Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Foreigner

There's probably a great book to be written about Jackie Chan and the not-quite-inevitable rise of China, and how he went from courting the west in the 1990s as the specter of the handover hung over Hong Kong to being one of the most enthusiastic Hong Kong stars to make the jump to the mainland, becoming a real cheerleader for China. And, hey, fair enough; it's his country one way or the other, although it's interesting to note that he's been one of the louder voices talking about how Chinese film is disrespected compared to other world cinemas, especially now that there's a lot of money in Mandarin-language film, even if it is almost entirely a matter of domestic grosses.

(For example, did you know a Jackie Chan movie made $250M this year? It's true, Kung Fu Yoga did that, almost entirely in the People's Republic.)

There's reason why Chinese film hasn't necessarily gained the respect that, say, South Korean film has despite the Chinese audience now being a tremendous part of any smart producer's business plan; the actual censorship board and the other pressures on filmmakers to produce a product that shows China in a certain light leads to films that often feel compromised, and the fact that the PRC is submitting Wolf Warrior 2 to the Oscars' foreign language category isn't a great look - it made a ton of money, but it's just an okay action movie whose rah-rah politics aren't going to appeal to the mostly-Western voters in the Academy.

But, both Chinese and American producers see too much money on the other side of the Pacific to not try and grab both, although there's been something almost deliciously random about how attempts to appeal to the "world market" succeed or fail: Donnie Yen in Star Wars doesn't make for a huge hit in China, but Donnie Yen in xXx does (while kind of tanking in America). Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville in Skiptrace goes straight to VOD in North America (to the point where people are saying Chan hasn't done an English-language movie since The Karate Kid), despite being a lot of fun. This comes out, and does okay in China (it'll probably make more there than in English-speaking territories), but seems like it really shouldn't - it's not very Chinese at all.

There's something a bit quixotic about how, being able to achieve the same sort of massive success back home that he couldn't sustain in Hollywood, he's now driven to find a way to have a crossover hit with both audiences and critics, an even bigger goal.

The Foreigner

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2017 in AMC Stonebriar #22 (first-run, DCP)

That The Foreigner could likely function almost as well without his title character is either its main weakness or what makes it interesting: It's a fine IRA thriller with a potentially game-changing wild card, and though it does not play that card quite as often as it might, that very fact can sometimes keep the audience off-balance as much as it provides expected thrills.

It's been nearly twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, but as the film opens, a bomb goes off in London, killing 18 and wounding more, with a group calling itself "the Authentic IRA" claiming responsibility. Deputy Minister for Northern Ireland Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) is immediately called away from his young lover Maggie (Charlie Murphy), to try and use his background - he was a member of both the IRA and Sinn Fein in his younger years - but though he professes shock, he also sees an opportunity to pressure cabinet minister Katherine Davies (Lia Williams) on a matter of pardoning fugitives, saying it could help defuse the situation, even as he meets other IRA leaders to demand an inventory of their arms and explosives to find who is supporting this rogue group. As all this is going on, Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) - an immigrant who lost his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) in the blast after losing the rest of his family fleeing Vietnam - visits first Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), the head of the counter-terrorism investigation, and then Hennessy, looking for answers. Certain Hennessey knows more than he's saying, Quan resolves to pressure him in a way the former terrorist can understand.

Though the film opens with a cute scene between Quan and his daughter, and spends a fair amount of time showing his utter devastation upon losing her, the bulk of the film takes place in Belfast, focusing on Hennessy and treating the question of whether he had some part of planning the attack or whether he's just a smart politician who can work a bad situation to his advantage even as he tries to resolve it. The film plays this enjoyably close to the vest while also exploring how, despite the official peace, the situation remains fraught because there are older folks who can't let go and younger people who don't remember just how bad the bad old days were. It's an intriguing plot for a thriller on its own, meaty enough to carry the film.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Happy Death Day

Happy coincidence: I just finished fleshing out my review of A Day from Fantasia a couple weeks ago (catch up here!), so it's kind of fresh in my mind as I write up another time-loop horror, this one played much funnier even if it does hit a few of the same themes. I like this one a whole lot more, and a bit more than I thought I would, despite despite liking the trailer more than a lot of the ones for youth-oriented horror I tend to roll my eyes at. That's pretty impressive, because I wasn't terribly fond of director Christopher Landon's previous film (The Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse) nor the comic-book work of writer Scott Lobdell (a guy who always seemed to have the least interesting runs on the books he picked up).

It does give me a real appreciation for how well they rearranged the typical slasher/mystery plot, though. Most successful slashers get any initial whodunit impulses smothered by sequels, with Scream probably the most notable exception - it actually leaned harder on the murder mystery with the follow-ups even as it was talking about horror movie tropes, with resurrection off the table. It's a really great way of changing things up, though, as despite the supernatural elements, this really becomes "who wants to kill Tree bad enough to actually go through with it" rather than "what awful secret do all these people share" while still giving the audience plenty of kills. It's a clever-enough way to get the two genres in line that it will be hard to repeat.

Of course, Blumhouse probably will try to repeat it, and I've kind of got no idea how that works. Sure, resurrection is a part of the premise, but it's not a mystery if you bring the same Babyface back and I don't think it needs the complication. Sure, you could just do the same thing again with new characters, but I'd hate to lose Jessica Rothe (either as an early-movie kill or as not present because there's a new cast). But, then, I didn't really figure this would work, so I'm willing to be surprised.

Happy Death Day

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2017 in AMC Stonebriar #16 (first-run, DCP)

There's an old-man part of me that is inclined to grumble about how Happy Death Day never really spends a whole lot of time on the whys of its time-loop plot, chalking it up to kids raised on video games just taking the idea of multiple lives for granted (at least, until realizing that the people actually making the movie are a generation older and grew up playing the same Atari 2600s I did). That's the part of this particular movie the audience has to just go with, but when you put that aside, there's still a fun scary movie underneath, one that arguably hides its clever construction well enough to come off as enjoyably dumb fun.

The girl stuck in the loop is Teresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a sorority brat who wakes up the morning of her birthday in the dorm room - dorm room! - of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), though she can't remember much of the previous night, although both Carter and sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) make it clear she was even more drunkenly out of hand than usual, flirting with Danielle's boyfriend Nick (Blaine Kern III). She blows off her father's phone calls, tells a guy she went on one date with (Caleb Spillyards) to buzz off, and tosses the cupcake her fellow pre-med roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) baked for her in the trash. All this makes her late for class, but she's sleeping with teacher Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken), an MD who also practices at the local hospital. She's still got time for a couple more displays of random bitchiness before being attacked by a guy wearing the mask of her college's creepy baby mascot on the way to a party and winding up dead. Fortunately for her, the day resets, although it will take a few iterations for her to realize it's not just a really scary form of deja vu.

Happy Death Day has done well enough at the box office that, if a sequel isn't already being planned, it will be hard to resist, but such a movie will have difficulty tapping into what makes this one work: Writer Scott Lobdell seems to spot how a lot of slasher movies are, at their heart, whodunits where the potential victims must figure out who is behind the mask, but how this kind of doesn't work that well because you need a motive for the murderer to kill a lot of people, which makes for an unsatisfying murder mystery ("he's nuts" only goes so far and "they all deserve it" isn't much better). Letting "Babyface" knock Tree off again and again gives the audience the fun multiple kills of a slasher movie while keeping the mystery angle fairly focused on Tree.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 October 2017 - 19 October 2017

Ugh, basically five days of the next seven in a Dallas suburb for a business trip. There is a theater there, but I bet they're going to try and make us do team-building stuff instead.

  • Could Jackie Chan's best movie this year be an English-language one? The Foreigner actually looks interesting, with Chan playing a Vietnamese special forces veteran who, after his daughter is killed in a bombing, decides to go after a government official (who used to be with the IRA) played by Pierce Brosnan, reuniting with GoldenEye director Martin Campbell. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also Happy Death Day, a time-loop movie about a college student who relives the day of her murder until, hopefully, she finds a way to avoid it. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere (including XPlus).

    The most interesting-looking thing this weekend is probably Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, featuring Luke Evans as the college-professor creator of Wonder Woman, Rebecca Hall as his wife, and Bella Heathcote as their lover. So, yeah, going to get into the kinky aspects of Marston and his creation. It's at the Arlington Capitol, The West Newton Cinema, Boston Common, Revere, and the SuperLux. Another biography coming out this week is Marshall, with Chadwick Boseman adding Thurgood Marshall to his roster of noteworthy real-life figures played, although I've seen word that Josh Gad is playing the actual protagonist. Either way, it's at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Fenway also picks up an Irish documentary of some local interest, Rocky Ros Muc, which tells the story of Sean Mannion, a boxer from Galway who made his way with Boston and wound up in contact with the city's gangsters. Boston Common goes for Scotland rather than Ireland, with Brave the last film in their series of Disney Princess films.

    There's also special screenings of The Princess Bride at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday, and the Samurai Jack movie is at the same places on Monday. There's also a surprisingly big release of Tokyo Ghoul, which I kind of liked at Fantasia, at Boston Common (Monday through Wednesday), Fenway (Monday/Tuesday/Thursday), Kendall Square (Wednesday and next Sunday), and Revere (Monday/Tuesday/Thursday). Fenway also has the Regal Halloween shows, with a double feature of King Kong & Them! on Monday and the original Nightmare on Elm Street on Tuesday.
  • The Florida Project, the new one from Tangerine director Sean Baker, opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common. It follows a mother and daughter living week-to-week in a hotel outside Orlando; it also feature Willem Dafoe. Tuesday's 7:15pm show at the Coolidge is an "Off the Couch" show, with folks from the Boston Psychoanalytic Society leading a post-film discussion. The Coolidge also picks up IFFBoston's Dolores, which also continues at Kendall Square.

    Since it's Friday the 13th, they've got an off-site event at Rocky Woods Reservation, showing the second and seventh movies in the series. If you can't get out there, they've got The Room on 35mm at midnight. They're also the New England stop for the newly discovered uncut 35mm print of Suspiria, running it at midnight on Saturday (already sold out), and Tuesday evening as part of a double feature with Inferno. There's also a Science on Screen presentation of Guillermo del Toro's Mimic on Monday, with BU professor Jerome O. Klein talking about insect-borne diseases beforehand. They also welcome another set of guests on Thursday, with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying Sergei Eisenstein's Strike!.
  • Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House opens up at Kendall Square & the Embassy, featuring Liam Neeson as the title character, better known as Watergate source Deep Throat. Kendall Square also opens The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected, with Noah Baumbach presenting another family of New Yorkers who don't really get along, this one including Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Noah Baumbach. Probably just opening for a week, because it's also on Netflix, but it's at least good to see the streaming service try and get stuff out for a week.

    Also likely only around for a week at the Kendall is Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, with director Rory Kennedy on hand Saturday evening to answer questions about her documentary of the surfing legend.
  • The Brattle Theatre serves as the main home of the GlobeDocs Film Festival from Friday to Sunday, with Ai Weiwei's Human Flow serving as a centerpiece show on Friday night, though they also return to the Coolidge on Sunday for I Am Evidence and closing night film A Fine Line, with special first looks at WGBH productions at the station's Yawkey Theater.

    The Brattle fills Sunday evening with their last two 35mm shows of Baby Driver, After that, they piece a schedule for the next four days together. The DocYard welcomes Strong Island director Yance Ford on Monday, while Tuesday is Trash Night. There's a free Harvard University Native American Program screening of documentary More than a Word on Wednesday afternoon, although the evening show has not yet been announced. On Thursday, they host opening night of The Boston Asian American Film Festival, featuring The Jade Pendant.
  • Bending the Arc was the sold out opening night of GlobeDocs, but The Somerville Theatre gives it a one-week booking, giving more of us a chance to see this documentary about doctors who united to save a Haitian village in the late 1980s. They also continue their Halloween programming, with Poltergeist in 35mm on Friday, the "Old School Game Show Halloween Hellraiser" on Saturday, a 35mm double feature of The Love Witch & The Horror of Dracula on Sunday, The Babadook on Monday, and a double-feature of The Amityville Horror & Session 9 on Wednesday (the latter three say digital on the calendar, but they were able to dig up a print of Scream last week, so maybe you'll get lucky). Their sister theater, The Capitol in Arlington, also goes for spooky stuff, with a double feature of Friday The 13th 1 & 2 on Friday the 13th, and Jeff Rapsis accompanying silent The Golem on Throwback Thursday. Jeff will also be at the Aeronaut Brewery on Sunday, accompanying Nosferatu.

    CinemaSalem continues to show "The History of Halloween"in the small room, and has some interesting double features in one of the larger rooms over the weekend: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge & Crusing on Friday, Halloween III: Season of the Witch & Videodrome on Saturday, and Let the Right One In & Fright Night on Sunday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is all special events, opening the weekend with "The Lyric Lens", a collection of three Stan Brakhage short films on 16mm introduced by Nathaniel Dorsky & Jerome Hiler. Saturday is another special event, with Jerome Hiller doing a presentation called "Cinema Before 1300", and Nathaniel Dorsky introducing his own new 16mm films on Sunday. Rick Prelinger is on-hand to introduce his experimental documentary Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles on Monday, and then gives a lecture ("Effacements in the Repository: Do Physical Objects Have the Right To Exist?") at the Lamont Library on Tuesday afternoon. (Accidentally listed this incorrectly last week; sorry!)
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has more screenings of Kékszakállú (Bluebeard) (Friday/Wednesday), Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Sunday/Wednesday), and Swim Team (Thursday). They also have two "Costa-Gavras: Encounters with History" screenings: Amen. on Sunday and Z on Thursday, the latter shown on 35mm film and followed by a panel discussion.
  • Apple Fresh Pond keeps showing Judwaa 2 and Mahanubhavudu, with Malayalam film Udaharanam Sujatha Saturday afternoon, while Mersal, a Tamil-language thriller starring Vijay in three parts, and Telugu action flick Raja the Great open Tuesday and Bollywood musical Secret Superstar opens Thursday. They also have a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Friday with the Teseracte Players, who also bring the show to CinemaSalem on Saturday. As usual, Boston Common also has one on Saturday, though with a different group of people making it an interactive experience..
  • The Museum of Science appears to be altering good and bad Saturday Night Creature Features in the planetarium during October, as last weekend's crap-fest gives way to the absolutely fantastic Forbidden Planet at 11pm this week.
  • The free Bright Lights screenings in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room this week are Band Aid on Tuesday and Colossal on Thursday, both followed by Q&As - the former with producers (and Northeastern alums) Natalia Anderson & Kristen Murtha, the latter with professor Sarah Zaidan.
  • The Regent Theatre has Swing Away on Saturday, which is apparently its regular release despite having played at the Somerville six months ago.

My plans involve being out of town and thus only to see whatever's at a mall multiplex rather than all the cool Halloween stuff (though I may try and cram Poltergeist in). So, The Foreigner, Wonder Women, maybe Happy Death Day and The Florida Project.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

City of Rock

I mention it a bit in the review, but I find it kind of interesting that Well Go USA is the label distributing City of Rock in North America, because they seem a bit more focused on the general audience than the likes of China Lion, Magnum/Chopflix, and Cheng Cheng, which tend to target the Chinese emigrant/expatriate audience and consider any tickets purchased by the likes of me a windfall. It's not specifically Chinese in some ways - you can transplant the basic story anywhere and it would still work - but there are a bunch of unsubtitled songs and cameos that I suspect relatively few of us outside the Mandarin-speaking audience will get.

One of the things that struck me about the trailer when I saw it was that it played up the potentially-gay stuff a fair amount - Hu Liang dropping double entendres about sleeping in the same bed as Cheng Gong, what seemed like a reference to the hair-metal band that put the "City of Rock" on the map "coming out", and that latter part doesn't get mentioned in the film (and, to be fair, it seemed like a weird edit as much as something organic) while I'm kind of curious what people make of Hu Liang - it certainly seems like Da Peng plays him gay, and they don't pair him off with anybody at the end, although I was kind of under the impression that this was a no-no in Chinese film, so maybe it's some Celluloid Closet stuff.

Also worth noting: I got an email from someone asking where I saw Da Peng's first film, Jian Bing Man, a few weeks ago, which was kind of random, but I'm kind of surprised to see that, despite having come out theatrically in 2015, it's pretty darn impossible to watch - it didn't get a physical media release anywhere, and it's not streaming on any service that I can find. You would think, what with Well Go promoting City of Rock as Da Peng's follow-up to Jian Bing Man, they might have scooped up those rights and put it on their Amazon channel at the very least, but apparently not.

That, by the way, is nuts - how can a movie that was released in American theaters a mere two years ago just have so completely fallen off the map? Sure, maybe it's streaming on Chinese services, but, dang, I didn't think I'd be able to use "you might not get another chance to see it in the near future" as a reason to see new releases, even niche ones, in theaters with so many other options available these days!

Feng Ren Ji Yue Dui (City of Rock)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2017 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

As enjoyably goofy as I found Chengpeng "Da Peng" Dong's first film (Jian Bing Man, aka "Pancake Man"), it didn't quite prepare me for how charmingly silly and sweet City of Rock would be. It's the most familiar rock & roll movie plot ever (mismatched band has to put on a show to save their inspiration from a greedy developer), but the jokes are good, the music is catchy, and the cast is awfully easy to like. You don't necessarily need to innovate if you do all that well.

The city in question is Ji'an, described as a border town in the northeastern part of China, where the hard-rocking band "Broken Guitar" burst upon the scene twenty years ago, inspiring not just seven-year-old Hu Liang but leading the city to rename its public square the Park of Rock and erect a Grand Guitar monument. Now, though, the Park of Rock is threatened as developer Ding Wei (Wang Jinsong) looks to turn it into a theme park, so Liang (Qiao Shan) cold-calls Beijing talent manager Cheng Gong (Da Peng), offering 500,000 yuan to help mount a show to save the park. When Gong gets there, though, he finds out that Liang has neither money nor band, and the scramble to form one yields ten-year-old keyboard player Qiao Meixi (Qu Junxi), who has to sneak out to practice because her mother is strict and intimidating; Taiwanese drummer Explosive (Li Hongqi), who came to Ji'an to find the tattoo artist he fell in love with at first sight; bassist Ding Jingquo (Coulee Na Zha), looking for a distraction since she's just broken up with her boyfriend and broken her leg; and Yang Shuangshu (Han Tongsheng), an elderly gynecologist who was Broken Guitar's original guitarist but had a fall on-stage and left the band before they hit it big.

It's a measure of how effective things are that non-Mandarin speakers in the audience should be able to thoroughly enjoy it despite the fact that something like a third of it will blow right past them, as the songs were not subtitled in English and the end credits reveal a ton of cameos by Chinese rockers (just about every character who only popped up in one scene). In some ways, this works better than expected; subtitling a song often leads to awkwardly translated rhymes that take up more of the viewer's attention than they're supposed to; the only time the lyrics are truly necessary to a joke they got a line of dialogue, and none of the cameos stopped the movie for a look-at-this reaction. I doubt Da Peng was particularly trying to make it accessible to non-Chinese audiences, but the fact that it worked and is even being distributed by a label that targets a broader audience indicates just how well everything else works, even if you can't spot the reference.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 6 October 2017 - 12 October 2017

The Blade Runner situation is weird - the talent got me excited, but then somehow seeing all the previews got me in ho-hum territory, but now the crazy good word from the people I know who've seen it has be excited. Not a bad thing to be excited about now that it looks like the Red Sox' season will end this weekend.

  • Blade Runner 2049 is the big deal, a 30-years-later sequel that brings back Harrison Ford, although Ryan Gosling's younger android hunter takes the forefront initially in what seems like an even more ambitious (and, at 164 minutes, long) story of what happens to humanity when the line with machines is blurred. Denis Villeneuve directs with cinematography by Roger Deakins, although it's not clear how much 3D was kept in mind when shooting. It's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), the Belmont Studio, Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D), Revered (including MX4D and XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Heavy stuff, so those wanting something else might want to go for My Little Pony: The Movie, a continuation of the popular Friendship Is Magic! TV series with a ton of fun voices and colorful traditional-style animation. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. If you want more traditional animation for the family, Boston Common will be running The Princess and the Frog twice daily.

    Somewhere in between those two is The Mountain Between Us, starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba as two survivors of an airplane crash who must work together to walk back to civilization from a remote, snowy peak. It's at the Capitol in Arlington, Apple Fresh Pond, The West Newton Cinema, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Revere also brings back Pearl Jam: Let's Play Two! for encore shows on Friday and Saturday. Fenway continues the Regal Halloween series with a Stephen King double feature of The Dead Zone & Pet Semetary on Monday and The Monster Squad on Tuesday.
  • Lucky turned out to be Harry Dean Stanton's final film, directed by another character actor (John Carroll Lynch) and featuring a number more, and it's getting raves. Initially just opening at Kendall Square, although it could potentially open wider in coming weeks. They also open Loving Vincent, described as the first oil-painted animated feature, and as you might guess, it mimics Vincent Van Gogh's style in telling a story about his mysterious death.

    They also open IFFBoston alumnus Dolores, a documentary on Dolores Huerta, an important but oft-overlooked figure in the American labor movement; it's scheduled for one week. Their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, opens another documentary, Architects of Denial, focusing on the Armenian genocide and the echoes of it still felt a century later.
  • Boston Common keeps Chasing the Dragon & Never Say Die around, but mostly for literal matinees, but two more Chinese movies open up. Sky Hunter, is a big-budget fighter-jet movie that looks like it might be roughly as nationalistic as Wolf Warrior 2, but has a neat cast including director Li Chen, Fan Bingbing, Leon Lee, and Guo Mingyu. City of Rock, meanwhile, looks more rebellious; it's writer/director/star Dong "Da Peng" Chengpeng's follow up to the genuinely goofy Jian Bing Man, about a rock & roll loving kid trying to save the local music festival after the town's biggest band self-destructs.

    Apple Fresh Pond similarly continues playing Spyder, Judwaa 2, and Mahanubhavudu, but the only thing opening is Cold Moon, a ghost story based upon a novel by the writer of Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas, featuring Christopher Lloyd, Frank Whaley, and Candy Clark. Tiny release, just running at between 4:30pm and 4:40pm for a week.
  • The Museum of Science gets a new large-format film for the OMNIMAX screen, with "Dream Big: Engineering Our World" telling stories of engineering feets from the Great Wall of China to underwater cities, with Jeff Bridges narrating. They also will be having Saturday Night Creature Feature late shows in the planetarium every Saturday in October, kicking off this weekend with the original Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.
  • The Brattle Theatre splits their screen between two films for much of the week: Desert Hearts is a new restoration of a 1986 film by Donna Deitch starring Helen Shaver as a woman coming to Reno for a quickie divorce and catches the eye of a younger woman. It runs Friday to Monday, although it cedes the screen to a 35mm print of Baby Driver for the last show of the day. Baby Driver also plays Wednesday and Thursday, with a special screening of "Human Harvest: China's Illegal Organ Trade" on Tuesday, and a 35mm of Terrence Malick's Badlands with author Jim Shepard on Thursday.
  • Victoria and Abdul expands to The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Capitol. The Coolidge also has special presentations, starting with a pair of 35mm Fulci films at midnight: The House by the Cemetery on Friday and The Gates of Hell on Saturday. There's Open Screen on Tuesday, and a 35mm print of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains for Cinema Jukebox on Thursday.

    They also host the first couple nights of the GlobeDocs Film Festival, with Bending the Arc (sold out) on Wednesday and Unrest on Thursday; Wasted! The Story of Food Waste plays at the Kendall on Thursday. All screenings will include special guests and discussion moderated by Boston Globe writers.
  • Though their 70mm film festival is over, The Somerville Theatre maybe could have gotten a print of Blade Runner 2049, but the big room is being used for Halloween shows all month. The festivities kick off on Friday with a "Gorelesque" at 8pm and a 35mm print of Army of Darkness at 9pm. Saturday is claimed by a 35mm Psycho triple-feature featuring the classic and the two more-or-less-forgotten sequels. They go digital for The Monster Club on Sunday, but have a print of Shaun of the Dead on Tuesday. The week finishes out with Scream on Wednesday and Mayon Thursday, both digital.

    CinemaSalem, as you might imagine, is really into Halloween, adding a new short 3D documentary, "The History of Halloween", that alternates with their "The True 1692" in the small room. They also have a repertory series going for at least the next couple of weekends: Get Out & The People Under the Stairs Friday, Tragedy Girls & Friday the 13th Part VIII: The New Blood on Saturday, American Psycho & The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Sunday, The Mist & They Live on Monday, and Adam Green visits on Thursday to present his fourth Hatchet film, Victor Crowley as part of a "Rock & Shock" series.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is all special events, opening the weekend with "The Lyric Lens", a collection of three Stan Brakhage short films on 16mm introduced by Nathaniel Dorsky & Jerome Hiler. Saturday is another special event, with Jerome Hiller doing a presentation called "Cinema Before 1300", and Nathaniel Dorsky introducing his own new 16mm films on Sunday. Rick Prelinger is on-hand to introduce his experimental documentary Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles on Monday, and then gives a lecture ("Effacements in the Repository: Do Physical Objects Have the Right To Exist?") at the Lamont Library on Tuesday afternoon.
  • First Friday of the month, so The Museum of Fine Arts has an "On the Fringe" show, showing a 35mm print of Nicolas Cage in Vampire's Kiss. They'll also be showing Frederick Weisman's Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Friday/Sunday), Swim Team (Saturday/Sunday), this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival program (Saturday), while kicking off a run of new Argentine film Kékszakállú (Bluebeard) (Wednesday/Thursday). This week's "Costa-Gavras: Encounters with History" presentation is Amen. on Thursday, co-presented with the BJFF and followed by a panel discussion.
  • ArtsEmerson's Film Program co-presents Heartstone with Wicked Queer on Friday, screening the Icelandic coming-of-age story in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room. Bright Lights uses the room for Kedi on Tuesday, video-chatting with director Ceyda Torun afterward, and The Black Maria Film Festival on Thursday, followed by a discussion including a few of the filmmakers.
  • The Regent Theatre plays Nepali hit Chhakka Panja 2 on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening, checking back in on Raja and his friends a year later.

My plans involve Blade Runner 2049, City of Rock, Loving Vincent, Shaun of the Dead, and what is likely the last Red Sox game of the year on Sunday, with an exchange of presents with my niece with my birthday in there. I am sorely tempted to get out to Salem for Tragedy Girls, but I don't see how that fits in.

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 2: Dead Shack, Pork Pie, A Day, Money's Money, Junk Head, The Laplace's Demon, Love & Other Cults, and The Mole Song 2: Hong Kong Capriccio

Folks, if you're going to attend a festival while having a day job or just otherwise planning to stretch that content out over a while - rough drafting is kind of crucial, along with good notes. You may feel like a tool taking notes during a screening, but if you want to write something up later, it's really incredibly helpful. So is dashing off a couple of quick paragraphs between screenings, whether to post as capsules on your site/Letterboxd/wherever, or to save for yourself - the structure and reminder of what you thought was important and memorable at the time really helps give shape later on.

And sometimes that delay works out all right - it turns out that I posted my full review of Money's Money within a couple of days of its actual release in France. I have no idea if that actually drove views to EFC or not, but I've got to admit, it made me feel just a bit more relevant than when I would do a review and it wasn't actually near any chances for people to actually see the thing.

24 more to go, give or take. This may stretch into November, but the stuff you see at these festivals deserve the write-ups.

Dead Shack

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

This movie should have been a complete disaster; it's got the stink of 1980s horror nostalgia executed without many thoughts beyond liking gory old movies but maybe liking them more if they were quippier and less likely to take themselves seriously That's generally a recipe for only making the shell of a good horror movie, but Dead Shack instead turns out, if not great, then not bad. It's good enough that if the filmmakers are able to cash in on a demand for early-teen-centered horror after It, I won't begrudge them their good timing.

After a brief glimpse at what looks like the end of a party that was kind of weird before it went horribly wrong, we see Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) get picked up for a weekend in a secluded cabin with his friend Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) and his family: Jason's sister Summer (Lizzie Boys), upon whom Colin understandably harbors a bit of a crush; father Roger (Donavon Stinson), the perhaps too-laid-back father; and Lisa (Valerie Tian), the hot but kind of snotty potential stepmother. It's not a group that meshes perfectly, so the kids wind up taking a walk in the woods, and when they stumble upon that house from before the credits, there's no way they just say "something smells funny, let's get back home."

To a certain extent, how much someone enjoys this movie is a matter of how well he or she responds to swear-y, sarcastic teens. I'm not a particular fan, and while this one gets a boost from a dumb but likable dad who joins in - Donavon Stinson hits the nail on the head in making Roger enjoyably laid-back, able to improve the kids' banter as he dives in but also making it no surprise that he'll be kind of useless when it counts. The interplay between Colin, Jason, and Summer is kind of boilerplate stuff - Colin's shy, Summer's 75/25 in terms of being annoyed and flattered by his interest, and Jason's the kind of twerp whose constant abrasiveness is not clever but loud enough to make up for it. If it comes off as genuine and frequently funny, it's because the authentically young cast sells it very well; Gabriel LaBelle, Matthew Nelson-Mahood, and Lizzie Boys may not be given the freshest of material, but they bring the right sorts of teen self-doubt and assurance to it.

Full review on EFC.

Pork Pie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's something kind of charming about the very existence of this film, the result of a son making his own version of one of his father's films, although it needs a bit more than that for a hook to be more than a curiosity to someone who hadn't seen the 1981 original Goodbye Pork Pie. I'm not sure whether Pork Pie actually finds that, although it plays nicely enough to be an enjoyable matinee, and has a few pretty impressive car bits as well.

It's a bit hampered in its choice of main characters; Jon (Dean O'Gorman) is a blocked and broke writer determined to win the woman he drove away back despite not having done much if anything to improve himself after driving Susie (Antonia Prebble) away decisively. His plan is to meet her at their friends' wedding (to which he wasn't invited), but there's the little problem of his car being on its last legs. Fortunately, he manages to talk his way into a yellow Mini Cooper being driven by Luke (James Rolleston) - which, of course, is stolen. So, sure, when Keira (Ashleigh Cummings) climbs out a drive-through window and into the backseat as she's fired for giving a hamburger joint's customers animal-rights pamphlets with their orders, why not add the rally she wants to attend to their road trip?

That plot is thin enough that the cast had better be pretty darn likable for the movie to thrive. It mostly manages this, even if it does ultimately need to balance Jon with a mother so heavy-handed in her opposition to Susie getting back together with him that his traveling clear to the other end of New Zealand to plead his case sounds almost reasonable. What's impressive is how filmmaker Matt Murphy and his cast don't go for particularly obvious chemistry right off; their banter is never quite awkward but it's not smoothed over by some obvious connection, and for a good portion of the movie, a bizarre or intrusive question will be met with a look that implies the second person can't quite remember why they're traveling with the first. It's never enough to break things, though, because there is an awkward chemistry and a shared impulsiveness to answer it.

Full review on EFC.

Ha-roo (A Day)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Say this for A Day - it rapidly makes a solid impression that being stuck in this sort of time-loop would be a sort of hell, as nobody in the audience wants to watch a tragedy happen over and over again any more than the people involved do, so by the time it does a bit of a switch-up, we're pretty relieved as well as thankful to see that this movie is going to be more than a hyper-compressed Groundhog Day with violent death. It's still kind of a mess, but it's a quick and often effective one.

The person trapped in the loop is Dr. Kim Jun-young (Kim Myung-min), a doctor famous for his international charity work, just back in Seoul from speaking at the United Nations and eager to see his daughter Eun-jung (Jo Eun-hyung), though the tween is frustrated and annoyed by her frequently-absent father, as such girls are. It's 9:58am when he wakes up on the plane, and he'll be yanked back to that moment at 12:30pm - and, as he'll soon discover, it's pretty much impossible to get where he needs to be to change what happens at noon in time. After at least a half-dozen cycles, Jun-young isn't quite numb to what's happening, but he can still be jolted when one of the EMTs on scene, Min-chul (Byun Yo-han), asks how he's able to react differently as well.

It's more than a bit of a relief when Min-chul shows up, because even though that's likely just about a quarter of the way through a 90 minute movie, it's already kind of a punishing grind. That's a large part of the point of the film, of course - people being put through hell to pay for their sins until they can finally attain forgiveness or see the pointlessness of their anger - and it's writer/director Cho Sun-ho's biggest and most important accomplishment that the audience's heads are likely heading in the direction of Sisyphus (or whatever the Korean equivalent is) and other myths of eternal punishment and torment right away, despite the fact that the opening act never really slows down enough for Jun-young to wax particularly philosophical about what this is like, and neither he nor the film in general spends much time in puzzle-solving mode until later.

Full review on EFC.

Money (Money's Money)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

As much as I suspected going in that this would be a fairly grimy, no-nonsense crime movie, I wasn't necessarily prepared for how little it sends to have going on aside from getting things into position and then getting people killed. That sort of seeming nihilism can be as much feature as bug - a lot of crime stories are about how the big score can seem like the only solution - although it's not necessarily a point that the filmmakers seem to be trying to make here.

It takes place in the port city of Le Havre, the sort of place where people carpool because everybody who has been living in the same run-down neighborhood for generations has also been working the same sweaty job. Take, for instance, Danis (George Babluani), his friend Eric (Vincent Rottiers), and Eric's sister Alexandra (Charlotte Van Bervesseles); it's not much of a living, but it's the one they've got, although maybe that can change; Alex has learned that M. Mercier (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the local Secretary of State for Public Safety, keeps a lot of cash on hand, relatively unguarded; it should be pretty easy to steal. It would certainly be enough for Danis to pay off his gambling debts (or not) and start over somewhere else with his daughter. It is seldom that easy, though - Mercier keeps a lot of cash in the house because the mob uses him as a conduit, blackmailing him over the matter of a dead escort. The trio are about to walk into a more dangerous situation than they expected.

It's a simple crime thriller, and as a result of that simplicity it sometimes feels oddly small, returning to the same spot in ways that don't necessarily feel natural or otherwise feeling a bit under-populated. When filmmaker Géla Babluani is setting things up, this doesn't feel like much of a problem; there's an old noir tradition of focusing on the people that work in the infrastructure of a place, getting things from here to there but not paid enough to have any sort of mobility themselves, in large part because they're bled by both the big shots above and the bookies or crooks at their own level. Babluani does the feeling of the film a service by establishing these characters' world as so small that their neighborhood feels like a single street, and it's notable that even the attempt to escape it takes place on a train; it's another space too narrow for someone to escape his past that offers only limited options.

Full review on EFC.

Junk Head

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, ProRes)

If nothing else, you've got to respect the very existence of an independently-made stop-motion animated sci-fi film that runs almost two hours. That thing is a labor of love that had one person exercising both amazing creativity and incredible patience. In this case, it looks like he started from an initial short, but that takes little away from the finished product, a dystopian odyssey where even the surface-dwelling human explorer is as changeable as the world around him after his quest to learn about the clone workforce underneath immediately goes awry.

You can sort of see the episodic structure, and how director Takahide Hori may have occasionally used it to recharge his creative batteries, as his (mostly) human explorer occasionally falls down to a lower level of the clone-occupied subterranean world, with each new group to find him building him a new robot body and placing him in a new sub-adventure. It never feels like the stop-and-go sort of episodic, though, with his new form and adventures being a refresh rather than a restart and the flashbacks that emerge from his jumbled memories helping to tie things together even though the focus is often on the here and now. That we don't see much of this explorer in his true form until late gives Hori a lot of room to explore this world from the point of view of a character who is just as much an outsider as the viewer while his outbursts of memory and metamorphoses create just enough of a sense of urgency to move things along.

And while this isn't the sort of animated film you'd call "gorgeous" or the like - it's a post-apocalyptic world whose clones are often mutated and where various forms of worm-like monsters can leap out at any second - the detail is impressive, and the use of CGI to augment the physical puppetry is excellent. It is the sort of film where scaling it up and down in one's head keeps it impressive, as either the small things in a scene are incredibly detailed or Hori has built something fairly substantial, and he's able to use the grotesquerie of his designs to give sympathetic characters a certain pathos and to link the world's creatures without ever seeming to repeat himself too much. Spoken dialogue isn't quite minimized, but the title character, at least, communicates more through action than words. I believe most of the dialogue is nonsense sounds - it didn't sound like Japanese - so everybody is a bit distanced by watching it with subtitles.

Full review on EFC.

The Laplace's Demon

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Laplace's Demon is the sort of movie that feels like a throwback until you try and remember just what it's throwing back to. After all, when movies had this sort of look, not many people were actually making this sort of sci-fi/horror; the crisp monochrome photography, ornate setting, and trickily-mounted set pieces were too much for genre productions unless they got to shoot one the not-yet-disassembled set of a classier film. Like the films made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, these films are speculative fiction in terms of style as well as story, though this nifty film is contemporary in its setting.

It's not immediately obvious that it's taking place in the present day until someone pulls out a laptop. Six men (Silvano Bertolin, Fernando D'Urbano, Duccio Giulivi, Walter Smorti, Simone Valeri & Alessandro Zonfrilli) and one woman (Carlotta Mazzoncini) are traveling to "Rock's Nest", a magnificent but isolated mansion on a craggy island in the Mediterranean to meet with the mysterious Dr. Cornelius on the matter of predictive algorithms, brought there on a ship captained by Alfred (Simone Moscato), who naturally is none too pleased to find that there seems to be nobody on the island to give him his money and the weather makes leaving immediately impossible. He's not nearly so intrigued as the self-described "specialists in applied presumption" to find a scale model of the house in the main chamber, connected to a complex clockwork mechanism that controls eight chessmen - pawns - that follow their movements. There is also a queen moving through miniature house, and they are soon reminded that queens capture pawns far more often than vice versa.

From the start, it's extraordinarily easy to imagine the premise of The Laplace's Demon laid out by either the mad scientist in a pulp magazine or the stalwart genius opposing him, a spot illustration captioned with a line from the text on the facing page, but while director Giordano Giulivi and he collaborators will eventually get there, the film is a kick to watch on the way. It's full of grainy black-and-white photography, slightly heightened performances, and effects that are not shy about being visual effects rather than real things, and Giulivi uses that seemingly less-refined style not just to show a winking fondness for genre trappings of a simpler time, but to plunge the audience into a world where what the characters are fighting is more elemental - not just in the striking death-representing visual of its "monster", but in a philosophical determinism that implies that every step a person makes is predictable. The music by Duccio Giulivi announces the film's genre and influences, and that's fine - even if style weren't half of what makes this movie what it is, the score makes a good jump from atmospheric to frantic the same way the movie does.

Full review on EFC.

Kemonomichi (Love and Other Cults)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Despite being one of those Japanese films that not only never actually seems to circle back around to the flash forward where it starts but has no spot where that scene would fit - with a more pointed opening than most films that do that - Love and Other Cults works in large part because, even with the jumps and changes it features, there's a sad inevitability of things getting to that point, that there's no way for its lost girl to avoid the situation she finds herself in at the start. And like a lot of those very same movies, the path that gets everyone to a depressing place is often not just darkly funny, but even exhilarating.

Narrator Ryota Sakuma (Kenta Suga) falls hard for Ai Shima (Sairi Ito) as soon as she arrives at his junior high, but for once the rumors about the new girl in foster care probably don't do the screwed-up life she has led justice: Her mother Kaori (Leona Hirota) is something of a religious maniac, jumping from one belief system to another and eventually sending Ai to her latest obsession's commune, where Ai is declared as the cult's chosen one "Ananda" - at least, until it's raided because Lavy (Matthew Chozick) is a pervert as well as a fraud. So, throughout high school, she winds up bouncing between foster homes and terrible boyfriends, while Ryota himself falls in with a bad crowd in Yuji Mieno (Kaito Yoshimura) and Kenta Kitagawa (Antony), teenage hangers-on to low-level yakuza Hisaya Kida (Denden). Ryota's and Ai's paths frequently intersect over the next five years, but seldom at a point when they can manage to bring out the best in each other.

In some ways, this feels more like a Sion Sono movie than the actual Sono film that played the festival, plunging its too-young characters into desperate and bizarre situations that they sometimes are too inexperienced to understand is wrong and then having to push through because, well, what else is a kid to do? This is very much writer/director Eiji Uchida's territory too, and Uchida tends to have a more cynical, realistic view of these things than Sono; there's nothing uncanny or fantastical about the darkness in these characters' lives. Things get weird, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, but part of what makes Ai's situation is just how changeable it is - Ryota loses sight of her for what seems like a minute, and her whole life seems to be upended in the meantime.

Full review on EFC.

Mogura no Uta Hong Kong Kyousoukyoku (The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

I honestly retained very little of the first The Mole Song movie Takashi Miike did from when I saw it at the festival a couple years back, and the "previously" reel suggests my brain may have been overwhelmed more than it being a case of it not being memorable; a metric ton of stuff happened, and I have vague memories of musical numbers on top of that (my review suggests I liked it a fair amount even if it did wind up not making a lasting impression). Hong Kong Capriccio benefits from being relatively simple - undercover cop rising in the yakuza uncomfortably quickly must save the boss's daughter from human traffickers and try to take him (and the Chinese mafia) down.

That undercover cop is Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta), and the sequel starts the same way as the original, with him getting dragged through a crazy situation naked, this time in a cage suspended from a helicopter. He's only got a brief moment to check in with his handlers and his girlfriend Junna Wakagi (Riisa Naka) before being sent back out into the field - where, ironically, the zealous new head of the Organized Crime Task Force, Shinya Kabuto (Eita), is making it hard to operate, in part because boss Shudo Todoroki (Koichi Akawi) has promoted him and his partner Masaya Hiura (Shinichi Tsutumi), making Reiji a person of interest. Shudo has also told Reiji to watch over sexy 19-year-old daughter Karen (Tsubasa Honda) - the sort of girl who inevitably creates uncomfortable situations - even as both the cops and yakuza are trying to deal with a push from China's "Dragon Skulls", led by the mysterious "Papillon".

This plot is exactly the pile of yakuza movie cliches it sounds like, but not quite the one-thing-on-top-of-another marathon that the first was. It is, perhaps, the difference between playing these familiar elements for broad comedy and trying to turn them inside out to mock them, in addition to a sequel not necessarily having to go for every mob-movie joke they can because they might not get another chance; the filmmakers can tell a story simple enough to hang some jokes on without the audience having to struggle to keep up. That gives Miike and the writers a lot of room to do genuinely nutty things - pun fully intended, as the hero takes it in the crotch a lot, and there's a lot of slapstick and other obvious-but-effective comedy. It's got one of the craziest opening bits I've seen in a while, something which doesn't happen on film until the whole idea of giving Miike accrual money to adapt popular comics becomes an actual thing, and the tacky, ridiculous jokes continue through the end, a showdown in Hong Kong that doubles down on the villains being comic-book crazy and pumps the action up to downright ridiculous levels.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

China/Hong Kong double feature: Never Say Die & Chasing the Dragon

I swear I saw a clip of Andy Lau doing a cameo in the preview for Sky Hunter, and, man, did that make it seem like he banked a whole lot of work before his January injury. Part of that is that The Great Wall hit the US a couple of months after China, but even without counting that one, Shockwave, The Adventurers, and Chasing the Dragon all came out in 2017 while Lau has been recuperating. I don't think it's actually him in Sky Hunter, but, still, the man was busy enough that folks might not know he was gone.

Anyway, after a couple of weeks of quiet on the Chinese movies playing America front, things got pretty busy with both Never Say Die and Chasing the Dragon playing Boston Common, and what looked like an even bigger weekend on tap before Feng Shaofeng's Youth was pulled from the release schedule in China (and, incidentally, the U.S.). It was going to be my third choice for Chinese movies anyway - it's got that propaganda look even if part of the reason it was delayed was that it presents history in too sad a light during a time period where the the PRC wants a lot of patriotism on display.

Looks like another busy weekend coming up, with Sky Hunter and City of Rock, with the second looking particularly interesting - it sure as heck looks like a Mainland-Chinese comedy with prominent gay characters, which I don't think I've seen yet, but it also looks like a trailer that's been cut deceptively (it really looks like a sentence that ends with "coming out" in the trailer was cut off there). It could wind up something else, but it's at least curious.

Aside from that, I was maybe a little extra disappointed with Never Say Die because, in addition to trying to catch a lot of Chinese films in general and having really enjoyed Goodbye Mr. Loser, I've got a particular fondness for gender-bender stories like this - aside from the fun slapstick possibilities, I kind of love the potential to tell the story about how someone who has had everything that he considers a basic part of his identity taken from him redefines himself/herself. I could, honestly, probably write at least a crappy first draft of an anthology film around the subject given a week or two (but probably shouldn't).

I wonder, though, if we're not rapidly passing the point where it's a viable thing to do well for a mainstream audience -at least, as something other than the theme of "some time as a woman makes you a better man". That's been the theme of most of these movies, because it's kind of universal and promises a return to the natural order at the end, but it kind of has them running on rails. Still, the very fact that the audience might be able to accept something other than gay panic jokes and having the whole film be about how to turn back now also means that they might be more conscious of how it's basically a movie about someone being assigned the wrong sex and why should they accept it any more if it happened because of a lightning-strike body swap than it happening at birth?

Doesn't have much to do with Never Say Die, which just outright avoids a lot of things, but there's a kind of funny irony to the idea that just as many possibilities as are added from loosening up might be closed by wising up.

Xiu Xiu De Tie Quan (Never Say Die)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Mahua, the comedy troupe behind Never Say Die, is not terribly well known outside of China - you'll forgive me if I mess up names because it is frustratingly difficult to find an English-language site that matches actors to characters - but they're a funny group whose last movie (Goodbye Mr. Loser) may have made me laugh more than any other comedy from Mainland China. Their follow-up is only that funny in fits and starts, but it's got enough hilarious moments to recommend, especially since it seldom truly flops.

It opens with MMA fighter Edison (Allen Ai Lun) telling his opponent's manager that he's decided not to throw the fight unless she doubles his payoff, only to find out from his manager Dong (Song Yang) that he's overweight for a weigh-in for a real fight. One of the reporters, Ma Xiao (Mary Ma Li), has some tough questions about what happened in a match three years ago, and it looks like he might go after her except that her fiance, "Fighting King" Wu Liang (Tian Yu), steps in. He actually does chase after her when she accidentally reveals herself after recording Eidson and Dong making plans to throw a fight, and that's when they fall into the swimming pool and lightening strikes and, the next morning, they wake up not just in the hospital, but in each other's bodies.

As gender-bending body-swap comedies go, Never Say Die probably has to be graded on a scale that involves taking Chinese censorship into account; for all that the group goes for big, broad jokes throughout, they're only really racy for one short stretch toward the beginning, and though months pass with Eidson and Xiao swapped, it never seems like either something that weighs on them or a status quo they come to accept as permanent. It's probably worth a little examination that while Xiao learns to be a fighter and carry herself in a more masculine way in Edison's body, there's not really a complementary storyline where Edison finds some value in femininity; his story is basically stubbornness.

Full review on EFC.

Chui Lung (Chasing the Dragon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

A large part of the buzz I saw on Chasing the Dragon was that it featured Donnie Yen in a role that was more "acting" than "action", but even though we know he's playing a character called "Crippled Ho", rest assured, he does a fair amount of punching and kicking in the first act. The rest of the film has a similar sort of stated ambition that ultimately delivers more conventional results, but given that the expected result is a Hong Kong crime movie with plenty of fistfighting and gunplay, that's not a bad fallback.

It starts in 1960, when Ng Sai Ho (Yen) is an illegal immigrant from Chaozhou living in a Hong Kong flophouse with a bunch of buddies whom he tells not to go to their construction job that night, because that pays $2 while helping fill out the crowd and maybe getting into a brawl as a couple of triad bosses face off pays $30. The trouble is, this showdown takes place outside the birthday party for Tong Ngan (Kent Tong Chun-yip), a rising star in the HKPD, and the British head of the riot police, Ernest Hunter (Bryan Larkin), is kind of looking for an excuse to beat up some Chinese after having a potential fight broken up by Inspector Lee Rock (Andy Lau Tin-lok). Rock is ambitious enough to develop into a rival - he's managed to climb socially by getting engaged to the daughter of a rich man - smart enough to see how much money there is to be made by streamlining and centralizing the corruption in the HKPD. The scrappy Ho, he sees, could be a useful ally - although both are perceptive enough to see that their partnership will inevitably be uneasy.

Seeing Andy Lau actually awake and engaged in a movie is well worth seeing Donnie Yen spending that same film in a goofy wig and a mustache that seems to take ten years to really fill in. Lau has had about a half-dozen movies make their way to release this year (impressive, considering he's spent much of it recovering from a broken back), but he's seemed to be running on autopilot in the likes of Shock Wave and The Adventurers; I'd been starting to forget why Lau is such a superstar in China. His Inspector Lee never really becomes a truly fascinating character, but there's something delightful about watching a face made for comedic affability demonstrate low cunning, or smile just a little too tightly and widely to communicate how he really despises Ngan. It's just the right sort of dubious decency over thoroughgoing amorality.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 September 2017 - 5 October 2017

It seems like a lot of places are getting their Halloween stuff started early this year and not messing around as October starts.

  • The Somerville Theatre is not be starting their Halloween programming until next weekend, but in the meantime, they cap off the 70mm and Widescreen Festival with Gettysburg on the big reels Friday and then rare IB Technicolor 35mm prints of North By Northwest and Vertigo on Sunday afternoon, with 2001: A Space Odyssey on 70mm that evening. They'll give Dave a break for the rest of the week, leaving one theater empty aside from live events Saturday and Thursday and a one-night screening of Pearl Jam: Let's Play Two on Tuesday (also at Kendall Square, Fenway, and Revere). And while those are playing in the big room, the Micro will host the Boston Underground Film Festival's monthly "Dispatches from the Underground" on Wednesday for a program featuring the works of local filmmaker JIm McDonough and his "Friday Night Films" crew, who have had shorts in the BUFF program for the last three years.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places opening Battle of the Sexes, which has a pretty deceptive trailer - it makes it look like it's about Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs more than Emma Stone as Billie Jean King, but folks I've talked to who have seen it say that it's the opposite (nice choice of "Love Lies Bleeding" as the 70s cut on the soundtrack, though). It's also at the Capitol, The West Newton Cinema, The Lexington Venue, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Halloween programming never really stops at the Coolidge, so that they've got midnight 35mm screenings of When a Stranger Calls (Friday) and Peeping Tom (Saturday), that's kind of just par for the course. Other special screenings of note are a Sunday matinee of Chasing Trane, a documentary about John Coltrane followed by a panel discussion and presented by friends of the John Coltrane Memorial Concert, and a 35mm screening of Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man on Monday. There's also a special free screening of Angelo Unwritten with director Alice Stone and local recipients of The Philanthropy Connection grants involved with the foster care system (TPC is presenting the show); instructions to RSVP are at the event page.
  • Over at the multiplexes, American Made looks like an old-school Tom Cruise movie, with him playing a pilot who winds up gleefully working for the CIA and Columbian cartels in the 1980s; it's also notable in that he's re-teaming with Doug Liman, who directed him in Edge of Tomorrow. That's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The mainstream horror presentation is a new version of Flatliners, this one starring Ellen Page and Diego Luna and directed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Niels Arden Oplev, with Kiefer Sutherland picking up a check to give the remake a connection to the first. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Richard T. Jones plays a pastor about to take over his father's church in A Question of Faith, playing at Boston Common and Revere, while Revere is the closest place for Til Death Do Us Part, with Annie Ilonzeh as a woman who runs away and changes her name to escape a controlling husband, who finds her anyway. Boston Common's Disney Princess movie for the week is Tangled.

    In Fenway, Regal's October horror series is surprisingly legit, with the 4K restoration of Suspiria on Monday and the original Fright Night on Tuesday. Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere give Mully, a documentary/drama hybrid about a Kenyan philanthropist and his rags-to-riches tale, a three-day run from Tuesday to Thursday, while Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere an encore of Jeepers Creepers 3 on Wednesday. Fenway also has anime feature No Game No Life Zero on Thursday.
  • Victoria & Abdul gets a semi-wide release, with Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as a Hindu servant whom the queen befriends in the new one from Stephen Frears. It's at Kendall Square and Boston Common. Kendall Square also gets Woodshuck, an odd-looking thing from Kate & Laura Mulleavy (who normally design clothing) starring Kirsten Dunst in what is, apparently, a long drug trip.
  • There were going to be three Chinese movies opening this week, but Beijing politics has Youth pushed back indefinitely, so the big deal at Boston Common is Chasing the Dragon, a 1960s period piece starring Donnie Yen as real-life gangster Crippled Ho and Andy Lau as similarly infamous cop Lui Lok. Wong Jing co-directs with Jason Kwan, who has been cinematographer for a lot of good stuff in Hong Kong in recent years. They also get Never Say Die, a Mainland fantasy/comedy featuring a lot of the cast and crew of the pretty darn good Goodbye Mr. Loser, this one focusing on a boxer and a reporter who switch bodies.

    Apple Fresh Pond continues to show Spyder in both Telugu and Tamil, and also opens Judwaa 2, a sequel to a 1997 movie which features the separated-at-birth twin sons of (I presume) the characters from the first, aiming to fight smugglers. They also get another subtitled Telugu action movie by the name of Mahanubhavudu.
  • The Brattle Theatre spends much of the week looking to scare the audience with Mario Bava & the Birth of the Italian Giallo. Most of it is DCPs - double features of Evil Eye & Blood and Black Lace (Friday), 5 Dolls for an August Moon & A Bay of Blood (Saturday), KIll, Baby… Kill & Black Sabbath (Sunday), Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key & Don't Torture a Duckling (Wednesday), and a single feature of What Have You Done to Solange? on Wednesday - they go get a couple of 35mm prints for late shows and matinees: All the Colors of the Dark plays at 11pm Friday and 1pm Saturday while The Bird with the Crystal Plumage plays at 11pm Saturday and 1pm Sunday.

    In between, there are two special series: The DocYard will connect with director Ramona Diaz for her look at the world's busiest maternity hospital in Motherland on Monday while Disorder: The Rare Disease Film Festival has four full programs of (mostly) short documentaries on Tuesday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has the second half of their annual McMillan-Stewart Fellowship series this weekend, showing a 16mm print of F.V.V.A. by Niger's Moustapha Alassane on Friday evening, while a documentary about the man, Moustapha Alassane, Cineaste of the Possible, plays Sunday afternoon. They also continue the Chantal Akerman series, with a 16mm print of From the East at 9pm Friday, and a 35mm print of Almayer's Folly on Sunday evening. There's an encore of Wang Bing's Three Sisters Saturday afternoon, and then a Synaesthetic Cinema: Minimalist Music and Film program of films by Bruce Conner and Terry Riley on Saturday evening. Luminosity - The Films of Jerome Hiler begins on Monday with two 16mm short programs.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues After Love (Friday) and Letters from Baghdad (Friday), with screenings of Micelangelo: Love and Death (Saturday) the starts of runs for Swim Team (Sunday/Thursday) and Frederick Weisman's latest, Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Sunday). They've also got their annual screening of the Manhattan Short Film Festival program on Saturday (it also plays the Regent on Sunday and from Friday to Tuesday at CinemaSalem) and a "Costa-Gavras: Encounters with History" presentation of The Music Box on Thursday.
  • The Boston Latino International Film Festival has a full schedule at the Bright Screening room at Emerson's Paramount Theater on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with screenings in Harvard's Tsai Auditorium on Friday and at various spots on the Northeastern University campus on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Bright Lights has two darn good IFFBoston alumni for free screenings with post-screening discussions with Emerson professors in the Bright room this week: I Am Not Your Negro on Tuesday and Whose Streets? on Thursday.
  • In addition to the Manhattan Film Festival, The Regent Theatre has two screenings of Finding Joseph I on Saturday; it's a musical documentary, focusing on the lead singer of the punk band Bad Brains.
  • CinemaSalem will kick off their Halloween programming with a "Wicked Shorts" program on Thursday.

Going for the big film on Friday and Sunday with the Chinese stuff in between on Saturday, and then we'll see how interested I am in Bava and the new releases after that.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Lego Ninjago Movie

I like to see movies in 3D but part of MoviePass dropping to the $9.95 price was dropping the ability for those of us in Boston and Denver to pay an extra $10/month and see 3D movies (although I still appear to have listings for Imax at AMC theaters), so now I'm looking for bargain shows because I'm cheap, and the only "AM Cinema" show was off in Assembly Square, although at least it was there at a time when the bus route favored me (if I catch the 90, it's really easy to get there; if I don't, it's a pain). Only a few of us, but there was a family that reserved my preferred seats, and since I'd rather be too close than too far, I sat in the row in front of them, which may not have been the best move, because busy action scenes don't work great that way.

More important, though, was the chance to see a raft of family-oriented movie trailers, and I feel sure I'm going to be very disappointed in America when they make Daddy's Home 2 a big hit and more or less ignores Paddington 2, because the latter looks to be as genuinely sweet and funny as the first, and the Will Farrell/Mark Wahlberg thing… Well, it looks bad. Like, I'm way more okay with Mel Gibson having a comeback than most people, but this looks genuinely terrible

The Lego Ninjago Movie

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2017 in AMC Assembly Row (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

As unexpectedly brilliant as the first Lego Movie was, it's impressive how quickly and thoroughly diminishing returns have set in. This second spin-off isn't really bad, but it shows how precarious a foundation the first was built on, and how it's perhaps not built to last. There was care taken not to overwhelm with The Lego Movie, a precision in when to make little-kid jokes and when to be satirical or sneakily perceptive, and that's not so present in the follow-ups, with Ninjago not having the advantage of being about Batman.

There have been some direct-to-video Ninjago movies, although this one seems to start relatively fresh, describing how Ninjago City falls prey to regular attacks by supervillian Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), from his volcano island across the bay. Fortunately, Ninjago City is defended by six secret ninjas in fancy mechs, each representing one of the elements. What the citizens don't know is that those ninjas are teenagers, including Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), the outcast son of Garmadon. He usually holds it together, but today's his birthday, and his father choosing not to acknowledge it amid his latest attack on the city has Lloyd a little more on-edge, leading him to steal "The Ultimate Weapon" from their mentor Master Wu (voice of Jackie Chan), which of course backfires and forces the ninjas (and Garmadon) to travel to the other side of Ninjago Island and seek out "The Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon".

There are three directors, five editors, and something like a dozen writers or people with "story unit" credits on this movie, and while that's not necessarily unusual in animation, they often seem to be working against each other. For instance, The Ultimate Weapon is something that would seem right at home in the world of The Lego Movie, where one of the best third-act twists in recent memory gave the filmmakers free rein for a lot of absurd self-referential goofiness (but also an earnest emotional core that packs an unexpected wallop), but doesn't really make sense given the live-action bookends with Jackie Chan as a shopkeeper telling a story to a kid who wandered in off the street. It makes the moments of self-parody kind of generic, not clever, pale reflections of what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did so well the first time around rather than things which create the same kind of excitement. It also seems like a case where a lot of people contributing jokes leads to a movie without a specific sense of humor, like no one writer or team could actually get a whole movie out of this, and maybe some of the weirder parts get lost to fit a generic template (the third song over the closing credits, "Dance of Doom", feels like it should have been a number in the movie somewhere but couldn't be fit in).

Full review on EFC.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 September 2017 - 28 September 2017

Another week of the big prints at the Somerville,as well as something that is probably getting twice as many screens per capita here than everywhere else.

  • Seven more days of The Somerville Theatre's 70mm & Widescreen Festival, even if it does get interrupted by the comedy festival Saturday night. There's a ton of large-format goodness (and, admittedly, badness) on tap: The Dark Crystal (Friday & Sunday), Howard the Duck (Friday), Lawrence of Arabia (Saturday), Hook (Sunday), The Untouchables (Sunday), Days of Thunder (Monday), Wonder Woman (Tuesday), Top Gun (Wednesday), Blue Thunder (Wednesday), and Cleopatra (Thursday). This, plus the new releases, pushes The Big Sick and Dunkirk to their sister theater The Capitol in Arlington.
  • I've got to admit, when I saw post-Boston Marathon Bombing drama Stronger being listed, I groaned, but it looks like David Gordon Green doing the sort of small, intimate story where he's at his best, with Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who lost his leg in the attack and Tatiana Maslany as the love of his life, and that's a group worth keeping track of. It's at Kendall Square, the Embassy, The Lexington Venue, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • The release getting the premium screens this week is Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which is hopefully less Mark Millar-ish than the first. If nothing else, it's got a lot of fun-looking additions to the cast and some neat action in the preview. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan's, the Studio Cinema, the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Assembly Row (including Imax), and Revere (including XPlus).

    For the kids, there's The Lego Ninjago Movie, a 3D spin-off of The Lego Movie focusing on the Ninjago characters, which look fairly neat from the previews; hopefully it's not too much a thing only kids will get. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Friend Request, yet another horror movie trying to make social media supernaturally scary, gets a smaller release, playing Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Revere. Fenway, meanwhile, gets The Tiger Hunter, a comedy about an immigrant to Chicago in the 1970s who, despite being half a world away, still feels that he is in the shadow of his famous tiger-hunting father.

    Boston Common gets the next film in Disney's weekly Princess series, with 2pm and 6pm screenings of Mulan. Other animated classics include presentations of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, with dubbed screenings on Sunday/Wednesday and subtitles on Monday at Fenway and Revere as part of GKIDS's Ghibli series. There are also 30th Anniversay Screenings of Wall Street at Assembly Row and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday. Finally, there's a single screening of Jeepers Creepers 3 on Tuesday at Boston Common, Fenway, and Assembly Row.
  • Another thing opening wide-ish is Brad's Status, with Ben Stiller as a guy taking stock of his life while accompanying his teenage son on his college visits. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Somerville, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Revere. The Coolidge also opens Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a documentary on the seldom-mentioned Native American influences on rock & roll, in the Goldscreen.

    The weekend midnight theme is iconic but nasty revenge movies, with 35mm prints of William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder (Friday) and the original I Spit on Your Grave Saturday (Friday's also got The Room, because they're apparently back to monthly screenings of that thing until The Disaster Artist comes and goes). They celebrate Art House Theater Day on Sunday with a free kids' show of "Revolting Rhymes" in the morning and a special screening of Food Evolution in the afternoon with a post-show discussion on GMO foods. There will also be science and discussion of game theory before Monday's "Science on Screen" presentation of Dr. Strangelove.
  • Apple Fresh Pond keeps subtitled Hindi film Simran and Telugu-language Jai Lava Kusa around this week, with Saturday/Sunday screenings of Magalir Mattum and Thupparivaalan, while Spyder opens on Tuesday in both Tamil and Telugu, both listing English subtitles. They also open the English-language Last Rampage, a prison-break movie starring Robert Patrick, Heather Graham, Molly Quinn, Bruce Davison, and John Heard, which is almost the platonic ideal of a B-movie cast.
  • The West Newton Cinema has a couple of fancy events to go with their openings this week: Year By the Sea will have original novelist Joan Anderson and star Karen Allen on-hand for a red-carpet premiere on Friday, while Saturday's 8pm screening of documentary California Typewriter will feature a live performance by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
  • The Brattle Theatre wraps up Tilda Swinton: World's Greatest Actress with a comedy double feature of Hail, Caesar! & Trainwreck on Friday and a "unique directors" pairing of Snowpiercer & Only Lovers Left Alive (the latter on 35mm) on Saturday. Then it's specials the rest of the week: Art House Theater Day on Sunday features a disaster-relief screening of The Tree of Life on 35mm in the afternoon and a new restoration of A Matter of Life and Death in the evening, while Monday's DocYard screening of The Work has director Jairus McLeary on-hand to discuss his film set in a single room in Folsom Prison. The Elements of Cinema screening on Tuesday is Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, while IFFBoston presents a preview of The Florida Project on Wednesday. The week ends on an odd-looking program Thursday, with composer Chris Brokaw live-scoring some short films by Peter Hutton while leaving others silent.
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins their annual McMillan-Stewart Fellowship series, this year focusing Niger's Moustapha Alassane with a program of 16mm shorts on Friday, Toula on Saturday, and "Tall Tales and Short Films" (on 16mm and 35mm) Sunday afternoon. For the first two nights, they'll shift to Chantal Akerman at 9pm, showing All Night Long on 35mm Friday and Golden Eighties on Saturday. The rest of the schedule is Synaesthetic Cinema: Minimalist Music and Film, with a psychedelic program on Sunday evening and a preview screening of "Electro-Pythagorus" followed by a live set from Ernst Karel on Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts still has My Journey through French Cinema (Friday), Letters from Baghdad (Friday with director Zeva Oelbaum in person plus Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday/Thursday), and After Love (Sunday, and also playing at CinemaSalem this week). "Costa-Gavras: Encounters with History" has a second 35mm screening of Missing on Saturday, and director Annette Lemieux, whose gallery in the museum references To Kill a Mockingbird, among other films, will be on-hand for a special screening of that one Thursday evening.
  • Bright Lights has local video essay "Wander Wonder Wilderness" on Tuesday and documentary Chavela on Thursday, with both free screenings in the Paramount's screening room followed by discussion with the directors. The latter also serves as opening night for The Boston Latino International Film Festival, which also has shows at Harvard's Tsai Auditorium that day.
  • The Regent Theatre has 1 Buck in the "Regent Underground" space on Friday while a live performance goes on upstairs, and has the first of their two presentations of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival on Thursday..
  • The Boston Film Festival continues through the weekend at AMC Boston Common with Augie (Friday), American Satan (Friday), What Haunts Us (Saturday), Damascus Cover (Saturday), Dabka (Saturday), The Bullish Farmer (Sunday), and Crash Pad (Sunday), as well as three shorts programs and a live presentation.
I'll mostly be living at the Somerville and Fenway Park this week, but I'll probably go for Lego and Stronger as well.