Tuesday, December 30, 2014

This That Week In Tickets: 24 November 2014 - 30 November 2014

After Christmas, just getting to writing up the week of Thanksgiving. I think catching up will pick up speed from here, though.

This Week in Tickets

Things started off heavy, with John Stewart's Rosewater, the sort of film whose intentions are the best and whose every moment is sincere but the final effect isn't quite what you'd hope for.

I think it was a crappy week, weather-wise - or more, it was expected to be one - because the time on the ticket for Women Who Flirt indicates I was working from home and thus able to get to an early show, because suddenly Chinese movies sell out and I wanted to get my write-up on the new Pang Ho-cheung movie in early. Fortunately, it was a fun one, a romantic comedy that occasionally strays toward the genre's worst instincts but winds up clever and offbeat enough to work.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, which meant a trip up to Maine and shuttling between a couple of places for dinner - starting at Gramma & Grampas, because not only was the power out at my mother's house, but a nearby transformer was still burning (Yarmouth, Maine got hit a bit harder than Cambridge, Massachusetts). After dinner there, we headed to my brother Dan's place, and I wound up hanging around to play with my nieces and even staying over. The girls wanted me to watch Elf, and as a semi-professional movie-watcher who had never seen it, I could not say no.

I got back, lazed around for a while, trying to drill down through unread graphic novels and such, and then headed over to the Harvard Film Archive for Lola on Saturday, not quite falling in love with Jacques Demy's first feature, but finding that I liked his work quite a bit.

On Sunday, I went for an early double feature: The 10am screening of Penguins of Madagascar was a fairly entertaining movie, but dead - not only was I the only person in the theater, they didn't even bother opening up the downstairs concession stand for it. Shame, it was fun, and comedies and kids' movies are usually better with a bit of a crowd. After that, it was down the C line for Foxcatcher at the Coolidge. Definitely a weird one, with Steve Carell working so hard to avoid his usual persona that he becomes almost alien. In a way, I think that's the point - the super-rich really aren't like you and me - and I hope that didn't make it too weird for people to get into, as it's really a good little movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2014 in Dan's Living Room (hanging around, DVD)

Elf is apparently considered, by many, to be a holiday classic already - folks in the UK freaked when the station that usually airs the movie over the holidays didn't have it on the schedule - although in some ways that seems a little generous. Then again, I occasionally see the Elf on the Shelf referred to as a holiday tradition (mostly in its own advertising, admittedly), so why not? With as hectic as the holiday season can get and how heavy-handed holiday stories can be, this movie's gentle goofiness is kind of nice.

It works, I think, a little better than some of Will Ferrell's other movies where he's playing this sort of off-center character, in part because he actually has a place to fit in, rather than just being some nonsensical weirdo. He's broad and absurd and silly, but he comes from somewhere good, and that makes him much easier to swallow, especially as that silly world of his has a lot of charm in its Christmas-y details, most hitting just the right note with audiences of all ages without becoming cloyingly nostalgic.

I do have to admit, though, that I'd probably like it a little more if some of its jokes and supporting characters were a bit bigger. Sure, I remember being kind of excited about Zooey Deschanel when the movie came out, but this was right about when she went from an intriguing actress to a mannered persona, and there's just very little to her character aside looking nice in a costume to make her an interesting female lead. James Caan, Ed Asner, and Bob Newhart all feel like they should have great moments that they really never get. Daniel Tay - as Buddy's half-brother - actually proves to be Ferrell's best foil, with Peter Dinklage the one who gets to be explosively funny.

But, good cheer counts for a lot in a Christmas movie, and this turns out to be where Jon Favreau first demonstrates and ability to really merge the fantastical and mundane better than most, and that's an impressive discovery on its own.

RosewaterWomen Who FlirtElfFoxcatcherLolaPenguins of Madagascar

Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy: Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Lady Oscar

I did not get to very much of the Harvard Film Archive's Jack Demy retrospective, "Once Upon a Song...", in large part because, despite the Archive geographically being the closest theater to my house, it can often seem out of the way. I'll be doing things on the weekend that may not line up with the screening, or get off the Red Line hungry but not have time to eat before the movie starts, and is this time/money/convenience I want to give up for something often less obviously fun than the other alternative activities at hand? It's why, in the past, I've to purchase a membership until just before a series I knew I wanted to binge on.

I should have done so just before the Demy series; belonging and paying a lower price per ticket might have had me a little more adventurous and eager to sample Demy's films. Maybe not - I think that before these films, I was a little too anxious to lump him in with the form-and-theory guys like Godard that still leap to mind when someone says "French Film" to me. He was still one of them - the guy who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was certainly experimenting with form - but his work came out much more emotional than intellectual, and more optimistic than cynical, than many of his peers.

And, yes, I loved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg when I saw it last year, and while I generally wanted to see more by the guy who made that, I also put two things that seemed most likely to recreate that experience at the top of my list. Lola shares an actual continuity with Umbrellas, while The Young Girls of Rochefort is another musical - though a more conventional one - that consciously or unconsciously reflects the previous film by the cadence of their names.

I'm strongly tempted to re-watch Umbrellas when the Blu-ray comes in a few days (as of last night, Amazon had the Criterion set of Demy's six most "essential" films at 52% off), both because it's great and to see how the three link. Not only does Lola explain to those of us who saw them out of order why Roland is the way he is, but its story in many ways follows the same outline as Young Girls. Of course, I tend to think that Etienne and Bill will wind up in a better place - theirs is a movie about happy endings, they haven't been nursing their infatuations for nearly as long, and, hey, they've got Josette with them, and she's just as crush-worthy as the twins.

In some ways, though, late-1970s obscurity Lady Oscar was even higher on the list once I saw it and it's description on the Archive's calendar. I had heard the name before, you see, seven years ago when a trip to Montreal's Fantasia Festival included a movie called Arch Angels, a goofy manga adaptation about three girls at a private school on an island who become superheroes. One of them, the one who is something of a jock is referred to add the school's "Lady Oscar", which just seemed utterly random to me until I saw it here. That's why I say in the review that this kind of girl is still sometimes called "Lady Oscar" in Japan, but for all I know it was just this one manga-ka ten years ago making a reference to something she liked as a girl.

Even beyond that curiosity, though, the sheer circuitousness of the path it took kind of fascinates me: It's listed on IMDB as Japanese/French, but filmed in English, and a little poking around for information online suggests it was only released in Japan for obscure legal reasons. If that's the case, why the heck is it in English? Might as well let Demy work in his native language and make it a bit more authentic, right? The only thing I can think of is that the investors thought this was too pricey to make its budget back entirely in Japan, and English was a better bet for an international hit, although something that was going to play art-houses anyway because it's weird may as well be in French...

Go figure. It's a weird movie that is barely known outside of Japan, and it's kind of great that Demy has one of those in his filmography. Having ordered the box set of his other "essential" movies, I'm looking to see what else he's got.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

When the name of one character in an ensemble cast is also the title of the film, she had better earn it; otherwise, someone in the audience is going to feel ripped off about the film not delivering what's on the ticket or not giving their idea of who the real star is top billing. This, happily, is not a problem with Jacques Demy's 1961 feature debut Lola; even if one latches onto another character, there's no doubt that he or she exists in Lola's orbit.

In fact, the film introduces us to two men before Lola: Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a man suffering crippling ennui in his latest office job, and Frankie (Alan Scott), and American sailor whose ship has been docked in Nantes for some time but will sail soon. When he and his buddies go to the dance hall, it's understood by now that he'll be the one to see Lola (Anouk Aimée), the star of the show, going home with her as she picks up her son Yvon from school. Should she go to America with Frankie, take a gig she's been offered down the coast, or stay there and wait for Yvon's father to return? Meanwhile, Roland meets another single mother, Mme. Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), and her daughter Cécile (Annie Duperoux), at the bookstore; the mother is taken with Roland, but it is the girl that reminds him of someone he knew in his own teen years, also named Cécile.

There is also an apparently wealthy man arriving in town driving a fancy American car, and a woman at the bar beneath Roland's apartment talking about her son who left town years ago, leaving some poor girl pregnant. Guessing how all these characters connect earns no points - it is, almost always, exactly what you likely expect - but that's not the point. The fun is in watching Demy orchestrate near-misses and reunions, play things out in quick bursts, and demonstrate that, despite the practical challenges thrown in its way, romance and optimism are reborn with each new generation and never truly die in the previous one.

And, certainly, Lola is one to inspire such feelings. She has a head start, of course, of being played by Anouk Aimée in her prime, walking into the film in a costume that gives the audience an idea of her every asset without giving them over to the viewer entirely. Aimée wields her beauty casually, presenting Lola as a woman who does the same, skilled at the art of living in the present and deflecting the future, facing the world with good cheer but not allowing it to sink claws into her. She is at once easy to get along with and gracefully unmovable when she decides that it would be to her benefit to discard a man in the same way men so often discard women.

Roland Cassard does not move through the film so smoothly; fifty years later, he looks more than a bit insufferable as he takes things for granted and dismisses that which falls short of his idea of perfection, and Marc Michel plays that early iteration of the character with wit but, perhaps, insufficient charm. The brilliance of his performance, though, is watching him regain an optimistic view, both in how he sees something perfect in how Cécile is standing on the border of being a girl and a young woman, along with how he comes to believe in things again after meeting Lola. It transforms a crime into a potential adventure, even though his attitude sometimes shifts just a little bit.

He is far from the only one whose life is redirected by his encounter with Lola - Alan Scott's Frankie is doomed but helpless and Jacques Harden's Michel is drawn to her but has trouble overlooking her circumstances, and though only the first is actually American, the way they move and talk marks them as transient outsiders as much as anything in the plot. And while neither Desnoyers woman actually meets Lola, one can almost look at them as transitional states on either side of her: Elina Labourdette presents an anxiousness just shy of desperation where the possibility of a man entering the mother's life is concerned, while Annie Duperoux seems almost ahead of her time as Cécile, delivering tart words while reading a science-fiction comic book, observing everything with a critical eye while still wanting to rush headlong into the world.

Demy juggles all of this quite well, for the most part - like many French filmmakers of this period, he has carefully studied the rules of how stories are told on film but opts to practice rather than deconstruct them, connecting the important things just so, though he does build his story around some unlikely bits of ignorance. He sets the film in his hometown of Nantes, which regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard photographs beautifully in black-and-white. He also begins his highly fruitful collaboration with composer Michel Legrand with a score that places the film's romantic heart front and center.

The filmmaker would later return to two of these characters in separate films, although Lola is quite fine on its own (though you should see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg without any concern of how it connects to this film). It's the start of an excellent filmmaker's career, and often delightful besides.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is the movie musical in perhaps its purest, most joyous form, a fountain of bright colors, catchy tunes, and whimsical coincidences that is just modern enough that one almost expects it to try and justify its lightness. Jacques Demy, thankfully, saw no need to do this; it may have been the turbulent, experimental 1960s elsewhere in the cinema, but this screen offered effervescent entertainment, justified not by some self-referential subtext, but simply by doing what it sets out to do about as well as a movie can.

The two main Young Girls of Rochefort in question are the Garnier twins: Blonde Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) teaches dance and is breaking up with her pretentious artist boyfriend; her red-headed sister Solange (Françoise Dorléac) teaches music in the same studio and would like the local music store's owner, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), to share her newest composition with Andrew Miller (Gene Kelly), an American friend from his conservatory days now doing a European tour. Their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darieux) runs a french-fry stand, often serving Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a sailor stationed at the nearby naval base who dreams of being an artist and finding his ideal of feminine beauty. Also setting up camp there are Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), two vagabonds who man a motorcycle company's pavilion at town fairs, but who have just had the two girls who usually do a song and dance up front quit and blow town. What are they to do?

One would think that the pair would be easily replaceable in Rochefort, as musical numbers apparently break out at the drop off a hat there. The film opens with dancing that, owing to the city being accessed via a transport bridge, takes place in mid-air despite standing on a solid platform, as suitable a way to establish its embellished reality without quote entering the realm of fantasy. Once Etienne and Bill make landfall, things keep right on going, with just enough sailors and smartly-dressed ladies wandering the background of any street scene that they don't quite come out of nowhere when a production number starts, and Demy uses the town's big, beautiful square like a stage. And then, just as the audience is staring to take the charm and inventiveness choreographer Norman Maen displays in staging these numbers on location for granted, Gene Kelly shows up, and even if he's a bit past his prime, he still kicks things up to another level.

It's also worth noting that not only are the songs by Michel Legrand generally delightful, the fact that the film was shot in both French and English probably winds up helping the subtitles quite a bit. I never felt the disconnect between sung lines and reading text here that I did during Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and other non-English musicals while watching the French version of the film.

Talking about the film being light and effervescent can give the mistaken impression of something flavorless, when in fact the movie is very funny, too. Demy peppers the script with deliberately corny jokes and silly rhymes, but he also makes Delphine and Solange kind of bratty and sarcastic, and their little brother Booboo a real pain in the neck. There is amusing poking at the fourth wall as people get into position for a number or the sisters refer to "our song", and pop culture references that can still get a laugh almost fifty years later. The last act even gets into some downright dark humor.

Real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac are a huge part of why the film winds up so funny, despite Catherine not necessarily being known for comedy. She gets the be the slightly snarkier one, playing slight snobbiness for laughs and bantering well, whether with her sister or the guys. Françoise, meanwhile, gets to be somewhat goofier, not exactly doing slapstick but certainly playing her part as broader and more physical - she was also the better dancer, although that's kept in reserve until the end. It is a crying shame she died so young. Americans George Chakiris and Grover Dale are cast in large part for their skill as dancers, and don't disappoint there, although they're also sunny counterparts to the slightly aloof ladies, with Dale especially being funny just standing there. There's a great brace of supporting actors as well, from Jacques Perrin as a wistful (but kind of youthfully foolish) Maxence to Danielle Darrieux as the happily busy mother, to Michel Piccoli as the sentimental shopkeeper. Gene Kelly was probably too old for his role and dubbed in some scenes, but gives the film legitimacy without making it heavy.

Seeing them just a couple of weeks apart certainly highlights how, in many ways, this is a lighter film from the same template as Lola, complete with obvious connections, reunions, near-misses, and some characters fated to wind up unmatched (although it's not the crushing experience for them that it may be for others). It's also got some of the same plot holes - for as open as characters are about their histories, you'd think some of the important details would have been shared so as to raise flags in 1967. But, perhaps, that is not so important compared to the world and feeling that Demy and his collaborators create.

It's a wonderful world, and it's no surprise to see in Agnes Varda's twenty-fifth anniversary documentary that the city of Rochefort embraced the picture as few places do. It's a sheer delight, even for those of us that don't necessarily like musicals unless they are done this well.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Lady Oscar

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

Lady Oscar is quite a peculiar movie artifact - French director Jacques Demy's English-language adaptation of a Japanese comic about a noblewoman who lived as a man and served as a palace guard at Versailles until the French Revolution. It is not a bad film at all, although I must confess - how it got made in this particular form seems to be just as strange as the story it tells.

It begins with a proud general (Mark Kingston) welcoming an eighth daughter into the world and declaring that this one will be raised as a son, therefore giving her the peculiar name of Oscar Françoise de Jarjayes, and directing that the child's nanny (Constance Chapman) take in her orphaned nephew Andre so that they may be raised together. Years later, Oscar (Catriona MacColl) has grown skilled as a soldier and when she is assigned to the Royal Guard, Andre (Barry Stokes) is given a job in the stables. Soon Oscar is the personal guard to Marie Antoinette (Christine Böhm) and struggling with her attraction to her paramour, Hans von Fersen (Jonas Bergström), but also not oblivious to how Andre feels about her, despite their differences in rank.

Though relatively unknown in the United States, Ikeda Riyoko's shojo manga The Rose of Versailles casts a tremendous shadow in Japan; girls who are athletic or otherwise drawn to traditionally-masculine pursuits will still occasionally be called "Lady Oscar", the animated series based upon the comics has been reissued (including its first American release), and there's apparently still a line of cosmetics inspired by the property. In many ways, it typifies what people think of when shojo (girls') manga or anime is mentioned: Grand melodrama, lavish, beautiful detail, elaborate clothes, and an artistic style that emphasizes the characters' delicacy.

And though Demy and company don't fill the screen with sparkles, they do an impressive job of translating this comic style to live-action. Though the picture is not overwhelmingly ornate, it is full of elaborate detail, and if Cartiona MacColl doesn't quite look like this sort of drawing brought to life, she'll certainly do, with her expressive eyes and costumes that are far too beautiful to fool very many - indeed, within the story it seems that the only people who are fooled are the ones who cannot conceive of a woman in this sort of position, while the women in court tend to find Oscar exciting, as a trend of ladies crossdressing begins as they try to experience a different life vicariously.

No, having a European man tap into the shojo style does not turn out to be the issue - instead, Demy and screenwriting collaborator Patricia Louisianna Knop (who would later become better known for her work with husband Zalman King) fall prey to the pitfall that has swallowed so many who adapt manga on film: The source material is so sprawling - twenty-five volumes of roughly 200 pages each - and episodic that a film just doesn't have room to fit the whole over-arching story or all of the popular moments and characters. This one winds up covering thirty-five years, going off on tangents that have good scenes but don't necessarily help give the film a central thrust. There are a couple of potentially great ideas in here - there's a villainess also presenting herself as something she is not who could have been a great foil for Oscar, though their paths barely cross, and Oscar's growing sympathy with what would eventually erupt into the Revolution has plenty of intriguing facets. Ultimately, though, it's hard for the filmmakers to keep focus; the years pass too slowly and no story of Oscar's gets to take center stage in a way that makes her more than an unusual witness to history.

Cartiona MacColl, at least, fills the part nicely. Oscar-the-soldier may sometimes feel a little like she's overcompensating, but it's not a role she plays, either; it does feel like who she was raised to be rather than what she plays at to please her father. It's a physically clever performance - aside from selling the occasional bit of swashbuckling, she always walks more quickly and in a straighter line than the other women, even in a big, airy dress - even if the line readings can be a bit flat. That's not unique to MacColl; the whole cast is a little off from natural in some way, with Barry Stokes's Andre probably the closest and Christine Böhm eventually making Marie more absurd than sly-but-oblivious.

Enough of the property's appeal shines through that you can see why Demy and Knop would be a good team to make Lady Oscar - when it's on, it's a lush, colorful picture with adventure, romance, and just a tiny thrill of kink, filled with characters that let the filmmakers have fun with gender and class roles. Making it in English in the hopes of it becoming an international hit seems to hamper the production, though, as does trying to fit too much story into two hours. At least enough goes right that one is liable to finish the movie liking the things that work, rather than wondering what the people involved were thinking.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Gambler (2014)

Looking at the credits for this thing on IMDB: I'm kind of amazed that this is Anthony Kelley's debut. I don't know if the movie really needs a guy who can play decent basketball in the role of Lamar Allen - I don't recall director Rupert Wyatt particularly shooting and cutting those parts of the movie in such a way that there was no way to disguise whether or not an actor had NCAA-level skill - so casting a first-timer whose chief qualification seems to be that he played college ball in a fairly important part seems kind of risky, especially considering that the likes of Andre Braugher and Richard Schiff basically had walk-ons. It worked out, though; Kelley was one of the most memorable parts of the film.

Also - it seems quite strange that Wyatt did Rise of the Planet of the Apes between The Escapist and this. Rise was a much better, smarter movie than expected, but the ones on either side are so grounded in a certain category of human shades of gray that the big sci-fi epic in between comes across as rather a strange detour.

Most of the rest of what I want to say is in the EFC review, but I do have one thought about the end that I can't get out of my head.


I don't think I've ever seen a movie that could have perhaps been improved by an aggressively ambiguous ending more. Movies about gambling often tend to have the randomness inherent in the games act as a proxy for a character being judged worthy or unworthy, or perhaps tragic, whether they mean to or not. I think the last few minutes of this one fall prey to it a bit more than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Even as Bennett's actions show a man who is still compelled to go for the grand, ingenious gesture even when it may not be necessary, the feeling is that he has triumphed over his more self-destructive nature, even though that's not really what happened at all.

But imagine if the film cut to black during that last spin of the roulette wheel, emphasizing that whatever outcome built on gambling comes up doesn't matter nearly as much as how the addiction itself is dangerous and self-destructive. Maybe Bennett and those around him get out okay, maybe not - it doesn't matter, because he is basically unchanged. Or if the idea is that he has changed, remove the element of chance and just have him plan meticulously, forcing himself to greatness rather than building his plans around genius and good fortune being randomly and capriciously distributed.


Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I think it's kind of funny that the sort of ending I described, while very often rightly considered a gimmick, might have given a bit more solidity to a movie that is fairly often very good style of decent substance.

The Gambler (2014)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2014 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

At one point in this version of The Gambler (a remake of a 1974 film itself inspired by a Dostoevsky novella), a character mentions that he doesn't understand suicide; as vulnerable as he feels at that moment, the type of despair that leads there is utterly foreign to him. I wonder if the idea behind this movie was to make feelings that may be similarly foreign to a viewer - the compulsions of a gambler and those around him - more tangible. If so, it succeeds fitfully, but at least surrounds the moments where it does with style.

The gambler in question is Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), an associate professor of literature in Southern California, who has an impressive if risky run to begin a night but eventually winds up just pushing his debt higher, north of a quarter million dollars owed between Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the owner/operator of many underground casinos in the Los Angeles area, and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a smart but ruthless loan shark. Though his family - particularly mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) - is wealthy, he is not, and the fact that Lee and Baraka both want to collect within a week, makes star student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) seeing him while serving drinks in one of Lee's establishments and the dean pushing him to pass basketball star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) despite him texting throughout class seem like small potatoes.

Lamar is the one who says he can't understand suicide, and writer William Monahan also gives him the lines which best explain Bennett in a nutshell - that everything is all or nothing with him, and if one is not phenomenally successful at what he attempts, then there is no point whatsoever. It's a terribly unhealthy attitude that Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt push hard with mixed results: There are scenes of Professor Bennett starting off from a good place and veering off into things one would rather an educator not say that are mesmerizing in just how horrifying they are, and there is a moment or two when Bennett is up where the audience can see just how euphoric this can make a person feel. Lacking, perhaps, is similar clarity on the other side - why doesn't losing seem as terrible as winning is wonderful? The later parts of the movie, where Bennett actually finds himself caring enough about other people to be motivated on their behalf but still compelled to make a game out of it doesn't have nearly the force behind it as the earlier self-destruction.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Love on the Cloud

Ah, the movie that gets a same-day release in China and the USA. A cool practice which probably helps cut down on piracy a lot, but leaves those of us trying to write about the movie pretty high and dry and forcing us to pull out our phones and take one of these:

"Love in the Cloud" end credits

... if we're going to refer to anybody by name in the review.

There's no other excuse for this, folks. Heck, I don't know if this counts as a valid reason to have one's phone out in a movie theater and I feel terrible when I wind up doing it. I need to find an English-friendly Chinese movie database that updates as quickly as the IMDB does (and one for Bollywood, and one for...).

A couple thoughts not really related to the movie itself were already in my head before I even went to the movie and sort of amplified as I wrote:

(1) The only thing that keeps me from referring to the highly likable young female lead of this movie as "Angela Yeung" or "Yeung Wing" is that all the English-language material for it and most every other movie I've seen her in (or heard exists that she was cast in) refers to her as "Angelababy", and I want to actually get hits when someone searches for that name. I suppose I could put that in quotes the first time she's named, but every way to do it looks wrong: Angela "Angelababy" Yeung. "Angelababy" Yeung Wing. Or even - ugh - Angela "Angelababy" Yeung Wing.

Hey, it's working for her - she's twenty-five and having a pretty nice career. But, man, the only stage name I feel dumber typing is that of Japanese actress "You" (which, at least, I think actually rhymes with "tow"), and that's because it makes me feel like I've been committing crimes against grammar.

(2) Unfortunately, I'm writing this with my calendar filled with movie tickets in another state, which makes it harder to check, but I feel like I've seen more Chinese romantic comedies this year than American ones. Now, part of this is some pretty fierce selection bias - I go to nearly every Chinese movie that plays Boston because I want to encourage more to do so, and two of my favorite Chinese directors had releases in the genre in November, while I tend to prioritize the genre fairly low on the "must see on the big screen" category otherwise (and, man, let's not even get into how the ones with black leads can really fly under my radar if I'm not careful).

Still... It seems like there just aren't that many movies in the genre being made in the U.S., despite it being at various times Hollywood's backbone. Part of it's the disappearance of the mid-budget movie that affects a lot of genres, part of it is how there really haven't been any new stars to fill certain voids on both sides of the camera: Jennifer Lawrence would be a ton of fun in movies like that, but she's tied to two big action franchises. Lynn Shelton feels like she could be the next Nora Ephron - she is really good at giving sitcommy premises a bit more life than one might expect - but the studios haven't come calling. Plus, a lot of movies that might have become romantic comedies in previous years have become female-friendship/sisterhood stories first and foremost (think The Other Woman and the work of Paul Feig).

I think that as a whole, it's actually a pretty good trend that such female-ensemble comedies and lady-led action movies exist a lot more than they had before, but the traditional "date movie" seems almost defunct. Think of it - what are the big romantic comedies of the year? I'm coming up with Blended and Top Five, with Laggies barely getting out of the boutique houses and They Came Together almost entirely relegated to video on demand for no good reason that I can come up with. Seriously, Adam Sandler is in both romantic comedies that Hollywood put into multiplexes this year? That's insane.

Maybe I'm missing something; I hope so. It just seems like this is a genre that should be Hollywood's workhorse - relatively inexpensive but netting good returns, a good way to build new stars in supporting roles, appealing to men and women, young and old - and it's all but gone, while Bollywood cranks new ones (with songs!) out every other week and China has a thriving business in them. I realize that a lot of recent examples of the genre have been bad or lazy and a film industry looking for sure bets probably feels that romantic chemistry is more volatile than big explosions, but it just seems really weird that the only movies of this type playing the local theater had to cross the Pacific to get there.

Love on the Cloud

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 December 2014 at Regal Fenway #8 (first-run, DCP)

There's a potentially great movie-industry satire inside Love on the Cloud, wrapped in a layer of romantic comedy just thick enough that a viewer will likely wonder whether director Gu Chang-wei and company are doing for something very clever or are the victims of the very thing they are attempting to send up. The film is pulling itself in so many different directions that I can't begin to guess which scenario is the case, which is a bummer, because it manages a lot of smiles when things line up.

It opens with three young would-be filmmakers relatively new to Beijing pitching their movie Living with the Werewolf to potential investor Ms. Ma (Heidi Wong) - writer Sha Guo (Michael Chen), cinematographer Ma Dai (Cao Lu), and director/star Huang Xiaogang (Edward Zhang). She likes it, but she'd like it a little more (and be willing to invest correspondingly) if her company Little Bull Beef's product could somehow be integrated into the plot. That means it's rewriting time for Sha Guo, who also gets a message on the Wechat app from Chen Xi (Angelababy), a gorgeous model who saw that the guy with the Shar-pei dog as an avatar also lives in Beijing's trendy Shuanjing neighborhood, and soon has roped him into looking after her Shar-pei Mo Chou even as he quickly falls for her despite having progressively more outlandish rewrites to keep him busy.

One of those requests involves creating a part for one of China's most popular actors where none previously existed, and I wonder if this may have happened in real life: The thing that moves much of the story along is how this movie is becoming less and less like what the "Three Dreamers" imagined while the promised budget inflates with each new demand, and that's about the guys... And yet there's Angelababy, credited first but popping in and out of what is really Michael Chen's picture. There's also a weird diversion into another genre that happens just as Ms. Ma requests such a thing. Gu and company do this stuff without much in the way of winking at the audience (or at least, none that makes its way from Mandarin to English via the subtitles), and it's admittedly impressive that they're able to reflect their jokes about things which ruin movies in such a dry manner without them actually ruining the movie.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 December 2014 - 1 January 2015

Merry Christmas! Lots of new movies being released, some just barely.

  • The "just barely" is why you should support your local independent theaters; they, it seems, are the only ones who are going to wind up playing The Interview; though Sony's back-and-forth on the comedy where James Franco & Seth Rogen go to North Korea as entertainment journalists only to have the CIA ask them to kill Kim Jong-un drew some unwanted attention (perhaps you heard) and had the major chains bail, it's still going to be playing at Apple Cinemas Cambridge starting on Christmas. It will also be at the Somerville starting on 2 January; unfortunately, they committed to other movies during the time when the release was canceled.

    So, what are the other Christmas releases? Well, the one that has me most excited is Big Eyes, Tim Burton's take on Walter & Margaret Keane (Christoph Waltz & Amy Adams); the former took the credit for his wife's paintings which were a major sensation in the early 1960s. It's his first collaboration with writers Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski since Ed Wood, and this sort of biography is where this crew usually strikes gold. It's at the Somerville, Kendall Square, West Newton, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Into the Woods also opens; it's an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical that takes fairy tales and mashes them up with a more adult perspective, although that is perhaps compromised a bit by having it come from Disney. It plays Somerville, Kendall Square, West Newton, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    In the more obviously awards-targeting releases comes Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie and starrign Jack O'Connell as an Olympic athlete who winds up in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Some trailers have hinted at a more religious angle than others in terms of how he perseveres. It's at the Somerville, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. There's also The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg as a professor with some massive debts that he figures can only be erased by winning big. It's at the Capitol, Apple, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Those all open Christmas Day; looking at the end of the next week-plus, A Most Violent Year with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain is on the schedule for New Year's Eve, but as yet no theaters have put it on the schedule yet; maybe that's just the NYC/LA date.
  • Apple Cinemas/iMovieCafe are both keeping Peekay around for another week; the latter also has Telugu-language Mukunda playing (mostly) late shows without subtitles. Fenway also opens a Chinese romantic comedy, Love on the Cloud, with Angelababy and Chen He as folks with show business dreams in Beijing who make a lot of their contact via mobile devices. It opens today (Christmas Eve), but doesn't seem to be showing a full schedule until Christmas Day.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre will be getting The Imitation Game on the main screen as it expands on Christmas, and then opening Citizenfour for a week in the Goldscreen starting on Friday the 26th (remember when that was just a one-week booking at Kendall in October?). They're forgoing midnights and special screenings this week, as a lot of folks are out of town for the holidays, and closing early on Wednesday for New Year's Eve.
  • The Brattle is closed for Christmas Eve (although they'll be selling gift cards and the like until 4pm), but re-open on Christmas to start a Not Just a Nut: The Essential Bill Murray series with a double feature of Scrooged and Ghostbusters. The series continues with Meatballs & Stripes on Friday, Groundhog Day & Caddyshack (35mm) on Saturday, Rushmore & The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (both 35mm) on Sunday, The Razor's Edge (35mm) on Monday, Lost In Translation & Broken Flowers on Tuesday, and Ghostbusters 2 at 9pm on New Year's Eve.

    There are also a couple extra screenings in there - a free Elements of Screening presentation of Winter's Bone at 6pm Monday, and the now-traditional 35mm New Year's Eve Double Feature of The Thin Man & After the Thin Man (though it starts at 4:30pm this year). New Year's, as usual, features a Marx Brothers Marathon with A Day at the Races (35mm), Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera (35mm).
  • It's a quiet week film-wise at the Museum of Fine Arts, with just a Sunday afternoon screening of National Gallery. Last one, so if you've been wanting to see this 3-hour documentary, that's the time.
  • Christmas vacation means that the Regent Theatre breaks out their Sing-Along The Sound of Music print; there's costumes, lyrics on-screen, goodie bags, and audience participation. It plays at various times from Friday to Tuesday.

My plans? Love in the Cloud, Big Eyes, The Imitation Game, The Gambler, catching up with The Hobbit in HFR and Citizenfour.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

This That Week In Tickets: 17 November 2014 - 23 November 2014

The goal for next year: Use a lot more vacation while it is warm out so that I'm not scrambling to use it at the end of the year and kind of enjoying my vacation less because it's so cold.

This Week in Tickets

This year, I was trying to save a bit of money and opted to spend a few days in New York, a pretty easy bus ride from Boston. I didn't go terribly nuts with photos, since a touchscreen phone means taking your hands out of your gloves and my point-and-shoot only wants to work for a month or so at a time, and I got my month this summer.

It was a fun trip, though there are some things I'd do differently. For instance, I would find a way to ditch my backpack before going into the American Museum of Natural History because I have time to kill before I can check into my room (itself a tiny space in a Bronx building whose "front desk" is located in the basement). The museum is fantastic, although given how much certain rooms puff up Teddy Roosevelt, it's easy to joke about how TR killed all the dinosaurs himself ("then why aren't they stuffed like the other animals?" / "Because dinosaur meat was delicious!"), and now I kind of want to find an artist and start a Kickstarter for a comic about Roosevelt on the island from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Still, dinosaurs! I hope that I am never too old to grin like a nine-year-old when I visit a museum that has dinosaur skeletons, meteorites, space stuff, etc. I'm not necessarily sure about the taxidermy; I kind of get that this was the best way for people to get a sense of animals from far away a hundred years ago, but it comes off as more than a bit weird today. Highly recommended, although I must admit that the ticket above isn't mine, but one I picked up off the floor when I found I had lost my own. Sadly, that meant I didn't get to see the pterosaur exhibit I paid for.

Tuesday's outing was to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I wouldn't mind coming back sometime when it's warm and I can reserve tickets to the crown (apparently, that's got to be booked months in advance, rather than day-of). That ferry was cold, as was the walk around the island itself.

Funny thing about the statue: You stand outside it, and it's big and impressive, but in today's world of skyscrapers and other massive engineering achievements, it's not really amazing until you get into the museum part of it and see what sort of crazy effort went into funding, designing, building, and transporting the thing, and then the 1980s restoration work. That, at least for me, is when the achievement suddenly becomes amazing.

The next stop on the ferry was Ellis Island, which was a bit of a disappointment - there is a large complex there but the Immigration Museum is confined to one building, and its openness, while pleasing, sort of works against giving one an understanding of what arriving there was like, with the crush of people all speaking different languages, being quarantined, etc. The mix of exhibits and recreations doesn't feel quite right, and that so many things were damaged or removed during Hurricane Sandy and still have not been restored means that there are big, empty spaces.

I joke about how you know it's a gift from France and Paris because it's a public monument that involves climbing a bunch of stairs, even without going to the crown, but I think the funniest/saddest thing is that, in order to see Lady Liberty, you have to go through airport-style security twice: Once at the ferry, and once at the entrance to the pedestal. The irony is sour in itself, but I sort of wonder what sort of weapon they think I've picked up on the boat. Post-9/11 paranoia is a sad, crazy thing, so it's kind of good to see that the memorial - a simple black-colored hole that represents a void left over after the attacks - is not overstated. Granted, I didn't get into the museum (too late in the day), but at least the building isn't horrifically ostentatious.

Speaking of stupidly increased security, they don't have lockers at the bus station(s) any more, which means I had to track down a place that wanted $25 to hold my backpack for the day after I checked out of my room on Wednesday. For comparison, a days rental of a locker costs a twonie in Montreal's bus station.

But, hey, it was arguably worth it to not have to carry the extra weight around while exploring The Metropolitan Museum of Art - especially after having chosen the wrong subway station to get off and having to walk roughly a third the length of Central Park to get there. It's a good way to spend the afternoon, though, even if you're like me and not much of a fine-arts type. There's a reconstructed Egyptian tomb and temple, a very nifty exhibit of musical instruments from around the world and history, armor and weapons... You can wear yourself out there.

I kind of did, but I still had some time to kill before my overnight bus home, so I poked around in Forbidden Planet (I didn't realize that the venerable UK comic shop had a New York location) and the Strand bookstore, buying a copy of Jo Nesbo's The Bat both because I have meant to read his Harry Hole novels ever since liking the non-Harry movies made from his books and because that bookstore was a good place to hide from the cold for long enough, at least, to get hungry for some authentic New York pizza and then catch one last movie before heading to the Port Authority and sit in semi-sketchy surroundings waiting for the bus to Boston.

And, oh yeah, the movies. I went to one each night, figuring they wouldn't play Boston in two cases and not in a certain format in another. I wound up catching Goodbye to Language, Interstellar, and Mea Culpa respectively at the IFC Center (in Dolby 3D), Ziegfield (in 70mm), and AMC Empire 25 (plain ol' DCP). Even the one I didn't really like was a neat experience, so that was a win. I will mention that it was kind of difficult to get MoviePass to work right, and it's almost funny - a few months ago, one of my annoyances with the program was that the phone app would forget my location what seemed like daily, adding an extra step to finding the theaters I wanted to use. Now, it's pretty locked into Cambridge, and getting it to work on those NYC theaters meant standing right outside, telling it to use the current location, and then quickly making selections before it reverted back to my home base. Fortunately, it worked eventually, which is good because as you can see, those are some expensive tickets.

I got home safely, crashed for much of Thursday, and then used having Friday off to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 on opening day before the truly crazy crowds got there. On Saturday, I took the bus out to West Newton to see The Two Faces of January, which I had missed during its closer runs (although I kind of like heading to West Newton anyway). Pretty good, both of them.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2014 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

A couple years ago, I spent a lot of words talking about how The Hunger Games was not a patch on Battle Royale, and I stand by that statement - the first movie in this series really isn't very good and would be a complete disaster without Jennifer Lawrence. Something happened as the series strayed from those roots, though - it got interesting.

And as it keeps straying, it keeps getting more interesting. The second movie's exploration of how the next generation has an almost instinctive, twenty-first century knowledge of how to use the media is expanded on here, but it becomes much darker and cynical, as the revolutionaries are massaging their message nearly as much as the corrupt government, making Katniss as much a manufactured symbol as a genuine hero. It actually plays into one of my complaints from the previous films - that Katniss seldom actually does anything, because the idea here is that she doesn't need to - the media machine will make her into whatever they need.

And so, a great deal of what's interesting in this one is watching Julianne Moore as the "President" of underground District 13 who spars with a spin doctor played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The former is kind of a monster, and so is the latter, and that always takes us by surprise, at least a little bit - the revelation at the end of Catching Fire that he was a traitor to the Capital has the audience inclined to see him as idealistic, and his somewhat ruthless pragmatism is a little shocking. It's different from that of Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, unhappily sober, cutting through the crap, but still knowing Katniss's point of view. The switch in settings also (finally) gives Elizabeth Banks something interesting to do as Effie Trinket, as her absurdity is made even more obvious but also shows hints of an interesting person underneath.

Lawrence is still pretty great, although I suspect that the crassness of splitting this final book in the series in half has deprived her of having much action in this part beyond righteous anger. There's some goofy science fiction toward the end that also may get explored in next year's second half, but overall, this movie impresses a heck of a lot more than it was reasonable to expect back in March of 2012, and I wouldn't be surprised if the series as a whole winds up with a respectable showing in the top X sci-fi movie series among people who make lists in coming years.

The Two Faces of January

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2014 in Weston Newton Cinema #4 (second-run, DCP)

It sometimes seems as though Patricia Highsmith's novels have been constant fodder for classy thrillers, but believe it or not, there weren't very many English-language film adaptations of her work between Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley almost fifty years later at all. And yet, Hossein Amini's adaptation of The Two Faces of January is recognizable almost immediately - the murky morality, the people detached from ordinary life, the class tensions just under the surface. Of course, there have been other adaptations from around the globe, because Highsmith is just that important a figure in suspense.

And this latest movie based on her work is a nifty one. It gives us Viggo Mortensen Kirsten Dunst as an American couple in post-WWII Greece and Oscar Isaac as the American expatriate who becomes their guide and accomplice when the situation they are in deteriorates - and naturally finds himself attracted to Dunst's Colette. It's a situation that gets more tense by degrees after the first murder; Amini pumps things up slowly enough that the straw that broke the camel's back comes quietly. Part of it is the way we get immersed in the environment; part is just how well-directed it is, even with an ending that perhaps disappoints those who have become invested in one aspect of the story.

A lot comes from the impressive cast. Isaac finds the spot where conniving inersects with over-his-head, making Rydal one of the more interesting gray characters I've seen recently. Viggo Mortensen plays more solidly creepy, but not necessarily villainous. They contrast nicely. And as usual, I'm not sure why Kirsten Dunst isn't a big star; her role is more a fulcrum for others to play off, but she gets us caught in the middle as thoroughly as her character is..

The Two Faces of January isn't my favorite Highsmith movie, and has some flaws. But it's a cool little thriller of a type that doesn't show up nearly as often as it should.

American Museum of Natural HistoryGoodbye to LanguageLiberty & Ellis Islands70mm InterstellarMetropolitan Museum of ArtMea CulpaThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1The Two Faces of January

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back in Time

I feel kind of weird making some of the complaints I have about Back in Time - is it really my place to complain that the guys in this movie are putting pressure on the ladies? I always feel uncomfortable getting offended on someone else's behalf, although if I'm legitimately uncomfortable watching it, it's worth mentioning.

Still, the end... Well, I'll put it at the end.

Cong Cong Na Nian (Back in Time aka Fleet of Time)

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2014 at Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, DCP)

It can be kind of interesting to watch a movie like Back in Time ("Cong Cong Na Nian" in the original Mandarin, translated onscreen as "Fleet of Time") which comes from another culture, though often kind of puzzling: It's at least partly someone else's nostalgia, and if you don't know the late-1990s mandopop song accompanying a scene, you may be missing the punchline. Then again, it's not like the movies that make an appeal to one's own youth generally wind up being very good beyond that knee-jerk reaction, even without this movie's specific problems.

It starts in the present day, with thirty-ish Chen Xun (Eddie Peng Yu-yan) drunkenly telling others in a bar that he punted thirteen points on his college entry exam for a girl, which gets the attention of Seven (Liu Ya-se), a younger woman elsewhere in the room. He wakes up in her hotel room the next morning and eventually tells a bit of how he met and fell for transfer student Feng Hui (Ni Ni) fifteen years ago, in 1999. The story also involves his high-school friends Zhao Ye (Ryan Zheng Kai), Lin Jimao (Zhang Zixuan), and Qiao Ran (Vision Wei Chan), but he doesn't give it that much thought until he reunites with Ye as the latter's wedding approaches. Seven turns out to be Ye's wedding photographer, and she's got a way of steering conversations toward flashbacks.

There's kind of a weird disconnect to those flashbacks, though: They're tremendously sentimental, with show pans meant to make sure the audience breathes every lovingly recreated detail in, but often the main impression that comes through is that guys that age are kind of jerks. The oblivious basketball captain Jimao has a crush on often comes off the best because he is hurting her feelings in a completely passive way, unlike Chen Xun, who is constantly putting the shy Hui into situations where she has to react backed into a corner or with people watching. It's fairly mild as these things go and the girls have their own sorts of weird behavior, but seeing this as Chen Xun's lost, perfect love is kind of off-putting of you give it a moment or two of thought.

Full review at EFC.


I wonder how many other people spent more time than necessary wondering if there was some way Seven could be Hui's daughter or some other family member without getting to the obvious-in-retrospect relationship. Maybe not completely obvious - after an hour forty-five or so of everyone matching up boy/girl, we find out Seven and Hui are lovers, and while it does explain why Feng Hui and Chen Xun never made love during their three-year relationship, it did leave me wondering somewhat whether how normal that would be in China. Chen Xun, really, seemed to be the one who was more uptight about sex when the subject came up. Not that that really means anything, but it means the one thing that was really pointing this way was diluted.

Then again, maybe it was not the only thing pointed in that direction. Gay characters seem relatively rare in Chinese films - the only other ones I remember seeing recently were the couple in Breakup Buddies, and that was sort of the same thing; a gotcha moment when the audience realized that she was gay. I don't know enough about where that sort of thing sits in Chinese culture these days to know if I was missing something, perhaps in her father's behavior. Seeing as there were other indications that mainland Chinese culture was kind of conservative around sex - Chen Xun really seems to get bent out of shape about premarital sex, not to mention the way people were swarming around Feng Hui at the clinic - it seems like kind of a big deal.

And, man, that scene in the clinic, where Hui's professor is brought in and there seems to be a lot of preparation to shame until Chen Xun decides to fall on the sword... Some of the more uncomfortable scenes in the movie, and something I think is done a bit of a disservice by being left in the background. That's a dramatic situation that could use a bit of light aimed in its direction, but instead it just serves as a dramatically weird moment that severs Chen Xun's ties with both the woman he should actually be with and the one he stood up for. Really, it's downright weird how the film makes that scene about Chen Xun, while Feng Hui is suffering through an abortion without anesthesia for sleeping with the wrong guy.

I kind of wonder what happened after that, how the shy girl who had stumbled to fit in got to a point where she realized something basic about herself and found happiness and confidence. That seems like a heck of a much more interesting story than the guy who pestered his way into a relationship with a girl, pushed her away (with a girl that was a better fit anyway), and then blew that, but it's okay because she turned out to be gay anyway. The movie really seems to miss the point of who had an interesting story to tell.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 December - 23 December 2014

It's the week before Christmas vacation, and two kids' movies are come out. There's an argument that it should be three.

  • That argument comes from me, who liked the fairly kid-friendly first Hobbit movie and is vaguely disappointed that this trilogy (itself crazy) is moving closer to The Lord of the Rings in tone as it moves on, with the new one being The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies rather than "There and Back Again". As such movies go, it's actually fairly reasonable in length at 144 minutes, and available in 2D and 3D at most theaters, and 48-frame-per-second "HFR" screenings at some. It plays the Capitol, the Embassy, Apple, Jordan's (3D Imax only), Boston Common (2D/3D/3D Imax), Fenway (2D/3D/HFR RPX 3D), Assembly Row (2D/3D/HFR Imax 3D), Revere (2D/3D/HFR XPlus 3D), and the SuperLux (2D/HFR 3D).

    The more kid-targeted movies are both rehashes of a sort. Annie has Quvenzhané Wallis in the title role and Jamie Foxx as "Will Stacks" - apparently war profiteering is no longer cool, so "Warbucks" is out as a name - and is not, sad to say, the crazy adventure strip Annie was until it ended (mid-cliffhanger, eventually picked up by Dick Tracy) but an adaptation of the musical. Ah, well. It's at the Capitol, Apple, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb brings its group to the British Museum, and, yeah, it's Robin Williams's last film aside from a voice part next year. It's at the same theaters.

    For the grown-ups, Wild expands a bit, continuing at Kendall Square & Boston Common but also opening at the Somerville Theatre, the West Newton Cinema, and Revere.
  • Lingaa doesn't look to have as much staying power as Endhirian did, but Peekay (aka "PK") opens at Apple Cinemas/iMovieCafe and Fenway, a Bollywood production about a simple, child-like man who disrupts a city with his innocent questions and point of view; I kind of got a Forrest Gump vibe from the trailer. Aamir Khan stars as the title character.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has a very limited engagement of The Way He Looks, Brazil's Oscar submission about a blind teenager - it is in the Goldscreen with The Babadook still playing the 9:30pm show. They also have 35mm screenings of Elf at midnight on Friday and Saturday, and The Muppet Christmas Carol on Saturday morning.
  • The Brattle is also in the Christmas spirit with It's a Wonderful Life playing Friday to Sunday, and then the "Alt X-Mas" screenings: Batman Returns in 35mm on Monday and a double feature of Die Hard and Die Hard 2 on Tuesday. Though not technically part of that program, they'll kick off the Bill Murray series on Christmas with Scrooged (part of a double feature with Ghostbusters).
  • The Harvard Film Archive finishes up the Jacques Demy retrospective before Christmas break with Bay of Angels (Friday 7pm), A Room in Town (Friday 9pm), A Slightly Pregnant Man (Saturday 9pm), and the delightful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Sunday 7pm); Bay and Umbrellas are 35mm. They also celebrate the holidays with "Another Kuchar Christmas" at 7pm Saturday and a free show of vintage holiday shorts at 3pm Sunday, headlined by Seth Green in in "Charlie's Christmas Secret".
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has yet more of The Films of Catherine Breillat - The Sleeping Beauty (Friday), Bluebeard (Friday), Fat Girl (Saturday & Sunday), and Abuse of Weakness (Sautrday & Sunday).

My plans? The Hobbit in HFR, Wild, Batman Returns, and whatever I can fit in around quite a bit of Christmas shopping that needs to be done.

Inherent Vice

I get into being afraid of Thomas Pynchon in the review, and it's an honest fear; Gravity's Rainbow wasn't necessarily the book that made me decide I was better off with stuff that just presented what was going on in clear language that required relatively little decoding, at least when I was twenty. I guess these days, I tend to prefer having someone like Paul Thomas Anderson do that decoding for me.

That said, I do remember one scene, where the hero finds himself sampling various types of utterly revolting British candy, as being one of the funniest things I have ever read, which threw me, and a look at the description makes me curious to give it another look, especially after seeing this one. Maybe it's funnier now that I know more.

The thing that got me into the Brattle that night - aside from "hey, this looks like a good movie" - was noting that the screening was in 35mm. Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't been making as much noise about film this year as in 2012, when The Master was shot on 65mm and released in 70mm, but the might in part be because Christopher Nolan sucked a lot of that particular air out of the room with Interstellar. Of course, both times I saw that movie, Inherent Vice was one of the previews that played, and that preview was very clearly on film, leading to a bit of hope that the film itself wouldplay that way. Still, best to be sure and not miss any opportunity.

Watching it that way, though, one is reminded how digital production and projection has in many ways started warping our view of what a movie should look like (or, if that's too loaded, what it looks like by default). People who know cameras, lenses, and film better than me can describe what Anderson and Robert Elswit are doing here from a technical standpoint, but I could not help but notice that the sharp, clearly defined edges we see more often than not today weren't there; more than grain, there was haze, and bits out of focus, and a glow around light sources. Our brains like those edges, which is why televisions in electronics stores often have the sharpness turned way up and films were often processed with "edge enhancement" before being recorded to DVD; we equate it with clarity, and after seeing most released movies that way, it takes a little time to readjust to something like Inherent Vice, which doesn't look quite as great as Interstellar but still looks like a film, one straight out of its early-1970s period.

I suspect that when the film reaches wide release in January, the Coolidge and Somerville will get 35mm prints, but it will certainly be worth checking. Ned made a big enough deal about it at the Brattle screening (implying that Warner Brothers was trying to accomodate those who asked for prints) to make me somewhat hopeful, but it will certainly be worth checking when it does come out.

Inherent Vice

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2014 at the Brattle Theatre (preview, 35mm)

Thomas Pynchon kicked my butt in both classes where I had to read one of his books twenty years ago, and the film adaptation of Inherent Vice seemed like it was going to be the same sort of experience - I felt like I had lost the plot about two minutes into a 148-minute movie, which shouldn't even be possible. Of course, sometimes the plot matters much less than the telling, and the telling of this story is exceptional.

That story starts with dope-addled hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) getting a visit from old girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), warning that her new, married boyfriend, real-estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be caught up in a scheme to put him in a mental institution. Meanwhile, another potential client wants him to approach an old cellmate, both Shasta and Wolfman disappear, a widow (Jena Malone) wants him to investigate the possibility that her husband (Owen Wilson) isn't dead, and when Doc stumbles onto that guy, he wants him to look in on her. Doc also stumbles onto a murder, which means Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop who moonlights as an actor, is on his back. All things considered, Doc is starting to wonder if all these cases are really connected or if his brain is just fried.

Given that Doc's not actually the narrator, it would probably be unfair to label him an unreliable one. Still, as the audience tends to follow Doc almost exclusively, the film would be missing something important if it did not portray a certain amount of disorientation and fuzziness of mind that comes as a result of drug use - although it would likely be equally dishonest to make the audience feel impaired. That's the impressive line screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson walks throughout the movie; he gets even a more modern, jaded viewer to connect with the hippie sentiment circa 1970, when it may have felt, in certain circles, like this sort of acceptance of pharmaceuticals as a part to calm, pleasure, or even enlightenment seemed to be poised to break into the mainstream, although a look around the margins at the inflexible police and very businesslike Golden Fang group shows what that sort of idealism is leaving out.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, December 15, 2014

This That Week In Tickets: 10 November 2014 - 16 November 2014

A relatively not-busy week, but with a lot of love, even if some of it is my love of pancakes.

This Week in Tickets

For instance, Wednesday had me stopping at the Regent Theatre on the way home for the first time in a while. The movie was The Canal, an Irish horror movie with a bit of potential that was just destined to disappear among the hundreds of decent but not exceptional genre movies that one can find on the streaming/on-demand service of your choice at any given time. Someday, I should find a way to organize a Tuesday Night Thrills series there - it's a good-sized theater with a lot of open dates, and I figure there's got to be a way to get some of these fun movies on the big screen where they belong, barring a small distributor just renting the place for the night like this.

Thursday night involved killing some time until the relatively late start of The International Pancake Film Festival, as there was a somewhat more prestigious event earlier in the evening. And once the doors were open, there was the need to serve a pancake to everyone in the Brattle, and who wants to be the one to kick kids playing 8-bit videogames off a movie screen? As you might imagine, a good time was had by all.

Late buses, IIRC, delayed seeing the new Johnnie To movie until Saturday, but that still meant I got to see Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 at about the same time it came out in China, which is undeniably cool. I wound up looking it quite a bit until that stupid ending, and no amount of reading that it's a pointed jab at hyper-capitalist China is going to get that taste out of my mouth.

Sunday's double feature was fun, though, starting with the last film in the Somerville Theatre's "Silents, Please!" series, The Strong Man. Both Jeff and Dave talked about how Harry Langdon was a strange sort of aberration, a guy who was tremendously popular for a couple years of the silent era despite being a strangely minimalist performer but largely forgotten after. As Dave put it (I paraphrase greatly here), Charlie Chaplin would react to a strange situation with pathos, Buster Keaton would engineer his way out of it in dating fashion, Harold Lloyd would rise above it like a heroic underdog... And Langdon would do nothing. Dave said that in all his years projecting films, this was his first time projecting Langdon. So, a bit of an oddity, and Dave, Jeff, and Ian all said they'd be going for deep cuts again next year.

That was followed a little later by The Theory of Everything, a basic but enjoyable biography of Steven and Jane Hawking. Nice performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and I'll probably never get tired of repeating the awed wonder 15-year-old me would feel at a theater not necessarily full of crazy sci-fi fans who got and laughed at the Doctor Who reference.

The International Pancake Film Festival 2014: Animation, Puppetry, and Pancakes

Seen 13 November 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (special event, 16mm & digital)

This is a profoundly silly event - really, one of the silliest you'll see that doesn't get very close to mockery, which is a good thing, because who wants to be making fun of pancakes? I don't know if I'd have them at the concession stand at my hypothetical theater, because this:

Mmm, pancakes!

... is just asking to get knocked onto the floor and have the syrup make a famously sticky surface even worse, let alone that it may involve people using knives in the dark, but it wasn't a bad change from the usual cinema snacks at all. I just wish I'd had time to go through the line twice, since this took a while:

Pancake video games

That there is a kid playing a custom video game based upon the Festival's previous postcards and posters on a piece of hardware older than he is. Well, more likely some sort of HTPC with a custom case mod, but whatever - it's playing pixel-y games on a screen built for much higher resolution, providing entertainment as kids with twitch reflexes much better than their elders tend to flop while folks ten-plus years older clear all three levels because they know the mechanics and expect to work in the crazy precision that old games require.

(There was talk of the game being online, but I have not been able to find it yet.)

There was one other bit before the festival program pepper, three 16mm (I think) shorts from some archive or other. They... Well, they were not exactly from major studios' animation departments, which meant that "Buck & Pepito's Pancake-Taking Cure" was just not that funny, especially when you consider that what was probably meant to be a fairly progressive spirit at the time, with American and Mexican kids as friends, still come across as kind of icky stereotypes, along with the jokes being weak. Chuck Jones was said to have figured out the precise length, to the frame, that every bit of a Roadrunner cartoon needed to be for maximum comic effect, while these guys have not. You can see what the slapstick is going for, and how it's just not making it. After a vintage Golden Griddle commercial, there was another cartoon with a relaxed pace, "The Emperor's Oblong Pancake", although that one worked a bit better for me. It's not quite "The Emperor's New Clothes" with pancakes, but it's in the neighborhood, and it has the sort of dry, lay-the-joke out sort of wit that I can see kids going for. It reminded me of stuff I saw and liked as a kid, and did so without making young-me look silly.

The stuff in the regular festival package was kind of a mixed bag, and I won't run down them individually because it is no fun saying that a couple young folks didn't make a great short film. You can look at the various entries below (where I can find links), but I will say that I looked "The Shrove Tuesday Speech", "Flapjack Smash!", and "Sea Battles" quite a bit (perhaps not coincidentally, these were the stop-motion entries), while "Mr. Bear Googles How to Make Pancakes... But Gets Drunk Instead" is exactly the low-fi literal spin on the title you'd expect and done well.

"Attack of the Evil Pancacke"
"Sea Battles"

The Strong Man (1926)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 November 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please, 35mm)

When a modern film lover stumbles across The Strong Man, it is almost certainly as an early work of Frank Capra, with something between mild surprise and retroactive retroactive acknowledgment that his career extends back to the silent era. At the time, it would have been different, with Capra a relatively anonymous name directing the new one from top-five comedian Harry Langdon. Today, Langdon is all but forgotten, but the film itself is nifty to see, an entertaining and representative example of a body of work, no matter what direction you approach it from.

It starts during The Great War (in 1926, there would not yet be a reason to attach a Roman numeral), where Belgian infantryman Paul Bergot (Langdon) is kept going by letters from American pen-pal Mary Brown, although his defense of his position against a hulking German officer is more luck than skill. After the war, the pair come to America together, with Paul an assistant to strongman "Zandow the Great" (Arthur Thalasso), with Paul not quite realizing that his beloved has a very common name. After a few misadventures is New York City, the pair land a gig upstate, where the Prohibition-era "social club" that booked them is opposed by the abutting church's pastor "Holy Joe" (William V. Mong) and his pretty (but blind) daughter (Priscilla Bonner).

No points will be awarded to audience viewers who guess where this is going in the long or short term; Capra and the various writers tread paths that, even in the mid-twenties, were probably fairly predictable. That's okay, though; the material is in both Langdon's and Capra's wheelhouses. It's maybe not necessarily a natural mix - though his collaboration with Capra marked Langdon's greatest commercial successes - but Langdon's somewhat passive brand of physical comedy and Capra's fondness for moral crusaders who succeed in part because most people are decent (along with the belief that the Universe favors justice over the long term) kind of reinforce each other - things don't work out entirely without effort or setbacks, but there's a certain joy to the serendipity that drives both.

Full review at EFC.

The Cabin
International Pancake Film Festival
Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2
The Strong Man
The Theory of Everything

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Top Five

I note below that I was improperly psyched for this movie, in large part because I didn't realize that Rosario Dawson was going to have such a central role - all of the posters and standees I saw in theaters had Chris Rock front and center, and many reprinted reviews that talked about how he's a genius as the writer & director. Most of the previews I've seen emphasized him too, with a couple being the personal sales job things that the theater chains have recently taken a liking to. He's also done a bunch of great, far-ranging interviews to support the release. It's totally reasonable to think of this as a Chris Rock movie, first, second, and third.

The thing is, I really like Rosario Dawson. She only rarely seems to get good roles in good movies, and I honestly can't understand why. She's beautiful, funny, and has the chops to carry a scene or movie on her own. I would rather not imagine this movie without her. Here's hoping this movie serves as a reminder of how good she is and she gets some better parts soon.

Top Five

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2014 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

It took roughly a minute of Top Five for me to realize that I really hadn't been anticipating this film enough - it is, after all, built around Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson hanging around and verbally jousting with each other, and I like both of them a lot. It's not much longer than that before it's clear that we're getting both of them at their best, and that makes for a formidably funny movie.

The pair are doing this walk-and-talk because former stand-up comedian Andre Allen (Rock) has a new movie coming out - Uprize!, a dead-serious dramatization of the Haitian revolution - and the New York Times has managed to get reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) a chance to tag along for the day. But while Andre just wants to talk about the movie, the public at large is more interested in his upcoming wedding unscripted-TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) or if he'll ever return to his blockbuster series about a cop who is also a talking bear.

This is Rock's movie in more ways than one - he not only writes, directs, and stars, but it's easy enough to look at the broad strokes of Andre's character and guess that it's pulled from his experience - but Rosario Dawson is just as crucial to its success, and maybe even more important in front of the camera. That first scene establishes her as a cheerful, optimistic counter to Allen's cynicism, but it's never unbalanced: Chelsea is obviously smart, and the fact that she's generally positive doesn't mean she can't push back at Andre. She gets to regularly take over the movie as well, and those bits are terrific; it's easy to see a movie about a writer trying to pry something out of a reluctant interviewee that's just as full and funny as the one where the emphasis is the other way around.

Full review at EFC.