Friday, January 31, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 31 January 2014 - 6 February 2014

If you read this regularly, you'll notice that when a film's theaters are listed, certain ones go toward the front of the line, mostly independently-owned theaters. One of them, the Somerville Theatre, is turning a hundred years old soon, and it's worth reminding folks why that place is awesome: The projection is great, they are constantly upgrading even little things like the recently rebuilt concession stand, and there are quirky things (like the load-bearing piano) throughout that are not the result of trying to be hip, but just accumulating a century of history, both public and internal. It's going to be fun celebrating their birthday.

  • The Somerville Theatre doesn't have it's birthday until 11 May, 100 days from now, and they are having almost daily events, which include live music, theater, three film festivals, and plenty of movies spanning the life of the theater, all on 35mm. This weekend, they start at the beginning with three silent programs, featuring Jeff Rapsis on the piano. Friday at 8pm is extra special, with a Mary Pickford program that includes the feature Sparrows and the shorts "The Dream" and "Their First Misunderstanding", with the latter extra-special not just because it's Pickford's first credited film, but because a 35mm print was found in a New Hampshire barn seven years ago after the film was considered lost for almost a century, and this is the first time it's been publicly screened in 35mm since. Saturday night features Lilian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, and Sunday afternoon is the first Oscar winner, Wings.
  • That's going to cut into their first-run screenings, but it's still kind of quiet on that front. The new one from Jason Reitman, Labor Day, in which Josh Brolin plays an escaped convict who hides out in the home of an agoraphobic divorcée played by Kate Winslet. It's at Apple, Boston Common, Fenway, and the SuperLux. There's also That Awkward Moment, wherein three friends pledge to stay single only to each fall in love soon after. It's at Apple, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    It looks like the Imax folks knew I, Frankenstein would tank, because Gravity was put back on the schedule for Imax 3D bookings even before the other one opened. It gets the big screen at Boston Common. They also have Groundhog Day on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon/evening, which is cool, what with Sunday being Groundhog Day and all.
  • Kendall Square has been playing the preview for Gloria fairly frequently. It's a well-awarded romantic comedy from Chile with Paulina Garcia as a middle-aged woman who is young at heart and is falling in love with a former naval officer. It was Chile's submission for the Oscars, but was not actually nominated. They do have some nominees, though,with the 2014 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts and 2014 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts. They're splitting a screen, and running for at least two weeks, so you can either do a double feature or catch them separately.
  • The other Oscar-nominated shorts are playing at The Coolidge, with the 2014 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts playing in two programs in the screening room (two, because documentary shorts tend to push right up against the 40-minute limit for short films). They've also got a 35mm print of Trouble Every Day , Claire Denis's 2001 take on vampirism and the study of the human libido; it plays at midnight on Friday and Saturday.
  • That one was just at the Brattle Theatre a day earlier, and they switch from vampires to (Some of) The Best of 2013 this week. Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (35mm) & Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said play as a double feature Friday & Saturday, although Saturday also has a 10pm late show of The Visitor. Sunday's twin bill is black-and-white ensemble casts with Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing. Monday night is Matías Piñeiro's Viola, about a group of actors in Buenos Aires performing Twelfth Night, while Tuesday features the unorthodox commercial-fishing documentary Leviathan. Wednesday's double feature is Night Across the Street & Museum Hours, while Thursday has Wadjda, the story of a Saudi girl who wants to buy a bike. Members of the Boston Society of Film Critics will be on-hand to introduce the films on Friday, Sunday, and Thursday evenings.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has in-person appearances by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie for two screenings, No Rest for the Brave on Sunday evening and Stranger by the Lake (digital), his latest film, on Monday. Before he actually arrives, they will be playing the two features he made in between, Time Has Come (Friday 7pm) and The King of Escape (Saturday 7pm).

    A film from the Late John Huston series helps fill in the gaps, with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean playing at 9pm on Friday. There is also the end of the Complete Andrei Tarkovsky program, with a second screening of Mirror (Saturday 9pm), and a double feature of two of his shorter works, "The Steamroller and the Violin" & Voyage in Time, at 4:30pm on Sunday.
  • The Regent Theatre is reconfiguring how they present the Gathr Preview Series, with screenings moving to Monday and apparently taking place in a smaller "Regent Underground" theater downstairs. The funny thing is, the next couple actually look like higher profile films that might be able to draw some people, starting with The Pretty One, which features Zoe Kazan as identical twins; one is much more confident and outgoing, but the other assumes her life when she dies. It's also got Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston. Note that right now, the Regent's website has a 7pm showtime and Gathr's says 7:30pm; hopefully that clears up in the next couple of days. They also start a short engagement of Bob Marley:The Making of a Legend on Thursday the 6th; it runs through Saturday the 8th and features long-lost footage of Marley's early career.
  • ArtsEmerson actually has some film programming at the Paramount Theater this weekend, with four screenings of documentary Fire in the Blood between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. It describes how pharmaceutical companies made it difficult for AIDS medication to be available in developing countries and how a coalition chose to fight back. The Saturday evening show will also have a reception beforehand and a Q&A (via Skype) with director Dylan Mohan Gray afterward. The Bright Lights series has just one screening this week, with Louis C.K.: Oh My God playing Thursday the 6th.
  • New month, new calendar for the film program at The Museum of Fine Arts. February features The Films of Lars von Trier throughout most of the month, starting with Epidemic and The Element of Crime (both Saturday & Wednesday); Medea plays Wednesday & Thursday while Europa has its first screening on Thursday.

    There are two non-Trier films on Sunday as part of the ReelAbilities: Boston Disabilities Film Festival - Andrzej Jakimowski's Imagine and Michelle Chen Miao's Son of the Stars (with a panel discussion afterward) - and both are free, and presented with open captions and audio descriptions. ReelAbilities will feature other screenings in the area every day from 30 January through 6 February; check the schedule on the site for details.


My plans? Silents in Somerville, Oscar-nominated shorts, watching Wolf of Wall Street or Her while everyone else is watching the Super Bowl, and maybe fitting some other catch-up like Blue Jasmine in around that. And, hey, it might not be wise to pass up a chance to see Gravity on Boston Common's largest screen, either.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

This Week In Tickets: 20 January 2014 - 26 January 2014

Look at that big ol' Penn & Teller ticket in the center of the page. How was nobody doing a preview screening of Tim's Vermeer on Sunday while the guys were in town to do a Q&A?

(Unless, of course, the MFA actually did, but it was one of those "Friends of Film" screenings that doesn't show up on the main calendar. Are they still doing those? I should join if they are...)

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Violet & Daisy, Monday, 7-ish, in the living room. Also, the print-at-home tickets are obviously reproductions, but, c'mon, those things are huge!

As with last week, I pulled something out of my unwatched pile of Blu-rays so that I could catch up on qualified films for Chlotrudis Awards nomination; unlike last week's Wolf Children (which apparently never got enough of a release to qualify), Violet & Daisy was a pretty crappy little movie, not good for much aside from bulk where the nominations are concerned. On the plus side, it's certainly made me consider VOD and streaming more; I bought this sight-unseen on Blu-ray, which means I not only gave Amazon $20 more than I needed to, but it's taking up valuable space in my house.

Plans got shuffled around a bit because of snow and the threat thereof on Tuesday; I had been looking forward to giving Black Out another shot after being worn out for it at Fantasia last summer, but the Regent Theatre canceled the show a few hours early, which gave me the chance to bump The Square up a day from planning to see it on Wednesday. Actually, I'd planned to see it on Monday with the director on hand, but that sold out. The real bummer was that we really didn't get much snow Tuesday night, either; it was no particular trouble getting in to work the next day despite warnings to be ready to work from home. New England has gotten soft since I was a kid.

Thursday had me seeing The Invisible Woman, which I actually liked a lot more than I expected from the previews. Ralph Fiennes has a perhaps-undeserved sort of dour air to him, so it was great fun to see his portrayal of Charles Dickens charismatic and the movie he directed exciting, even when kind of harsh.

I saw what would have been the second "missed at Fantasia" screening of the week on Friday, when "Somerville Subterranean Cinema" presented Animals, which always came up when talking about favorite movies among those that saw it. That wasn't a whole lot of us that day; hopefully there were more on Saturday, because it is in fact a pretty neat little movie.

Saturday was busy - sleeping in a bit and writing gave me just enough time to catch the T downtown for one of three Penn & Teller shows playing last weekend. It's a running joke in my family that while my brothers enjoy Las Vegas, I have no idea what I'd do there once I saw P&T, so now I guess I have no reason to visit that affront to every hour I spent learning statistics and probability at all.

 photo IMAG0819_zpsd3d33299.jpg
Probably should have taken one after they took the stage, too.

It's a pretty fun show if you get the chance to see it, though. One of the great things you take away from it is just how much the guys genuinely seem to enjoy interacting with their fans - aside from calling someone up on stage for roughly half the tricks, they also make it almost impossible to leave once the show is over because they're in the Shubert Theatre's tiny lobby, shaking hands and posing for pictures, and, as Penn discussed on stage, listening to see how people reacted. The other is that, for all they often go on talk shows as a funny if conventional magic act, they also respect the audience in a way illusionists seldom do: By not presuming that ignorance and mystification is the only way to enjoy a magic show, but that it an be a lot of fun just based on the audience's admiration of the skill and creativity of the magicians. I tend to think that this approach engages our better natures.

After that show, I had just enough time to move a couple blocks down to the Boston Common theater, which was the only one in the area showing Gimme Shelter. It's not exactly a bad movie, but it's also not a particularly good one, and it served as something of an object lesson in not going to see a Vanessa Hudgens movie just because it's got Rosario Dawson and Brendan Fraser in it and you like them.

Next stop after that was Davis Square for the Alloy Orchestra's annual visit to Davis Square, with this year's local premiere being HE Who Gets Slapped. As always, they put on a good show with a well-chosen movie; in fact, I found myself quite pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this one; oftentimes, the weird Early-Twentieth-Century focus on the circus can make a movie feel mostly alien to me, but this one clicked into place.

I had just enough time when I got home to enter my nominations for the Chlotrudis Awards before the midnight deadline. Well, enough time to do it once; the connection timed out or something with twenty minutes to spare, and let me tell you, that was not enough time to get it all done again. I wound up spending much of Sunday morning re-calculating them and then arriving at the meeting and begging to have them re-entered. Then came four-plus hours of deciding whether screenplays are adapted or original (whether actors's roles are lead or supporting), watching as people tried to game the system when their favorite nominee didn't initially make the cut, and trying to figure out which five out of ten movies with roughly-equal levels of support merited being nominated as a "buried treasure". The list of nominees isn't bad (it will be published Sunday), although there's no way I'm going to be able to see enough of them to vote well in every category by the deadline, considering all the things I want to catch in a theater in the meantime.

Then I headed to Fenway to see I, Frankenstein. Let's face it, after four hours of people talking about tiny independent movies, sometimes you just want to watch CGI monsters beat the crap out of each other in 3D.

Violet & Daisy

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2014 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Blu-ray)

I didn't realize Violet & Daisy had apparently been on the shelf for a while - it got an odd release in spring where I seemed to see plenty of advertising without it actually getting booked in Boston, so it felt less like it was being dumped than just another case of oddball genre films never opening here. It wasn't until the end credits that I realized that the 2011 completion date on IMDB wasn't kidding around, when Tatiana Maslany is credited as a young-looking teen despite playing a group of characters about ten years older on Orphan Black.

Why has it been in hiding for so long? Because it's a bloody mess is why. The first half-hour is non-stop "middle-aged guy trying to write teen-girl dialogue", and it's the most superficial version of it you can imagine. It doesn't make an interesting contrast with the title characters' work as assassins, and that part of the film makes no sense without being surreal enough to be some sort of weird fantasy inspired by whatever messed these girls up. It somehow manages to make some weird visuals, Alexis Bledel (who has seven years of Gilmore Girls proving she can handle stylized dialogue as well as anyone), Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Danny Trejo (who will likely appear in anything if you slip him a hundred) dull.

And even the good parts aren't that great. They are good, though: Saorise Ronan and her parents/agents may choose bad projects, but I can't recall her ever being a weak link; here, she holds up well enough as the junior partner trying to appear as hard-boiled as her only friend in the world. And then there's James Gandolfini, frequently paired with Ronan as a crusty father figure with a gooey inside, just making it look easy to play a full human being in the middle of a movie that's otherwise a mess. That he didn't live to have Gene Hackman's later career really stinks.

I, Frankenstein

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2014 in Regal Fenway #9 (first-run, RealD 3D)

I don't think Kevin Grevioux's I, Frankenstein graphic novel ever actually saw print beyond a prequel comic that ties in to the movie (it may just be a clever way for Grevioux to retain certain rights to his concept without Lion's Gate owning it lock, stock, and barrel), but the film certainly plays like something that might have been an 80-pager or 4-issue limited series: A potentially-fun high concept, big action scenes on a regular basis, and an attempt at world-building that the project just doesn't have the room or ambition for.

The frustrating thing about this movie is that one can see where there's fun to be had. Aaron Eckhart gives the immortal Creature a bit of charm despite a script that pulls him a different way every five minutes, the villains have a marvelously gradiose master plan, and screenwriter/director Stuart Beattie and company make beautiful action on screen. There's a certain video game influence to characters "ascending" and "descending" rather than actually leaving bodies, but it looks great. Give Frankenstein some worthy antagonists rather than bored-seeming Bill Nighy and Miranda Otto, and maybe you've got something.

Unfortunately, Beattie and Grevioux don't manage that. The bland angels-of-the-gargoyle-order and demons (who, thankfully, employ a pretty scientist to do their research and thus give "Adam" an ally) aren't nearly as interesting as Frankenstein - eventually, the characters are as willing to give him his father's name as the audience - and that seems like a huge mistake. Beattie's script seems like it was written to go in a number of different directions, and while sometimes that's just a disappointment (as when the two most likable characters in the movie are killed off), or a blind alley that could probably be explained with a little effort, it climaxes on a moment that is downright contradictory. It's a mess that leaves a decent cast floundering throughout and sucks the air out of what should have been a fun movie.

SPOILERS! I mean, seriously, what happens between the moment when it's important that Frankenstein has no soul and the moment where it's crucial that he has one? It doesn't even make any sort of fantasy-mythology sense! !SRELIOPS

Make no mistake, I had some fun here, and I honestly think that a sequel where Frankenstein is given some better villains to fight would be a blast (put him on The Island of Doctor Moreau!). But the script either had one draft too many or one too few, and it wound up handcuffing almost everyone involved.

The SquareThe Invisible WomanAnimalsPenn & TellerGimme ShelterHE Who Gets SlappedI, Frankenstein

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alloy Orchestra: HE Who Gets Slapped

Is it just me, or is the Alloy Orchestra's visit coming earlier every year? I can go back and check, but it seems like they used to arrive in February or March, but I'm probably wrong about that. Still, they're always welcome, even if I must admit that I kind of miss when they performed right on the stage, sometimes even casting a sight shadow on the edge of the screen. They've had their orchestra pit in working order for (I think) a bit more than a year now, which means the band is hidden:

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(OK, they're not actually there.)

As usual, it was a fun show, even if they're projecting video rather than their own restored prints nowadays and the couple behind me seemed to think that the characters not talking meant it was fine to talk amongst themselves juuuust enough to be a distraction but not quite enough to compel shushing.

The combination of movie choice and band was kind of interesting, too. The program noted that it was MGM's first production, but you won't find it on the list of films being offered on DVD as part of their 90th anniversary, and not just because there's not a huge market for silent films these days; MGM is a shell of its former self, with most of its library in the hands of Warner Brothers and the present-day studio surviving by remaking material from the United Artists catalogs and that of other groups they've absorbed. The brand should honestly be allowed to retire with dignity as a going concern with the trademarks winding up with the films at Warner Home Video, but that won't happen.

The funny thing is that despite the remains of MGM being scattered to the four winds, their logo still pops up at the beginning of their movies on video, and the audience got a kick out of how Leo the Lion just sort of looked around rather than actually roaring, what with this being a silent.

I did find Alloy doing this film a bit odd, though, if only because there's another local group, Cirkestra, that occasionally accompanies silents around here, especially if they're as circus-themed as this movie. It was tough not to think of them at times, especially when the musicians were going full circus on the soundtrack. I'm kind of curious to hear what they would do with this movie.


Neither will be at the Somerville this weekend, when Jeff Rapsis takes up residence for a weekend of silent films kicking off the 100 days leading to the 100th anniversary, with a Mary Pickford program on Friday, Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East on Saturday, and Wings on Sunday. Genuine 35mm on each one, most (I believe) from the Library of Congress collection. It's going to be a good few days for those of us that like the silents.


HE Who Gets Slapped

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2014 in Somerville Theatre #6 (World Music/CrashArts, digital with live accompaniment)

What remains of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, although it's spent so much of recent decades in and out of bankruptcy, selling its library off, replacing it with other acquisitions, and partnering up with other studios that it's almost impossible to think of today's MGM as the same entity that produced HE Who Gets Slapped as its first project. That's a genuine shame, because HE is a bold, entertaining silent with a fine cast and style to spare.

It starts with scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) announcing his tremendous discovery on the origins of human life to his beloved wife Maria (Ruth King) and patron Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), the latter of whom will arrange for him to present it to the Paris Academy. Base treachery soon leaves him with nothing, and he reinvents himself as the clown "HE Who Gets Slapped" at a circus outside the city. Years later, someone new joins the troupe, Consuelo Mancini (Norma Shearer), a skilled horsewoman who attracts the attention of both HE and Bezano (John Gilbert), the show's other equestrian daredevil. Of course, her father, the bankrupt Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), would rather a marriage be arranged to a wealthy aristocrat.

The story that director Victor Sjöström (credited as "Victor Seastrom") is telling here is fairly elemental; were it to be adapted again today, it would likely be dressed up with subplots, twists, and layers of ambiguity. And that would be fine - times change - but a huge part of what makes Sjöström's film so effective is its almost shocking directness. Beaumont is torn down nearly as quickly as he was built up, and his nameless position in the circus is an obvious but effective reminder of what put him there. From there, let's just say that Sjöström and company are not particularly wishy-washy where the climax of the film is concerned.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gimme Shelter

Sometime, I'm going to have to go back over what I thought about specific movies and see if going to see something because of the supporting cast has ever really ended well. That is, after all, what got me into the theater for Gimme Shelter - I like me some Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, and James Earl Jones - but I'm starting to think that going to a movie because you like the stuff on the periphery but not the big thing at the center may not be the wisest choice.

Going to movies based on those cast members is kind of odd, I gather, especially since the first two are folks that I feel really should be bigger stars and aren't for kind of opposite reasons. One of the things I noticed about Dawson in this movie that didn't seem right is that for a woman who is probably an addict of some sort, she looks pretty damn solid, and it makes me wonder why the heck she has never really been given a chance to carry an action movie before. She's been the love interest or the authority figure in one, and she's actually co-written comics in order to try and create a franchise for herself, but she's never been the star, which is crazy; she's attractive, charismatic, and looks like she could believably kick someone's butt. It's a crying shame that there aren't many superheroes that match her ethnically (Storm's taken and Vixen & White Tiger are both pretty B-list), though I say cast her as Carol Danvers or Jessica Drew and let people freak out. Or at the very last, someone get Luc Besson to build a small movie to her strengths.

Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, is all too ready to do stuff that really does him no good but which is within his easy comfort zone. I can't necessarily blame the guy; money's money and, let's face it, there really aren't very many people as good at being a live-action cartoon or interacting with stuff that isn't there as he is. The thing is, he can be pretty great given good material and direction; he was a fine complement to Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (even if I do kind of think he was cast for how well his head fits the Frankenstein profile in the last shot) and pretty darn fantastic in the Phillip Noyce adaptation of The Quiet American. I half-wonder if he just doesn't get this material, so he grabs onto the likes of this or Extreme Measures when he can, even if he knows it probably won't work out.

And as to James Earl Jones... I would love to see him on stage, and I'm not a big live theater guy. He just seems built for it, though - the voice that projects, the almost exaggeratedly expressive features - and I got the sense during this movie that the performance that's too big, too much aimed directly at the viewer, would be wonderful live. It's something I'll have to remember the next time I decide to check and see if there's anything interesting playing in New York.

Then there's Vanessa Hudgens. She is in this movie too, and I've got no idea what her fanbase thinks of this.

All in all, it's not a bad movie, but it's one where you have to remind yourself that, yes, young women who have been through the wringer do occasionally name their daughters "Hope", even if it does seem a bit much when you see it in a movie.

Gimme Shelter

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2014 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

There was applause in the theater at the end of Gimme Shelter, and even if I don't think it's a particularly impressive movie, I don't begrudge anybody that reaction. Who doesn't want to applaud a shelter that helps pregnant teenagers who feel like they have nowhere else to go? It would be nice if its story could be told in a way that seems less rote, but this is the movie it got, and it could have gone worse.

It starts out in Philadelphia, where 16-year-old Agnes "Apple" Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) has had enough of living with her mother June (Rosario Dawson), and it's hard to blame her; June is all drugs, alcohol, and violent mood swings. She manages to find her way to the father in New Jersey whom she had never met (Brendan Fraser), but she's obviously not an easy fit into Tom's life... And when Tom and his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) discover she's pregnant, she's soon out on the street again and then in a hospital, where the pastor (James Earl Jones) can at least refer her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs Several Sources Shelters, a home for girls in Apple's situation.

Writer/director Ron Krauss makes absolutely sure that the viewer knows that Gimme Shelter is based on a true story, and that's often a sign that the filmmakers lack confidence in their work, whether they should or not. In this case, it often feels like Krauss is trying to excuse things that we wouldn't accept in a work of fiction, whether it be how Apple's parents are exactly calibrated to give her no place to go at the start but a potentially perfect happily ever after or an excuse to stop and quite literally preach about Kathy's mission. It may have been this way, but that doesn't prevent it from feeling oddly tidy when dramatized.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Animals

I regret missing Animals at Fantasia last summer; while I did at least get to see it last night, it was one that I tried to move things around to accommodate, and new friend Gabriela said it was her favorite movie of the festival. It didn't work out, unfortunately, and the audience last night wasn't quite the packed house I'm sure I would have found in Monteral.

It's still a pretty darn good movie, even if I wouldn't have necessarily called it my favorite - The Machine filled that slot for me, but given that it's a bloody bit of hard science fiction while this is a coming-of-age story that moves between whimsical and sad with remarkable dexterity, I'm not sure that they should be directly compared.

At any rate, if you're reading this on Saturday January 25th, you've got three chances to see it this afternoon/evening, as it's playing in the micro-cinema at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Somerville Subterranean Cinema series at 5pm, 8pm, and 10pm tonight. For a small room with Blu-ray projection, it looks pretty good. If you can't make it, it is available on DVD and Amazon's streaming service, and SCT's next program is on 21/22 February, when they'll be showing the thriller Coyote.


One aside, about writing the review: I try to avoid tipping anything that I don't figure would be in the preview/synopsis/etc., which means I dance around SPOILERS! Pol kissing Ikari !SRELIOPS, but I'm not sure I should. Keeping that bit hidden doesn't necessarily feel like hiding a plot twist, but as treating that as something to keep hidden, which doesn't sit right with me and certainly isn't the impression of either my attitudes nor the movie's that I want to convey. Not sure how to get that across without spoiling a surprise, though.


Animals

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2014 in the Somerville Theatre's micro-cinema (Somerville Subterranean Cinema, Blu-ray)

Animals is a coming-of-age story that perches right on the border between an impressive level of ambition and complexity on the one side and trying to do too much on the other. There's a whole movie just in how the teenage protagonist is stumbling around with this new attraction thing, but director Marçal Forés and his two co-writers have a lot of other things going on as well, and that's before you get to the talking teddy bear.

The bear, Deerhoof, belongs to Pol (Oriol Pla), a seemingly-average teenager in Catalonia. He lives with his older brother Llorenç (Javier Beltrán), attends an English-language high school with his best friend Laia (Roser Tapias), spending enough time together that his other friend Mark (Dimitri Leonidas) teases they're already engaged, although how each feels about that is open for debate. They spend some time watching a pair of further-outsiders: Ikari (Augustus Prew), who mostly avoids the other students, and Clara (Maria Rodríguez), who has been acting strange since nearly drowning a little while ago and soon disappears.

The film is undoubtedly Pol's story, but one of the impressive things about it is that this is in many ways more a function of Forés training the camera on him than anything else. The climax of the movie involves a number of characters who were outside Pol's circle, but despite their relatively fleeting appearances in the film up until then, they all seem real enough, not just there to accomplish one thing or fill out a scene. It's an impressive bit of work by Forés and the young cast, with Roser Tapieas and Augustus Prew especially noteworthy as the two people who spend the most time with Pol, along with Javier Beltrán as a brother clearly not sure how to act as a guardian (literally, as he has recently started as a policeman) and Martin Freeman as the kids' art history teacher.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Invisible Woman

I wonder, idly, how different Ralph Fiennes's image would be if he pronounced his name the way it is spelled. "Ralph" is working-class, friendly, a guy who makes everybody laugh. "Rafe", especially when it's spelled "Ralph", is pretentious as heck. Of course he's doing art-house movies, and is very serious even when part of a big franchise like Harry Potter or James Bond.

Don't get me wrong, I'm frequently impressed by the guy, but the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel that I saw a few days back terrified me. Once you get past the latest bit of Wes Anderson's "look at my visual choices that call attention to themselves - I went with Academy ratio this time!" pleas for attention, it becomes very clear that much of the movie is going to live and die on Ralph Fiennes being funny, and he has just never been that. Heck, remember that movie they did based upon the TV series The Avengers? It had a ton of other major problems - most notably being cut all to heck to try and squeeze another screening per day out of it by getting it under 90 minutes - but one of the biggest ones that a good part of it being funny should have been Fiennes playing John Steed straight and unflappable, but he couldn't even be funny that way. Now he's going to be in a movie that has him being odd and making jokes?

He plays against that perception a bit in The Invisible Woman, making Charles Dickens a charming fellow who is quick to laugh and joke, although there's certainly plenty of complexity to be revealed later. It's quite possibly my favorite performance of his, actually, and I'm really glad to see that he has something like that in him.

One thing that surprised me about the casting was that this is only the second time he and Kristin Scott Thomas have worked together since The English Patient, and I had quite frankly never heard of Chromophobia before looking that up. Seems unlikely, doesn't it, both in Kristin Scott Thomas being one of the few British actors to complete avoid Harry Potter and how both seemed to gravitate toward the same sort of prestige projects for a while. Heck, I figured that at one point someone would have to get them together with their lower-profile but slightly more cheerful siblings Joseph and Serena for a romantic comedy of some sort, even considering the "Ralph Fiennes isn't funny" thing.

It is, of course, worth noting that having famously played the main pairing in The English Patient, Fiennes's character is romancing the daughter of Thomas's in this one. At least the age difference is noted, rather than it just being the normal way things happen as so often seems to be the case.

And speaking of fun casting and siblings, I had a hard time placing who was playing one of the Felicity Jones character's sisters, feeling sure I'd seen her before. It turns out that I probably haven't seen Perdita Weeks in anything, but her sister Honeysuckle is a favorite of mine in Foyle's War. Acting certainly is a family business in the UK, it seems.

One last aside from that - one of the many things in this movie that amused me a little bit is how Dickens - the writer - is tremendously famous and recognized on the street, while the actresses who seem to be fairly well-regarded by their peers are relatively anonymous and struggling to make ends meet, with the oldest eventually taking a job as a governess. It's a fun detail, part of the attention to such things that I find makes a period piece like this much more enjoyable.

The Invisible Woman

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square (first-run, 2K DCP)

It's been far too long since I've read far too little Dickens, but that actually matters not a whit in appreciating The Invisible Woman; though knowing some details of his work certainly will help, this story of him and his young lover is quite fascinating on its own.

We first meet Ellen Wharton-Robinson (Felicity Jones) as a popular teacher in her husband George's school, and the children are putting on a play written by Charles Dickens. It is mentioned that she met the man when she was younger, with some saying she served as the inspiration for Little Nell. The latter part is not so; Ellen "Nelly" Ternan met Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) when the Ternan family of actresses - including Nelly's two sisters and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) - took parts in a play he was presenting in Manchester. The author took note of the pretty 18-year-old girl who had read everything he had written, and an affair was soon in the offing.

It seems a bit of an odd choice to start with Nelly's life after Dickens and frequently return to it; for all that there's a story there about her secret history being a constant source of tension even without a nosy vicar (John Kavanagh) wanting to discuss the great writer, it does feel a bit of a distraction, as George never gets the full exploration Dickens does and the conclusion of the framing story doesn't have the weight of its flashbacks. Still, it serves a purpose in allowing director Ralph Fiennes and the writers (Claire Tomalin for the original book, Abi Morgan for the screenplay) to occasionally jump forward in the story of Charles Dickens's & Nelly Ternan's affair and finish the movie with the sort of epilogue that fits the plays Dickens wrote perfectly but which is not necessarily natural in a film.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 January 2014 - 30 January 2014

Wow, but there is very little coming out this Friday. I'm not really complaining; I still have two or three holdovers that need viewing and much of my weekend is booked up anyway, but if that weren't the case, I'd be glad of some of the specials going on.

  • Let's start with where I'll actually be spending much of the weekend, the Somerville Theatre. There's a Somerville Subterranean Cinema show in the microcinema on Friday and Saturday night, and Animals is one I'm looking forward to, a coming-of-age story from Spain featuring Oriol Pla as a teenager with a talking teddy bear. It seems a bit darker than than Ted, features Martin Freeman as the boy's English teacher, and was very highly recommended to me at Fantasia last year, though I couldn't fit it into my schedule. Looking forward to it.

    I'll be there Friday night, because Saturday is the Alloy Orchestra's annual visit courtesy of CrashArts. They'll be accompanying HE Who Gets Slapped, which features Lon Chaney as a man who became a clown after a betrayal and may have a chance to reunite with the love of his life (Norma Shearer) on the circus's latest stop. Aside from Alloy just being great at accompanying silent movies, this one is also notable for being the first one produced by MGM (which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year). It's at 8pm on Saturday, and there are still tickets available as I write this.
  • Quiet week at the multiplexes, with only I, Frankenstein opening wide. It's got Aaron Eckhart as the Creature, still alive long after his creator perished, being drawn into a war between what look like angels (who are actually big jerks) and various other monsters. It's actually kind of a fun cast, with Yvonne Strahovski, Billy Nighy, and Miranda Otto there (you know the director's Australian because there are at least two Ottos in the cast). Previews look kind of sketchy, though. It's in 2D & 2D at Jordan's Furniture (Imax 3D only), Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Fenway, and Apple.

    Boston Common also picks up Gimme Shelter, which isn't the Rolling Stones documentary but the story of a pregnant teenager who winds up on the streets after running away from her mother and being rejected by her father. Nifty cast, with Vanessa Hudgens starring and Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, and James Earl Jones also there. They're also re-opening Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave, and have Ferris Bueller's Day Off on Sunday & Wednesday (and, of course, Rocky Horror at midnight on Saturday). Fenway brings back 12 Years a Slave and Gravity (3D only, same as Boston Common).
  • The quiet week means Fenway will be joining Apple Cinemas in opening Jai Ho, which stars Salman Khan as a common man (and former soldier?) waging a one-man war on crime and corruption. Daisy Shah plays his love interest, and if I remember the preview I saw correctly, it looks to be packed with action. iMovieCafe is also keeping Dedh Ishqiya around for late shows, along with Uyyala Jampala if you speak Telugu.
  • The Brattle Theatre has some fun in the cold weather with Dead of Winter: Bloodsucking Freaks, a weeklong celebration of vampires on film (and 35mm unless otherwise stated!). Friday night is classic with a double feature of the original Nosferatu (DCP) & Dracula; Saturday brings back the eighties with Fright Night & The Lost Boys; Sunday is Hammer time with the Roman Polanski's spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers and Christopher Lee classic Horror of Dracula (digital). Monday just has one late show with Blacula, but it's twin bills the rest of the week with Twins of Evil & Daughters of Darkness on Tuesday, Let the Right One In & Nadja on Wednesday, and Trouble Every Day & The Addiction on Thursday.

    They've also got the digital restoration of Ms. 45 playing late shows from Friday to Sunday; it's supposedly not looked this good since it first came out. There's also a DocYard screening of Aatsinki on Monday; it follows a family of traditional reindeer herders in Finland over the course of a year. Director Jessica Oreck will be there for a Q&A.
  • Scheduling in advance like that means they can't hold things over very often, but The Coolidge picks up some of the slack by opening The Square in the cozy GoldScreen. It's a great, Oscar-nominated documentary that follows a group of protesters from Cairo's Tahrir Square over the next two years of upheaval and change in Egypt. Highly recommended.

    Otherwise, things stay as-is, with just a couple of the recurring programs among the holdovers. The midnight movie on Friday & Saturday is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, with Michael Rooker as a sociopath whose very ordinary nature is why this is considered one of the most chilling horror movies ever by many. It's in 35mm; not sure about Monday's "Science on Screen" presentation of the original King Kong. The expert on-hand to introduce the movie is primate veterinarian Chris Whittier, a Research Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Science in Conservation Medicine Program at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who has treated gorillas in the wild. There's also the annual "Sundance USA" screening on Thursday (documentary Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger), but that is completely sold out.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights series at the Paramount Theater also has a film nominated for Best Documentary this week, with 20 Feet From Stardom playing Tuesday, and it's pretty nice. There's no film Thursday, but the Boston Creative Pro User Group will be having a monthly meet-up with American Hustle editor Crispin Struthers as the guest speaker.
  • The Harvard Film Archive keeps up what it started last week, paying tribute to two major filmmakers. Late John Huston screenings are Wise Blood (Friday 7pm) and The Kremlin Letter (Sunday 4:30pm). Time Within Time - The Complete Andrei Tarkovsky fills the rest, with Mirror (Friday 9:30pm), Andrei Rublev (Saturday 7pm), Stalker (Sunday 7pm), and The Sacrifice (Monday 7pm).
  • The Museum of Fine Arts also continues what they started last week with the conclusion of the Boston Festival of Films From Iran. The last few days include Fat Shaker (Friday), Cinema of Discontent (Friday & Saturday), The Bright Day (Saturday & Sunday), and Mory Wants a Wife (Sunday). The Genius of Marian also continues, with screenings on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday.

    They've also got a fun-looking recurring series starting on Thursday the 30th, "Mind-Bending Movies". The first entry is Mulholland Drive, and the post-film discussion will apparently be led by whoever posts the best ideas on their Facebook page.
  • The Regent Theatre wimped out and canceled their screening of Black Out over what turned out to be not a lot of snow last week (can't really say they should have kept it open for me and a few others with the weather looking bad, though); hopefully a similar fate won't befall this week's Gathr Preview Series selection, Wajma, which tells the story of a clandestine love affair in the extremely conservative Kabul, Afghanistan. They've also got an encore of AKA Doc Pomus, which tells the story of a paralyzed Brooklyn Jew who, believe it or not, wrote a great many soul and rhythm & blues hits; that's Thursday evening.


My plans? Animals Friday night, Penn & Teller Saturday afternoon, HE Who Gets Slapped Saturday night, the Chlotrudis nominating meeting Sunday, Wajma Tuesday, and what combination of vampirism, I, Frankenstein, and holdovers I can fit in around that.

The Square

Another last-minute-before-it-leaves-theaters posting, and I'm not sure whether I'm cutting it closer than I planned or less so. After all, I was going to see this on Monday, but with director Jehane Noujaim on hand, that sold out well before I could get there from work and get in using my usher membership. Then the plan was Wednesday, which meant I would have to turn a review around right quick in order to be able to post "hey, this is pretty great" before it left the Brattle Theatre after a week. Then the Regent Theatre canceled the Tuesday night screening of Black Out because, like most of the Boston area, they over-reacted to a storm that wound up depositing about three inches here. So I pushed seeing this up, even if I had trouble finding time to write afterward.

Fortunately, it's not quite a "see it tonight or be out of luck" situation; the Coolidge has picked it up for a week in their cozy little GoldScreen room, so folks should be able to see it there from the 24th to 30th, and possibly beyond. It's also on Netflix, but unfortunately not Amazon - understandable, what with Netflix being the distributor, although it may make seeing this Oscar nominee a little more difficult if you're like me and one of the last holdouts not using Netflix because, good lord, look at the pile of Blu-rays you haven't watched.

Still, you should see it, and not just so that you can maybe do a little better in your Oscar pool.

The Square (Al Midan)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, digital)

The Square doesn't necessarily look like much as it starts; just some people who happened to have a camera in the right place at the right time. Make no mistake, that is an incredibly useful thing for a documentary to have, and often produces the most memorable moment in that sort of movie, but is a foundation? Not usually. Most, though, don't (or can't) keep having the camera in the right place, either to continue capturing history or the personal narratives of the people involved, not to mention filmmakers who can assemble all of this into something that's more than just a series of events strung together.

Director Jehane Noujaim introduces us to six activists who were at the original January 2011 demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square right off the bat, though she does not spread attention evenly among them. Pierre Seyoufr and Aida Elkashef, for instance, will have recurring but minor roles in the film; musician Ramy Essam is somewhat more prominent, and not just because his protest songs liven the presentation up. The main focus falls upon three other men: Ahmed Hassan is a young man who has lived his entire life under Hosni Mubarak's corrupt regime and desires a true democracy; Magdy Ashour is a father of five and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Khalid Abdalla is a British actor (best known for The Kite Runner) whose parents are Egyptian expatriates. And while their peaceful protests soon lead to Mubarak's resignation, the next step proves to be far more complicated and less friendly.

Noujaim's specialty is placing viewers right in the middle of a situation, and while there are some clips from new programs used to fill in a little more background, the majority is captured right in the thick of things, either in the midst of the action or in the subjects' homes. Sometimes Ahmed is the one holding the camera, sometimes Noujaim or one of a half-dozen other cinematographers and camera operators - some of whom are, themselves, part of the revolution, and likely recording not just to make a movie but in case video is needed as evidence. And while the claim is often made that good journalism means a strict separation between reporter and subject, the overlap here allows Nojaim to capture what is going on among the revolutionaries without filter. There is so little barrier that even when Ahmed or Khalid looks into the camera and speaks directly to the viewer, it does not feel like the interview footage with various army representatives, nor does it seem like breaking the fourth wall, making us included in the conversation rather than just privy to it.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This Week In Tickets: 13 January 2014 - 19 January 2014

There are two types of movie catch-up going on at this time of the year: Trying to see Oscar nominees, and trying to see stuff for potential film-society nomination. Thankfully, they overlap some and it generally turns out all right.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Wolf Children, Monday, 9-ish, in the living room.

I'm not sure that Wolf Children will actually help me with the Chlotrudis nomination process, aside from giving me bulk (which, giving the group's rules, is a good thing to have in the nominating stage, which is all I really care much about). It should - it is a pretty darn great movie by a director (Mamoru Hosada) who deserves a heck of a lot more mainstream recognition than he has received outside his native Japan - but like most groups that present awards and best-of lists, we're not really equipped to deal with animation that well. And I'm not even sure it's eligible; it looks like it got an "a screening here and there" release as opposed to a proper qualifying run. Still, it's worth seeing.

Tuesday was the regular Gathr preview day, which had Kids for Cash, a decent-enough documentary about a recent scandal in northern Pennsylvania that could have worked as an excellent jumping-on point for a broader discussion of the juvenile justice system and incarceration industry, but gets a bit bogged down in a story that doesn't quite go in the directions that best illustrate the filmmakers' points. Not bad, although it did lead to this odd juxtaposition at the theater's entrance:

Posters photo IMAG0818_zps0258cf7c.jpg

Thursday morning Oscar nominations were announced, including a few for films I'd been meaning to see but hadn't, and since I was working from home, it was easy enough to get to a movie that was on the early side of the Kendall's inconvenient-for-me scheduling. Thus, Philomena. It somewhat encapsulates why doing this sort of catch-up frustrates me: It's a perfectly fine movie, but my reaction coming out was along the lines of "this took up spaces that could have gone to Inside Llewyn Davis?" But, hey, that's not close to the full-blown anger of paying money to see Chicago out of a misplaced sense of obligation.

Friday night I went for a new release, in this case, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Hey, someone had to write it up for EFC, right? It was surprisingly good, although the low expectations I sort of had weren't really fair (the blog post contains far more explanation than necessary about where my expectations for Tom Clancy and Kenneth Branagh are).

Spending Saturday afternoon catching up on some other stuff and trying to game the MoviePass system meant I wound up missing the thing I'd planned to watch then (I will see The Wolf of Wall Street eventually) and then heading back home because I stood no chance of getting to it or my Plan B without either being late or hanging around a lobby for a half-hour (I will see Her eventually). Not a total loss, though, because it meant I was able to get up early enough to see Gold during its one-off screening at the Coolidge the next morning, and while it may not have been an exceptional movie, it was a pretty good one, and how often does one get to see a German Western, anyway? The night's entertainment became Nebraska, which I found myself liking quite a bit.

And then the later night's entertainment was the start of the latest series of Sherlock, and I'm not sure why WGBH decided they needed to run a feature-length program at 10pm unless the BBC basically told them that they were releasing Blu-rays in mid-February and you'd best fit it into your schedule before then. My first reaction was actually that if they had to have both Downton Abbey and Sherlock running at the same time, they should have revived showing Mystery!, on Thursday, but that would have involved them running directly against Elementary (even if that does seem to be courteously airing reruns right now). Still, too late!, even with the buses running on a holiday schedule the next day.

(The show itself? Pretty good, although I'm not sure whether to be amused or annoyed that Moffatt & Gattis hedged on explaining last series's cliffhanger. It's great to have the show's undeniable energy back, though; "The Empty Hearse" may not quite have crammed the full season of twists that other episodes have featured, but it was certainly a fun adventure that didn't run out of steam.)

Philomena

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, 2K DCP)

I like Philomena well enough, though in a certain way I think it contains a bit of commentary on its own popularity and award-worthiness, as the conversations journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has with his editor occasionally have them talking semi-cynically about how the tale that the title character (Judi Dench) is telling pulls a number of the right levers and just needs a proper conclusion to not only have people love the story but feel good for loving it. For a movie adaptation, you just need to add a much-loved actress obviously acting up a storm and folks will get even more excited.

Putting it that way doesn't mean I don't appreciate Judi Dench's performance; she does a fine job of taking a character who is meant to be broad and good-natured in a very simple way and playing that up when other performers might be inclined to find subtlety, and doing it without Philomena doesn't become a caricature. It makes her simple, working-class sincerity something Martin can be flummoxed by, and come to appreciate, but to which he does not have to aspire. Coogan, meanwhile, is somewhat toned down compared to his co-star with her accent and wide-eyed outlook that gives way to unexpected acceptance, but he makes a fine straight man and representative for the upper-class audience as a result.

It's also not hard to see why someone, both in-story and out, would want to tell this tale: Not only does it have a familiar but somewhat satisfying hook - the Catholic Church really was monsters here - but it goes to some unexpected places, and even if the movie's story seems a bit too good to be true or contrived, it does in fact work. Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a movie that lays things right out there, even if it does seem unsophisticated.

Nebraska

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, 2K DCP)

If Philomena is the awards season's ode to mothers, maybe Nebraska fills that same position for fathers. Well, maybe not, although they do both share a theme of reconnecting with one's family, be it close or extended, and discovering the whole other life that the people you love have that doesn't necessarily intersect with yours.

That may be why, for all the acclaim that Bruce Dern is getting as the old, frequently confused Woody (the plot involves him going to Lincoln to collect a sweepstakes prize he probably hasn't won), I kind of think that the job Will Forte does as his son David is being overlooked. Dern is impressive, there's no doubt about that, but there's something about the way David's resignation skips bitterness and goes to empathy and curiosity that makes him fun to watch through the entire movie, like there's something going on with him versus Woody's blank stare. The good work sneaks out of Dern and on-screen wife Jane Squibb, as familiar bits about cranky old folks (ha ha, gramma's swearing!) give way to moments of lucidity where a lifetime of experiences shows not by the lines on their face but the way they talk.

Also not getting enough mention: This is an incredibly funny movie; there's a sequence involving David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) stealing something from a barn that may have resulted in the hardest I've laughed all year, and that's especially impressive since it doesn't do any damage to the more serious material director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson surround it with. Another bit of fine balancing of tone is how they can include David's hilarious dimwit cousins as just one gradation of relatively unsophisticated small-town folks, while others are sweetly down-to-earth and still more somewhere in between.

I like the black-and-white photography Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael use, as well. The movie doesn't need it, but it helps maintain the feel that not much has changed in Woody's Nebraska hometown since his family left for Billings, Montana decades ago by not having the other ensuing color palettes intrude. It gives the whole story about coming home the feel of a flashback without ever uprooting itself from the present, and looks nice as well.


Kids for Cash
Philomena
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Gold
Nebraska

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Gold

I don't get to the monthly Goethe-Institut screenings at the Coolidge nearly as often as I would like - the prospect of walking there or catching the 66 bus in time for an 11am Sunday morning show can seem like no big deal when I first see the listing but somehow become out of reach between going to bed Saturday night and waking up the next day. This one turned out different because I didn't stay up particularly late the night before - after all, how often does a German Western hit the screen?

I should correct that, though. For one thing, contemporary German cinema seems to be under-represented even in American boutique houses despite the fact that it has a long and distinguished history (which means it can sometimes be easier to see German films from the silent era than today). For another, the listings can occasionally be decidedly offbeat; a recent movie that looked like yet another period artist biography was also described as a comedy. That's not always or even often the case, as the Institut promotes German culture and a classy movie about fine art can be a two-for-one deal on that account, but there are surprises to be found.

Plus, it's a pretty good deal: Five bucks for the kind of "special screening" that usually runs a bit more expensive than a theater's regular bookings. Couple that with Gold, at least, being projected from a pretty nice DCP as opposed to the DVD or Blu-ray sources that have been used for this sort of screening in the past, and there is not much trade-off unless you have an unhealthy aversion to subtitles. Sometimes it winds up being a preview of a film that will play the Kendall or Coolidge later, other times something that doesn't show up on Region 1/A video at all.

(You also get the chance to watch the movie with a fair amount of its target audience, as many there will be German students, immigrants, out the like. That's always neat, as audience reaction can give you a bit more of an idea of what the movie is trying to do when you might otherwise find it ineffective because of your foreign perspective.)

I didn't catch the title of their February selection, and it hasn't yet appeared on the Coolidge's website. I may not wind up going, but I suspect that I'll at least be likely to overlook it or just dismiss it without much thought.


As an aside: I decided to try an experiment and compose this review and blog post on my tablet as opposed to my laptop, and I don't know whether it is damning with faint praise or revealing a silly bias to say that it went much better than expected. I still think typing on a real keyboard is much easier, but Swype gets the job done much faster than the hunt-and-peck my phone reduced me to before I upgraded the keyboard software there too. In addition, I was able to plug away at it in the kitchen, on the subway, and in the bus seats without the extra legroom (both because of the size and because the time from hitting the power button to Quickoffice being up and running is about four seconds). Because I don't have 3G/4G on this Nexus 7, it's got the same advantage/drawback of writing on the laptop - no distractions, but you've got to preload any pages you want to reference while writing disconnected - with the additional caveat that the Android tablet version of the IMDB app can make bringing up the page you want harder than necessary.

Is this going to be the new way I write from now on? Not on a regular basis; entering the HTML formatting is a pain and the keyboard let's me feel like I'm typing complete sentences/paragraphs rather than just going word-by-word. On the other hand, a device like this that fits in a largish pocket and doesn't drain nearly as fast as my phone seems like it could be a big help when covering festivals, especially if they've got free Wi-Fi available.

(I half-wonder if, fifteen years from now, kids like my nieces who have been playing with their parents' smartphones and tablets since they were toddlers, will consider typing a somewhat anachronistic skill in the way that cursive writing is now. And when the first touchscreen keyboard replacement for desktops and laptops will come out.)


Gold

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Goethe-Institut, DCP)

"German Western" isn't a phrase that even the most enthusiastic movie-goers have many changes to use, and that's a little bit more surprising than it should be. Germans were one of the largest immigrant groups to North America in the 19th Century, after all, and probably deserve a bit more representation than the occasional character nicknamed"Dutch". Gold does a fair job of changing that a bit, telling a fairly familiar story with a distinct German accent.

Few went from Germany to the West directly; Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss), for instance, may grown up in Bremen but lived in Chicago for the last five years before joining an all-German party to pan for gold in the Yukon in 1898. It is led by Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), who makes sure to get the money up front. Gustav Muller (Uwe Bohm) is a reporter covering the expedition for a German-language newspaper in New York; Joseph Rossmann (Lars Rudolph) is also coming from that city, where his wife and four children live in a one-room apartment. Otto and Maria Dietz (Wolfgang Packhäuser & Rosa Enskat) are the cooks, and Carl Böhmer (Marko Mandic) is the packer.

There are a couple of Americans on Carl's trail, as it happens, but this is less the sort of Western where the heroes are harried by gun-slinging outlaws than by the West itself. Writer/director Thomas Arslan has the party spend some time in settlements, but those scenes are often used to make sure the audience is aware of just how difficult it will be to reach Dawson by this route. On the trail, he doesn't so much present obvious obstacles and dangers as show how even a benign-seeming environment can wear the insufficiently prepared down. There are surreal moments, and ones where the seemingly prosaic can derail everything. The wear on them is front-and-center, and not just because Arslan shot the film chronologically (while apparently being somewhat miserly with the soap).

Full review at EFC

Monday, January 20, 2014

Gathr Previews Presents: Kids for Cash

Before the movie, the folks at the Regent asked if I had any pull with the Gathr people, so that they could get something a little more upbeat in the series - Summer in February was admittedly a downer and this sort of movie can be a hard sell as well. I kind of wish I'd realized that Black Out was the next one in the series; what I remember of it from Fantasia is that it's actually a fun, fast-paced caper, and I'm looking forward to giving it a second shot, as I was wiped the first time.

One thing that I was a bit curious about once this movie had a little more time to sit for me was the demographics of Luzerne County - I think all of the kids shown as victims in this movie were Caucasian, and I wonder if this is generally representative, a reflection of who was willing to talk to the filmmakers, or unintentional bias from trying to show that the teenagers sentenced were good kids who didn't deserve this. It doesn't really matter for this movie individually, but if you expand its themes to the problems with America's for-profit incarceration industry and the juvenile justice system in general, that's an issue that will come up and deserves examination.

And I think those are broader themes that do deserve an audience's attention - as bad as what Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan did was, the bounty system that the phrase "kids for cash" conjures up isn't the root problem the way that jail as an answer to every societal ill (and a for-profit industry to facilitate it) is. Kids for Cash tells its story well enough, but eventually drifts too far from the bigger picture.

Kids for Cash

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2014 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews, digital)

"Kids For Cash!" makes a great tabloid headline - heck, it looks good on a broadsheet when something akin to the scandal that this movie documents is discovered. It may not be the best title for this particular film, though - aside from only sharing the same subject as William Ecenbarger's similarly-titled book, it winds up limiting compared to the various issues that director Robert May brings up over the course of a somewhat scattered film.

That is the phrase that entered the public consciousness a few years ago, though, when Luzerne County, Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan were accused of sending juvenile offenders to a correctional facility they had a financial interest in for minor offenses. The stories we hear from roughly a half-dozen of the hundreds of victims are terrible. There are, however, elements that may not exactly argue that there's another side to the story, but that the characterization of it as a simple transaction is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is the way that May covers all of the angles, including ones that are seldom seen in the same film. Yes, he talks to a number of the kids who were imprisoned, as well as their parents, those involved in their defense, and the reporters who worked on the story for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. There are man-in-the-street (well, man-in-a-diner) interviews and visits to a local talk-radio show. But, fascinatingly, there is also plenty of face time with Ciavarella and Conahan; even though we see footage of one of the parents screaming at Ciavarella outside the courtroom about how her son is dead because of him, both parties participate in the film. It's almost disconcerting, given how "___ declined to be interviewed" is such a staple of the documentary where the focus might be even the slightest bit contentious.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I describe myself as a "somewhat lapsed" Tom Clancy fan in the eFilmCritic review, and I think that's fair. I still love the kind of story he writes, but I haven't been enough of a fan to buy the "Op-Center", "Net Force", and whatever other series he created for a long time. His name on a bunch of video games didn't even make me blink. And, I'm not going to lie, The Teeth of the Tiger ticked me off so much that seeing co-writers on the next Jack Ryan-series book acted as an incentive for me to pick it up. And while the next couple were better, I've allowed three Clancy hardcovers to pile up over the last couple of years. To be completely honest, the main reason I didn't get the last one as an e-book was that Clancy died and I figured that, what with it being either the last or second-to-last (depending how far he and his co-writer got on the next one), I may as well complete the set.

It's not just the flood of diluted product that made me a less enthusiastic fan, though. As I said, The Teeth of the Tiger, his first post-9/11 novel both in terms of publication date and content, was pretty terrible in many ways. Both it and Red Rabbit are the result of him wanting to tell stories with younger versions of his characters after being around the film version of The Sum of All Fears, Paramount's first attempt to reboot the series with a younger version of Jack Ryan, and I must admit that Jack Jr. didn't click with me at all. He turned out to be even more of a Mary Sue than the character's father but without any sort of backstory where he worked his way up, and every time his name showed up in print, I couldn't help but wish I was reading about the other Jack Ryan. The book seemed to stop halfway through rather than end, and even without the politics, it didn't surprise me that this was the last we saw of the series until th co-writers came aboard seven years later. It was bad enough that Clancy looked like he was done.

But, ah, the politics. 9/11 didn't mess Clancy up in the same way it did some folks, but it did make him double down on his conservatism and pro-military/intelligence leanings even while I was thinking that we really needed to make sure that we as Americans don't sacrifice either our civil liberties or our connection with the rest of the world in order to fight these battles. There is a glee to the torture scenes in some of Clancy's post-9/11 books that I just couldn't stomach, along with characters spouting some pretty hateful things about Muslims in general (except the Saudis - for some reason, Clancy and his stand-ins admire them despite their being just as autocratic and discriminatory as any of their neighbors). The lectures on how "the other party" were socialists destroying America were just icing on the cake.

Shadow Recruit, at least, makes a fairly strong attempt to avoid that. Early on, Jack Ryan points out that the CIA and the rest of the United States's intelligence services aren't much liked because of things like waterboarding and rendition, and Costner's Harper says that's not his team's doing. It's not a stinging condemnation, but it's probably just enough for those of us in the audience who don't want to endorse such activities in real life. Branagh and the writers also make sure the final scenes, where Ryan and Harper stitch various bits of intelligence together to figure out where the main attack will take place, is fast-moving enough that we don't really have time to think of what kind of domestic surveillance it requires.

That's a lot of words to talk about why I'm not the fan of this series that I used to be, and why, in this case, the studio was probably better off stepping away from the original author's works even though, unlike with James Bond, there are still plenty of good books to adapt (and, heck, you probably could actually do an interesting non-period adaptation of The Cardinal of the Kremlin now!). I don't mean to speak ill of the recently-deceased in doing so; truth be told, if anybody has reason to be messed up by 9/11, it's the guy who wrote the end of Debt of Honor and then talked about how he ran it past friends of his in the intelligence community only to hear there was no plan for such a situation. At any rate, those last few books he worked on seemed to have non-Muslim villains, so maybe they'll be more enjoyable when I get to them.


As to the movie itself, I liked it, a bit more than I expected. Getting bumped from the holidays to January often isn't a great sign, although I've heard that it was more because post-production went long than Paramount really feeling like they had a clunker; I wouldn't be shocked if they discovered the Jack Ryan brand wasn't as strong as they thought, hence the name change from "Jack Ryan" to "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit". I'm kind of surprised that they didn't go with "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"; it works for James Bond, and maybe Clancy's name means something to the gamers who may never read one of his books or connected his name to the first four Ryan movies.

The Jack Ryan series is approaching Bond for turnover in the lead cast despite the latter having a thirty-year head start: Four actors in five movies, with only Harrison Ford playing the role twice while Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck were both one-and-done. The thing is, it almost doesn't matter; Ryan isn't a particularly complicated character with particular quirks that come out or a changing outlook; he needs a guy we can buy as capable of handling both the mental and physical challenges thrown at him, and all four from Baldwin to Chris Pine are that. Pine is somewhat more memorable because he gets to play Ryan young and cocky enough that all the rough edges haven't been worn off yet. Heck, the Star Trek actor does the Kirk Smirk at one point, and it makes me wonder if he doesn't have a future in screen villainy.

This one's villain is Kenneth Branagh, and I have to say, it's a bit odd to see him doing these big studio pictures as a director, even if it's good work for him as an actor. I can't really blame him; the mid-aughts had to be crushing, with his Sleuth remake getting a tiny release, As You Like It going straight to cable a month before its DVD release, and The Magic Flute just showing up on home video in 2013 after sitting on the shelf for seven years. It's no wonder that over the past few years, he's taken to directing big studio franchise films: Thor for Marvel, this for Paramount, the upcoming live-action Cinderella for Disney when he was announced as doing Thor, I remember thinking this was a good move for both, in that Marvel got a guy who was much better than a journeyman and Branagh got the chance to show the industry that he could be trusted with large sums of money. I didn't really expect it to be his new career. Then again, even the Shakespeare he did in his youth was both interspersed with things like Dead Again and done in a way to appeal to the mainstream; he's always been an entertainer. I still kind of hope that he's building up a ton of goodwill that he can spend on something as ambitious as that full-text, shot-on-65mm Hamlet, even if he and Kevin Kline are probably too old for that Two Gentlemen of Verona movie I've always dreamed about.


Oh, and while I'm thinking of Branagh doing stuff for Paramount: WHY THE HECK IS DEAD AGAIN NOT AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY?


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2014 in Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, 4K DCP)

It seems a little silly that the advertising for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit talked about "redefining the Tom Clancy thriller", as if "Tom Clancy" was a genre rather than a specific author, but the truth is, it always has been, even before Clancy started franchising his name and using co-authors on the more recent Jack Ryan novels. And while this latest run at Ryan doesn't do anything as grandiose as that, it's an entertaining enough thriller that maybe does a better job of bringing a Cold War franchise into a post-9/11 world than Clancy himself managed.

The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is now a formative event in Jack Ryan's life, happening while he was studying economics in London. This leads him to join the military and be recruited by the CIA after an injury leaves him with a long recovery; handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) places him in a Wall Street brokerage firm to ferret out the people who fund terrorists. Now, Ryan (Chris Pine) has discovered a trail leading back to Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), whose plot may lead to global economic catastrophe.

"Global economic catastrophe" doesn't quite sound as viscerally terrifying as nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, but give screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp credit; they make a case for the stakes being high even if the trigger and mechanics of the plot sometimes sound like one would need Ryan's PhD to understand the whole of it. They also do a fair job on the Batman Begins elements - things like Ryan's injury and recovery, work in brokerage firms, and meeting Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) have always been a part of the character's backstory without being at the forefront until this back-to-the-beginning project. Some of those bits may not necessarily be that important, but their inclusion does actually do a fair job of making this character feel like Jack Ryan, rather than just Paramount reusing a familiar name.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wolf Children

Mamoru Hosada's Wolf Children didn't get nearly the visibility it deserved in America, mainly playing some children's film festivals. This means that I had almost no chance to see it in Boston; its one grown-up-friendly screening at the MFA was on a night when I had the sort of Red Sox tickets you just don't eat.

It's a shame that there hasn't been a bigger release for this and Hosada's other movies, and in fact they've been trending in the wrong direction her in the Boston area: While The Girl Who Leapt Through Time had a weekend at the Brattle, Summer Wars played scattered shows at the Museum of Fine Arts before one screening at the Sci-Fi Film Festival, and this one popped up two or three times as part of the Boston International Children's Film Festival, not always at great times.

That's still better than Makoto Shinkai's luck - I think I saw "Voices of a Distant Star" and maybe The Place Promised in Our Early Days at a Brattle anime marathon after seeing the latter at Fantasia, but nothing for 5 Centimeters per Second, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, or "Garden of Words", which is a crying shame, because I like Shinkai even more than Hosada - and that's a lot - and neither of them get nearly the attention they deserve here.

I almost wonder if Hayao Miyazaki's retirement might be a blessing in disguise for the likes of Hosada and Shinkai. Although the latter has often been talked up as the heir apparent to Miyazaki, Hosada is the one who has actually worked at Ghibli, and Wolf Children is easy enough to see as along the lines of Miyazaki's films, too. After The Wind Rises comes out, there may be a void for distributors and theaters that needs filling, and both of these filmmakers have what it takes to fill those holes in the schedule. At the very least, we don't have to talk about the master's retirement being the end of an era, because there are still folks doing grat work in the medium.

Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2014 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Blu-ray)

While there are many reasons to be concerned about the health of animation as a medium in Japan, from all-time greats retiring to the increasing insularity of certain genres, there is still plenty of talent doing excellent and original work on a regular basis. Wolf Children writer/director Mamoru Hosada is one of them, and close to the top of the list, with this feature just the latest demonstration of what an exceptional storyteller he is.

As the narration tells us, Hana (voice of Aoi Miyazaki) was in college on scholarship, working a part-time job to pay rent when she met Kare (voice of Takao Ohsawa), the love of her life. He's a mover who comes to University lectures despite not being enrolled, and, as it turns out, a wolf-man, perhaps the last in Japan. They marry and have two children, rambunctious daughter Ame and sickly son Yuki. The city, alas, is no place for wolves of any age, and Hana soon decides to take her children to the country, where they can run and change free from suspicious neighbors, although Hana must learn a number of new skills to get by.

One of the less-heralded things that animation can do - and that traditional animation can do better than the digital variety - is to have time pass smoothly; visually, there's no need to cast different actors for different ages or mess around with makeup jobs that never really convince. Perhaps the best example of this is Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress, but it's something Hosada uses to great effect here; the story plays out over roughly thirteen years, and in that time we see Hana mature from an inexperienced nineteen-year-old to a capable woman in her mid-thirties so naturally that we don't see the individual steps until it's over. In fact, it's actually somewhat jarring when Ame's voice switches from Amon Kabe to Yukito Nishii (and Yuki's from Momoka Ohno to Haru Kuroki); the way the characters look and act has progressed so perfectly that this discontinuity stands out.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 January 2014 - 23 January 2014

You know, I kind of wonder why the Oscars don't announce their nominees on Tuesday so that theaters have time to adjust their Friday bookings. On the other hand, it means you've got another week before some things return/appear and push Inside Llewyn Davis out of theaters to see it.

  • In the meantime, the multiplexes get a fairly full lineup. One of the bigger entries is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Paramount's latest attempt to restart the spy franchise, this time with Chris Pine in the part of Ryan but not adapting any particular book by Tom Clancy (probably for the best, considering). Kenneth Branagh directs and plays the villain, with Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley also part of the cast. It's at the Capitol, Apple, Fenway, Boston Common (including IMAX), Jordan's Furniture, and the SuperLux.

    The other big opening is Ride Along, in which Kevin Hart plays a security guard looking to get on the good side of his girlfriend's big-time cop brother (Ice Cube). A night shadowing him on the job where all hell unexpectedly breaks loose ensues. It's at Boston Common, Fenway (including RPX), and Apple. Those same theaters also have Devil's Due, a found-footage-style horror movie about a young couple whose unborn child may be the Antichrist.

    If you want something a little more kid-friendly, there's The Nut Job, an animated movie about woodland creatures looking to steal nuts from a shop. Fun voice cast, including Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, and Brendan Fraser. It's at the Capitol, Apple, Boson Common, and Fenway, in both 2D and 3D at all locations. Boston Common also has Fast Times at Ridgemont High during the afternoon on Sunday & Wednesday and an evening show on Wednesday.
  • The Brattle Theatre gets to open an Oscar nominee, The Square. It's a documentary about what was originally a peaceful revolution in Egypt, only to find the various parts of the coalition turning on each other. It plays all week from Friday to Thursday, with director Jehane Noujaim visiting for a Q&A after the 7pm show on Monday in association with the DocYard.

    There's also a special presentation at 12:30pm on Saturday, the local premiere of Anohana the Movie: The Flower We Saw That Day, which appears to be an anime version of The Big Chill, except that the dead childhood friend appears as a ghost.
  • Kendall Square's new Oscar nominee is The Invisible Woman, although in this packed year it could only get one for costume design. Ralph Fiennes directs and plays Charles Dickens in a story of his 13-year affair with a young actress (Felicity Jones). Kristin Scott Thomas plays the girl's mother, and it's hard to believe this is only the third time she and Fiennes have worked together (and who remembers Chromophobia?). Their sister theater in Waltham (the Embassy) also re-opens Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity to capitalize on their nominations.
  • Apple Cinemas opens Dedh Ishqiya in Hindi with English subtitles; it's apparently a sequel to Ishqiya in which a pair of thieves hide out in Uttar Pradesh and find romance and trouble. If you don't need subtitles, they also have a number of films in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.
  • The Coolidge keeps their main schedule more or less the same, but they have Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 for Friday & Saturday midnight screenings, and while many places (including the Brattle next week) are showing a new digital restoration, they have it in old-school 35mm. There's also a Sunday morning screening of Gold, about a group of German immigrants come to Canada as part of the 1898 Gold Rush. It features Nina Hoss, and how many times can you say you've seen a German Western? There's also a preview of At Middleton, a comedy in which Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia play parents who meet during their kids' college tours; there will be a post-film interview with the stars and director Adam Rogers broadcast from NYC afterward (as this is a New York Film Critics Series presentation).
  • The Regent Theatre has a few film events this week, mostly documentaries. First up is Our Mockingbird on Friday; it takes a look at black and white high schools in Birmingham, Alabama, who collaborate to stage Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. It's the opening night presentation of the Belmont World Family Film Festival, and director Sandy Jaffe will be there for a Q&A. Sunday night they have Racing to Breathe, which follows two brothers who are competitive cyclists despite having cystic fibrosis; the premiere screening also serves as a fundraiser for their racing team. Monday night's doc is The Carbon Rush, which looks at the carbon offset market with a cynical eye. It was booked via Gathr, and the Gathr Preview Series provides the theater's non-documentary booking on Tuesday, Black Out, a fast-paced Dutch Thriller that I enjoyed at Fantasia last summer (although I couldn't write a review because I was exhausted by the end of the day).
  • The rest of the Belmont World Family Film Festival actually takes place in Belmont's Studio Cinema from Saturday to Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), with three matinees per day including both shorts and features from all around the world.
  • The Harvard Film Archive resumes regular programming with retrospectives on two important filmmakers. They begin Time Within Time - The Complete Andrei Tarkovsky with Stalker on Friday (7pm), with Ivan's Childhood Saturday (9:30pm), Solaris Sunday (7pm), and Nostalghia on Monday (7pm). Other slots are filled in with Late John Huston: The Dead at 7pm on Saturday, and The Mackintosh Man at 5pm on Sunday. Both series will continue into February.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts also has new things going this week, with the annual Boston Festival of Films From Iran beginning on Friday. The first week's worth includes Closed Curtain (another example of Jafar Panahi skirting his ban on working in film which plays Friday & Saturday), The Patience Stone (Saturday), Parviz (Sunday), Mory Wants a Wife (Sunday), and Fat Shaker (Thursday). There are also a couple final screenings of Alexander Sokurov's Faust (Saturday & Sunday); the start of a short run for personal Alzheimer's documentary The Genius of Marian (Wednesday & Thursday, with a director appearing in person on Wednesday); andRebel, the story of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Latina woman who fought for the South (and served as a spy) during the Civil War, with director Maria Agui Carter on hand to answer questions after it's Thursday night screening.
  • The ICA has two presentations of "the Best of the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival, an hour or so of award-winning and otherwise much-liked shorts from what may be North America's premiere animation festival; they're at 3pm on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights series returns on Thursday the 23rd with Soundtrack for a Revolution at the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room; the film combines archival footage and new performances of the protest songs sung during the civil rights movement.

My plans? Some Oscar (and other) catch-up with Nebraska and Wolf of Wall Street, Jack Ryan, Black Out, The Square, and who knows what else might get fit in. Maybe see if I can stay awake during Stalker or Solaris this time.