Friday, October 30, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 October 2015 - 5 November 2015

Not that I would go in for it myself, but I am mildly disappointed that the Brattle's Saturday Morning Cartoons show isn't starting a couple hours earlier, because then the Halloween movie marathon marathon (not a typo) could stretch a full twenty-seven hours. Instead, it maxes out at twenty-five.

  • So, under that plan, you would start at The Brattle Theatre with a Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat-Cereal Cartoon Party, three hours of animated Halloween specials and cartoons programmed by Kier-La Jannisse. Instead, it starts at 11am. Their other Halloween programming includes Friday night single features of The Monster Squad and Demons (35mm), with the first repeated Saturday afternoon. Then on Saturday night they have a live event, "Everything Is Terrible! Legends".

    On Sunday, they celebrate the 15th anniversary of the theater becoming a non-profit run by the Brattle Film Foundation with a free afternoon screening of Metropolis (on 35mm, so it's the 2002 cut). The evening part of that celebration is a preview screening of Brooklyn. Then on Monday, they have a DocYard screening of Romeo Is Bleeding, with a free "Elements of Cinema" presentation of The Magnificent Ambersons on Tuesday, both with guests. Then, on Wednesday, they'll present the new Japanese animated film The Anthem of the Heart
  • Anyway, the Brattle's presentation overlaps with that of The Somerville Theatre, whose all-35mm Halloween Marathon starts at noon, and features West of Zanzibar (a silent with live music by Jeff Rapsis), Bela Lugosi in Dracula, The Monster That Challenged the World, Seconds, Aliens, and The Lost Boys. Ironically, this bumps the scary movie they have playing, Crimson Peak, on Friday and Saturday (it also skips Thursday for an early engagement of Spectre). Basically, if you wanted to do both, you'd have to choose between cartoons and silents at noon.
  • Since the run-times of those movies adds up to noticeably less than 12 hours, there is likely either a surprise in there or you will have a little time to get on the T and head to The Coolidge Corner Theatre for their 15th Annual Halloween Horror Marathon, which starts at midnight with a 35mm print of Trick R Treat and one other movie taking place on Halloween night (my guess would be Tales of Halloween, but do not hold me to that), with four more movies playing afterward, including Halloween II. Live music, costume contests, and other good stuff.

    They also have a 35mm screening of Rosemary's Baby on at midnight on Friday, and an early show of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit on Saturday. After that, the special presentations become less spooky, with the Goethe-Institut presenting German film The Drift at 11am on Sunday. Monday night has the Alloy Orchestra performing their score to Son of the Sheik live.

    The Coolidge will also play host to the first two nights of The Boston Jewish Film Festival, with Apples from the Desert on Wednesday and To Life! & Encirclements on Thursday. Thursday also has shows at West Newton (Dough) and the Somerville Theatre (the Short Film Competition).
  • The multiplexes have a few last horror-type things coming out for Halloween, most notably Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, with kids teaming up with a resourceful waitress to end the zombie outbreak in their town; it's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. Boston Common also has Freaks of Nature, aka "The Kitchen Sink", for how it posits a town with humans, vampires, and zombies getting along well until you added aliens to the mix. They've also got a Friday night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to go along with their regular Saturday presentation. Revere will have late shows of A Nightmare on Elm Street on Friday and Saturday nights.

    Since most of the week will be post-Halloween, the multiplexes will open some more conventional films. Our Brand Is Crisis features Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as rival election strategists brought in by candidates in Bolivia, and plays the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. Burnt is more of a straight comedy, starring Bradley Cooper as a bad-boy chef looking to get back on his feet, because not everybody has Kitchen Confidential on DVD. It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Revere will also pick up two indies. Friends and Romans played the Boston Independent Film Festival (a different thing than IFFBoston) back in April, and features Michael Rispoli as a frequently-typecast actor trying to mount a production of Julius Caesar, only to find a real-life gangster hiding out in their theater. They also give a screen to Dancin' It's On (aka "East Side Story"), which sounds like Romeo & Juliet with its star-crossed lovers, only with much more in the way of dance-offs and less in the way of suicide. It's also got a couple shows a day at Apple Fresh Pond. For even more dancing, Revere has Sunday/Tuesday presentations of Oklahoma!, and a Sunday screening of Goodfellas (including a documentary) for those who want more gangsters.

    The places with Imax-branded screens - Jordan's, Boston Common, and Assembly Row - will be switching out Crimson Peak for a six-day run of The Martian before Spectre arrives.
  • It's also a busy week at Kendall Square, which shares Suffragette with Boston Common, featuring Carey Mulligan as a 19th Century Englishwoman fighting for the right to vote (Meryl Streep plays one of the leaders of the movement). They also share Truth, featuring Robert Redford doing what looks like nothing to convince us he is Dan Rather in this dramatization of the investigation into Bush II's National Guard service that dashed his career, with it also playing the Embassy in Waltham.

    They've also got a one-week engagement of Jafar Pahahi's Taxi, in which the Iranian filmmaker officially forbidden from making movies by the Iranian government finds another way around it, this time driving a cab and shooting customers (who are anonymous non-professional actors). They also have the nifty Experimenter, a nifty little film starring Peter Sarsgaard as behavioral scientist Stanley Milgram.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond holds over a bunch of Indian fims and hosts the Caleidoscope CineFest on Saturday, with five movies - 89, Aro Ekbar (with Skyped introduction), Chittagong (with director Q&A), Satyajit Ray's Abhijaan, and the 1953 version of Devadasu (the only one un-subtitled) starting at 10am. The first is a thriller listed as a "Halloween Special", and they will be having a different Halloween special, Troll 2, on Friday night.

    The week also features two Chinese imports at Boston Common: Taiwan's Oscar submission, The Assassin, finally arrives after many trailers and a preview at IFFBoston's Fall Focus, and is really good; The Witness is a thriller about a blind woman who witnesses a crime and teams up with a man whose story contradicts hers to solve it. Interestingly, it's directed by the maker of the Korean film it remakes.
  • The Harvard Film Archive wraps up A Matter of Life and Death this weekend with four movies - Beware of a Holy Whore (Friday 7pm/35mm), The State of Thing (Friday 9pm/DCP), Body Double (Sautrday 7pm/35mm), and Cuadecuc, Vampir (Saturday 9pm/digital), preceded by "A Distant Episode" (16mm). The latter two are fitting Halloween presentations.

    Sunday's "Five O'Clock Shadow" 35mm film noir presentation is Try and Get Me with Lloyd Bridges, while Thom Anderson's video Red Hollywood plays separately at 7pm. The first is directed by an avowed communist, the second probably referencing it as it documents blacklisted and leftist filmmakers. the "Furious and Furiouser" presentation on Monday is Czhechoslovakian classic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their run of A Small Good Thing with screenings on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Thursday. Thursday also has them bringing back IFFBoston selection Welcome to Leith, a documentary about white supremacists attempting to take over a North Dakota town.
  • Bright Lights has two films with guests this week: I Believe in Unicorns has director Leah Meyerhoff present to present her story of fantasy and abuse, while one of Emerson's professors will lead a discussion of Rick Famuyiwa's Dope on Thursday. Admission is free at the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount Theater.
  • The Regent Theatre just has one film presentation this week: Aram, Aram, a drama set inside Los Angeles's Armenian neighborhoods, playing at 5pm on Sunday.
  • UMass Boston Film Series has an offering this week as well: What Happened, Miss Simone. Director Liz Garbus will be on-hand to discuss her documentary on "The High Priestess of Soul", Nina Simone.

My plans will probably just include the Somerville Horror Marathon, along with Freaks of Nature, The Witness, and maybe Scouts Guide... And I'm realy not going to look past the weekend this time.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

These Weeks In Tickets: 11 October 2015 - 24 October 2015

Folks, I saw a bunch of movies over the last couple of weeks, writing about many:

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

First things first: Getting The Walk in before it left Imax screens, because that's what it was designed for and if you see it on NetFlix six months or so from now, you're not really seeing it. This was also an opportunity to see something at the recently upgraded Imax theater at Jordan's Furniture in Reading. Initially, it doesn't look like much has changed: The concession stand is the same, the prices are maybe a buck more after staying basically the same for years, and the seats are still Tempurpedic material with individual "buttkicker" subwoofers underneath, although now covered in waterproof fabric (I envision them hosing the whole theater down at the end of the day). Even the music playing while waiting for the show to start (Brian Setzer & Delbert McClinton) is the same.

The presentation has been nicely upgraded, though - Imax-branded digital projection has been 2K, for the most part, but this is 4K laser projection, which I gather is sharper because the beam doesn't diffuse so much between the projector and the screen. Mention was made during the pre-show introduction that there were speakers directly overhead, but the mix for The Walk didn't take advantage of that much (nor the buttkickers, really). It's all about the 3D, and that's where this upgraded room really shines - rather than the polarized glasses most screens use, it's now using Dolby dichroic projection, which seems to drop a lot less light than most polarized systems (heck, less than the active-shutter system they use at the Fantasia Festival). It's definitely going to be my go-to place for 3D movies from now on.

Getting out there for an 11:30am show meant starting early, though, not just meaning there wasn't a lot of time to kill before catching Lady in the Lake at the Harvard Film Archive, but that I was kind of wiped out by the time the proto-noir Marlene Dietrich double feature of The Devil Is a Woman & Shanghai Express at the Brattle was going, so I drifted in and out a bit.

Monday was initially a tough decision - The Conversation at the Harvard Film Archive or a double feature of The Thin Man and The Kennel Murder Case at the Brattle, all on 35mm - but when The Kennel Murder Case was canceled, I opted for The Conversation, having never seen it before. It was a good choice.

After that, it was the Brattle for the next two nights - I skipped the first half of a Sylvia Sidney double feature on Tuesday to just check out You and Me, while Wednesday's single feature was They Drive By Night. That polished off proto-noir; hopefully the next leg of the 75th anniversary series will be just as much fun (and come soon).

Thursday was one of those long last night in Boston cross-town double features with strongly mixed results: Hindi thriller Jazbaa was very bad; Coming Home was extremely good. Better that order than the other way around, I suspect.

The Somerville Theater opened two movies by filmmakers I love on Friday, with MoviePass's silly 24-hour rule dictating the order I saw them: Crimson Peak by Guillermo del Toro was decent and very pretty but not one of his best; Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies could also be said not to be one of his best, but that still makes it better than most people are capable of on their best days.

Sunday, I saw the only Mad Max movie I hadn't seen yet, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and since that was bart of a marathon at the Brattle, it meant the next thing playing was Mad Max: Fury Road, and, man, if they're going to show Fury Road on the big screen and all you have to do is stay there, you do that.

After that run, staying home on Monday was pretty nice, and then I caught Beasts of No Nation on Tuesday. As you might expect for something getting a same-day debut on Netflix, attendance was pretty darn sparse. Kind of a shame, as it looks and sounds great, and really should be seen on the big screen.

The MBTA screwed up my Thursday plans, but Friday wound up a nifty double feature: Animated Edgar Allan Poe Anthology Extraordinary Tales wasn't playing a full schedule at Boston Common, but is surprisingly good, and it made for a pretty easy trip down the Green Line to catch Attack on Titan: End of the World at the Coolidge's midnight show.

Kind of surprised I was up in time to get to Victoria Saturday afternoon after finally getting into bed at about 3am, but I did, and it was good. Can't say I was quite as fond of The Algerian, but it's at least interesting and had surprise Q&A.

Next up: IFFBoston 2015½!

The Walk

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, Imax digital 3D)

I hope that the staggered Imax/regular theater release for The Walk is what hurt it at the box office by having people confused about whether it was playing or not, rather than any lack of interest or, worse, willingness to defer until it's on home video or blanket disdain of paying extra for 3D or for giant-screen experiences. This is a movie where format matters, where a large part of its raison d'être is to put the audience on the wire that Philippe Petit strung between the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center. Writer/director Robert Zemeckis has spent much of his later career approaching movies as technical challenges as much as storytelling opportunities, and there can be little argument that his work on this challenge is spellbinding.. It induces honest vertigo which provides an intriguing contrast to Petit's seeming calm.

He's not bad at the storytelling, either. The Walk cannot help but be compared to Man on Wire, the very charming documentary about the same adventure from a few years back - one guy I know online seemingly couldn't let a mention of this movie pass without chiming in on how redundant it was - and if it doesn't necessarily exceed that film in many ways until the last-act showstopper, it's still quite satisfying for what it is. Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne don't over-complicate a good caper story but don't leave it dry, and the cast - Joseph Gordno-Levitt as Petit, Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend, Ben Kingsley as a mentor - is comfortable and entertaining. Zemeckis inserts a bit too much narration, most obvious when Gordon-Levitt speaks over a scene of his character talking to tell the audience what he was saying, but that's so obvious that it seems more a near-miss on something interesting (perhaps how Petit valued retelling this story as much as the experience itself) than it being a mistake.

Then again, maybe The Walk came and went quickly because people knew exactly what it was and didn't want to pay fifteen bucks to experience remarkably authentic acrophobia. Fair enough, I guess, but one of the joys of film is experiencing dangerous things in a safe environment, and while Zemeckis may not have made a great movie, he did create a fantastic experience.

The Conversation

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (Furious and Furiouser, 35mm)

The Conversation is a great movie that circumstances have almost forced to be recognized less for itself than in relation to the fame of other films - directed by Francis Ford Coppola during the same burst of productivity that also produced the Godfather films, actually being nominated for Best Picture the same year as the second. That's a heck of a shadow to be in, especially since there's a group of us that would probably like it more than the more rapidly-acknowledged classics.

After all, we get Harry Caul - brilliant, technically-minded, proud of the work he does but both unable to boast due to its secretive nature and his own natural paranoia. Gene Hackman invests him with a perfect combination of pride and shame, keeping him brusque but interesting, so that the moments when he does open up just a crack to deal with other people on friendly terms or act as something other than an amoral professional are big deals but not entirely unexpected. A great many characters are torn between their particular genius and their morality, but it's impressive to watch Caul fight that battle off to the side as Coppola always makes sure that there is something else to watch while Hackman gives both facets his full attention.

Indeed, one can almost forget that there's an A-story here until Coppola dives back into it, although it's far from a step back to straight genre storytelling. He keeps certain things ambiguous as long as possible and then, rather than pausing to explain to the audience, expects it to keep up with Caul. This, despite the fact that things on screen are getting more surreal as his perspective unravels, meaning that like Caul, the audience is faced with the challenging task of separating the sanity from the madness, especially since the techniques Coppola is using in the last act means it is entirely possible that, as we followed along with Caul's obsessive examination of his surveillance recordings, we've been fed bad information, hearing something that wasn't there in the same way Caul may be.

It's brilliant, one of the great 1970s films that has thankfully become acknowledged more in recent years as the issues it raises became more relevant to our everyday life. That it's probably my favorite Coppola movie maybe says as much about my personal tastes and less-than-ideal experience seeing The Godfather as anything else, but I suspect that it will become a more common position as time goes by.

(Fun but not really important: There's a moment during the opening credits that has Teri Garr and Harrison Ford sharing a screen rather than getting it to themselves because they're minor characters/not well known as Frederic Forrest, which amused the audience, especially when Ford actually showed up. Along those lines, I was very happy to see that another character was in fact played by Robert Duvall and I wasn't going crazy despite him going uncredited.)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (The Mad Max Saga, 35mm)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is not a weak movie by any means, but it's the only one in the series that doesn't feel like a reinvention: Where Mad Max felt unique for taking place at what seemed like the final moment before societal collapse, Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) pushed the character into a garish hellscape almost disconnected from the world that came before, and Fury Road would recast Max and put a detailed twenty-first century stamp on the aesthetics, Thunderdome feels like George Miller giving the audience more of what they liked with The Road Warrior. Tina Turner is on hand and on the soundtrack to make it an easier sale to the audiences who liked Mel Gibson, now a big star, but weren't sure about the pulpy sci-fi strangeness of the series.

Of course, even doing that sort of sequel, Miller and his collaborators (co-writer Terry Hayes, co-director George Ogilvie, and all the folks building Max's crazy world) are not exactly holding back - Thunderdome itself and the denizens of Bartertown may clearly be the product of the same world that produced The Lord Humungous, but there is intricacy to their realization despite the grunginess. If Max's time with the lost children becomes an extended riff on how the past and present are sinking quickly into legend even as the survivors are quickly going to need something more substantial than fairy stories - the pregnant girl seems to be grasping this instinctively - because the previous film ended with the character passing into myth, it's at least filled out this time around.

Seeing this after Fury Road makes it feel like this one takes a while to get to the chase scene that has become the series's signature, but that will skew anything. The one this has is pretty spiffy itself, and the way a character flips from bondage-geared "Master" to a train conductor almost out of a children's book. Of course, seeing it thirty years late means I can't help but see the "Thunderdome" sequence in terms of how it was reused in Babe: Pig in the City, rather than vice versa.

Mad Max: Fury Road

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (The Mad Max Saga, DCP)

In a weird bit of timing, the third time I see this movie in a theater is the first time I wind up writing about it. But it feels like I've got very little that I can add to what a lot of people have said about it. It's fantastic, one of the most amazing action movies to come out in years, a masterpiece of telling the story through action rather than exposition. Nux is probably the greatest example of it - very little is done to explain what makes him and other war boys like him tick, but we get the guy through how he acts and what he does.

The development time for this movie was infamously protracted, but I suspect that it's hard to think of a case where that helped more. How early, for instance, did Miller have the idea of Max as "blood bag" to go along with the lactating women and more obvious bits of objectification to put him in the unfamiliar-for-men position of being valued for his body rather than anything he can actually do. Miller has talked about how, with seemingly endless pre-production time, they refined the props and elements to give them backstory and meaning (some of which wound up in the sadly redundant comics), and one of the unexpected end results is how different Fury Road looks from its predecessors. Rather than bondage gear designed to shock, there's a practical logic to these characters' wardrobes, a creepy pallor to the War Boys, a synthetic mythology built to control that makes sense.

Miller and cinematographer John Seale shot it digitally, and rather than trying to recreate the battered look of the previous [two] movies, there's sharpness and a forbidding beauty to the desert that the previous entries didn't allow themselves. I wonder, idly, if there's meaning to this - if the Mel Gibson movies were about civilization falling and people trying to eke out an existence any way they can, maybe the Tom Hardy ones will be about the people who rebuild, with the still-dangerous but more sunny visuals symbolizing hope and a new day.

So long as it means more amazing chases and action like this, I'm down for that. That Fury Road is a modern action masterpiece is no longer surprising the third time through, but it doesn't lose its ability to thrill.

The WalkLady in the LakeThe Devil Is a Woman / Shanghai ExpressThe ConversationYou and MeThey Drive By NightComing HomeJazbaaCrimson PeakBridge of Spies

Mad Max 3/4Beasts of No NationAttack on Titan: End of the WorldExtraordinary TalesVictoriaThe Algerian

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

Not my plan for Sunday, but the public transportation chain I was counting on to get to Revere and Ladrones (even if I hadn't been curious about that, when a niche film hangs around for a third week, you owe it to yourself to see what's up if you've got a broad interest in movies)... Well, something didn't click, and this was the option that made the most sense.

Time-wise, I mean; I suppose there was something else I could have seen, but I was one stop away on the Orange Line and this was the most convenient thing I hadn't seen; that it didn't have a review on EFC gave it a little push as well. As always, "next thing playing" is seldom the best way to choose which movie to see.

Anyway, did anyone else find themselves thinking that we just saw I, Frankenstein a year and a half ago and that it was the same thing? I had about the same reaction to them, too - it was pretty easy to see where these things could have been fun, given a good villain and a little time to shake things out, but movies aren't like TV series in that they get the leeway to work the kinks out, no matter how much it sometimes seems the action/adventure part of the business wants to have that kind of episodic structure.

The Last Witch Hunter

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #6 (first-run, DCP)

That The Last Witch Hunter didn't particularly impress on its first weekend at the box office may not mean anything for its long-term prospects; look at how many sequels to Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious that Vin Diesel has done without those necessarily being huge hits initially. The irony is, those were modest, basically self-contained productions where this is a big and expensive thing that plays like a TV pilot, and it's not always the thing designed to hook people long-term that actually does.

This starts with not one, but two, sequences meant to build up the film's world: The first takes place eight hundred years in the past, when a group of burly warriors look to kill the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) who has unleashed the Black Plague, with Kaulder (Diesel) managing it but being cursed with her immortality as an act of revenge. In the present, he's handling it pretty well, spotting a young witch who has handled some objects of great power carelessly on a plane and nearly brings it down. Kaulder doesn't execute witches these days, though - there's a truce that allows for imprisonment for those who use their powers to harm humans, administered on the human side by the Ax & Cross, a secret wing of the Catholic Church (or I suppose they could be Episcopalian). A priest taking the name "Dolan" chronicles Kaulder's deeds, although the 36th (Michael Caine) is retiring after fifty years in favor of a younger man (Elijah Wood). Magical foul play prevents old Dolan from enjoying his retirement, and with the clues to what is afoot apparently being locked in Kaulder's mind, he enlists Chloe (Rose Leslie), a young witch who specializes in memory potions.

A generation ago, movies like this weren't nearly so elaborate in construction, and that's not just because producers are looking for something that can handle half a dozen sequels without being stretched and distorted away from its original appeal; the audience that wants and expects details is no longer a niche but the mainstream. The filmmakers don't do a bad job of world-building at all, and not just because they've got a Michael Caine voiceover on tap for early moments when a little straight-up exposition is necessary. The writers find the important balance between building a setting which feels open rather than purpose-built on the one hand and not introducing too many things that won't actually be useful on the other. As this sort of modern fantasy goes, it's fairly well-constructed and the story is surprisingly tight.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Away from Home: Victoria and The Algerian

Unintentional theme days are kind of cool, and this one was unintentional, as I didn't realize that the title character of Victoria was a girl from Madrid living in Germany. Nothing nefarious about that, unless this was a decision made so that German filmmakers setting their film in Berlin with an 80+% German cast would have an excuse to shoot in English and thus have a bigger market.

I think it worked - does it get nearly as much attention at film festivals and followed up by a decent-sized American release if it's in German? I honestly have no idea, but I do think this one was helped a bit by the festival bubble. It's pretty good, but I think its specific technical achievements will pay better to a film festival crowd than the average moviegoer, and there did seem to be a bit of an echo chamber effect coming out of Fantastic Fest, at least compared to how much I actually found myself enjoying the movie.

With a stop at the grocery store in between, it was a fairly quick turnaround between one and the next, and there were folks taking photos with the poster when I got there and was the first one into the auditorium. I hoped like heck that they weren't cast/crew members who were going to see that only one person had paid to see their movie on a Saturday night.

Not sure whether these were the guys taking pictures, but they were here to support the movie: Left to right, radio host Jeff Santos, writer/director/editor/producer/other things Giovanni Zelko, and composer James Bartlett. They did a brief Q&A after the film, and though they thankfully never talked about money, the kind of shoestring they were working on was fairly clear: Zelko talked about this taking a long time to get done - a couple years of shooting and a couple years of post-production, which suggests they were doing what they could whenever they had time and/or money - and while Bartlett is studying at Berklee College of Music now, he was a teenager when he scored the picture. It's not unreasonable to cut a movie working that close to the edge a little slack, even if they don't ask for it.

The audience wasn't just me, and I'm kind of curious how many of the dozen or so other people in attendance knew about this beforehand and how - I don't recall any notation on the Apple Cinemas website mentioning a filmmaker appearance, and I didn't see any signage touting it at the actual location. This is the second time something like this has been a bit of a surprise there, and it makes me wonder if this was a case of the movie booking the theater rather than vice versa, with the theater-owners leaving any promotion in the hands of the distributor.

It's not hugely surprising that of the dozen or so cities showing the film this weekend, the director came to Boston; New York and Los Angeles were conspicuously absent on the distributor's website. Given that 23 October is one of three release dates I've seen for this movie (one in June and one in August), I wonder if it played those markets then. Weird delayed strategy, if that's the case.

Anyway, they're both in fairly limited release in Cambridge - Victoria advertised as one week only at the Kendall and The Algerian not only just having a split theater at Fresh Pond, but the evening show switched from 7pm to 9:40pm after the filmmakers split town.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

In certain hands, Victoria might just have been an impressive achievement in logistics for hitting an ambitious set of marks as a single-shot, real-time thriller. It winds up being a fair bit better than that, even if there are moments when one might wish that that there was a bit more than an editor could do for it.

It starts out in a Berlin nightclub, where the girl of the title (Laia Costa) seems to be enjoying herself despite not picking up a whole lot of German in the three months she's been living there. As she's leaving, a group of four locals are being denied entry. One, Sonne (Frederick Lau), seems to really like her, so she hangs out with him, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff) for a bit. Soon after they part ways so that she can get to her day job, the guys wind up needing help - Boxer owes a gangster (André Hennicke) a favor, and Fuss is in no position to do his part. Which is how Victoria winds up driving the getaway car as they rob a private bank at daybreak.

The gimmick for Victoria is that the whole 134 minutes of action is one single shot, making those of us not exceptionally well-versed in film production wonder just what credited editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm did beyond deciding how to fade in at the beginning and out at the end. It would be a heck of an accomplishment if the characters stayed in one place, but they get in and out of cars to travel between a half-dozen locations in the city. As much as I wonder if this would be consciously or subconsciously appreciated by those unaware of the technique going in, it's hard not to appreciate the marathon work of the cast and crew once you are aware.

Full review on EFC.

The Algerian

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2015 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #4 (first-run, DCP)

It's easy to see the kind of thriller that The Algerian's makers want it to be, so plain on its face that the two or three actors that audiences recognize from more polished material can seem far out of place: Writer/director Giovanni Zelko doesn't camouflage what he wants the audience to get out of his film at all, and it often seems clumsy as a result. The flip-side of that lack of subtlety is clarity, and one can't really argue that he doesn't get what he means to say across.

The Algerian of the title is Ali (Ben Youcef), whose family was killed in an explosion when he was just a boy and is arriving in Los Angeles to study for a graduate degree in engineering twenty years later. Well, that's his cover - two years ago, he was recruited by a man known as "Father" (Said Faraj) to help with the deployment of a certain device. As a sleeper agent, his mission is mostly to live the sort of ordinary life that doesn't get noticed, and that winds up including a number of people he might not want to die in a terrorist attack: Bicycle shop owner and fellow middle-eastern coffee enthusiast Mohammed (Zuhair Haddad); Lana (Candice Coke), a New York transplant he prevents from being assaulted outside a club; local imam Suleyman (Harry Lennix); fellow student Sara (Tara Holt); and Patrick (Josh Pence), a workout buddy down at the beach.

The mind of a would-be terrorist is difficult for an outsider to understand, and it's when Zelko and company try to put hostile words in Ali's mouth that the film is at its weakest, though the later earnest explanations are often just as awkward: Everyone, at some point, blurts out the obvious thing that makes him or her act a certain way, and it seldom feels truly organic, or even like a cathartic contrast to what they have been keeping hidden. All too often, it feels like Zelko has a strong idea of his characters and what they need to do, but not the finesse to have them do it in a less blunt manner.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mini-releases: Extraordinary Tales and Attack on Titan: End of the World

Weird cross-town double feature on Friday: It didn't start until 9:30pm, the first part was distributed by "GKids" despite probably getting an R rating if they had bothered submitting it to the MPAA, and the second was distributed by Funimation despite being live-action. On top of that, Extraordinary Tales was also subtitled in French throughout, and I kind of wonder what was up with that - is it because the film is a co-production with Luxembourg and the subtitles were "burned-in" on the DCP, were there Francophones in the audience who requested them, or did someone screw up in the projection booth? Not horribly distracting, but strange.

Also: It's starting to get cold late, especially when the Coolidge has scheduled a quick 10-minute turnaround between features so you've got to wait outside for the doors to open for the midnight. At least taking the 66/Red Line home doesn't seem impossible after a midnight feature there, as I've been worried it might be after the move.

Not a bad way to get in the Halloween spirit, though. I'm just kind of surprised that I didn't run into either my Poe-loving or Titan-loving friends!

Those folks should see these movies soon if they want to catch them in theaters; Extraordinary Tales is only playing two shows a day at Boston Common, neither during the 7 o'clock prime time position, while Attack on Titan Part 2 had its last show at the Coolidge tonight and has just a couple more scheduled at Kendall Square and Revere over the week. The former is available streaming on Amazon, sure, but it's big-screen-worthy, and I'm not sure what Funimation's plans for the Attack on Titan duology is.

Extraordinary Tales

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2015 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Raul Garcia has been making the various pieces of Extraordinary Tales for a while; three of its five segments, all based upon Edgar Allan Poe stories, are listed on the IMDB as shorts released as far back as 2005, and likely in the works before that. That works to the film's advantage; attacking these five stories individually gives the production some surprising variety for a project where one director tackles the work of one author. It's got a distinctive voice used in many interesting ways.

Admittedly, it's a little wobbly early on, as the opening credits and framing material represent Poe as a raven (voice of Stephen Hughes) flying around a graveyard, speaking to statues and/or the embodiment of death. The style can best be described as "CGI approximating papercraft", which highlights something that does seem to unite every segments: Most do feel like a specific style or technique being recreated digitally, and the gap between what the animators can handle on a modest budget and what the presumed real thing looks like is noticeable. Also, this sort of segment is always tricky, trying to tell a story of their own while leading in and out of the short films, and Garcia's story about Poe is not as intriguing as the ones Poe wrote.

Things start off with "The Fall of the House of Usher", and while the "CGI approximating woodcarving" looks a bit rough at times, it lends itself to some nifty effects - the house of the title is riddled with gigantic cracks at the start, and aside from a great ghost and an interesting flattening effect as the segment goes on. Plus, the narration is by Christopher Lee, and basically perfect - aside from having the perfect voice for the material, he's one of the few who can drop into an alternate character without it sounding odd.

Full review on EFC.

Shingeki no kyojin endo obu za wârudo (Attack on Titan: End of the World)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2015 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (After Midnite/Fresh Meat, DCP)

The two Attack on Titan live-action films, released just months apart in Japan and weeks apart in the United States, total just under three hours between them, which makes me suspect that they really should have been a single epic-length feature. On the other hand, this weaker second installment may argue against that - after all, would you rather have two short movies, one pretty good and the other so-so, or one that starts out well but doesn't quite stick the landing? This second part isn't bad, but it's not the crazy fun that the first one was.

Of course, the first left a mess - the mission to recover the last of humanity's explosives and collapse the hole in the wall meant to keep man-eating Titans out of the citadel ended in disaster, with Armin (Kanata Hongo), Misaka (Kiko Mizuhara), Sasha (Nanami Sakuraba), Hange Zoe (Satomi Ishihara) and the rest only alive because being swallowed by a Titan didn't kill Eren (Haruma Miura) but instead created a new Titan that killed the rest before Eren could be cut out of its neck. Now, Director Kubal (Jun Kunimura) figures they should kill Eren to prevent this from happening again, but Eren is snatched up by another mutant Titan before it can be done. The survivors of that attack think there might be one last way to complete their mission, while Eren learns the secret history of the Titans.

They say to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it, and that is somewhat true here - while watching and writing about the first, I mused that the concentric circles of the city may denote a hierarchy, and screenwriters Tomohiro Machiyama & Yusuke Watanabe wind up spending a lot of time running with that idea. Unfortunately, the fallout from the first episode means that there are a heck of a lot more exciting things going on - who cares about a caste system when there are giant zombies to kill? That's stuff you use to create tension early on before the characters learn to come together! Relatedly, a prologue suggests hints at why Eren survived being swallowed whole while most would just be digested, but it still leaves a lot of what happens later unexplained and feels like a short-cut to making sure the audience hates the ruling class (they burn books, after all).

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crime, Noir, and Proto-Noir: Lady in the Lake, The Devil Is a Woman, Shanghai Express, You and Me, and They Drive by Night

October has been a good month for folks who like black-and-white crime in Harvard Square, as the Harvard Film Archive has kept up their "Five O'Clock Shadow" series (which I hope just becomes a regular Sunday afternoon thing beyond the current calendar) while the Brattle kicked off what they describe as a year-long celebration of film noir's 75th anniversary with a "proto-noir" series, examining the crime, horror, and other films that served as the ancestors of what French critics would later call "film noir".

It was a kind of discombobulating series for me, in part because it winds up highlighting elements that are fairly secondary for some of these films. You tell me this is noir, and I go in looking for crime, and when what comes out is more of a comedy or romance, it winds up feeling more disappointing than it should be. It's important to remember to take things as they are, rather than for what they are expected to be, because ambitious people generally don't make a movie based upon how well it fits into a box.

And, hey, considering that these two series are taking place in a spot that refers to itself as Boston's unofficial film school and in the basement of an actual school, it's good to feel like I'm learning something. If I had more time, I would consider outright re-reviewing Shanghai Express, as I was not great at appreciating vintage movies back in '04, or just writing in general. This isn't the time to do it, not least because I was fairly worn out for the Sunday double-feature at the Brattle, and try not to give full write-ups to movies where I might have missed a few minutes.

Also, I need to unpack my books. Lady in the Lake gave me a hankering to actually hear Chandler's words in my head again.

Lady in the Lake

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (Five O'Clock Shadow, 35mm)

This is a review that one would like to start with "Lady in the Lake is best known for its gimmick, but..." before listing all of the other great things that make it worthy of note. And while star Robert Montgomery's first film as a director is capable and creative enough, it lacks the personality that makes Raymond Chandler's mysteries so entertaining, and a unique first-person perspective isn't a great trade.

Philip Marlowe (Montgomery) begins the tale by addressing the audience directly, mentioning the murder case that's been in the news, before detail his involvement. He's called to the office of a magazine that publishes detective stories to be told he's sold one, although editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) also would like to retain him as a detective to track down the wife of her boss, Dearce Kingsby (Leon Ames), whom she has clear designs on. The trail leads to the suburbs and gigolo Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), as well as to the Kingsbys' vacation house, where the caretaker's wife has recently drowned. When Marlowe comes looking for Lavery and instead finds a gun-toting landlady (Jayne Meadows) - well, that's where the mystery gets complicated.

Raymond Chandler's Marlowe stories were written in the first person, so it's not an unreasonable idea to try and shoot a movie adapting one that way, especially as advances in technology were making the cameras more mobile than they had been before that point. That Montgomery plays the main character - whether as a voice or a face in the mirror - and directs isn't necessary but seems right, and on a strictly technical level, he and cinematographer Paul C. Vogel handle this smoothly enough, giving us a steadier perspective and maybe moving a bit slower than would be strictly realistic but not creating the motion-sickness issues often associated with the contemporary use of the technique in horror movies. A fair number of the shots are clearly playing with the technique, but it's enjoyable to watch the filmmakers experiment and things like watching Marlowe's gaze track the receptionist played by Lila Leeds are amusing.

Full review on EFC.

The Devil Is a Woman

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

I suspect that I would like The Devil Is a Woman a bit more in another context; while one can see the roots of what would become film noir in it, the film itself is too lighthearted when you're anticipating that kind of crime story. Marlene Dietrich's Concha Perez may do a lot of things that would define later femmes fatales, but she's almost too cheerful about it, so frivolous that it's hard to take the film's later dramatics seriously.

The flashback structure undermines it a bit, too. It starts out as an entertaining enough romance - handsome young rebel (Cesar Romero) hiding out during festival season falls for the town's prettiest girl, only to be treated to a long flashback when he asks an older friend who has settled down (Lionel Atwill) what he knows about her - which is that she is trouble in an almost comically exaggerated way. It's so plainly laid out, complete with a funny, flighty performance by Dietrich, that the eventual duel is more frustrating than tragic. These guys know better, and Concha is so nakedly opportunistic that either convincing himself that he is her true love is a step too far.

So despite having the template of both a historical romance or tale of obsession, it doesn't work very well as either. As a comic take on those ideas, though, it has its moments - Dietrich is funny and exaggerated but also surprisingly introspective at the moments when Concha might seem most like an unchangeable force-of-nature plot driver, while Edward Everett Horton is a hoot as the frustrated ocal governor. Both Skipworth and Romero make for appealing men who find that they are no match for Concha.

It's an awkward split between them, although that split is the point of the story - that she will leave a trai of helpless men in her wake. Maybe that would work a bit better if it were less funny, although that seems an odd thing to say about a movie that is actually good at getting laughs.

Shanghai Express

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, DCP)

It's been a while since I last saw Shanghai Express - this blog was very young - and I wasn't terribly impressed (and nobody's going to be imperssed with that writing, either). It's still not a particular favorite, although I have developed more of a taste for this sort of 1930s melodrama since, and there's no denying that Josef von Sternberg mounts a very impressive production, and one that seems a little more willing to wrestle with its colonialist underpinnings than other films of its time, even if one of the two most prominent Chinese characters is played by a white guy.

As much as I find myself appreciating what it does do better now, I do still think it suffers a bit for trying to be a romance at heart and really not really doing much with the relationship between Dietrich's "Shanghai Lily" and Clive Brook's handsome but bland English army doctor; they're not a compelling enough pairing to outshine the great big pile of characters stashed around them.

Unlike The Devil Is a Woman, though, it does well being slotted into this "proto-noir" program; one can see it trying to evolve into something moodier and more dangerous rather than something relatively bound by convention.

You and Me

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

The title of "You and Me" was likely bestowed upon this film with no small about of playfulness; a couple buying tickets to see this odd assembly of romance and crime in 1938 might joke about Paramount pointedly trying to make a movie for both of them. It comes together much better than one might expect for that, as it turns out, and has matured into the sort of second-tier vintage film that may not be essential, but is certainly entertaining and interesting.

Then, as now, folks who had been to jail had a difficult time finding work after being released, so it's notable that department-store owner Jerome Morris (Harry Carey) is willing to hire parolees. One who works in the sporting-goods department, Joe Dennis (George Raft), has kept his nose clean and is now a free man planning to take Morris's recommendation with him to a new life in California, despite gangster Mickey Bain (Barton McLane) trying to recruit him for a job. A celebratory drink with his co-worker Helen (Sylvia Sidney) where he realizes that he likes her as more than a friend changes his plans - they find a justice of the peace, get married, and move into her apartment, wtih Joe getting his old job back. Helen warns him that they have to keep quiet about their marriage at work, because it's against store policy, but the truth is that she is also on parole, and marriage is a violation.

That seems like a bizarre restriction to put on a parolee, both because it leads to goofy moments like Helen's parole officer saying "no falling in love!" as a stern order and because one would think that the justice system would want to encourage that kind of stability even if it doesn't exactly push people toward marriage, but, hey, it's not like we've ironed all the contradictory impulses out of our criminal justice system seventy-five years later. That Helen doesn't tell Joe that she's also on parole early on and thus avoid a whole lot of hassle does occasionally seem to be on shaky ground; for as much as screenwriter Virginia Van Upp makes sure the audience sees that the parolees aren't informed of each others' status and that Joe is a bit of hypocrite about this, the double-standard she's fighting against could be a bit more prominent.

Full review on EFC.

They Drive By Night

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

Depending on your perspective, They Drive by Night either takes its sweet time in becoming a crime story or veers off from its story of the challenges faced by the independent trucker in pretty spectacular fashion. I'm going to go with the first, because that puts Ida Lupino's femme fatale front and center, even if it does push Humphrey Bogart off to the side. Director Raoul Walsh and company may handle both halves fairly well, but it's the flamboyant one that gets remembered.

It starts with the Fabrini brothers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul (Bogart), co-owners and drivers of a truck that mostly moves produce up and down the California coast, this time a shipment of apples. A delay because of a blown tire puts them behind the eight-ball with a loan shark seeing a chance to repossess their truck, but also means they can pick up some better cargo - hitchhiker Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan), who has has enough of the wandering hands at the greasy spoon where she was working as a waitress. Paul is happily married, but Joe falls hard. Being an independent means taking on a lot of risk, though, both financially and in terms of driving dangerously, which might make an offer from Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) to drive for his company tempting, despite the advances of Ed's wife Lana (Lupino).

There's something almost instructional about the first half of They Drive by Night, not so much that a person could operate a trucking business afterward, but they might get some idea of what the job entails - long nights, days away from the family, a genuinely difficult decision in terms of working for one's self or someone else, razor thin margins for error, the danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Marsh and screenwriters Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay (adapting an A.I. Bezzerides novel) don't stop to explain much, although the Fabrinis will occasionally toss a line Cassie's way when things aren't immediately clear, and rather than making it dry, it's bolstered by some earnest drama and colorful characters. It's not a bad movie about trucking even without a heightened storyline.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 October 2015 - 29 October 2015

It's kind of a shame that The Independent Film Festival Boston doesn't label individual iterations with edition numbers rather than years, because then we could say this coming week is IFFBoston 13.5. "2015½" doesn't quite have the same ring, although I will be describing their "Fall Focus" series as that all week anyway.

Also, let me just say that I love the idea of festivals having "and-a-half" editions six months after the main program; there are a lot of films that just aren't available in April but don't have a place to play in the a given when they are on the festival circuit and on the cusp of release. Honestly, every festival should try to do this.

That said, no way in hell I'm going to be running around Montreal in late January/early February if Fantasia starts having one.

  • Before that starts, though, The Brattle Theatre will be bringing back a sleeper from this year's festival, Stray Dog. It's a documentary by Debra Granik, following one of the crew/cast members she met filming Winter's Bone, a Vietnam veteran/biker looking to bring his Mexican wife's family to Missouri. It plays Friday and Saturday with Granik on-hand for the 7pm shows, as well as Sunday afternoon. Friday and Saturday also have 9:30pm screenings of Tales of Halloween, a fun anthology from a dozen of horror's best young directors. Even later on Saturday, there's the finale of their "Reel Weird Brattle: Animated Weirdness" series, Ghost in the Shell, which I believe is the original version as opposed to the newer "v2.0".

    Then, on Sunday night, the IFFBoston Fall Focus series begins with Michael Moore's latest, Where to Invade Next, continueing with The Invitation on Monday, Entertainment on Tuesday, The Assassin on Wednewday, and Anomalisa on Thursday. Heck of a line-up.
  • Not a bad week to avoid the multiplexes, then, where there seems to be a lot of crud coming out. Consider The Last Witch Hunter, which features Vin Diesel in the title role, with Elijah Wood as his sidekick and Michael Caine calling the shots. Doesn't look great, and it might be the best of the bunch. It's at the Arlington Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row,and Revere. Also on the spooky side is Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which supposedly finishes the series and somehow manages to be in 3D despite being a found footage film. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere (including the MX4D screen).

    There's also the latest Hasbro adaptation, Jem and the Holograms, which fans have been saying is a complete botch of the original, and it's kind of nice to be hearing a different group saying that. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    On a more upbeat note, Steve Jobs expands to more theaters - the Somerville, Coolidge, Embassy, Fenway, Assembly Row, and the SuperLux, in addition to Kendall Square and Boston Common. Boston Common also gives a couple showtimes per day to Extraordinary Tales, an animated anthology with in which director Raul Garcia animates five different Edgar Allen Poe stories, some of which apparently were done as shorts earlier, including one narrated by Bela Lugosi. Speaking of, Revere will be showing a double feature of Dracula and "Spanish Dracula" on Sunday and Wednesday, along with John Carpenter's Halloween on Thursday.
  • Along with Steve Jobs, The Coolidge Corner Theatre also opens Room (as does the Kendall and Boston Common), a pretty terrific-looking movie starring Brie Larson as a mother kept prisoner with her son in a small room for five years, with the room being the only world the child knows.

    The midnight shows this weekend including Attack on Titan: Part 2, which also plays Kendall Square & Revere on Tuesday. The other midnight show is a 35mm print of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, when Universal tried to make the series more of an anthology rather than just having it focus on Michael Myers, which clearly didn't take. There's also a Big Screen Classic on Monday, with a 35mm print of The Bride of Frankenstein
  • One more wide release at Kendall Square, the new Bill Murray movie directed by Barry Levinson, Rock the Kasbah, with Murray as a washed-up talent agent who winds up stranded in Afghanistan after a series of mishaps. In addition to the Kendall, it's also at the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    There's also Labyrinth of Lies (also at West Newton), which tells the tale of an idealistic young lawyer in post-war Germany who looked to bring the Nazi atrocities into the public when many would choose to forget. Also from German, for one week, Victoria, a heist thriller shot in one 130-plus-minute take, and from the trailer it's not even close to confined to one location, which looks amazing.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond holds over Pyaar Punchnama 2 and opens Shaandaar, a romantic comedy with Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhaat, and Pankaj Kapoor as a bridesmaid, a wedding planner, and a protective father at a destination wedding in Europe. There's also Telugu war story Kanche for those who speak that language.

    In English, they've got The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the Tesseracte Players at 11:59pm on Friday (Boston Common has its regular "Full Body Cast" show at midnight on Saturday), and The Algerian for morning and evening shows daily starting Friday; that one's a thriller following a middle-eastern sleeper through America.
  • The Capitol continues their tribute to the late Wes Craven on Thursday with a double feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors.
  • Bright Lights is also going with Halloween-inspired programming, with What We Do in the Shadows on Tuesday and It Follows on Thursday. As usual, the screenings are free and feature discussions led by Emerson professors at the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room.
  • The Harvard Film Archive gives prime time to the cinema essays of Thom Anderson this weekend, with "Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams" at 7pm Friday, playing with a 35mm print of one of those films, The Blood of Jesus, and a program of shorter, (mostly) 16mm films Saturday night. Both nights have later presentations from the Matter of Life and Death series of movies-about-movies, with Confessions Among Actresses Friday at 9pm, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie in 35mm at 8:30pm on Saturday.

    "Five O'Clock Shadow" on Sunday is Max Ophüls's The Reckless Moment; the evening show that day is their third and final Paul Sharits shorts program. Monday's "Furious and Furiouser" presentation is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, presented in 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps up their Boston Palestine Film Festival over the weekend, with directors Carole Mansour and Gabriele Del Grande in person for We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear and On the Bride's Side, respectively, on Sunday. It's mostly shorter works this weekend. On Wednesday, they begin a brief run of A Small Good Thing, a documentary on living smaller, more satisfying lives by Pamela Tanne Boll.
  • The Regent Theatre actually has a fair amount of film this week - The 10th Annual Boston Bike Fim Festival is Friday evening, featuring a program of 26 short cycling-related films. Documentary Hannah: Buddhism's Untold Journey plays Tuesday, telling the tale of how a Dutch hippy and her husband helped bring Buddhism to the West in the 1960s and 1970s. There's also a short program on Wednesday, Telluride MountainFim on Tour, which features selections of outdoor adventure films from the fest in its name.

So, I'll be making near-daily trips to the Brattle for the festival, and before/around that, I hope to hit Extraordinary Tales, Attack on Titan 2, Victoria, Ladrones, and The Algerian. That's ambitious, though. Mostly, count on me being at IFFBoston 2015½ most days.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beasts of No Nation

About half a dozen people in the theater last night, which is probably about as good as you can expect for a weeknight showing of a longish movie with disturbing subject matter that is also appearing on NetFlix the same day as it hit theaters, meaning that a lot of people wound up seeing it at home.

I wonder about the handful of people seeing it with me, a bit - how many of them are like me, the odd folks who love movies but don't subscribe to Netflix? I'm not necessarily a hold-out as much as I have trouble with the idea of paying a monthly fee while I've got a pile of discs I've purchased but not watched and will likely go to the theater every night I can. How many are like that guy sitting in the front row, wanting to use every bit of his peripheral vision to see what turns out to be a film that earns such treatment? How many are like the guy behind me, whom may have found this to be the only thing starting at around 8pm and didn't seem prepared for one of the more gut-punching moments of violence?

I don't understand how the finances work in the movie industry under the best of situations, and I only sort of grasp what's going on here: Beasts is a very polished movie but likely a hard sell on its own because of the material, but Netflix doesn't need to sell one of these; it needs to offer a steady enough stream of them to get people to subscribe. It's risk reduction.

Still, I like the big screen, even with a large TV in a small living room at my disposal, and I wonder if there's something to be done about it. Hollywood Movie Money tickets for subscribers, perhaps? Not that certain chains will let themselves get into bed with the enemy in any way, but I fear that there aren't enough folks out there who will regularly make the decision to pay to watch something that they can see free at home, no matter how much better the presentation is, even though that experience is worth preserving for films like this.

Beasts of No Nation

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

Horror is assumed going into a film like Beasts of No Nation; the audience knows about child soldiers and African chaos on a factual level and has perhaps steeled itself for that. Filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga never missteps there, but where many would make the whole production ugly, he constantly reminds us that Africa is beautiful, twisting the knife just a bit more.

That beauty can exist in the middle of a country at war with itself, such as the unnamed one where Agu (Abraham Attah) lives at the start. His mother (Anna K. Abebrese) is religious, his father (Kobina Amissah-Sam) is a teacher and community leader, his big brother (Francis Weddey) is girl-crazy, and his best friend Dike (Emmanuel Affadzi) may be short, but he's funny and extroverted. When the buffer zone where his village is located shrinks to nothing, he's barely able to escape into the forest, and it's not long before a group of rebels finds him. Their Commandant (Idris Elba) has charisma and a way of turning kids into fierce soldiers - witness Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) and a second-in-command (Kurt Egyiawan) barely out of his teens, and no issue killing those that don't get with the program.

What Fukunaga is trying to do with the start isn't exactly a mystery, but it's no less effective for being transparent. Heck, those in a North American audience may watch the scenes of kids running around their neighborhood, making their own entertainment instead of plopping down in front of a screen, and getting smiled at by a friendly cop, and feel a bit nostalgic, never mind that the "cop" is an ECOMOD peacekeeper. As much as Fukunaga doesn't hide the danger, there's something about this place that the audience doesn't just see as the best an African kid could hope for but wants for itself, and seeing that admittedly precarious tranquility ripped away works.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Last Thursday: Jazbaa & Coming Home

Don't put things off until the last day of its run, because the schedule just may not work out. Case in point: I would have much rather used half of my last-chance double feature to see Pawn Sacrifice rather than Jazbaa, but it had no 7pm show. It seems slugs like myself who do try and scramble are going to have to take the increasing number of Thursday-night previews into consideration and start doing catch-up on Wednesday night.

Maybe I should have passed on Jazbaa anyway, even if it's easier for me to actually convince myself to see a two-multiplex double-feature than one 9:30pm movie on a weeknight, because as I mention in the review, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a bad movie before going in, and that attitude can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm pretty sure that Jazbaa was just going to stink anyway, but I don't want to be the guy with the crappy attitude accused of being biased.

One thing that surprised me was that Coming Home came out in China back in May of 2014, and I've gotten so used to major Chinese movies arriving in the United States at the same time as China that a seventeen-month delay seems way out of the ordinary now, even though it was once just what you expected. I suspect that there may still be a few stragglers, movies with directors like Zhang Yimou who are well-known to American audiences and therefore have studios looking to acquire them and fit them onto a schedule and thus making us wait a year and a half.

That's kind of crazy. Sure, I realize that Coming Home probably made more money in America than even Lost in Hong Kong, but that didn't have much if any advertising targeting anyone but the expatriate crowd. I wouldn't be surprised if very few of those didn't bother with the American release because they've probably had legal import DVDs for a year, and my question is whether something has to be either/or - is it possible for a rapid release to get to non-Chinese-American art-house crowds in order to capture a films entire prospective audience, or are we just too conditioned to having our boutique houses curated to actually jump into foreign films sight unseen?


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2015 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #7 (first-run, DCP)

I don't know a lot about Bollywood, but there are a few names I recognize. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, top star often celebrated as one of the world's most beautiful women and returning from a long maternity break; Irrfan Khan, an actor also getting a fair amount of work on this side of the planet; and Sanjay Gupta, a hack director best known for remaking non-Indian films without necessarily giving the original filmmakers credit. Put them together, and you get something a lot of movie-lovers dread - a picture that will almost certainly be terrible but which one feels almost compelled to check out anyway. Jazbaa lives down to expectations.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays Anuradha Verma, one of Mumbai's top criminal attorneys, albeit one who seems to be a loving and attentive mother to her daughter Sanaya (Priya Banerjee) when she's not keeping gangsters and corrupt executives from serving their time. That is how she comes by her newest case - she is blackmailed into preventing Niyaz (Chandan Roy Sanyal) from receiving the death sentence after being convicted for raping and murdering an art student at his hearing four days from now when someone kidnaps Sanaya. Fortunately the arresting officer, Detective Yohaan (Irrfan Khan), is both on suspension and a long-time friend of Anu, quite willing to introduce her to the victim's mother Garima (Shabana Azmi) and help her track down Sam (Siddhanth Kapoor), a potential witness that suggests Niyaz may not be guilty at all - but who is willing to go so far to prove this?

This time around, Gupta's film credits its source - South Korean film Seven Days, noteworthy for Yunjin Kim shooting it between seasons of Lost - and it follows the same beats even as it compresses the timeframe (to be fair, the original seemed to be stretched). The original was also surprisingly gruesome at points, and Gupta scales the gore down, as the difference between what Indian and South Korean audiences expect from a crime thriller is not small. He handwaves the legal inanities away in a moderately funny moment as Yohaan tells a suspect asking for his rights that he's watched too many Hollywood movies, and this is Bollywood.

Full review on EFC.

Gui lai (Coming Home)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

If Coming Home were just the movie it looked like from the trailer for its American release, it would likely be worth seeing - Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have the track record together and separately that certainly suggests that they could elevate a simple medical weepy into something more than maudlin. As it turns out, that conventional story winds up less interesting than what goes on around it, which makes the film well worth standing alongside Zhang's and Gong's other great collaborations.

It opens in 1975, with Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a dissident who has been in prison for ten years, escaping while being transferred between trains in his hometown. Officials immediately come to his family - teacher Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) - and impress upon them how important it is they turn him in should they see him. Several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Lu is deemed "rehabilitated" and released, but when Dandan picks him up at the train station, there is bad news: "Yu" has developed a mental disorder that affects her memory, and her husband's face is among the things she can't remember.

The opening act of Coming Home is something approaching sublime in how it deals less with the principles involved - those are easy - than with the practical human reactions to the situation. Dandan is a gifted dancer, and this sequence plays out with the beautiful precision of a ballet, with the straight-backed daughter who grew up in this system seeming to flit between fealty to the state and loyalty to her mother, her movements complemented by how Lu sneaks around the apartment building and Yu attempts to watch her daughter and watch for her husband. This goes on against a situation built to push a teenager's buttons, with Zhang and screenwriter Zou Jingzhi (working from Yan Geling's novel) respecting the audience enough to keep things low-key; even as characters sometimes seem to reverse twice in a minute, everything is relayed elegantly, without pauses to explain the obvious.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies

We take the regular new arrival of Steven Spielberg films on a regular basis for granted, and we really shouldn't. Consider that this is the first movie since The Color Purple not scored by John Williams. Spielberg works with the same people regularly, but they're all getting up there, and Williams couldn't score this one because of illness.

It won't go on forever. Enjoy it while you can.

Less morbidly: It's interesting that, while I talked about Crimson Peak having an opening act that didn't do much and was contrary to Guillermo Del Toro's tendency to jump right in, Bridge of Spies does the same thing, although its introduction is even more extended. It's so good, though, and could be its own movie, and a pretty good one, even if it did mostly function as set-up.

Bridge of Spies

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

For reasons known only to the marketing departments of the three studios involved, the promotion for Bridge of Spies seems to barely mention that it's directed by Steven Spielberg and has a screenplay co-written by Ethan & Joel Coen, and either individually would be of note, but them working together is kind of a big deal. Maybe it's because it doesn't look like a big deal, or the typical sort of thing either Spielberg or the Coens are thought of as doing. Although, really, they both tend to just make excellent movies rather than specializing in any particular genre, and that's what they've done here.

It starts with Soviet spy Rudof Abel (Mark Rylance) leaving his Brooklyn apartment, retrieving something from a dead drop, and soon getting caught. Wanting to make sure that Abel is seen to have a fair trial, the government recruits lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him. There's never any doubt of the outcome, but while the unexpectedly dedicated Donovan is taking the matter to the supreme court, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is being recruited to fly the U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory - and when he's shot down, someone reaches out to Donovan from the other side of the iron curtain to negotiate an exchange. By the time he arrives in Berlin, there's a wrinkle - American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been caught in the wrong part of Berlin as the wall is going up.

For fans of Cold War spycraft, that segment that kicks everything off is a little delight as the perspective shifts from Abel doing small things that might go unnoticed to a dragnet of FBI agents trying to keep track of one man in a gray suit and hat in the subway of 1957 New York City. Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and editor Michael Kahn - a team that has worked together for over twenty years - shift perspectives in this shell game masterfully, and it's just the first of several sequences that are far more elaborate than a viewer might immediately recognize. Many directors making action movies would love to include a centerpiece as good as the U-2 being shot down, for instance, and it's a bit of color here.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crimson Peak

How do you choose between new Del Toro and new Spielberg movies? Well, if you've got MoviePass, you see one plays at 7:30pm, one at 8pm, and that's how you roll with the 24-hour rule.

Good crowd, although I was kind of surprised just how enthusiastic some of the folks around me were for a movie that I just sort of liked. It looks beautiful, but I don't know that it was actually that romantic. But, hey, if it hits people the right way, good for them.

One thing I wondered, both during and after the film, was whether it was in the wrong aspect ratio - I'm pretty sure the theater ran it in 2.35:1, although the IMDB lists it as 1.85:1 and the whole thing seems to be constructed fairly vertically. There was a scene where half of Tom Hiddleston's face got cut off, too. Not crippling, but odd.

Crimson Peak

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

About a week ago, I saw a horror movie with a much smaller budget than Crimson Peak that was very clearly built around the house where the action occurs, and I propose that the same can be said for this one. Sure, Guillermo Del Toro and his crew had to build the place he saw in his imagination, but this is a movie about taking the audience into Allerdale Hall, with everything else good enough to make the trip there a bit more than gawking at an astounding setting.

Things start elsewhere, in Buffalo, NY, where Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) informs the audience that she has always known there were ghosts; when she was ten, the spirit of her recently-deceased mother warned her not to go to Crimson Peak. Now, at the turn of the twentieth century, she is working on her first book, a "story with a ghost" that betrays her lack of interest in romance, despite the obvious torch being carried by her friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam), a young doctor. It is Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet in town to find funding for an excavation device to re-open the clay mines on his estate, who catches her eye, although her father (Jim Beaver) disapproves. Nevertheless, Edith and Thomas are soon married, returning to Cumberland, England with Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

It takes an unusually long time, by Del Toro standards, to get to this haunted house: For much of his career, at least from Mimic to Pacific Rim, he's tended to do relatively little set-up before getting to the good stuff. Here, he spends a fair amount of time in Buffalo setting up a situation for Edith that does not seem to require such care. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins stretch out the Gothic Romance tropes that they follow almost slavishly; there's not a lot that's unpredictable but care is take to make sure the audience can follow by repeating and elongating points. On top of that, they let some of the air out early, both with an unnecessary flash-forward at the start and the way that ghosts being real is made a given early on, although the point is made about Edith's novel being a story with a ghost rather thana ghost story that any thrills which may come from that are dulled.

Full review on EFC.