Friday, December 30, 2016

Assassin’s Creed

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

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

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

Assassin’s Creed

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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

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

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

Évolution (2016)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passengers (2016)

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

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

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

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

Passengers (2016)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Luomandike xiaowang shi (The Wasted Times)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Monday, December 19, 2016


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sky on Fire

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

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

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

Chongtian huo (Sky on Fire)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.