Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gods of Egypt

Someday, if I ever decide to relax my rule about how making lists is stupid, I'm going to write something about "people I will never give up on because I liked that great thing they did years ago", and given that Proyas has two great things - Dark City is amazing and The Crow really deserves to be known for more than the tragedy that defines it - and then fifteen years of stuff that really should be better, including seven years between Knowing (also released in what is generally considered the winter/spring dead zone) and this movie.

I mean, I get it. The Crow had the worst thing that could possible happen on a film set happen when Brandon Lee was killed, and Dark City was difficult, with word quickly circulating that New Line messed with the movie by adding narration, and then when he did get a chance for another Hollywood movie (after going home to Australia and getting to use his musical side in Garage Days), it was pretty clear he wasn't pleased with That Will Smith Robot Movie, and while that got him a lot of credit with science fiction fans, you can see why the business might be wary of him.

Ah, well. It looks like he's writing his next one, which is encouraging. And if you want to see his first great movie, The Crow, with a crowd, it's playing at Apple Cinemas Cambridge in Fresh Pond on Thursday. Hopefully they've got a DCP or a 35mm print, and the audience will be excited for it rather than looking to mock, because it's great.

Gods of Egypt

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

There is a not-unreasonable rule of thumb that says if you're ever going to see movies in 3D, it should be limited to ones that were shot and/or rendered that way. That's not bad advice, even if the post-conversion technology has improved by leaps and bounds since then and many movies shot flat are made with 3D in mind. Still, I think you'd miss something not seeing Gods of Egypt that way, not because it's done so well, but because there is a sort of wonderful silliness to seeing a movie that depicts the Earth as flat that way, and just going for it where silly things are concerned is this movie's strong suit, if only by default.

It is, after all, a movie that embraces the mythology in a literal enough sense to actually feature Ra (Geoffrey Rush) sailing a ship with the sun around the disc-shaped earth and fighting Apophis at every sunset, jams in a couple of plucky young mortals to serve as the audience's eye into this world, but is at its liveliest when it embraces the gods being basically human but larger than life in every way, especially their faults. It's a bumpy road at times - some of the first introductions to the gods are seeing Osiris (Bryan Brown) and Isis (Rachael Blake) at the ceremony meant to crown their son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) the new god-king of Egypt, and it's stilted; in particular, God of Knowledge Thoth (Chadwick Boseman) gives no hint of just how entertaining he will be when things circle back around to him.

Then Gerard Butler shows up as Set, God of the Desert, and if he's capable of being anything other than Gerard Butler, this isn't the movie where you'll see it. But that feels like just the kind of kick in the pants the movie needs as Set barrels in, kills his brother and then just starts taking everything for himself. It kicks the formality of the movie's exposition to the side and feels more natural than the kind of forced moments of humor where Horus is shown as a drunk while humans Bek (Brenton Thwaites) and Zaya (Courtney Eaton) banter in too-cute fashion. Once things start happening, though, it feels like the rest of the cast starts catching up to Butler, as we get to see the simple traits they're given at the beginning as part of what they do and how they do it - we get to see Horus & Hathor (Elodie Yung) as bickering estranged lovers rather than just be told there's something between them, while Bek & Zaya working toward a goal works in a way that "Zaya admonishes Bek for being an incorrigible thief with a smile" doesn't.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 26 February 2016 - 3 March 2016

Oscars this weekend, which means the boutique houses will probably clear house like you wouldn't believe, as will the normal ones.

  • Stuff from interesting filmmakers opens at the 'plexes, though, including the latest from director Alex Proyas, Gods of Egypt. It's meant to be the start of a franchise of adventures set in a world inspired by Egyptian mythology, but who knows if that will come to pass. In 2D and 3D, though I don't know how early that decision was made. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. Another noteworthy director, John Hillcoat, is behind star-studded crime picture Triple 9, where a group of dirty cops stage a heist only to find the central part of the plan backfire. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row,and Revere.

    A more family-oriented thing is Eddie the Eagle, featuring Taron Egerton as a less-than-elite athlete who becomes an Olympic ski-jumper, and Hugh Jackman as his eccentric trainer. Surprisingly small booking, as it plays Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, and Revere.

    Boston Common also gets Jack of the Red Hearts, which features Annasophia Robb as a teenage con artist who talks her way into being the live-in companion to an autistic child. Famke Janssen plays the mother, so you've got my attention. They also add a second screen for Chinese mega-hit The Mermaid, which is a ton of fun.
  • With the Oscars on Saturday, you can do your last bit of catch-up at Kendall Square which has Denmark's Foreign-Language Film nominee A War, starring Pilou Asbaek as a soldier who, apparently, does something ethically questionable in Afghanistan. It's from director Tobias Lindholm, who made A Hijacking and wrote The Hunt.

    They also pick up Only Yesterday, a re-release of one of the less well-known Studio Ghibli films, a real charmer directed by Isao Takahata. Most of the screenings are dubbed into English (a new recording with Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel), but the 8:10pm shows are in the original Japanese.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond gives a couple of screens to Indian imports. Neerja, in Hindi with English subtitles, stars Sonam Kapoor as flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, a true-life hero who saved the passengers of a highjacked plane in Karachi. The second subtitled-Hindi film is Tere Bin Laden: Dead or Alive, a sequel to a 2010 comedy involving an Osama Bin Laden doppelganger, although you apparently don't need to know anything about the first. They also have Telugu flick KSHANAM, Marathi drama Bandh Nylon Che, Kannada horror film Shivalinga, and subtitled Tamil boxing drama Irudhi Suttru with scattered showtimes during the weekend.

    And while it's not listed on their website yet, the theater starts weekly "Rotten to the Core" screenings on Thursday, with $4.75 getting you to see a different cult movie each week, and few other than the stinker at the end of the month are actually rotten. The Crow, which starts the month, is actually pretty great, and ties in nicely with Gods of Egypt, as it's Alex Proyas's first big Hollywood feature.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up 45 Years after it leaves the Kendall, letting it take up residence in the GoldScreen. Pieces is also kind of a new release - apparently this slasher was never officially distributed theatrically in America - playing at midnight Friday & Saturday on 35mm. There's also B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin, a documentary about the 1980s music scene in the divided city, as part of the Goethe-Institut's German film series on Sunday morning. They've also got a Science On Screen presentation Monday, with addiction specialist Dr. Kathryn McHugh introducing a 35mm presentation of Trainspotting. They also start a Thursday-night series, the "Francophone Film Festival" with Swiss documentary Le Grand Voyage, which follows a group of disabled people on adventures around the world.
  • The Brattle Theatre starts a jigsaw puzzle of a week by breaking out the beefcake with a 35mm double feature of Magic Mike & Magic Mike XXL on Friday and Saturday. That's a fine warm-up to their Oscar Party on Sunday night.

    Most folks don't consider Oscar day a holiday, or the day which happens to come after it this year, February 29th. The Brattle celebrates that with time travel, presenting Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure at 7pm and Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special The Day of the Doctor at 9pm, the latter for free. They'll be closed on Tuesday, but on Wednesday they've scheduled two tributes, with To Kill a Mockingbird at 7pm and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at 10pm. On Thursday, they've got the "opening" of the Women Take the Reel, a free-to-the-public series of screenings throughout the Boston area in March with discussion after every film.
  • The Regent Theatre also has a tribute to a late artist, screening Lemmy at 7:30pm on Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive spends a lot of time on the Jean Epstein retrospective this weekend, including five silent films with different folks accompanying: The Fall of the House of Usher (preceded by "The Three-Sided Mirror") with Martin Marks at 7pm Friday, The Lion of the Moguls with Susan Laurence at 9pm Friday, Mauprat with Robert Humphreville at 7pm Saturday, talkie Beggar's Heart at 9pm Saturday, Double Love with Jeff Rapsis at 7pm Sunday, and End of the World with Bertrand Laurence at 7pm Monday. They also have an "Innocence Abroad" screening on Sunday afternoon - Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair at 4pm Sunday. All are on 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps up its February calendar and Stanley Kubrick: A Retrospective this weekend with Full Metal Jacket (Friday/Saturday), A Clockwork Orange (Friday/Sunday), and Eyes Wide Shut (Saturday/Sunday). They kick off the March calendar with Wednesday & Thursday screenings of IFFBoston selection Theory of Obscurity: A Film about the Residents, the subject of which is a band that performs in elaborate anonymizing costumes. It will continue on, along with a series of HD presentations of Bolshoi Ballet performances, starting on Thursday with The Flames of Paris, followed by Q&A with Bolshoi's Katerina Navikova and Ballet Russes' Anna Weinstein.
  • Bright Lights just has the one free show at the Paramount Theater this week before spring break, with director Jeff Lieberman on-hand to present his film The Amazing Nina Simone.
  • The UMass Boston Film Series also has a free screening of a documentary on Thursday - Tomorrow We Disappear, which tells the tale of a slum in New Delhi that has been the home of artists for generations, but has the entire population facing eviction for a skyscraper. Afterword, directors Jimmy Goldbum & Adam Weber will take questions via skype.
  • The Oscar-Nominated Shorts keep playing in the lead-up to the Awards, with Kendall Square continuing live-action and animation all week, the Coolidge showing animation once daily, and the ICA having severa over the weekend: Animation on Friday & Sunday, Live-Action on Saturday, and the second half of the Documentary shorts on Sunday afternoon.
  • There are actually a couple of Tugg screenings in the area this week: The Champions (a documentary on rescued pit bulls) on Wednesday and Punk's Dead: SLC Punk 2on Thursday, both at Boston Common. There are a few other upcoming events in the next few months, too.

I'll be hitting most of the new releases, as well as Trainspotting and the nominated short docs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Touched with Fire

I'm fairly lucky not to have anybody close to me who has the sort of mental illness that I feel I can say anything about a movie's authenticity in portraying it, so I can't comment much on that. It was one of the things that had this movie not quite connecting to me - I thought it treated its bipolar adults like kids a lot of the time, but I really don't know if that's just me trying to fit unusual behavior into a context I recognize.

Anyway, there's the grain of salt to take this review with. One thing to mention is that I feel like I saw this preview a lot for it to only open on one screen at Boston Common, and it doesn't even seem to have gone to VOD quickly.

Touched with Fire (aka Mania Days)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

As a film, Touched with Fire sometimes struggles with being bipolar in one of the ways that its characters do, seemingly wanting to claim it as a source of creativity even if the connection is shaky, while the story being told is much more focused on the destructive side of the situation. I can't exactly blame filmmaker Paul Dalio for that; his film is based in part on his own life story and that's one way to handle a difficult relationship with oneself. Or, perhaps, he's got that right but there's something a bit off about the rest of the story, and that's why a lot of good pieces don't quite assemble into a great movie.

The best piece in it is probably Katie Holmes; she's there to play Carla, a poet of some repute whose bipolar disorder manifested in college but has been mostly under control until recently. While the film often emphasizes the manic side of her condition almost to the exclusion of the other side of the cycle, Holmes always makes Carla seem like she wants to function better; there's enough doubt in her agitation that the audience can feel something slipping away as she grows more manic, and uncertainty in the later scenes as Carla's lover Marco puts some harsh quotation marks around "getting better". Though superficially presenting a broad portrait of mental illness, Holmes manages to make Carla a character that a viewer can identify and empathize with.

Luke Kirby is just a notch or two below her, and to a certain extent that's the character he's given: His Marco is also a bipolar poet, the type more likely to be found in rap battles than English departments, but less troubled by his condition, which means Kirby spends much of the movie pushing against people trying to hold him back (to his way of thinking) rather than himself, and that's a simpler, less fascinating characterization. I suspect that he gets the behavior right, and he does vary the intensity fairly well, but even if that's the case, a preformed being honest and true could still use a bit more to work with.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.01: 400 Days and The Survivalist

I try to be optimistic about this festival before I'm disappointed, but my most amusing story of this night comes from the disappointment: I walk out of The Survivalist, pretty good and certainly an improvement over the fairly awful first movie of the evening, buy some popcorn and a soda, and walk back to the ticket-ripping station only to be told that they wouldn't be showing Mafia: Survival Game tonight because Garen was unable to download the movie in time. The look on my face as I stared down at my just-purchased snacks, with the next movie at the theater that I wanted to see not straying for 45-plus minutes, was probably meme-worthy.

Since I had to go get my jacket and such, I got to be the one who informed the folks who has just stick around the theater that the festival's first screw-up had come early. Then I walked home, with someone puking down their car window to tell the guy carrying the popcorn and soda that the movie theater was over there.

On the other hand, it could have been worse. They could have shown Mafia and really dragged the day's average down.

400 Days

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Looking at the cast of 400 Days, it's hard not to think something along the lines of "why are you doing this? You've got steady work as superheroes on television, so you don't need this sort of paycheck job!" The production schedule doesn't actually live up, but the point remains that most everyone involved has got to have much better things to do.

The 400 days in question are practice for a manned mission to Mars; astronauts Theo (Brandon Routh), Emily (Caity Lotz), Bug (Ben Feldman), and Dvorak (Dane Cook) will be placed in an underground bunker and given simulated tasks to run and problems to solve. For an extra bit of drama, Theo it's hung over at the start because of the bender he went on after Emily broke things off. Soon after "take-off", they lose all communication with the outside world, adding even more tension to what is already a tense situation.

The trouble is, that situation is never really tense. Writer/director Matt Osterman does just about nothing to indicate why Emily and Theo might have broken up, not even indicating that Theo drank to excess other than that one time. Just hearing that Emily is the woman who broke Theo's heart may change the way that the audience looks at their scenes, but the viewer can't be expected to do all the lifting here. Beyond that (and a half-heated attempt to stir up envy via Dvorak hitting on Emily and being rebuffed), there just isn't much going on in the bunker. Dvorak It's kind of a jerk who starts seeing things, but there's no sense of time going forward or relationships changing as the occasional Day X subtitles jump ahead.

Full review on EFC.

The Survivalist

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

There are several types of survivalist in stories that take place after the collapse of civilization, from the gregarious fellow who knows how to live off the land and aims to share that knowledge and bounty to the outsider who somehow gets by to the guy who at least partially welcomes a situation where he can be entirely self-sufficient and can justify killing anyone who takes any party of what is his. The title character of The Survivalist at least seems to be on the rightward edge of that spectrum, and what makes the film kind of interesting is that it provides much less to push him toward community than most films of its sort do.

He's played by Martin McCann, and while he doesn't necessarily sleep well, he gets by better than many in a simple shed on a plot of land that grows just enough to sustain him. He can also handle a weapon well enough to defend that garden and is not particularly moved by the suffering of those who don't have that much. When Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) comes along, he's not terribly impressed by the seeds she offers in trade, but she does have another commodity to offer: Daughter Milja (Mia Goth) is in her teens or early twenties and it has been a long time.

It's a calculated offer that plays into some stereotypes that, aside from being sexist, don't seem to have much room for showing the audience something new. Perhaps there's something to reducing everyone to familiar types, in that without civilization, there's not much opportunity or reason to have personalities; these people are intelligent enough to think in terms of making it to next year rather than just tomorrow, but when not dealing with people as anything but competition for scant resources, there's little reason to worry about being liked or hated. It makes them into thoughtful animals, acting on instincts but being able to plan.

Full review on EFC.

The Mermaid

So, I've learned my lesson about these things which are either already big hits in China or likely to be such that play here: Rather than showing up at Boston Common and finding it sold out, I checked Fandango before leaving work on Friday, saw that it was sold out, and purchased a ticket for Saturday night's show nearly twenty-four hours in advance. When I got out of my first movie at that location, I felt kind of good seeing that the show I already had tickets to had sold out.

They wound up putting several other shows on both nights, at least in one case apparently at the direct expense of something else that could maybe have used a boost (the screen where I had seen Touched with Fire wound up being an extra one for The Mermaid). I almost feel like I'm starting to get the hang of how these movies that go almost unnoticed by the larger audience attract the heck out of their niche (Chinese-Americans, expatriates, Chinese students) and being able to deal with it as an outsider who is nevertheless a fan.

It does seem like I'm seeing a little more about how America ignores these big hits that originate outside its borders with The Mermaid than some other things. Part of it just may be that it's good - the stories of the massive amounts of money that are coming in during the Chinese New Year season also mention The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas to Macau III, but those are pretty bad, and last year's Monster Hunt not exactly great either (though Lost in Hong Kong probably deserved more attention than it got).

Of course, the fact that this is the new Stephen Chow movie makes it a bit more of an interesting case - as I mentioned in the review, once Miramax was finished jerking Shaolin Soccer around and put it in theaters, Chow's next two movies got regular releases here, and there was a bit of intrigue about him as he was talked about for both The Karate Kid and The Green Hornet. It does show the weird way that Chinese cinema in America has changed over the past decade, though - ten years ago, Sony Pictures Classics could get something like Kung Fu Hustle into American theaters and people would discover it, subtitles and all, although the path could be kind of indirect. Now, it makes its way here just a week and a half after its opening in China, but the chances of it expanding to a broader audience are almost nil. On the other hand, certain theaters will grab it because they can target a specific audience and have them come out in pretty impressive numbers. It speaks to some weird, seemingly-contradictory forces at work in the exhibition business. It's not that contradictory - cinemas are giving audiences what they know they want, whether it be very predictable material for the general audience or something that would have been considered risky before where they know there's a niche.

I've got mixed feelings about this. When I tell the folks at work what I saw this weekend, one or two might be intrigued that there's something new from the maker of Shaolin Soccer in theaters, but so many will likely not even have the chance to give it a second thought.

Mei Ren Yu (The Mermaid)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

About ten years ago, Stephen Chow Sing-chi was briefly kind of popular in the States when the writer/director/star's quick one-two punch of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, followed by CJ7, had pretty good theatrical runs for foreign films; since then he passed on making an English-language debut and moved entirely behind the camera. It's made him invisible here, but his work is still tremendously popular in China and Hong Kong, with his new one The Mermaid breaking box-office records and, thankfully, proving to be one of the funniest things playing theaters anywhere on the planet right now.

It starts out with a montage of ways humanity is harming the environment, moving to an auction for Green Gulf, won by billionaire Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), who allies himself with competitor Li Ruolan (Kitty Zhang Yuqi) to reclaim and develop the protected dolphin sanctuary. The celebratory party is crashed by pretty goofball Shan ("Jelly" Lin Yun), dressed as a mermaid the way most of the girls there are, who manages to give Liu her number before being escorted out and sent home. The surprise is that she actually is a mermaid, and her people, led by Octopus (Luo Show), intend the kind-hearted Shan to be a honey trap so that they can kill Liu.

The movie sounds like "Splash, but with more murder", and that's actually a good sign; it shows that, despite following many other Hong Kong filmmakers north to make Mandarin-language movies in China proper, he's maintained the same sort of broad, bawdy sense of humor that made his other movies live-action cartoons. The film is full of off-color jokes that jump further past innuendo than many of the other Chinese movies which have reached America recently, and the slapstick is the kind of thing that would be kind of horrible if it were the least bit believable. It's a deeply silly film despite its earnest environmental message.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

I think I've seen the preview for this one half a dozen times in front of Chinese movies at Boston Common, enough to be kind of surprised when it only opened up at the Apple Cinemas in Fresh Pond on a half-schedule, although I probably should have guessed why from the fact that it had a name change: It was in the eFilmCritic database as It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, but that doesn't get you to the top of the on-demand menu, does it?

I almost wonder if I'd have been better off just getting it on-demand, because they projected it off a Blu-ray and, yikes, it was worse than what we'd been seeing at the Sci-Fi Festival. $9.75 for that, compared to $6.99 to rent it on Amazon. I love the theatrical experience, I'm willing to pay a little extra for it, but you've got to make it better than what I'm getting at home, and a picture filled with artifacts does not cut it. Seriously, Gravitas, send places a DCP - as a viewer, I don't care about how much more a 35mm print costs than a DCP; if you can absorb the cost of hard drive compared to that of a disc, you shouldn't be distributing the movie.

(Makes me worry for the "Rotten to the Core" series Apple's advertising, though - I'm already worried that it will attract a crowd more looking to mock than enjoy, and I don't need The Crow looking like that!)

I really liked it, though, even though it took me a bit of a moment to warm up to the ending:


It's not as definitive as that of either Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, and it's really silly to complain that this movie isn't the same as that one, but both of them felt decisive in their own ways. It says good things about the movie that I really wanted "you're going to miss your plane"/"I know", but just stopping minutes before they make a decision seems like an unnatural amiguity.

BTW, what kind of crap is it that neither Before Sunrise or Before Sunset is available on Blu-ray? My DVDs could use an upgrade!


Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2016 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #9 (first-run, projected Blu-ray)

Sometimes, I feel like I'm an easy mark for movies like Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong - they are basically two people flirting for an hour or two while walking around a foreign city, allowing the viewer to play tourist by proxy, and that doesn't seem like much for the pleasure they give me. On the other hand, who doesn't enjoy sightseeing and falling in love? This movie delivers that without distraction but with just enough personality that it doesn't need more.

The star-crossed couple meets outside a bar: Joshua (Bryan Greenberg) is smoking a cigarette and seems kind of annoyed, while Ruby (Jamie Chung), in the city for a business trip, is trying to meet friends at a spot across town but has an old phone without maps. Having been living in Hong Kong for ten years, Joshua offers to walk her there; she accepts, they talk, they seem to connect, but it's not the right time. The next year, they meet again on a ferry, and while it seems that not enough has changed for them to become more than friends, who knows?

Since making the movie, stars Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung have married, and this does seem to be a happy case of on-screen and real-life chemistry lining up. Writer/director Emily Ting had them comment on other pairings of white men and younger Asian women, but makes the way these two complement one another more specific - she's often nervous but sharp, while he's settled enough to cover his insecurities by staying in a comfort zone. They're built to draw each other not so much out of their shells but out of their ruts, engaging rather than standing back, and the pair respond to each other well. We only see them separate briefly, but putting them together generates a clear spark that is a little muted otherwise.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 February 2016 - 25 February 2016

The fact that I missed seeing the IFFBoston preview of a movie on Wednesday with the director and star on-hand is somewhat balanced by the fact that it is opening freaking everywhere.

  • The film I am talking about is The Witch, opening at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville, the Kendall, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere - a real cross-section of mainstream and boutique houses. The material fits - it's a highly-acclaimed historical horror movie where a family on the outskirts of a Puritan settlement fears their misfortune is more supernatural than coincidence.

    In addition to that movie, the Coolidge also opens Mustang, which it displaces at Kendall Square. They also wrap up their highways-to-hell midnight series on Friday and Saturday with a compact 16mm double feature of Steven Spielberg's TV-movie Duel and Dick Richards's Death Valley.
  • Interestingly, the other movies opening at the multiplexes are also period pieces. Race is a biography of Jesse Owens (played here by Stephen James), who famously won a great deal of gold at the 1936 Olympics, humiliating Hitler. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. Risen, on the other hand, takes place about 1900 years earlier and features Joseph Fiennes as a Roman legionnaire tasked with with investigating the rumors that a crucified Hebrew prophet has been resurrected, which is one of the more interesting directions to do your faith-based film. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Boston Common also opens a pair of independent films. Touched by Fire (aka "Mania Days") stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as two young people with bipolar disorder who meet at a treatment facility and fall in love, apparently using their illness as fuel for their creativity. There's also an English-language dub of animated Québèçois kids' film Snowtime!, about a group of kids planning a massive snowball fight, although it only shows once a day, at 1:45pm. There's also a preview screening of Eddie the Eagle Sunday at 4pm at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere
  • Boston Common also picks up The Mermaid, which has been shattering records in China (world records - it's driven one of the highest-grossing weeks anywhere). Stephen Chow directs but doesn't appear in this story of a mermaid ("Jelly" Jhuang Yun-lin) who comes ashore to kill a real estate developer (Deng Chao) but falls in love instead. It has showtimes in both 3D and 2D.

    Over in Revere, they go with Mexican romantic comedy Busco Novio Para Mi Mujer, which involves an unhappy husband hiring a professional lothario to seduce his wife so that he can presumably escape his marriage without alimony, although nothing ever goes as planned.

    Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a mix of Indian movies, including Fitoor (subtitled Hindi), Sethupathi (unsubtitled Tamil), Miruthan (unsubtitled Tamil, but does a zombie movie really need subtitles?), Ricky (unsubtitled Kannada), Action Hero Biju (subtitled Malayalam), Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaadha (unsubtitled Telugu), and Marathi, a subtitled thriller originally in Malayalam, with different ones getting a different single show per day.
  • Kendall Square not only picks up The Witch, but also The Club, Pablo Larrain's drama about a group of former priests in exile, whose familiar arrangement is shaken by a new arrival. It's a one-week booking, and only gets half a slate of showtimes (apparently sharing a screen with Anomalisa) on top of that.
  • The Brattle Theatre finishes the vacation-week Bugs Bunny Film Festival with matinee screenings of the "Looney Tunes Revue" on Friday and Sunday. The afternoon and evenings of those days (and the Saturday between) goes to Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the new film by art-house legend Peter Greenaway which tells the story of legendary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who has come to Mexico to make a film and is drawn into a relationship with his guide.

    The week afterward belongs to one-off showings documentaries. On Monday, the DocYard brings filmmakers Peter Galison, Robb Moss, and Chyld King to town with their movie Containment, which examines how to handle the highly-dangerous substances left over from nuclear weapons and energy plants. On Tuesday, they have a documentary of a different sort, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister, which seems pretty self-explanatory. No word yet of what plays Wednesday, while Thursday has a restoration of thought-lost film The American Dreamer, which followed Dennis Hopper during the production of The Last Movie, his follow-up to Easy Rider.
  • The Somerville Theatre has enough special presentations in its main room to be down to four movies, including a fundraiser for victims of a Nepal earthquake hosted by one of the co-stars of Downton Abbey on Friday and a live show by Altan on Saturday. On Sunday, thought, they're running film, kicking off the 2016 "Silents, Please!" series with Steamboat Bill, Jr., one of Buster Keaton's most famous and funny, a great dose of romance and daredevil adventure. As always, it's on 35mm film and Jeff Rapsis is at the organ.
  • As mentioned last week, The Harvard Film Archive has Lebanese filmmakers/media artists Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige on-hand for the end of their "Lost Films and Meditations" retrospective while also opening an exhibition at MIT. On Friday, they combine the short film "Ashes" with a lecture called "Aida, Save Me"; on Saturday, their documentary feature The Lebanese Rocket Society plays.

    After that, there are two "Innocence Abroad" movies this week, both with Fred Astaire, and both in 35mm. Daddy Long Legs with Leslie Caron plays at 4pm Sunday and Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn at 7pm Monday. In between, the Jean Epstein series continues with jumbo-sized silent The Adventures of Robert Macaire at 7pm Sunday, with musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis (busy Sunday!).
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has more of Stanley Kubrick: A Retrospective, including Dr. Strangelove (Friday/Sunday), 2001: A Space Odessy (Friday), Lolita (Saturday), Spartacus (Sunday), and Barry Lyndon (Wednesday/Thursday). Saturday also includes a screening of short documentary "Lou Montgomery: Legacy Restored", about the Boston College's first black football player back in 1937. Filmmaker John Michalczyk and others will be on-hand for a Q&A.
  • As per usual, two free presentations at the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room as part of the Bright Lights series: Auf Das Leben on Tuesday is a German film of the unlikely friendship of an older cabaret singer and a young man with severe health issues, and writer Stephen Glantz will be on-hand for a Q&A along with a couple other panelists. Excellent Oscar-nominated documentary The Look of Silence plays Thursday, with Emerson professor Jacqueline Romeo leading discussion afterward.
  • Oscar-Nominated Shorts play in a variety of locations, with Kendall Square having live-action and animation all week, the Coolidge having a few screenings of animation, and the ICA screening animation and the first half of the documentary program on Sunday.
I plan to check out The Mermaid, The Witch, the documentary shorts, and maybe Race, The Club, and a couple things at the HFA.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Short Stuff: The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Around this time of year, you'll hear from plenty of people wearing their apathy for the Oscars and other award ceremonies as a badge of honor, focusing on what they appear to do (anointing one thing as the objective best in a given category despite not appearing to even consider less-mainstream but worthy choices) rather than how they focus attention on quality work. One of the best ways it does that is the theatrical (and, now, digital) release of a feature-length presentation of the five nominees for best live-action short film. This year's group is particularly strong, so even if you don't much care about awards, there's no bad reason to take in fine storytelling that might otherwise escape your notice.

Quick links:
"Ave Maria"
"Everything Will Be Okay"
"Day One"

<"Ave Maria"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

The first presented, "Ave Maria", is the only comedy of the group, and it's one with a little bite. In it, an Israeli family traveling through the West Bank has their car break down, although not quite in the middle of nowhere - they actually crash into a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a small Catholic convent. Getting them on their way this Friday evening will be tricky, though - the nuns have taken a vow of silence and the husband, at least, is Orthodox enough not to do any work (or use machinery that causes others to work, like a telephone) on the Sabbath. And judging from how the group, especially the wife and her mother-in-law, bicker, having them hang around for a day isn't the best option even if the sisters were inclined to host guests.

On the surface, this is just a funny little story; it's a minor problem that challenges the characters in ways that are never truly dangerous and gives them room to make things worse by not being as clever as they perhaps should. Huda Al Imam is especially enjoyable as the novice who between wanting to help, not being a disciplined as the more experienced nuns, and actually having some unexpected skills, gets to be active and very likable in nearly every scene, but everybody has a chance to be funny, and the effort of the nuns to remain silent leads to some entertaining physical bits.

The really clever thing, though, is that without much mocking the idea of faith, writer/director Basil Khalil sets things up so that nearly every impediment in the story comes from adhering to some form of demonstrative ritual that hinders one's ability to communicate and thus actually be a good neighbor. As the characters attempt absurd solutions to work around self-imposed restraints which would cause disaster if everybody practiced them, it's easy to see the metaphor for larger issues without the filmmakers ever speaking down to the audience. It's gentle but effective satire, even if "gentle" isn't the usual way that style of comedy goes.

"Shok" ("Friend")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

The second nominee in the presentation, "Friend", also starts out with a car stopping unexpectedly, in this case for a bicycle abandoned in the middle of the road; the passenger (Kushtrim Sheremeti) stands it up and rides into the next town, saying he'll meet his friend later. This triggers a memory from about twenty years early, during the civil war in Kosovo, when Albanian boy Oki (Andi Bajgora) had just bought a new bike, and his best friend Petrit (Lum Veseli) convinces him to help sell things to the Serbian soldiers - a dangerous gambit.

Most people watching this short likely can't fathom what it's like to grow up in a war zone, and between writer/director Jamie Donoughue and young actors Lum Veseli and Andi Bajgora, we see an impressive balance of kids being kids and them knowing that they're potentially facing more trouble than their parents being upset. Donoughue does an impressive job of making sure that Petrit & Oki don't seem to be constantly wallowing in misery while still making sure that there is a constant reminder that this is worse than a bad neighborhood.

The framing sequence is a bit unnecessary (it reminds me of the time a friend arrived five minutes into Black Book and figured it must have been more tense for him than those of us who knew someone survived). It plays into just how utterly arbitrary war can be and how casually people can do their worst in those situations, hitting the right note without overselling it.

"Alles Wird Gut" ("Everythinig Will Be Okay")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

There was a great entry in this category a couple of years ago, "Just Before Losing Everything", presented itself as a near-real-time look at a woman escaping an abusive relationship, and it's one of the most concentrated doses of tension one can see. In "Everything Will Be Okay", filmmaker Patrick Vollrath flips the script, starting with divorced father Michae Baumgartner (Simon Schwarz) picking up his daughter Lea (Julia Pointner) for his monthly weekend. He indulges her, buying a giant Lego set in part because Lea says her mother would never do so, but an unusual stop hints at what is really going on.

Vollrath doesn't spring anything on the audience unexpectedly; Michael's early twitchiness indicates that something is up. Instead, he presents Michael's attempts to spirit his daughter away in a methodical manner, revealing details of just how someone might go about doing this without stopping for visible outrage or making how it could fail at any time enough to gain sympathy. It's an excitingly inverted tension, with every moment containing the potential for desired failure and ever bit of the protagonist's success creating more unease rather than less.

Simon Schwarz is terrific as Michael; if asked about his character and performance, he'd probably give the familiar but nevertheless truthful answer that everybody is the hero of their own story, and he does play Michael as overwhelmed, fighting a system that seems unjustly set against him. He's not heroic, though; not only doesn't Vollrath have him verbalize any particular reason why he has been treated unfairly, but there's just enough anger and impatience in some of his interactions with Lea to make sure we see this is about hurt pride as much as what he feels are his daughter's best interests. Julia Pointner, meanwhile, is impressively on-note as Lea, capturing the vagueness of the girl's suspicions: What's going on is something she has not been warned about and can't really conceive of, and it's a challenge for her to not trust her father. On top of that, she's a kid, and Pointner does very well not to lose that she gets tired and cranky while playing the confusion, and vice versa. They both step up their game at the climax, as does Vollrath, not stumbling at all when the need for an ending dictates a shift in tone.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

There's a conscious cruelty to how "Stutterer" begins, depicting Greenwood, a man with an extremely debilitating speech impediment (Matthew Needham), on the phone to his internet service provider, pushing what is kind of a miserable experience for anyone into a mortifying bit of torture. It's not just that the lady on the other end of the line treats him like he's deliberately being difficult until his father (Eric Richard) lends a hand, it's that for someone in his position, online communication is critical. He's been messaging a girl for six months, for instance, and he's not sure what to do when Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) mentions that she'll actually be in London next week.

Filmmaker Benjamin Cleary tips his hand a bit when he has Ellie mention online that she wouldn't use text-speak because she loves language so much; as much as the call with customer service is awful, Greenwood's environment constantly reinforces how much he likes words and communication, making his living as a typographer and filling every corner with books. Many films of this type will find a way to present this sort of disorder as having some sort of hidden benefit, but Cleary seldom seems to be going there; this hurts, and by playing up just how much Greenwood in particular finds himself barred from something important to him, it keeps the audience from suggesting ways to make the best of it.

That makes for a somewhat gloomy movie, but it also gives the cast a reason to use its entire skillset. Needham is crucial and terrific as Greenwood; a stutter this severe means that he can't use it the same way as an accent or tone of voice, but we can see his frustration, especially compared to how capable he seems in scenes where speech doesn't enter into it. The ones with Eric Richard as his father are brief but kind of beautiful; the frequent trope of a father and son not saying much take on an added poignance here, especially since Richard makes the father look drained by other things in his life, allowing them to support each other without much need for words. And while Chloe Pirrie only appears on-screen as something other than a photographic avatar for a few moments, they change everything, letting Cleary put booster rockets on the tonal swing the audience was hoping for and make it seem honest and earned.

"Day One"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

In some ways, Henry Hughes's "Day One" seems more obviously primed for an uplifiting-despite-everything ending, putting its main character Feda (Layla Alizada) into a combat zone as a translator and mentioning that despite growing up in America, she had a very traditional life beforehand and that this was her first job of any kind. It is going to be a hell of a first day, as she's barely got her uniform on before being called to help translate as the unit she is attached to looks to capture a bomb-maker (Alain Washnevsky), only to find his very pregnant wife Naheed (Alexia Pearl) having complications.

It's a thrillingly tense little movie that picks up more toward the end, to the point where one might forget something potentially traumatic that happened halfway through its 25 minutes because after what comes later, it was arguably just setting a baseline for how messed up war can be. In some ways, that's a canny bit of work on Hughes's part - the film's last act will present circumstances that will probably make even the most jaded in the audience cringe, and that's sort of the point, putting the audience in the position of this very sheltered woman even if they've seen some stuff at the theater.

Layla Alizada is great; she projects a great nervousness that is tempered somewhat by the fact that she must have had some training and came in knowing some of what she was getting into. She quickly develops a nice rapport with Bill Zasadil as the soldier she works most closely with, and the later scenes with Alexia Pearl and Navid Negahban are suitably tense. Indeed, it's the sort of thing where one relaxes one's grip on the armrest as the credits roll, not quite realizing how hard a grip it was encouraging.

Indeed, after that one ended, one of my fellow attendees turned to say that this was a pretty great collection, and I saw no reason to disagree or temper that assessment. These shorts are individually impressive, and the overriding themes of difficulty in communication and surviving conflicts not of one's own making make them hang together as a group well. It's as good an evening watching movies as you'll find right now, and you've got to admit that this makes the Oscars good for something.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 12 February 2016 - 18 February 2016

Valentine's Day & Presidents' Day means... Well, the sci-fi marathon, if you're me. There's other stuff, though, which may require a bit of effort, though it's worth it.

  • The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival finishes its 2016 edition with some of its more higher-profile/polished films on Friday and Saturday before moivng up to the main screen of The Somerville Theatre on Sunday for the Marathon, 14 movies in 24 hours including Jeff Rapsis accompanying the silent A Trip to Mars and not High Treason, because that's a print with the rarely-heard soundtrack! There's also a 70mm print of Starman as part of a pretty good program.

    Sadly, that means the departure of The Hateful Eight from the big screen, which will be used for the Banff Mountain Film Festival of outdoor adventure films from Tuesday to Thursday. Thursday night is listed as sold out, but the same program plays Tuesday while Wednesday is a different line-up.
  • They're also getting a couple new movies along with the other multiplexes, with the biggest being Deadpool, which is just weird, because usually DC plays Somerville and Marvel plays Arlington. Maybe it's the R-rating for this X-Men spinoff about a wisecracking mutant mercenary with regenerating powers. It's at Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan's (in Imax), the Embassy, Fenway (including RPX), Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), and Revere (including MX4D and XPlus).

    They also get a counter-intuitive Valentine's Day release in How to Be Single, one of those ensemble pieces with Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Man, Alison Brie, Damon Wayans Jr., and others having parallel stories of single-hood in New York City. Given the release date, I'm guessing they don't all stay single. It's at Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. More traditional Valentine's Day fare, Pretty In Pink, plays Fenway and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday; those two will also be screening the opening night of TED 2016 on Monday night.

    There's also the long-awaited (though roundly-panned) Zoolander No. 2, with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson returning to their dim-witted male model characters 15 years later to solve a murder. That's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up the new Michael Moore film, Where to Invade Next, in which Moore travels to Europe and Tunisia to find ways of living that are worth stealing for America. It's more funny and upbeat than it sounds, and should at least be worth a look even for those turned off by Moore's presence. It's also at Boston Common and the Kendall. They also pick up the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts and Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts programs (also opening at West Newton, still playing at the Kendall, and having screenings at The Institute of Contemporary Art on Sunday).

    Their Highways To Hell midnight series shows this weekend include the local debut of Southbound, a new anthology containing short horror stories on the road by some up-and-coming filmmakers. Saturday night only, they have a 35mm print of Road Games, a 1980s thriller featuring Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacy Keach. There's a Talk Cinema screening of Cuban drag drama Viva on Sunday morning, and a late-Valentine's Big Screen Classic screening of Amélie on 35mm film Monday.
  • This week's Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond bookings I don't quite get but mostly appreciate include a couple of different love stories: One of the niftiest films from last year's Fantasia Festival, Nina Forever, has the ghost of a man's dead girlfriend getting between him and his new one, but for some reason this little gem is only playing at 12:30pm, which is not exactly prime date movie or horror movie time. They also wind up being the ones to show Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, featuring Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg as an American tourist and expatriate, respectively, who meet and connect there. Weird, as I've seen preview for it before every Chinese movie at Boston Common over the last month or so. 10am and 7:30pm shows only.

    Their bread and butter is Indian movies, and they get two of those this weekend. Fitoor is a Hindi-language adaptation of Great Expectations featuring Aditya Roy Kapur, Katrina Kaif, and Tabu, and is subtitled. Krishna Gaadi Veera is Telugu but doesn't list any subtitles, a bit unusual for having a full screen. There's also Tamil comedy Jil Jung Juk with a couple shows daily all week and Action Hero Biju (a rare subtitled Malayalam movie) on Saturday.
  • In addition to Where to Invade Next, Kendall Square picks up documentary Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words, which builds upon the usual interviews to tell the story of Ms. Berman with her own home movies, letters, and the like. It's there for a week.
  • It is a very busy week at The Brattle Theatre presents the traditional Bugs Bunny Film Festival for school vacation week, with the "All Bugs Revue" on Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, with "Daffy Duck and Friends" Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday. And while Warner Brothers won't let them do the traditional Valentine's Day screenings of Casablanca, The Princess Bride is no poor substitute. It screens Saturday and Sunday, although the afternoon and early evening shows are already sold out.

    But! There's more! IFFBoston will be presenting a preview screening of The Witch on Thursday with director Robert Eggers in person, and to get into the spirit of the things, they'll be doing a late-night All of Them Witches series in the days leading up to it: Rosemary's Baby (Friday 10pm on 35mm), Suspiria (Saturday midnight on 35mm), The Craft (Monday 10pm on 35mm), and Horror Hotel (Tuesday 10:30pm on 16mm). And, on top of that, it's Trash Nightat 8pm on Tuesday!
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins a retrospective of the work of Lebanese filmmakers/media artists Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige ("Lost Films and Meditations") to coincide with their upcoming exhibition at MIT. This week's presentations include A Perfect Day (Friday 7pm on 35mm), Khiam 2000-2007, The Film (Friday 9pm), I Want to See (Satruday 7pm on 35mm), and shorts "The Lost Film" & "Rounds" (Monday 7pm). They will visit in person next weekend.

    They also continue their Jean Epstein series with the James Schneider documentary on the filmmaker that shares its name, Young Oceans of Cinema, at 9pm Saturday, as well as a 35mm presentation of Epstein's semi-documentary 1932 film Gold of the Seas at 7pm Sunday (35mm). "Innocence Abroad" returns to Sunday afternoons with a 35mm print of Boy on a Dolphin, featuring Sophia Loren as a sponge diver who discovers an ancient statue and Alan Ladd & Clifton Webb as the foreigners who each have their eye on the artifact.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts shows the last act of Matthew Barney's River of Fundament on Friday and then has two final showings of the entire trilogy on Saturday and Sunday. The also continue Stanley Kubrick: A Retrospective with Paths of Glory (Friday/Wednesday), The Killing (Friday), 2001: A Space Odessy (Wednesday), Spartacus (Thursday), and Lolita (Thursday).
  • This week's Bright Lights both focus on American entertainment institutions. Tuesday night they show Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead, a documentary about the National Lampoon and its peculiar evolution. Emerson professon Manny Basanese leads a discussion afterward. On Thursday, 5-25-77 surfaces with director Patrick Read Johnson on hand, and, man, I hope this thing is done by now, as it was shot in 2007 and still had post-production to go when I saw it at Fantasia almost three years ago. It's funny and sweet and this autobiographical story about a kid in Illinois who gets to visit the set of Star Wars before anybody knows anything about it should be something Disney would want out there.
  • The UMass Boston Film Series returns to their own home turf this week with The Other Side, a documentary about people living at the margins of America without much support. Director Roberto Minervini is on hand.

I'll be ready to crash after the sci-fi festival ends, but will still probably check out Deadpool, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, and Hail, Caesar!. Nina Forever is highly recommended, so please to try to get out to Alewife some afternoon.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Short Stuff: The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Of the three short film awards presented at the annual Oscars ceremony, the animation category is where most people are likely to feel some sort of routing interest because there's generally one entry that played before a feature, and this got seen, and thus made the viewer feel some sense of ownership. That one tends to win a lot, and often has a good argument, because it's got not just visibility, but the budget and technical resources of a major studio behind it, compared to the independent or student productions it's competing with.

There's one of those this year, "Sanjay's Super Team". What's unusual is that there might also be the perception of a race, as one of the other entries, "The World of Tomorrow", has had buzz attached to it ever since playing Sundance a year ago, getting a lot more articles written than the average short. There's also a new work from a director who is unfortunately best known for the project he didn't get the chance to complete (Richard Williams's "Prologue"), and two from outside the English-speaking world - Chile's "Bear Story" and "We Can't Live without Cosmos" from Russia.

Because animated films are generally much shorter than their live action counterparts the program of nominated shorts that is playing theaters (and will be available for download/streaming on 22 February) is generally padded out with a few other "highly commended" films from the nomination shortlist, and this year is no exception. What is a bit unusual is the arrangement; while those films generally come after the nominees, this year "Prologue" is given the last slot and there were advisories both at the box office and during the presentation itself that while the other films are suitable for young viewers, that one is not. Some in the audience snickered at this, only to find out that the people using the warning aren't kidding. It certainly allows the program to show the true breadth of what the medium can do, if nothing else.

Quick links:
"Sanjay's Super Team"
"The World of Tomorrow"
"Bear Story"
"We Can't Live Without Cosmos"
"If I Was God"
"The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse"
"The Loneliest Stoplight"
"Catch It!"

"Sanjay's Super Team"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2015 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD DCP)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

As much as "Sanjay's Super Team" is a delightful little animated short - which it is - there seems to be something significant about it playing in thousands of theaters right before a major release on a holiday weekend as opposed to as part of an animation program at a film festival. If it's not quite something that doesn't feel the need to explain a specific culture to its mainstream American audience, it's awfully close.

It's also plenty entertaining use of that sort of context, telling a simple story of a boy watching a superhero cartoon on television while his father attempts to worship and meditate on the other side of the room, only to insist young Sanjay join him. It's a cute little second-generation culture clash, put together with plenty of charm and giving impressively subtle personalities to both father and son. It would be easy to exaggerate either, but instead they're quietly different enough that their not connecting is sort of sad. If that were all the movie was, it would still be impressive.

But it's got a big segment in the middle that's equally inspired by American superheroes and Hindu mythology, and it's a grand, colorful bit of action, genuinely surprising and kind of tense in how it plays out, in part because of how it reflects Sanjay's childish fears of upsetting his father or even doing real damage by extinguishing a candle, and in part for how it's impressively choreographed and put together, using the fact that the shrine is a box to create natural bounds for a 3D presentation (as it had when attached to Inside Out. The contrast with the real world is great, but the two halves of the short strengthen rather than distract from each other.

"World of Tomorrow"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

It is downright exciting to see Don Hertzfeldt getting the sort of praise he is receiving for "World of Tomorrow", especially since it is not nearly as dry as some of the more obviously weighty films he had done in recent years - it is very funny, and not in the "if I don't laugh I'll cry" way of his trilogy about a man with a terminal illness ("Everything Will Be OK", "I Am So Proud of You", and "It's Such a Beautiful Day"). Or at least, not obviously in that way. I think what makes "World of Tomorrow" kind of amazing is that it combines everything Hertzfeldt has done - the anarchic comedy of his early shorts, the grand scale of "The Meaning of Life", and the heartbreak of the recent trilogy - in a way that cheats none of it. It's a view from high up that allows things to be both hilariously absurd and genuinely tragic.

The idea is impressively simple - a girl of about three is visited by a woman hailing from 227 years in the future who is either herself or her great-great-granddaughter, depending how you reckon giving birth to a clone body that will have one's own memories transferred into it, and takes a trip to the elder Emily's time. The details, though, are fantastic, the sort of weird science fiction extrapolations that won't make it into a live action or CGI film that costs tens of thousands of dollars for each second rendered, but which Hertzfeldt's trademark sketches and stick figures give him the latitude to pull off. Things are funny and amazing and sometimes horrifying, but never, ever, conventional.

And the contrast between the two Emilys is all of those things in spades. Little Emily is adorable and funny; we laugh and coo at how she isn't particularly impressed by what future-Emily considers important because she's a preschooler, while future-Emily blows right past "Twenty-third Century people sure are different" to having real psychological problems. It's innocently and edgily funny at the same time, and we can barely conceive that this carefree kid will grow up to be that mess of neuroses. And yet, Hertzfeldt carefully steers it away from "this must be changed"; as sad as she may be, and how her world is a horror-show of impending catastrophe and unfairness, the solution is not self-erasure or putting a terrible weight on a child, but instead trying to rediscover what it is like to be happy. That's brilliant, and it comes as part of a fifteen-minute bit of weird science fiction that is played out by stick figures.

"Historia de un oso" ("Bear Story")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

The music-box style of "Bear Story" is impressive and solid enough to trick the viewer into thinking it is stop-motion rather than created using digital tools, and that's an impressive bit of artifice on multiple levels. It makes the story subjective and human, even if it is being presented by anthropomorphic bear. He's skilled and intelligent, even if he is likely presented as an animal kidnapped by a circus in order to give the film a bit of metaphorical distance from the real-life "disappearings" that likely served as inspiration. And it gives the sort a sense of wonder, as the imitation of another art form sets unconscious limits in the viewer's mind, only to have director Gabriel Osorio Vargas and his oso defy them.

It's a harrowing tale he tells, with shadowy kidnappers, grand escapes, and a subsequent search for the family he lost. Bits are left for the audience to extrapolate - the pair of impressions on the matter bed, the lack of one in the son's room - and the music by Dënver evokes the simple melodies of the music box while still allowing the story to play bigger.

As much as "Bear Story" impresses on first blush, it grows with reflection; it feels as though Vargas has created something very personal that also comments upon how art works without being so inward-facing as to ignore the audience.

"Mi ne mozhem zhit bez kosmosa" ("We Can't Live without Cosmos")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

I don't know if there's a specific incident in the Soviet space program referenced in "We Cannot Live Without Cosmos", but like many of the nominees, it grows upon further thought. As one watches it, is easy to get caught up in the story and the gags - writer/director Konstantin Bronzit displays a gentle sense of humor in the early going, and the story that eventually emerges of two friends or brothers constantly trying to one-up each other in cosmonaut training, a clearly friendly rivalry. And then things go wrong.

Interestingly, Bronzit doesn't noticeably change his approach after that happens - the jokes certainly become darker, but there are funny bits all the way to the end, with great characterization despite the lack of dialogue and deceptively simple character designs. The style at least mimics cel-based animation, and it gives the film a great deadpan style.

I suspect that the arc of the story parallels the relationship many of us have had with the space program - an unconditional love that borders on obsession until a tragedy that, even if we're just fans, feels like such a betrayal as to create a complete loss of faith. Maybe we come to love it again later, but it's different, no longer so magical, more obviously populated by the grimly practical people than dreamers.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

For someone who is revered by many as a pioneer, Richard Williams is best known for something which didn't come off (his animated feature The Thief in the Cobbler, in production for nearly thirty years, taken away from him when he could not hit a schedule). Given that this happened over twenty years ago, one can be forgiven for believing him retired; it's a bit of surprise to see him return with "Prologue", although one can also see how there has always been a disconnect between his talent and his ability to reach an audience.

The draftsmanship and smoothness of the animation is phenomenal, after all, starting out with the nifty effect of a drawing that is clearly two-dimensional and seemingly static - a flower, in this case - taking on life and seeming to pop out of the screen as a bee moves about inside it. From there if moves on to depict warriors in ancient Greece in a brutal, bloody battle witnessed by a small, terrified child. It's astonishing in its realization; Williams's fine pencil work is brilliant, but his fight choreography is engaging and for something clearly done in a two-dimensional medium, the camera seems to move as fluidly as it does in media designed to replicate three-dimensional space. It's virtuoso work from a master.

it's worth remembering that the distributor is not kidding with that parental advisory, there's nudity, blood and guts, and a coup de grace that will have even the less squeamish folks in the audience wondering if Williams really had to go that far. The battle also exists very much as a technical exercise rather than a story; it's maybe not fair to expect something named "Prologue" to give the audience more than that, but it does not exactly whet the appetite for a larger story.

"If I Was God"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

The first of the "Highly Commended" shorts is "If I Was God", a fairly entertaining flashback from animator Cordell Barker about his time in middle school, particularly a science class where his head was in the clouds about Lily while bratty Augie provided other distractions. It's a cute little story, something done by a lot of animators, but with more chaos than wistful sentimentality.

What makes it stand out is the impressive array of styles Barker uses. As much as the classroom scenes have a whimsical look to them, no two flights of fancy look the same. It's a visual feast, to be certain, and one that keeps the short interesting even if the nostalgic subject matter feels very familiar.

"The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

"The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse" is a fairly simple one as well, as a mouse evades a fox in a snowy landscape only to have two owls horn in, with the mammals becoming friends. This is not a fable, particularly, so much as a charming little chase that spans land, sea, and air.

It has a very nice design sense, though - furry animals are ambitious protagonists for what is a student film, and their rendering winds up not quite being the hyper-detailed work one would see in many commercial films, but something that gives the cute characters an additional solidity against the snowy backdrop. It's an awfully charming look that accentuates the playful nature of the film.

"The Loneliest Spotlight"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

It says something about "The Loneliest Stoplight", though I'm not sure what, that I immediately recognized it as having something like Bill Plympton's style but didn't necessarily think it was him, specifically. It's odd, because one usually knows a Plympton film on sight, and much of what makes his work familiar - the gridlocked crowds that vibrate with comic tension, the impossible stretching of characters and items, the occasionally dark but mostly silly humor - even with the changes that have come as he embraces digital tools more.

I think it's the use of Patton Oswalt giving voice to the title character, a traffic light on a country road that finds itself mostly idle when a freeway is built nearby, at least until a traffic jam has cars detoured its way. Plympton's cartoons and features often don't give their characters voices at all, much less one that engages the audience so directly. It's actually very charming, but it points away from the visual storytelling that has always been Plympton's strong suit. It's still a funny little short, if a little friendlier than the usual Plympton fare.

"Catch It!"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (Oscar Shorts, DCP)

"Catch It!" is another animal-centered short from France, and while it's a little rougher than "A Fox and a Mouse", it's still quite a bit of fun. It's an unabashed cartoon, with a group of meerkats trying to keep a piece of fruit from a vulture. They've got numbers, but he can fly.

It's nifty and fast-paced, although there's something a bit off about the synchronized crowds of meerkats (although their oddness may be more feature than bug). The fast pace and clever staging counters any technical shortcomings.

(Some theaters appear to be including "Taking Flight", although it was not part of the presentation in Cambridge, MA.)

It's a strong, entertaining slate of nominees, and the other four included in the package are certainly good enough that they are not strictly there to pad out the running time. If nothing else, it's fun to check out if you've got a tight Oscar pool.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Have some sequels for Chinese New Year: The Monkey King 2 & From Vegas to Macau III

I'm not exactly up on my time zones and how Lunar New Year works, but it may have come already by the time this posts, especially in China, where it's a big time for new-release movies, and as those are increasingly arriving in the U.S. day-and-date, a chance for some big Chinese movies to hit here. And, because this sort of action/adventure movie lagged behind romances and dramas, it means that the problem of sequels arriving before their predecessors are available is still a thing with them.

I tried to get caught up, but the order I placed at DDDHouse (a Hong Kong-based retailer that has some insanely good prices) for The Monkey King and From Vegas to Macau II last week didn't ship until this Tuesday, and that doesn't get them across the Pacific and North America in time for me to watch them before the weekend. Of course, it doesn't look like that was a huge deal - both have a lot of cast turnover between entries - so I went anyway.

Sadly, they weren't good, although they were both high-gloss productions shot in 3D (though only The Monkey King 2 screened that way here) with star-studded casts. The auditoria were pretty much empty as well, although that could be because I was seeing 10:30am shows to fit the Boston Sci-Fi Film festival in later. Maybe they were packed in the afternoon and evening.

It's a good thing I have a few other movies coming in that order, though, because I can't say I'm looking forward to catching up on the parts of these series I've missed that much.

Xi You Ji Zhi San Da Bai Gu Jing (The Monkey King 2)

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Believe it or not, this is not the first Chinese fantasy sequel I've seen where not having seen the predecessor was no big deal because it starts with "500 years have passed..." This is a good thing, because the first movie in an expected Monkey King trilogy never made it to the U.S. (a recurrent event as day-and-date releases become more common). Given that the general word is that this one fixed some of what was wrong with the first, I'm not necessarily eager to catch up; it's a sleek but dull take on the mythology.

As mentioned, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) has been imprisoned within the Five Elements Mountain since the "Havoc in Heaven" he caused in the last film, but prophecy says he will escort a monk to the west to retrieve a set of scriptures, and that happens right away, with Tang Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) removing the spell that binds Wukong only for another to take effect. They soon meet up with a pair of demonic but friendly traveling companions in Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and Sha Wujing (Him Law), but another demon along the way will not be so friendly: The White Bone Demon (Gong Li) is about to reincarnate but has no desire to become human again, and it is said that consuming Xuanzang will grant immortality in one's current form.

The clash with the White Bone Demon is just one of many chapters of Journey to the West, though a pivotal one, featuring a sharp conflict between Xuanzang and Wukong - Wukong can see through demons' disguises with his Fiery Eyes of Truth while the naive Xuanzang can only see him killing what appear to be innocent people. It proves to be less material than the movie needs, though, the plot frequently stalls and a detour involving a king who is drinking the blood of children and allowing the demon to take the blame feels more like stalling than an interesting twist. There's a classic structure to this story, but it could do with less repetition and more progress.

If the film drags in terms of story, it undeniably makes an impressive attempt to make up for that visually. Shot and rendered in what appears to be native 3D, The Monkey King 2 doesn't overwhelm with a need to fill the screen constantly - director Cheang Pou-Soi recognizes that a character with Sun Wukong's superpowers needs a lot of open space to play - but the digital creature effects are very high in quality, some of the best to come out of China, with just the right weight as Sun Wukong jumps from cloud to cloud or whips his Golden Cudgel around. Nearly every character spends a fair amount of time in prosthetic makeup, and that looks good as well, transformative but still giving the actors room for expression.

Aaron Kwok has the biggest challenge along those lines; Sun Wukong never disguises himself as human. He's actually taking over the part from Donnie Yen after having played the villain in the previous film, and while I can't say whether or not he is an improvement, he's a match to the challenges of the job, emoting well through a lot of make-up and paying up the character's goofy laughter and kid-movie stuff without ever making him silly or juvenile. Nobody else in the film is really a match to him; Gong Li only briefly dives into the cartoon villainy her White Bone Demon needs, and Feng Shaofeng has a similar problem, never really selling Xuanzang as particularly wise or naive. Xiao Shengyang and Him Law are okay as Xuanzang's other disciples, and Kelly Chen is at least serene as the Goddess seeing the group's tasks.

Sammo Hung is in charge of the action, and I wonder just how much of the staging of the CGI-heavy scenes comes from the guy whose specialty is stunts and martial arts; there really aren't a lot of the high-impact punching-and-kicking sequences he's known for. Or, at least, they get swallowed up by the visual effects, which makes for some pretty impressive bits, especially in the finale, when things go full (digital) Harryhausen with demons fighting skeletons.

The cliffhanger to this one doesn't necessarily imply another massive gap, although the word is that Cheang intends to switch things up again for the finale. Maybe that one will finally get it right, because this one is pretty close - good-looking, fun in spurts, seldom many really bad moments. Chinese filmmakers return to Sun Wukong and "Journey to the West" a lot because there is great material there for all ages, and something that plays as well as this looks could wind up excellent.

Full review on EFC.

Du cheng feng yun III (From Vegas to Macau III)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

When I saw the first From Vegas to Macau at a festival a couple years ago, I figured that I was just a victim of bad expectations, not prepared for something so silly, especially thinking of Chow Yun-fat as an icon of cool. This time, I knew what I was getting into, so maybe it would go over better. No such luck; as much as the zaniness occasionally appeals, it's sloppy and too self-satisfied to work for long stretches.

It opens with the wedding of legendary gambler Ken Shek's protege Vincent (Shawn Yue Man-lok) to Ken's daughter Rainbow (Kimmy Tong Fei)... Well, not quite; we initially see gambler and arms dealer JC (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) in his mad scientist lair in Thailand, looking at a woman suspended in a bubble and vowing revenge on Ken Shek, which means he's the guy behind the android with a bomb inside it that goes off at the ceremony. This (and the hypnosis, and a tasering) has Ken off his game, although his partner Mark (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) and friend Michael (Andy Lau Tak-wah) are there to help him out.

Andy Lau apparently popped up as Michael in From Vegas to Macau 2 (which, like the first, has not had an official North American release in theaters or on video despite the third being released on both sides of the Pacific simultaneously), reprising his part from Knight of Gamblers, also known as "God of Gamblers II", with the actual God of Gamblers II released in the US as "God of Gamblers Return", and if that sounds confusing, I haven't yet mentioned that Ken is not Chow Yun-fat's character from those films, but that he also reprises his role as Ko Chun, and the two looking alike was apparently explained in the second, which also seems to be where this series went from busting money launderers with slapstick to Ken having "Robot Stupid" as a butler, brains in jars, and explosive androids.

And both of these changes initially seem like great ideas. The movie kicks off with a high-energy theme song previewing the upcoming action, and JC looks like the perfect villain for this sort of thing - larger-than-life but still genuinely threatening. Perhaps more importantly, Andy Lau more or less taking over the lead from Chow Yun-fat seems like a much better fit for the material. Lau seems self-deprecating even when being boastful and clever when being foolish, while Chow has seldom been much of a comedian, and the fact that he's mugging like crazy as Ken is really only funny for as long as it takes to note he's playing against type.

Unfortunately, filmmaker Wong Jing (who co-directs with cinematographer Andrew Lau Wai-keung) seems to have no idea of how long a joke should last. Ken being addled from all the stuff that happens to him in the first act is a good gag, but it just keeps going on and on, getting bigger but not funnier, and when you consider that he's pretty much all that's left from the first movie, a gag that basically sidelines him leaves the movie at sea. Many wheels are spun in the center of the movie as Wong seems to have no idea how to naturally get from the start to the finish, and there are points where characters basically stand aside and watch gags with the audience, giggling like it's a lot funnier than it is. And, wow, does Wong pick the absolute wrong note to end on.

The shame of it is that there's a pretty good cast here that starts to shine when allowed to do their individual things. Andy Lau has already been highlighted as pretty great, but Nick Cheung impresses as well, whether doing broad physical comedy opposite Chow Yun-fat or deadpan breaking of the fourth wall. Li Yuchun gets the "tough girl with short haircut mistaken for a guy" part that's apparently considered a lot funnier in Hong Kong than America, but she runs with it, playing well off everyone she's paired with. That includes Jacky Heung Cho, who does a lot of the heavy lifting in the action scenes. On the other hand, with so many people passing in and out, some wind up severely underused, with the most egregious being Carina Lau Ka-ling, who gets just about nothing to do in her character's comatose state.

This is the 99th film Wong Jing has directed in a mere 35 years, so it's not exactly surprising that it's scattershot rather than meticulously perfected, although it being this much of a mess is still surprising. He's done impressive-enough stuff and has some great collaborators here; there's no reason for it to feel like such hackwork. That this series has cranked out three installments in as many years almost seems like he's trying to milk what he can from it before the fun of seeing Chow return to one of the things that made him a superstar gives way to just how dumb these movies are.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

This Week In Tickets: 25 January 2016 - 31 January 2016

This week, right here? This is the last time I was caught up last year, and I don't see how I avoid the same sort of falling behind like crazy in 2016.

This Week in Tickets

That's because it's the last week before a festival, and I hit those hard. This week was almost calm in comparison, although seeing all six movies at different venues was a neat trick.

First up was the Somerville Theatre for The Revenant, a case where hearing too much about it beforehand may have skewed my reaction a little more toward the negative than the film deserved, but that happens sometimes. Impressive as heck in some ways, though.

A couple days off, then to the Bright Screening Room in the Paramount Theater for The Final Girls, which zipped through theaters and VOD so fast that it barely had any chance for me to be aware of what turns out to be a fun little movie before the Emerson alum who directed it came back to his alma mater for a screening. Compared to that quick entry and exit, Mojave, in its own way a sort of genre movie about movies, had a long, luxurious four-day stay at the Bratte.

Saturday was spent trying to get caught up on other things, and I almost didn't make it to Appropriate Behavior at Uforge in Jamaica Plain. That was a Chlotrudis screening to showcase a Buried Treasure nominee, although it fit pretty well into the "shouldn't be buried, not quite a treasure" category.

Then, on Sunday, I planned on a pretty quick double feature, which would have worked if I'd just stayed in one place, but I misread times and thought I could leave the Boston Common screening of Jane Got a Gun and use my Christmas gift card for Kung Fu Panda 3 at Fenway, but they didn't line up and I wound up going home and back again for the latter. Didn't mind - it was enjoyable - but I've got to plan that sort of thing better.

The lesson I learn looking at this page? Always get two programs when you go to an unticketed film series, one to keep and one to cut up. Doesn't The Final Girls look cooler than Appropriate Behavior?

The Revenant

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2016 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

It can be surprisingly easy to hear too much about a movie, absorb that, and basically have the actual experience of watching it be confirmation bias. I heard a lot about how The Revenant was a lot of beautiful but empty tragedy, to the point where that's what I was looking for and inevitably found. I think I would have found it to be such anyway, especially at this length.

Don't misunderstand; there's a lot that is just stunning about this movie; the opening attack sequence, with so much happening while the camera moves about, is one of the most amazing things of its sort that you'll ever see. It also helps that is at the beginning, so that when director Alejandro González Iñárritu does that one more thing a few times within it, the bit of suffering or mutilation that goes beyond what's necessary to communicate the level of danger and violence always present on the frontier, it's still shocking, where later on Iñárritu has repeated the technique so much that is hard to see it as anything other than a blunt instrument on his part.

He uses a lot of blunt instruments, making Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glad very verbal for much of the movie and having Tom Hardy grunt for less obvious reasons (I wonder if Hardy is drawn to thick-accented, nearly-inarticulate characters, or if that's just how the industry has seen him since Bronson). The film is filed with beautiful but stark landscapes, and it sometimes seems like the only character who is more than a wind-up toy walking in a straight line is Will Poulter's Bridger, a young trapper who winds up attached to Hardy's John Fitzgerald and seems to struggle with his basic decency because he knows that he will likely die if left behind, and thus must be somewhat willfully ignorant of the ruthless measures Fitzgerald is taking.

One other thing that seems a bit off is how Native Americans are used in the film, particularly the one character who is there just to help the white guy and then get killed one he's no longer useful. Taken in aggregate, it's better than most movies do, but these guys especially seem to be fairly extreme stereotypes as individuals. In another movie, it might not be so frustrating, but Iñárritu is so obvious in his simple focus on noble suffering that nothing and nobody gets a chance to become more than a means toward that, even if the cast and crew is doing great work to support it.

The RevenantThe Final GirlsMojaveAppropriate BehaviorJane Got a GunKung Fu Panda 3