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. Song 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.

Full review on 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.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 4 November 2016 - 10 November 2016

Kind of crazy - one of the biggest movie weeks since summer, and there are extra things grabbing screens in some spots, and it's harder to find what is playing where because Google has just killed their listings page. There are others, but they are not as compact and readable.

  • Not that you'll need to look far for to find a theater playing Doctor Strange; the latest from Marvel, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts, although he's note quite there yet. Great cast, and supposedly one of the best uses of Imax 3D going. It's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan's (Imax), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Revere (including MX4D & XPlus), and the SuperLux. Apparently the XPlus screen in Revere has just been upgraded to laser projection, too.

    Also on the three-dimensional screens is Trolls, the latest DreamWorks animated film, with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick voicing trolls (like the dolls) trying to rescue the rest of their village from troll-eating monsters. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Fun fact: DreamWorks has a show coming out on Netflix next month called Trollhunters. Kind of playing both sides there.

    The third big-ish release is Hacksaw Ridge, with Mel Gibson directing Andrew Garfield as an army medic in WWII who refused to carry a weapon. First thing Gibson's directed in ten years because he torched his career but good. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    On top of that, Boston Common also will have Mad Max Fury Road: Black & Chrome for a week, showing last year's best action movie in the black-and-white version fans have been looking forward to since director George Miller mentioned the possibility. They also add Someone to Talk To to Mr. Donkey for fans of Chinese films; the new one involves a divorced woman who moves in with her unhappily-married brother. Revere and the SuperLux, meanwhile, will have special twentieth-anniversary screenings of From Dusk Til Dawn on Sunday and Wednesday.
  • The Handmaiden expands a bit this weekend, opening at The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Embassy. The Coolidge is also one of the theaters opening the really excellent Moonlight, along with the Kendall and Boston Common. It is a pretty terrific three-act picture about the life of a man in a poor neighborhood from youth to adulthood.

    They also kick off a month-long series of 1980s comic-book movies with 35mm shows at midnight, with Swamp Thing playing Friday night and Howard the Duck on Saturday. There's also a Goethe-Institut presentation of German coming-of-age film Young Light on Sunday morning, a Big-Screen Classics presentation of GoodFellas on Monday, and a 35mm "Rewind!" presentation of Kindergarden Cop on Thursday.

    They also serve as one of the venues for the first couple days of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, with AKA Nadia opening it on Wednesday, and a neat-looking program of 35mm Max Fleischer cartoons and The Tenth Man on Thursday. The festival also repeats AKA Nadia in Framingham that night, while the FreshFlix Shorts competition plays at the Somerville.
  • Kendall Square has Moonlight on a lot of screens, but they've also picked up Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch's documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
  • The Brattle Theatre brings back Kate Plays Chrisine, which played IFFBoston in the spring and features Kate Lyn Sheil as she does research to play a 1970s newscaster who committed suicide on live TV. It runs Friday to Sunday, with Monday being given to the DocYard who present a new restoration of 1984 documentary Los Sures and two shorts from the "Living Los Sures Project", a document of a Brooklyn neighborhood.

    The election dominates the rest of the week, with the place closed on Tuesday because Election Day should be a holiday, and then the debate-inspired "Bad Hombres & Nasty Women" double feature of No Country for Old Men and Multiple Maniacs on Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, WGBH and The Editorial have a post-election panel on
  • The Somerville Theatre hosts the Boston International Kids Film Festival from Friday to Sunday, with bunches of kid-friendly shorts, features, and workshops. Then on Monday, they have a 35mm print of The Little Foxes, a much-awarded Bette Davis picture. To make a little room, they push The Accountant to the The Capitol, which also picks up Denial.
  • The Harvard Film Archive kicks the weekend off with Shoot Shoot Shoot on Friday night, a 50th-anniversary celebration of the London Film-Makers' Co-operative, with Mark Webber, who literally wrote the book on the group, introducing a selection of 16mm shorts. On Saturday, they welcome back 2012 MacMillan-Stewart Fellow Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche to show his latest film, Story of Judas. Sunday is Soviet Film Day, with the Khutsiev series continuing in the afternoon with And Still I Believe, while the Soviet silents series concludes with Zvenigora, accompanied by Bertrand and Susan Laurence, in the evening; both are 35mm. Madeline Anderson visits on Monday for a free program of three 16mm shorts on Monday night as part of their African-American film series, and another visitor, Alfred Guzetti, introduces more 16mm shorts on Thursday, these by Peter Hutton, kicking off a weekend series.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts plays host to the the Boston Turkish Festival's Documentary & Short Film Compeition with Kedi, a documentary on Istanbul's stray cats, on Friday, Up and Down Galata and a set of shorts on Saturday, and two more sets on Wednesday. There's another overnighter from Friday to Saturday, with this month's Philip K. Dick movie a 35mm print of A Scanner Darkly at 1am. Tunisia's As I Open My Eyes plays Sunday, as does a special presentation of local documentary "Dos Idiomas, Una Comunidad", with two musical performances beforehand. Documentary Do Not Resist plays Wednesday and Thursday.
  • ArtsEmerson actually has something of a film program in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room this weekend, more or less: They show Finnish transgender drama Open Up to Me on Friday evening, and then a return of the Danny Boyle Frankensteins over the weekend, with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein on Saturday and the roles reversed on Sunday. In the same spot, Bright Lights brings back IFFBoston selection Real Boy on Tuesday, with director Shaleece Haas and subject Bennett Wallace doing Q&A afterward. Thursday is their annual Silversonic Music Video Showcase, a program of shorts made by Emerson students and alumni. As always, Bright Lights shows are free to the public.
  • The Regent Theatre has a few different films this week, starting with the 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows - a family-friendly block of animatied shorts - on Saturday afternoon; the same audience may be interested in free documentary Project Wild Thing on Sunday evening. On Wednesday, director Wendy Schneider will visit with her music-industry documentary, The Smart Studios Story.

Busy times ahead, as I'll head out to the furniture store for Strange, catch Hacksaw Ridge and Fury Road closer to home, try to get to the Coolidge for the Fleischer show, and figure on seeing The Handmaiden and some of the things I've let slide somewhere in there.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Mr. Donkey

I'm trying to figure out how to not fall behind so much next year - heck, how I'll climb out of the hole I'm in right now in terms of updating this thing - and part of it is "maybe I won't see every Chinese movie that plays Boston, and maybe I won't write about everything I see that doesn't have a review on EFC." Planning on starting right away, because this didn't look like a must-see, but the schedule worked out, and then it was interesting, dang it.

To start out with, it is a lot more satiric than you see with a lot of Chinese movies. It's kind of boring to talk about censorship every time a movie from mainland China is not just entirely lightweight, but it's notable, especially when I see how much more direct this movie becomes when it starts to be about the treatment of women rather than just bureaucracy. It's the sort of thing that might have more present-day relevance, but I wonder if doing it as a period piece set before the People's Republic gave them some wiggle room.

The real surprise, though, was when the movie hit me with a title card saying what happened to a character afterward; I'd never given any consideration to this possibly being a true story, but then there were photos, and there you go. It's been a while since I can recall something that could go for "based on a true story" not doing so, and it made me wonder if that was responsible for how the story sometimes didn't work - it was trying to stay true to what happened, and real life is seldom as streamlined, with everything building around one thing. I think there's a little room for adaptation here, but it would explain a lot.

Mr. Donkey

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)

Describe the plot of Mr. Donkey, in which the faculty of a small rural school pretends that their donkey is a teacher in order to increase their meager budget only to run afoul of an insistent bureaucrat, and it doesn't sound like much other than a hard sell. Once it starts to play out, though, it actually becomes something as fascinating as it is funny, even if it does stumble a bit toward the end.

The school in question is out in the desert, built out of a one-time Rain God Temple, serving a number of small villages, although enrollment is dropping every semester. Principal Sun Henghai (Da Li) is dedicated, and he has three teachers on faculty - his former student Zhou Tienan (Liu Shualiang), free spirit Zhang Yiman (Ren Suxi), and her would-be lover Pei Kuishan. Sun's daughter Jia (Bu Guanjin) tends Dashei, the donkey they use to fetch necessary water, and whose teacher's salary from the government helps pay for incidentals. Unfortunately, the government is sending Commissioner Lee (Han Yanbo) to investigate the entire faculty, and the only person available to fill in as "Lyu Dashei" is a hick coppersmith (A Runa) who barely speaks Mandarin, let along the fluent English he's supposed to be teaching.

Filmmakers Liu Lu and Zhou Shen, adapting their own play, maybe seem like they miss an opportunity or two at first, starting things off with a lot of potentially funny things having already happened - the initial decision to put the donkey on the payroll, an apparently-abortive tryst between Yiman and Kuishan, Tienan having a crush on Jia, a couple other times they had to explain the lack of a fifth teacher. On the other hand, they take advantage of not needing to have people look ridiculous from the outset to be able to set up a bunch of cascading, funny gags, with the teachers able to do a lot of funny, casual back-and-forth before things expand to include the coppersmith and the commissioner. Liu & Zhou are kind enough not to use this to hide things, but instead smoothly drop the information that the audience will need to appreciate the next gag in so that it doesn't feel like the audience is coming in late.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

IFFBoston Fall Focus 2016.01/03/05: Moonlight (2016), I Am Not Your Negro, and Loving

Is it kind of unfair to group these three films together, even if they were all co-presented by the Roxbury International Film Festival (dedicated to films by and about people of color), but do you really need me saying that I'm not necessarily the best guy to review three movies that are in large part based on the African-American experience? Maybe, I guess, especially if I Am Not Your Negro is, as might be deduced from the title, addressing white folks like myself who may not be particularly well-versed in Baldwin and the background he brings up.

All three are strong movies in different ways, which is exciting in and of itself - Moonlight looks at three spots inits protagonist's life in fascinating manner, I Am Not... builds a documentary out of Baldwin's unfinished book, and Loving eschews melodrama in a way that movies about landmark moments generally don't. The trio made an exciting week of movies, period, and it was gratifying to see them sold out.

Of course, being sold out sometimes meant close quarters, and the lady next to me for I Am Not Your Negro let out a gasp at every ugly bit of racism, seemingly surprised rather than just disgusted, which seemed weird, given that she was older than me. Granted, I did find myself a little shocked at Americans parading around with Nazi symbols in the 1960s, wondering how this crap went on during my parents' life, although one of the more nauseating things in this miserable election has brought to prominence is just how many people don't mind identifying as such. Clean this up, America - we shouldn't have to be cynical when someone reacts to awful things with surprise.

Moonlight (2016)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

Barry Jenkins has not been idle in the seven or so years since his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy premiered, but it often takes a bit of luck to catch a director's short films at festivals, making it feel like he disappeared or went into some sort of cocoon. That serves to make Moonlight feel like an exciting discovery both for those who have seen the prior movie and the much larger audience that hasn't, and make no mistake, it is something exciting for film lovers, a fresh, intimate portrait that never gets too caught up in its somewhat unusual structure.

It's not a complicated one, simply spending roughly equal amounts of time in three periods of one persons life. Jenkins introduces Chiron to the audience as a 9-year-old called "Little" (Alex Hibbert), a quiet boy from a rough black neighborhood in Miami who is cruelly bullied, befriended by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) after taking refugee in a crack house, although there are a fair number of doors it takes a while for him to connect despite being a resourceful kids. The bullying hadn't stopped by the time he's become a teenager (Ashton Sanders), with Terrel (Patrick Decile) being particularly hard on him, although, on the other hand, it's looking like here might be something between him and classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Maybe not right away, but ten years or so later, when Chiron has moved to Atlanta and started dealing under the name of "Black" (Trevante Rhodes), only to receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) out of the blue.

Jenkins built his screenplay from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and it's easy to imagine that play having a very different structure, maybe stretching out the third act where Chiron and Kevin are sitting in a diner, talking, maybe discussing what happens in the first two segments rather than showing it. It's a smooth, charming sequence, with what tensions it has low-key, the whole thing lubricated by how André Holland connects with how the adult Kevin is not just the person most comfortable in his own skin in the entire movie, but aware of that. Even when he starts challenging Black during their conversation, it feels natural and accommodating, locating the burden of deciding who Little/Chiron/Black is going to choose to be on the man himself, but not isolating him.

Full review on EFC.

I Am Not Your Negro

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

No matter the size or seriousness of a topic, if it is something to which its chronicler has a personal connection, then that account will almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as the subject itself; the personal is hard to escape. Had James Baldwin finished Remember This House, his book on the Civil Rights movement and the three assassinations that punctuated it in the 1960s during his lifetime, that almost certainly would have been the case, and part of what makes I Am Not Your Negro so good is that director Raoul Peck runs with this rather than trying to stick with what Baldwin originally tried to create, a decision that retains his distinctive voice even while reminding the viewer that this was and is a people's struggle for a ideal rather than the string of individual triumphs and tragedies to which it is often reduced.

Peck builds the narration of the film almost entirely around Baldwin's words - read by Samuel L. Jackson in a lower, heavier register than the signature voice of either, giving them the more imposing and concrete sound of the written word - so it starts with personal reminiscences of Baldwin being in Paris as desegregation started in earnest, not missing the things that are distinctly American at all but compelled to return because watching this struggle from across an ocean would be irresponsible. Much of the early going of the film is similar, sometimes acknowledged as being taken from correspondence with his editor explaining his motivations and approach and sometimes just seeming that way. It never becomes a biography of Baldwin - there's a specificity to how Peck deploys these memories, a clear application to the subject at hand, even if they are of necessity longer toward the start. If nothing else, it serves as an introduction to Baldwin as a personality for those of us not exposed to him earlier.

It is his ideas and uncompromising expression of them that are the spine of the film, and the collaboration across time between him and Peck ensures that they hit forcefully: Baldwin was, from certain points of view, cynical - from others, simply not one to delude himself - and his brutally forthright examination of how much of white America was only willing to allow a space for other people after slavery ended with great reluctance, whether that be in schools or in the movies, can be a difficult pill for many to swallow, especially when Baldwin (or whatever clip is on-screen) uses vocabulary that has fallen out of favor. Peck structures the movie in part around footage of a 1968 appearance by Baldwin on Dick Cavett's show, where whatever sympathy Cavett gets for seeming a little uncomfortable generalizing about "Negro issues" drains away as he starts to become defensive, leading to a blistering demolition of a white intellectual using many more words to say "I'm sure it's not that bad" and "not all white people..." Last that feel too triumphant, albeit fleetingly, the larger structure is just as pointed - while Peck and Baldwin may mostly be speaking of broad ideas, there is forward momentum to the events being used to illustrate them, and the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. are placed so as to remind the viewer that this is not just academic, but that people were dying for it.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

There are a number of impressive pieces to Loving, but the impressive thing that they coalesce into is a relative lack of obvious drama. The court case of Loving v. Virginia is a huge deal - one could argue that it struck a blow against segregation at such a basic level that few other forms of discrimination could stand afterward - but its importance comes from the fairly unremarkable situations that it enabled and protected. Those are the moments that writer/director Jeff Nichols gives the time and focus to, and by doing so he reinforces the absurdity of how things were before.

Indeed, he starts the film by seemingly playing events in reverse: Richard Loving (Joel Edgeton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) are hosting a party in their small house. Then she's telling him that she's pregnant. Then he's building the house. Then he's taking her into a field where he will build the house and proposing to her. Then they're out with some drag-racing friends, and for the first time, the fact that Richard is the only white person in a mostly-black crowd starts to stand out, as it likely would in rural Virginia back in the 1950s, so that when Nichols switches directions, starting to move forward rather than back, that's when their having to go to the District of Columbia to get married starts to take on some significance, with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) eventually busting down their door to arrest them for miscegenation being sadly inevitable.

Nichols could easily have started from the beginning, showing how Richard and Mildred met (or how they had always known each other), the disapproving glances they would have had to brave before getting to a point where they might even consider marrying, the planning to go to D.C., but he doesn't, and it's a good decision for a number of reasons. As much as it might be easy to stoke a modern viewers' outrage with Jim Crow laws and displays of casual, open racism, not doing so keeps the movie from becoming a risk/reward thing where the audience ever really thinks about whether Richard and Mildred should have married as a practical consideration. It's something that comes up, of course, but a surprisingly large portion of the film is just watching the pair, getting a sense of how the pair is, by an large, not extraordinary.

Full review on EFC.