Friday, December 30, 2016

Assassin’s Creed

I knew this was going to be bad; I spent the last couple of months making variations of the joke in the opening paragraph of the EFC review; I honestly don’t understand why you don’t build the movie around what people know and like about the property, even if they only know it vaguely.

But, to be fair, it took two or three screw-ups for it to come to this. I had made plans to see the Doctor Who Christmas special at the Fenway theater, buying a ticket ahead of time while doing my last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. Then I went up to Maine, spoiled my nieces rotten, and at some point the ticket disappears from my pocket, or wallet, or inside a Christmas card or wherever the heck I stuck it. It’s a $15 ticket with assigned seating, so I don’t feel too bad about getting in somehow. But, for whatever reason, the Red Line decides to be extremely slow, so it’s just past starting time when I get there, I figure I may be able to just buy a ticket for another show (I mean, if I wanted to be really sneaky, I didn’t use my MoviePass card when seeing Passengers because I saw it in 3D…), but by the time I was at a ticket kiosk and ready, it was quarter past, and it didn’t seem like I could get the ticket, hope that the the ushers were set up to rip in such a way that I could get to the right place… Bleh. So, not seeing that, I don’t intend to have spent that much time on the train and in the cold with no movie to show for it, it’s $5 off night at AMC, which is the current best circumstance to see a 3D movie, money-wise, so…

The lesson, as always, is never to go to a movie just because of starting time or for reasons other than “I really want to see that movie”.

Assassin’s Creed

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Not being much of a gamer, my entire history with with the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been seeing previews for the games before movies at a film festival that their developer sponsored, and from those clips you’d never know that it was about much more than 15th-Century parkour. Movies and games have been built on less, but sometimes the problem comes when they’re built on more - in this case, a dreary present-day story that renders the fun bits moot while wasting a whole slew of talented actors.

In both 1492 and 2016, the Knights Templar are searching for the “Apple of Eden”, which allegedly contains the genetic code for human free will; possessing it would allow them to place the entire world under their complete control. In modern days, Templar Rikken (Jeremy Irons) is seeking it by faking the execution of murderer Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) and then using a device created by his daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard), “the Animus”, to read his genetic memory to find where Aguilar (Fassbender), a member of the Assassin’s Creed that opposed the Templars, hid the device five hundred years ago.

You see the problem here: All the exciting things happens in flashbacks whose outcome is fairly easily deduced from the start - maybe not the details, but those are kind of unimportant - leaving the present-day material to try and make finding the location of the Apple interesting. Seemingly by accident, it inverts the way video games work, where the action sequences involve and stimulate the player while the cut-scenes in between give him or her a few moments to rest while dumping exposition; by metaphorically taking the controller out of the viewers’ hands, the talky bits are now expected to carry the story, and they can’t for a couple of reasons.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 December 2016 - 5 January 2017

Man, nobody wants to release new movies on the last weekend of the year. Seriously, no new releases, which makes for a good chance to catch up and hit some of the independent theaters with their cool programs.

  • First up is The Brattle Theatre, which opts for Casablanca as their New Year's Eve flick, playing on 35mm Friday and Saturday, as they try and get as many screenings in before it goes out of general circulation for the 75th anniversary (indeed, they thought they weren't going to be able to play it for Valentine's Day). Sunday, then, is the traditional New Year's Day Marx Brothers Marathon, where one ticket will get you in for The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. It also serves as a preview of the "Refreshed! Renewed! Restored!" series, with double features of Animal Crackers & Duck Soup on Monday and Horse Feathers & Monkey Business on Tuesday. There's a preview of 20th Century Women (with a special screening of director Mike Mills's prior film Beginners at 5:30pm). The new restorations continue on Thursday, with The Wanderers and The Pit.
  • Once again, The Coolidge Corner Theatre only has one midnight show this week (on Friday), with Ghostbusters II playing on 35mm, closing up early on Saturday so folks can do New Year's Eve stuff. On Monday night, they have their first Big Screen Classic of the year, with Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is like few other movies ever made, musical or otherwise.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps their Laura Dern: Woman Inherits the Earth series with Smooth Talk and Inland Empire on Friday, with the latter labeled as "Closing Night" with a 35mm and live music during the pre-show. That's not quite the case, as they have one last screening of Jurassic Park on Saturday. In January, the new calendar starts with a 35mm print of Pierre Étaix's The Great Love kicking off a retrospective of his films while a DCP of The Battle of Algiers also starts a brief run; both films play on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The ICA has one last day of British Arrow Award screenings on Friday, with the show of unusual ads from the UK free with admission to the museum

Well, I have yet to see Jackie, La La Land, Lion, Fences, and Manchester By the Sea, so it looks like I'll be going to those.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Francophone Oddities: The Brand New Testament & Evolution (2016)

The review of The Brand New Testament went up on Christmas Eve, which kind of amused me, as cheerfully blasphemous as the movie is. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s kind of fun.

These two movies make an interesting pair, in that they’re both kind of high-concept fantasies that don’t have a lot of conventional, character-has-a-problem-and-solves-it-while-learning-about-themselves story, which isn’t a bad thing, but does mean that when the gags and stuff aren’t working, there’s not necessarily a whole lot to keep things going.

Évolution (2016)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

Évolution is the sort of art-house science fiction one gets when the filmmakers have come up with a fascinating setting but seemingly don’t want to slum it in genre by attaching their concepts to a conventional story: Frequently brilliant in conception and executed with impressive precision, but potentially unsatisfying. What, after all, is the point of creating all of this if you’re not going to actually use it?

It offers up an unusual town, seemingly populated entirely by boys aged about ten or eleven and their mothers. For better or worse, the boys don’t seem that unusual, with the bigger ones often pushing Nicolas (Max Brebant) around, though he doesn’t seem to be quite as sickly as his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) would seem to have it, judging by the medicine she dispenses. Swimming in the ocean alone one day, Nicolas sees a dead body, and while the boys doubt it, it seems to cause a great deal of consternation among the women. Perhaps this is why he’s rushed off to the hospital, where nurse Stella (Roxane Duran) is learning some particularly odd medicine.

The seaside village where these folks all live is an enjoyably homey environment; the sort of place that has not exactly been passed by but has seemed to resist being swallowed up by franchises and tourism, even if some places seem kind of run-down. It suggests stability, that the situation we see has been the same for a long time, even if it seems untenable, with the maintenance left to the folks in the hospital, vital to the town but seemingly not truly part of it. It makes for an interesting contrast with the frequent scenes set underwater, which often serve to remind the audience that there’s an alien world that operates on different rules down there, as nearby and yet utterly bizarre as what goes on in the hospital.

Full review on EFC.

Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

A couple days after seeing it, The Brand New Testament seems a bit more clever in its satire than it did in the moment, when its loose storytelling can make it seem to have only the vaguest idea where it wants to go with its critique of religion. It takes a moment or three to realize that chaos and lack of direction are part of the point, although filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s fondness for the weird doesn’t always translate into the dry, absurdist wit it’s going for.

It posits that, in addition to his well-known son, God also has a daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), about ten years old and very much not impressed with her father (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is a petty tyrant, abusive to both Ea and her mother (Yolande Moreau) within the bounds of the three-bedroom apartment with no windows or doors to the outside that they call home. Fed up, Ea has a talk with her brother “JC”, who creates a portal in the washing machine that she can use to escape to Brussels, where she seeks six apostles to help her write a “Brand New Testament” - and on the way out the door, she sneaks into God’s computer room and sends everyone on Earth a text message with the dates and times of their deaths before locking him out of the system, ensuring that he’ll pursue her.

Despite Ea’s dry narration and a performance by Pili Groyne that’s pretty good even if one’s French is limited or nonexistent - she captures the self-doubt and often-smothered rage of the girl in muted but unmistakable fashion - Ea spends much of the movie not being very interesting herself. She’s a necessary construct, a way to get the death-dates out and an excuse to have six or eight unusual people narrate their stories, but she doesn’t seem to be learning or growing that much as she explores the human world, and the times she affects the story later on are often rather random, a quick way to accomplish the connections that the screenwriters want to make. Until she meets her sixth apostle, a boy her own age named Willy (Romain Gelin), she’s much more unformed idea than character.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 December 2016 - 29 December 2016

Ah, the last week of December, where movies come out on three days because Christmas is on a Sunday.

Also, I don't think I've ever seen three 3D movies released on one day before, and that less than a week after Star Wars grabs all the big 3D screens. Crazy.

  • So let's start with the Wednesday 3D releases. Passengers is the one I had the most hope for, with Chris Pratt and Jennnifer Lawrence as colonists awakened from suspended animation 30 years into a 120 year journey. It's a great premise that looks super-slick but, alas, has some real and huge problems with the story. It's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere and the SuperLux. Assassin's Creed drops Michael Fassbender into an adaptation of the popular video game series, although some fans are saying that it doesn't include the aliens, to which I say that seeing so much of it set in the a present-day sci-fi setting was crazy enough considering how all the ads I've seen for the game are for the "past-life" segments. That one's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Finally, there's the animated Sing, with a bunch of anthropomorphic animals in a talent competition that will apparently save the local theater. That's at the Capitol (2D only), West Newton, Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), the Studio Cinema in Belmont (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Because we're Boston, we're also getting Patriots Day before it opens wide, for better or for worse (a lot of folks feel it's awful soon to get a picture based upon that bombing, and that Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg aren't exactly the ones to do it). That's at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere, starting Wednesday. On Friday, Byran Cranston/James Franco comedy Why Him?, which features Cranston objecting to Franco marrying his daughter, opens at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Fenway will also be getting La La Land for Christmas, and will be showing It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. You've got to wait a couple of days for the Doctor Who Christmas Special, "The Return of Doctor Mysterio", which plays there Tuesday night and at Revere on Tuesday and Thursday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre wraps up their midnight Christmas horror films this weekend with Jack Frost on Friday, closing shop early on Christmas Eve. When they open back up on Christmas Day, they (along with the Somerville, West Newton, Kendall Square, and Revere) will have Lion, starring Dev Patel as a man who, as a boy was lost on a train that brought him far across India, eventually being adopted by a nice Australian couple, now eager to reconnect with his lost family.
  • The other big Christmas opening (at least around here) is Fences, with Denzel Washington returning to the director's chair for the first time in nearly a decade and co-starring with Viola Davis in an adaptation of August Wilson's play. It's at the Capitol, Kendall Square, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond picks up a movie from Disney's Indian division, with Dangal, starring Aamir Khan as a man whose dreams of being an Olympic wrestler never came true, though he intended to train a son to follow in his footsteps, only to have four daughters - though, fortunately, they inherited his talent and drive. It started Wednesday.
  • It's the most wonderful time of the year, as The Brattle Theatre presents A Shane Black Christmas. Wednesday's double feature has already played, but there's double shots of Iron Man Three and The Long Kiss Goodnight on Thursday and The Nice Guys and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on Friday, all on 35mm. The schedule calls the last one a "rarity", but how can that be? Does not everybody love that movie and rewatch it often?

    They're closed Christmas Eve (although they will be selling gift cards during the afternoon), but re-open on Christmas to start "Happy 100th, Kirk Douglas" with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 35mm. That series continues with Detective Story & Ace in the Hole on Monday, Lust For Life & The Bad and the Beautiful on Tuesday (both 35mm), Paths of Glory on Wednesday, and another little movie he did with Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus, on 35mm Thursday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues to show films starring Laura Dern in their "Woman Inherits the Earth" series, featuring 99 Homes (Thursday), Certain Women (Thursday the 21st/Wednesday the 28th/Thursday the 29th), Jurassic Park (Friday/Saturday), The Master (Saturday/Wednesday the 28th on 35mm), Rambling Rose (Thursday the 29th)
  • The Regent Theatre, as they are wont to do every Christmas break, has a Sing-Along The Sound of Music, with one show the night of the 25th, multiple shows from Monday to Wednesday, and a single evening show on the 29th. The page mentions it being "in Technicolor", so maybe they're running it off a print, even!
  • The ICA has their annual showcase of British Arrow Award nominees and winners, celebrating the best ads make in the UK last year, with Wednesday and Thursday screenings (that is, the 28th & 29th) free with admission to the museum.

I've already seen Passengers, but I may not be able to keep myself from hitting Assassin's Creed; I'll probably also check out Fences and Lion. And, come on, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on the big screen!

Passengers (2016)

Went to the late night-before show of this thinking that it was earlier and shorter than was actually the case, and as such I’m kind of amazed that I got to work as close to on-time as I did. But that’s just what you do when you want to take advantage of AMC’s $5 savings for the 3D movie, especially since the reviews have already been coming out and a lot of folks were strongly hinting about why they found it objectionable, and, well, if you want to stay unspoiled, even if you have been forewarned, you’ve got to hit it early.

And, yeah, it turns out that there is some pretty ugly material in here when you look at it just a bit critically. Some of it is stuff where, if the movie came out thirty or fifty years ago, I’d grit my teeth and think, okay, that’s kind of sexist, but I think we’re doing better now. I don’t think it’s so bad as some of the angrier comments I’ve seen - I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence’s character is reduced to a mere plot device, if only because she’s a powerful enough actress to grab hold of her character and make the audience recognize that she deserves better. I do think, though, that it shows a lot of signs of having guys in almost all the decision-making capacities, thinking “well, if he feels bad while doing this, he’s really not such a bad guy and the audience will understand. There’s a little effort made to see her side, but there’s a strong undercurrent of his desires being more important than her choices (unless she’s going to choose him).

As I say in the review and said on social media right after I saw it, I feel kind of bad for enjoying what I did of this movie as much as I did - because there are some genuinely enjoyable elements to it; I’ve been waiting for a science fiction movie with this general premise and setting for a while. I wish the one we got was more enlightened, and as much as I’m glad that I think my main reaction is more to be upset about the movie’s deficiencies than just being able to look past them and enjoy the pretty pictures, I can’t quite bring myself to wholly steer people away from it. You’re not going to get this glossy an “awake on a sleeper ship” movie again any time soon, as it’s kind of a specific plot, and it’s kind of worth looking at if not exactly seeing.

Shame; this feels like it could have been a pretty great four-quadrant/appeals-to-everyone movie, but it doesn’t wind up that way.

Passengers (2016)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

The very core of Passengers is so misguided and unprepared to wrestle with the moral questions that make up its central conflict and are arguably the movie’s whole reason for being that it makes one feel bad for enjoying anything about the sleek, potentially very entertaining sci-fi adventure around it. In putting it that way, I’m probably being far more generous than most would or should, but I’m willing to admit my weakness: I’ve wanted to see a movie along these lines for a long time, and as a result I find myself just giddy enough at the shiny surface to look away from the rot underneath.

I mean, it starts off with something beautiful, an initial shot of a starship that, viewed head- or tail-on, initially looks like a traditional sort of design (habitation rings rotating about a central axis), but which distorts a little bit with the motion, seeming to come apart as the angle shifts, revealing a corkscrew design which may not be as eminently practical but still looks great on-screen. Its crew and complement of 5,000 colonists in suspended animation, it flies through what would be an improbably-dense asteroid field within a solar system, let alone interstellar space, seeming to pulverize a massive rock before continuing on its way, although red warning dots start appearing on the bridge’s status screens.

For many fans of science fiction on film, it will be hard to resist smiling a big, stupid grin during that opening sequence and the ones where the world is explored. They’re grand and visual, often staged with imagery telling the story rather than dialogue, presenting a future where humanity’s settling the stars is treated as safe and corporatized but still capable of inspiring great awe, and the unexpected dangers on this adventure are to be bested with courage and ingenuity rather than violence. The sets and costume design are bright and sleek without seeming particularly sterile, the special effects are beautiful, and the filmmakers even make great use of 3D, exaggerating the curve of the ship’s deck and otherwise heightening the unusual design of the environments while creating an impressive sense of scale.

Full review on EFC.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December Movies from China: The Sword Master and The Wasted Times

Farewell, The Wasted Times trailer. I may have made a lot of jokes about you over the past year or so, but as ubiquitous trailers go, you were all right. You at least always looked intriguing, which is more than can be said about the Assassin's Creed preview that frequently played right next to you.

It winds up saying something interesting about ambition to see these two a week apart and write about them the same day - Sword Master isn’t exactly small-time - there’s clearly been some money spent on it, and the filmmakers are clearly trying to consciously evoke the same sort of artificiality that set-bound Shaw Brothers films had - but it’s a familiar narrative told in a fairly familiar way. The Wasted Times went for self-deprecating irony, jumped back and forth in time, and used its big budget in sometimes off-putting ways, and ultimately was found wanting. I suspect that a lot of this can be put at the feet of severe cuts; the IMDB lists the “original cut” as 210 minutes long compared to the 125-minute version that played theaters, and while I suspect that original cut was never what was actually going to play theaters, that’s a good chunk of movie taken out of it. It left an unusually solid skeleton - most movies cut that severely wind up incomprehensible - but no heart.

I’d actually be kind of intrigued to see a longer version of The Wasted Times; when the movie focuses on Tadanobu Asano’s Japanese immigrant, for instance, there’s clearly something fascinating going on (and I have a hard time believing Zhang Ziyi signed on just for what we wound up seeing). On the other hand, I’ll definitely check out Death Duel sometime, just to see where Derek Yee, writer/director, decided to do things differently than a movie in which he starred.

San shao ye de jian (2016) (Sword Master)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

A good chunk of what makes Sword Master such a fun throwback to the Hong Kong wuxia movies of earlier decades is that filmmakers Derek Yee and Tsui Hark remember that people used to do them all the time. WIth the Hong Kong film industry shrunken, respectable folks like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou making movies meant to elevate the genre, and visual effects offering an alternate sort of spectacle, it can sometimes seem like the art of a good martial-arts programmer is gone. That Yee manages to capture what seems to have once been commonplace (through an admittedly nostalgic lens) thus becomes rather remarkable.

Not that these guys opt to go without modern luxuries in making this film - it opens with a slick swordfight on an icy bridge as assassin Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho Yun-tung) cuts through another warrior on his way to confront Hsieh Shao-feng, the Third Master at Supreme Sword Manor, and claim his place as the greatest swordsman in the martial world. It’s a matter of principle for him, as he refuses the money of Hsieh’s spurned lover Mu-yung Chu-ti (Jiang Yiyan) to do it as a job. But when he arrives at the manor, he finds that he has missed his chance for a fight to the death. Meanwhile, in Bitter Sea Town, a nameless vagrant (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) has a night at the Blue Moon House brothel that he can’t pay for, winding up having to work it off , often finding himself landing in the middle of the antics of “Princess” Hsiao Li (Jiang Meng-ji), simultaneously one of the klutzier and more scheming girls there.

Once upon a time, director and co-writer Derek Yee Tung-sing starred in another adaptation of the source novel (1977’s Shaw Brothers production Death Duel), and it would certainly be a fun exercise to watch them back to back. As much as Sword Master often feels like a legitimate successor to the classic martial arts movies, it also fits in very well with the recent films of producer and co-writer Tsui Hark, who genuinely loves special effects and 3D; Hark is a “throw stuff at the audience” guy. Yee maintains a fluid camera that, even in the 2D version playing most American theaters, is clearly looking to present depth and a spatial arena for the fighters to play in, often filling the screen with bright colors and elaborate costuming and production values.

Full review on EFC.

Luomandike xiaowang shi (The Wasted Times)

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Even if it hadn’t played in basically unaltered form in front of every Chinese movie released in North America for about a year and a half, the preview for Cheng Er’s The Wasted Times would have been a perfect parody of Chinese art-house movies, or at least their trailers: Beautifully composed images cut together to suggest mystery and mood rather than a specific story, a meticulously recreated historical setting, self-referential meta-commentary, and a conscious effort to include the only two English-language lines in the film, despite one being an ethnic slur. Whether intended ironically or not, those two minutes were kind of perfect in a way that the actual two-hour film can’t match.

The film opens with text describing a Japanese man who assimilated to life in occupied Shanghai completely, coming across as more “Shanghainese” than some of the natives. That description fits Watabe (Tadanobu Asano) to a T; though he runs a sushi restaurant, he dresses in Chinese clothing, speaks the local dialect, is married to a Chinese woman, has two Chinese children, and professes more loyalty to his adopted city than his native land. He’s good friends with his brother-in-law Mister Lu (Ge You), himself the sort of gangster who sees his job as making sure that everything moves smoothly in the community as much as making money for himself. Part of that, historically, has been getting the boss’s new, younger, wife (Zhang Ziyi) a role in an upcoming movie, even if that displaces more talented actress Xiao Wu (Yuan Quan). But while 1937’s Battle of Shanghai is still some months in the future, Japan’s desire to have Lu and his partners front a Japanese bank presents a test for everyone.

Much of that action takes place in the first segment or two of a film that jumps around in time, with the English subtitles, at least, taking the curious route of mentioning the proximity of the action to events in the Sino-Japanese War even though Cheng seldom shows those landmarks directly. The Wasted Times covers roughly thirteen years or so in total, though it jumps back and forth, and the fractured narrative hurts it: The climactic moment comes early, and the switching time period and perspective is seldom done in a way that creates a particularly intriguing contrast, and dramatically taking a character off the board for an equally dramatic later return means little if they’re present in an intervening sequence set years earlier. Cheng’s decisions on what to include often seem haphazard, built around the necessity of getting the whole plot in but leaving out emotional moments and in one case sticking around a time and place barely long enough for the subtitled establishing shot.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, December 19, 2016


This review has taken an absurdly long time to write for no good reason other than just not really feeling in the mood to write much lately. It’s of late stopped being my go-to thing to do on the bus, even though other things I can do with my tablet are actually harder to manage on a bumpy ride. I’m actually doing this on a new Chromebook, to see if a device that has an actual keyboard but doesn’t weigh my bag down and can be used in the cramped space on a bus makes things better. But, hey, I’m getting this posted before its Boxing Day release in Australia, so I’m not completely behind!

Anyway, I like the heck out of the movie, even if I do feel like it represents the end of traditional animation in America - Clements & Musker seemed like the last holdouts, but now they’ve done a CGI picture, and aside from Don Hertzfeldt’s project, who knows if another will be financed? It feels like there should have been a formal farewell of some sort.

It’s a real shame, because the preview for the live-action Beauty and the Beast played before this, and aside from looking like a slavish copy rather than any sort of reinvention, it kind of looks horrific: Translating characters who were conceived perfectly as ink and paint into something like actual three-dimensional objects sucks the charm right out of them, with Mrs. Potts and Chip the worst examples. I wonder if the characters in Moana look more expressive than most CGI-animated creations in part because the team behind it is used to drawing expressions rather than trying to get them through controls. Or maybe the tech has just advanced.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Depending on the intensity of one's animation fandom and opinion of the way the medium's tools have changed over the past generation, there may be something bittersweet about seeing the names of Ron Clements and John Musker on an almost-entirely CGI movie. Arguably Disney's top team during the studio's 1990s resurgence, they briefly left the company when it shifted away from hand-drawn animation, coming back to try and revive the format with The Princess and the Frog. For whatever reasons, that film didn't get audiences to fall back in love with traditional animation, and now the pair are the latest of the old guard to move fully into the digital world. Fortunately, switching tools hasn't dulled their storytelling skills at all; Moana is right up there with their other efforts, an entertaining addition to the Disney canon.

Moana herself is a Polynesian teenager, daughter of Chief Tui (voice of Temuera Morrison), training to one day be the leader of their village herself. They don't voyage on the open sea - their island of Moto Nui provides all they need and a protective reef makes fishing easy - but it leaves them in grave peril when the fish disappear and blight hits the crops. Moana's grandmother Tala (voice of Rachel House) says that this is the result of the demigod Maui staking the gemstone heart of island goddess Te Fiti, and that someone - inevitably Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho), defying her father - must track down Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) and bring him to return the heart.

In some ways, Moana is notable for what the story doesn't include - the title character doesn't have a potential boyfriend, either in the form of Maui or on Moto Nui, and it's worth noting that not only is the chieftain's daughter being his heir no big deal, but she's shown as fairly capable. That's a laudable continuation of how the recent Disney animated features (princess-based or not) have given their heroines goals other than falling in love and getting married, and it makes Moana a particularly enjoyable protagonist, full of confidence and self-starting: As much as she's on this quest to help others people, it's always very much about her, and it gives the filmmakers a somewhat more, nuanced path to follow, as Moana's confidence and skill become become more solid things. It's kind of important that her arc is not just about finding the one particular thing she's good at but the thing that she is passionate about, changing the narrative from being entirely about destiny to Moana choosing her path.

As great a character as Moana is, it would be easy for Maui to overshadow her; a literal demigod with multiple superpowers and an ego to match, he’d seem to be better equipped to handle most situations that the sea throws at the pair. The large handful of writers do a fair job of giving him an arc that mostly keeps things in Moana’s hands without making him seem wasted in the role of comic relief. That’s a mix of things that voice actor Dwayne Johnson has no trouble pulling off; though the animators seldom copy Johnson’s physicality directly, they do capture a comfort with movement that matches the charisma in his voice.

There’s a solidity to Maui in particular that perhaps wouldn’t come across quite so well in the traditional animation that Clements & Musker have used until now (it is worth noting that Big Hero 6 team Don Hall & Chris WIlliams are listed as co-directors). The animation is, as one would expect from Disney by now, top-notch, some of their best work yet - Moana and Maui have some of the most expressive faces ever given to digitally-animated characters without ever falling prey to excessive photorealism or too much exaggeration. On top of that, the filmmakers use a few different techniques to make certain scenes pop, including a cel-animated tattoo on Maui’s skin and a moment during one of the songs that rather charmingly looks like the early attempts to merge animation and live action.

The songs themselves are not bad at all, and unlike some recent musicals (whether animated movies or, say, Bollywood productions), they are a constant presence throughout the film, rather than falling by the wayside as action sequences provide the big spectacle moments. The credits show three songwriters - Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina (who also composed the score), and Lin-Manuel Miranda - who are often mixed and matched, and it’s sometimes an odd mix of influences. It’s perhaps not surprising that the most memorable numbers, “Thank You” and “Shiny”, are credited solely to Miranda and serve as character-defining showstoppers; they aren’t needed, but they’re full of fun wordplay and give the animators a great chance to play with broad characters. Some of the others fall into the trap of a screenplay with many authors, often treading familiar ground in similar ways.

Of course, most films probably have as many individual contributors as this, with animated films generally being more honest about it. What’s important is that each person involved seems to have put something nifty into the mix, and then saw it combined in a way that makes for a strong movie that sails rather than flounders.

[Possibly-dead link to] Full review on EFC.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 December 2016 - 20 December 2016

Been a while since I've done one of these - didn't even know what day it was in Australia, which is a place I highly recommend visiting - and kind of pondering dropping it. It's a couple hours I could use on something else, especially since I've fallen waaay behind in writing about what I've actually seen. Still, worth noting a couple movies that have been a while in coming.

  • Can't really say Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is long-awaited - it's kind of crazy that Star Wars movies are becoming a Christmas tradition - but it's an interesting change of pace - a side story that's not a direct part of the "Skywalker Saga" and incidentally one of the movies attempting to be a pan-Pacific hit, with Donnie Yen joining Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whittaker, and a generally great cast (which you can't necessarily get to commit to the open-ended main series). Hopefully looks as good in 3D as The Force Awakens, too, and plays at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, Jodan's (Imax 3D), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX 3D), Revere (including MX4D & XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Counterprogramming it: Collateral Beauty, starring Will Smith as a man who recently lost his daughter, and is visited by the spirits of death, love, and time after writing them letters - although, from the first reviews, it looks like the trailer misrepresents the heck out of this movie, which is less a feel-good fantasy than him being gaslighted by folks he thought were his friends. That one's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • Another big opener is La La Land, Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash, a genuine musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gotta admit, I didn't like his first musical, but he's done some great stuff since, and that's a nice cast. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Assembly Row.

    The Coolidge also has some cult Christmas stuff for midnights with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale on Friday and Krampus Saturday. The Sunday-morning kids' show isn't Christmas-based, but Hugo is one of the best family films of the past decade, a real delight.
  • Oddly, Kendall Square skips matinee shows for The Brand New Testament, in which God's young daughter texts the entire world the day on which they will die, which leads to a number of other chaotic events. Very funny trailer, dry Belgian humor. Took a while to get here, though, playing the festival circuit back in 2015.
  • Also taking what seemed like forever - The Wasted Times, a Chinese film for which Boston Common has been showing the same trailer since a year and a half ago. It's set in occupied Shanghai, and appears to involve a film director making an art-house flick. For a while, I honestly believed that it was a parody of Asian art-house films, but it's apparently real, featuring Zhang Ziyi, You Ge, and Tadanobu Asano.

    For Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond offers a fair number of Indian films this weekend, although few get full schedules, and there's no word on subtitles for Telegu comedy Nanna Nenu Naa Boyf and Tamil cricket comedy Chennai 600028 II: Second Innings. And in perhaps the most random, likely four-walled, release in recent memory, they will be playing a Russian cop movie, Black Rose, from early 2014 that has Alexander Nevsky as a Moscow detective helping the LAPD find a serial killer, daily at 2:50pm.
  • Though it will be playing other places digitally next week, The Brattle Theatre has a 35mm print of It's a Wonderful Life, which you may have heard of or seen, from Friday to Sunday. Lots of shows selling out, so get tickets early. There are special events during the week, with Girl Haus Cinema showcasing short films and video art made by women, including a showcase of local filmmakers. Tuesday is Trash Night, featuring Dolph Lundgren (presumed) crud-fest The Minion. And in case I don't do this again Tuesday, remember that A Shane Black Christmas is coming up.
  • The Harvard Film Archive breaks for Christmas after this weekend, right in the middle of their Busby Berkley Babylon retrospective, with 35mm prints of Gold Diggers of 1933 (Friday 7pm), Dames (Friday 9pm), Roman Scandals (Saturday 7pm), Fashions of 1934, Lady Be Good (Sunday 4:30pm), and Ziegfeld Girl (Sunday 7pm).
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, meanwhile, is doing a retrospective of Laura Dern, titled "Woman Inherits the Earth" from her biggest movie, even if it's not necessarily her most significant. The films on offer include 99 Homes (Friday), Wild at Heart (Friday/Sunday on 35mm), Inland Empire (Saturday on Lynch's personal 35mm print), Rambling Rose (Saturday), Smooth Talk (Sunday), and Blue Velvet (Sunday).
  • The Regent Theatre has encore screenings of Harry and Snowman, a documentary about a man who trained an Amish plow animal to a champion show horse, on Saturday and Tuesday. Another niche documentary, Banner Years: The Golden Era of Hockey in Massachusetts runs Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

I already have tickets for Rogue One (9am Saturday!), I'll catch The Wasted Times and The Brand New Testament, and probably more Bubsy Berkley than I'd originally planned, because you can't expect me to resist William Powell and Joan Blondell.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sky on Fire

Got this thing nearly done last night, only to have my computer shut down because apparently it was ignoring the electricity coming to it via the power supply and just working off the battery. What's up with that, machine? Am I not falling behind enough?

Anyway, as I am falling behind, I'll confine the stuff outside the review to a couple of things: First, that it's interesting that it came out this past weekend, because it came out 8 days earlier in Australia to coincide with its Chinese release. Releases are weird down there - it's seemingly the only place where Thursday is new-release day, and not just for early previews as is basically the case for everything now in the US, but there also seem to be some pretty solid preview runs (there were a bunch of posters showing Trolls coming out on 1 December, but there were matinees for much of the week before, and other previews at odd times, like 9pm Sunday). I could have seen it, especially on one of the nights where I tried to get to Your Name only to find it sold out, although after spending the day walking around I often didn't know whether I could hold out another two hours. The American release date kind of shows how Well Go is somewhat uniquely being pulled between two different markets - you want to have it close to the Chinese date to avoid piracy, but the weekend after Thanksgiving isn't considered good in America, especially since Lam's a guy folks might know.

Second - and I am kind of hoping I don't really get an answer - just how common is it for adoptive siblings to be attracted to each other? I remember everyone being "dude, that's weird" in The Royal Tennenbaums, but now it's a regular thing on The Flash even though everyone I recommend the show to is like "wait... what?" when I get to Barry Allen being raised by Iris West's dad not interfering with her being his love interest, and it's a thoroughly weird thing to appear in the last act here. Granted, the latter two were probably not technically adopted, but, man, it's a thin line, right?

Chongtian huo (Sky on Fire)

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

It's strange to say this about Ringo Lam Ling-tung's new action movie, but Sky on Fire could do with a whole lot more melodrama than it offers. As much as it's usually considered more impressive craft to communicate emotions with some subtlety or have the plot reveal itself gradually, this movie doesn't really ignite until Lam douses it with lighter fluid, and he doesn't do that nearly enough.

The sky in question is the Sky Clinic, located in 160-floor skyscraper "Sky One", a company having phenomenal success in treating cancer, although there's tragedy in its past and the prices are high. Too high for the likes of Lin Jia (Joseph Chang Hsiau-chuen), who has done everything he can for his sister "Jane" Siu Jun (Amber Kuo Tsai-chieh), just back from an attempt at treatment overseas. While they're seeing a former colleague of Sky Clinic founders Gao Yu (Zhang Jingchu) and Tang (Fan Guangyao), the son of another is holding up a truck full of Sky's "Ex-Stem Cells". Security chief Chong Tinbo (Daniel Wu Yin-cho) pursues ringleader Poon Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), but when their paths intersect...

... well, it might be nice if more happened. There's a nifty heist and car chase, and then the movie does a severe downshift, almost like Ziwan and Professor Lee really had no plans for what they would do after they got the cells and Sky realized that, while insurance wouldn't cover the whole thing, their business wouldn't be in immediate peril if this went missing. Lam's script sometimes feels like a bunch of ideas circling that have places where they can connect around strong emotions and motivations, but they never really pull together, and the eventually he starts adding and discarding those pieces almost at random.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

MonsterFest 2016.01: Raw

G'day from Melbourne, where I'm attending the MonsterFest film festival. Sure, it may seem like a strange thing for an American whose family doesn't live that far away to do for Thanksgiving weekend, but many members of that family tend to spend the day with their in-laws, or make other plans that leave me trying to work around. So, instead, when I got an email about this festival, I figured why not take that vacation I always need to use by the end of the year in someplace warm this time? So I'll be spending the next few days here:

That's the Lido Cinema in Hawthorn, not quite central Melbourne but pretty easily accessible via the Metro, and home to a four-day festival of horror and other genre pictures that started out as a showcase for a distributor but is growing to something more impressive. It's a fancy-ish theater with a bar and decent snacks, reasonably comfortable seats, and some interesting rooms I'm looking forward to seeing later.

Opening night was Raw, a pretty darn good cannibal coming-of-age movie that will apparently be getting a US release in March 2017. Unfortunately, they took phones at the start, meaning I can't show any images from Julia Ducournau's lengthy Q&A, which is a shame, because she was wearing some great horror-inspired jewelry and was really kind of delightful in how she answered some questions, including getting kind of uncomfortable when a guy used the word "erotic" about a dozen times to describe a movie that she sees as being about sisters.

Anyway, Day 1 of a festival is easy. Day 2 has four features and a package of shorts, so don't expect that to be a next-day thing.

Grave (Raw)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (MonsterFest, DCP)

There's a last-scene reveal to Raw that, as well-done as it is, seems to run counter to the way the rest of the film works: If this is meant to shock and surprise, then why has everything else been so casual, so willing to play the horror as something that is simply not spoken about between the characters? It's an indecisiveness that often frustrates, because writer/director Julia Ducournau often seems to be onto something great with her horrific twist on the coming-of-age story.

The young lady coming of age is Justine (Garance Marillier), about seventeen and looking younger than many of her incoming classmates at a French veterinary college. She'll be joining her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) there, although Alex hasn't had much contact with her family since starting school. She quickly makes friends with roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), although she doesn't expect the level of hazing that she's in for, with the first night culminating in being forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys. That's gross enough even before considering that the girls' parents (Laurent Lucas & Joana Preiss) raised them as strict vegetarians - and it soon seems that this first taste of flesh is kickstarting far stronger urges in Justine.

Yes, those cravings wind up going about where you'd expect, directly enough that it's good to see that Ducournau is good with a gross-out. Excellent, really, building up with moments that almost chastise the audience for being squeamish - bikini waxes and biology classes may make one wince, but they're not really perverse - and then getting the absolute most out of some gruesome practical effects. She doesn't pile on nastiness just for the sake of it - there seems to be a very purposeful escalation each time that reflects what is going on with Justine, and once the audience is acclimated, any sort of closeness or intimacy becomes suspect.

Full review on EFC.

Look at This: The Love Witch & Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Sunday afternoon, going to be on a plane come Monday morning, what moviegoing do you cram in? The two that would probably benefit the most from theatrical exhibition, even if you know they probably aren't the best ones playing at the moment, or even the best ones on short time.

The funny thing: Despite being at best lukewarm on both, I kind of wish both of them had been presented somewhat closer to how they were intended. The Love Witch was shot on 35mm and there is apparently a print bouncing around, making me wonder if maybe it will play that way at the Brattle or Coolidge later, and Billy Lynn didn't even play in 3D outside of NYC/LA, let alone the super-high frame rate which apparently only a handful of screens in the world are equipped for. I don't know whether either would have made a better impression that way, but it's something worth pondering.

The Love Witch

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Poke around this site a little bit, and you'll find my review of Anna Biller's previous feature, Viva, as well as some comments about how, because I didn't much like it,I clearly didn't "get" it for finding it all impressively-recreated pastiche but often dull and empty. The good news about The Love Witch is that it's a better movie, with something interesting underneath its incredibly detailed surface; the bad news is that Biller still seems to have trouble separating the wheat from the chaff when she's worked so hard on every frame.

She introduces us to Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch moving from San Francisco to a smaller town after things ended badly with her last lover, and she intends to use all that she knows about love and sex magics to make it happen. For a somewhat sleepy town, there are plenty of targets, from a libertine university professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) to the recently-promoted police officer who stopped her on the way in (Gian Keys) to the husband (Robert Seeley) of her new neighbor (Laura Waddell). Of course, these spells do tend to backfire.

The story itself doesn't matter for a little while, or at least the audience might be inclined to be patient, because the movie looks so good. Biller and cinematographer M. David Mullen shot on 35mm to better capture the bright, 1970s-inspired colors that she uses as her palette; though not actually a period piece, she draws a great deal of inspiration from that time, with hairstyles, wardrobe, and set decoration, much of it handmade by Biller herself, making for a tremendously lush, sensual visual experience.

Full review on EFC.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, high frame rate DCP)

There's a paradox to Ang Lee's decision to shoot (and, ideally, exhibit) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 120fps 3D - while these technologies are intended to present an image on-screen that better reflects reality, the actual effect is to make everything seem a little off, because even in 2D at, I'm guessing, 48fps, it looks different enough from what a viewer is used to for the whole thing to seem kind of surreal. And, don't get me wrong, this absolutely works for the movie Lee is making, where both the war in Iraq and the return for a publicity tour are kind of unreal in their own ways. Which raises the question - if this tech did become common, would a good part of its effect be lost?

That would probably be a more relevant question for a better movie; this one is serviceable enough, dotted with clever and well-observed moments, but often seeming to fall just a bit short of its potential. It's got ideas, though none that seem particularly radical when viewed twelve years after the story's fictional events, but it struggles with making them personal for the audience. There are competing narratives around Billy - how he was not a patriotic volunteer but coerced into service for being a screw-up, how he ironically found his niche, how he is being exploited to feed the war machine (and would be exploited to oppose it) - but they don't quite coalesce. There's a real mess here that deserves examination, but this is a movie mostly content to look at the mess, not poke around in it.

A shame, because I like newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy, capturing just how crazy young most of the people sent off to war are, stumbling toward some amount of wisdom. His scenes with Kristen Stewart as the older sister who feels responsible for him being over there and has come to hate the war both independently and as a result of it are great, especially as even those inclined to agree with her might become uncomfortable with how she's using him. There are bunches of surprising supporting performances, from a toned-down Chris Tucker to an unctuous Steve Martin, and the inappropriate weirdness of the halftime show is kind of impressive.

This movie probably isn't going to age well, especially removed from its natural theatrical environment. It's a fairly honest, well-intentioned one that tries some interesting things, at least, and that deserves a bit of praise.

Divorce, Chinese Style: Someone to Talk To & I Am Not Madame Bovary

Almost got to post this entry about Chinese movies from China, as I had a layover in the Beijing airport on my way to my final vacation destination, but for a major international hub, it doesn't really have the spots to work or great wi-fi or the like. Also: Kind of chilly. Still, there were ads for I Am Not Madame Bovary running all over the airport, and I'm writing these words on an Air China flight, which is kind of something.

It's interesting that both films were written by the same person, doubly so when you consider that Bovary likely would have come out first if not for a number of odd delays for reasons that are either numerous or not entirely clear. It's still the better movie, but the timing makes Someone to Talk To seem a bit better - it's a warm-up, rather than a step down.

One thing that kind of struck me as interesting in both movies is the "divorce certificate", complete with photographs. I suppose that there must be some sort of document when people get divorced anywhere, but it's seldom seemed like something whose legitimacy would need to be proven like that. Is this something that is more likely to be done unilaterally in China, especially with people more likely to travel to another city to find work?

In any case, I'm not sure how long Bovary is going to hang around American cinemas, especially with packed holiday weekends coming and it seeming more like something that belongs in the boutique houses than the big multiplexes, what with its circular aspect ratio and odd shifts in tone. Worth checking out, if only because seeing a movie shaped like that is a different experience that encourages closer looks.

Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

I'm not sure I can recall a film that works its name into the dialogue quite so much as Someone to Talk To; it's right on the line of where one can't help but remember the hyper-literal names American movies were given when translated into Chinese. To their credit, the filmmakers don't treat the desire to share conversation in a marriage as any sort of grand revelation, even if they do put it right in the foreground from the start.

And that start, to its credit, is pretty amusing, as we see a fresh-faced young Niu Aiguo (Mao Hai) and Pang Lina (Li Qian) enthusiastically getting their marriage license, telling the official that they alway shave something to talk about, only to get shoved aside by a divorcing couple pointing out how their entire reservoir of affection and conversation dried up. From there we flash forward ten years to the pair barely speaking, although daughter Baihui has them wrapped around her finger. Things unravel in ugly form, while Aiguo's sister Aixiang (Liu Pei) is trying to find someone before reaching forty, not entirely aware of the crush her brother's army buddy Song Jiefang (Fan Wei) has on her.

She's been burned badly before, enough that the phrase "drinking pesticide" is repeated as a common thing for people who have been hurt by love to do. In a way, it makes for an intriguing inversion to the movie's title and the usual romantic arc: Everybody says they just want someone they can talk to at the end of the day, but those modest spoken desires belie the passion actually felt and wanted; it's why quiet people attempt suicide and Aiguo cuts Lina out of their daughter's life with such ferocity. The trouble is, director Liu Yulin and writer Liu Zhenyun don't quite forcus on that; their story goes all over the place and has frustratingly little room for Lina's perspective. It centers on Aiguo with everyone else there to let him do as he will, but he's not the whole story nor even necessarily the most interesting part.

Maybe that's as good a metaphor for divorce and relationship failures as you can find in a movie by this name - all sorts of implied opportunities for interaction but nobody's stories connecting. True as that may be, it isn't nearly as satisfying to watch as it could be, and while the film has some interesting moments and ideas, it can't help but be overshadowed by the other movie about divorced that Liu Zhenyun wrote.

Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian (I Am Not Madame Bovary)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

My first thought on seeing the previews for I Am Not Madame Bovary, and for a while during the movie, involved wondering what a conscientious projectionist would do to try and matte it properly, what with the circular image and all. It's a simultaneously distracting and focusing way to present this particular movie, promising that it's clever and satiric and deserving a close read even if the exact meaning can sometimes be a little tough to grasp, despite being front and center.

After all, even before the story proper has started, the audience has to confront the unusual framing; as much as human vision is basically elliptical, we mostly view the world through rectangular portals, whether they be movie screens or windows (the literal kind or the ones on computers). So when we see the initially-circular image in front of us, unavoidably with a border and a rectangle around it, we're forced to think of other times we see the world with round borders. The film doesn't feel particularly telescopic, though - we aren't at an unusual remove, or voyeuristically watching the action with a secret interest. Perhaps a microscope is a better metaphor, though there's nothing about this story that presents its characters as particularly small or mysterious, something to be studied to understand the mechanisms at play, at least until it is nearing its end. And if that's the case, why the square frame for the scenes taking place in and around Beijing? An implication that things are more orderly there, with less potentially hidden in margins?

That story revolves around Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), "Lian" for short, important because Pan Jinlian is the Chinese equivalent of the Madame Bovary of the English-language title, and her husband attempting to equate them is a blow to her self-respect. As the film starts, she is upset because, when she and husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) divorced a year previously, she believed it to be "fake", a way to manipulate the government's housing regulations so that he could get a better apartment that they could keep when remarrying, only for him to marry another woman. So she takes her case to Justice Wang (Dong Chengpeng), then the chief justice, the county chief, and the mayor, all of whom blow her off. She considers murder, but also makes her way to Beijing, where she meets old classmate Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), a chef at the facility where the National People's Congress is held. The fallout from that visit may not repair her reputation, but ten years later, it has the new county chief (Yu Hewei) and mayor (Zhang Jia-yi) panicked about what she might do at that year's NPC, even when she says she has no plans to go to Beijing.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 November 2016 - 22 November 2016

Short week coming up, with new movies opening the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and I've got an even shorter wee than that to see what comes out, since I'm literally losing a day to travel.

  • I know I like 3D more than most people, but I'm kind of surprised about a couple of the bookings this weekend. Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for instance, is opening in 3D, but Imax screens will be 2D. I actually think this prequel, starring Eddie Redmayne and set in 1926 New York, looks like it may be more fun that the original series. It is at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, the Belmont Sudio (2D only), Jordan's (Imax), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (RPX), Revere (including XPlus and MX4D), and the SuperLux.

    Similarly, Ang Lee shot Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in native 120fps 3D, but as near as I can tell no theater around here is showing in in 3D. It has a 19-year-old soldier being used in the media and flashing back to the events that made him a hero. It's at Boston Common (including high-frame-rate shows), Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    In smaller-scale stuff, there's Bleed for This, with Miles Teller as a severely injured boxer who opts for a rehab that will potentially let him fight again rather than a far safer surgery. It's at the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere. There's also coming-of-age comedy The Edge of Seventeen, featuring Hailee Steinfeld as a teenager who finds her life getting awkward when her brother and fest fiend start dating. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.
  • There's also a decent-sized release for Nocturnal Animals, the second film by former fashion designer Tom Ford, which features Amy Adams as a woman reading her ex-husband's pulp novel, with the fun casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as both the ex and the story's hero. It's at the Coolidge Kendall Square, Boston Common. The Coolidge Corner Theatre also opens Marathon: The Patriot's Day Bombing, a look at the 2013 attack mostly from footage shot at the time. Though mostly playing in the GoldScreen, it will get the big screen as filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg visit on Sunday afternoon to introduce their film.

    The Coolidge also continues their 1980s comic book series over the weekend, with Flash Gordon playing midnight Friday and Heavy Metal the same time Friday, both on 35mm. The weekend's Talk Cinema program, featuring Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blanke, will be Saturday rather than the usual Sunday, though still followed by a discussion. Monday night's Science on Screen show is the original Planet of the Apes, with Dr. Daniel Lieberman talking about the film's fanciful take on evolution.
  • I Am Not Madame Bovary plays Boston Common after a weird delay that came as a result of China delaying its release, apparently to give cover to not submitting it as their Oscar selection. It's from Feng Xiaogang, one of the country's most popular filmmakers, and stars Fan Bingbing as a woman looking to hire a killer after a bureaucratic snafu around her divorce. It's apparently satiric and unusual in that the picture is a circle for most of the film.

    Indian films at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond include an action/adventure titledAchcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada in Tamil and Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo in Telugu, both subtitled, Tamil comedy Kadavul Irukaan KumaruSantu Straight Forward, and Ekkadiki Pothavu Chi (no language listed for the latter two).
  • The Brattle Theatre begins The Bard Unbound: Shakespeare on Screen, looking at decades of Shakespeare's plays being adapted for film. It starts with Branagh's Henry V on Friday; the same play adapted by Olivier as part of a double feature with his Richard III on Saturday, another twin bill with the newly restored Chimes at Midnight and a 35mm print of My Own Private Idaho on Sunday, and the rarities All Night Long & Joe MacBeth on Tuesday.

    In between, there's a dubbed screening of Girls und Panzer der Film Sunday afternoon, based on a popular manga/anime based on a parallel world where restoring and driving tanks is a popular club activity for teenage girls. There's also a DocYard screening of Fraud on Monday, with director Dean Fleischer-Camp in person.
  • Their also one of the venues for the last weekend of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, running from Saturday to Monday, including a now-revealed surprise screening of The Settlers and . That festival will be at the Brattle, the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater in Newton, the Somerville, the Museum of Fine Arts, West Newton, and NewBridge on the Charles
  • The Harvard Film Archive has more of Say It Loud! The Black Cinema Revolution this weekend, with The Mack (Friday 7pm), Cleopatra Jones (Friday 9:15pm), The Harder They Come (Saturday 7pm), Space Is the Place (Saturday 9:30pm), and Nina Simone- Live in Montreux (Monday 7pm), all but the last on 35mm. Sunday, meanwhile, is what looks like a separate-admission double feature of their Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet retrospective, with Sicilia! at 7pm and From Today Until Tomorrow at 8:15pm (both are short). Note that the latter replaces Wehre Does Your HIdden Smile Lie?, which will screen at some later date.
  • In addition to the BJFF, The Museum of Fine Arts has screenings of As I Open My Eyes (Friday/Saturday) and Do Not Resist on Saturday. There's also a special presentation of Edgar Arceneaux's Until, Until, Until with him on hand Friday evening, in conjunction with Tufts and the MIT Museum.
  • The Somerville Theatre picks up the excellent Moonlight, and finishes their fall repatory series with a 35mm double feature of Diamonds Are Forever & Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery on Friday. That night also has a screening of Dreamland, an indie May-December romance with a nifty cast, in the Micro-Cinema on Friday. Documentary Asperger's Are Us on Tuesday.
  • The Regent Theatre presents Shangri-La Suite, an indie film about two lovers come to L.A. in 1974 to kill Elvis (played by Ron Livingston, part of a nifty cast). They also have National Bird on Monday, a documentary about the use of surveillance drones in America.

I will probably go for Fantastic Beasts and Long Halftime Walk, and then on Monday I get on a plane for a looooong flight to an Australian film festival... Well, vacation, really, but the festival will be part of it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

One of the funniest things to me about the advertising campaign for this movie was how it always seemed to say "from the director of Braveheart" without mentioning Mel Gibson's name, which is kind of understandable - he's been in movie jail for about ten years, not without cause, and there are still a lot of people that are going to react badly to his name. It didn't escape my attention that this is an Australian movie (Hugo Weaving in the cast is a sort of dead giveaway), with some Chinese backing, and it's not surprising that he got a chance to make a big comeback there rather than in Hollywood It seems like he's finally doing the thing I've been hoping he would for a while - saying, basically, that the worst parts of him come out when he's drunk, something that he always seemed to have too much ego to do. His last starring vehicle, Blood Father, was all but direct to video.

He's an interesting guy to do this one, though, given that he's got a strong but non-mainstream Christian background himself, though he's a very traditional Catholic rather than a Seventh Day Adventist like Desmond Doss. I wonder if that helped the film a lot, in that he could sort of grasp the depth of the character's belief but didn't feel the need to push the specifics of it, and show it as a major part of Doss's life without giving it the sort of weight that the folks making "faith-based" films might. He's also got a lot of skill at doing something on a grand scale (and an eye for popular appeal) that those guys don't.

It feels a little weird to be as happy to see Gibson back as I am, given that I've got a pretty hard line where Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are concerned (I will watch their stuff against once they are safely dead and unable to profit from it). I guess it's good to know where your line is, though.

Hacksaw Ridge

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2016 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

For better or worse, Hacksaw Ridge does not mess around; its filmmakers know what they want to do with their true story of an non-violent war hero, and much of the movie feels as conventional as its subject is not. On the other hand, that direct nature becomes a real asset once it gets to the battlefield, as director Mel Gibson, freed to tell the story with action more than words, manages to make one of the more bloody and visceral battle scenes put to film something impressively focused.

The man in question is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a young man in rural Virginia who, at the start of World War II, was registered as a conscientious objector due to his pacifist religious beliefs. For most people, seeing how serving in the prior war had left his father (Hugo Weaving) an alcoholic, abusive shell of a man might be enough to reinforce that, but helping treat a man injured in an accident triggers his desire to serve, though as a medic. As one might imagine, his refusal to even touch a weapon, his refusal to even touch a weapon does not exactly go over well in basic training, with unit captain Glover (Sam Worthington) suggesting Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) do all he can to make Doss quit.

Given that the film is named after a battle rather than the training camp and opens with a flash-forward to Okinawa, the opening arc of the story is a path that is never in any particular doubt. There's the nice girl, the group of recruits given introductions just memorable enough that you can tell them apart but not so much that they're likely to steal the movie from Doss, the colorful moments during training that will almost certainly be referenced later, and, finally, the court-martial that gives Doss a chance to lay why he's doing this thing out there. That it's formulaic isn't a particularly bad thing; the military, small-town life, and religion all have patterns and rituals that would require explanation if broken. What's important is that while there are some bumps - two flashbacks hinting at reasons why Doss may recoil from touching a weapon for personal reasons rather than just religious principle seems a bit much may be a little much - this part of the film is capably handled. The filmmakers avoid drawing familiar things out, for the most part, and make a good call in portraying Desmond Doss as kind of an odd duck with some kind of unreasonable expectations about how people will respond to him rather than just a man unfairly persecuted for his religious convictions. It's not fancy, and some viewers will mentally be checking things off a list, but it's good enough.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 11 November 2016 - 17 November 2016

Been a week, huh? The good news is that a movie a lot of folks are saying is one of the best of the year opens this weekend (and it's pretty great).

  • That would be Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi drama featuring Amy Adams as a linguist charged with finding a away to communicate with the massive spaceships that have appeared around the world. It's also got Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and having seen the Thursday night show, I'm not going to say much more, because it deserves fresh eyes. It's at the Somerville, Kendall Square, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Less heralded is Shut In, one of those EuropaCorp thrillers that hopefully gives a bump to an actor who deserves better than he or she has received of late; in this case, it's Naomi Watts, who plays an agoraphobic psychologist who has to venture outside in a snowstorm to rescue the kid from Room. Not having advanced screenings isn't a good sign, but on the other hand, odds are good that it's got the Valerian teaser. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    And for those looking for laughter, there's Almost Christmas, featuring Danny Glover as the patriarch of a family who just wants them all to get along during the holidays, which may be challenging. They include Kimberly Elise, Mo'Nique, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, and more. That's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Special screenings include a couple of very different animation and live action back after a while. The anniversary re-release is Space Jam, playing Sunday and Wednesday at Boston Common, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. On Monday, it's Doctor Who: Power of the Daleks, which takes the soundtrack of the lost first story featuring Patrick Troughton as The Doctor and reconstructs it as well as the BBC can. It's at Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere,and the SuperLux.
  • Kendall Square gets IFFBoston Fall Focus favorite Loving, with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the an interracial couple who challenged Virginia's laws against their marrying. It comes from director Jeff Nichols, and is very sweet; it also plays Boston Common (another Fall Focus selection, Moonlight, expands to the Embassy).

    They also get The Eagle Huntress, a documentary on a Kazakh girl who aims to be the first in generations to be an expert falconer. Daisy Ridley narrates, and the cinematography look gorgeous; it also plays West Newton. They also have a one-week booking of the new restoration of Tampopo
  • The Brattle Theatre has a pair of new releases this weekend if you feel like punching your cinematic passport. Guatemala sends Ixcanul, telling the story of a girl who lives in a village by an active volcano, and starts to find a man who intends to travel to the U.S. an appealing alternative to an arranged marriage. It shares the screen with We Are X, a documentary about rock super-group X Japan, legends in Japan but almost unknown elsewhere. Those all run Friday through Monday. After that, Tuesday is Trash Night, and Wednesday is An Art That Nature Makes, a documentary on photographer Rosamond Purcell, who finds beauty in "the discarded and decayed", with Ms. Purcell there to discuss.
  • Thursday, they host the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which also has shows at The Coolidge, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Somerville, the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater in Newton, West Newton, Foxboro Patriot Place, Maynard Fine Arts, AMC Framingham, and the Arlington Capitol.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a fair slate of Indian movies, including subtitled action-romance Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (Tamil)/Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo (Telugu), with Hindi movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil still kicking around and late, apparently-unsubtitled screenings of Deyyam Nakem Bhayam (Telugu horror-comedy) over the weeend.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps the same schedule as last week, and also continues its 1980s comic-book movie midnights, with the Michael Keaton/Tim Burton Batman on Friday and Superman III on Saturday. Saturday's midnights also include a make-up screening of The Cabin in the Woods, which got rained out at their off-site show a few weeks ago. There's also a "Stage & Screen" presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice on Monday to tie in with the Huntington Theatre's production of Bedroom Farce.
  • The Handmaiden expands to The Somerville Theatre and Lexington Venue, which is some nice staying power. The Somerville also has a Friday night double feature of Rebel Without a Cause and Jailhouse Rock on Friday, a lecture and book release for The Fall of the American Movie Palace on Sunday, and multiple screenings of Warren Miller's Here, There, and Eveywhere on Wednesday and Thursday. That stuff pushes Inferno to The Capitol, which also gets A Man Called Ove.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues a weekend series paying tribute to Peter Hutton, with on set of 16mm shorts on Friday evening and another on Sunday afternoon, the latter introduced by Fern Silva. They finish off their Pam Grier series later Friday night with the aptly-scheduled Friday Foster. Saturday welcomes filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi to present his drama Happy Hour, clocking in at over five hours plus intermission. The weekend finishes with two programs of African-American short films, one on Sunday and and a free program introduced by Kent Garrett, including a work-in-progress look at his latest.
  • In addition to the BJFF, The Museum of Fine Arts has more programs from the Boston Turkish Festival's Documentary & Short Film Compeition on Friday and Saturday.
  • ArtsEmerson has a broadcast from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater on Friday night at Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room, with a special "Reel Life Experience" presentation of South Side With You on Saturday. Bright Lights just has one free screening this week, with a special guest on hand to introduce Genius on Tuesday.
  • The Regent Theatre has a free screening of an upcoming episode of NOVA, "Can Alzheimer's Be Stopped", including Q&A with Dr. Brent Forester, MD, MSc, Chief of Geriatric Psychiatry Division at McLean Hospital afterward. Then on Wednesday they have ChuckTV: The Movie, with tickets available as a contest from WZLX, but it's a big theater, so if you enter you've got a pretty good chance.

Having already done Arrival, I'll probably go for Shut In, Doctor Who, and some catch-up.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Right Guys for the Jobs: Ouija: Origin of Evil & Doctor Strange

Eventually, I'll get around to writing up my Fantasia review of Mike Flanagan's Before I Wake from Fantasia (or not - at some point, I'm just going to have to establish a cut-off and punt what I haven't gotten around to), and it's interesting that he talked about it being part of a thematic trilogy with Absentia and Oculus in terms of dealing with loss, but I don't think he mentioned this one at all, even though it his a lot of the same targets. I don't necessarily find that odd; even if he approached it the same way, and even if making movies means that you must, inevitably, relinquish ownership of the thing that you made and poured yourself into, this was a work-for-hire job from the start, with an endpoint determined by the studio, even if they were apparently pretty good about letting him do his thing on his way there. Plus, co-star Kate Bosworth was shooting something in MTL and that focused things even more on the movie at hand.

Still, it was fun to see a guy I found to have a really interesting take on horror material since seeing his first feature get bigger things and also wind up working like crazy, with what looks like four movies on various platforms between this year and next. He's earned it.

So has Scott Derrickson, who caught my eye with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which similarly isn't perfect, but at least shows a guy putting something besides jump scares into his horror movies, which isn't necessarily rare, but is appreciated. Seeing him get Doctor Strange was pretty exciting, especially given his professed fandom, and he made a pretty darn good movie. It's not his first shot at the big studio flick, since he directed Fox's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, but since I haven't seen that it was my first exposure to him having a few dozen million dollars of special effects budget, and it was kind of great that he used it to make the alternate dimensions he'd always kept hidden memorable.

Being able to pair these two movies in a part is a serendipitous result of being so far behind - I meant to have Ouija reviewed by Halloween, and didn't - but it feels kind of goods to have them paired on the blog today, as a reminder that sometimes, the guys with the right qualifications and Outlook are in fact chosen for a job, and I'm glad that Universal/Blumhouse and Disney/Marvel had people who felt this was important.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2016 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

Studios developing movies out of Hasbro's toy and game properties have come in for a fair amount of mockery, with "Ouija" basically dismissed enough that folks barely noticed it selling more than enough tickets to be counted as a success. Not the kind of success that has people clamoring for more, but where the studio figures they might as well do another. The surprising thing about this process is that someone got the idea of giving this movie based on a toy that lets one play at communicating with the dead to Mike Flanagan, who has done some pretty good work making horror stories along those lines, and turns in something that's actually pretty good.

Initially, that talking to the dead is being done by Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), a recently-widowed fortune teller who does a decent cold reading but has her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) help out by hiding just or of sight and enhancing her seances with, shall we say, practical effects. As one might expect, Paulina is not terribly impressed when someone pulls out a Ouija board at a party, though she mentions it to her mother as something worth integrating into the performance. Unfortunately, the first time they use it, something starts getting weird with Doris, enough that Paulina is soon talking to her Catholic school's principal Father Hogan (Henry Thomas) about the strange things happening in her home.

Flanagan has spent much of his career building scary stories around loss and the yearning for loved ones no longer there - it's a central theme of Absentia, Oculus, and Before I Wake - and the loss of Alice's husband Roger hangs over the Zanders as they justify what they do as wanting to help others who are in pain. It turns out that Father Hogan is a widower himself, and the sparks between him and Alice are those of people who aren't really certain how to be alone in this way. It's material and atmosphere that he's grown skilled at cultivating, but it doesn't feel overly familiar: Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard make the early bits with the family of con artists fun, and then twist it in opposite ways simultaneously, to the point where later scenes can act as both confirmation and debunking of sorts at once.

That's the big picture; the filmmakers are also good at making the quick scares thrill. Where a lot of scary movies will make the viewer jump and then show how it was really nothing until it's time to really get down to business, this one will show how something can be faked and then follow that up with something that can't be explained rationally, giving the audience a good scream but not resetting, so they're a little more on edge for the next one. Creepy moments that seem to come out of nowhere always link into something else, and what could be throwaway hooks create a very real sense of a stranger, darker world existing underneath the imperfect but optimistic and brightly colored mid-1960s of the film.

The cast and their characters do an excellent job of selling this, too. Autumn Reaser is a sneaky delight as Alice, introduced as a sharp, pattering huckster who is soon revealed as a fiercely dedicated mother, with Flanagan giving Reaser room to show the audience how Alice's contradictory traits add up to a personality rather than having her explain herself. There's a fair amount of that to Annalise Basso's Lina too - she captures the confidence of a headstrong adolescent both when it's naive and when it makes her quicker-witted than the adults she's dealing with, and lose that when it's important to show that she's nervous and scared as well. Certain genre fans will likely see her as a teenaged Karen Gillan before being reminded that she actually played that part in Oculus. Lulu Wilson initially seems to have a bit of difficulty shifting between the sweet little girl and the one possessed by something evil, but once the movie has her all-in, she's able to carry a lot of the movie's scary moments. The guys aren't given as much to do, but Henry Thomas and Parker Mack are each a little better than they need to be.

For most of the film, they get pay out a story that gives no obvious sign of being connected to events that week occur fifty years later, at least for those of us who haven't seen the 2014 Ouija movie (those who have will probably recognize the house and some character names early on). It does take a couple jarring turns near the end as the filmmakers make those connections, but those moments are probably worth it for how the Flanagan and company are able to borrow the look, sounds, and relative simplicity of the period without much irony beyond a few affectation like fake reel changes.

I can't say that I got invested enough in the mythology of the series to check out the movie whose gaps this one fills in; it's surprisingly good on its own, but I'm much more interested to see the next thing Flanagan has on his plate than the next movie based on a this particular board game. That's a heck of a lot more than expected, and one might as well take a good ghost story where they come.

(Formerly at EFC)

Doctor Strange

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2016 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, 3D laser-projected Imax)

Doctor Strange is not exactly one of Marvel's more obscure characters, but he is one that, for one reason or another, would often go a long time without having a book of his own. He's a way to draw trippy visuals that few other superheroes offer but sometimes a hard guy to connect with readers for an extended period. It's an impressive feat, then, that the guys charged with making a movie capture most of the good stuff without twisting things too terribly hard to make it work.

In this case, they start with the villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), busting into a strange library and stealing the pages from an ancient tome, escaping through a strange portal to New York City, followed by a martial artist with supernatural abilities. Elsewhere in the city, top neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) completes two cranial operations in rapid succession, one at the behest of ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They may be his last, though, as a horrific auto accident damages his hands beyond repair - at least, until he's pointed at a strange monastery in Kathmandu, where he discovers a strange new world of magic, taught by a sorceress known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her lieutenants Modo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), though it's only a matter of time before Kaecilius figures out how to perform the ritual whose instructions he stole.

Mavel has received a certain amount of criticism in recent years for their movies having something of a house style - quippy and upbeat, though sometimes with an uneven balance between telling the story at hand and creating ties that will pay off down the road. Strange doesn't necessarily lend himself to that - when he gets laughs, it's often because the writers and artists exaggerate how he seems aloof and otherworldly next to Marvel's more grounded heroes - and even for those not familiar with that characterization, it's hard not to see how hard the filmmakers are trying to recapture the success of Iron Man, with the sarcastic hero who needs humbling and gains his powers as a side effect of combating a serious injury. It's almost desperate at moments, as Strange outright tells other characters that people find him funny.

If it's not a traditional version of the character, though, it's a frequently-enjoyable one, in large part because Benedict Cumberbatch embraces the snootiness behind that characterization. Early on, when he tells jokes, the audience can hear how he thinks the other person is lucky to hear it, and he doesn't soften the arrogance and self-pity before he needs to. Even as he embraces his heroic side, there's a sense that the words don't come naturally. The attitude also makes some CGI-enhanced physical comedy even funnier.

It doesn't hurt to be playing against a heck of a good cast, though it's a pity that Rachel McAdams is stuck giving life to a role that is something like sixty percent bearing the brunt of Strange's crappy attitude and thirty percent forgiving him, the sort of barely-necessary character that needs someone that good to work but can't help underscore how she's underused. Mads Mikkelsen is not quite in the same boat, if only because being the bad guy gives him a lot more opportunities to turn let something drip off a phrase or try to whither somebody - he makes Kaecilius a lot more fun to watch than the average Marvel villain even if he doesn't quite have the hook or outsize personality that makes one want to see him and Strange clash again. The allies, on the other hand, are a blast: Benedict Wong gives his namesake character great deadpan reactions while still coming off as formidable, while Chiwetel Ejiofor gives Mordo great personal charisma despite being more harsh than Strange just as often as he's more friendly. And while a lot of words have been written about the politics and optics of casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One - a character that has been a Tibetan man since the first Doctor Strange story - she owns the part of this Master of the Mystic Arts, making The Ancient One feel like she's detached from any specific time but having both a lack of ego and an iron will. She's terrific no matter who she's paired with, be it Cumberbatch, Mikkelsen, or Eiofor, bringing a spark to moments that could easily be ridiculous.

A huge part of the appeal of Doctor Strange has always been the psychedelic images of inventions in other dimensions and mind-bending spells in this one, and director Scott Derrickson doesn't exactly keep it in reserve - the opening sequence quickly becomes an action sequence that is like a chase through a particularly strange trip as buildings morph and gravity redirects, an effect that has been a big part of the advertising for the film and a strong argument in favor of catching it on the premium 3D screens (although, fair warning, other parts of the film are dark enough that it's worth knowing which places aren't stingy with the lumens). The great surprise on first watch is that Marvel and Disney actually held some things back, and there's even more far-out images, more directly influenced by artist Steve Ditko, on tap, and enough budget that Derrickson an company seldom have to just settle for guys in robes posing at each other to throw CGI objects around for an action scene. There's some of that, but the film seldom resorts to feeling entirely conventional, and there's a lot of sheer delight to be had as the filmmakers not only make twisted backgrounds and incredible power feel like something other than randomness - in the middle of all the effects, this feels well-choreographed - and but they create more than a few moments where, after nearly a decade of superhero movies coming out at a very quick pace, the audience might just feel like it's seeing something new.

Doctor Strange isn't entirely new things, of course - I strongly suspect that it won't just be movie critics force-fed this material when they'd rather see something less loud who will grumble that Marvel is starting to repeat itself. But there's also little denying that not only does what they're doing appeal on a basic level, but that they're having exceptional success in pairing characters and concepts with the right people (Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have a great track record of making the supernatural something people can get hold of). And while there may be a little origin fatigue, the now-tradition two credit stingers - one for next year, one for the sequel - remind the audience that this movie doing some basic work lays the groundwork for sequels and crossovers that can be grander-scale and more strange. And, with this being as entertaining as it is, "more Strange" sounds pretty appealing.

(Formerly at EFC)