Sunday, January 11, 2015

This That Week In Tickets: 22 December 2014 - 28 December 2014

My cunning plan for using vacation time this year: Take the week of Christmas off and see if I'd be better off shopping during the hours when other folks are working than on the weekend or in the evening. It's not a bad plan, although it works best if you have a high-end chocolate shop to finish things off with.

This Week in Tickets

Also helpful: A nut shop, toy stores, and a puzzle & game store. Believe it or not, I didn't hit the Red Sox team store.

After the first day of Christmas shopping, I went to the Brattle for their "Alt-Xmas" screening of Batman Returns, and that was an interesting experience; I didn't remember just how weird it was. After finishing the shopping on Tuesday, I decided to go with the Shane Black Violent Christmas Marathon while wrapping presents, getting through Iron Man Three and The Long Kiss Goodnight before finishing at 2am. I had The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ready to go, but didn't need them... Well, not then.

Wednesday afternoon - Christmas Eve - started off with Chinese import Love on the Cloud, which is an enjoyable romantic comedy, although it is a little too frantic for its own good. After that, a quick trip to the comic shop, put everything in the bag, set off for the train station...

And watch one of the three paper bags I had stuffed full of gifts fall apart because it was raining pretty hard and they were apparently highly compostable. Gather them up, get to Central Square, realize there will be no catching the Downeaster, so take the Red Line to South Station... and have the second bag split in half as I'm standing up. Happily, the other folks on the train both held the door and got me some canvas & plastic bags, but, man, was I ground down by the time I got to the bus. I wound up spending the night re-wrapping almost everything at my mother's house, wishing other people would come to me for the holidays just once (well, twice - it did happen once, seven years ago).

But, the brothers with the adorable nieces make the rules. We made a circuit Christmas morning - first to see Travis, Jen, and their awesome twin girls, who have apparently been watching Brave a lot lately and thus wanted bows and arrows like Merida. That should be fun! Then to my grandparents, then to Dan & Lara and their girls, who have gotten old enough to really like games, really starting to care about the outcomes. I wound up staying over there, helping put stuff together, reading to them, and finding that these girls can do one thing for a good long time if they are into it.

Friday, I headed back to Boston, and having nothing in the fridge, figured I had to go out to the fancy theater where they serve dinner in order to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in HFR 3D. Couldn't find a seat I liked in the really fancy section (so no steak), but they served a pertty passable burger up front. The movie... Well, at least now Peter Jackson can maybe go back to making stuff that's actually interesting.

Saturday's film was chosen on the basis of "The Gambler hasn't been reviewed on EFC, so I'll take it", and it was pretty good, some of the best work Mark Wahlberg has done, although it seems to work very hard to be clever.

Sunday was a much busier day - I used one of the gift cards I got for Christmas to see Exodus: Gods and Kings in 3D. It doesn't quite manage to transcend its weak source material the same way Noah does, but there's no doubt that Ridley Scott is a guy who knows how to use that third dimension (Prometheus was similarly gorgeous but dumb).

After that I went to the Art of the Brick exhibition at Faneuil Hall, which was pretty neat. The early sections, where Lego sculptor Nathan Sawaya was reproducing & reinterpreting famous works, were okay, but the more he starts creating on his own, the niftier it got. And there was a dinosaur!

Last stop of the day (and vacation) was down the Green Line to the Coolidge, where I hoped to see Citizenfour but couldn't get there in time to buy a ticket for the 14-screen room it was playing in, so went for The Imitation Game instead. That was pretty good, although I suspect that the fact that we're getting major prestige biographical pictures about the likes of Alan Turing is a little more impressive than the actual movie itself.

It was back to work the next day, but sill a very productive week of family-seeing, niece-spoiling, and movie-watching.

Batman Returns

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (Alt X-Mas, 35mm)

A few minutes into the Brattle's Christmas presentation of Batman Returns, I was willing to trade all three of Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batmovies for one more by Tim Burton with Michael Keaton, back when they were at their peaks. That's impossible, obviously, and I had talked myself down to maybe something like two for one by the climax, but was delighted to find that it was both weirder and more fun than I'd remembered it being.

I think it's a fairly reasonable reaction to have as the film starts and the audience gets reacquainted with Burton's Gotham City, an expanse of towering, interconnected skyscrapers with similarly-scaled status that looks like somebody built Fritz Lang's Metropolis in the 1920s and it's been decaying ever since. There's an opening that establishes Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot as an impossibly bad seed, though his parents' secretive attempt to dispatch him is similarly awful. Then it's the present day and garishly costumed villains are unveiling magnate Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) at the behest of the adult Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) while Batman (Michael Keaton) is busy with goons.

This vision of Gotham is probably the best ever put on film, and not just because it is full of references to silent movies I love (and remember, this was before Metropolis had the two restorations that returned it to its deserved prominence). Burton and his team create a city that is larger-than-life and run-down at the same time, but in a balanced way. As clearly as one can see that this is not a great place to live, even from aerial shots, it's not quite a post-apocalyptic hell, either. Better than any other adaptation - or indeed most runs on the comics - the filmmakers create a city that people would believably stay in, even as it drives them insane.

That's the other thing that works impressively well - Batman's villains get locked up in an asylum rather than a prison, and both DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer (in the role of Catwoman/Selina Kyle) are fantastic at being quite mad. It's different flavors - the Penguin is a murderous sociopath even if his rage is understandable, while Catwoman, afraid of nothing having survived a fall that should have killed her, is slowly losing her mooring to humanity (Pfeiffer is great - she makes a funny self-referential line into something also quite heartfelt). A lot of Batman's instability happens via production design - look at how empty Wayne Manor and the Batcave feel - though Michael Keaton complements Pfeiffer well as a troubled man also trying to be sane but not quite sure he knows how.

In some ways, that exposed the main issue not just with Batman Returns, but with most of the superhero movies of its era: There is a Bruce Wayne-shaped hole in the middle. The popular wisdom was that they were only as good as their villains, and while Marvel has made a mint in recent years focusing more on the heroes than their adversaries (quick, name an Iron Man villain!), Burton and his screenwriters focus so strongly on the villains that sometimes Batman can be shoved to the side of his own movie, leaving Michael Keaton with very little to do and less resolution at the end.

So he mostly stands around, posing in fight scenes that are relatively stiff, but still fairly lively. As things escalate, Burton and company make the action simultaneously bigger and weirder, and while things frequently threaten to careen completely out of control, there's always a sense of grand tragedy to go along with the absurdity of the situation. It's strange and sort of grotesque, but there's nothing that doesn't actually fit, especially in this insane setting.

And that's why, despite Christopher Nolan's "Dark Night" trilogy being more thought out and grounded, I can't help but think that this movie is the one that represents Batman best on-screen. It reflects the heightened reality comics can do almost as easily as realism, and I would love to see Gotham City's madness approached this way again.

Full review at EFC.

Iron Man Three

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 December 2014 in Jay's Living Room (wrapping presents, Blu-ray)

Believe it or not, revisiting a film on video a mere year and a half after I've seen it on the big screen - and thus having the Blu-ray only sit on the shelf for about a year - is actually fairly quick for me. It's not quite enough time to be surprised because I don't remember the details any more, although there's still room to remember great bits and discover new details I didn't catch the first time through.

The good news: Iron Man Three holds up. It's a great big fun adventure movie that does an impressive job of navigating how these films will work in a post-Avengers world, gives the supporting cast plenty to do, and has some great big action scenes. It's also very much a Shane Black movie, and I really hope that all the big franchises - Marvel, DC, Star Wars - will continue doing this well in allowing guys with distinctive voices to use them even while being part of something bigger.

Anyway - my opinion hasn't changed much since I originally saw it; it's still highly recommended.

"Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23/24 December 2014 in Jay's Living Room (wrapping presents, Blu-ray)

Since I had the Iron Man Three BD already in and the TV series was going to be starting up in a couple of weeks, I figured I may as well give this a spin.

Who knows whether it was serving as a preliminary pilot for the series at the time or if it became one afterward, but it is certainly a fun fifteen-minute adventure story, setting up a situation, introducing a cast, and playing out a bit of action at a quick, exciting pace. It's great to see a supporting character who was able to grab a spotlight on her own get a check-in, especially since Hayley Atwell was set up to be left behind by the rest of the Marvel franchise. It's quite easy to see from how much of a kick this turned out to be why everyone involved would decide they wanted more.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23/24 December 2014 in Jay's Living Room (wrapping presents, Blu-ray)

I don't know if I'd seen this one since it's original theatrical presentation (and, man, that means I may have paid for VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray copies of it; enjoy your residuals, folks), and that's not surprising; I like everyone involved but somehow never considered it a great movie.

Since then, I've come to know and love the pulp that serves as inspiration to writer Shane Black a bit more; it's a different movie once you've learned about Hammett and Chandler, even though it's no pastiche. Still, it's got the sort of borderline incomprehensible and silly plot that sort of private-eye story often featured because the writer was really more interested in everything around it. That "everything around it" is good stuff - Geena Davis as an amnesiac suburban mom discovering what kind of background she had (and then reconciling the two once her old persona returns to the fore), Sam Jackson as a low-rent private eye, and Brian Cox as a cynical old bastard who still might be the most honest man in an intelligence community crawling with self-serving sharks.

It may actually be Davis's best role (says the guy who hasn't actually seen Thelma & Louise); she splits her time as "Samantha" and "Charly" almost evenly, giving both aspects distinct characterizations and then doing a fine job pulling them together. Then-husband Renny Harlin handles the action well, and his tendency toward kind of overdoing the violence actually matches up well with Black's pulpy tendencies: It makes for a movie that's big, kind of ridiculous, and kind of crude, but which has an eye on what it's going for and never loses sight of it even while the audience is enjoying the explosions.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 December 2014 in Showcase Cinemas SuperLux Chestnut Hill #3 (first-run, RealD HFR DCP)

Well, that's over with.

That something akin to relief is the dominant emotion at the end of a series made by a filmmaker I'm still fairly fond of is unfortunate, and I hope someday that the machinations of how Jackson wound up directing this Hobbit trilogy rather than just serving as a producer, and how it wound up split into three parts (it was just going to be two when filming started, if I recall correctly), and how something fans thought would be a great addition became a bloated obligation... Well, I hope a great book comes out of it. It wound up being just decent movies.

Why is that? Personally, I think it was having too close an eye on The Lord of the Rings. The original The Hobbit was a fantasy made with kids in mind, and whenever Jackson is building a kids' movie, these things are an awful lot of fun. There's a great deal of pure silliness in the destruction/escape from Lake Town, for instance, and the moment when Martin Freeman's Bilbo steps up and says he is the one who has been hiding the stone that Thorin (Richard Armitage) has become obsessed with, because he just wants everybody to get along, is played with a beautiful earnestness. There's joy to it, even if tragedy comes later.

But whenever the film starts looking toward setting up The Fellowship of the Ring, it feels like a distraction. This is material that is not going to pay off by the end of this movie/trilogy, but there's nothing in the details that gives us a new perspective on what we saw ten-plus years ago. It's just seeing it played out, and it messes with the tone of this one, padding it needlessly.

So we forget that there is some great action in here, a really good performance by Martin Freeman, a genuine moment of delight when Billy Connolly shows up as a dwarf prince - even if it does lead to the question of why the heck he hasn't been in all three movies - and a goofy Stephen Fry. The 48fps photography looks a bit odd at ground-level, with the sets probably needing a lot more detail to give the eye enough to look at with all that clarity, although when the action and 3D-centric scenes kick in, it looks beautiful.

So, we're done. Maybe now Peter Jackson can get to do his Tintin movie, or even better, his first movie that really comes from his own head in almost twenty years.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2014 in AMC Assembly Row #12 (first-run, RealD DCP)

I joked above about Exodus having to deal with weak source material - say what you will about the Bible/Torah/Koran, but folks have been finding some worth in it for thousands of years - but I do think it's kind of unavoidable when tackling the Old Testament to have trouble dealing with how bloodthirsty its God is. Within the movie, Moses talks about how the Israelites "wrestling" with their deity isn't the same as opposing it, and I think that director Ridley Scott and his writers do want to do some of that wrestling, but don't quite have the nerve. This film is not Noah, where Darren Aronofsky was unafraid to draw parallels with the modern world, let the audience ponder what both what that kind of blind obedience to a vengeful God makes you as a man and the horrors that can come through interpretation.

Instead, there's an empty irony in how Christian Bale's Moses starts out disdaining prophecy but becomes the subject of one. There's a subtext about how God's terror attacks upon Egyptian civilians is what is ultimately effective, compared to Moses's more traditionally honorable campaign, but it plays as just a rendering of Judeo-Christian mythology, not an examination of its message. As a result, a fairly talented cast has nowhere to go but into melodrama.

That said: Wow, can Ridley Scott make a beautiful movie. Just like with Prometheus, which was similarly dumb but pretty, he uses 3D to excellent effect, building a wonderfully realized ancient Egypt, creating a sense of space during action scenes, and otherwise rendering quite frankly amazing spectacle. It's almost a pity that he didn't use it to do something not attached to a myth that is rather problematic in modern times, because while an Egyptian melodrama not connected to the Old Testament might not have sold as many tickets (and might have caught even more deserved flack for its very pale cast), it could have been a story that wasn't so boxed in.

The Imitation Game

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, RealD DCP)

The Imitation Game caught some flack for how it doesn't follow Alan Turing's life all the way to the exceedingly bitter end, although I think that's somewhat undeserved; by the time it finishes, there can be zero doubt as to how the homophobic laws of the time devastated him. Despite not rubbing the audience's nose in the last days of Turing's life in the most complete way possible, it gets its point across.

Up until then, it's quite the intriguing film, as it manages to be a great many things to a great many people: A historical thriller, a drama about what it means to be discriminated against, whether as a gay man or a scientifically-inclined woman in a society that does not have a place for you, a character piece. Because history is messy and screenwriter Graham Moore didn't feel the need to streamline it into something more comfortable, The Imitation Game sometimes feels like it is trying to do too much: The moral choices to be made after Enigma is cracked are a whole movie on their own, as is the story of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a brilliant mathematician in her own right who becomes Alan's beard and closest friend.

Knightley is great, although I'm still not quite sure what to make of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Early on, there seems to be a reason for his broadness, like he's trying to play up his arrogance as a smokescreen to hide his homosexuality, but eventually the realization hits that he is that guy, and it becomes a little harder to be sure what to make of him in that case. It's a flashy role, one which for better or worse plays into the popular perception of Cumberbatch's on-screen persona, and by the time the film ends, I'm not quite sure whether that helps or hurts, or whether it's a fair criticism or not.

One thing I did like, that I'm not sure the folks who haven't done a lot of science, math, or computer work may not appreciate, is how much of the film is about understanding Turing's mindset in building "Christopher": Our normal approach to a problem is to try and solve it ourselves, whereas Turing proposes finding a way to automate the process, to understand the problem and take the mechanical parts out of human hands and leave them to a machine that can do them quickly and by rote without getting bored or distracted and thus making mistakes. As someone who has done a lot of that as part of my work, it's nice to see that communicated so strongly.

Batman ReturnsIron Man ThreeThe Long Kiss GoodnightLove on the CloudThe Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesThe GamblerThe Imitation GameExodus: Gods and KingsArt of the Brick

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