermit and new human friends/foes in the form of Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais. It's at the Somerville, Studio in Belmont, Apple, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    The other big opening is Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley as a teenager who is made an outcast because she does not fit into one of society's pre-ordained groups and must become a freedom fighter who could possibly be the key to everything. Man, put it that way and it sounds like it really panders to its young-adult audience, doesn't it? Hopefully it's better than it sounds - you don't amass a cast with Woodley, Miles Teller, and Kate Winslet if the material stinks, right? Anyway, it's at the Capitol, Apple, Jordan's, Boston Common (including the Imax screen), Fenway (including RPX), and the SuperLux.

    Boston Common also picks up God's Not Dead, in which a devout college freshman is challenged to prove the existence of God by his dogmatic professor; given that it is made and distributed by "Pure Flix", I suspect it will not end with a triumph of rationality. But, hey, if you were curious about what Kevin Sorbo's been up to recently... They've also got The Shawshank Redemption as their classic on Sunday and Wednesday, while Fenway adds another couple of screens to The Grand Budapest Hotel's count.
  • Queen seems to be having a pretty good run at Apple Cinemas, as it's hanging around for a third week. iMovieCafe also has a matinee screenings of 1983 there on Saturday, but you will apparently need to speak Malayalam to understand this period cricket comedy.
  • The Somerville Theatre has Irish Film Festival Boston through Sunday, with special guests for several screenings. Semi-ironically, this pushes Philomena to the Capitol (and also pushes 300: Rise of an Empire to a non-3D screen). Centennial events pick up again on Wednesday, with a 35mm print of Psycho, and on Thursday with a 35mm print of The Apartment.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts finishes the New Latin American Cinema with encore screenings of Summer of Flying Fish (Friday & Sunday) and Workers (Wednesday & Thursday). The Boston Turkish Film Festival fills up much of the rest of the slate, with screenings Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Thursday also features the monthly "Mind-Bending Movies" entry, this time David Lynch's Lost Highway. Apparently only Lynch has ever made a movie that can fit in this program.
  • The Regent Theatre seems to have an accidental theme going on this week. They host the "First Annual A-Town Teen Video Contest" on Friday night, showing off the works of local Arlington teens. The Gathr Preview Series returns on Sunday with Hide Your Smiling Faces, a story about two pre-teen brothers forced to confront mortality when a friend dies. Not part of the preview series but also booked by Gathr is These Birds Walk on Wednesday, whose young protagonist is a runaway boy in Karachi, Pakistan. The youth-oriented week finishes up on Thursday with Brooklyn Castle, a pretty nifty documentary abouta high-achieving chess club that hails from one of New York's poorest neighborhoods.
  • The Belmont World Film Series at Studio Cinema continues Monday with Grigris, Chad's Oscar submission. It's about a man who dreams of being a dancer despite his bad leg, but winds up involved in petrol smuggling to pay his uncle's medical bills. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun did A Screaming Man, which I seem to recall people liking. The post-film speaker is Cliff Odle, a UMass Boston lecturer on Africa in media.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights is off this week, but the "regular" ArtsEmerson film program will be using the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening room this weekend. Two are films featuring artist-in-residence Ayad Akhtar: He co-wrote and starred in The War Within (Friday 7pm), about an immigrant involved with terrorists having second thoughts, and co-stars in Too Big to Fail (Saturday 1pm), an HBO film about thefinancial crisis of 2008. At 6:30pm on Saturday, they will be hosting the Boston Student Film Fest.
  • The UMass Boston Film Series entry on Thursday looks like a fun one - And Who Taught You to Drive? takes a look at three people who have moved to foreign countries (Germany to India, America to Japan, South Korea to German) and must get a local driver's license, finding that the new rules of the road aren't the only way they must adapt. As always, it's at the student center, free, and features Q&A with the director (Andrea Thiele).

My plans? Well, the family is throwing my brother a going-away party which apparently will require an overnight stay on Saturday (he and his wife are moving to Chicago in April), so that eats up a chunk. Probably at least Grand Piano, Muppets, Hide Your Smiling Faces, maybe Grigris, and BUFF. Not sure how much more I can fit in, really.