Skipping another few weeks because it looks like another document that I need to catch up without rewriting a bunch of stuff is only on my tablet, and the part that the guy needs to fix it doesn't seem to have made it over from China/Korea yet. Folks, do not drop your tablet, and after that, don't dawdle in getting it repaired. I have a case waiting so that it will be protected in the future, but that's hardly ideal right now, is it?
This week got started early, as for some reason The Gunman was only playing at 10:10am for its last weekend in town. It got finished in plenty of time to get me over to Somerville for the monthly silent show, this time the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments.
If I remember correctly, I tried to get to Lexington on Monday, but catching the bus there from Alewife is a tricky thing. So, instead, I rushed to Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond to catch Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!", a surprisingly entertaining Bollywood film that wound up playing much more as a WWII mystery than a pulpy action piece. The next day, I was abe to catch the bus and make it to the Venue for one of the last screenings of '71, a pretty strong thriller set in Belfast during the Troubles.
Last chances to see things were a big part of the week, as I think I caught Focus on the last day it was in town. Saturday, at least, I got to see something new, with the really terrific White God.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please, 35mm)
Cecil B. DeMille did two versions of The Ten Commandments, one silent and one years later with sound, but who ever remembers that the Biblical part of the first was just the prologue, with the story of Moses giving way halfway through to the story of a mother distraught over how one of her two sons isn't being a good boy and following the Commandments, with the way of selfishness inevitably leading to a fall.
It is, frankly, kind of weird; it means that all the stunning spectacle will be before the intermission and the kitchen-sink drama afterward, which even back in 1923 must have been against the conventional wisdom of how to build a film. Yes, the "main" section does have a pretty impressive climax itself as a building constructed with shoddy materials falls apart, but I suspect that moviegoers might have been tempted to head home at the midway point. That second half is ironically more memorable that the first to me in part because I've seen a few different adaptations of Exodus, and slapping a present-day story onto it is thus different in a way that sticks in the head.
It's still not the better part, though, especially seen from ninety years later. Apparently old people have always been whining about how the young don't take their superstition seriously, with DeMille and writer Jeanie Macperson setting up a rigged game that equates being nonreligious with being jerks. It's also worth noting that while the Israelites in Egypt are noble, persecuted people, Sally Lung is described as "a Eurasian" and treated as a sinister foreigner tempting one of the McTavish boys away from all that is right and good.
DeMille always did spectacle well, and when he concentrates on that here, there's no denying he built something worth buying a ticket to see. His skills as a dramatist are sketchier, though, and that makes this version of The Ten Commandments sillier than perhaps it should have been.
* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2015 in Lexington Venue #2 (second-run, DCP)
I suspect that '71 is one of this year's more unfairly-overlooked releases in America I don't know how many theaters it got into outside the big cities, it doesn't have the big names in the cast that might pop out at people, and The Troubles are this moral quagmire that Americans tend to avoid thinking of unless they strongly identify as Irish Catholic because neither side truly feels like an "other". It shouldn't fall between the cracks, though, because it's a nifty little thriller.
Of course, I suspect that Roadside Attractions was expecting star Jack O'Connell to be something of a bigger deal after starring in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, but that one came and went very quickly and quietly. This isn't necessarily a star-making performance, either, because his Gary Hook is meant to be sort of typical of young men sent off to fight in a war in the modern era - backed into the army more out of the lack of better options than patriotic zeal and tending to expect tension more than real danger. He's not exceptional, and he doesn't really drive the story except out of circumstance; often Gary is badly wounded or concussed enough that he's stumbling blindly. He winds up giving the sort of strong performance that's almost invisible, but one without which the film would fall apart.
The situation writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Damange have him stumble through is tense and fascinating in a similarly low-key way. Burke presents a situation full of characters who, despite mostly wanting something close to the same thing, have rivalries and differing agendas that make Gary an asset and a liability. That's presented very clearly, but the film also doesn't just become a game of strategy with human pieces, it's also a look at how people struggle with the conflict between the basic urge to be decent to a fellow human being and the well-earned fear (and nurtured hate) that might prevent them from doing so. There aren't any ruminations on the foolishness of war in general or this conflict in particular, but this concussed soldier means they've got to play it out with their actions.
As they do so, Demange builds a strong action thriller. Coincidence has me writing this the day after seeing Sicario, which also gets right into the muck by just showing it rather than talking, although the level of cynicism is different. Demange goes in for a little more clarity, presenting military objectives and letting the audience understand geography and goals more as the film goes along - the opening may get us turned around along with Gary, but the audience's fog is allowed to lift. From there the violence is properly ugly but exciting because the audience is invested in the outcome without necessarily rooting for a side.
It's a heck of a thriller, and I wish I'd been able to do a little more to help it get the audience it deserved.
* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #11 (first-run, DCP)
When Focus popped up on the schedule of movies getting an Imax release, I wasn't sure why; it didn't exactly look like the grand spectacle that usually rates such screens, and Will Smith hasn't been the draw that makes theaters salivate at an automatic extra five bucks per ticket in a while. After seeing it at the end of its run, I still didn't get it; even as a movie that takes place in some photogenic locations, it's got very little "wow" to offer.
That's true of the story, a con game that manages to feel bogged down despite not having that many moving pieces - it's a love triangle where there's no strong indication of any sort of genuine affection and a scam where a bunch of suspicious folks count on everybody being much more trustworthy than makes sense. It's focused on race car engine minutiae that won't make for an exciting race. There's an entertaining final twist, mainly because one of the supporting actors, Gerald McRaney, has become a surprisingly effective force considering the bland TV material his career started with.
And speaking of guys who aren't what they were at the start of their careers, consider Will Smith. The only time in the last ten years when he was the sort of effortlessly charming that guy that made him a star was Men in Black 3 (and I'm probably in the minority there), and you can see him trying here, when he really needs to be able to seduce the audience as easily as the other characters, but... well, you can see him trying. Margot Robbie is certainly pretty enough and gives great aw-shucks as the newbie, but isn't much of anything when she's supposed to be more of a veteran.
It goes down fairly smooth, but it's bland. I hope that Smith & Robbie are a lot more fun in Suicide Squad.