Friday, December 15, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 15 December 2017 - 19 December 2017

It's almost Christmas, so it's Star Wars time, and how many screens is it opening on? So many that Boston needs a whole new multiplex to handle the demand for people to see movies, and so AMC opened a new one at the South Bay Center on Monday, giving them a little time to work the kinks out before people hit it hard this weekend. South Bay Center is a new mall near the Andrew stop on the Red Line, and the theater itself is one of the new variety with recliners, reserved seating, and two premium screens, one digital Imax, one Dolby Cinema. Gonna have to give it a look-see sometime in the next couple of weeks to see if there's an cool food and drink options. But, in the meantime...

  • So, I can't say I know that much about what's going on in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, but since The Force Awakens was pretty good, Rian Johnson hasn't made a movie that's less than brilliant yet, and Luke & Leia have major parts, so I'm feeling excited about the new 3D entry in the saga. It's all over the place, with showings at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), the Belmont Studio (2D only), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX), South Bay (including Imax 3D and Dolby), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Revere (including XPlus and MX4D), and the SuperLux.

    Also playing in 2D and 3D is the latest from Blue Sky Studio, Ferdinand. Based upon the children's book, it's got John Cena as the voice of a bull who is actually a gentle soul and really wants no part of bullfighting (but, really, what bull would?). It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway (2D only), South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Fenway also continues Regal Christmas matinee series on Saturday with Elf. The holiday also has other movies (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle andThe Greatest Showman) opening Wednesday.
  • As much as I like the comfy new theaters when I'm sitting in them, I kind of hope that Boston Common doesn't go nuts upgrading its amenities too much any time soon, because having a bunch of seats in a bunch of rooms to fill means they still have room for a couple of Chinese films even this week. It kind of allows Youth to slide into theaters oddly unheralded after having had a lot of previews played only to be pulled days before its release in late September because, apparently, it made the censor board nervous to have it playing during the People's Congress, even though it sure looked like a return to safe mainstream material for director Feng Xiaogang after I Am Not Madame Bovary. We'll finally see, I guess.

    Looking like more fun is The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, a big wire-fu-filled fantasy adventure directed by Yuen Woo-ping and written by Tsui Hark, and it's got a pretty fun cast including Zhou Dongyu, Da Peng, Ni Ni, and Darren Leung.
  • Kendall Square switches one Finnish film out for another, bringing Fantasia selection Tom of Finland in for a one-week run. It's a fun biopic of a commercial artist who became famous world-wide for his erotic cartoons of over-the-top leather-clad masculinity.
  • The Brattle Theatre has their annual screenings of It's a Wonderful Life this weekend, from Friday to Sunday, but the site has these 35mm shows marked as sold out. They've also got the new restoration of the America cut of Suspiria playing late shows from Friday to Tuesday (and a full slate on Wednesday and Thursday).

    That leaves a few evening slots open for special features. On Saturday, they celebrate Arthur C. Clarke's birthday with a 35mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is always a trip on the big screen. Monday features the 2017 Grrl Haus Cinema program of short films, while Tuesday is Trash Night, where Elf Bowling: The Movie will be shown and mocked (which may be holiday-themed, but seems unsporting).
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre gets expansions of The Shape of Water (as do Fenway and West Newton) and Darkest Hour (also at the Embassy) to mostly take over their larger screens, with the former having a special "Off the Couch" show on Tuesday evening. They aren't getting The Disaster Artist, but that doesn't stop them from welcoming the writer of the book it's based on (and co-star of The Room) for midnights over the weekend, with a sold-out show of The Room on Friday and a special "Inside the Room" event on Saturday.

    For special features that are not about being awful, they're showing The Muppet Movie on Sunday morning and a 35mm print of Safe on Monday evening. The latter is a "Science on Screen" show, with Dr. Laua Vandenberg discussing chemical exposure and "twentieth century disease". There's also a special BALAGAN: "Conquest" program of experiment short films on Tuesday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive closes out its December schedule with a bunch of Bob Fosse, mostly on 35mm: All That Jazz (Friday 7pm), White Christmas (the $5 Saturday matinee at 3pm), Lenny (Saturday 7pm), Star 80 (Saturday 9pm), My Sister Eileen (Sunday 7pm from a DCP), and Cabaret (Monday 7pm). In addition to Saturday's matinee, they also have their free Sunday holiday show, with a bunch of family-friendly (but off-beat) short films on 16mm and 35mm film.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has more of Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True: Cockfighter (Friday on 35mm), Straight Time (Friday 35mm), Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Saturday), Wise Blood (Saturday/Sunday on 35mm), and One from the Heart (Sunday on 35mm). They also continue to screen Zaradasht's Ahmed accidentally-autobiographical documentary Nowhere to Hide (Friday/Saturday).
  • The Regent Theatre has a tribute to prog rock band Emerson Lake & Palmer on Friday, with documentary The Birth of a Bandat 8pm (part of their ongoing tribute to concert film director Murray Lerner) followed by a performance by tribute band Eruption.
  • CinemaSalem's picks up My Friend Dahmer for the 18-seat screening room.

Well, I'm down forStar Wars at least once and the two Chinese films. Probably should fill in some big gaps with Suspiria and Safe, as well.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Darkest Hour (and the rest of 2017's "Dunkirk Trilogy")

When I saw that Warner Brothers was re-releasing Dunkirk in Imax a couple weeks ago, both to give the theaters who were seeing Justice League admissions dropping off fast an alternative and to promote the upcoming home-video release, I began readying my jokes about doing a Dunkirkathon, but kept my powder dry just in case they didn't line up. AMC Boston Common cut its screenings back to matinees to make room for The Disaster Artist, but it wound up still doable, especially if you didn't mind a lengthy or very short wait between theatrical features. Hopefully, I didn't annoy too many people by suggesting people follow that theatrical double feature with a Their Finest chaser at home.

I'm no hypocrite.

I talk about the accents in Darkest Hour a fair amount, and I'm kind of intrigued at how the one given not just to Churchill but other upper-class characters (Chamberlain, Halifax, the King) seems to have barely survived to the present; the only time you hear it is from people playing Churchill, because the audio of his speeches has become so indelible. I'm kind of fascinated by it. Is it an affectation by English gentry trying to sound like their German-accented royals (it also reminds a present-day person of W.C. Fields, and now I wonder if he was trying to sound like British aristocracy only to have his voice outlast theirs)? Did it vanish as the monarchs, especially Elizabeth II, became more culturally English, and the aristocracy began aping that? Is it something like The Godfather, where real-life gangsters started talking more like Mario Puzo characters than vice versa, where both the infamous "transatlantic" accent and something more familiar being used in movies helped stomp it out?

I've got no idea. But it's a nifty choice to actually have all the posh folks talk in a way that is bizarrely different than the common folks even if Wright is kind of making that up.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (re-release, digital Imax)

The second time through, I am pretty sure that the only thing that keeps Dunkirk from being an actual masterpiece is that its various young soldiers just trying to stay alive are completely and utterly interchangeable in behavior, speech, and appearance. I don't think they ever get names, and though it's impressive that writer/director Christopher Nolan doesn't really underline how the pieces fit together, it's frustrating that the connections between the three parallel stories seems so generic. As much as there's something to be said for a certain amount of anonymity in everybody doing their bit, it's not the strongest storytelling tool.

That said, the film is still a fantastic example of showing and not telling, not needing characters to explain themselves but letting us get to know them by what they do and how they do it. The action is immaculately staged, and I really hope Hans Zimmer's constant, unnerving score gets a bunch of award nominations this year. I will probably never listen to it on its own, but it's unlikely any background music will be more tightly integrated and essential this year. I kind of love Kenneth Branagh in his small part - he's got about five scenes, but they are note-perfect illustrations of what good leadership looks like - informed, decisive, and also kind.

It's unfortunate that the New England Aquarium no longer runs Hollywood movies on film-based IMAX, because while what played at Boston Common looked pretty good and sounded great - especially up front, the rumble was something one could feel in the best way - the picture nearly as beautiful as the 70mm print that the Somerville Theatre ran this summer, where the clarity of some images, most memorably when the plane coasts in at the end, was almost overwhelming. I half-suspect that it will look better than the Imax screening on the UltraHD disc when that comes out next week, even if that won't be in the same category as the film releases.

Original posting on Letterboxd (Hey, follow me on Letterboxd!)

Darkest Hour

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Of the (at least) three films to come out this year to use the evacuation of Dunkirk as a central point, Darkest Hour is in many ways the most conventional and award-friendly, a biography of a famed historical figure which gives a great actor the chance to transform himself. The posters say "Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill", and on that count, the film does not disappoint. That is, in absolute terms, not a negative - Joe Wright and his team have made a very good movie about a very interesting guy, and there is something more than hagiography going on here, but it certainly plays to a lot of expectations.

The "darkest hour" in question is May of 1940 - the Nazis have effectively conquered central and western Europe, with Belgium and France soon to fall, and Britain arguably next, as nearly the entire army was deployed to France and seems more likely to be conquered or killed than brought back to defend the island. The opposition party has called upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to resign, and while both the Tory leadership and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) would prefer Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as his successor - he, like Chamberlain, favors a negotiated peace - it's a coalition government and only Churchill (Oldman) will be acceptable to both major parties. So he is installed in a perilous situation - not only does he seem to underestimate just how hopeless the war is, but his own party has arguably set him up to fail.

Darkest Hour has to center on Churchill as a practical matter - he's a larger-than-life figure who would simply swallow the film if it didn't, and his actions are easily of most consequence. But often, it's the situation around him that's the most fascinating, as the elements in his own party that stepped aside immediately move to sabotage him. Though it's important not to read too much about the present day into movies about events that took place over seventy-five years ago, part of the reason this one might resonate is how history seems to be repeating; both American and British audiences may already be thinking about leaders seemingly more concerned with party politics than the actual urgent needs of their people right now. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten occasionally motion toward other aspects of the man - the specter of Gallipoli is given a more nuanced treatment than it was in Churchill a few months ago, and there are occasional acknowledgements by Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) - but they seem rather obligatory.

Full review on EFC.

Their Finest

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (revisit, Blu-ray)

I posted immediately after watching this that it may be the best film in 2017's coincidental "Dunkirk Trilogy", and I readily admit that it's an unusual assertion to make: Dunkirk is the most formally ambitious, Darkest Hour more closely resembles what we expect a prestige film to look like. This - well, this is something that might have been filed under "comedy" when a movie could only have one tag in a video store, and it's easy to say that, if it succeeds by hitting its targets, that might be because it chooses easy ones.

I don't think that's quite fair, though - this is, in retrospect, a film that makes things look easy, in many cases by being kind of obvious early on so that it can be nuanced in how it steps away from it later. Consider, for instance, a scene early on where a cabinet minister played by Jeremy Irons is walking aroud the room, talking about the good this movie can do, and touches Gemma Arterton's Catrin as he mentions "the female audience". She flinches, and whether a viewer reads it as surprise or just another example of guys not respecting women's boundaries and bodies probably says something about his worldview. It wasn't until a second viewing that I connected that scene with one toward the end, where Bill Nighy's Ambrose visits a grieving Catrin to console her, and though he's being kind of pompous (as is his wont) though the characters have grown somewhat close, he doesn't presume to touch her. It's a small bit of respect that is probably one out of hundreds of things that I as a man am less likely to notice but likely resonates strongly with women.

Not that I'm giving it presumed extra credit for that - I love this movie pretty wholeheartedly. But I'll bet many people get even more out of it than I do.

Original EFC review from April

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Shape of Water

I just got to this one in time to start it - I got the showtimes for it and Darkest Hour confused and thought I had twenty more minutes - and was kind of amused at the mix of trailers it got. Because it has a sea monster, there were trailers for horror movies; because it is sort of magic-realist (he said, knowing that term has a more specific meaning than just "fantasy that won't commit to a mythology" but seldom getting it just right), it got previews for boutique stuff. Not a lot of the horror was really doing it for me, and we're starting to see those previews a lot. I've seen Thoroughbreds, so the trailer hits me with a weird mix of "they seem to be misrepresenting it a bit" and "this is kind of what people should expect before it goes sideways" with maybe a enough Anton Yelchin that people will be disappointed that it's sort of a small role. And then there was Island for Dogs, and, man, this sort of whimsical animated movie with dry humor and dogs in a kooky future Japan should really be my thing, especially since I've really liked director Wes Anderson's last couple movies. Instead, I find myself just thoroughly repulsed by it, whether because I want my off-kilter takes on Japan to come from actual Japanese people or because there's no one great performance or self-deprecation that leaps out of it. Maybe that will change with the actual movie, because I'd really rather not go back to hating Anderson's precisely-measured smug material.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure exactly where I land on The Shape of Water. It's good - very good - and it's well worth noting that while writing the review, the good stuff was what leaped out at me and demanded to be recounted. It does, however, exist in a weird in-between place in a lot of ways; it doesn't have that sense of desperation that hung over his Spanish films even though that seems to be the mood he's trying to achieve, but it's also a little wobbly on the level of delight at the period setting and the movie references del Toro throws in. He loves this stuff, almost can't help but declare he loves this stuff, but knows that it's not really the place.

Plus, it's got some issues toward the end:


The bit where the creature has magical healing powers feels like an almost obligatory piece; the movie could do without it for all that it matters and it's the sort of thing that encourages the audience to think about how this sort of thing works on the one hand and wonder if maybe the guys who want to examine him should maybe continue their work, albeit with less torture and vivisection. It's a thing that feels like it could be thematically important (he heals all the hurting characters!), but isn't quite there. I do like how it feeds into the beautifully ambiguous ending, made specifically so by Giles's narration, especially considering how as a visual artist, it is easy for Elisa's scars to become gills to him. It's a nifty touch, maybe not hugely significant, but well-done.


Anyway, don't let those slight issues put you off. It's a beautiful movie, and I don't write something as long as the eFilmCritic review for movies I don't like.

The Shape of Water

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

There's been a stark difference between the dark fables of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language movies and the pulpy entertainment of his English-language work, and while there are moments of crossover (Mimic has the feel if not the depth, while Hellboy II has some carryover from Pan's Labyrinth), it's been fair to wonder if there just might be factors inherent to the different filmmaking environments that push him in different directions. The Shape of Water suggests that maybe this is not the case - more than anything else he's made in English, it's a work with ambitions beyond just fun, and a successful one.

It's a film about lonely people. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is established as such even though there are clearly people who are quite fond of her, with living arrangements and a "morning" routine built around not just having no partner but no expectation of one. Sure, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is fond of her, but he's gay (and therefore must approach new attractions very tentatively in early-1960s Baltimore). She works the swing shift as a cleaner at a nearby Defense Department facility, where her being mute since birth means her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a big talker, doesn't get interrupted, but the racial difference would make friendship outside of work awkward. Of course, Zelda being black is nothing compared to the "asset" recently brought in - an amphibian humanoid from South America (Doug Jones). He seems feral, mauling keeper Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) at first opportunity, but Elisa secretly finds a way to communicate with it, alarming scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has an isolating secret of his own.

There is in many ways a beauty to be found in this loneliness, even if del Toro never fetishizes it. There's desperation to Elisa and Giles even if their friendship is something beautiful as a result. They often huddle in Giles's apartment watching old movies on a tiny black-and-white television despite living above a palatial movie theater (though it's seen better days and bigger audiences as well), finding it easier to stay there when going outside is so fraught. Hoffstetler's loneliness is forced upon him and messes with his moral compass in ways that fascinate, while Strickland is confounded by his: He feels disconnected from the nuclear family that's supposed to satisfy him and discovers that his work considers him disposable, and it brings out his cruelty. It's no comparison to the creature, presumably the last of his kind, whose well-earned hostility turns to a sort of wonder at anyone seeming fond of him.

It's the sort of often-silent, under-a-bunch-of-prosthetic-makeup performance that Doug Jones has made a career specialty, especially in his films with del Toro, and in a way, Elisa is the sort of woman Sally Hawkins specializes in as well, although to be fair, that the point of her breakout role in Happy Go Lucky was a character working at her optimism makes it much easier to see in her later parts. Still, she's undeniably great at it, putting the extra effort into making Elisa's moments of joy genuine even as she gets to put just as much force into her anger and frustration. Since del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor only give Hawkins a couple of scenes where Elisa gets to explain herself directly to the audience via subtitles, the actress often has to make Elisa's thoughts clear in gestures and body language without over-emoting - after all, being a bit withdrawn is part of her character.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 8 December 2017 - 14 December 2017

Oscar season seems to be coming in waves this year, with a couple things every couple of weeks. The good stuff starts showing up in earnest this week, though Star Wars grabs a whole bunch of screens starting Thursday.

  • If you like your awards contenders on the fantastical side, there's Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, featuring Sally Hawkins as a mute woman brought in to work at a secret government facility during the Cold War only to find what is basically the Creature from the Black Lagoon being held captive. It's at Kendall Square and Boston Common. Those two locations also get Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill in what is said to be an uncanny evocation, with the film directed by Joe Wright. They'll be expanding to more screens next week.

    Kendall Square also opens a one-week booking of The Other Side of Hope, the latest from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, in which a retired traveling salesman has to rely on a group of Syrian refugees to keep his restaurant afloat.
  • Likely not looking for awards is Just Getting Started, an "old guys looking for love" movie with Morgan Freeman managing a senior community, Rene Russo the new arrival, and Tommy Lee Jones the tough rival who helps out when someone from Freeman's past turns up. Ron Shelton directs, and how the heck is it his first movie behind the camera in 14 years? It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere.

    The Disaster Artist goes wider, popping up at Somerville, the Embassy, Fenway (including RPX), Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux, and also getting evening shows on the Imax screen at Boston Common (Dunkirk keeps the matinee slots). There are also a fair number of one-off shows, including National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Saturday at Fenway), anime presentation Black Clover (Saturday/Sunday at Fenway), Elf (Saturday/Monday/Tuesday at Revere), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Sunday/Wednesday at Fenway/Assembly Row/Revere), and It's a Wonderful Life (Sunday/Wednesday at Revere).
  • Woody Allen keeps making movies, this time coming up with Wonder Wheel, with Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake as a former actress on the run and a lifeguard in 1950s Coney Island. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common.

    The Coolidge also has some specials, with the weekend's midnight showings Tales from the Crypt (Friday) and The Twilight Zone: The Movie (Saturday), both on 35mm film. The Sunday-morning show from the Goethe-Institut is Beuys a documentary about its namesake, media artist Joesph. On Monday, they gear up to get Water later in the week with del Toro's Big Screen Classic Pan's Labyrinth on 35mm, followed by Open Screen on Tuesday. Things get a little more Christmas-y on Thursday with a Rewind! show of Home Alone.
  • There's a particularly nifty-looking series at The Brattle Theatre this weekend - In Our View: Films by African-American Women, which includes a lot of films that are both generally very good and others where that particular distinct point of view is very clear. It runs all week and features Selma (Friday), Love and Basketball on 35mm & Beyond the Lights (Saturday double feature), Losing Ground & Daughters of the Dust (Sunday double feature), Pariah (Monday), Talk to Me & The Caveman's Valentine on 35mm (Tuesday), I Will Follow & Yelling to the Sky (Wednesday), and Lift on 35mm (Thursday).

    They also welcome Kier-la Janisse for a couple of weekend late shows to tie in with books she's involved in: The Nude Vampire plays in a new digital restoration on Saturday, one of the films profiled in Spectacular Optical's Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin, and the non-Michael Keaton Jack Frost plays Saturday Night to help launch Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens subtitled Bollywood sequel Fukrey Returns, with the four Fukra brothers apparently targeted revenge for what happened in the last film. There's also Tamil neo-noir Richie through Tuesday and Telugu romance Malli Raava through Wednesday, and a screening of English-language but Indian-made film Sonata on Sunday afternoon.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True with screenings of Escape from New York (Saturday), Cisco Pike (Sunday on 35mm), Cockfighter (Sunday on 35mm), swan song Lucky (Thursday), and Pretty in Pink (Thursday on 35mm). The Jean-Pierre Meiville centennial celebration continues with Leon Morin, Priest (Saturday). Other spots on the schedule are filled with the run of Nowhere to Hide (Sunday/Thursday).
  • It's something different every day at The Harvard Film Archive, which starts the weekend on Friday with the first entry in their "The World of Bob Fosse" program, a 35mm print of the famous theater and film director's Sweet Charity. Saturday evening is entirely given over to Stan Brakhage's The Art of Vision, presented on 16mm film and introduced by Saul Levine (it's 4.5 hours long, so it starts at 5pm). Sunday afternoon they have a tribute to programmer David Pendleton, one of their programmers for the last decade and just a delightful guy; there will be screenings, stories, and a reception. Experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack visits on Monday with a program of her 16mm short films.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights program has its last free screening of the year in the Paramount's Bright room on Tuesday, with professor Miranda Banks leading the discussion after Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled.
  • CinemaSalem's 18-seat screening room is the place to go if you want to see The Tribes of Palos Verdes on a big-ish screen rather than on VOD; it stars Maika Monroe and Cody Fern as siblings who have just moved to California only to have their mother (Jennifer Garner) break down as her marriage falls apart.

I am down for The Shape of Water and The Darkest Hour, at least, maybe making the second a double feature with Dunkirk in Imax. If any of you do that, I highly recommend breaking out Their Finest when you get home, for a quality 2017 Dunkirk trilogy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Swindlers

I get that the local theater doesn't necessarily have a huge library of trailers to put before their Asian film releases, but sticking Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds in front of The Swindlers is kind of mean - I already know that Boston isn't in the cities getting this one even though it looks pretty cool, in part because they're getting the other movie that was previewed (Bleeding Steel), and there's only going to be so much room for alternate fare between Star Wars and the big Christmas releases.

Still - it's a mean bait-and-switch, especially since Along with the Gods is supposed to be a two-parter, and I don't love trying to find and stream Part 1 when Part 2 does get a local release.

Ggoon (The Swindlers)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Have there been a lot of pyramid schemes collapsing in South Korea recently, or one big one which captured the public's imagination? It's a theme that has recurred in a lot of the Korean films to make it to North America this year (either in general release or on the festival circuit), with The Swindlers the one that seems to offer the most light-hearted con artistry. It's not a bad entry in one of cinema's most potentially-enjoyable genres, even if it is the sort where the audience is more placing bets on which big twist it will have rather than being surprised by that sort of thing.

It opens in 2008, when Jang Du-chil (Heo Sung-tae) made off with two billion won in donations to the "Tree of Life Church" before fleeing to China. At least a dozen people committed suicide in the wake of this, but pickpocket Hwang Ji-sung (Hyun Bin) doesn't think his father - Hwang "Night Fog" Yoo-suk (Jung Jin-young), a master forger - is one of them. Eight years later, Jang is reportedly dead, although prosecutor Park Hee-soo (Yoo Ji-tae) would still like to find the bribery ledger that has been missing since he fled. To that end, he makes use of a small crew pulling small jobs - eye-catching Choon-ja (Im "Nana" Jin-a), tech wizard Kim (An Se-ha), and muscle Ko Seok-dong (Bae Sung-woo) - to keep former Jang associate Lee Kang-suk (Choi Duk-moon) busy while he searches for the book. But Kang-suk has already been conned by Ji-sung, who has acquired a reputation for hoisting swindlers by their own petard - and who saw Jang in Thailand after his supposed death.

Great movie con-artistry can be a paradoxical thing, a delicate clockwork mechanism whose individual pieces are nevertheless bold and flashy, although there's some argument over whether it's better to watch the crew work for their payoff or reveal that everything was part of the plan. It would be telling to reveal which way rookie writer/director Jang Chang-won goes with that, but in either case, his construction is a bit off. There are several moments in the movie where an attentive member of the audience will notice that he's skipping over something he might have chosen to show in a similar scene a few minutes earlier, being obviously furtive when he should be hiding clues in plain sight. He's got a good story, although maybe one that's a little more complex than need be.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, December 04, 2017


Apparently, Sony Pictures International has a business model where they finance/acquire the new movie from the Spanish guy who made something you remember from a while back, and then drop it in American theaters soon after its Spanish release on a slow week. Which, admittedly, gets me into the theater - seeing that this was from the guy who did No News From God aka Don't Tempt Me raised the same eyebrow that Abracadabra being from Blancanieves's Pablo Berger did - but it doesn't seem to have done so for that many other folks; the Saturday afternoon show I went to was dead, and it was abandoned by people either discovering that it was in Spanish or not the fun adventure it might have sounded like.

Speaking of director Agustin Diaz Yanes - I'm trying to remember where I saw No News From God - I remember it as part of the Brattle's Boston Fantastic Film Festival, but the dates don't seem to line up, and it doesn't seem like a Boston Film Festival When It Was Still Worthwhile thing. I'm also kind of stunned that after that, his next two films seem to have missed the US almost entirely, despite having pretty nice casts (Viggo Mortensen & Elena Anaya in Alatriste, Anaya & Diego Luna in Walking Vengeance), . They feel like things that should have at least hit the genre festival circuit, but I don't remember them popping up there at all.

The other interesting thing about this is that it seems like it comes unusually soon after the last movie with its general plot. Sure, it's hard to call two movies destined to be relatively little-seen a trend, but 2017 delivering both The Lost City of Z and Oro to theaters seems like a case of something starting to resonate in these quests for a perfect, unspoiled world bringing self-destruction, while the filmmakers try to balance their love for this sort of pulp adventure story with the racism and colonialism that are often part and parcel of them. The cherry on top of that, though, was having a trailer for Black Panther play before the movie - Marvel blockbuster it may be, but the film looks like the biggest, baddest "what would indigenous people have become without colonialism" thing ever made.

Oro (Gold)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Oro opens with the aftermath of carnage, not bothering with any sort of build-up suggesting honorable intentions or excited curiosity for this set of conquistadors seeking a fabled city of gold. No, director Augustin Diaz Yanes leaps straight into cynical, cutthroat territory, and while that means there's less high adventure to hook an audience, there's still enough in the way of thrills to keep an audience excited.

That first scene takes place in April 1528, as Spanish soldier Martin Davila (Raul Arevalo) has just survived another battle with the natives, having set out from Puerto Cristo to find Tezutlan, a native city with roofs of gold on the other side of a wide river and mountains, described by the sole survivor of a previous expedition. This one is led by Don Gonzalo (Jose Manuel Cervino), though defers much the actual logistics to Lieutenant Alferez Gorriamendi (Oscar Jaenada), a fearsome officer who would intimidate even without his large, well-trained dog. Along with soldiers from every corner of Spain, the party includes Pater Vargas (Luis Callejo), there to spread the word of God to the "savages" of the Indies; Licenciado Ulzama (Andres Gertrudix), a scribe reporting on the expedition for the emperor; Mediamano (Juan Carlos Aduviri), a native guide; plus Doña Ana (Barbara Lennie), the Don's younger wife, and her maidservant La Parda (Anna Castillo). Though the servant seems to have found a paramour in Martin's comrade Iturbe (Juan Jose Ballesta), the former seems less satisfied with her mate, locking eyes with Martin even as Gorriamendi also shows interest. With weeks of traversing the jungle to go, this would be a volatile situation, and that's before one of the Don's men arrives from the city to say that another expedition has been sent with the additional goal of arresting Gonzalo.

As with a lot of foreign movies that make their way to the United States quickly rather than being carefully positioned and sold to a wider audience - Oro arrives just three weeks after its Spanish opening - this one probably has a fair amount more resonance in its native land than it does here, capturing something specific. In this case, it's a great deal of talk about how Spain is far from a unified, cohesive nation, something that perhaps strikes a chord as Catalan votes for its independence. Martin's opening narration describes how Spanish people in the army tend to congregate with others from their region, despising the rest until there is an immediate threat, at which point they will fight together. It's a thread that is pervasive throughout the film, reinforced as every conversation between two people seems to start with the first asking the second where he is from, and references to towns and regions on the other side of the Atlantic dot conversation, seeming to pop up most gratuitously when things are at their most tense. It is no wonder that the party seems to reach the verge of disintegration quickly, or that the sympathetic characters (such as they are) seem to be the ones with the weakest connection to their regions - Martin, who is from Trujillo but who figures he will never return, and Ana, whose origins are initially the subject of some speculation.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Chinese Noir: Explosion (and Coffin in the Mountain)

I have roughly zero regrets about my recent vacation, although I must admit that I do wish that I had gotten to see more of the Brattle's "New Chinese Noir" series, both because I'm always down for checking out Chinese cinema and film noir separately, but also because it's a genuinely intriguing coda to their year-long celebration of the (approximate) 75th anniversary of the genre. Unfortunately, the scheduling meant I missed two of the four films entirely and was kind of a zombie for the one I did see, and so can't really do a great review. The fourth, Free + Easy, I caught at Fantasia. I might not be writing anything about it if China Lion hadn't released Explosion a couple weeks later

Add Have a Nice Day to the mix, and Blood of Youth (which I saw at New York Asian), noting that these are all mainland films as opposed to Hong Kong Crime, and it starts to look like a fascinating moment fo the Chinese film industry. They've been sending movies to America at a greater clip recently, mostly airy entertainments marketed directly to expatriates and Chinese-American audiences and for a while, they tended to feel the same: Slick, good looking, showing a prosperous Beijing and seemingly happy to play ball with the certification board, very old-Hollywood, flexing a lot of new economic muscle in being able to make big, export-quality pictures and even attract foreign stars and filmmakers.

Noir came after that in America, and it seems as though the people making these movies in China are looking for cracks the same way that their American predecessors did, using crime to tell stories about the people a recent boom has left behind, seeing just how cynical they can get without actually running afoul of the local film board the way others poked at the Hays Code. Where Americans tended to place these stories in cities swamped with corruption, these Chinese movies take place in the middle of nowhere, industrial zones that never properly took off. It's an absent government, and citizens not doing their full duty, that is causing the trouble here, making the crime story a little more palatable for the censors even as it does have some sharp criticisms.

Another thing that separates Chinese noir from the American variety is that, rather than happening inside the studio system, it also seems to be developing side-by-side with independent cinema. Sure, Explosion is from a major studio, but a number of these films have been making it onto the festival circuit without the tons of title cards and company credits that the big releases have. I'm not sure just how independent they can be, but there is often a different, less-processed feel about them.

Admittedly, I'm generalizing from relatively few movies here, but it's certainly an interesting set. I just got a piece of email saying that potentially the most interesting, the animated Have a Nice Day, is getting an American release in January/February, and I'll be interested to see what people think of that. In the meantime, a lot of these are going to be hard to find (many don't even get a Chinese video release to import), so if Explosion interests you, it might be worth catching one of the 4pm shows it has through Thursday.

Xin mi gong (Coffin in the Mountain, aka Deep in the Heart)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (New Chinese Noir, DCP)

A nifty if deliberate little story of unhappy relationships thrown into disarray by an accidental death, this one serves up multiple flavors of irony and dark but deadpan comedy. It could probably stand to be a little more disciplined in its storytelling one way or the other, because it's just stone-faced enough not to get much real pleasure from the bits of chaos and coincidence that are truly random.

Yin Bao Zhe (Explosion, 2017)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

Movies are easily and frequently mocked for jamming an explosion into the action in order to placate the less--sophisticated members of the audience, and it can be a fair criticism - explosions are often a fairly blunt tool, not exactly used for subtle purposes. Filmmaker Chang Zheng apparently took that as a challenge, building his film Yin Bao Zhe ("Explosion" in English) not as an action spectacular, but as a film noir, and making it a pretty good one, even if much more does blow up here than is usual for that genre.

Its hard-luck hero is Zhao XuDong (Duan Yihong), an explosives detonator working in a coal mine run by "Brother" Yi, who comes across as more gangster than businessman. The film opens with an explosion much larger than the explosives XuDong set should have caused, killing four and leading Yi to sack XuDong with a small payoff, but not report it to the authorities - an official investigation might turn anything up, maybe even forcing Yi to sell out to Cheng Fei (Cheng Taishen). On the one hand, XuDong is fine with that; even if local chief of police Xu Feng (Wang Jingchun) has been XuDong's friend since childhood, chief safety officer San Bai would probably deflect attention to the guy who spent three years in jail for making homebrew TNT back in the day anyway. Maybe he could use the money to help girlfriend Xiao Hong (Yu Nan) open a bigger, classier restaurant. But the dead men eat at XuDong, and with no official investigation to seal the scene, a man can poke around on his own, whether it's a good idea or not.

Director Chang creates a somber mood right off the bat, opening with narration from XuDong about how his father said not to follow him into the mines but implying that he wound up there anyway out of some sort of inevitability, like that's just how it works in this sort of community. If the film doesn't actually open in the mine, the camera is moving into them soon enough, and even when the action moves out from underground, Chang maintains that sort of aesthetic - it never fully washes off of XuDong, for instance, and Hong's restaurant is also tight and claustrophobic, with the miners bringing the coal dust in with them. It doesn't confer any sort of unusual working-class decency to the likes of XuDong, but it does make the wealthy folks like Cheng Fei seem unnaturally clean. The movie lives in these grimy industrial places and the industrial town that surrounds them, enough to make a bright desert setting seen later on seem not like freedom, but like the people there have been removed from the world entirely.

Full review on EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 1 December 2017 - 7 December 2017

Ah, the first weekend of December, when no major releases open because a whole bunch of high-profile movies which figured to have staying power opened during the previous two weekends, but since there's always one or two things that wind up on a screen or two more than necessary (talking about you, Justice League), resulting in some kind of random openings, but they're the more interesting ones.

  • The Somerville Theatre "solves" this issue with the annual residence of the "Slutcracker" burlesque, meaning no movies on the main screen for a few weeks, likely until Christmas. The monthly Boston Underground Film Festival screening still goes on Wednesday, and it's both free with an RSVP and a good one, the Aussie thriller Hounds of Love, one of the highlights of this year's festival.

    Fenway, meanwhile, tides themselves over until next week with My Friend Dahmer, featuring Alex Wolff and Ross Lynch as teenagers, the latter of whom will grow up to be a serial killer. I missed it at Fantasia this summer, but was curious. Fenway also has a Saturday matinee of A Christmas Story, a Wednesday screening of desert-racing documentary Dust 2 Glory (also at Assembly Row and Revere), and there's also a Wednesday presentation of Black Clover - apparently an animated action series from Japan edited into a feature.

    Over at Boston Common, they get The Disaster Artist a week before other theaters, so people can see James Franco's tribute to The Room, co-starring with his brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and others. They also have a pair of foreign films to join Explosion: The Swindlers comes from South Korea, and has a crew of con artists recruited to capture an even more dangerous one. There's also Oro from Spain, a story of conquistadors seeking a fabled city of gold in the 16th Century. It's directed by Agustín Díaz Yanes, whose films have not been much seen in the USA since Don't Tempt Me, despite this one not having the international stars his others have.

    Theaters also pull back on how much Imax time they give Justice League: Jordan's Furniture will have daily matinees of The Polar Express, Assembly Row replaces the first couple shows of the day with Coco, and Boston Common brings back Dunkirk for everything but the late show.
  • Kendall Square mostly keeps things steady, switching last week's one-week booking for The Divine Order, the Swiss submission for the Academy, a story of women fighting for the right to vote in 1971.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a pair of documentaries opening this weekend, with Bill Nye: Science Guy profiling the television host who is also president of the Planetary Society, one of the leading advocates for space exploration in the country, while D.O.A. - A Rite of Passage newly restored after chronicling The Sex Pistols' calamitous last tour. That one only plays through Sunday, while Bill Nye only plays matinees from Monday to Thursday.

    On Monday, they have a DocYard show with director Lana Wilson visiting to present The Departure, her documentary on Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist monk who specializes in helping the suicidal find reasons to live. Tuesday and Wednesday are a special live show of "Matt & Ben", with Lauren Chapman & Libby Schap playing the title characters as they write Good Will Hunting. They close out the week on Thursday with a 35mm screening of Irma Vep sponsored by MUBI which will include prizes of a new poster and a subscription to the service.
  • Apple Fresh Pond has one 7pm screening per day of IFFBoston selection Intent to Destroy, which was shot on the set of The Promise but is expanded by director Joe Berlinger to cover many other aspects of the Armenian Genocide. They also have daily late shows of Telugu action flick Jawaan and Telugu horror film Gruham (through Sunday, also playing Saturday afternoon in Tamil under the title "Aval"), and a Saturday matinee of Malayalam comedy Punyalan Private Lim.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre brings documentary Jane to the GoldScreen for the week, and has guests at both ends of Saturday: The morning is a "Science on Screen Jr." presentation, with Ben & Tonya Mezrich reading from their book Charlie Numbers and the Man in the Moon before screening Muppets From Space. Then, at midnight, Adrienne Barbeau will introduce The Fog on 35mm before receiving the second "Coolidge After Midnite" award.
  • If you're noticing that this leaves a gap in the Coolidge's midnight program, it's because that crew heads to The Museum of Fine Arts on Friday evening for the last "On the Fringe" show of the year, Escape from New York. That not only features honoree Adrienne Barebeau, but Harry Dean Stanton, who will be the subject of a retrospective through December ("Say Something True"), including Pretty in Pink (Sunday on 35mm).

    He's not the only person getting a retrospective on the MFA's December schedule, as the film program also pays tribute to Jean-Pierre Meiville (who would be 100 this year), starting with Army of Shadows (Friday), Bob le Flambeur (Saturday), Le Cercle Rouge (Saturday), Un Flic (Thursday), and Le Doulos (Thursday). They also begin a run of Nowhere to Hide, following a medic for five years after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, with screenings on Sunday and Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has Basma Alsharifon hand to introduce her film Ouroboros on Friday, and then spends the rest of the weekend presenting Freedom Outside Reason: The Animated Cinema of Jan Lenica, featuring three programs of short films made by Polish filmmakers Jan Lenica and frequent collaborator Walerian Borowczyk, with the shows on Saturday and Sunday introduced by Grzegorz Skorupski, with a third show on Monday. The programs are a mix of 35mm, 16mm, and digital presentations..
  • ArtsEmerson's Film Program partners with the Boston Asian-American Film Festival for a BAAF Liberty and Justice series focusing on Cambodia, with two features each in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room on on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (including the fascinating The Missing Picture), and a Monday matinee at the Middlesex Community library in Lowell.

    The facility's regular occupant, Bright Lights, has had the original short film version of IFFBoston opener Stumped, so it's only reasonable that they play the feature, which they will do on Tuesday with director Robin Berghaus and subject Will Lautenheiser in attendance. Their other presentation is a preview, with Tom of Finland showing in advance of its Kendall Square opening, with faculty member Benoit Denizet-Lewis leading the discussion afterward. As always, Bright Lights shows are free and open to the public.
  • The Breadwinner only had a week at Kendall Square, but the excellent animated film sets up shop in CinemaSalem's 18-seat screening room from Friday to Thursday.

The Swindlers and Oro have my interest, and I'll probably catch up with Lady Bird and some of the huge pile of discs on my shelf.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Saturday cartoons: "Olaf's Frozen Adventure", Coco, and The Breadwinner

The worst thing about going to see an animated movie as an adult who likes the medium is not the sinking feeling that you're not supposed to be there (because you're in a room filled with kids and parents or at a nearly-empty 9pm show) or the like: It's the inevitable group of terrible trailers for terrible movies that play before them, generally from Open Road, the Weinstein Company, or the like, showing animation that is clearly below the standard that the big studios set, C-list celebrity voices, and jokes so terrible that you look on the 88 minutes that didn't contribute to the trailer with a sort of dread. Ferdinand doesn't exactly look good, but its vague competence after trailers for Sherlock Gnomes and Peter Rabbit is refreshing, while Paddington 2 looks like some sort of miracle.

Stuff like that is why I can't really fully join in the outrage at being forced to sit through "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" and kind of laugh at how the ticket-ripper was warning folks in the audience that it was playing before Coco - I mean, Gnomes seems like something far more horrifying, though I suppose that the main issue here is people coming out to say something's wrong, rather than it being bad.

(I am kind of surprised this wasn't a bigger part of the promotion for Coco - or at least, not in places where I'd see it; maybe ads on The Disney Channel pushed it hard.)

One thing I'm kind of curious about with both of Saturday's animated features is just how well they play to the folks who share ethnicity/culture with the main characters. Coco was directed by Pete Docter, who is not Latino as far as I know (though Adrian Molina is listed as co-director and has writing credits), and I'm pretty sure The Breadwinner's Nora Twomey is not Afghani. Neither seems particularly exploitative, but I'm hardly in a position to judge. I've seen some positive word on Coco, but I do find myself kind of wondering how people closer to the stories might have handled them differently, especially in the light of how, last year, the makers of Moana seemed to get a lot more pushback on them telling a Polynesian story than they got with Aladdin back in the 1990s.

Anyway, in terms of niece-appropriateness, I think the 6/7-year-olds would probably go for Coco (even if two would be mostly down for the Frozen "short"), while The Breadwinner should probably be saved for the 11-year-old, content-wise, as it's a fine example of how something realistic can be scarier than the thing that has skeleton's running around. She likes realistic stories about girls her own age anyway.

"Olaf's Frozen Adventure"

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Would "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" seem like less of a slog if it appeared where it belonged - on ABC at 8pm on some weekday night in December, maybe leading into the Toy Story special that's been running for a few years? Maybe. It still wouldn't be good, of course, but it would be twenty minutes less for kids to sit still in a theater with 3D glasses on, including something like three musical numbers and the feeling that you've gone through a whole narrative cycle before the one you actually paid for. It's a small meal rather than the creative aperitif that usually plays before a Pixar film.

That said, it's not a bad idea. If you liked Frozen - as I and many others did, including my Elsa-crazed nieces - there's a worthy next chapter at the heart of this short, as Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) find themselves trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas as both a royal and conventional family after Elsa being shut away for so long. It's a plot that the audience actually cares about and which doesn't lose track of how a huge part of the movie's appeal is their relationship as sisters. It makes Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Goff) kind of a third wheel, but so what? He could easily fit into the part of the story that keeps things moving, as Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) tries to inventory individual holiday traditions to find one for the ladies.

The thing is, Olaf's a weird comic-relief character who makes for fun out-of-nowhere jokes (including some truly bizarre slapstick), but really doesn't fit in terms of a guy you'd want to hang the plot on; his child-like naivete seems foolish rather than charming in this context. It also shifts what could be a really charming core for the story - that everyone has different holiday traditions that are beautiful in their own ways - into something to snark at rather than celebrate, and that's before considering Kristoff's troll-inspired holiday traditions being played as gross-out gags.

Disney's done worse piggybacking off their animated classics, and despite this thing's almost-certain TV origins, it looks pretty good on the big screen in 3D, if not quite so smooth as something built for that format. This is just filled with enough bad decisions to obscure the good Anna & Elsa stuff that the kids who really want it would actually care about.

Coco (2017)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

The latest from Pixar saves the gut-punch for the end, and it's good to see they can still manage one every once in a while. They've been doing good work but had fallen a bit behind the main Disney group in both inventiveness and emotion.

Coco, fortunately, shows that they're still quite capable of making a movie that punches way above the weight class of the inevitable trailers for terrible animated films that run before it. Though the story seems a little stretched and unlikely at first - that many generations of people (including in-laws) acquiescing to an inherited disdain for music requires swallowing a lot - the cheery design and animation style makes up for it, at least long enough to get to the part where this sort of broad set-up feels right, as music-living kid Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

There, things get more fun, as the skeleton characters and the gravity-defying landscape give the designers, animators, and stereographers plenty of room to create an eye-widening world, a quest based on a metaphor can work without question (Miguel must literally obtain his family's blessing), and the expected big musical numbers and action pieces can impress but gracefully move aside as the script gets clever, folding what sends like a side sorry into the center of the movie.

It might be nice, perhaps, if the writing was a little sharper in the details - aside from the trouble getting started, I've kind of seen enough animated movies where fantasy-world bureaucracy mirrors reality to last me a long time - but when a movie is not just great-looking and well-voiced, but actually has a moment when the audience might just tear up, it gets a little slack.

The Breadwinner

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The Breadwinner is a pretty terrific film that may not get the attention that it might have even a year ago because of certain changes to Academy Award voting rules expected to favor big-studio blockbusters over more adventurous, individual films from around the globe. That's a crying shame, because nominating movies like this and getting them onto people's radar is where the Oscars are most useful - this one, for instance, is not what most expect from an animated film, but it uses the medium for clear, powerful storytelling that leaves a strong impression.

In Kabul, under the rule of the Taliban, one-time teacher Nurullah (voice of Ali Badshah) is reduced to selling his family's prized possessions on the street and taking money to read and write for those who can't, with 11-year-old daughter Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) assisting because he is disabled. He passes the time telling her stories, at least until he gets on the bad side of a young man happy to use the regime to settle scores and is carted off to jail. The is devastating to the family, because his only living son is a toddler and women and girls like daughters Parvana and her older sister Soraya (voice of Shalasta Latif) are not allowed out unescorted. When his wife Fattema (voice of Laara Sadiq) tries to make her way to the jail to plead his case, she is beaten badly. With food and water running out, Parvana cuts her hair, puts on the clothing of her dead brother, and hopes that this deception will allow her to work and buy what the family needs.

It's a fairly sharp turn for studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous films were grounded in the folklore and history of their native Ireland, to do a film set in modern Afghanistan, but they keep their signature style of simple, sometimes almost geometric character designs and still make them remarkably expressive - the silent acting of Soroya when she knows that she's more or less been sold into marriage to guarantee the family's safety is the most notable. There's a particular sharpness to the characters' features that not only marks them as Middle Eastern but signals their determination, and a fine attention to body language even when the women are dressed in something deliberately shapeless and unrevealing. Little details help, like the way one corner of Parvana's head covering tends to fly away and get tucked back in, signalling how she has to remain nondescript even if it isn't in her nature.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 4: Thousand Cuts, A Thousand Junkies, Attraction, Jailbreak, Fashionista, Geek Girls, Mumon: Land of Stealth, Lu Over the Wall, Prey, and The Endless

And that's 72 feature films reviewed on eFilmCritic for Fantasia, give or take - it's not counting A Taxi Driver, which opened in Boston the week I got back and was thus skipped in Montreal accordingly, but is counting Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I didn't actually see as part of a festival screening but did go to see between the start and end of the festival. There were also 4 short film packages that got pretty good write-ups (as did most of the shorts I saw), and 7 features I saw, but didn't get a chance to expand into full reviews. One was in unsubtitled French, so maybe give me a pass on that, and a couple of the others… Well, the filmmakers would probably rather I not share my feelings on a couple in any depth.

Yeah, it took three and a half months after the actual end of the festival, which is not ideal, but given that I kind of tapped out last year, it's an improvement, and I'm glad I figured out a bit more of a better way to go about it. Picking back up on updating my Letterboxd account and not shying away from using the international plan on my phone let me update a fair chunk in real-time. I didn't have more time during the fest, or immediately after, but a good chunk of first impressions being down as an initial draft helps, and getting this chunk down has helped me discover something reassuring - that, contrary to what some seem to think, it is much easier to write about what we love than what we dislike. That sticks around.

It means that, though it took me months to write them up, I was able to say all I want Mumon: Land of Stealth and The Endless, saving the best for last, so to speak. I'm kind of surprised that The Endless didn't get bumped up because of an impending release by Well Go, but I'm hoping that they find an early-2018 slot that gets it a semi-wide release. I've been waiting months to talk about something in this movie, and even if I figure that a lot of the people I'd want to discuss it with have already, you like to do it publicly these days. A far sadder consequence of the delay can be seen with A Thousand Junkies: The film I saw as darkly funny when watching it feels quite different on the other side of one of its stars dying what may have been a drug-related death. I really wasn't sure how to handle that when expanding the review; I tried to just stick to my initial impressions.

By interesting coincidence, I saw Mumon: Land of Stealth pop up in a YesAsia email, and it got me frustrated with the Japanese film industry's apparent disinterest in the world market all over again. Yoshihiro Nakamura's films may not quite get the buzz they deserve at festivals, and apparently haven't found favor with the broader J-pop fandom here, but they're consistently great. Because the audience is currently rather niche, nobody is paying the fees Japanese studios want to license their movies, but the studios don't want to jeopardize that potential revenue stream, so they don't put English subtitles on their Blu-rays. Or maybe it just doesn't occur to them to make them English-friendly because they don't see enough opportunity there - certainly, there are very few of us that will pay the ridiculous prices they want for those discs (the three editions up for pre-order have list prices from $45 to $90). The upshot is, nobody sees these films outside festivals, and it seems as if the desire to get the most potential money out of them is preventing people in North America from buying them at all.

But you know what's not expensive?

Yes, it's a Jay-at-Fantasia tradition, where I spend the last loonies in my pocket on Crush Cream Soda and Oh Henry bars that you can't easily find in the United States, saving them until after I finish my reviews. They will taste so good tomorrow!

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

You can tell Thousand Cuts ("Le serpent aux mille coupures" in the original French) is going to be an excellent slow burn from the start, as director Eric Valette contrives to bring three or four more or less unrelated groups to the same deserted spot in rural France and doesn't make it seem like a ridiculous premise despite being a huge coincidence. It's a tingly feeling that this could be a really entertaining mess, a sensation that only increases as an even more dangerous fellow shows up after the first bit of violence and two law-enforcement agencies get involved.

It starts with a drug deal going down; Jean-François (Stéphane Debac) doesn't really want to go through Spanish drug kingpin Javier any more. He soon won't have to, as an escaped felon (Tomer Sisley) crosses path with Javier's crew and comes out injured, but at least alive, disposing of the car and bodies well enough that a cartel lawyer and fixer (Terence Yin) are dispatched to find out who is responsible. Adrien holes up in the nearby farm, where owner Omar (Cédric Ido) and his wife Stéphanie (Erika Sainte) are already on on high alert because a lot of the locals do not like that a black man purchased the place after the previous owner went bankrupt - and, indeed, the key witness who could unravel the whole thing (Guillaume Destrem) was there to vandalize and destroy crops.

From there, it's all about turning the screws, and Valette does a fine job of that making not just the audience but the less-hardcore thugs wince as the worst of them tortures his way to what's going on while the folks pegged as heroes are more or less helpless. It does, eventually, wind up with Valette and co-writer Hervé Albertazzi (who wrote the source novel and is credited under nom de plume DOA) stretching themselves a little thin - Omar and his family disappear for a while as the situation in town gets more out of control, and while the various law-enforcement agencies getting along is a nice change of pace, it implies we don't need quite so many people involved. This mostly works, because the careful, measured progress keeps the audience glued to the screen as the very implausibility of the set-up keeps everybody orbiting each other, eventually drawing closer until the big confrontation comes.

Full review on EFC.

A Thousand Junkies

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

At some point during A Thousand Junkies, a viewer will likely think it's getting dark, but of course it's been dark since the start, when its main trio got into their beat-up Volvo to score their first heroin of the day, and starting to get strung out really just emphasizes what the oddball banter had been hiding. It's a humanizing though not particularly sympathetic look at being that far into addiction, though I've got no idea how accurate it may be.

Tommy (Tommy Swerdlow) is the guy with the car, and he starts his day before 7am, picking up T.J. (TJ Bowen) and Blake (Blake Heron), and putting in a call to Jimmy, their favorite dealer, who will, as the day goes by, always seem just out of reach. In the meantime, they chase down other leads, like Igor (Dinarte de Freitas), a rich Russian kid that Blake knows who doesn't like to shoot up alone; they'll also think back to how they met and how they got the car.

This is a story set in Los Angeles, so it's almost fitting that the car gets an origin story of its own; it's an indispensable part of the group, and as run-down, desperate for fuel, and close to collapse as its human occupants. It's not a character in the movie, but it's a necessary part of the framing: Director Tommy Swerdlow shoots a lot of scenes through the windshield, of course, but it's also important as the only true home these three have - they may have places where they sleep, but those belong to other people. The car is the only place or piece of the scenery that is constant as the men travel from one neighborhood to another, never letting a true sense of place build up. And when they finally start to get desperate enough to turn on each other, the car is part of that, too.

Full review on EFC.

Prityazhenie (Attraction)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

It's something of a pleasant surprise that Attraction is more of a Russian take on The Day the Earth Stood Still than War of the Worlds or Independence Day, although I suspect that few looked at The Day the Earth Stood Still and thought that the movie needed more dumb teenagers, although it's possible. It makes the constantly changing impulses a bit more believable, at least, although is justifying the weak bits better than avoiding them?

As it opens, a Moscow high school class is more or less ignoring the teacher going on about the night's meteor shower - well, the nerd everyone calls "Google" (Evgeniy Mikheev) is interested, while Yulia Lebedeva (Irina Starshenbaum) and her friend Svetlana Morozova (Darya Rudenok) make plans to watch it from the top of Sveta's apartment building. Or not - "watching a meteor shower" makes for an excellent excuse for Yulia to sneak off with boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov) without Yulia's strict military father Valentin (Oleg Menshikov) being terribly suspicious. It works out well until one of those meteors hits an alien spaceship, the spaceship crashes, and Sveta is in the impacted area that Valentin is placed in charge of securing. Yulia, Artyom, and some of his friends sneak in and find both some alien tech and an injured member of the crew - and this "Hakon" (Rinal Mukhametov) not only looks human, but kind of cute.

Though the film has its problems - it can tend toward spinning its wheels on the way to an extremely obvious "power of love/danger of jealousy" story - its heroine Yulia actually manages to grab hold of the movie once it had settled on her being basically decent and wanting to help, albeit in a somewhat entitled way (she is the type that rebels against her military father while still being comfortable throwing his weight around). Irina Starshenbaum has the right sort of attitude for the bratty but basically decent Yulia, and she's able to sell the necessary quick growth while still showing the same prickly exterior. She's kind of got to; neither Alexander Petrov or Rinal Mukhametov is nearly as charismatic in their parts as she is, leaving her having to do the heavy lifting to make those scenes compelling.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Like a lot of action flicks from places that don't export a whole lot of movies, Jailbreak shows that there are a fair number of folks in Cambodia who know some martial arts and aren't particularly concerned with the safety standards other places have in place. Whether the excited reception this movie got at the festival will translate into a steady stream of Cambodian action movies or not, time will tell, but this first foray into cinematic mayhem is a high-energy hoot.

As it opens, the local authorities have just captured "Playboy" (Savin Philip), the presumed leader of the Butterfly Gang, and he's being transferred to Prei Klau Prison by an elite escort: Dara (Dara Our), the team leader; Sucheat (Dara Phang), just transferred from an undercover unit; Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), tough enough to hang with the guys; and Jean-Paul Ty (Jean-Paul Ly), a French GIGN agent. Of course, Playboy being the actual leader of an all-female gang rather than just the money man is unlikely, and he's ready to roll on Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), and knowing this, she's made it known to Scorpion Gang leader Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) that there's a price on Playboy's head and an opportunity for a breakout. There are, of course, a whole ton of Scorpions in this prison, and Playboy is supposed to be locked up with the worst of the worst.

This may be giving the plot a bit more credit than it deserves. It's basically twenty minutes of enough exposition for the cops to be more than "the girl", "the guy with the beard", and the like, and then all hell breaking loose. Once things get started, the movie is basically one brawl after another, as the cops are constantly outnumbered by less-skilled but more numerous prisoners, and they just keep going, knocking each other around, throwing the occasional knife into it, and every once in a while going for a one-on-one with a featured heavy. Director Jimmy Henderson and his co-writer Michael Hodgson don't clutter things up with a lot of complexity or worries about people switching sides, but they're good at splitting the group up and bringing it together to make for good fights, and not cheating too badly with the geography of the place. It's not the detailed, obviously creative choreography you'd see from Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen, but it's busy and exciting without overloading the audience.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Roughly a minute or so into Fashionista, I could feel my eyes start to roll as the opening credits not only cut to a similarly-framed shot of Amanda Fuller's April with a different outfit for each new name put up, but the soundtrack changed as well (my notes say something along the lines of "oh, this is just precious!"). It works, I suppose, as shock therapy to get the audience used to the way director Simon Rumley puts his movie together, taking a lot of distinct moments and putting them next to each other without obvious transitions and trusting that the audience will see the through-line even on the first time through.

April (Amanda Fuller) has more than enough outfits to make that happen; she and her boyfriend Eric (Ethan Embry) run the Austin second-hand shop that bears his name and the overstock fills their apartment. It's alarming to see, really, but seems relatively benign until a few things start to threaten that status quo, like when Eric starts taking trips to Dallas to discuss opening a location there with the uncle of cute customer-turned-employee Sherry (Alexandria DeBerry), leading to some fierce arguments. It's after one of those that she meets Randall (Eric Balfour), a well-to-do man with fingers in some unsavory pies and whose own clothing obsessions complement April's. Soon he's paying for fancy, designer outfits, and it's a big change for someone who so closely identifies with her outfits.

The big idea at the center, how April's creative fashion sense comes across as fun and cool and hides a tendency toward hoarding and addiction, is kind of fascinating. Lots of movies link creativity and addiction in a way that positions the latter as the necessary side-effect of the former, and in April's case it goes further because she often seems to literally be creating herself. In her mind, how she presents herself is a large part of who she is, and the wardrobe upgrade Randall offers feels like a sort of upward mobility even if it is still putting on the outfits another man gives to her, and within a more narrow range. It's a tendency to define herself by what she has and allowing herself to be trapped by what feels like her own initiative.

Full review on EFC.

Geek Grils

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

A great number of documentaries might be said to have the prime of their lives on the festival circuit; that's where they're most likely to find packed houses and lively discussion, far more so than during the later years when they're getting one viewer at a time on whatever streaming services pick them up and their information ages. This is especially true for Geek Girls, which seems especially designed to play to audiences at genre film festivals, whether as a rallying point or a useful wake-up call, depending on one's perspective.

It's the work of Gina Hara, a Canadian born in Hungary who, like many women who enjoy comics, video games, and science, has occasionally been made to feel unwelcome by male would-be gatekeepers, enough to be interested in documenting the phenomenon. And so she does, starting in Tokyo's Akihabara district ("where geek history began") and initially finding nobody who would agree to be interviewed on camera, causing her to circle back to North America with a stop in her childhood hometown, talking to an interesting group along the way: Jamie Broadway of Black Girl Nerds, competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Anita Sengupta, and many others, before returning to Japan for an interview with a pair of tentative, anonymous young women.

One of the more interesting facets of the film is actually one of its more implicit, in that the way Hara defines the geek world is markedly different than how I would as a man a decade or two older who loves genre material but never embraced the term "geek". Calling Akihabara ground zero highlights the focus on manga, gaming, and cosplay, which from one perspective is a bit of a slight on folks like Bjo Trimble (an important figure in early Star Trek fandom) and authors like Andre Norton and C.J. Cherryh who injected a female perspective into science fiction and fantasy even if they had to do so under androgynous pen-names. It's an important choice in a couple of important ways: It focuses the film on the present rather than the past, and it serves as an important reminder that what men generally place at the center of geekdom - and the mostly-male media that treats this as the default - can be markedly different from what women do, with much of the friction where these two spheres intersect.

Full review on EFC.

Shinobi no kuni (Mumon: The Land of Stealth)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, HD Cam)

When attending a genre festival, find the movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura. It will often be relatively unheralded, either because he's not as outrageous as fellow very productive Japanese auteurs like Miike or Sono, or because he's not adapting something that has already found a fandom across the Pacific, but it will almost certainly be one of the best films there. Such is the case with Mumon: The Land of Stealth, and on top of that, it's one of Nakamura's very best. It looks every inch the silly bit of ninja action from the start, but there's a biting criticism of capitalism lurking underneath, so that when it comes to the fore at the end, the audience shouldn't be surprised, but it still hits a bit harder than expected.

As it opens, it's September 1579, and the ninjas of Iga are battling again. They're not really enemies - ninjas are too much the dedicated mercenaries to really hate the rival clans - but fighting is what they do, and being on top leads to the best jobs. Heibe Shimoyama (Ryohei Suzuki) recognizes it as a stupid exercise, but it should be relatively harmless; his clan's fortress is well fortified. At least, it seems that way before Mumon (Satoshi Ono), whose name means "no door", crashes through and then steps aside because he was only paid to make an entrance - at least until he's offered a better deal. The he returns home to his wife, Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) who is refusing to let him into their modest house until he makes good on what he he promised when he kidnapped her from her hometown of Aki. Meanwhile, in Ise, Nobunaga Oda's plans to unite the kingdom are blocked by Iga, but who wants to fight a province full of ninjas? Instead, he sends his son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), to keep them busy by building a fortress. They figure, fine, we can just tear it down when we're done.

It's a whimsical, silly series of events, adapted by screenwriter Ryo Wada from his own novel Shinobi no Kuni, and the filmmakers deliver a lot of poppy, bubbly scenes that serve as a fun contrast to how dour this sort of period film can be. There's a skewed logic to how scenes play out, with the ninjas coming off as simple folk with simple needs, almost refreshing in how they outright avoid tying themselves in knots. In a way, they're almost like children, and there's great hay made out of how these fearsome warriors are kind of goofy, with Mumon easily admonished and pushed around by a woman who is technically his prisoner.

Full review on EFC.

Yoake Tsugeru Lu no uta (Lu Over the Wall)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, Bu-ray)

Masaaki Yuasa had two feature films at the festival, which is some pretty spectacular productivity for someone working in animation, and I suppose that when you're on that kind of roll, it's no surprise that both wound up pretty darn good. Lu Over the Wall is a different sort of delight than Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, in some ways a more conventionally unconventional coming-of-age fantasy: It's hardly the first story with magical creatures helping a lonely kid find his place and save the town, although few are quite the same feast for the eyes and ears.

The kid is Kai (voice of Shota Shimoda); he lives in Hinashi, a fishing town denied sunlight by its massive "Shadowstone" wall, which also hides Merfolk Island, a failed amusement park built around the legends that mer-people lived nearby. He and his father just moved there from Tokyo, and Kai is trying to be invisible, but when classmates Yuuho (voice of Minako Kotobuki) and Kuniko (voice of Soma Saito) discover his DJ skills from something he posted on YouTube, they get him to join their band. They are not the only ones who hear Kai's music - Lu (voice of Kanon Tani), a young mermaid, hears it and sings along, and she gets so caught up in it that it gives her legs to dance with. Soon, she's joined the band, even though Yuuho and Kuniko don't know anything about their new singer other than her amazing voice.

That's just the basic plot, and while that's effective as heck - Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida pack all the coming-of-age themes, young romance, running around to keep a secret, and subplots which flesh out the supporting characters as complete, interesting people into a leisurely but not over-stuffed film - it's the way that this story sometimes gives Yuasa the chance to suddenly jump into something new that lets it grab a spot in a viewer's head. It's using music as a jolt from the very start, where the audience not only gets a sense of the strong feelings Kai is holding in as he composes and arranges in the opening before sudden jump to a bouncy theme song that occasionally feels like it has set too high a bar for the rest of the film because the music won't quite be so popping and married to fantastic visuals until almost the end. Teenagers in a band can often seem like shorthand, piggybacking on the viewer's own memories of a time when music was a direct line to their passion, but Yuasa and Yoshida seldom actually have their characters talk about this rather than just throw themselves into it in various ways.

Full review on EFC.

Prooi (Prey)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Prey is, make no bones about it, a silly extra-large-animal-attacks-humans movie, but it's one that is quite well aware of precisely what audiences want from that sort of picture. There is not really a single sequence that doesn't play out with exactly the beats that one might expect for this sort of B-movie, which adds up to the film in general playing in the same sort of way. This is thankfully more of an asset than a weakness here - director Dick Maas and company hit familiar genre notes, but hit them fairly well.

After a poor suburban family encounters something wild and hungry, we meet Lizzy (Sophie van Wilden), a veterinarian at Amsterdam's Artis Zoo who specializes in large animals, whom she generally considers less troublesome than her recently-discarded-but-still-hopeful ex-boyfriend Dave (Julian Looman). She's called in by Detective Olaf Brinkers (Rienus Krul), who has her name on file for dealing with animal attacks. He's hoping for a coyote or the like; she frightens him by saying it's a lion, larger than average, maybe escaped from some illegal private menagerie. Olaf's boss wants to keep it quiet and have a cousin who has gone on safari handle the situation, but eventually they're going to have to call Lizzy's former colleague (and lover) Jack (Mark Frost), not aware that his last job has left him a little less equipped to hunt down this sort of predator.

The long tradition of people who would ordinarily encounter an actually dangerous animal being menaced by something large and carnivorous isn't exactly distinguished - for every Jaws, there are a great many inferior imitations. Fortunately, director Dick Maas is a B-movie pro, and he hits the right notes at the right moments, so that while the film never really has great moments of surprise and shock, it's very satisfying in terms of execution. There's a certain comfort to being able to see that the people involved know what a killer-animal movie is supposed to do and do that, giving the audience what it wants with just enough color to keep it from being self-parody. The moments of black comedy feel more genuine than ironic.

Full review on EFC.

The Endless

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson have not only not made a bad movie yet, but they're 3-for-3 in making fantastic films that at some point make the viewer's eyes bulge with delight at one point or another, when it becomes clear that they are doing something really clever. The Endless is no exception, building tension in an almost conventional way and then making sure that both the things that build mystery and resolve it are genuinely thrilling. It's a genuinely great horror film that will excite their fans and likely impress even those who aren't huge fans of the genre.

Benson & Moorhead also star in the movie, playing brothers Justin and Aaron Smith, who escaped from a cult ten years ago. Or at least, that's how Justin puts it; younger brother Aaron still romanticizes the group and tends to skip his deprogramming appointments. He might be tempted to go back if the pair didn't receive a videotape in the mail, but that's what it takes to get Justin to join him for a visit, especially with it referencing a mysterious "ascension" and seeming to end with disaster. So they return to Camp Arcadia, past the oddly-fresh memorial for their mother on the side of the road, and see that things have not changed much - Hal (Tate Ellington) is still working on some strange equation, Aaron still has a huge crush on Anna (Callie Hernandez), and neighbor Carl (James Jordan) is still kind of a jerk. There are new additions - cute artist Lizzy (Kira Powell) and Jennifer (Emily Montague), who came to California after her husband disappeared. There are secrets here which could, at the very least, tear the brothers apart.

This is only the pair's third feature (after Resolution and Spring), but one can already see strong themes emerging in their work that runs deeper than the love of analog media or the threat of something too ancient for its origins and purpose to be properly remembered. All of their films deal in some way with the idea of getting stuck at some point in one's life and someone trying to break free, and they aren't shy about laying this idea right out there from the start, with Aaron especially wanting to return to the safety of the place that sheltered them when their mother died and Justin trying to mount an argument for moving them forward. Right at the start, it's feelings that most in the audience can immediately connect with, even if the source is unusual, and it forms the bedrock of the movie.

Full review on EFC.