Thursday, December 31, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 31 December 2015 - 7 January 2016

New Year's Weekend is pretty much the most boring one of the year in terms of movie releases; there's a glut of stuff that came out on Christmas that people are still getting around to seeing, the limited releases are still waiting to see what gets awards traction, and no-one wants to mess with Star Wars this year

  • Because it's such a quiet weekend, The Weinstein Company saw an opportunity to move the wide release of The Hateful Eight up (all the way to December 29th, it turns out), which seems like kind of a kick in the teeth to those places that made the effort to get 70mm with the idea that they would have it for a couple of weeks. Indeed, you should still see Quentin Tarantino's latest at the Somerville Theatre, the Coolidge, or even the "roadshow" screenings at Boston Common - it's longer, it's gorgeous, the intermission is part of the storytelling, there are programs handed out. But if you can't get there, (which I doubt), there are digital screenings at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row,Revere, and the SuperLux. Just know the filmmakers are very disappointed in you.

    Boston Common also adds Devil and Angel to their Chinese offerings of Mr. Six and Mojin - The Lost Legend. The new one is a road-trip comedy with a top student and a hooligan who try to work out their issues together. Boston Common and Revere will also being showing rebroadcasts of the New Year's Day Sherlock: The Abominable Bride special on Tuesday and Wednesday. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
  • With The Hateful Eight fully camped out on screen #1, The Coolidge Corner Theatre doesn't mess with the schedule too much, most notably starting a weekend midnight series of Tarantino movies and one notable influence on Saturday with a 35mm print of Reservoir Dogs.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues their run of Rocco & His Brothers, aldthough it gets reduced schedules on many days before its final matinee Thursday. On New Year's Eve, for instance, much of the schedule goes to Casablanca, and you might want to hit that 35mm print because Warner is pulling it for a while, meaning the Brattle won't have their usual Valentine's Day shows. New Year's Day, meanwhile, is given over to the annual Marx Brothers Marathon, with The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup all playing on 35mm.

    Tuesday, IFFBoston presents a free preview of Mustang, featuring five sisters in Turkey whose parents attempt to clamp down on their independence. It's one of the most acclaimed films of the year.

    On Wednesday, they kick off the next leg of 75 Years of Film Noir - Sex & Death & Venetian Blinds: Neo-Noir of the 1980s and 1990s. The first couple nights look pretty great, with a double feature of Body Heat (35mm) & Body Double on Wednesday and a twin bill of Against All Odds (35mm) & the Dennis Quaid D.O.A. on Thursday. And there's another week coming after that.
  • A new month (and year) means a new calendar at The Museum of Fine Arts, which kicks off with Words in Motion: Graham Greene as Screenwriter. It's a great start including Brighton Rock (35mm, Saturday/Wednesday), The Third Man (DCP, Saturday/Sunday/Thursday), and The Fallen Idol (35mm, Sunday/Wednesday/Thursday).
  • The Institute of Contemporary Art has another group of short films this weekend, with a selections from The Ottawa International Animation Festival, one of the world's most prestigious. 3pm Saturday and Sunday, with another show next Friday evening.
Not a lot new, but I'll catch Devil and Angel, get to some of the stuff I didn't manage last week, and maybe try for Mustang, Brighton Rock, and some noir. Maybe even seconds of Star Wars and Hateful Eight.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bajirao Mastani

Pleasant surprise: $4.75 Tuesday at Apple Fresh Pond also applies to some Indian movies; considering how pricey they're been at other times, I wasn't expecting that at all, and it probably played into me spending a bit more at the concession stand. Given that this is what cheap Tuesday is for, well-done!

Fun thing about that concession stand: While most places that have pizza at the concession stand have some personal-sized version of one of the frozen brands at the supermarket, Apple appeared to be selling slices from Ma Magoo's at the other end of the shopping plaza, at least from the box that was sitting on top of the warming cabinet. I cannot endorse this practice enough - aside from this being pretty good pizza, who doesn't like local businesses supporting each other like this?

It being cheap night meant the screening was packed, and it didn't particularly seem like Priyanka Chopra was drawing new American fans. Craziest thing - a group that came in after me basically sat around me, even passing popcorn and soda over my lap without even an "excuse me" or some other acknowledgment of my presence. Fortunately, it didn't happen mid-film, although the guy two seats down was checking his phone a lot, often enough in sync with the musical numbers that I wondered if he was downloading individual songs from the soundtrack. Some others (behind me) were taking shots of the screen as numbers started. I get that, but, hey, they've got the internet for that, folks.

(Probably wouldn't have happened if the movie was presented in 3D, which seems like a possibility; the action scenes seemed to imply it as did a few other shots.)

Anyway, not a great movie, although I'm mildly curious to see the other big Bollywood opener from the 18th, Dilwale, in part because I read an article about how the two were kind of reversed in how they opened in India versus other markets, making me wonder if maybe the other would appeal more to foreigners as well as emigrants as was implied.

Bajirao Mastani

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2015 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #3 (first-run, DCP)

I guess it's an improvement that somewhere during the second half of Bajirao Mastani I backed off thinking of it as being a historical romance where nearly everybody is a terrible person, instead considering it one where people are simply selfish, occasionally stumbling into righteousness by accident. It's at least impressively mounted, so even if the love story leaves a bit of a bitter taste in one's mouth, there's certainly enough spectacle to make up for some of that.

As the film starts, Bajirao Ballal (Ranveer Singh) is appointed the new Peshwa (prime minister) of the Marathi Empire based upon his prowess in battle, wit, and political acumen, though it is not an entirely popular choice. In the middle of a mission of conquest, a warrior demands to speak with him; it turns out to be Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of Raja Chhatrasaal (Benjamin Gilani), whose city is under attack. He diverts to fight that battle, and love soon grows between Bajirao and Mastani. He gives her his dagger, unaware that in her culture a girl is married by accepting such a gift. She, then, follows him to his new palace, Shanivaar Wada, where she is not exactly welcomed with open arms by Bajirao's mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi) - or his first wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra), and that's before they learn that Mastani's mother is Muslim.

I'm going to guess that if I were steeped more in Indian culture and traditions, the conflicts in this film would have a little more resonance for me, but with that not the case, it sure seems like the romance that the film wants us to root for is yet another preening jackass who wants to have a second lover without considering the effect it has on his existing family and a woman who is fairly ruthless about staking her own claim. The irony, then, is that even if one is inclined to disapprove of their rapidly-established but at least genuine love, the people opposing it are far more horrible. The only truly sympathetic character is Kashi, and her role in this story is frustratingly familiar - to be hurt, told that she is still important to Bajirao despite evidence to the contrary, and to try to make it work because, really, what other options does a woman in her position have?

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Those Weeks In Tickets: 8 February 2015 - 21 February 2015

Ugh, this is a long time coming. But, hey, my thoughts on some of these things have really had time to crystalize!

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

Much of these weeks were spent at the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, and, man, I spilled enough pixels about my ambivalence toward this event at the time it was going on and as I tried to get the blog updated afterward. I'm purchasing my ticket for the next one this week, because as much as it should be better, it's what we've got.

I covered the first couple days of the festival back in March, and here's what the rest of the festival featured:

Sunday the 8th: "Limbo", Mythica: A Quest for Heroes, Blessid, and Shadows on the Wall
Monday the 9th: Boy 7, in unsubtitled Dutch!
Tuesday the 10th: Shorts and Parallel
Wednesday the 11th: Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150
Thursday the 12th: The Noah
Saturday the 14th: Shorts, I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick, Fade to White, and Douglas Trumbull

I did not skip Friday the 13th because I am superstitious in any way, but because I wanted to catch Isabella Rossellini's "Green Porno" live on stage. It's a series of videos (also adapted into a television series) that the actress - who took a break from that business to study zoology - made about the reproductive habits of various creatures which is both very funny (she dresses up in some pretty goofy costumes) and strikingly informative. I'm only half joking when I say that there are things about duck sex that will haunt my dreams for life, but there's something very valuable about this: In addition to how knowing things is simply fun, it de-romanticizes the natural world a bit, and it's also great to see people who have had great success in the arts also having an interest in science despite the traditional narrative being scientists finding greater satisfaction going the other direction.

After that, it was a quick trip to Boston Common for Somewhere Only We Know, a film that served as interesting counterprogramming on Valentine's Day weekend not because it was Chinese, but because it was a sweet little romantic comedy in a year where the big release that weekend was all about kink (remember Fifty Shades of Grey?).

Then, on Sunday, with the T shut down again, the Sci-Fi Marathon (the climax of the Festival and, really, it's main reason for existing) started late, at 4pm. It was a fun, strong line-up: Snowpiercer, 2001 (from a 70mm print), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fantasticherie di un Passeggiatore Solitario, Them!, Moonraker, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Big Trouble in Little China, The Iron Giant, This Island Earth, and Edge of Tomorrow.

You'd think after that, I'd be done, but the festival had made it hard to get to one of the sci-fi films I'd been most anticipating, the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending, which bombed pretty hard at the box office and was actually kind of hard to get into a mere ten days after its opening (where it actually had to share Imax screens with Seventh Son) - screenings were being bumped for Fifty Shades of Grey (really, that was a big thing). I first tried to see it at Fenway, saw the show on my app had vanished, and then went up to Assembly Row. Worth it, but, man, was I wiped and ready to drop when that ended at seven or so.

I wasn't seeing movies again until Thursday, when I caught Still Alice a few days before the Academy Awards. Not a great movie, but it was clearly the sort of thing that wins actresses awards, and Julianne Moore would win hers.

The next couple of days had me watching movies from other places in East Asia than China - C'est Si Bon from South Korea and Triumph in the Skies from Hong Kong. Then, looking to catch up on the nominated foreign films before the Oscars, I finished the week in Kendall Square catching Timbuktu, the first nominated film from Mauritania, and a terrific little movie in and of itself.

Well, there's that bit of catch-up. Now to jump forward a month and finish writing about March's Boston Underground Film Festival.

Not happening next year (which is next week!), I swear.

Jupiter Ascending

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2015 at AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax 3D)

Writing this the better part of a year after seeing the film in the theater, it's been kind of pleasant to see it start to develop a cult following. Not a huge one - the love for it still seems to be on the fringes, where one has to both love is weirdness but not disdain the fact that it is intended to be an expensive mainstream blockbuster rather than a well-disguised specialty picture - but enthusiastic. It fails in places but fails boldly, with a genuine enthusiasm that has to at least be admired.

As is often the case with movies like this, Jupiter Ascending's problems come from the same place as is potential greatness - Andy & Lana Wachowski think both grandly and in great detail, and they do not like to see any of it go to waste. When The Matrix was the popular ruler by which to find the Star Wars prequels wanting, there were jokes about how the Wachowskis wouldn't have the factions fighting over something like the taxation of trade routes, but time has shown that not only would they, but they would make damn sure the audience understood the tariff legislation in question, because they obsessed over that sort of detail and figured the audience would too. This most obviously shows up in a scene of Mila Kunis's Jupiter Jones navigating galactic bureaucracy that goes on far longer than the joke is funny, even with Brazil director Terry Gilliam making a cameo, but there are other bits that show they just couldn't cut things, like Sean Bean's exiled mentor to Channing Tatum's half-canine soldier having a daughter who doesn't add much. You can see where they're going, but there's just too much left in; it needs to be streamlined.

But those issues are also the root of what makes it a lot of fun. The scale of this movie is huge - it builds from the unlikely concept of Earth being just one human world seeded by an empire that has existed for billions of years, and then builds that with the idea of genocide performed on a massive, regular scale so that the ruling class can extend their own lives in a society that values genetics/oligarchy to such an absurd degree that Jupiter becomes a presumptive baroness for having DNA that matches a dead woman's. The Wachowskis are pretty damn far from subtle here - they are blowing a basic fable up to absurd proportions, past mythology even - but they mean it. They are going to make absolutely sure you get what they are saying about how the kind of greed and isolation of the rich from the world's issues that is killing society even as they are sugaring the pill something fierce.

And, man, they do that as well. This is a movie that starts with the big action sequence that does incredible destruction to a major city - the climax of most sci-fi films - and then shrugs it off because the Wachowskis are going to build to much grander things, like a space battle in Jupiter's Great Red Spot. They fill their world with incredible, exciting sights, have clever folks design awesome tech and aliens, and for all that their detail is overwhelming, it's also a thrill to absorb. Heck, their technobabble, describing flying boots as using "gravitational differential equations", even sounds fresh. Oh, and remember, these siblings did do The Matrix, which means they are awful good at the action, setting up astonishingly clear three-dimensional fields were a ton of stuff is going on but everything is perfectly clear. It is a lot tougher than it looks, and not always obvious until you mentally compare how well the action in this is done compared to other big sci-fi adventures.

Alas, it tanked at the box office, and it looks like their Netflix series Sense8 was pretty divisive as well. I half-suspect that they'll be a classic Marvel buy-low soon (they would seem perfect for The Inhumans), even though I hope that they'll continue doing what they are passionate about, even if it is sometimes on the (very) iconoclastic side.

Sci-Fi Fest Day 3Sci-Fi Fest Day 4Sci-Fi Fest Day 5Sci-Fi Fest Day 6Sci-Fi Fest Day 7Sci-Fi Fest Day 9Green Porno LiveSomewhere Only We Know

SF/40Jupiter AscendingStill AliceC'est Si BonTriumph in the SkiesTimbuktu

Monday, December 28, 2015

This Week In Tickets: 20 December 2015 - 26 December 2015

Not many movies seen this week, because it was Christmas and my nieces require a lot of spoiling.

This Week in Tickets

Like I said, pretty quick week - on Sunday I finally caught up with Mojin - The Lost Legend, which turned out to be a fun action/adventure movie, even if it was kind of funny to see how hard the filmmakers and writers worked to make sure that the supernatural elements had rational explanations. I spent the next few evenings getting Christmas shopping done, then because I screwed up actually getting on the train to Maine, I had time to check out Mr. Six when it opened on Christmas Eve.

Still, that got me to Dan's and Lara's house in time to watch "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street" with my nieces. As I get older, I find myself a bit more amazed by Sesame Street and its almost offhand diversity: A black couple are the main voices of authority and respected people on the block. The music teacher has a deaf girlfriend. There are a lot of Latino folks and that they often speak Spanish is no big deal (heck, the first song on the soundtrack to this special is "Feliz Navidad"). The main kid in the special is Asian-American. I am reasonably sure that the only time they ever mentioned that Mr. Hooper was Jewish was during the Christmas special, so that they could quietly acknowledge that not everybody celebrates the same holidays but it's no big deal because making the effort to be inclusive is so easy.

Sometimes I wonder whether Sesame Street is more responsible than we know for good attitudes being ingrained in those who grew up with it or if we've backslid terribly from a time when many people tried harder to do this kind of representation on national television. Whichever the reason, it's still a great hour, a worthy holiday tradition.

After that, I spent the next couple days hanging around with my family, giving nieces excessive amounts of presents that hopefully they'll like despite not necessarily having seen the like before (I am the uncle who spots weird games and makes sure my nieces get to see Song of the Sea). Then, it was back home, and time for another Christmas special, this year's Doctor Who: "The Husbands of River Song".

Then, on Sunday, a day well spent at the Somerville Theatre, but we're not quite back on the Monday-Sunday pages yet, so that will be material for next week.

Doctor Who: "The Husbands of River Song"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 December 2015 in Jay's Living Room (off the DVR, HD)

I wish it were easier to get out to the theater in Revere that is showing the latest Doctor Who Christmas special on the big screen this week, not so much because it's the sort of extravaganza that demands that sort of presentation, but because the specials seem even more brutalized by commercials than the regular series. As miniature action movies that involve the Doctor and his companions reacting to a crisis rather than solving a mystery, they're always moving forward, and every ad break seems wrong.

Despite that nuisance, "The Husbands of River Song" is one of the best Christmas entries that the series has produced; one of the underrated aspects of show-runner Steven Moffat's tenure is that he digs into how Christmas is an aggregation of traditions that bring joy but can also really throw you when something is off. Here, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is mourning what can be seen as either a death in the family or a necessary but sad breakup (it's science fiction and thus complicated) but has little time to mope, as he's thrust into a new adventure with a different loved one (Alex Kingston) who seems to have moved on.

And it's a fun one; the Doctor hits the ground running and has to keep it up if he's to keep pace with River, who is apparently in one of her more amoral phases. It's a funny, energetic adventure, with plenty of jokes playing off River not recognizing the Doctor's latest regeneration, an angry severed head, a less-angry headless body, and the difficulties in getting a restaurant reservation on Christmas (something Brits do much more than Americans). Amid this frequently dark comedy, there's still room for a fair amount of sci-fi action, messing around with time travel, and melancholy that is explained just enough for newcomers and resonates for those who just finished watching Series 9.

It's not perfect - like Russell Davies before him, Moffat has an unfortunate habit of having characters be uncomfortably worshipful of the Doctor, and the action can often feel like lots of things happening but not to great purpose. It's easily forgiven; "Husbands" his the right emotional spots about 90% of the time, entertains enough to cover the gaps, and still feels like a good between-series check-in even coming just a couple weeks after the most recent finale.

Mojin - The Lost LegendMr. SixDoctor Who: The Husbands of River Song

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mr. Six

I shouldn't have been able to watch this on Christmas Eve - I had planned to take the train north at 11:30am, but I'd forgotten my passport, and though my family only lives in Maine and not Canada, you're supposed to show ID to get on a train or bus, and I never got a new state ID after losing it while making a copy to get a new passport. It gave me a little time to head to Beacon Hill Chocolates to get a little something extra for my folks and then just squeeze this in with enough time to get back home, pick up the bags of gifts with which to spoil my nieces, and then catch the 5pm train to Portland.

Pretty good crowd for 1pm on a Thursday, even if this was a semi-holiday. I half-figured that the holidays would slow the crowds for the Chinese movies down, since much of the crowd seems to be students, but apparently not. It was one where I wondered what was seeming a little goofier to Mandarin-speakers than me (or if, conversely, Feng Xiaogang's voice sounds funny), but still a fairly enjoyable afternoon, albeit one I'd planned to have a few days later.

Lao pao er (Mr. Six)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 December 2015 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Although Mr. Six isn't much different in substance to any number of "aging tough guy stands up to disrespectful young punks" movies, it eases the audience into that story with a little more care than is typical, and maybe doesn't quite escalate in exactly the way one might expect. It's thus fairly low-key for something presented as a vigilante action movie, and maybe a little drawn out even for the other genres it fits, but it's still an enjoyable go at the idea, even if one is expecting something a little louder.

Liu Ye (Feng Xiaogang), whom everyone in the Beijing neighborhood where he lives calls "Mr. Six" ("Lao Pao Er"), used to be a big deal, and even now, despite nobody shopping in the convenience store he half-heartedly runs, there's still a fair amount of respect for him, even among the police, even if he has to go around scrounging up money to bail his friend "Scrapper" Men San Er (Zhang Hanyu) out of jail. It's been a while since he had spoken to his son "Bobby" Xiao Bo (Li Yifeng), and when he does visit his son's apartment, he finds Bobby has gotten into a disagreement with a member of a connected family over a girl which escalated to letting this guy's Ferrari, and now he's got an awful lot of money to pay back. Liu Ye intends to raise it, but he's got a bit more than age slowing him down.

There's an edgy sort of energy to the start of this movie; Liu Ye is presented as an old-timer whose insistence on a certain sort of propriety makes him seem awful close to unhinged even if neither his words nor his attitude are that far off from the typical elder grumpiness. It's kind of curious, then, that the filmmakers seem to let this fade as the film goes on, making Liu Ye more clearly sympathetic and having the moments when he is shown as less influential pass without a great deal of friction. It is, in an ideal situation, appropriate that the theme of the film changes as it goes on - it is healthy to go from frustration to acceptance vis-a-vis one's obsolescence - but though the transition is relatively smooth, it's not necessarily entirely genuine in feeling.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 December 2015 - 31 December 2015

In case I have not previously been clear, this blog is firmly in the pro-film category and is thus delighted that the way to get an early opening of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie is to run it in 70mm. Savor all the screens it is showing on, Boston, because people in other parts of the country (and world) have to go a long way to see it the way it's meant to be seen.

  • In case you missed the whole thing, The Hateful Eight is the new film by Quentin Tarantino, it's a western, it's got a great cast, and he shot it in 65mm with the intention of releasing it in 70mm Ultra-Panavision, with the theaters that can play it thus getting a special "Roadshow" presentation a week early. In Boston, that means the Somerville Theatre, The Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Boston Common. In roughly that order - though presentation is likely to be close in Somerville and the Coolidge, the former has played 70mm a few times this year and has a permanent installation, although the latter has looked good when it has had the big film in the past. AMC should be commended for being one of about 100 screens in the country to run it on film this week, but screen #18 there, at 252 seats, isn't a huge room like the others are using.

    Christmas is a big opening weekend for a lot of other movies, too, including big Oscar contenders. The most obvious of those is likely Concussion, featuring Will Smith as the pathologist who raised the alarm that repetitive head trauma in pro football was seriously harming its athletes. It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. A more satirical take on the serious true-life story is The Big Short, featuring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling as a group that saw the unstable underpinnings of the American economy and tried to both raise the alarm and turn a profit. It's at Somerville, Kendall Square, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. The top-flight actor/director reunion is Joy, featuring Jennifer Lawrence as a working-class woman who invents a better mop and struggles with her family on one side and businesses looking to exploit her on the other. It's at Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    There are a couple of less prestigious releases, naturally. Daddy's Home reunites Will Farrel and Mark Wahlberg as stepfather and biological father to a couple of kids, turning competitive when the latter moves in. It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. There's also the less-than anticipated remake of Point Break, because MGM is determined to eat itself whole, but which might have some nifty 3D footage of impressive stuntwork. It's at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.
  • Boston Common will also be opening Mr. Six, a decent-enough Chinese movie featuring Feng Xiaogang as the title character, a former hood with very specific ideas about propriety and an estranged son. They also keep around Mojin - The Lost Legend and Surprise, although the latter is only playing matinees.

    Revere will also being showing rebroadcasts of the Doctor Who Christmas special on Monday and Tuesday.
  • Kendall Square, in addition to picking up The Big Short, also has another awards contender, Carol, on a couple of screens (it also plays at West Newton and Boston Common). It's the latest from Todd Haynes, based upon a novel by Patricia Highsmith, with Cate Blanchett playing the title character, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who is jolted awake upon meeting a younger woman.
  • The Brattle Theatre begins a two-week run of Rocco & His Brothers, Visconti's favorite of his Italian neo-realist films, in a new digital restoration. Note that it only has one matinee on the 31st, as they are playing Casablanca on 35mm for New Year's Eve just before Warner Brothers takes it out of circulation until its 75th anniversary in 2017. So, catch it while you can!
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps up The Art of Alfred Hitchcock with final screenings of Vertigo (Saturday/Sunday), Psycho (Saturday), and The Birds (Sunday), all on 35mm.
  • The Regent Theatre, what with it beign school vacation week, breaks out the Sing-along The Sound of Music. Costumes, contests, etc.
  • The Institute of Contemporary Art's annual presentation of the British Arrow Awards Honorees, given to the UK's best advertisements, will screen at 3pm on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Big week; I'm planning to hit The Hateful Eight, The Big Short, Concussion, and Carol. Oh, and I still haven't caught that Bollywood film I was planning to see.

This Week In Tickets: 13 December 2015 - 19 December 2015

End of the year, six days of vacation left, time to see movies, buy Christmas presents, and unpack the apartment!

This Week in Tickets

Okay, one-and-a-half or of three isn't bad. At this rate I'll have things unpacked the day I move out (hopefully many years from now).

Given a week off like this, I'm always kind of tempted to see how many days in a row I can use MoviePass with its once per 24 hours rule (as opposed to the old one a day one) before rating by skipping a day or going to a non-participating theater. Nearly got four this week, but for a sellout.

Sunday actually was day two of a streak, and the movie of the night was the excellent Spotlight, which figures to be one of the year's big awards contenders with its quiet, terrific excellence. I'm a little unsure of how far it has expanded nationally - it's playing Boston like a wide-release, but we take our local interest seriously.

The last day of that streak was Monday with Chi-Raq, which is just about the damnedest thing I've seen on a multiplex screen for some time. It was distributed/produced by Amazon Studios, as was the movie I reset the streak with by going to a non-MP theater, the new adaptation of Macbeth. I'm not sure whether all of Amazon's films are going to have rhyming dialogue, but I hope they do. It's a bold move for an e-commerce company.

The next streak, then, would start Wednesday with The Secret in Their Eyes, which was on its last days and not really worthy of its nifty cast. It continued on Thursday with The Night Before, which was pretty close to being on its last legs as well, but gets far more out of its cast. Then on Friday, I caught the first of two Chinese movies this weekend, Surprise: Journey to the West, although the second (Mojin - The Lost Legend) was sold out on Saturday, so I turned back around and hit the sack.

Oh, and Friday afternoon - Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Like just about everybody, I was pretty excited, although I was a bit worried about the guy in the middle of Fenway's main room that was applauding everything in the preshow - was he going to be one of those jerks who had to make it about him? Fortunately, that didn't wind up being the case.

Surprising trailer group, too - no Captain America or Star Trek, although my eyes did perk right up on seeing the one for Kubo and the Two Strings, because new animation for Laika is always worth catching. And then the movie - well, it was pretty darn good, wasn't it?


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2015 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

Spotlight is not the sort of movie that is generally described as relentless, but what makes it great is that its makers are, in fact, unceasing and focused on their goal of depicting how a group of Boston Globe reporters brought the way that pedophile priests were shuffled to different parishes to avoid scandal despite the structures which allowed it to stay relatively unnoticed for so long. It's two hours or so of people working a case that seldom involves actual danger but does require a great deal of thoroughness, questioning assumptions, and accepting ugly truths. There's not a scene in it that doesn't either move the story (in both applicable senses) forward or demonstrate what the team is up against.

It's an often-quiet efficiency, with director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer not only seldom having his characters raise their voices but avoiding tricky "gotcha" exchanges, and it's amazing how, despite that, the process being shown is still absorbing. Some credit for that probably goes to editor Tom McArdle as well, because the entire film is a series of very precise choices in how to show that a process is painstaking without making the depiction boring, repeating a point just enough for effect but not belaboring it, and always finding time for every member of an ensemble without making any even temporarily feel like dead weight.

As to the ensemble, you're generally doing pretty good when Mark Ruffalo feels like the potential weak link. He isn't (as there isn't one); he's just playing the guy whose passion seems to push him a bit toward eccentricity. He's one of a number of great character actors, with my personal favorite being Michael Keaton as the head of the Spotlight team; his exacting depiction of how Walter "Robby" Robinson goes from reluctant to committed to dedicated is perfect and enhanced rather than explained by something he says toward the end. There are so many other good folks there, though - John Slattery as the guy who is practical enough to allow the others some idealism, Liev Schreiber as the new editor who quietly gives them the push they need, and even an uncredited Richard Jenkins as an informative voice on the phone.

My only very minor beef - showing the giant AOL billboard by Globe headquarters got a big laugh, but it's not like print has pushed the net back at all, let alone enough for something akin to gloating. Heck, isn't the Globe kind of treading water in part because it has adapted to the internet better than many other papers? But, hey, if that's all you can complain about, the movie is doing pretty well.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2015 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Every once in a while, I'll be watching a movie, think something clever, and then have the clever sucked out when when that thing is just stated plainly. In this case, it's thinking that it would be neat to see Teyonah Parris in something where she gets to be full-on Pam Grier, only to have Samuel L. Jackson's chorus/narrator name-drop Coffy and Foxy Brown in describing her character a few minutes later. Still hope it happens, though; she would crush that.

She's pretty terrific here, especially given that this is as odd as anything Spike Lee has been doing in recent years, meaning her dialogue (like everybody's, mostly) is in rhyme because Lee is transposing a satirical play by ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes to present-day Chicago, whose murder rate rivals the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She's charismatic as heck, though, as Lysistrata, a gang-banger's girl who, shaken by the sight of an eight-year-old girl gunned down in the street, teams with her boyfriend's rivals lady to start a movement to deny men sex until the fighting stops (with the delightfully tacky motto "no peace, no pussy!"). She occasionally wavers, but so does most everybody in the cast - including Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Nick Cannon - at some point, although it's less their failure than Lee being kind of all over the place with his ideas.

That's no bad thing; Lee may swerve from strange comedy to forthright preaching, but both work because they come from the heart, and if they are fantasies, they are so plaintively stated that you can't exactly consider him delusional for positing some near-fantastical situations. The film can also be too eccentric for its own good at times, leaving the viewer wondering if Lee is trying to entertain, educate, or show off, but when it's on, it's devastatingly funny and heartfelt.

Macbeth (2015)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2015 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

Though I can't recite it from memory or anything, Macbeth is probably the bit of Shakespeare that has lodged itself in my head the most firmly ever since high school, and that's kind of an issue when watching director Justin Kurzel's new film version. The rhythms of it seem wrong, from the new prologue to the finale, and while I suspect that this might go down better going into the film with a little more idea of what to expect, that may defeat the point, if the idea is that a film about treachery and betrayal should not feel comfortable and familiar. The trouble is that the filmmakers often seem limited in the ways that they can shake things up, leaving the result kind of a mess.

There aren't necessarily a lot of rules in adapting Shakespeare, but "no adding lines" is something most seem to agree on, and there's logic to it - getting those fairly verbose plays down to two hours or so means cutting lines, and it's a bit of hubris to think that effectively exchanging his words for one's own will be an upgrade. But Kurzel and the screenwriters have things they want to add, which means that the new scenes are silent, in the case of the funeral for Macbeth's stillborn child that opens the film, or full of wordless yelling like the extended combat scenes a bit later. Understand, a lot of this stuff is gorgeous, with great dramatic visuals, but it often creates the feeling of an art-house project inspired by Macbeth that includes the most famous lines and speeches as much out of obligation as anything else.

As a result, Michael Fassbender's best moment in the title role comes not from delivering the dialogue, but when he gives the audience a look that suggests both madness and the fierceness as a warrior that originally gained him the king's notice, and maybe just a bit of the greed that being told he has a destiny has inspired in him. It's something that would have been nice to see more often on Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth, really, although it's amazing that her French accent makes her a bit easier to comprehend at times than the burrs coming out of everyone else. There are still some nifty performances, though, notably Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Malcolm, although Sean Harris's Macduff never seizes the screen the way he should.

In some ways, there's little worse than a disappointing film; given the cast and favorite material, I was expecting greatness from this one but instead got something that was too frequently boring. Fortunately, it's not like this being less than it could will stop people from staffing the Scottish Play again, and the next one could very well make better on the promises of its adaptation.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #10 (first-run, DCP)

I don't think I caught the original film that this one was adapted from, but it's got to be a lot better than this. Otherwise, you'd probably just grab the idea that was worth preserving, rather than doing an actual adaptation that's close enough to acknowledge the original. Maybe that would have worked better, because even as someone who doesn't really believe that Hollywood isn't capable of the type of subtlety one finds in foreign films, this one needs an emotional touch that screenwriter/director Billy Ray just can't find.

Even without that, though, the biggest problem is that Ray spends two and a quarter hours having his characters seemingly accomplish nothing along two narrative tracks. We know that the past is mostly going to be a dead-end for FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) searching for the man who murdered the daughter of his partner Jess (Julia Roberts) - heck, we know his attraction to new prosecutor Claire (Nicole Kidman) is going to come to nothing - but the lack of movement in the present is just as maddening. Is not even interesting things holding up progress, but a lot of arguments over jurisdiction and turf. There is a moral quandry that offers some interest, but not nearly enough.

Maybe a little less time spent spinning wheels would help the final scenes (which include a bit of redundancy themselves) do more to salvage the film, because watching them certainly shows the audience just why everything before could be worth it. It's an emotional revelation that should resonate for all the main characters who have been stagnant since the murder, but only goes so far. It does at least serve as a sort of punctuation for Jess, reminding us that Julia Roberts has been fantastic for the entire movie, including the moments when she seems to clash too much with the other characters' reserve. It feels too much like one could cut 90 minutes out of the two hours leading up to that point, but at least that leaves the audience feeling like at least a little bit of their ticket money was put to good use.

The Night Before

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2015 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

Michael Shannon should try to get cast in more movies starting Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This and Premium Rush aren't exactly a large sample, but he gives borderline-bizarre performances in each that help rescue them from potential blandness. The world needs more great actors willing to embrace the weird like Shannon does.

Even without Shannon, The Night Before would not really be bland, although it would, perhaps, be even closer to being predictable in its mix of irreverence and sentimentality. That's what this group does - costars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen also worked with director Jonathan Levine on 50/50, and while it's worth noting that this film could perhaps use having its underlying angst a little closer to the surface (the characters played by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Anthony Mackie spend Christmas together because the first lost his parents on that holiday when they were just out of high school) rather than reducing their issues to fairly generic, easily-confronted situations, its genial nature works well. They've got jokes, most of those jokes are pretty funny, and there is something very refreshing in how most of them play out in the way they would among people who genuinely like each other rather than requiring some undercurrent of paranoia or disdain. It's not always the funniest or most original material that these guys have ever had, but it's seldom off-putting.

That's probably calculated to an extent; the filmmakers wanted a movie that was basically sweet but didn't totally neuter the characters. They had a little more room to work with, but manage just enough moments of genuine oddity to nudge it above expectations.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2015 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP/RPX)

To say that the first half of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is better than the second is not to say that the latter is exactly disappointing, but to recognize that reinvention is the exciting part of giving a long-running concept a new chapter, even if back-to-basics is part of the mission statement. When new caretaker J.J. Abrams is reconstructing Star Wars for its third generation of fans with full consideration that 2015 demands something a bit different from 1977 (or even 1999), there's an excitement that just can't be equaled by recreating the bits that worked in the previous films, although even that is done well enough that the film is still a blast all the way to the end.

It starts in semi-familiar territory, with hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovering secret data - in this case, the location of vanished Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) - which he must entrust to his droid BB-8 when his rendezvous on desert planet Jakku draws the attention of the First Order, the remnants of the Galactic Empire that still controls much of local space. During this attack, one Stormtrooper (John Boyega), despite practically being conditioned to be the Order's unthinking hand practically since birth, finds himself horrified by the atrocities General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), heir apparent to Darth Vader, eagerly commit. Fortunately, BB-8 soon crosses paths with Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has been scavenging the wreckage of crashed spaceships for her entire young life but is loath to sell a little droid with such a friendly disposition for scrap.

As the relative lack of familiar names in that description indicate, Abrams is opting to start fairly fresh even if certain elements recur, creating a version of Star Wars that belongs more to kids the age of my nine-year-old niece than those of us who have been rewarding these movies for nearly forty years. The "galaxy far, far away" they are introduced to is more intense in some ways than that of previous iterations - where our desert planets were corrupt backwaters, Rey's expeditions into the wreckage of a massive space battle imply that the previous generation's adventure had devastating effects and did not lead to the decisive victory of good over evil that was always implied, a point driven home by the film's first big battle scene, which dramatically introduces two important characters.

First up is that Stormtrooper, whom Abrams quickly singles out by having a comrade's blood smeared on his pristine white armor (recall that the original trilogy was fairly bloodless by design, with even severed limbs not bleeding much because lightsabers would instantly cauterize the wound). He may be intended to be a faceless member of a horde, but even before the helmet comes off, we're getting a sense of him, and once he gets a name ("Finn") instead of an alphanumeric designation, actor John Boyega is creating one of the best characters of the series. Finn suggests that being a decent human being is both a person's natural state and a powerful act of rebellion, and Boyega is a joy to watch as he and the film never lose sight of that. The personality that emerges is refreshingly free of the ignorance that usually defines this sort of character, but still lets Boyega create nifty moments of delight as Finn discovers actual friendship and anguish as he learns that having principles of his own means uncomfortable inner conflicts.

Full review at EFC.

SpotlightChi-RaqMacbethThe Secret in Their EyesThe Night BeforeStar Wars: The Force AwakensSurprise: Journey to the West

Monday, December 21, 2015

That Week In Tickets: 6 December 2015 - 12 December 2015

Idea for next year - a movie-ticket Yahtzee game with other folks who have MoviePass or who just otherwise see a bunch of movies in a week. This week's tickets, for instance, would get me 25 points for a full house

This Week in Tickets

I knew something like this was in play from Sunday, when I got out of Tamasha - a Bollywood movie I liked a bit more than I was expecting despite always being up for something with Deepika Padukone - and into Krampus at a different theater and saw they were both screen #1s. Since I knew the Science on Screen presentations at the Coolidge were usually in the main auditorium, it was looking to be a good week for someone who enjoys word numeric coincidences!

(For what it's worth, Krampus is a lot of fun, whether you're in the Christmas spirit or not.)

And The Blob delivered the one as well as the usual entertaining and illuminating pre-show lecture. This one started with the Great Boston Molasses Disaster, which is a piece of Boston history that is both absurd and horrifying - people died, but it is hard not to laugh when you picture a wave of molasses suring up the streets of Boston's North End. This led to a discussion of how the viscosity of molasses makes swimming through it with standard symmetrical strokes almost impossible for something human-sized - length is the important variable here - so to escape you're best off trying to imitate microbes, whose dimensions make water even harder to swim through than molasses would be for humans, so they use asymmetrical motions with cilia and tails. Things you learn at this series.

A couple days off after that, and then on Thursday I went to the night-before show of The Danish Girl, which wasn't bad but was not exceptional in the way something built to be an awards contender has to be. Also, in a year where we've already seen Tangerine, it's not so big a deal. (It was in theater #5, so chances of five of a kind pretty much ended there.)

Friday night, I dropped into the Harvard Film Archive for one of the more rare screenings in their Orson Welles series, Too Much Johnson, which is less a film itself than an assembly of the footage Welles spot when bringing the play of the same name to the stage with the idea of these films bits of slapstick action being inserted at the appropriate time. The play never made it to Broadway and thus Welles never finished cutting the material, but it's kind of interesting to examine as the unfinished (and long-thought-lost) project that it is.

Saturday would prove long but not take me fat from home, as both things I went to see were in the Somerville Theatre. The afternoon was spent downstairs in the Micro-Cinema, where All Things Horror had what I think was their first event since the Boston Horror Show back in January with their annual presentation of Etheria Film Night. I wounds up liking the feature more than the short films, but even there, the only one I disliked was the one I had seen and hatred earlier, so I was steeled for it.

Then after a quick stop home for some food, I was back there for In the Heart of the Sea, which has to be put down as a fairly significant disappointment - it's got a very nice cast and Ron Howard at the helm, a guy who is a pretty fair storyteller even when faced with a challenging shoot, but it always seeks to remind the audience that these events inspired something better and never finds an angle that gives the film a theme beyond how the ocean is dangerous.

With that also on a screen #5, I scored a full house. Now, if only I we're actually competing with someone...

Up next - a vacation where I accomplished little beyond watching movies!

The Blob (1958)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2015 in College Corner Theatre #1 (Science on Screen, DCP)

There's a Criterion Collection edition of The Blob, which might lead one to believe that this particular 1950s monster movie is a cut above its contemporaries - or maybe two, since being just one step up gets it to "not embarrassing" as opposed to actually good. That's not really the case; instead, this is a movie that represents its time and genre fairly well, and on top of that gains a little extra attention for putting some of the action in a theater full of its teenaged target audience watching horror movies. And, of course, for starring Steve McQueen before he was Steve McQueen.

That's more literally true in this case than many others, with the future star credited as "Steven McQueen". More importantly, though, the rugged masculinity that would later become his hallmark is still very much a work in progress; this movie's hero Steve Andrews may be introduced as a guy who drag races and goes through girlfriends fast enough that he can't be expected to remember the details of the one he's currently necking with, but McQueen plays him with an almost complete absence of swagger. Andrews may suddenly get the urge to run after a meteorite or insist he saw something horrible happen to the town doctor, but he's oddly hesitant much of the time, seemingly not certain or bright enough to insist or charismatic enough to convince. In a way, it's perhaps a more realistic portrayal of 1950s youth than the standard, in that he has ideas of taking charge of the situation but doesn't quite have the belief in himself to do so yet; he's still fairly deferential, despite the insistence by one of the local cops that all teenagers are back-talking hooligans. Maybe it makes his development into a leader by the end a little more honest and hard-won after seeing him jump because girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corseaut) is a step or two ahead of him at one point (sneaking back out to prove they really saw something may be his idea, but she's the one who commits to it more whole-heartedly).

The odd performance of its star aside, The Blob winds up being campy in a somewhat less mockable way than many other fifties B-movies. Its featureless monster may seem very silly in motion, no matter what sort of tricks the filmmakers pull to make it seem threatening, but there are a few surprisingly gruesome moments that let it feel like a real danger nevertheless, and a combination of simplicity and cleverness to getting it on screen that demands at least a little admiration. Make no mistake, the movie is frequently very dumb - the Blob bounces from place to place too easily, and there's a constant sense that nothing has to be nearly as flat as it is - and that's what ultimately frustrates in retrospect. It's always one moment of inspiration away from having its faults forgiven, but never able to get it.

Too Much Johnson

N/A (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2015 at the Harvard Film Archive (Orson Welles Part II, 35mm)

Has there ever been a video game built around silent comedy, at least recently? There's the old Atari 2600 Keystone Kapers game, and the Three Stooges game of the mid-1980s also comes to mind, but it seems like there would be something really fun about a game where your character was slightly klutzy, and correcting for the slight winnings of the controls was an important skill rather than a reason for frustration, and situations careened out of control in funny, non-lethal ways.

I ask because watching Too Much Johnson - or more accurately, the slapstick footage Orson Welles shot to use in a stage version of the William Gillette play of that name - can bring the sensation of a game to mind: The player (Welles, in this case) tries a bunch of different things, not always getting anywhere for reasons that may seem oblique, but sometimes it works, the level clears, and he tries to get his avatar (Joseph Cotton) through something similar but different. It can be kind of a chore to watch, especially with little storytelling context but you recognize the skill involved. That's also the nature of what is still halfway an assembly cut - the first of three to five silent-comedy sequences is mostly complete, but at least three-quarters of the footage that we see here would have been discarded, static shots cut into edited footage that tells a story rather than just showing the same thing over and over again.

There is still some pleasure in watching it, as the gags are mostly well-conceived and the folks involved are good at what they're doing. It would actually be kind of fascinating to have a bunch of filmmakers act as Welles's editor here, or make this an assignment for a film class. There's plenty of smiles and laughs in the material, and it's great to have it rediscovered, even if you can't really treat it like an actual movie.

(Although, seriously, there's a heck of a game to be made out of its wild rooftop chases with what seem like dangerously unstable ladders along with an appreciation for how dating some of this comedy was!)

TamashaKrampusThe BlobThe Danish girlToo Much JohnsonIn the Heart of the SeaEtheria Film Night 2015

Mojin - The Lost Legend

I'll bet I would have been able to see this earlier in the weekend if anything else was opening big, but Star Wars is a behemoth from which you take no showtimes. I wound up having to wait until Sunday afternoon, and then a couple more hours because I either misread the times or the online listings were off. I do find that the timing on this one is really weird, with 6pm and 9pm screenings nightly, nothing in the 7/8pm sweet spot that gives you time to get out of work and maybe have dinner before the film without waiting around.

Another thing that I found kind of odd was that, as mentioned in the review, the film takes great pains to mention that something rational is going on after every obvious supernatural occurrence except the zombies (that this is an incredibly fast-acting unknown disease is apparently just assumed), because apparently the supernatural is a no-no in China, although just a day and a half before I saw Surprise do all sorts of goofy magical stuff, and I wonder if that was okay because it was a comedy or because it was referencing mythology, or some combination of the two.

I will say that with as popular as the Marvel movies have become over there, I'll be very curious to see what they do with Doctor Strange - there's no way of avoiding magic for that, really, and I wonder if Marvel will recast it in a more scientific light ("what you call magic is actually dark-matter nanomachines that exist throughout the universe and function via a telepathic interface that only certain well-trained people - called the Master of the Mystic Arts by superstitious people - can access"), or whether it will be dubbed that way for China. I'll also be curious as to how well this did in China, as it's getting the big screens there and they won't be getting Star Wars for few weeks despite their neighbors getting it at the same time as the US. There have been some crazy Chinese opening weekends this year, and I'm curious how this one fits in.

At least it's a fun movie. Not necessarily a must-see, especially on a weekend where you've also got a new Star Wars movie, but a fair amount of fun if you like this sort of thing.

Xun Long Jue (Mojin - The Lost Legend)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2015 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

There has been a lot of talk, both this weekend and leading up to it, about what a massive global juggernaut Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be at the box office and how it was sucking up all the Imax screens for a full month. That latter statement actually only applies to the Western world, though, as the giant screens in China are going to Mojin - The Lost Legend (formerly known as "The Ghouls"), and there's a good chance it will be the #2 movie worldwide when all is said and done, despite opening on just thirty screens in North America. If it's playing near you, it's a fun alternative if Star Wars is sold out or way to keep things going if you want more serial-style adventure, even if it's not quite up to the same standard.

The Mojin Xioawei, we are told, were a group of officially sanctioned tomb robbers founded a thousand years ago with the purpose of "borrowing" gold from buried monarchs to buy food for starving peasants. In 1988, the Mojin are Hu Bayi (Chen Kun), Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo), and Shirley Yang (Shu Qi), but after a near-disaster they have come to New York, a decision that does not sit well with Wang. Even still, he wouldn't return to China without his friends, except that the people his smuggler friend "Grill" (Xia Yu) puts him in contact with have are seeking the "Equinox Flower", something they learned about in 1969, when Hu and Wang were young men in Inner Mongolia competing for the affections of Ding Sitian (Angelababy). Hu and Wang follow, as Hu feels guilty and the company funding this trip is apparently more a cult than a business, with President Ying Caihong (Liu Xiaoqing) certainly determined to find the Flower for reasons beyond profit and historical interest.

The advertising for Mojin describes it as being based upon the "#1 Treasure Hunting Novel in China", which is either a tremendously specific slice of the market or an indication of just how popular treasure-hunting is as a genre over there. I suspect that it might be the middle book of a series, as there seems to be an awful lot of screwing around in the script by Zhang Jia Lu, especially as relates to Shirley's background - I think she's supposed to be Chinese-American and a relatively recent addition to the team - that could really be scrapped or simplified to give the stuff that really works more room to breathe. There's also a bit of stumbling in trying to pretend that this story full of zombies, swarms of blood-draining midges, green fire, bottomless pits, etc., etc., contains nothing supernatural in order to please the Chinese censor board, but you can almost see the cast winking during those scenes.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Etheria Film Night 2015: Inner Demon & Shorts

Fourth year at Etheria, and I'm still quite glad to come - even though this year's shorts probably fall a bit short of some of their stronger years, many of those other years had more short films, so that a few excellent ones could make a good impression (15 without a feature in 2012, 8 in both 2013 and 2014, compared to 6 plus a local program this year). It's a valuable program, and I hope to see it continue.

One thing I did notice that struck me as kind of odd is that, when I started coming, Etheria was a sci-fi/fantasy off-shoot of a horror festival (Viscera), but has now circled back around to being mostly horror itself. That probably explains a bit of my dissatisfaction - I can enjoy horror all right, but unless it's very well done, I don't usually find it as interesting as those other genres. It's sort of a logical thing to happen - Viscera is no more, and horror still makes up a big chunk of genre production, so it's perhaps inevitable that Etheria 2.0 would fill with that.

Still, that gave us a chance to have the Wicked Bird folks including 10-year-old filmmaker "Fiona Fright" on stage. We saw a promo reel of Something Wicked This Way Comes, a long-gestating documentary about horror in New England that has, in the making, seemingly shifted from being about how the region has influenced American horror to people working in the genre scene locally, and then Miss Fright's film, which looks a lot better if you understand that its young star directed it from a story she started writing when she was five. Her parents, as you might expect, are big horror fans, and have been taking their little girl to conventions practically since birth, so she's become familiar enough with the scene and genre to reference Re-Animator in her first short film.

Let me repeat a bit of that last last paragraph for emphasis: A ten-year-old made this from a story she wrote at five. I'm certainly going to keep this in mind when I'm Christmas shopping for my own nine-year-old niece, because if this kid can handle something this scary, my brother's and sister-in-law's super-smart little girl can, right?

(You know I'm just joking about this, right, Dan & Lara? Right?)

Fortunately, the feature after the intermission was pretty impressive. I'm certainly looking forward to what a lot of these filmmakers have coming up and next year's program, at least.

"Sheila Scorned"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

"Sheila Scorned" is a neat little calling-card type short, albeit one that doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense as anything but genre pastiche: It is writer/director Mara Gasbarro Tasker wanting to make an old-school exploitation flick with even less concern over it making any kind of sense than the movies that inspired it. It's enjoyably tacky with a good-looking badass chick (Laine Rettmer) in the title role, so what more do you want?

Maybe a feeling that it's about something? The title suggests Sheila is trying to avenge something, but actual motivation sort of falls away and there's not a whole lot of cool twisting or quipping to make up for that. It's well-done enough that Tasker is worth keeping an eye on.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

That's kind of cute.

This short is a fun little take on the angry girlfriend bit, with tons of borrowing genre tropes and winking acknowledgment that, yeah, a lot of them are somewhat male-gaze-y even if a lady does like to be that sort of sexy every once in a while. It's fun, though, in large part because Jessica Sherif, Emme Rylan, and Megan Lee Joy are able to build characters who are each funny in their own way despite the short being twelve minutes long and filled with fantasy scenarios, and while the gags are generally kind of obvious, they're also fairly amusing.

Director Amber Benson knows her way around this sort of genre material; she's fond of it and has had plenty of practice, both in playing it straight and having an ironic take on it. Benson's made an amusing little short - maybe not the most original concept, but put together well enough.

"El Gigante"

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

I pretty much despised "El Gigante" when I saw it at Fantasia this summer, and while I can't say that I liked it this time around, I didn't feel the same sort of revulsion I did in July; maybe I was in a better mood or just not paying as much attention this time. Not sure. Still very ugly, though, and at least as a teaser, it doesn't offer a whole lot of ideas that make it worth slogging through.

What I said in July.

"Gödel Incomplete"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

"Gödel Incomplete" is the kind of short that is put together so well that it can't help but carry the audience along while it's running - it's got a star in Elizabeth Debicki who would soon get noticed and cast in much bigger projects, nice production values, a capable soundtrack and a facility with throwing scientific terms and romantic musings into the dialogue (and narration) that certainly makes it feel sophisticated and intellectual.

Is there much there? I don't really know. Writer/director Martha Goddard splits her time between the idea of time travel being built on a paradox and a doomed romance between Debicki's Serita and scientist Kurt Godel in the past that neither one gets to feel quite so clever or tragic that the audience is as overwhelmed with emotion or fascination as Serita is, especially after taking a step back to think about it. Being able to get something like this to run smoothly is a pretty useful skill to have as a filmmaker, but it would be great if it could be applied to delivering an idea well, rather than disguising the lack of one.

"De noche y de pronto"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Maybe the best of the short films playing as part of the Etheria shorts program, "De noche y de pronto" takes a pretty simple concept - young woman (Alicia Rubio) alone in a new apartment has a man who claims to be her upstairs neighbor (Javier Godino) knock on her door and say that his place has bee broken into and the intruder is still there, but he's acting squirrely, and she's reacting to that, and he sees that she's reacting to that... You know how it goes. The fun part is that this Maria is not a naturally great bluffer, which means that if he is up to no good, her visitor has no trouble staying one step ahead. If he's up to no good; what if he's not and her taking precautions is putting him on edge?

It's a fun set-up that in some cases helps to paper over any weaknesses the film might have - there are moments when things don't quite ring true, but there's also a sense that people wouldn't have perfect, sensible reactions. In a way, that's a sort of meta-tension; not quite the same as the original type but still powerful enough. It's a neat thriller, and kind of unique in being able to leverage its imperfections like that.

"De noche y de pronto"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Another one I saw before - much earlier in the year as part of the Boston Horror Show - and I liked it a smidge more this time, perhaps; it's clear what is coming both times through, but the style is more impressive. There was a lot of stuff imitating the 1970s both in this package and in horror in general right now, but this one feels different than a lot of them; it just is of that period, rather than commenting upon the style or engaging in parody.

Like a lot of these shorts, it feels like it wants to be, if not a feature, something longer than it is, only telling most of a story and thus feeling more like the director's take on a horror idea rather than something original and scary. It sure shows that Chloe Okuno knows what she's doing, though.

What I said back in January

"Daddy Dearest"

N/A (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

I was groaning like crazy during this short film, although initially for "does everything have to look like the 1970s?" reasons more than its other weaknesses, though that was before I learned that it was directed by an actual kid. Then, yeah, let's be forgiving as heck.

I'd be curious to know just how much "Fiona Fright" (yeah, I should have made a note of her actual last name) actually directed versus "assistant director" Andrea Wolanin and if the producers at Wicked Bird Media were a little more hands on than usual; I'm guessing that she was a lot more big-picture than someone even a little older, although probably sucking up what happened on-set like a sponge. She at least has a fairly clear idea of the story she wants to tell and it's impressively twisty for something from a kid, even if the gore was kind of more because she like horror and gore than something really necessary.

(It's also kind of a reminder of how much of the work we often attribute to the actors is out of their hands - I've seen Diana Porter, who plays the widowed mother of Fiona's character, in other shorts where she's better, but if the director isn't really equipped to give feedback and put the actual best bits together in the editing stage, the best work doesn't always come across.)

Still, it's way the heck ahead of anything I was doing at nine. If she keeps it up, who knows where she'll end up?

Inner Demon

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Ursula Dabrowsky directs the heck out of Inner Demon, not just because it keeps going despite having a small cast and what seems like some tight constraints where locations and other resources are concerned, but because she pulls off the nifty trick of making her movie into something else without missing a beat. It's the sort of just making things work that hopefully gets her noticed, because while this is in many ways a horror-thriller that stocks close to the genre's basics, it also works a whole lot better than variations that have a lot more thrown at them.

So start with some basics: Australian teen Sam Durelle (Sarah Jeavons) is babysitting her kid sister Maddy (Scarlett Hocking) when a woman knocks on the door. Denise (Kerry Ann Reid) claims to be a stranded motorist, but when Sam tells her to wait until her mother gets home, she soon finds that Denise's husband Karl (Andreas Sobik) is already in the house, and it turns out that they have kidnapping (at least) on their mind rather than robbery.

Resourcefulness is the key in this sort of situation, and both filmmaker and hero display their fair share of it. The former starts by dealing with being locked in an automobile's trunk a whole heck of a lot more efficiently than most kidnap victims, with Dabrowsky doing a very nice job of communicating what she's doing to the audience without relying on crutches like Sam talking to herself or providing narration. This leads to a chase through the woods that may not look like that much, but is impressive in its staging: A lot of directors will film that sequence with all the emphasis on the feeling of motion and how the heroine has gritted teeth and grunts while the man pressing her gets a lot of stamina from his larger frame, and while there's certainly some of that, Dabrowsky makes sure to keep the woods from being just this vague, homogeneous environment; Sam and Karl pass landmarks and let the audience figure out whether she's gaining or losing distance. In a movie where the filmmakers probably can't afford a lot of proper fights - they require a lot of time and detail work even without stuntpeople - being really good at this kind of action makes up for a lot.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Surprise: Journey to the West

So, just to confirm - this is not the "Surprise" from the Netherlands, which I quite frankly would have been A-OK with; that's a pretty fun-looking movie that appears to have fascinating director-comeback backstory; maybe it will get American release too.

Kind of crazy at the theater - this was clearly the secondary Chinese movie playing after Mojin, which looks to have sold out its 9:05 show by the time I got there at 8:20 (Surprise started at 8:35). No chance of putting extra screenings on because nothing was bumping Star Wars from any screens - the theater had actually set up a merch table by the concession stand, which is something I don't recall them doing for any movies before. Hopefully that means that these things can get a chance to stick around, although the absolute crush of movies coming out for Christmas may make that unlikely.

Also - an absolute crush of Chinese films, just based upon the previews, with about a half-dozen or so lined up to come out by the end of January, and a pretty good line-up of action and comedy among them. On top of that, the DCP for Surprise seemed to have a bona fide attached trailer promoting The Man From Macau in 3D. I've got no idea whether that's promoting the upcoming Chinese release of From Vegas to Macau III in the next few months or an American release of From Vegas to Macau II that has been retitled to hide that there's a first one (the "Man from Macau" title is apparently a more literal translation of the Chinese title of "Vegas to Macau"). Whatever the case, I kind of want to see the goofy Chow Yun-fat gambling movie even if I didn't love the first one. And, sure, why not in 3D?

Wan Wan Mei Xiang Dao: Xi You Pian (Surprise: Journey to the West)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2015 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Though appearing on many American marquees as simply "Surprise", I think the full title of this movie is "Surprise You'll Never Think of: Journey to the West", and something appears to be lost in translation there. Think of it as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only for one of China's best known folktales, and you'll be on the right track: It's a very goofy take on material that can perhaps use a little puncturing, especially with about six "Journey to the West" movies coming out next year, and certainly does that pretty well, even if you're not that familiar with the story.

It is, you may recall, the story of Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Wilson Chen), who faces many travails attempting to bring scripture back from India with his disciples - Monkey King Sun Wukong (Liuxun Zimo), sandman Sha Wujing (Joshua Yi), and pig demon Zhu Bajia (Mike D. Angelo), and when they see some sort of terrible magic happening over Stone Ox Town... Well, back up a day, where we meet Wang Dacui (Bai Ke White), who lives peacefully enough in that town because he is a very minor demon who badly delivers sesame cakes for baker Su Xiaomei (Yang Zishan) even if he does consider himself the local demon boss. That's fine until a nasty white tiger demon attacks and local hero Murong Bai (Ma Tianyu), the latest of a long line of cursed guardians, can only push him back. That means it's soon up to Dacui, Xiaomei, and a de-powered Wukong to deal with the evil threatening the town, because the usual heroes are off the board.

I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be surprised if Surprise keeps enough of an actual Journey to the West chapter intact and recognizable; for as much as it makes every character sort of a goofball and most of them far more self-centered than many classically heroic figures (though being a super-cocky jerk is admittedly kind of central to Sun Wukong), the filmmakers have a pretty decent system for making it work: The problem is generally dead serious, but the solution and the road to it is funny. It keeps the movie going without getting bogged down, even if it does occasionally have the action-comedy moments that are more action than comedy at the climax, along with a bit of backstory meant to give Xiaomei more pathos than she or the movie really needs.

Full review on EFC.