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.

Pompeii

* * 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.

Her

* * * * (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.

Non-Stop

* * * (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 Day
MacBeth, Echo Drive
Point B, The Last Days
The Perfect 46, Senn
Armistice, The Search for Simon
SF/39



Next Goal Wins
Like Father, Like Son
Beijing Love Story
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Lego Movie
Easy Money II: Hard to Kill
Pompeii
3 Days to Kill



The Forgotten Kingdom
Tim's Vermeer
The Monuments Men
The Wind Rises
Stalingrad
Normal
Her



On My Way
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Almost Human
Jimmy P.
A Field in England
Non-Stop
Tiger Tail in Blue



The Demon's Rook
Omar
Veronica Mars
Seven Samurai
A Face in the Crowd
Chlotrudis Awards

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