Monday, June 30, 2014

Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty '59 and Maleficent

The plan here was sort of to watch both Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent in close proximity, wrote them both up, and maybe do a bit of compare-and-contrast, how one evolved from the other stuff, like with the Oldboys or The Hunger Games and the like. It was mostly motivated by gap-filling, as the usual new release guy at eFilmCritic, Peter Sobczynski, didn't have time and/or inclination to give it a full write-up. But there were a few things that made me push in a different direction here.

I really don't know enough about the visual language of film in general and animation in particular to articulate what impressed me about Sleeping Beauty's design and which cues Maleficent took from it to write something that didn't sound fairly ignorant, and that's what most impressed me about the original. I'm sure that there are die-hard Disney fansites that have dissected it better than I could have.

Secondly, though, was that Maleficent just kept hanging around. I was still seeing banner ads for it on IMDB and other sites, and in a time when even big movies can seem to disappear within a month, it was quietly still hanging around theaters and even continuing to have more than a few 3D shows, even though the current practice seems to be to not bother with those after a week or two unless its a really 3D-centric movie like Gravity. I saw a tweet pointing out that, so far, it was looking like Maleficent would do better than The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Edge of Tomorrow, which isn't bad for something that seemed like an afterthought. I certainly groaned at the previews, and wondered why the heck you would move Godzilla out of the Imax theaters for it.

I don't think it was until I was sitting down and about midway through it that I started to wonder if I had been doing something I really don't like seeing others do: Discounting it because it's not for me, specifically - it's the rare summer blockbuster made with girls and women in mind. It's got a female writer, the majority of the important characters are women, and the material is very much relevant to that audience. It's amazing that we only seem to be a couple of years removed from Warner Brothers talking about not green-lighting movies with female leads now that we're seeing the likes of this and The Hunger Games and Gravity and Frozen, but every time a good movie with women in the lead does well, even/especially if it's in a sci-fi/fantasy genre where that hasn't traditionally been the case, everybody gets surprised all over again.

I've seen a few pieces about how awful the scene of the title character discovering that her wings have been cut off is, some finding it a metaphor for something even nastier than what I saw it as, and, yes, this is ugly material - but it's relevant to its audience, and I wonder how many people saying that are men who don't want to think about such things, even though women don't have a choice in the matter. I kind of hate that there's an argument for putting the idea that girls should be wary that even men they really like and trust could do something like this into their heads early on, but there is, and I'm kind of impressed that this movie does it relatively well.

How early on is appropriate? I do not know. I don't think I'd recommend that my two recently-turned-three Disney-princess-loving nieces check this out - although seeing how much they appear to love movies and animation, I may introduce them to the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki this Christmas, as you are never to love Totoro. Once you get up to their seven-year-old cousin's age, I don't know. Part of that is it's not a great movie, but I also kind of wonder if some of the things I'm seeing as weaknesses, like the less-than-great action, might not seem so bad to a little girl's eyes. Parents looking for adventure rather than violence might like the way this movie spends more time playing with strange creatures than fighting them.

I'm still not really a fan, all told, but I am glad it got me thinking about this, at least.

Sleeping Beauty

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 June 2014 in Jay's Living Room (see the original first, Blu-ray)

As much as I'm a fan of animation in general and Disney in particular, and have dutifully purchased Sleeping Beauty on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray lest it disappear into the vault on me, it took not wanting to see Maleficent without watching this first to actually get it in front of my eyeballs for the first time since I was a kid (if I saw it then). There are bits of the story that don't necessarily hold up to grown-up scrutiny, but it's certainly one of the most stylish of the Disney classics.

There are many interpretations of the story; this one primarily draws from the Charles Perrault version and has the whole kingdom and dignitaries from neighboring ones attending the christening of Princess Aurora - except, that is, for Maleficent (voice of Eleanor Audley), the witch with the castle on the forbidden mountain, who takes the snub very personally indeed, cursing Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die by nightfall on her sixteenth birthday. Fortunately, the third of the magical gifts that a trio of visiting fairies (voices of Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy) has not yet been bestowed, and it can mitigate things somewhat, to a sleep that can be broken by true love's kiss. Of course, everyone involved would rather it not come to that, so King Stefan (voice of Taylor Holmes) burns every the spinning wheels in the kingdom and has the fairies hide Aurora. She grows to a young woman (voice of Mary Costa) under the name Briar Rose, having no idea of her true identity or that the young man she meets days before her sixteenth birthday is Prince Philip (voice of Bill Shirley), to whom she was betrothed at birth.

There are a lot of bits of the script that don't make a whole lot of sense - despite there being over a half-dozen people credited with some variation of "story", it's amazing how completely they punt figuring out a reasonable way for Aurora to actually prick her finger on the spindle; the fairies seem to operate under some fairly arbitrary rules, too. But there are some impressive bits, too - the title character may only be on screen and active for about twenty of the movie's scant seventy-five minutes, but she actually becomes a surprisingly memorable character. It's a surprisingly effective job of getting Philip and Aurora/Rose up to "true love's kiss" potential without appealing to destiny or the like.

Full review at EFC

Maleficent

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 June 2014 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, Real-D)

It's odd to argue against making a character more nuanced and motivated, but Maleficent sometimes pushes one in that direction. After all, the title character is one of the all-time great cinematic villains; is trading that for a conflicted but less perfectly realized character a worthwhile transaction? In this case, it's at least one with occasionally interesting results, although the actual movie around it is occasionally a letdown.

In this version of the story, Maleficent and the future King Stefan met as children, when the latter trespassed into the fairy territories that the former protected. Though they grew closer as teenagers, they found themselves in opposition as adults, and the way Stefan (Sharlto Copley) becomes heir to the throne leads Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) to seal herself off and from humanity and effectively declare herself queen of a land that before had no ruler). The occasion of Stefan's daughter's birth brings her out, though, if only to set a curse upon the girl - one that she will find herself regretting as Aurora grows into a lovely and charming young woman (Elle Fanning).

The basic story arc that screenwriter Linda Woolverton grafts onto Disney's animated 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty is a good one, if dark; it positions Maleficent as a metaphorical date rape survivor who must balance her desire for retribution with how empty a life defined entirely by the memory of one's worst experience must be. It's a little heady for the kids in the audience, but there are layers to the onion: You can present it to kids as a story about not making someone suffer for the actions of their family or how, ultimately, one's love is more powerful than one's hate. Angelina Jolie is at her best when she gets to play close to these themes; there's something heartbreakingly true about the layer of envy she adds to the christening scene even though the dialog has changed very little from the previous version. When the story is just Maleficent learning how to live with herself and others, it's sharp and clever without being didactic, a fantasy with some heft to it.

Full review at EFC

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ek Villain

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to run information down as you're writing a review. As I mention below, I kind of had I Saw the Devil in the back of my head when I was watching Ek Villain, but I actually managed to convince myself that it maybe started from a similar place but was its own thing as I watched it. Then I get home, open IMDB and Wikipedia for reference, and see that not only was this considered by many a rip-off of IStD, but that director Mohit Suri apparently has a reputation for such things. It's not the first Hindi-language movie I've seen that pulls this, although I went into Zinda knowing it to be a rip on Oldboy while Son of Sardaar quickly showed itself to be a pretty direct descendant of Our Hospitality. I try to judge movies like this on their own merits, but once that gets into your head, it can be difficult to overlook. It can make the whole review a list of how Ek Villain is just not as good as I Saw the Devil if you're not careful.

Which is funny, because I think that while I was watching it, I probably liked it more than the crowd. They were laughing at the points where it seemed kind of campy, and there seemed to be some kids way too young for this material behind me. It's no great movie, but it's not like I was seeing Trans4mers or anything.

Ek Villain

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2014 at Regal Fenway #8 (first-run, digital)

Given that uncredited Indian remakes of movies from other countries aren't exactly uncommon, it's not totally unfair that I went into Ek Villain with I Saw the Devil in the back of my head; you don't have to squint that much to see Kim Jee-woon's terrific serial killer movie in this one's plot description. In the quite likely event that there is inspiration there, director Mohit Suri and writer Tushar Hiranandani have lost something in translation but they've still made a decent thriller.

Aisha (Shraddha Kapoor) is cute, sweet, and funny; she's obviously doomed, and the worst happens while her husband Guru (Sidharth Malhotra) is at a job interview for a security position. As CBI agent Aditya Rathore (Shaad Randhawa) points out, the police had better find the killer fast, because two years ago, Guru was the main enforcer for Goa's top gangster (Remo Fernandes). Rathore tries to point Guru in this Caesar's direction, since at that point nobody knows about mild-mannered telephone repairman Rakesh Mahadkar (Riteish Deshmukh).

Ek Villain starts at what could be the start of a great cat-and-mouse game, but it spends a lot of the pre-interval half flashing back to how Guru and Aisha met in Goa, Guru's dark past, and Rakesh's nasty tendencies. It's not the little bit of everything you'd see in a masala film - the songs are something that plays in the background rather than something characters sing themselves (aside from the item number), for instance - but the filmmakers make the romance between Guru and Aisha more affecting than might be expected in that it would work well enough in a lightweight drama without the audience knowing how it's going to end. There's a lot of fairly clumsy manipulation going on, especially in how Aisha's situation apparently can't be tragic enough for the filmmakers. Also, even for a movie about a serial killer who preys on women, the ladies in this movie have it pretty rough - Suri, HIranandani, and dialog-writer Milap Zaveri seem to go a bit out of their way to make both Rakesh's victims and his wife (Aamna Sharif) sort of unpleasant - Aisha is the exception, but she's often almost a childish innocent rather than an independent woman - and a bit of casual domestic abuse that goes uncomfortably unanswered in a movie that is all about both slights and crimes being answered in grand, violent fashion.

Full review at EFC

This Week In Tickets: 16 June 2014 - 22 June 2014

So, how fast can you kick one of these out when it's just two movies that you've already written up elsewhere?

This Week in Tickets

It wasn't going to be this quiet a week, but on Monday morning, while walking up Western Avenue to get to Central Square and the Red Line that takes me to Alewife where I catch the bus to work, I slipped on some gravel. The entire street has been under construction for the past year and a half, it seems, and the current phase had the sidewalks being torn up and presumably upgraded. This means a lot of big yellow trucks, ropes and detour signs, so instead of looking at where I was planting my feet, I was trying to figure out where the next turn was. I didn't go down particularly hard - I scraped up my right knee and the laptop in my backpack slid forward enough to give my head a little insult-to-injury tap, and getting up, I figured it would be easier just to keep going, have a funny story for the folks in the office if anyone asked why my pants were ripped, and just walk the pain in my left ankle off.

Maybe not the best idea, because by the end of the day it was swollen up pretty good and I was limping pretty bad, enough that I was very grateful for my project manager Emily offering me a ride home. I figured I'd put some ice on it and work from home the next day, which turned out to be a pretty good plan. By Wednesday it was still sort of sore, but I could move around okay. I went to Harvard Square, did some window shopping, and saw The Sacrament before making the weekly trip to the Million Year Picnic for comics.

It got a bit more sore at times during the rest of the week, but not enough to stop me from actually doing some actual shopping, because my twin nieces were celebrating their third birthdays on Saturday and I wanted to get them something cool. I hope they liked the books, puzzles, and goofy tennis/badminton/volleyball set I got them, but I left early enough that they were all about the Disney princess costumes and scooters right then.

(It's sort of funny to me to see how my brothers and their wives apparently have different parenting philosophies. When I saw one of the birthday girls on Friday, she said her tiara had Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, and Belle on it, which is a sentence that would probably not come from her cousins ever. Also, the great big water slide rented for the party was probably a little too ambitious, especiallly since even their older cousins were pretty cautious.)

Sunday, I was still feeling kind of lazy and decided to just go with The Rover. Like The Sacrament, it's quite well-made visually and in terms of pacing, but I think it could do a little bit better hitting its message.

And that brings this up to "current", which this blog hasn't been since, what, March? Of course, it's just in time for Fantasia to derail that in the most enjoyable way possible.


The Sacrament
The Rover

This That Week In Tickets: 6 June 2014 - 15 June 2014

Getting very close to being able to just be "this" week, as opposed to "that" one!

This Week in Tickets

The last page I posted mentioned that I opted to do two movies instead of three on Sunday and bumped the last one until Monday; that last one was Hindi movie Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty, and, folks, it was not good. While it's sometimes a relief to see that Hollywood isn't the only place that puts out dumb, ethically suspect action movies, Bollywood makes it even weirder by adding songs.

Tuesday was another movie I had sort of been unable to fit into the weekend, in that I probably could have but with it being a lower priority I figured I might as well wait until Apple Cinemas' cheap Tuesday. And while Ping Pong Summer isn't quite great, it's got its moments, including Susan Sarandon threatening obnoxious teenagers with a fish. One thing I'm not sure I mentioned anywhere is that it's a weird mess of accents - most of the kids in this Baltimore seaside town are pretty blandly mid-Atlantic, but Lea Thompson plays the mother as southern and John Hannah is Scottish. I kind of wondered how they ended up together and there.

The main event for the week, though, was the Museum of Fine Arts's "Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong" series. I couldn't quite get to as much as I wanted, but what I did see - Unbeatable & Bends on Thursday & Friday nights and Blind Detective & Boundless on Sunday was pretty great. It is kind of a bit frustrating that these were likely my only chances to see new Dante Lam and Johnnie To films in theaters - I kind of want there to be a sort of off-season New York Asian Film Festival or Fantasia equivalent sometime around December or January to scoop up the movies that don't quite fit their schedule somewhere in the northeast - but I'm really hoping that the MFA makes this an annual thing.

In between, I had a pretty fun Saturday. I started out with How to Train Your Dragon 2, which turned out to be a pretty good sequel to what had been a surprisingly great first movie, headed down the street to Boston Burger Company for one of their delightfully sloppy ranch burgers, and then arrived at Fenway Park early enough to watch some batting practice, which almost never happens. The game itself was kind of a bummer - a 3-2 loss to the Indians where despite the closeness of the score (and the fact that the Red Sox were ahead early), my team never really seemd to be in the game. Still, a sunny Saturday afternoon at Fenway beats a lot of other days.

Sox lose 3-2Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off DutyPing Pong SummerUnbeatableBendsBlind DetectiveBoundlessHow to Train Your Dragon 2

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Sacrament

I could have seen this during IFFBoston, but figured that it would come back to Boston, probably in the same place (the Brattle Theatre) that it played during the festival. And it did! I was a little late getting to it, though - combination of it only playing late shows during the weekend and messing up my ankle.

Pretty good, although I find myself a little surprised by how few Ti West films I've seen - just this, The Inkeepers, and his segment of V/H/S. It seems like I should have seen more; he's become such a prominent name in the genre during the time when I've been following it more closely, but it hasn't worked out that way. I'm curious, though, as his next two films look to be bigger in budget and exploring different genre territory, and I'm wondering if doing a sci-fi movie and a western will get me closer to really liking him. He's got some great skills, but for as much as he clearly loves horror, there's been something unsatisfying about his movies. I think his urge to recreate things, sometimes fetishistically (like the VHS release of The House of the Devil) gets in the way of his desire to shock: You can't surprise when the whole thing is so darn familiar.

The Sacrament

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 June 2014 at the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

The text at the beginning of The Sacrament describes the journalistic style of its protagonists as "immersionism", and I suspect that this is writer/director Ti West's goal as well - getting the audience inside a situation that it would otherwise consider alien. Unfortunately, he makes a few missteps that must have seemed like good ideas in doing so, and his ability to execute a good scare sequence only gets him so far.

One of those missteps, I think, is telling its story in faux-documentary style, which means West starts by introducing us to Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), a reporter and videographer for Vice Media, and their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer with a story about how his sister's sober living community has packed up and moved to the middle of some Latin American jungle. They wrangle an invitation to visit, but there are men with guns to pass before they see Caroline (Any Seimetz). She seems in good spirits, though a bit reluctant to introduce them to "Father" (Gene Jones).

At its best, this documentary or found-footage style is the cinematic equivalent of writing a novel in the first person - inherently subjective, allowing the viewer to experience exactly what the characters are feeling. In this case, though, it has the opposite effect, always keeping the audience on the periphery, not letting the audience feel what the likes of Caroline who have deeply-rooted turmoils and temptations are feeling. The big interview with Father is manipulated into taking on the feel of a late-night talk show, which only gets across that he is quite good at controlling his perception, although at the cost of making Jake look bad at his job. And maybe that's the effect West wants to create, to keep Farther and Caroline and a whole village full of people like her mysterious and unknowable, a danger to normal people who encounter them at the wrong time - an external horror as opposed to an internal one. It's valid, I suppose, but also the safe call.

Full review at EFC

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 June 2014 - 1 July 2014

Good thing it's a short week, because there's only one major release before next Wednesday. Also a good thing that the big studios aren't quite the only sources of movies.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre (as well as the Kendall) have Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger. It's actually a return, as it was the Sundance presentation in January. Joe Berlinger directs the documentary on Boston's most famous gangster. It's in theater 2, but will move to the screening room in less than a week to make room for Begin Again (which has an early show Tuesday). Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, which had a special preview Thursday night, opens on the GoldScreen; it follows hikers along a 500-mile Spanish pilgrimage.

    At midnight on Friday and Saturday, they've got the new 40th-anniversary restoration of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre at midnight. Then on Saturday night, they have Neil Breen's Fateful Findings, which looks to be a pre-ordained cult "classic". A genuine Big Screen Classic plays Monday, Roman Holiday (probably 35mm; that program generally is).
  • Kendall Square's 7pm screening of Whitey has Joe Berlinger and a panel of experts in attendence. Aside from that, they've got a one-week booking of Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, an interview-based documentary that I think played IFFBoston in 2013. The midnight on Friday & Saturday is Reservoir Dogs.
  • The Somerville Theatre opens a documentary that played during this year's IFFBoston, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Katz. Katz was a local computer innovator who took his own life at the age of 26 when the pressures of the legal fights he was involved in became too much to bear. They also pick up The Fault in Our Stars second-run from the Capitol, which starts its summer late-night programming with Meatballs at 10:30pm on Friday and Saturday (the first of a Bill-Murr-athon).
  • If you like the Bollywood, Fenway opens The Villain on Friday; it's a Hindi-language thriller starring Sidarth Malhotra as a cop looking for revenge when his girlfriend is the latest victim of a serial killer. Apple Cinemas/iMovieCafe, meanwhile, has Telugu-langauge Autonagar Surya along with scattered screenings of Malayalam-language How Old Are You?; I believe neither is subtitled.
  • The Brattle has the new DCP restoration of Orson Welles's Othello; it's an amazing-looking movie if you can get past the blackface, although I think it was kind of beat up when I saw it. Hopefully the restoration helps it look gorgeous. It plays all day Friday to Sunday, with a late show on Monday.

    Earlier Monday evening, the free monthly Elements of Cinema screening - Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - plays on 35mm, with post-film discussion led by the Brattle staff. Tuesday, on the other hand, offers crap, but the theater knows it; it's the latest Trash Night screening, this time featuring Judd Nelson in Cybermutt (it's Cyber Summer!). Snark, participation, and alcohol are recommended.
  • The Harvard Film Archive finishes up their Tribute to Alain Resnais with Last Year at Marienbad (Friday 7pm), Wild Grass (Friday 9pm), Muriel, or the Time of Return (Saturday 7pm), their new print of Je t'aime, je t'aime (Saturday 9:30pm & Sunday 5pm), My American Uncle (Sunday 7pm), and Providence (Monday 7pm). All are 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues being the main host of The Roxbury International Film Festival through Sunday, presenting feature, short, and documentary films by and about people of color. There will also be one screening Friday night at the Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury, so the name is not a complete misnomer.
  • The Regent Theatre presents a local premiere of Tom Rush: No Regrets, on Saturday night, with the New Hampshire-based filmmakers, the folk musician of the title, and others in attendence to answer questions and maybe play some music too.
  • Okay, fine, I'll say it: Transformers: Age of Extinction opens on a butt-ton of screens, although I've been skipping this series since the first because it's just ugly. They switch up the human cast, but it's still Michael Bay in the director's seat. It's in 3D and 2D at the Capitol, Apple, Embassy, Jordan's (3D Imax only), Boston Common (including 3D Imax), Assembly Row (including 3D Imax), Fenway (including 2D/3D RPX), and the SuperLux.

    The $6 classic at Boston Common is once again The Godfather, but plays Sunday and Tuesday this week; the $3 recent hit at 9:30pm on Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
  • Under the stars, Joe's Calendar of free movies has The Postman Always Rings Twice at the Boston Harbor Hotel Friday night, Ice Age: Continental Drift the same night on the beach in Revere (near Kelly's Roast Beef), and Spaceballs at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville on Monday.


My plans? Well, I didn't catch The Grand Seduction last week, and that's still around. Maybe check out The Villain, The Internet's Own Boy, and Othello. The good stuff seems to be coming Wednesday (and next Friday, when Snowpiercer arrives at the Brattle).

This That Week In Tickets: 2 June 2014 - 8 June 2014

Not a bad week. Nothing less than good, and some bits of greatness. Would have been cool if two movies were playing on a screen #3 and a screen #6.

This Week in Tickets

See those first two days? That is some strategic use of MoviePass right there, finding you've got a pretty narrow window to see while they're still in theaters and deciding to see them in that order to work around their "wait 24 hours" rule. It's kind of tight - you've got 10 minutes to get the app working, checked in, ticket bought, and ice cream purchased before sitting in the theater - but sometime I'd like to see how many consecutive days I can use it before being forced to skip a day.

The movies themselves? Okay. I liked Million Dollar Arm a bit better than The Railway Man, but both were kind of ho-hum.

Things got a bit odd over the weekend. It started out great with Ida, an absolutely fantastic movie that I suspected I'd want to get seen and written up early beforehand (it was scheduled for a one-week booking at Kendall), and it exceeded expectations. Afterward, I was planning to catch Rob Grant's new one, Desolate, as part of the Somerville Subterranean Cinema series, but it looks like some really crappy circumstances got in the way, which had me standing around the micro wondering what was up both that night and the next. I wound up catching Neighbors on Saturday, at least.

Sunday a pretty fun double feature - I headed out for the least-absurdly-priced screening of Edge of Tomorrow on the bigger 3D screen, and liked it quite a bit, then headed up the Red Line to catch The Navigator at the Somerville Theater, the first "Silents Please!" screening of the year. 35mm prints (there were two short films as well) and Jeff Rapsis at the organ.

I almost made it three on the day, but decided the third could wait until the next day.

Neighbors

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

As I mentioned above, it took me a few weeks to see Neighbors, and it was sort of a backup plan when I did, but there was actually something resembling a running joke leading up to it, in that I think Somerville Theatre manager Ian Judge told me a few times that not only was it a pretty good R-rated comedy, but that it was 97 minutes long.

That's probably not just a guy who is really pleased to be able to get three or four shows in before the T stops running, either; there have been a lot of comedies, frequently including star Seth Rogen and the circle of folks he regularly works with that are twenty or even thirty minutes longer without being twenty or thirty minutes funnier. They'll often try and compensate by packing on a little dramatic heft, but it's usually not enough to get the movie from navel-gazing territory to insightful, just diluting the movie further. Writers Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O'Brien and director Nicholas Stoller seem to get this, hitting every joke they want to without the premise of a college fraternity moving in next to two new parents who maybe aren't quite as young at heart as they think they are wearing thin or falling apart (which it could with too many quiet moments to think about what's going on), and then maybe saying something true about continuing to grow up during adulthood without acting like it's revelatory. They get in, they make their jokes, and they move on.

It's a strategy that works very well when you've got funny people doing funny things, and I'm not sure that there is anybody better in that department than Seth Rogen right now: He's got a well-established comic persona, but also the chops to do more than stand there just being a genial stoner. He has a real advantage in getting able to work off Rose Byrne, too; for all that the film deserves all the props it's getting for explicitly calling BS on the schlubby guy/hot but sensible girl dynamic, it doesn't work unless Byrne kills it, which she does, both on her own and going back and forth with Rogen. Zac Efron and the rest of the fraternity crew are funny and reasonably sympathetic as well, although there are points where Efron, Dave Franco, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse sort of run together. The MVP may just be the twins playing the baby, though. Getting the right look from an infant may be a lot more like directing a dog than even a child actor, but however they manage it, that's one hilariously expressive kid.

Edge of Tomorrow

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2014 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-brand 3D)

I think All You Need Is Kill was the first book Viz released in its Haikasoru line, and if not, I am pretty sure that it was the first one where the table of contents was followed by a flow chart diagramming the complicated paths of the main characters in space and time, which sort of became their thing. I must admit, I was kind of surprised to see an American company pick the rights up and see it actually make it through development hell into a big movie starring Tom Cruise.

Which is kind of odd, because the main character of the book was a young Japanese guy. Still, making him into Tom Cruise turns out to be one of the best things the movie has going for it; he gives his Major Bill Cage a beautiful layer of cocky arrogance over his cowardice, and watching him learn to confront death with courage turns out to be a lot of fun beyond the "watch Cruise die a lot" thing people were joking about. The best part is that his hyperconfident Cruise-ness is never actually blotted out; even when you might expect a modest, deferential take on the character later on, he's still pushing his luck, just with better motives. It makes for a fun pairing with an all-business Emily Blunt. She gives the brusque Rita a humanity that prevents the highly-committed character from seeming robotic, perfectly complementing the smooth way Cruise plays Bill.

It's fun how they get to show these different takes on the characters by changing how they play the action, too. It's fun action, with director Doug Liman and his crew doing a really fantastic job of taking what is often the same scene and making it communicate progression. The staging is nifty, too, making good use of the big screen and 3D. The scale is human, too, even with the busy, fast-moving monsters and characters covered in mech suits. I wonder about the action being moved to Europe in the movie - I seem to recall the book taking place on one of those "neutral ground" battlefields (Antarctica?) that seem relatively common in Japanese sci-fi. It raises the stakes but it also creates a lot of WWII imagery that the filmmakers don't quite seem to know what to do with if deliberate. That's not a negative, though, and may just be a sign that Edge of Tomorrow is good enough to get one looking for more in it rather than just seeing it as an empty light show.

The Railway ManMillion Dollar ArmIdaNeighborsEdge of TomorrowThe Navigator

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Rover

Not mentioned in the review, but does it say worse things about me or a movie when I notice fairly early on, as it's happening, that characters could probably have made life a whole lot easier for themselves by shooting the unconscious guy who has been chasing them in the head rather than just leaving him next to a fully-fueled vehicle? It strikes me that the movie should probably make more of a thing about how the guys who have been set up to be the antagonists don't do this, but it doesn't do much of that.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to Australian readers telling me that I'm full of crap with my theory of why Australia seems to do post-apocalypse well.

The Rover

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2014 Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, DCP)

I went into The Rover already thinking about how Australia seems to churn out more than its share of post-apocalyptic movies (post-"collapse" in this case), at least among the ones worth remembering. It's probably at least partially convenience - deserts and isolated, dusty towns are not in short supply - but I also wonder if it's about being originally settled by penal colonists and worried that something ugly in the national DNA might emerge once imposed order vanishes. It's probably a foolishly presumptive idea to pursuit from the other side of the Pacific, but it's also the idea at the heart of all the best movies in the genre, as well as this one's best moment.

It takes a bit of time to get to that moment, though. Things start with a man (Guy Pearce) stopping in a roadside bar for a beer, not even noticing when a truck carrying fleeing criminals Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo), Henry (Scoot McNairy), and Archie (David Field) crashes nearby. He notices when they steal his car to get away, though, and gets their truck free in order to pursue them. That doesn't work out, but his path soon crosses with Rey (Robert Pattinson), Henry's brother whom the crew left for dead.

Writer/director David Michôd (last seen working with Guy Pearce in the fantastic Animal Kingdom) tosses the audience right into things at the start, with Pearce's Eric not saying much and the others filling their story in pretty quickly amid enough noteworthy automotive stunts to give the audience the impression that this is going to be a car movie. That isn't so much the case, but Michôd and his team have started things off with admirably lean, tense action that sets the standard for how confrontations are going to go over the course of the film: It's not all cases of things being over decisively even before the audience realizes that they've gotten serious, but Michôd does make every bit of action he can afford on a fairly tight budget count; there is a point to moments of shocking violence besides cheap sensation, with every one highlighting just how lawless the environment is and what sort of ruthlessness it takes to thrive in it.

Full review at EFC

Monday, June 23, 2014

Silents, Please! with Buster Keaton: "Convict 13", "The Electric House", and The Navigator

The Somerville Theatre's monthly silent film series got put off a bit earlier in the year, but few movie lovers would really complain about the circumstances behind it, as the 100th anniversary programming was a ton of fun and there have been other programs for those of us that like the silents: The 100th birthday of the Little Tramp at the Brattle, for instance, the annual visit from the Alloy Orchestra, and various shows at the Coolidge and Harvard Film Archive. But now, it's back, with a date a month staked out through November, and both theater manager Ian Judge and accompanist Jeff Rapsis mentioning that they plan to get right back into it next January after a December hiatus.

This year's slate is kind of exciting; I noticed it when I saw the announcement, but one thing mentioned in the introductions from Jeff, Ian, and projectionist Dave Kornfeld was that they're going a bit deeper into the catalog than is often the case this year. Sure, there's one show each with Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but it's some of their less famous pictures, either shorts or movies that we wouldn't quite consider feature-length today - The Navigator, for instance, runs just under an hour. There's also more dramatic features that don't play much - D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (with the Gish sisters) for Bastille Day in July, King Vidor's The Crowd in October, and Frank Capra's The Strong Man in November.

I love the standards - that we in Boston had three opportunities to see Safety Last! on the big screen last year was great! - but a lot of these movies don't hit the big screen very often, and being able to see them on 35mm and with Jeff at the organ is pretty great.

"Convict 13"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

Buster Keaton's "Convict 13" takes "just roll with it" as an attitude from early on, when Keaton's hapless golfer is able to knock himself out with a ricocheting ball, so that an escaped prisoner can switch outfits with him so that this sap can wind up back in jail where he's to be hung except... Well, it goes on from there. It's the classic sort of silent comedy set-up where the gag reigns supreme, and whatever is necessary to get from one gag to the next goes so long as it seems vaguely possible for the two or three seconds that said journey takes

And that's great; packed tightly into a twenty minute reel, "Convict 13" is a pretty brilliant demonstration how sometimes this sort of moment-to-moment cause and effect is all you need if you're Keaton's particular sort of comedy genius, because he's seemingly able to deftly redefine what the movie is with each new scene, making the brilliance of how perfectly he executes stand up. It gives him the chance to pull off any number of terrific sight gags, including some literal gallows humor, while also keeping his nameless protagonist just enough the same guy to keep things moving.

it's a goofy little movie that doesn't necessarily make much sense, but moves things from joke to very funny joke with practiced charm.

"The Electric House"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

I saw a stage play a couple of months ago which was based upon the idea of twin Buster Keatons in a house full of Rube Goldberg devices meant to make their lives easier despite their absurd complexity. If any specific Keaton short inspired that piece, it was probably this one, although it's one that shows up in silent comedies a lot, both because it's a wonderfully visual bit and one that reflects how the start of the twentieth century was the everyday home life was being changed by technological advancement.

It this case, it's Buster - who graduated from school with a degree in botany but was hired as an electrical engineer thanks to a mix-up with the diplomas - being tasked with "electrifying" a millionaire's house while he's away on vacation. He manages it, naturally, although the man who should have received the job sneaks in and screws things up, looking for revenge.

It's a fun little trick, in that it lets Keaton use each gag - the escalator with the bad habit of ejecting the rider out a window into the swimming pool, the table with the automated service, etc. - multiple times. The first time, it's about how clever an idea it is, even if it isn't ideally implemented, then things go haywire, and then Buster can do something resourceful and heroic (albeit with a few detours along the way). It's a classic structure, teaching the audience how something works before playing with variations on the theme - but it works almost every time when the joke is worth the effort, and Buster Keaton makes the jokes more than worth the effort

The Navigator

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

There is something wonderful about the genesis of The Navigator, with Buster Keaton and his producing team purchasing the USAT Buford on spec, figuring that they would come up with a story to take place on the retired ship once they had it in hand. It's not necessarily what one would call organic development, but it led to a cute idea and a number of funny scenes, which as far as the audience is concerned is a pretty good return on the investment.

The boat in question takes the name of "The Navigator" in the film, where its owner John O'Brien (Frederick Vroom) has just sold it to the representatives of a small nation, which has spies from that country's rival looking to destroy it - although rather than blow it up, they plan to cast it adrift and let the ocean do the rest. Before that happens, though, circumstances will put wealthy idler Rollo Treadway (Keaton) on board, along with John's daughter - and Rollo's former girlfriend - Betsy (Kathryn McGuire). Neither of them possess any particular knowledge of how to operate a ship... Or do much of anything, really.

They will, of course, figure a thing or two out as they go along, although the methods they come up with may be amusingly nonstandard (but, then again, how many people watching the movie now know how to use a key to open a can anyway?). Kathryn McGuire makes a good match for Keaton in doing this sort of deadpan comedy; she's not quite so completely stone-faced as she goes about doing simple things in silly ways, but their scenes are funnier for how neither can talk down to the other (or even give a withering look). There's also a nifty romantic antagonism that you don't always see on this period's comedies, in that while they'll run to each other after being frightened or work together, they're both stubborn enough to not want to be shown up on small things.

Full review at EFC

Saturday, June 21, 2014

This That Week In Tickets: 26 May 2014 - 1 June 2014

Hey, I remember this week - there was baseball and the Red Sox were winning! It was awesome!

This Week in Tickets

It started with my last (so far) trip to the Harvard Film Archive for the Mizoguchi restrospective, this time to see The Water Magician, aka White Threads of the Waterfall. I think that's the name that was actually on the 16mm print, although the introduction suggested this was preferred. Part of the fun was that it was a "benshi print": In Japan, silent films were usually presented with a benshi, or narrator, on stage, who would read the dialog (often using different character voices), elaborate on the intertitles, and often provide other commentary; they were so popular that the adoption of sound film was delayed there for a few years. The HFA had one perform for some silents a year and a half ago (it was fun!). In this case, a benshi performance was recorded and included on the print.

(Having seen some of these, I now kind of wonder if the Chaplin reissues with his non-stop narration were influenced by that. He didn't do it quite so well.)

I wound up having two Red Sox tickets later in the week, which was during that exciting period when the team won ten in a row and it looked like they might be shaking off the rust and disappointment from earlier in the year. Thursday night's game was an exciting game against the Braves that ended with Boston's young players getting the best of Atlanta's usually-invincible closer, including a walk-off by Xander Bogaerts. Sunday was a four-double game for Brock Holt with a solid pitching performance by Jon Lester. I wound up watching the games in between on TV, in one case because I showed up for one movie a week early and didn't feel like seeing anything else that was playing right about then. But, they were the David Ortiz v. David Price game and the Rubby de la Rosa debut.

In between, I caught the new one by Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Dance of Reality, and it was pretty good. I look forward to the inevitable double feature with Jodorowsky's Dune during the Brattle's next "Recent Raves" series.

After the game on Sunday, I had time to stop into Comicopia, where Greg Pak was signing his Kickstarted book "Code Monkey Save World" (which is apparently based on the songs of a nerd-musician of some sort, although I bought it for Pak working with Takashi Miyazawa). He's a good guy who has had great runs on The Hulk and Hercules since popping up at three different Boston events with his movie Robot Stories about ten years ago, and his current run on Action Comics with Aaron Kuder is probably the best thing DC has going for it right now.

After that, I kept walking to Boston Common to check out A Million Ways to Die in the West. It may not be one of the all-time great comedy westerns, but it's not bad. And even if one isn't particularly fond of it, give writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane credit for getting Fox to spend an hour on Neil Tyson explaining climate change that night, in the slot that usually goes to Family Guy.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 June 2014 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, digital)

I must admit to being no big fan of Seth MacFarlane, to the point where it led to pretty heated arguments that time he hosted the Oscars. He can be tremendously funny, in large part because he will squeeze everything out of a joke, with the problem being that he will often squeeze "everything" out of something familiar but not particularly funny. There's actually a joke about that in here, where his character demands another character explain where the joke is, and it's tough to know if he appreciates the irony.

Fortunately, he's generally on much more solid ground here, starting from the idea that the old west that America has romanticized and mythologized was actually pretty horrible, leading to a bunch of off-beat but effective comedy about how a man with a modern sensibility like MacFarlane's Albert has a hard time less because he's weak than because not insane. It doesn't hurt that he's paired off with Charlize Theron, who seems to be having a lot of fun as the similarly-sane new girl in town. A fair number of laughs come from Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a sweet couple who try to be good Christians despite her job as a prostitute, and Neil Patrick Harris has a lot of good, smarmy moments as the local merchant of moustache maintenance supplies.

The movie doesn't always live up to its potential; it's worth noting, for instance, that a lot of the jokes along the lines of the title that appeared in the ads are actually much funnier without the R-rated punchlines that follow them in the film. MacFarlane and company don't really get all they can out of Liam Neeson as the villain or Amanda Seyfried as the shallow girl who dumps Albert, either. At least MacFarlane seldom falls into one of the other traps he's prone to, where an attempt at subtle satire is too-easily mistaken for the thing it's mocking. I do think he and his co-writers were onto something with the bit about people being afraid to smile in photographs for fear of looking insane. It winds up being a fairly light spoof and less than it could be, but still funny more often than not.


The Water Magician
Sox beat Braves
Sox beat Rays
The Dance of Reality
A Million Ways to Die in the West

Friday, June 20, 2014

Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong presents Johnnie To: Blind Detective & Boundless

The Museum of Fine Arts is not actually a particularly dry or humorless institution, but even if they generally ran movies on Tuesday evening, I don't think they would have done a "To's Day" promotion for this part of the "Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong" program. Kind of a shame, but it's sitting right there, just waiting for the Brattle to take it the next time they go for a vertical calendar. Then again, they usually do that during the summer, so I'd miss a good chunk of it while I'm at Fantasia, so maybe just forget the whole idea.

I almost missed this one when I discovered I had made it to the T station without my wallet, and actually did miss the first couple minutes. I guess that counts as an excuse to see it again when it hits Blu-ray. Kind of a shame it didn't seem to hit the Asian/genre festival circuit. I guess Johnnie To's name is big enough that the likes of Cannes and Toronto want his latest, but since this one didn't seem to get picked up for distribution as a result, it seems to be falling through the cracks.

Man Tam (Blind Detective)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, DCP)

I know that I have made comments about how it's a shame that we'll likely only see a good sleuth in one movie a few times in the past, but it seems especially relevant here because the makers of Blind Detective seem to feel the same way. There are enough cases and subplots crammed into this movie to give a TV series a pretty good start, and a manic energy that makes it a terrific comedy as well as an intriguing mystery.

The blind detective of the title is Johnston Chong (Andy Lau Tak-wah), an ex-cop forced into retirement by retinal detachment who spends his time solving cold cases and hunting down fugitives for reward money. It's during one of these jobs - for which former partner Szeto Fatbo (Guo Tao) poaches the credit - that he meets Goldie Ho (Sammi Cheng Sau-man), a cop who is great at running suspects down but not so much the puzzle-solving aspect. She wants to hire Johnston to track down a friend who disappeared when they were teenagers in 1997, and he agrees - and starts using her as an assistant on some other cases he's got going.

Because director Johnnie To and and his collaborators at Milkyway Image are best known for their lean, intense crime movies, it would be easy to expect Blind Detective to fall into that category. There are certainly moments where it does - Johnston & Ho get involved in some gruesome murder cases - but more often, it's going for the big belly laugh, whether it be from slapstick built around Johnston's blindness to full-scale knockabout humor. The characters banter and bicker in roughly equal measure, and while they do take the occasional moment to earnestly describe what motivates them, they are not just serious people that ridiculous things happen to, but characters driven by their own inherent goofiness.

Full review at EFC

Boundless

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, digital)

Like many documentaries about films and filmmakers, Boundless will likely eventually end up as the extra disc in a box set (in this case of Johnnie To films), which is fine: That would get it to its audience and it's not necessarily worth paying for on its own. It is a decent enough look at where To is now and a fair attempt at using his career as a surrogate for the last twenty years of the Hong Kong film industry, although there is probably a better movie to be made asking those lines.

Director Ferris Lin Ze-Qiu starts out by showing where To was quite literally at one point, in China's Yunnan Province shooting Romancing in Thin Air, and not having a great time of it: It's much colder than the crew from Hong Kong are used to, and that group is augmented by a bunch of mainlanders who, in To's eyes, mainly get underfoot. He even seems a bit cranky when he's interviewed on that particular set, and it sets up a potentially interesting way for the film to proceed - how does a man whose personal and artistic identity is so tired into Hong Kong specifically handle how the vast but restrictive People's Republic of China is pulling at his industry like a gravitational force?

It's an issue Lin and company touch upon, though mostly indirectly - it's one thing for a world-renowned director to get frustrated by new staffing practices; it's quite another for him to make comments about language restrictions or censorship that might get a market of a billion people who seem to really like movies cut off from him (this goes double for Lin, a film student making this documentary as a thesis project). So this major influence on Hong Kong and its film industry is tiptoed around to an unfortunate extent; the most forceful words on the subject come from critic/scholar Yau Nai Hoi, who says that a city like Hong Kong losing its distinct voice in film and culture would make it "pathetic". It's also note that in 1997, a year in which To's fledgling Milkyway Image production company nearly collapsed, only about 70 films were made in Hong Kong - which sounds pretty impressive for a small city-state of five million people, but was well below what it did at its peak.

Full review at EFC

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 June 2014 - 26 June 2014

I spent the last couple of nights entering movies from the New York Asian Film Festival and the Fantasia Festival in Montreal into the eFilmCritic database so... Yeah, I'm less excited about what's playing Boston.

  • I'd like to be, though; a new movie directed by Clint Eastwood is generally good news and people seem to like the Broadway musical about the Four Seasons. It looks like much of the cast is from the stage rather than the screen, which could make things interesting. Jersey Boys plays a lot of theaters - the Capitol, West Newton, Apple, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and the SuperLux. The other opening is Think Like a Man Too, which reunites the cast from the first, including Michael Ealy, Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, and more, for a wedding in Vegas. It's at Apple, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Fenway.

    The action/adventure option is actually a smaller movie this week, The Rover, which stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in the latest gritty post-apocalyptic movie from Australia. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, and Kendall Square.

    Starting this week, Boston Common will not only be showing a classic on Sundays and Wednesdays (The Godfather, in this case), but recent hits at 9:30pm from Mondays to Wednesdays, with admission $3 and going to charity. This week the movie in question is Anchorman 2.
  • Kendall Square opens up three other movies in addition to The Rover. The one-week booking is Korengal, which is the rare documentary sequel - journalist Sebastian Junger revisits the Afghan valley and American soldiers he documented in the Oscar-nominated Restrepo to see how the war has changed them (and how it hasn't). Junger will actually be on-hand for three shows on Friday and two more on Saturday, along with Afghan war vets.

    They're also opening another documentary, Ivory Tower, which looks at the state of American higher education, which often saddles students with a great deal of debt for highly impersonal education. On a much lighter note, there's The Grand Seduction, with Brendan Gleeson as a wily Newfoundlander doing what he can to lure a doctor (Taylor Kitsch) to his fishing town to help it land a business contract. Don McKellar directs, and Canadian institution Gordon Pinsent is also in the cast. The midnight show is The Goonies.
  • Apple Cinemas and Fenway both open Humshakals, a Bollywood comedy that looks like it features Saif Ali Khan, Ritesh Deshmukh, and Ram Kapoor playing characters with three identities each (I've seen no trailer, so I don't really know). iMovieCafe will also be opening Malayalam film How Old Are You? without subtitles on Saturday, which is apparently a comeback movie for star Maju Warrier.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up Chef, and IFFBoston selection Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, mostly in the smaller screening rooms. The midnights are regular visitors to the theater: A 35mm print of Wet Hot American Summer on Friday and Saturday, the monthly infliction of The Room on Friday, and the annual "Can't Stop the Serenity" fundraiser on Saturday, which benefits both Equality Now and Rosie's Place (bring non-perishable food items to be entered in a reaffle).

    If you're not into the midnights, Sunday morning features the monthly Goethe-Institut selection from recent German cinema, the black comedy Finsterworld. Monday's Big Screen Classic is a 35mm print of On the Waterfront, while Thursday offers up a special screening of Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Director Lydia B. Smith will visit to present and answer questions about her documentary where she follows and interviews many who make the 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
  • the Brattle also has guests with one of their documentaries, with co-director Carl Deal appearing at the 7pm shows of Citizen Koch on Friday & Saturday; his and Tia Lessin's film is about the fallout from the Citizens United decision, with particular focus on recent Wisconsin elections centered around breaking state employee unions. It runs from Friday to Wednesday.

    There is another doc there this week as well: The Past Is a Grotesque Animal: A Film About Of Montreal is what it says on the tin, with particular focus on pop band Of Montreal's frontman Kevin Barnes; it plays 9:45pm shows from Friday to Monday. A live event ("For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf") takes the stage on Thursday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts spends most of the weekend on the tail end of the "Limitless Possibilities of Black and White" series, with Dead Man (Friday/Saturday), Clerks (Friday), Killer of Sheep (Friday/Saturday), and Pi (Saturday/Sunday). Sunday also has an encore of the final film in the Hong Kong series, Kiwi Chow's A Complicated Story.

    On Wednesday, The Roxbury International Film Festival, which features films by and about people of color, settles in. The opening night film is The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, while Thursday's films include The Fade and A Culture of Silence. The festival runs through Sunday the 29th, with most screenings happening at the museum.
  • Somerville Subterranean Cinema looks like they've made some last-minute changes to their schedule, with The Retrieval off an a single show of IFC Midnight's Wolf on sale for 9:30pm Saturday (link here), which looks like a pretty good film from the Netherlands about a kickboxer falling into the world of organized crime. It's well-hidden, and I'm kind worried about this series right now.

    The Somerville Theatre also picks up The Immigrant, and is still showing The Grand Budapest Hotel (as are the Kendall & Embassy theaters). That movie is having a pretty good run to still be on the big screen after its DVD release.
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins A Tribute to Alain Resnais this weekend, with the centerpiece being the Archive's newly-acquired 35mm print of Je t'aime, Je t'aime, which screens Friday at 7pm and twice more next weekend. This weekend other Resnais show is The War is Over (Sunday 7pm). The rest of the weekend is Kenji Mizoguchi, including Victory of Women (Friday 9pm), Shaw Brothers co-production Princes Yang Kwei-fei (Saturday 7pm), The Famous sword Bijomaru (Saturday 9pm), The Love of Sumako the Actress (Sunday 5pm), and The Woman of the Rumor (Monday 7pm), which wraps the series up. All films are 35mm.
  • The Regent Theatre, Belmont World Film, and the Arlington International Film Festival present Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Return to Homs on Tuesday, and warn that the documentary on the fighting in Syria is not recommended for kids with its graphic content.
  • Under the stars, Joe's Calendar of free movies has Casablanca at the Boston Harbor Hotel on Friday, with Monsters University at the Esplenade's Hatch Shell at the same time. The Bloc 11 outdoor movie on Monday is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


My plans? Well, nieces have a birthday party on Saturday, so I'm probably not going to make the Mizoguchi films or Wolf like I'd want to. Otherwise, I'm looking at The Rover, 22 Jump Street, The Grand Seduction, and maybe A Complicated Story.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Kind of disappointed that Jordan's Furniture didn't pick this one up at all, as I saw the first How to Train Your Dragon there, and these movies are some of the best use of 3D on a large screen you'll see. I wound up seeing it on one of Boston Common's regular 3D screens rather than the Imax-branded one because, well, 9:30am is pretty early for the "cheap" show (which would still have been $13, but that's the cheapest you see Imax 3D downtown).

Anyway, it's a pretty good movie, although there is one negative in the form of trailers: I got to my seat just in time for my first glimpse of photorealistic Paddington. The slapstick is probably more faithful to the character than I remember, but, wow, does this seem like something that needs to be traditionally animated.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2014 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD)

The first How to Train Your Dragon caught audiences a bit by surprise; DreamWorks had been trying to recreate the success of Shrek so often that a movie that told its fantastical story without tongue in cheek seemed almost unheard of. The sequel is more complicated almost out of necessity, but it's still clever, good-looking, and full of adventure.

It's been five years since Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) befriended dragon Toothless and eventually convinced the other Vikings on the isle of Berk that dragons could be friends rather than just monsters to be feared. Now, while Hiccup's friends have regular dragon races, and his father Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler) wants him to succeed him as chief, Hiccup and Toothless are exploring nearby islands and cataloging the various species of dragons in the North Sea. What they find is a ship full of dragon-hunters let by Eret (voice of Kit Harrington), trapping dragons on behalf of Drago Bloodfist (voice of Djimon Honsou), who is as charming as he sounds. There's another player, though, the mysterious dragonrider Valka (voice of Cate Blanchett), who has been rescuing wayward dragons.

World-building is an interesting thing - How to Train Your Dragon just needed a little bit - "here there be dragons", more or less - but sequels inevitably push that a little further. What kind of dragons are there? What can the characters already established as tinkerers do with what they learn from dragons, and if we posit that dragons exist outside of Berk...? Well, it can be very easy to get bogged down in that sort of minutia, and that's before considering the TV series that ran between the two films. For the most part, writer/director Dean DeBlois does a good job of not requiring any knowledge of that material, and just letting the pieces we see - mostly Hiccup's maps and flaming sword - be fairly self-explanatory as part of the jump forward (itself kind of unusual, since one of the benefits of animation to filmmakers is not needing to worry about actors getting visibly older in the time it takes to mount a sequel). There's enough explanation to give folks who haven't seen the first the set-up, but not a lot of getting-to-know-you time.

Full review at EFC

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong: Unbeatable & Bends

Big turnout Thursday night for the MFA's first screening in what they hope to make an annual event, with what seemed like half the auditorium set aside for sponsors and presenting organizations. Not quite so much the case on Friday, suggesting that watching people fight is always what's going to bring people out to a Hong Kong movie, even at the more sophisticated venues.

A bit of a shame, that, as Bends was actually a better movie, and like I said in the review, it really can only take place at the Shenzen/Hong Kong border. That we still talk about such a thing fifteen years after the handover is interesting, although part and parcel of having this series is that Hong Kong and China are still somewhat distinct entities. It is, however, kind of nice to see movies with the distinctly HK point of view, since it's no secret that playing in Mainland China has a whole list of requirements, and while Johnnie To was able to work around them well in Drug War, it often has the effect of diminishing Hong Kong. I don't think any of the movies in this series are really in the Vulgaria "we don't care if the rest of China can see them or not" mold, although Bends is closest.

It does, once again, shine an interesting light on the "one child per family" law, mostly in terms of how people near Hong Kong try to bend it to the breaking point while others try to make a buck from doing so. There's a big part of me that wonders how Chinese society is changing without brothers and sisters - given how long it's been in effect, uncles, aunts, and cousins may be becoming rare. There's an interesting scene where a kid doesn't see what the big deal is about being one of the only people in his class to have a sibling, but that just indicates that this is the new normal.

Anyway, good start to the series, and I'm heading back out for the Johnnie To double feature (one by him, one about him). Hope to see it busy again!

Ji Zhan (Unbeatable)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, DCP)

There's not a whole lot in Unbeatable that's new; this very combination of a raw young fighter, a coach who has seen better days, and a kid who doesn't take any guff has probably shown up on screen a time or three. It may be somewhat formulaic, but director Dante Lam is a guy who can do something with a good formula, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Nick Cheung as one of the ingredients.

It starts out in all corners of China: Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng Yu-tan) is visiting a friend in Beijing when he learns that his father has vanished after his investments collapsed; Ching "Scumbag" Fai (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) is driving a taxi in Hong Kong until some gangsters come to collect his gambling debts; and single mother "Gwen" Wong Ming-kwun (Mei Ting) is tragically stretched too thin in Macau. That's where the other two end up, with Fai sharing an apartment with the unstable Gwen and her take-charge ten-year-old Dani (Crystal Lee Hing-hau) and taking a job at the gym where he used to train, where Si-Qi convinces the former boxing champion to train him for an open mixed martial arts tournament.

Right away, it's clear that Lam and his team know that they are playing with somewhat familiar pieces, and they do the audience the huge favor of hitting the ground running, setting the characters and their backgrounds up in quick but not perfunctory ways in the pre-title sequences and then jumping forward a few months to when Si-Qi has found his father (Jack Kao Hou-hsin), Fai has cleaned his act up enough to be embarrassed by his nickname, and Social Services have reunited Gwen and Dani. And while that's skipping over some potentially good material without much explanation in some cases, it also gets the story to the point where the characters' paths are crossing without needing much in the way of side-stories or characters who would have little to do from the middle on. It's efficient storytelling on the part of Lam and his co-writers.

Full review at EFC

Guo jie (Bends)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (New Films from Hong Kong, digital)

Half of this movie could happen anywhere, and Bends is hardly the first quiet, thoughtful film to look at an economic downturn from the point of view of a wife taking prosperity for granted. The other half is what sets it apart; as near as I can tell, it can really only take place on the border of Shenzen and Hong Kong, although it should translate to most audiences.

Fai (Chen Kun) is a Hong Kong citizen, but he lives on the Mainland side of the border with his wife Tingting (Tian Yuan) and daughter Hoi Hoi. Tingting is pregnant with their second child, which means hiding her in the apartment while saying she is away visiting relatives, lest they get slapped with a huge fine for breaking the one child per family law. There are ways around it, such as to give birth in Hong Kong, but they are tightly regulated. Fai is working to solve that issue, but despite spending his days in the former colony as the personal driver to Anna Li (Carina Lau Ka-long), he's not having much luck. Mrs. Li, meanwhile, is feeling pressure of her own, with her wealthy husband's time away growing longer and a refused credit card just the first sign that his business may be a house of cards.

Writer/director Flora Lau starts things off with Fai's story, and it's kind of a brilliant job of setting the mood, just on the other side of playful as Hoi Hoi almost gives the game away, but planting the idea early that trying to live life in a manner that many might find normal and reasonable might lead to ruin. That's a vice she figures to tighten on both sides of the border, bit by bit, as the movie goes on, and it's impressive how plainly she lays the situation out while leaving herself room to maneuver.

Full review at EFC

Saturday, June 14, 2014

This That Week In Tickets: 19 May 2014 - 25 May 2014

Only three nights of movies, but all double features, and kind of nuts beyond that.

This Week in Tickets

Once again, I had a movie I wanted to see before it left town - Only Lovers Left Alive - and it was down to alternating shows in the 14-seat room at the Coolidge. So, to kill time, I saw Belle, which wound up being the better movie of the night.

With plans to head north to see my folks over the Memorial Day weekend, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to catch before that, starting with Sansho the Bailiff from the HFA's Mizoguchi series. I figured I would have just enough time to get to the Kendall for Cold in July, but it was pretty close - there was something going on between the Carpenter Center and Kendall Square that closed a bunch of streets with police directing traffic away. No idea what it was, but I managed to get into the theater just at the end of the trailers, so it was all good. All great, actually, as Sansho is a classic and Cold in July is genuinely terrific.

Saturday... Well, that didn't go so well. I slept late, my brother found he couldn't rent a car with a debit card, I saw I wasn't going to get to the train station in time, detoured to South Station for the bus, and then managed to be the last person in a line that was two people more than there were seats on the vehicle (to be fair, I brought this on myself, stopping to buy a phone charger when I realized I had left mine at home). I could have waited another hour for the next bus, but that would have meant someone waiting around the station after Matt & Morgan got there or making a second trip, so I decided to do it the next day. With my afternoon and evening suddenly free, I headed for Fenway to see the motion-captured Indian musical swords & sorcery picture Kochadaiiyaan with Superstar Rajnikanth (it's a whole thing), and then went for X-Men: Days of Future Past after that.

The next morning I got up early, caught the bus, and then spent the entire day helping my brother, his wife, and their adorable daughters move into their new house. On the one hand, it certainly had me determined to have the yard sale before I move the next time; on the other, I got to spend time with all three of my brothers and all four of my nieces , who now live just a couple miles from each other. I'm pretty jealous, actually, as living in the same neighborhood as my cousins would have been pretty cool when I was growing up.

Only Lovers Left Alive

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2014 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (first-run, digital)

While there are some movies that are seemingly designed just for me, this one was pretty much in the other direction: I'm not fond of vampires at all, especially when they're supposed to be cool and sexy rather than walking death, and music fetishists are just the worst. I love fans, people who are genuinely enthused about things that bring them joy, no matter what they love, right up until the point where they try to convince you that their hobby is important, and music-lovers do that more than anybody else. So you can see why I was predisposed to find this insufferable.

Well, it's not that; it's at least down to Earth and maybe a little aware that its characters are sort of ridiculous. It's dull for long stretches, with writer/director Jim Jarmusch so hung up on his and the film's own eccentricity that it blots out any hope for a story, and there are times when the movie really needs it. Mia Wasikowska especially seems terribly under-used as the sister of Tilda Swinton's character, like the cast was supposed to improvise this relationship into being interesting. It's also another example of how boring we've made vampires, who are now just people with a restrictive diet and a bad skin condition that keeps them out of the sun, a fair tradeoff for immortality that doesn't seem to cost them anything otherwise.

And yet, there's enough talent in the right places that there's frequently something sublime about it: Tom Hiddleston and Swinton capture a most unusual version of true love, one that has lasted for centuries and is strong enough that it can survive years or decades apart, and doesn't need constant reaffirmation for validation. Their grand perspective lets Jarmusch train his camera on Detroit, capture it as a city nearing the end of an almost inevitable decline, and portray it as having a sort of peace and beauty that those of us who can only see it on a human scale cannot truly accept. I don't think that there's any doubt that by the end, even those of us who were frequently frustrated by the movie will feel something because of it, and that's probably all Jarmusch is looking for.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2014 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, RealD)

When X-Men: First Class came out a couple years ago, I made a comment to the effect that seeing the version of Mystique introduced in that movie actually kill and set herself irrevocably on the path to being the villain played by Rebecca Romijn (and generally seen in Marvel's X-Men comics) would probably be the hardest thing that the prequel movies could do. It's kind of gratifying to see that the folks at Fox and the Donner Company seemed to be thinking the same way, because they went and made that the fulcrum that the next movie pivots upon. It's a smart decision on a number of levels, from it always being smart to give Jennifer Lawrence a big role in your movie when you can to putting the shape-shifter at the center of a story that is, after all, about the potential for change.

That's the sort of clever use of science fiction and superhero elements that makes Days of Future Past as strong an entry in cinema's most tonally ambitious series of comic book movies as you can hope for (give Bryan Singer and company credit, they want these stories to be about something). The surprise, then, is just how much sheer fun the movie winds up being as well. Singer and company seem to be having a great time grounding their story in a real, specific past era - the opposite of how generic comics' traveling timeline seems to make them ever more generic - and they do something similarly cool with the action, building the most memorable scenes around mutants with cool powers, especially speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and portal-opener Blink (Fan Bingbing). The grand, over-the-top way that Magneto makes his presence known for the finale is just wonderful for how big and ridiculous it is.

It's got some flaws, in particular the way that it sometimes replicates the experience of reading X-Men comics too closely, with pages upon pages of mutants with code-names that don't necessarily connect to their powers to keep straight, alternate timelines, and story bits that sometimes drag on and sometimes become something unrecognizable while you look away for a couple months. That's what makes it even more impressive that the filmmakers harvest this unwieldy thing, wrestle a story out of it, and do so in a way that both makes a certain amount of sense and leaves the audience caring what happened. That's not always the case (for instance, I honestly can't remember what X-Men 2 was about), but they've done it with style here.

SPOILERS!

And I like the way things seem to be headed with the new status quo - anything that gets Famke Janssen back into these movies is fine with me, and even if I'm the only one who mostly liked X3, it's not really erased; it's a necessary part of continuity in order to get this movie where it does. I'm kind of hoping that things are somewhat more peaceful in the new timeline because Mystique was never the close partner to Magneto that she was before, making his plans less effective. She's not necessarily with the X-Men, but I could easily see Fox spinning her off to a series somewhat akin to the comics written by Brian K. Vaughan and Sean McKeever a while back.

As to the post-credit tease - I know squat about Apocalypse, and get the idea that there's kind of squat to know, with him being a very vaguely defined concept. Hopefully the filmmakers will get something interesting out of him.

!SRELIOPS


Belle
Only Lovers Left Alive
Sansho the Bailiff
Kochadaiiyaan
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Cold in July