Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Liquidator

Fair warning: I may be judging this film too harshly in part because I missed a lot of dialogue in roughly the first twenty minutes. For all that I see a lot of complaints that AMC Boston Common doesn't matte their screens properly, they did here, both on the projector and by putting curtains up in front of the screen. The trouble was, the subtitles were apparently formatted for a 1.85:1 film rather than a 2.39:1, which meant that while the Chinese-language titles were readable, the English-language ones were cut off so you could only see the top few pixels, which can make the dialogue hard to extrapolate. I ran out to tell the usher during the opening credits, got back in time for the film proper to start, but it took another ten minutes or so for the projector to reset and the curtain to drop.

So, uh, sorry everybody about that - I normally support having films properly matted as much as any of you, but I gotta be able to follow the story. Also, I know this was only the third show, and maybe the first where it was a problem since it's sharing a screen, but, c'mon, am I really the only non-Chinese person in the Boston area seeing these movies? No-one else felt the need to bring it up? I know this one isn't very good, but c'mon!

On top of that, I kind of wonder if I would have seen this differently if Guilty of Mind had played Boston back in August. Different actors playing all the parts, but at least when this one mentioned Fang Mu, I would have been ready for what was coming.

Xin Li Zui Zhi Cheng Shi Zhi Guang (The Liquidator)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 30 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

I suspect that most of us outside China will start The Liquidator with a little bit of a misapprehension - not being familiar with novelist Lei Mi's "Evil Minds" novels (this film is based on City of Light), we'll see the opening bits, presume that the two Jiangbin City cops introduced are going to be roughly equal partners, and then be disappointed when it turns out not to be the case - the focus shifts to one character rather drastically. Maybe knowing that Fang Mu is the main character of the series shifts expectations somewhat, although it still gets kind of rough taking that into account.

It opens with detective Mi Nan (Ceclia Liu Shishi) chasing one suspect down and then investigating a bizarre crime scene, one which appears to fit into the pattern of a serial killer murdering some of the city's most despised people. That sort of pathology gets her referred to Fang Mu (Deng Chao), a former cop now employed as a criminal psychologist. He soon discovers that the killer, who calls himself "Light of the City" and has begun soliciting public opinion on message boards, is signing his crime scenes in ways that point directly at Fang Mu. And it's got to be more than a coincidence that, when he starts looking up old classmates, Jiang Ya (Ethan Juan Ching-tien) has already formed a connection with Fang's foster daughter Liao Yafan ("Vicky" Chen Wen Qi)?

That screenwriter/director Xu Jizhou introduces Mi Nan first and then spends the rest of the movie aggressively sidelining her is not just a peculiar choice, it's one that is executed in such a way as to make a viewer wonder why she was even in the movie in the first place. Introduced as the sort of sleek, determined lady cop who can run down a fleeing suspect every bit as well as her male peers that one expects to see in Hong Kong action movies more than mainland thrillers, she is also supposedly a forensics expert, but it's not long before Fang Mu is not just complementing her skill set but doing all of her jobs better than she does. It's frustrating to watch; Liu Shishi delivers a charismatic performance and the former dancer makes action work at least as well as anybody else in the film, but she's reduced from an active participant to the Watson that the resident genius explains things (with a bit of implied opposites-attract romantic chemistry) to barely present.

Full review at EFC

Friday, December 29, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 December 2017 - 4 January 2018

If you've already seen everything you want to and are waiting for some new releases… Well, I hope you like Chinese and/or are up for rep stuff instead. The mainstream multiplexes are shuffling screens a little, but mostly letting the big Christmas openers ride.

  • So, aside from Molly's Game opening at Fenway, Darkest Hour and The Shape of Water expanding to the Capitol, I, Tonya playing The West Newton Cinema, and the Somerville (mostly) getting back up to full-capacity now that the burlesque only has a New Year's Eve show left, the new stuff is Boston Common opening The Liquidator, an action film starring Deng Chao and Cecilia Liu Shishi as cops hunting a serial killer (Ethan Juan Jing-tien) who targets those acquitted of a crime, though that only for evening shows. China Lion also claims that Ex Files 3: Return of the Exes will open there, although it's not showing up on the theater's website. That's in addition to Youth continuing for a third week.
  • The Brattle Theatre concludes their The Queen of Seam: Edith Head in Hollywood this weekend, with a double feature of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance & The Sting on Friday (both 35mm) and one of Roman Holiday and Sabrina on Saturday. The series also includes Head's last film, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, before winding up in grand style with a 35mm Head & Hitchcock triple feature on Sunday, featuring Vertigo, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief.

    Monday is New Year's Day, and that means it's time for the annual Marx Brothers Marathon, with A Day at the Races, Go West, Room Service (featuring a young Lucille Ball!), and A Night at the Opera lined up back to back on 35mm film. After that, they've got a Refreshed, Renewed, Restored series of films that got new, cleaned-up DCP files recently, with double features of The Awful Truth & Twentieth Century (Tuesday) and the odd pairing of James Whale's The Old Dark House & George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (Wednesday & Thursday), with the series continuing into next weekend.
  • The end of the December calendar means the end of The Museum of Fine Arts's Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True, but it concludes with a nice weekend of One From the Heart (Friday on 35mm), Alien (Friday/Sunday on 35mm), Christine (Saturday on 35mm), Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Saturday), Lucky (Saturday), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Sunday).

    They start their January 2018 program on Wednesday with Ruben Ostlund's art-world satire The Square, as well as the first of several "Exhibition on Screen" shows of Canaletto and the Art of Venice (which also plays Thursday). Thursday is also the first night of their Festival of Films From Iran, which opens with Abed Abest's art-house thriller Simulation.
  • The Boston Underground Film Festival has their monthly "Dispatches from the Underground" show in the The Somerville Theatre's micro-cinema on Thursday the 4th, when they'll welcome Guaranteed Video for a night of their short films (including a new one) and other surprises.
  • The Regent Theatre has their final vacation sing-along-shows of Mary Poppins Friday morning and White Christmas that afternoon, and also has encore screenings of two "Kid Flix" short packages from the New York Children's Film Festival on Saturday morning.
  • CinemaSalem is getting good stuff in their screening room even before it hits metro Boston, with Thelma, Joachim Trier's pretty darn good coming-of-age horror film playing there from Friday the 29th to Thursday the 4th.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre not only sticks with last week's schedule, they're not even having midnights this weekend. The only special presentation is a preview of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread on 70mm film Saturday night, and that may already be sold out.

So, The Liquidators, catching up with Lady Bird, Molly's Game, and All the Money in the World, and probably at least two Hitchcock/Heads.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Checking out AMC South Bay: Greatest Showman & Dolby Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It's been three and a half years since the last theater opened in the Boston area, with AMC Assembly Row starting operations just a few months after the Showcase Cinemas SuperLux in Chestnut Hill, both replacing nearby theaters that had closed some time earlier. There has been a lot of upgrading since then - Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Kendall Square have all put in new seats and revamped their concession stands in that time - and the new multiplex in South Bay represents the first in a wave of openings in Boston that doesn't just represent equilibrium or rearrangement: In addition to these 12 screens, there are new multiplexes expected in the Seaport (per Fandango, in as little as a week and a half!), North Station (although that still seemed to be all construction when I was there on the way home for Christmas), and near Ruggles during 2018, with two new screens coming to Harvard Square later. It's exciting for those of us who love going to the movies.

Or at least, potentially so.

It does not escape my notice, for instance, that what is screening at AMC South Bay during its first few weeks is a subset of what is screening at AMC Boston Common, three stops up the Red Line. Odds are that this will also be the case at Showplace Icon in the Seaport and the ArcLight on Causeway, based on what they're playing at their other locations, although, granted, it can be tough to tell at this time of year, when there's a lot of overlap between the mainstream and the boutique houses. There does not seem like a lot of indication that the people opening these theaters have any particular plans to set them apart by what plays there.

On the other hand, maybe sheer saturation will force that to happen. It already has, to a certain extent, as Boston Common has started catering toward the nearby Chinatown audience and playing more small films in the past few years as the places at Assembly Row and Fenway got fancier and siphoned some of the audience for the blockbusters off (and, at the same time, they have not updated the seating to put fewer people in each screen). I wonder how these places will go about differentiating themselves in a year's time, when there are something like a hundred screens easily accessed by the T, twice what there was five years ago.

Because that's not something AMC South Bay is looking to do right yet.

It's surprisingly nondescript from the outside, silvery rather than AMC's usual red and white, and also around the corner from the big sign at the top of the post - you need to look for it a bit once you get off the bus. Transit access is, thankfully, pretty good - I took the #10 bus from Andrew Station on the Red line to get there in the afternoon (the #16 also makes that same two-stop trip; the #8 connects to Kenmore and Ruggles), but it was a pretty easy walk back to Andrew when Star Wars got out at 10:15pm and I didn't feel like standing around in the cold. There's a ton of parking at the shopping center if that's more your thing. It's still kind of sparse inside the lobby, something I suspect will change a bit once more people know it's there (or if I visit one a weekend instead of a Tuesday afternoon/evening, albeit one during school vacation).

There were some bumps once inside - not only was MoviePass not yet recognizing the theater, but the first ticketing kiosk I used rejected both of my credit/debit cards, although it kept my seat reserved, meaning I had to choose another, less optimal spot when I got to one that would let me pay (I probably could have actually sat in D7 rather than C7). When going to the concession stand for Star Wars, we all wound up forming one meandering line for several stations, with the manager hollering to form five but no ribbons up yet.

I didn't get a photo of the upstairs lobby, and it's kind of a weird set-up - the escalator comes out in one corner, near the self-serve candy case along the right wall, with the concession stand along the back, and following the wall counter-clockwise, you go from the candy to the grab & go popcorn & nachos, to the pick-up for hot food (and maybe where you order it, although it wasn't manned on Tuesday), then the liquid-not-entirely-unlike-butter dispensers, the check-out, and the Coke Freestyle machines. I suspect that there are free-standing candy cases which can be brought out on busier nights - the one there was way too small for a 12-plex - but where you would order, say, mozzarella sticks or hot dogs is not obvious, though based on the only menu screens being on the right-hand side of the stand, it's probably near where you would pick up (in a surprising omission, they did not have the chicken tenders or chicken & waffles that are the best things at other AMCs). It seems badly designed, potentially making one walk back and forth through a crowd of people or wait in line with one's rapidly-cooling food as the clock counts down toward the movie actually starting, tempted to just make a run for one's seat. The soda machines proved a bit finicky, as well - aside from their always seeming short on ice no matter where I find them, one was spurting in a way I'm surprised didn't get my hands sticky.

Don't dock the place's rating too hard for most of that, though - it's been open just over two weeks, and there's kinks to work out, although the design of the concession stand doesn't seem quite so easily remedied. Most everybody there is new, even if some managers or team leaders did transfer from Boston Common or Assembly Row.

Once you get past the soda machines, you get to an area with the bar (showing local sports with the sound on, which is different from the Macguffin'ses other local AMCs) on the left and the premium theaters on the right. I'll get back to them. A right turn after that leads to screens #3 through #12.

This is what one sees upon entering screen #5; the curved screen isn't a bad size. Like Assembly Row, there's a front section with a mild slope, a moat where you'll find the handicapped seating, and then a much steeper main section. I, as usual, opted for the front, a bit disappointed that the seats in that section don't recline the way they do at Assembly Row (and where, arguably, it's most necessary). The Greatest Showman was still watchable from row C, although it used up pretty near my entire field of vision sitting in the center.

That's the back section from the front, and if you'll pardon me being a bit of a curmudgeon, I find myself a little more worried about the trade-offs of this type of seating a little more each time I got to a theater arranged this way. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the recliners and cup-holders and comfy seats as I'm in them, but I also can't imagine this sort of plush seating when I go to see a concert or a sporting event. It seems like it would be subtly isolating, maybe not in a way that's immediately obvious, but if you want to see something with a crowd, there's a difference between having the reaction two feet away on either side and three feet away, with fewer voices filling a room of the same size.

I know, movies aren't concerts or basketball games, and when I'm seeing something of somewhat more limited appeal, I kind of expect people to sit in a checkerboard pattern but... Opening night, packed house for a horror movie or comedy or thing like Star Wars or Avengers where you're going in part for the communal reaction, do you want it diffuse like that? I struggle with this question, and it really makes me hope that Boston Common and the indies stick to old-school seating, even if it is a little less comfortable. The way a tightly-packed auditorium can enhance a movie is a thing I don't think people will recognize they miss when it's gone - it's just too counter-intuitive given how much emphasis recent cinema construction has placed on creature comforts (which, again, I enjoy a lot!) and competing with the home theater experience. You've got to not only weigh something concrete against something intangible to worry about it, but you've got to be pretty fanatical about the theatrical experience as well.

I may be wrong about all of that, though. At any rate, these standard screens are a pretty acceptable way to see a movie, right on par with the ones at Assembly Row and Fenway.

After a few minutes poking around the shopping centers for new shoes and such, I came back to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the Dolby Cinema screen, which is the main thing that sets AMC South Bay apart from other local theaters. It cost me $11 because Stubs members pay $5+surcharges on Tuesdays, so that makes it about a $20 ticket most evenings. I wound up in the second row center, much like when I saw it in Imax 3D at Assembly Row. Screen #2 at South Bay is a nice, jumbo-sized screen, and even the front rows recline (although not as far back as I'm used to with that sort of seat).

It's the presentation that is supposed to make Dolby Cinema special, as it does with Imax, RPX, and all the other premium formats, and although I can't say definitively that this is the second-best digital screen in the area (after the 4K laser Imax screen at Jordan's in Reading) because I haven't been to the XPlus/MX4D screens in Revere, it's very nice. The surround sound is terrific, both in terms of thudding bass when TIE fighters blow up and impressively directional effects. It's a little more difficult to quantify the picture to my eyes, but it certainly appears 4K sharp compared to the lower-resolution digital Imax screens at Boston Common and Assembly Row, and the claims of more vivid colors and deeper blacks certainly seem to have merit. I do wonder if this necessarily moves the needle for a lot of people - it is hard to explain the difference HDR can make to non-obsessives, for instance, and while the Dolby pre-show brag reel points out how dark its black is versus standard projection, culminating on a "the projector is still on!" text and voice-over over a dark screen, it's not something a lot of folks think about. I know folks who make blacks the center of their "why film is better than digital" arguments, but even if someone does get it, do they agree it's worth a $6 up-charge? Or more, if they're looking at the difference between MoviePass and $20? I've got no idea right now; ask me in February when I'm deciding which screen I want to see Black Panther on.

I probably won't wind up at South Bay very often, although that's as much a matter of geography as anything - I live near Davis, so getting to this place means taking the T past the Somerville Theatre and AMC Boston Common, and it's a much shorter ride to the basically identical AMC at Assembly Row. But if I lived in Dorchester, Roxbury, and other parts of the very much underscreened southern part of the city, I'd be some kind of thrilled to have something much closer to my neighborhood.

Greatest Showman

* ½ (out of four)
Seen on 26 December 2017 in AMC South Bay #5 (first-run, DCP)

I feel for Hugh Jackman and everyone else who can both act and sing - there was something magical about the classic movie musicals of decades past, and every once in a while you see one that does something great with the form. But too often, their desire to do a musical leads them to sign on to things like The Greatest Showman, where they idea seems much more exciting than anything that could come of it. There may be a fine moment or two in the final film, but it spends most of its time somewhere between bad and unwatchable.

Initially, it just seem thin, which isn't necessarily a problem. Indeed, more films could do with sprinting through the foundational stuff the way this one does, having young tailor's son Phineas Barnum (Ellis Rubin) meet and fall for Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn) with little more than a sight gag and a montage before they're grown, played by Jackman and Michelle Williams, and raising two adorable moppets (Austyn Johnson & Cameron Seely) of their own. It plants enough of a seed of an inferiority complex to be referenced later without giving the whole opening act over to a different cast or investing too much in any one specific symbol, and if it drags, it's still a good job of seemingly delivering all the depth certain elements appear to need.

Still, that efficiency can easily turn into just not doing necessary work. The film gets to a moment when Barnum and the audience are looking out the window of his soul-crushing office job and sees a landscape divided between another building filed with sad drones and a cemetery, and while the filmmakers obvious are still trying to get to the good stuff, it hasn't earned that shot yet. Admittedly, I hate that image more than most - it tends to smack of condescension when not used with care, like the artist can't bear imagine punching the clock the way his or her audience does, and this film has spent roughly twelve seconds on trying to show that Barnum is not suited for that sort of life. It's one of the first of many times that director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon rely on familiar patterns rather than specific actions to build the story, but one that feels particularly weightless: It's where they could have shown sort of spark within Barnum, but instead just serves as the set-up for a little off-screen opportunism on Barnum's part.

Full review at EFC

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen on 26 December 2017 in AMC South Bay #2 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

On first viewing, I said The Last Jedi was the best Star Wars since the original and didn't really think my opinion on that would waver, and I'm glad to see that, on a second viewing, I still think that. Indeed, I'm willing to accept the argument that it is the best of the series, as it's got more going on than the first one did, but you've got to give A New Hope credit for what a lightning bolt it was at the time and how the new one needs the rest to build on while the first just needed itself.

It may work better the second time through - it's thematically rich enough to reward digging a little deeper, based on what one saw or read before, and not being so eager to find out What Happens Next lets the more relaxed parts breathe. It doesn't hurt, I suppose, to not be watching through 3D glasses makes the length a little more comfortable.

So, it's still great. I'll probably watch it one more time in theaters, and really cannot wait to see what Rian Johnson does with the entire galaxy far far away to play with.

Full review at EFC

Monday, December 25, 2017

But Is the Premise Weird Enough?: Bleeding Steel & Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Good luck, big special-effects-based movies, getting released within a week of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You were extremely unlikely to be nearly as good as that one, which is genuinely terrific, but maybe you can get some overflow from the people who get to the theater and find out Star Wars is sold out Of course, in the case of Bleeding Steel, they've got the big 3D screens in China because The Last Jedi doesn't open until January.

Both of these movies are on the weird side, though I suppose that Star Wars is weird enough if you haven't been absorbing it since childhood. Still, Bleeding Steel cribs quite a bit from Star Wars, maybe unintentionally, at least in part, but even without that, it gets more and more absurd as it goes on, although never quite so loopy as to be too far from a borderline-realistic start. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle feels like it should be screwier - it's a movie about teenagers sucked into a videogame and winding up in adult bodies, one of the opposite sex - but it settles in easily enough that it doesn't actually feel weird most of the time. It gets pretty mission-oriented compared to how much it should have been freaking out.

Ji Qi Zhi Xue (Bleeding Steel)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 22 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Bleeding Steel is Jackie Chan's sixth film to come out in the United States this year, and while two were (mostly) animated while another played China in late 2016, that's still a pretty good clip for a guy in his sixties who has spent his career doing highly-physical action movies. This one is less a martial-arts showcase than a sci-fi thing that is rather brazen in what it cribs from other movies, the sort of thing that will make people shake their heads when they rediscover it later, a peculiar part of a legendary career.

Chan plays Lin Dong, a cop who is part of a UN task force in Xingan, China, although as the film opens in 2007, he's more concerned about five-year-old daughter Xixi (Elena Cai), a leukemia patient undergoing a crucial treatment, though he's called in for a crucial mission, as brilliant geneticist Dr. James (Kim Gyngell) is defecting from a terrorist state and needs to be brought into witness protect. Lin and partner Susan (Erica Xia-hou Qi-yu) are the best in the business, but they get ambushed by a small army led by a Darth Maul-looking maniac by the name of Andre (Callan Mulvey). It goes about as badly as you might expect, but James's "bioroid" research resurfaces thirteen years later in Sydney, with the author of a new Tom Clancy-style novel drawing the impression of Lin, genius hacker Leeson (Show Lo Chi-cheung), and a flamboyant lady mercenary (Tess Haubrich). Leeson, at least, is flabbergasted - how does this lead to local Chinese-Australian college student Nancy (Ou-yang Nana)?

Jackie only gets one or two action scenes where a viewer will really feel like the movie needed Jackie Chan for that, although the big central stunt where he gets into a fight on top of the Sydney Opera House is classic Chan daredevil material, the sort of thing that still kind of looks nuts even in a decade in which anything can be pasted together digitally and the action outtakes over the closing credits are mostly what scenes looked like before the wires are edited out. It's a movie where Chan's character is as likely to drive recklessly and shoot guns as throw punches, but even in a shootout, the JC Stunt Team still impresses, working with director Leo Zhang Li-jia to make the action crackle even though audiences are used to movies with this sort of B-movie plot being clumsy things where action and reaction is never in the same shot. Little things like how Jackie changes directions when dashing from one bit of cover to another show a star and team that are still fairly nimble.

Full review at EFC

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

* * (out of four)
Seen on 23 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

There's not quite desperation to this 22-year-later "legacyquel", but something close to it, like Sony saw everyone else scoring with long-running properties and said, crap, what have we got? And so they settled on Jumanji (a likable family adventure that's had more staying power than many effects-centered flicks), signed a decent cast, and then threw enough screenwriters at it until they had something that pushed a lot of the right buttons but saw any clever contributions canceled out, until what was a fairly fresh idea for a new take on the material loses its luster before too long.

It posits that when American kids grew tired of board games, the game that magically disgorged a bunch of jungle animals into a suburban home back in 1995 evolved itself into a video game system, although even that soon wound up forgotten on a series of shelves before being found by four kids given detention - nerdy hypochondriac Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), social-media star Bethany (Madison Iseman), and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner) - find it among the piles of things taken in for a junk drive. They turn it on and get sucked in, emerging in the land of Jumanji in the form of a number of ironic avatars: Spencer a mass of pure muscle (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is a short sidekick (Kevin Hart), Bethany a portly middle-aged man (Jack Black), and Martha a statuesque fighter (Karen Gillan). They - along with Alex (Nick Jonas), who has been there a while - are given a mission to return a gem to the eye of the jaguar statues where it belongs, but villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who has control of the local animal life, will do anything to stop them.

Despite having what seems like a lot going on, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle seems weirdly less ambitious than the original - where that was a sort of contained and constrained mayhem, there was a bit of Gremlins to it, not afraid to scare kids a little and hide a bit of horror underneath the flashy special effects. This one gives its characters something of an open world but seems like it's even more locked on a path than the one based on a board game, not touching what's scary except to make jokes (including way more gags about the penis of Bethany's male avatar than parents who remember the first fondly and are taking their own kids may like). The jokes about video games seem about ten years out of date and are explained to the point where they're no longer funny, and the path the characters follow feels like it's just adventure-movie spare parts with their rough exteriors smoothed out until the sense of pulpy fun is muted along with some of the genre's less enlightened traits.

Full review at EFC

Friday, December 22, 2017

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

It's Christmas, so stuff came out Wednesday, stuff comes out Friday, stuff comes out Monday.

  • Two movies came out Wednesday: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the 3D family adventure that seems to be getting better reviews than you might expect, and it's playing at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, Revere, and the SuperLux. The Greatest Showman also opened Wednesday, a would-be awards contender with Hugh Jackman in a musical biography of P.T. Barnum, but apparently not much besides him is very good; it's at Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, and Revere.

    It's looking kind of rough on Friday, too. Pitch Perfect 3 brings the cast back for one last go-around, this time at a big European a cappella competition, since it appears they're about to finally graduate from college. It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, Revere, and the SuperLux. There's also Father Figures, in which Owen Wilson and Ed Helms search for their real father, but it appears that Mom really got around, meaning it could be any of four people. That's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, and Revere.

    Monday, on the other hand, is Christmas, and that's when the good stuff seems to be coming. Somehow, Ridley Scott and company have managed to reshoot All the Money in the World to replace a disgraced star in ridiculous make-up with Christopher Plummer, in part because he's actually a relatively small part of this movie about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty's grandson compared to Michelle Williams (as the mother) and Mark Wahlberg (as the fixer). It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game, featuring Jessica Chastain as a former athlete who now runs a massive underground poker tournament. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay and Revere. Maybe other spots, too.

    Fenway finishes Regal's Christmas series with Gremlins on Saturday afternoon, and also shows It's a Wonderful Life on Sunday. The Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time Christmas special gets some theatrical play, showing Wednesday and Thursday evening at Fenway and at Revere on Wednesday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places getting Call Me By Your Name (it also opens at West Newton and Boston Common), a coming-of-age film in which a 17-year-old American-Italian kid finds himself attracted to the grad student staying at the family villa.

    The After Midnite crew celebrates the holidays with midnight showings of Christmas Evil on Friday and Saturday, while the Kids' Show folks have The Muppet Christmas Carol on Saturday morning.
  • Kendall Square is also one of the spots for a couple movies which span mainstream and boutique houses. Downsizing has been getting rough reviews, but it at least has a neat idea, positing a future where people can be shrunken to 1/15 their height to use fewer resources and stretch their savings. It's directed by Alexander Payne and stars Matt Damon, Hong Chau, and Christoph Waltz, and also plays at Somerville (starting Monda), the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, and Revere. There's also I, Tonya, with Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, center of one of the most bizarre incidents in Olympic History, which also plays at Boston Common
  • There's still some room for foreign films, with Boston Common keeping Youth around and also adding Bleeding Steel, the latest from Jackie Chan. It's a sci-fi thing, probably more tha martial-arts, but it's got room for him to fight someone on top of the Sydney Opera House.

    Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway both Bollywood adventure open Tiger Zinda Hai, a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger which reunites Indian and Pakistani spies played by Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in a new mission. They've also got Tamil action/adventure Velaikkaran for late shows with Telugu action comedy Hello playing Saturday morning, with MCA playing Sunday morning.
  • The West Newton Cinema has Hungarian film 1945 running at least through Tuesday; it has a bride-to-be's former fiance returning after being held in a concentration camp, but that is apparently not the only mystery.
  • The Brattle Theatre is the latest local stop for Fred Wiseman's latest jumbo-sized documentary, Ex Libris - The New York Public Library, playing it at 6pm on Friday and Saturday. At 10pm those nights is the only "Alt X-Mas" program this year, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. They won't be showing films Christmas Eve, but are usually open in the afternoon for those looking to buy memberships, t-shirts, and their new Spade & Archer whiskey glasses as presents.

    Christmas Day, they start a tribute to The Queen of Seam: Edith Head in Hollywood with a series of double features. Those include The Nutty Professor & Road to Utopia (the latter in 35mm) on Christmas, Sullivan's Travels & The Lady Eve (both on film) Tuesday, the Blue Dahlia & Double Indemnity on Wednesday, and a 35mm double-bill of The Heiress and All About Eve on Thursday, with the series continuing through New Year's Eve.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts is all Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True for the rest of 2017, with this week's selections including Death Watch (Friday/Saturday/Thursday on 35mm); Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Friday); The Straight Story (Saturday/Sunday on 35mm); Paris, Texas (Sunday on 35mm), Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Wednesday), Lucky (Wednesday), and Christine (Thursday on 35mm).
  • The Regent Theatre has two Christmas Vacation sing-along movies this year, with Mary Poppins playing Christmas night and matinees from Tuesday to Friday the 29th and White Christmas Wednesday evening.
  • CinemaSalem's 18-seat screening room hosts Another WolfCop from Friday to Thursday. I missed that one at Fantasia this year, but I've heard it's better than the original.

Well, plenty of time to see Jumanji, Bleeding Steel, Molly's Game, All the Money in the World, and probably a few more, especially since next weekend generally has very few new releases.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Discs from the 3-D Film Archive: 3-D Rarities, Cease Fire, Gog, September Storm, Those Redheads from Seattle

I bought myself a fancy new TV a couple of months ago, not so much because there was anything really wrong with my old one - that Toshiba projection model still shows a nice, clean 1080p picture - but in large part because I like 3D and noticed, while browsing electronics stores and storefronts (as I do on occasion), that the newer models were dropping 3D support. I don't think there's much reason, technologically, to do so - if your TV is already capable of a high frame rate and has a Bluetooth chip in it for the remote control, it's got what it needs in terms of tech to support 3D (it would require the purchase of a set of glasses or two).

Unfortunately for those of us who like the format, there was a ton of short-term thinking when Avatar became a hit - what had in many cases had been a surcharge of as little as $1.50 to cover the cost of the glasses soon became a $5 addition to the price per person, and it became less worth it; within months, the wonders James Cameron had created were pushed back in the public eye by hasty conversion jobs done on the likes of Clash of the Titans and filmmakers who were indifferent-to-hostile (Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland featured effects rendered in 3D which clashed with the flat-looking human performers). Soon, many people felt 3D was such a bad value that, even though including it in a new TV set might actually have negligible cost, it would be seen as wasteful, a bell or whistle increasing the price , especially if one figures it's a feature that will never be used. That's a big shame for two reasons.

First, what these new displays can do is amazing. I've got a Sony UBP-X800 BD player hooked up to a Samsung UN65JS9000, along with some after-market glasses (the ones included with the TV are lightweight but flimsy, and use a watch battery rather than charging via USB), and once the motion smoothing and such are turned off, they display amazing 4K images. I'm not sure how much upconversion is being done on these discs that are "merely" high-definition, but it's impressive as heck, even if I will probably choose UltraHD discs over 4K for most current movies if I must.

Second, the people at the 3-D Film Archive (and elsewhere, but we'll get to them in later posts) are doing some fantastic work finding old 3D movies, restoring them, and putting them on disc so that the audience can get a sense of what they originally looked like. Many of the 3D films of the 1950s haven't been seen that way in fifty years, and those that have are often presented in anaglyph, in a setting that positions them entirely as kitsch where looking kind of scruffy is part of the "charm". The movies I've looked at haven't been great, but they're at the very least interesting in the way people feeling out what they can and should do with new tools is. Indeed, they're more exciting than the 3D movies being made with a lot more resources now and I think that part of this is because there's a certain hierarchy to how people make 3D films, and there has been for a hundred years.

At the bottom, you've got the folks who don't actively want any part of it, even if they're not actually hostile. They're going to make a 2D movie, and if the studio wants to run it through a computer so that they can charge more money, well, whatever (sixty years ago, they would basically not pay any attention to the fact that there were two cameras on the rig rather than one). Most 3D movies today are basically like that, and it's hard to fault the filmmakers for thinking that way; not only do lots of people want the 2D version, but its post first-run life is going to be flat. It's a pretty practical position to take, even if it does become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: People make 3D movies that don't use the capabilities much at all, audiences think 3D adds nothing, gravitate away from it, and there's less reason to put effort into that part of the presentation.

But, sometimes, you get people who seem to enjoy the challenge, results, or process, and want to play with it. Martin Scorsese making Hugo, for instance, or Robert Zemeckis making The Walk. J.J. Abrams seemed to fit here with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Gravity may be the best case scenario for these people trying to make something that can live comfortably in the flat world but also be something special in 3D.

And then the guys who, reasonably or not, think this is the future of movies (or, at the very least, this movie) and dive in accordingly. You look at some of the really early test materials on the Rarities disc, for instance, and you see people excited with possibilities even if they haven't come close to figuring out what to do with them yet. Some of the generally weak 1950s movies have creative staging, from well-placed windows to scenes cluttered in a way that would seem dense in a regular movie but less so when the spaces in front and behind objects get to take up some space rather than be compressed out of existence. It had a later resurgence with James Cameron as he built Avatar and Robert Zemeckis during his "weird motion-capture movies" period, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was enough of a true believe for a while that DreamWorks had a lot of thought into how to make 3D work for an audience.

It's easy to laugh at that last group now, especially since very few cases saw a chance to evolve from figuring out how to obviously remind people they're watching a 3D movie to figuring out how to use it, especially since impressive use of 3D is not necessarily just more realistic - it's ominously placing something a little bit too far or behind something else to set it apart, or having Sasha Baron Cohen's face slowly push out of the screen in Hugo, or how Those Redheads from Seattle or Kiss Me Kate becomes more obviously shot on a soundstage but that somehow allows it to embrace how musicals are fantasies even more.

Seeing stuff like this, how these first-wave 3D movies worked visually, is proving to be a real treat, although just as I had to buy last year's model of TV to get the hardware, I'm buying a lot of discs just in case they stop becoming available, since I know this is kind of a niche hobby. Still, I'm having a good time with it, and would really dig some local spot trying another 3D Film Festival - I think the Coolidge's last one was over ten years ago, and it'd be neat for someone to do another one - not only did those shows sell tickets, but there have things been restored since then plus new 3D classics to mix in. Ironically, this probably wouldn't do as well in 2018, because theaters and studios have devalued the experience, but it's something that's well worth giving another look.

3-D Rarities

Seen on and around 9 September 2017 in Jay's Living Room (random, 3D Blu-ray)

Though the Archive tours with this show - it actually played the Bright sometime in the last year or so - I suspect it must be a different sort of thing from the experience of watching the disc, which has a number of nifty short subjects but just runs them together, leaving the viewer to consult a booklet or jump around. The chronological presentation does not necessarily make a great 3D mix tape.

Also, a lot of the later material is likely available after having lapsed into the public domain because it wasn't worth renewing copyright. That's not always the case - some of the 1920s 3D test footage from the "Plasticon PIctures" is doubly astonishing considering that it had to be separated from anaglyph prints, a newsreel of the controversial Rocky Marciano/Jersey Joe Walcott fight is a nifty curiosity, and the documentary "Doom Town" is kind of amazing: A melancholy meditation by a reporter covering an atomic-bomb test that shifts from almost too-crisp monochrome into horrific color when the actual event takes place.

A second volume is planned for 2018, and I hope they've either found a lot more (because they were kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel here) or they play a little looser with the format to come up with something a bit easier to sit through.

Cease Fire!

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen on 3 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Cease Fire! highlights its authenticity to an almost painful extent as it starts, opening not only with on-screen titles reminding us that what we are seeing is a recreation shot on the actual locations with the people who were there, but there's a good five minutes or so with a real person in authority talking about the heroism and tragedy of the men who served during the then-recently-completed Korean War and the need to fight communism on every front. Filmmakers have enhanced the production values of such things since and grown better at inserting them into the actual action in a way that makes this look stiff, but one look at the trailer for that new horse-soldier movie suggests its mostly polish rather than anything else.

It's a weird opening to what will be a weird movie, as a cast of non-actors is seemingly in over their heads as they try to have personal subplots and play like a cast of characters, although it's possible that vets may call this especially authentic, that they're just guys trying to do a job and go home, not types or guys with a special narrative purpose. It's hurt a bit by the fact that they are non-actors struggling with just delivering lines, but the soldiers probably have it better than the reporters at Panmunjom, where talks for a cease-fire are progressing even as the GIs are still fighting - they've got to wax philosophical and play out an entire arc by talking about how they got to that point while their co-stars are actually doing something.

It's in that doing that the movie impresses, as director Owen Crump shoots the film like a documentary, not going for a lot of different set-ups and cuts that would betray the sense of realism, something that plays out especially well when the unit he's following must cross a minefield and the audience gets a feel for how the methodical approach is just boring enough to disguise the tremendous danger, at least until it comes time to defuse that mine and he mostly just keeps rolling, making it all part of the same process. He uses the 3D camera well, often shooting a bit closer to the ground than usual to place full bodies on screen and giving a feel for the mountainous terrain. The crisp black-and-white picture finds the midpoint between a war film from the period and a documentary.

Much of Cease Fire! feels awkward and amateurish enough at points that it's definitely for the best that it only runs 75 minutes - long enough to do some interesting things, not much longer than it takes for the novelty to wear off.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 4 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Terry Nation is credited with creating the Daleks on Doctor Who to the point where he gets a credit (and apparently royalties) when they appear, but watch this movie and tell me that the robot of the title (and another one of the same model, "Magog") didn't inspire them: Rolling base, tapering body, eye on a stalk, specialized arms. The big difference, arguably, is that the four waldoes on Gog appear to actually be useful!

Robots that need refining to attain truly iconic form aside, there's a lot that's familiar about this movie, in which a series of strange deaths at an underground scientific institution brings forth an investigator who only finds the situation accelerating. It's a techno-slasher that comes too early to make the kills genuinely gruesome (although one or two were a bit nastier than I expected for a 1950s-made film), but there's a sense to it that producer Ivan Tors and screenwriter Tom Taggart actually found the science exciting even as they were making it into deathtraps; the characters spend a lot more time talking about the exciting potential than they necessarily need to do if the only point is planting seeds for someone to get killed later.

It's still basically a b-movie, so while it's got an amiable pair of bantering leads - Richard Egan as the government investigator and Constance Dowling as his undercover compatriot (who, naturally, has a much more custom-tailored jumpsuit than the rest of the staff) - the bulk of the cast is either wooden or likely to pick up on one obvious trait. Director/editor Herbert L. Strock has trouble with the pacing, too - it's not exactly a long 83 minutes, but the dry exposition can make it feel that way, and a forgettable effort to extend the danger outside of the base doesn't really create the higher stakes that the filmmakers are going for.

The 3D effects are often kind of neat, starting from an opening gambit that uses an automatic wiper to both emphasize that there's this plane that has people behind it and that it's lethally cold on one side. The filmmakers don't get much chance to emphasize the cave-like nature of the spot they're in - for an underground facility, most rooms are pretty spacious - but they get to point cameras at people in centrifuges or simulated zero-gravity and get cool imagery that way. It makes for a better-than-average B-movie that uses the visual medium fairly well.

September Storm

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 8 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

September Storm comes very close to breaking the rule that you can make any thriller more exciting by putting it on a boat, in large part because it's just not that thrilling to begin with. It's got a lot of things that could be plenty of fun, but it spends the half of the movie that comes after intermission looking for a main source of conflict. You'd think a group of treasure-hunters on a "borrowed' pleasure craft ready to stab each other in the back and compete for the company of the one woman on board would have that in spades, but instead, the script seems to try out everything, like it should have been revised on the set when they discovered who actually had chemistry. Or maybe they did, and it just comes off as sloppy.

Still, they are on a boat, and eventually diving both for pleasure and plunder, and underwater sequences are one of the better uses of 3D photography you can find. The filmmakers not only shot it in 3-D but widescreen, and not only are the shots of La Cygne out at sea gorgeous, but they either shot during a genuinely dangerous-looking storm or did some excellent special-effects work - the sequences of the boat being battered don't have any of the usual telltale signs of fakery other than nobody being visible on deck. They use this combination of a wide and deep image to do a nifty job of getting across the cramped quarters on the boat, too - it highlights the narrow passages, or how compartments need to be hidden behind things and fit snugly together.

The two top-billed actors - Joanne Dru as a vacationing model and Mark Stevens as a sea rat who knows where to find a cargo of Spanish dubloons - are pleasant enough, and Robert Strauss (as a more coarse first mate) and Asher Dann (as the handsome young Majorca local trying to impress the girl) are a little less smooth even for guys in a film that's not about subtlety. It's almost as if the idea is not to have them upstage the visuals, even if it does sometimes amount to just shrugging where the plot is concerned.

Those Redheads from Seattle

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 12 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (watching 3D things, 3D Blu-ray)

Watching the supplemental material for Those Redheads from Seattle is informative not just for the bits on the restoration of the film - as you might imagine, it's as difficult to restore either half of a 3D film as it is a normal movie before you get to trying to reconcile them - but for watching the previews which highlight that this 1953 movie features four singing sensations: Teresa Brewer! Guy Mitchell! And The Bell Sisters! Popular as they may have been sixty-five years ago, that fame has eroded down to almost nothing today, and it makes the moments where this movie stops to give them a song or three that doesn't particularly advance the story kind of a drag. Sure, it gets leggy Ms. Brewer into a variety of appealingly skimpy Edith Head costumes, but it slows the movie down and feels like a diversion.

And unlike a lot of the other 3D films I watched in this mini-binge, it doesn't really need them. It's got a capable cast headed by Rhonda Fleming, Gene Barry, and Agnes Moorehead); a story with just the right heft for this sort of musical comedy (wife and daughters of reformer venture up to the Klondike to join him, only to find him killed and that the man responsible worked for their new friend, become more independent); plenty of jokes; appealing if forgettable musical numbers; a spot or two of action. It's exceptionally lightweight, and even for that sort of film, could use a bit of polish, falling a bit flat every now and again.

It's lively and good-looking, though. 3D can be kind of a rough combination with Technicolor as the polarized glasses mute the bright colors a bit, but the red hair and bold outfits still pop, and there is some frenzied fun throwing stuff at the camera later on. What I kind of love, though, is how 3D really highlights the artifice or lack thereof of the different ways they shoot it. There are some outdoor scenes, for instance, that are clearly done on a soundstage, and 3D makes the limits of it clear, but it kind of works - it suggests a stage, making it feel more like a play, letting things get more broad. Inside Johnny Kisco's Klondike Club, there is set decoration and blocking that is way too crowded for a 2D film, but it feels busy and bustling rather than just confusing in 3D. And when they finally do get to doing some location shooting, the great outdoors becomes suitably vast.

It's a fun little movie, probably the best to watch without 3D in the group but also one of the ones that uses it in interesting ways.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia

There was Christmas shopping to do this weekend, so it seems like I'll only have time to see one of the two Chinese movies coming out this weekend before the crush of things coming out over the next seven days, and even though Dunjia isn't great, I still kind of feel like it's the right choice - it is, at least, kind of weird and unpredictable, which is certainly not the vibe I got from the Youth previews.

I must admit, though, that seeing what turned out to be a big effects-driven movie so soon after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi cannot help but lead to disappointment. Maybe someday I'll give it another chance, especially if that sequel promised toward the end ever comes out.

Qi men dun jia (The Thousand Faces of Dunjia)

* * (out of four)
Seen on 16 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

It's unfair to judge a movie based on how well it lives up to its previews, especially in a case like The Thousand Faces of Dunjia where the North American distributor is trying to sell the film to an audience that likely doesn't necessarily consider Da Peng, Ni Ni, Zhou Dongyu, and Aarif Lee an all-star cast and has a new Star Wars movie opening the same weekend to scratch their big special-effects itch. It's understandable that they don't show the big CGI creatures in that case, but it sure feels like a heck of a bait-and-switch when they show up in medieval China.

To give writer Tsui Hark and director Yuen Woo-ping their due, the introduction of the first alien is a lot of fun, as the giant three-eyed goldfish leads Constable Dao Yicheng (Aarif Rahman Lee) on a rooftop chase across Kaifeng City, with his paths crossing with Metal Dragonfly (Ni Ni), Third Sister of the secretive Wuyin Clan, the top-secret group that hunts down aliens causing trouble on Earth. A meteor crash nearby has caused alien activity to spike, which is why First Brother (Wu Bai) is seeking a powerful weapon in Luoyang and Second Brother Zhuge Chin (Da Peng) is seeking a prophesied new leader - though what he finds is "Circle" (Zhou Dongyu), a timid, amnesiac girl locked up in a mental hospital. Neither she nor Dao seems like they'll be nearly enough when what looks like a flying hairball emerges from the meteor to free a monster secretly kept in chains beneath the city.

Though Tsui Hark is probably best known in the United States for directing the first three Once Upon a Time in China films with Jet Li and a couple of mid-1990s Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, he's spent a good chunk of his career trying to make the biggest special-effects extravaganzas possible on a Hong Kong budget, so a bunch of CGI monsters in a movie he wrote and produced isn't completely unexpected, even if director Yuen Woo-ping has mostly used digital effects to remove the wires from his anti-gravity martial arts choreography. The ones their effects team comes up with here are genuinely odd ducks indeed, well on the "fake" side of the uncanny valley, always lit just a bit too evenly, and with mouths that don't really move enough for how much dialogue they're given (though maybe that's a Mandarin/Cantonese thing), but enjoyably weird in their design. Though done with CGI rather than make-up and puppetry, there's something to them that evokes the gonzo creatures and zombies that Yoshihiro Nishimura creates for his low-budget monster films; as much as these things are never really fooling anybody, they're at least memorable enough to open a discussion on whether audiences should perhaps give rough digital effects the same leeway they give to rough practical ones.

Full review at EFC

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For at least the second year in a row, by the time I think to pre-order tickets for the new Star Wars movie, it's for a pretty early show on Saturday, but it's okay - pretty packed house, enthusiastic, and even in the second row, it's not particularly distorted or hard to see, even in 3D. I'm kind of surprised that AMC doesn't just sell the waffles from their chicken-and-waffle sandwiches when they have shows that early; seems like it would be easy money. Mostly, I'm glad to report that my crowd liked it, or at least certainly gave that impression - it was loud, there were cheers, and I didn't hear people complaining on the way out.

It's petty, but I'm kind of enjoying the folks who are freaking out about this movie. As with Fury Road, a lot of complaints seem to come from people obsessed with the surface elements and get really upset when those are thrown into disarray even if it's in service of doing something more inclusive, ultimately more in lines with the ideals underneath, or just wanting "cool". Rian Johnson dispenses with a lot of stuff that is flashy but doesn't really serve a strong storytelling purpose here, and also comes up with a more egalitarian set-up, less reliant on princesses and chosen ones and more about everybody having a part to play. It's a course-correction I genuinely love, and it seems like it shouldn't be nearly this controversial.

But, hey, more seats for me when I see it again sometime this week!

Speaking of repeat viewings: I watched The Force Awakens Friday night as "prep", and it holds up pretty well, even if do still feel that the first half, when new things are happening, is better than the second, where it feels like a lot of beats are being repeated. Also, kind of interestingly, the 3D Blu-ray seems to have a little more in the way of ghosting than the other 3D discs I have. Still, that scene where the Star Destroyer is breaking the plane of the screen and thus seems to be sticking out of the TV and into the living room is pretty cool.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen on 16 December 2017 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, 3D digital Imax)

Saying The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie since the original ten minutes after walking out of it seems like an obvious knee-jerk overreaction even as I did so in response to my friends and family's texts, but I'm pretty sure I'll feel the same way tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and in December 2019 when J.J. Abrams will have a heck of an act to follow. It's an emotional, thrilling adventure that gives its audience a more intense version of everything it loves about the series even as it upends the whole thing.

And it could use a good flipping over, both coming on the heels of a 2015 entry that repeated too many familiar beats and decades of stories that became too beholden to mythology (both the internal and Joseph Campbell variety). At times, Rian Johnson seems too enthusiastic about bringing it all crashing down, whether by inserting dialogue that questions the series's good-versus-evil foundations, tossing aside what seemed like carefully-placed foreshadowing from 2015's The Force Awakens, or having the villainous First Order deal the Resistance continuous crushing blows; it's intense and sometimes a bit much, but there's a purpose to it. As Johnson discards some mysteries and puts the characters he inherited through the wringer, what emerges is a Star Wars movie (and, presumably, an altered direction for the series going forward) for a generation less likely to look back toward a lost golden age than to try and build a better future no matter what is thrown at them or how impossible the odds may be. Some folks aren't going to like it - spend forty years getting attached to something, and you might resent the changes to how it works - but it's a reinvention that gives the series a new sense of urgency and unpredictability.

The past is far from discarded, of course - when the film moves to focus on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who discovered she was strong with The Force in the the prior installment, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the self-exiled Jedi Master (and hero of the original trilogy of films) who would be content to let that tradition die with him, filling in the story of how Luke's nephew Ben Solo became the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is important both for satisfying viewers with questions and for how it reflects the similar potential for darkness Luke sees in Rey. But much of the action takes place away from there, and the situation with the Resistance is desperate indeed, as their small fleet is relentlessly pursued by Kylo, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) himself, and a daring mission led by hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) may have done more harm than good. It's led General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to ground Poe, and when his friend Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) think they've discovered a way to throw the Order off their sent, Poe has them run the mission off the books rather than bring it to Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

Both halves of the story give the characters time to talk about what informs their personal visions of right and wrong, and while the discussions Rey and Luke have are a little on-the-nose at times. Daisy Ridley gets to dive right into the dark side of Rey that was only hinted at in the previous movie - a lot of her better impulses are weakened now that she gets the sense that she's important, and she wields power like someone who has only ever been on the exploited end of that. She's got a sharp, unnerving chemistry with Adam Driver as the pair sell not just being drawn to each other, but the fantasy mechanics that let it play out. Driver, meanwhile, continues to make Kylo Ren more fascinating than he would seem to have any right to be, overflowing the sort of roiling uncertainty that's plenty seductive even though it doesn't lead to redemption very often in real life. And then there's Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, his expression constantly haunted, like he's been stewing in self-doubt for twenty years, but still very sharp. Johnson has Luke forging his own weakness into a rhetorical weapon, a paradox that makes the impossibly-heavy weight on his shoulders something the audience can grasp.

The other side has lighter performances even as it has a more immediate sense of urgency. Oscar Isaac gets to do a lot of the typical "cocky pilot with a commander he feels is too timid" material, and the gravity of it becomes more clear on his face as the film goes on, even if he's not maturing at quite a fast enough rate to keep pace, and both Laura Dern and Carrie Fisher excel at taking him down a notch (and when they get to play off each other, it's a genuine delight). John Boyega's Finn is in pretty much the same place he was before - alternately utterly terrified by the world he escaped and not quite fitting into the one he has joined - but he's got a winning foil in series newcomer Kelly Marie Tran; Rose and Finn are written to have complementary spots of naivete and understanding, and the odd-couple pairing gels just as they get to start playing off Benicio Del Toro.

Johnson fills the film not just with debate, but with action that all plays on the familiar characters' personal stories, whether the crippling doubt of Luke Skywalker or the dangerous confidence of Poe Dameron. Indeed, the very opening gambit is a stunningly effective little vignette, opening with jokes which lead to fantastic outer-space action that not only looks fantastic (the visual effects crew and stereographers do top-shelf work) but establishes that Poe is just as brilliant and reckless a pilot as people kept saying he was in The Force Awakens before finding room for another thread about the less-glamorous but no less heroic people in the fleet that's a strong self-contained story of its own. It's brilliant action as a storytelling tool on top of spectacle, and Johnson pulls it off several times. Indeed, the film's got some of the best action beats of the whole series, at least twice having a nifty, well-choreographed scene be bookended with a jaw-dropping shock on both sides. It's eye-popping, but there's always something inside that makes it count.

And speaking of eye-popping, this is hands-down the most beautiful film of the saga so far, gorgeously lensed on film and with little design choices that bring a smile, from the impossibly cute "porgs" to the armored walkers that look like they're dragging knuckles. "Beautiful" is often the right word despite the fact that much of the imagery is downright apocalyptic; even knowing there's another movie to come, The Last Jedi is able to visually convinces one of the desperation of the Resistance even as one's brain can't help but admire what a well-composed hellscape the crew is creating. While Star Wars has often focused on detailed world-building rather than the sort of sight that can be admired out of context, Johnson and his crew create some genuinely striking images here, from slow endless reflections to a battlefield that turns crimson from a pristine white.

And yet, the filmmakers are conversely never afraid to be silly for a moment, even in the face of extermination. It's clumsy early on - the jokes that the film starts with don't really feel like they belong in something as intense as it late gets - and there's even a case later on where the film suffers the opposite malady, as something that is often played as kind of funny and weird gets played straight. But there's purpose to that, too - comedy can help a person see something otherwise just accepted as the danger that it is, which is an important part of the story, and it lets a line that sounds like just a two-word quip actually have some emotional power. As operatic as this space opera has become, the moments when it leans into its own absurdity give it life.

The Last Jedi is franchise filmmaking at its best, intensely satisfying both in terms of delivering something the audience knows it's going to like while using the serial nature to deliver genuine surprises and new directions. I'll be seeing it again soon because it's brilliant, with themes to unpack and visuals which deserve the big screen, but I'm just as excited to see what happens next - both in how J.J. Abrams picks up the threads Johnson left to conclude this trilogy and to see what Johnson does with his just-announced new "Star Wars" series, where the path forward is even more wide open.

Full review at EFC

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