Sunday, June 25, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.05: Street Fighting Men, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Dolores and The Little Hours

Another long day, this one kicking off with Sleight before getting to the festival itself, but thankfully the Sunday schedule at IFFBoston tends to give a little more time for getting back and forth between venues if you need it, even if the MBTA has inconsiderately replaced the Red Line between Harvard and Alewife with shuttle buses for the weekend. That was an okay movie; I kind of wish I'd been able to fit The Mayor into its slot instead, but weekends that are a crush of movies can sometimes mean you don't see the Korean thing.

So, starting in Somerville:

Left to right, you have director Andrew James, producer Sara Archambault, produce Katie Tibaldi, and producer Jolyn Schleiffarth. Nice folks, who talked a bit about how making a documentary like this, without a real plan but needing to stick close to the subjects, was a tricky thing to manage; there were other potential subjects who weren't used, they occasionally had to bail people out because that's how close they've grown, on top of making a film. You shoot for months to years and it winds up being a bit odd to split time between Detroit and home, especially when something important happens there.

The rest of the day was spent going back and forth, with Abacus at the Brattle and then Dolores back at the Somerville, and I'm sorry about not doing a more detailed review of that one, but for some reason I lost my notes for this day's movies and it's getting to be long enough that I really need my notes.

At least I had time to eat some before hitting the Brattle for the last film of the day, and, hey, it was a late-ish film that didn't disappoint!


This isn't really the sort of film where it would fittingly bizarre to have the Q&A be with a tiny Max Headroom that Ned wheels out on stage, although I think I'd almost want to insist on that if I were ever to see a movie where Terry Gilliam does a skype Q&A afterward. No, writer/director Jeff Baena got the full Brattle screen, but this is more fun as a picture.

It was a fun Q&A, though kind of the expected one - you apparently have fun on a set where lots of funny people get to wear costumes in the Italian countryside and say/do funny things. There was a little surprise from the audience that this was adapted from The Decameron, but Baena said that a movie like this had been kicking around in his head since he first read it, because it's one of those cases where there's a lot of funny, sexy stuff in the material that is somewhat hidden by its age and prose style.

Street Fighting Men

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

You could make a heck of an intersecting-plotlines drama with the subjects of Andrew James's Street Fighting Men, and someone probably would if he'd written a magazine article about the people he met trying to get by in Detroit rather than filmed them. But he did pick up a camera, so the folks he follows all have their own stories that maybe don't play out as neatly and connectedly as a dramatist would have it, but that works for his film. A community with troubles has people with troubles.

James's cameras primarily follow three people. James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson is a retired cop, running a small plumbing and septic system business, at least during the day; at night he stakes out the drug dealers in his neighborhood, calling his old friends on the force when he thinks he can make a dent. Deris Solomon is the unmarried father of a girl who is six months old when the film starts, trying to go to school despite being an ex-con. Luke Williams works salvage and demolition in the city's abandoned houses, trying to save up enough to start his own business, but he'll soon be trying to figure out some more basic things when his own house burns down.

Their stories are frustratingly familiar, to the point where if this was a fictional film, one might ask what the angle was; Luke's house burning down down might almost seem a little too on-the-nose for a Detroit story. That ability to fit a template has its uses, of course - when a viewer thinks they know the story, then the bits that don't conform can surprise. They also don't intersect in particularly memorable ways, making the film often feel like three similar projects cut together. But that, in fact, is useful, and perhaps at the heart of the film: For all that these things are all taking place in physical proximity, and for all that the three subjects are African-American, each person is one man against a system much larger than him and mostly indifferent to his struggle. They can't do it alone, and there's not that many people who have their backs.

Full review on EFC.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

The story of the one bank to get charged with crimes as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis may seem like potentially dry material, but it turns out to be involving and entertaining, in no small part because the Sung family who founded the bank are sympathetic and winning. They and their trial are the sort of subjects where a documentarian must feel like they're hit a jackpot early on, knowing the audience will have a personal stake even when the broader issues of what motivated out influenced the prosecution are a bit abstract. Watching it, one might almost think that the hardest part for director Steve James was worrying about which ending he was going to have to lead up to.

That bank was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded in the 1990s by Thomas Sung, an attorney who had been a pillar of New York's Chinatown community. It was, for the most part, a fairly well-performing lender, in large part because Sung knew his community and had a good eye for seeing which loans might be better risks than they appeared to be on paper. Of course, even if founded the business for noble reasons, by the mid-aughts Abacus had grown to be a big enough concern that the amount of money coming through was a temptation. Bad loans from one particular officer triggers a larger investigation against the backdrop of larger crimes, and soon District Attorney Cyrus Vance has decided to follow charges. Abacus is not the easy target he might have expected, though - not only is Thomas Sung a lawyer, but so are three of his daughters (two of them bank executives), and they are not the types to back down from a fight.

It's fairly clear from the start where James's sympathies lie - you don't have Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin watching It's a Wonderful Life in a film's opening minutes without drawing the line between him and George Bailey. It's a comparison that he has opportunity to return to later, when telling the story of a run on Abacus, and while it's a simple comparison, it gives the audience a fair amount of easy reference without seeming to sensationalize the story too much. This is not the same David-and-Goliath story, but it's similar, and by framing it that way, it keeps the audience from worrying too much about whatever minutiae the Sungs may have overlooked and focused on the main story of them fighting off what seems like an opportunistic prosecution of a vulnerable population.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

If nothing else, Dolores is an informative documentary about someone who has had her accomplishments and importance understated that also focuses on just how much various injustices are related without diminishing it as a story of an individual. After all, while Dolores Huerta was in many ways just as vital to the labor movement as Cesar Chavez, her name isn't quite so familiar.

Director Peter Bratt does what he can to change that here, and generally does fairly well by her. Though Ms. Huerta was able to participate in the production (and still seemed pretty sharp), Bratt mostly tells her story from the vantage point of those who came after her, whether her actual children or those who were inspired by her to become labor activists or other Latinx leaders. It's often an interesting division of labor, as her successors will praise and describe her clarity of vision and focused action, while her children will provide context for what the rest of her life was like as a result It's often done with a sort of resigned admiration, pointing out how they were often drafted into the movement or left with family friends for months on end. Sometimes, the viewer might raise an eyebrow at how her personal life is being downplayed at times - even while being generally sympathetic to how critics wouldn't have made as much of an issue of her primary dedication being to the cause or the multiple children she had with several different partners had they applied to a man, it certainly speaks to a tumultuous life that could not but help influence her activism.

Putting it together, Bratt manages a nice balance of mostly telling the story via archival footage while still keeping a foot in the present for context. He also seems to have a decent handle on making the material accessible to both those who recognize her name but not the full scope of her work and those of us who could perhaps use a primer on labor activism in the Twentieth Century: There's enough basic information given that one can start from close to zero before getting to uncovering the less well-known information, but it never feels remedial.

Will many people who need to be caught up on how hard people fought for some things that they take for granted? Seems unlikely; this film will likely appeal mostly to those who know a certain amount but would like to learn a little more, or who are keen to learn more about a Latina who had an impact. It does a good job of getting its information out, at least, so it's worth a watch for those who are curious.

The Little Hours

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

I might not have known I needed a movie about foul-mouthed nuns and the hunk hiding in their convent as a deaf-mute before seeing The Little Hours, but I did, especially at the end of a day of serious documentaries about societal inequity. This movie is tremendously funny, but also has a weirdly sweet core under the sarcastic exterior.

Based (perhaps loosely) on a tale from The Decameron, it opens with three young women living in a convent near Lamporecchio - caustic Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) tends to shirk her chores and is the one most likely to snap at the handyman if she even thinks he is looking at her; Genevra (Kate Micucci) is eager to please, whether it be by following Fernanda like a puppy or tattling to the more senior Sisters; and Alessandra (Alison Brie) figures she's only there temporarily because her merchant father (Paul Reiser) has not yet matched her with a proper suitor. Meanwhile, in town, Lady Francesca (Lauren Weedman) has gotten flagrant enough in her dalliance with guard Massetto (Dave Franco) that Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) orders the young man put to death. Massetto escapes and encounters Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) on the road, and after Massetto does him a good turn, offers him the handyman's job, having him pose as a deaf-mute so that the nuns will not see him as a temptation. This, obviously, overestimates just how pious and dedicated to celibacy a group of women pushed out of sight by men who don't know what do with them are.

There's a certain delight in how writer/director Jeff Baena has his film set up expectations and defy them without ever actually seeming like a spoof - as much as the really beautiful shots of parts of Italy that may not be particularly changed since the film's medieval setting and simple, humble costumes may get put the audience in the mind of a certain sort of art-house picture until Fernanda starts violently berating the help on just who he thinks he is ogling the f---ing brides of Jesus Christ, that's on the viewer - he's primarily just making a raunchy comedy with a specific setting, even if he is willing to get a bit of an extra jolt by doing things contrary to the usual. So, without being anachronistic, he has the cast speak in colloquial-but-not-anachronistic American English as comes natural to them, with the one character speaking with a British accent (as Americans often do in period pieces) attacked as a foreigner despite her claims to the contrary. Baena is translating what is going on to its modern equivalents and letting the cast communicate, not trying to approximate something else that obscures how the characters would understand each other.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 June 2017 - 29 June 2017

On the one hand, it kind of sucks that the only major new release this weekend is the fifth part of an awful series that everyone seems sick of. On the other, I've got baseball tickets and nieces celebrating a birthday and there's an awesome series at the Brattle, so, fine, I accept your staying out of my way, Hollywood.

  • The terrible-looking big 3D thing is Transformers: The Last Knight, and while I used to get upset about something I really enjoyed as a kid being turned into awful Michael Bay movies, I now accept that this keeps him sequestered and not making something else terrible. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Assembly Row (including Imax), Revere (including MX4D and XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    But, it gets better; Edgar Wright's Baby Driver opens on Wednesday (or Tuesday night), and it's a great-looking action movie, with Ansel Egort as a getaway driver who constantly listens to music to drown out his tinnitus, with Wright synchronizing the action to the playlist. It opens at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Revere; maybe other places, too.

    If you've got kids - or just love great movies - GKids and Fathom Events are doing a monthly series of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki movies, starting with My Neighbor Totoro. It's playing at Fenway and Revere, dubbed on Sunday afternoon and subtitled on Monday afternoon; there's a series pass available
  • Over at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, The Journey , a piece set mostly (entirely?) inside a car as two people on opposite sides of the Irish conflict are detoured on the way to a peace negotiation. They're played by Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, two folks who don't get great roles nearly often enough. It also plays Kendall Square and Boston Common.

    The Coolidge also gets The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to A Girl Walks Home at Night, this one taking place in a post-apocalyptic world with Suki Waterhouse as a young woman falling in with a group of cannibals including Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey, though it only plays the 9/10pm shows throughout the week and midnight on Friday and Saturday. The regular midnights are 35mm prints from 1987, with Lethal Weapon on Friday and Full Metal Jacket on Saturday. They also break out the film projectors for Big Screen Classic Rebel without a Cause on Monday, and (I believe) take one on the road to the Greenway in Boston for Twister on Tuesday. It's Open Screen on Wednesday, and then there's a 35mm Cinema Jukebox show of Cabaret on Thursday.
  • The Brattle Theatre has A Fistful of Spaghetti Westerns this week, with both the big ones and some less well-known. They kick it off with The Man with No Name, showing a double feature of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More on 35mm, expanding it to a triple feature with a DCP of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Saturday. Sunday's double feature is Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite (35mm), with Tuesday offering rarities in The Big Gundown and Death Rides a Horse (35mm). Wednesday starts with an Elements of Cinema Screening of Face to Face on 35mm, though instead of the usual post-film discussion they'll be running a big trailer reel at the start, and finishes with a 35mm print of Don't Turn the Other Cheek. It wraps up on Thursday with rarities Day of Anger and Cemetery Without Crosses.

    There was a little rearrangement in there so that IFFBoston could get a special preview screening of Okja, the new film by Bong Joon-ho, which once again straddles Korea and America, ith An Seo-hyun as a girl looking after a strange woodland creature and Tilda Swinton as the American CEO looking to exploit the beast. It's free but first-come-first-serve, and likely the only time that the film will play Boston theatrically, what with it being available on Netflix two days later.
  • The big Bollywood opening this week is Tubelight, big enough to open at both Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway. It stars Salman Khan and Sohail Khan as brothers, one of whom is drafted leaving the other to try and intervene as the war gets more serious. Apple also gets Telugu action-comedy Duvvada Jagannadham, and limited screenings of Anbanavan Asaradhava (Saturday/Sunday morning).
    They also have one screenings of The Last Face, Sean Penn's film featuring Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, and Jean Reno as relief workers in Africa at 11am on Friday.
  • The West Newton Cinema is where you've got to go to see The Exception, a WWII spy with Jai Courtney as a German spy sent to embed himself into the home of exiled Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) to see if he has ties to the Dutch resistance. They also have a special preview of Boston Jewish Film Festival selection The Women's Balcony on Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues their two summer retrospectives. This week's entries in The Complete Jean Renoir are La Chienne (Friday 7pm), Madame Bovary (Saturday 9:30pm), and The Land is Mine (Sunday 4:30pm). That Certain Feeling… The Touch of Ernst Lubitsch, meanwhile, offers up That Uncertain Feeling (Friday 9pm), The Love Parade (Saturday 7pm), a silent double feature of "The Doll" and "I Don't Want to Be a Man" with music by Martin Marks at 7pm Sunday, and short silent feature Kohlhiesel's Daughters with music by Jeff Rapsis on Monday. All are 35mm
  • The Museum of Fine Arts is primary home to the Roxbury International Film Festival, focused on film by and about people of color. The MFA doesn't show films seven days a week, so the festival actually heads back to Roxbury for "Dinner & a Movie" at the Haley House Bakery/Café on Monday and I Know a Man… Ashley Bryan at Hibernian Hall on Tuesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre picks up Beatriz at Dinner, and if you go down into the Micro, they're playing BearCity 3, the third in a series of romantic comedies starring Gerald McCullouch and Joe Conti, from Friday to Sunday. There's a GlobeDocs screening of IFFBoston selection City of Ghosts on Monday, and then the theater winds up wrapping their "Summer of Love" series with a double feature on Wednesday: Godard's Weekend at 7:30pm and a rescheduled Riot on Sunset Strip at 9:25, since the print didn't arrive on time last week.
  • CinemaSalem has two boutique films this week, with Moka from France in the 18-seater and I, Daniel Blake on one of the larger screens.
  • The stage production at The Regent Theatre is reaching its end on Sunday, so later in the week they have a couple of film presentations - a free screening of Being Mortal sponsored by the Arlington Council on Aging on Wednesday and Volume 4 of The International Ocean Film Tour, a water-focused collection of short films, on Wednesday.
  • The outdoor screenings on the Joe's Free Films calendar are mostly concentrated on Friday night, when you can see Moonstruck, All the President's Men, or The Secret Life of Pets depending where you find yourself.

I'm kind of booked, with baseball to see on Friday and Thursday and presents to exchange for cake with my nieces on Saturday. In between, a lot of spaghetti westerns at the Brattle and maybe Baby Driver, Beatriz, or The Journey in between. I've already got tickets to see Okja in New York, so I'll let someone else have that seat at the Brattle.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Warriors of the Dawn

It's not the only thing that Korean cinema does well - not by a long shot - but nobody does the sort of medieval war movie where large groups of people just suddenly perforated by hails of arrows quite like South Korea. They are the ones who gave us The Divine Weapon, after all, a movie almost entirely about setting up the most overwhelming hail of arrows in history. South Korea makes a lot of great genre films, but this is the type of action that nobody else comes close to them on. China tries, but their hails of arrows are generally a bit more CGI-intensive than they have to be.

This one kind of sneaked into theaters this week - it wasn't even on the MoviePass app when I got to Boston Common - which is even more amusing when you consider that the studio logo at the front is 20th Century Fox. It's not exactly unusual to see Asian movies produced by big American studios like this (a Warner Brothers logo shows up in front of a ton of big-name Japanese movies), but usually they wind up coming to America via a specialty distributor. For instance, Well Go brought the Fox-financed The Wailing to North America last year.

I wonder if this is the start of a trend; Fox has apparently been doing this for their Indian movies for a while, but this looks like their first Korean self-import. Wonder if there will be more.

Daeribgoon (Warriors of the Dawn)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2017 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The story at the center of this film is not bad - a frightened crown prince trying to stay ahead of a Japanese invasion has only a squadron of mercenaries to support him. All must come to recognize a greater purpose, and it turns out that the prince is, in his way, serving the same purpose. It's a solid enough base that basic competence will make it enjoyable enough, although it would be really nice if it had a bit more to offer.

This one takes place in 1592, opening with a minor skirmish on the Chinese/Korean border being fought by "proxy soldiers", men who take money to serve out the military service of those with money, officially taking their name for the duration. Their leader (Lee Jung-jae) is thus referred to as "Tow-woo", though it is not his name. As they're fighting this battle, a much larger one is about to begin, with Japan invading and quickly taking Seoul and Pyongyang. King Seonjo (Park Ho-san) immediately makes plans to flee to China to seek reinforcements, but since they must be seen making at least a token effort to defend and govern their nation, he appoints squeamish, inexperienced bastard son Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-gu) crown prince, with orders to move his portion of the split court to Gonggye along with a relatively small detachment. It includes Tow's squad, although promises to let them take exams to become official soldiers may not make a difference to those like "Goksu" (Kim Mu-yul) - one of many proxies whose contract might not get them all the way to Gonggye, given that Tow has advised a mountain route to avoid easy attack by General Tarobe (Park Hae-joon) and a mysterious group of assassins on the plains.

For all the different things that are going on, Warriors of the Dawn is built on reliable war-movie themes: The mercenaries who eventually decide to become part of a greater purpose, the higher-caste officers coming to respect the commoners serving underneath them, battles on open and wooded terrains. The key, here, is that Gwanghae is in a very real way the same as the proxies, an expendable substitute for someone of higher rank and power. Director Jeong Yoon-chul and co-writer Shin Do-young do a fair job of not harping on these themes with obvious speeches - the closest they come is a conversation between Tow and young handmaid Deog (Esom) about how both of them have, in their way, been forced into service to support their families. It's not fancy, but it works

Full review on EFC

My Cousin Rachel

Not that I need more books on my to-read shelf, but this film was, if nothing else, good enough to convince me that I should probably have read more Du Maurier. Anybody have favorites? I'd probably like to start outside the ones that have been made into movies (like I did with Chandler).

My Cousin Rachel

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 June 2017 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

As soon as I'm done doing the same thing with Raymond Chandler, I should start working through the novels of Daphne Du Maurier, and for much the same reason - there have been enough absolutely fantastic movies made from them to make a deep dive worth it. This version of My Cousin Rachel may not be in the absolute top echelon - Hitchcock adapted three of her works, after all - but it's a strong period thriller with an especially impressive performance by Rachel Weisz as the title character.

She is not the main character, though; that is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin). Orphaned at a young age and raised by Ambrose, a bachelor cousin, he took easily to country life. In recent years, his guardian fell ill and moved to Italy for his health, soon marrying a more distant cousin. His last letter home indicated he was a virtual prisoner of wife Rachel, and by the time Philip makes it to Milan to investigate, Ambrose has died. The local coroner says the brain tumor that took him often causes paranoia and hallucination, but it's suspicious how quickly Rachel cleared out when the will revealed that Philip was the sole heir. Philip is indisposed to view her favorably before she arrives at her late husband's estate, but instead finds himself quite taken with the beautiful, worldly widow (Weisz). Maybe all that talk of her poisoning him really was just the tumor talking.

The Ashley estate is on the ocean, but the view of that coastline that opens the movie reminds one less of a beach or even craggy cliffs than a crater, a gaping hole blasted out of the countryside that matches up with the losses Philip has suffered and the void that growing up with a man who had no use for women could not fill. It's not that Philip has been completely sequestered from the fair sex - Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), daughter of his godfather (Iain Glen), is his best friend a more sensible man nineteenth-century man would probably already be married to her - but he's clearly unprepared for the likes of Rachel when she shows up. The filmmakers led by screenwriter/director Roger Michell deftly illustrate this with a few well-chosen bits of narration and some time spent around the estate that nicely serve to make Philip likable in how he works alongside the hands and retains his cousin's people rather than the stuffy servants of a young aristocrat; it's an undeniably masculine environment, functional and untidy, devoid of romantic or sexual intrigue. Michell keeps things about two steps from being slovenly-man stereotypes, leaving plenty of room for a transformation when Rachel becomes part of the scene.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 June 2017 - 22 June 2017

For as much as the summer usually presents us with waves of too many blockbusters, but this weekend is a lot of "eh, okay, maybe, if I can fit it in". Probably because the thing that is expected to be a huge hit if it lives up to its history is a follow-up to not-particularly-well-liked things.

  • That is, not many people really liked Cars or Cars 2, but they sell a ton of toys, so of course Disney and Pixar made Cars 3, this time with Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), the brash young car of the first movie, starting to feel his age as a veteran. 2D-only at the Capitol and West Newton; 2D and 3D shows at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere (including XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    The next-biggest opener is Rough Night, with Scarlett Johansson as a bride-to-be whose bachelorette party gets a little nuts when they accidentally kill the stripper and wacky hijinks ensue as they try to hide the body. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. There's also a pretty good opening for All Eyez on Me, with newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. playing rapper Tupac Shakur - it plays the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere (including XPlus).

    Rounding out the expected multiplex stuff is 47 Meters Down, a novel shark movie set-up (the ravenous fish are above two sisters trapped on the ocean floor) that never really lives up to its potential. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. The weirdest-looking thing hitting the multiplexes is The Book of Henry, with Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Treverow doing something small but nuts in between Jurassic World and Star Wars IX, as a gifted kid and his mother apparently plot to murder the child-abusing next-door neighbor. That's at West Newton, Boston Common, and Revere.

    On Monday, Resident Evil: Vendetta can defy January's movie being called "The Final Chapter" because it's an animated movie that fits in the games' continuity rather than the Anderson films; it's at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life comes back for another round of screenings at Boston Common and Revere. That's also when Transformers: The Last Knight opens on a lot of large screens.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places opening Beatriz at Dinner, starring a dressed-down Salma Hayek as a spiritual healer at the same dinner party as John Lithgow's loutish billionaire who certainly seems awful Trump-ish. It's also at West Newton and the Kendall. That's on their largest screen; the smallest goes to Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, an entertaining documentary about the one bank brought into court after the mortgage crisis, although there will be a special screening in the main theater on Sunday afternoon with members of the Sung family who own the bank in attendance.

    The summer of '87 is this weekend's midnight theme, with 35mm prints of RoboCop (Friday) and Predator (Saturday). They go back to '67 for Monday's Cinema Jukebox presentation, Monterey Pop.
  • Another IFFBoston alum, The Hero, opens at Kendall Square, which is still down to four screens. That one features Sam Elliott reuniting with I'll See You in My Dreams director Brett Haley to play a movie star who had one great role decades ago but has gotten by on his voice since.
  • The far-east opening this weekend comes from South Korea, with Warriors of the Dawn playing Boston Common. Set in 1592, it follows two threads of a war with Japan: The Crown Prince (Lee Jung-jae) who must take command when the King flees to China, and the leader of a group of soldiers who have been paid to substitute for the military service of the wealthy. It's a very light week for Indian movies at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond, with Marathi arranged-marriage comedy Chi Va Chi Sau Ka playing Sunday afternoon and Telugu action-comedy Duvvada Jagannadham opening Thursday evening.
  • The Brattle Theatre is All About the Chase this weekend, with a number of great car-chase movies hitting the screen as double features: Freebie and the Bean & The French Connection, both on 35mm, Friday; Vanishing Point & the original Gone in 60 Seconds (35mm) Saturday, Never Give a Sucker and Even Break and The Blues Brothers Sunday. Sunday also has a late-ish show of The Driver on 35mm at 9:15; that Walter Hill rarity will also play at 6pm Sunday as the pre-show to a sneak preview of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

    That's not the whole week, though - in addition to two programs of shorts from The New York Dog Film Festival on Saturday, it's Trash Night on Tuesday, and IFFBoston will present a special preview screening of The Big Sick on Wednesday. The theater is closed for a private event on Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive starts up their second big retrospective of the summer this weekend, with That Certain Feeling… The Touch of Ernst Lubitsch. It starts with some of his most popular films, Trouble in Paradise at 7pm Friday and Ninotchka at the same time Saturday, before jumping back to have Jeff Rapsis accompany some of the early silent films he did in Germany: Shoe Palace Pinkus & Meyer From Berlin, both about an hour long and also featuring Lubitsch as an actor, on Sunday evening and Madame DuBarry on Monday. That pushes The Complete Jean Renoir into some later or earlier hours, with Swamp Water at 9pm Friday, The Diary of a Chambermaid at 9:30pm Saturday, and French Cancan at 4:30pm Sunday. All butMadame DuBarry are on 35mm.
  • Jeff is actually doing even more Lubitsch this weekend, as So This Is Paris plays The Somerville Theatre on Sunday as part of their 35mm "Silents Please" series. They let him rest on Wednesday as the 35mm "Summer of Love" series continues with Riot on Sunset Strip, and they also have a special screening of Olancho, a documentary about a musician in Honduras whose lyrics get him in trouble with the cartels. That same night, Jeff will be at their sister theater in Arlington, The Capitol, accompanying Charlie Chaplin's The Kid.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues to run two documentaries in association with the Boston Jewish Film Festival, with Line 41 and The Freedom to Marry each playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They also offer a bit of a preview of the Roxbury International Film Festival on Wednesday with free Juneteenth screenings of documentaries Paris Noir (featuring a post-film discussion with the producer) and When Voices Rise on Wednesday; the festival proper starts Thursday with Body and Soul: An American Bridge (musical performance and director Q&A included), On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins (with director Q&A) and Tear the Roof Off: The Untold Story of Paramount Funkadelic (featuring Q&A with the director and original Funkadelic members).
  • The 18-seater at CinemaSalem is where you go to see Radio Dreams, a comedy in which an Iranian writer and DJ tries to bring together Metallica and Afghan rockers Kabul Dreams.
  • The Regent Theatre hosts a book release party for Photographing Jimi Hendrix on Sunday, which will be followed with a screening of Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey, which itself will be followed by a Q&A.

Already done 47 Meters Down, and I will hit some 35mm car chases, Cars 3, Warriors of the Dawn, and So This Is Paris. And Huey Lewis & the News on Tuesday, because they put on a good show.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

47 Meters Down

Some nights, you really just need to see a movie after a grinding day of work, but, not to put to fine a point on it, this weekend's new releases were all kind of unexciting. Between this, Cars 3, All Eyez on Me, Rough Night, and The Book of Henry, you'd think there'd be something where I really looked forward to getting a jump on the weekend and a week where I might not have a huge amount of movie-watching time, but to be brutally honest, with all five of those movies starting at 7pm, 47 Meters Down got the nod for being 93 minutes long.

Indeed, it might be possible that the best part of the evening was the trailer reel. Kidnap, Happy Death Day, and Geostorm all look different sorts of terrible, but they also all look like they are thoroughly unhinged in different ways. Stick a Baby Driver trailer in the middle of that group, and you've got a frantic ten minutes or so, albeit also one where you wonder why at least one wasn't a red-band preview, because I think they all had quick-but-unenthusiastic cuts away from someone dropping an f-bomb. All probably actually have adult-only previews, but apparently this thing was rated PG-13, despite what I was sure was a bit more harsh language than usually allowed and a fair amount of floating fake blood.

Ah, well. Baby Driver just reminds me that there's a bunch of chase movies at the Brattle Theatre this weekend, so even if this is a low point, the highs will be enough to blot it out.

47 Meters Down

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2017 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

There are times when it feels like 47 Meters Down was patched together as best it could be around the days when certain resources were available. Like, the pitch was good and the filmmakers really thought they'd have the script in better order by the time they had the use of the tank needed to shoot it, and then maybe they could cover the gaps with visual effects, or when re-recording the dialogue, but they never had everything they needed, and as a result, they're never able to build enough up around the gem of a decent idea to make a particularly good picture. It likely didn't actually happen that way, but if not, things are worse, and the bits that seem bent out of shape to cover something else are just poorly done.

A moderately clever opening scene introduces the audience to Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt); though Lisa had originally planned to go on her Mexican vacation with her boyfriend Stuart, he has left her, leaving Kate to pick up the extra ticket. They meet a couple of guys, who tell them about a charter that will take them out to view sharks from inside a cage, and Kate convinces her more sensible sister to go for it, even though she has no scuba experience. The cage is only supposed to be lowered to 5 meters, but comes loose from the boat and drops to the ocean floor, and even if one could just swim straight up without succumbing to the bends, there's at least one shark in the water.

Once Kate and Lisa have reached the titular depth, you can see why someone would go for the pitch of a real-time thriller with two sisters trapped in a dive cashew on the ocean floor with rapidly diminishing air and sharks above; director Johannes Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera present the characters and audience with what looks like a puzzle to solve with escape seeming tantalizingly close. The trouble is, in part, that the puzzle-solving aspect is never quite as satisfying as it should be; victories and setbacks both seem to leave the women back at the same spot, without even the illusion of change. The actual action is choppy and cropped as if zoomed in or recut for a PG-13 much of the time, and the effect is much the same as it was for Shark Week a few years ago - scenes that should end with an exclamation point of some sort instead merit a question mark. A little honest gore would go a long way. There are one or two impressive moments where the audience sees what Roberts and company are capable of, good little bits of action that were likely storyboarded in detail well before there was any script.

Full review on EFC.

It Comes at Night

This isn't a zombie movie or one with a tangible exterior threat in the way that the title or A24's oft-effective but somewhat misleading ad campaign implies, but it set off a few thoughts about the post-apocalyptic genre and why I should really be done with it that have been coalescing in my head for a while (at least since seeing <I>The Neighbor Zombie</I> at Fantasia in 2010).  So I may as well put them here, because the ideal film to relate them to is probably going to be seen in a film-festival crush where I can't give individual ones the attention they deserve.

There's a lot to enjoy about this corner of the horror genre, but part of the thrill of these movies is that they couple a certain sort of politically-incorrect fantasy with a matching tragic drama: What if civilization falls and the people best-equipped to survive and lead are the gun-owners or folks who can live off the land and fix things? It's a great dramatic irony, because that group is often seen as unsophisticated or even dangerous. Plus, there's the inevitable Hard Decision, the loved one who falls victim to the disease and as a result needs to have his suffering ended, especially if the disease could spread or he could become a flesh-eating monster. The two halves connect; you need the pragmatic, sometimes violent skills because the sophisticated medical treatment that would otherwise prevent a pandemic is failing. As an occasional cautionary tale, this works fine.

At least, until this sort of thing gets popular - I remember a Boston Underground Film Festival programmer lamenting that it's great that anyone with a decent camera and some decent make-up skills could make a zombie movie, but did they all have to send their movies to her? - and The Walking Dead shows up, and suddenly you've got this despair being pumped into your home weekly. The occasional story that asks desk jockeys like myself to consider just how screwed we'd be if we lost our infrastructure on the one hand or uses the too-far-gone loved one as a metaphor for assisted suicide is thought-provoking, but you get exposed to it continually, and it's a different message: That any societal structure larger than one's family (genetic or makeshift) is doomed to failure, that ultimately problems must be solved with violence, and, most perniciously, there's nothing to do but let a terrible illness take its course; the sick can't be helped.

I think a lot of people, both in the audience and in the industry, miss the cumulative effect of this, or make a hard turn away from it because the small group against an unceasingly hostile world is more easily-digested drama. The World War Z adaptation loses its framing of how the world comes back together, with the resulting movie narrowing back down to one person fighting for his family (at least, before a different last act was substituted). The Walking Dead moves from Hershel's farm to a prison, even though the series never made a compelling argument that Hershel was being particularly foolish in any way other than keeping what he was doing a secret; the end of that arc was re-asserting the Hard Decision narrative by fiat, not merit.

I'd really like to make a plague movie where that's the twist - the zombie virus is actually an incomplete version of a regenerative agent, and the true horror comes when the people who have nobly put down their infected friends realize that they've done something terrible, and that the badass leaders they've fallen in with are, in fact, psychopaths who have been looking for a problem they can solve with a gun their entire lives. Get right into the right-wing fantasy nature of these movies and refute the heck out of it, making an argument for community, research, and not going straight for a weapon in a scary situation. As much as I enjoy the cathartic nature of a good action or horror movie, ones that simply indulge one's fears without helping to face them are not worth a whole lot to me.

It Comes at Night

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2017 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

This is an impeccably-constructed and presented film, and with a genre-heavy couple of months ahead of me, I shall be actively avoiding seeing things much like it. There's a rot at the base of this sort of post-plague horror that I gave a hard time abiding, an embrace of being paranoid about your neighbors and culling the sick that I'm growing weary of at this point in time.

It starts with one of the genre's go-tos, a family putting down a member they love because he's too far gone, with Paul (Joel Edgerton) and seventeen-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bringing terminal father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton) to the back to burn and bury the body, though mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) is unsure sending Travis is the right way to go. Not that Sarah is any sort of sentimental pushover; when they catch Will (Christopher Abbott) breaking into the house, she's the one who sees bringing him, wife Kim (Riley Keough), and son Andy (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to live with them because you can't just have desperate people knowing where your well-supplied house is.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults builds and executes its scenario very well. The film is striking visually, with excellent use of single lights in pitch darkness. What's revealed as a good-sized family home in daytime shots seems tighter and more claustrophobic when the light only extends a few feet in any direction, and the space in question is often the attic from which Travis eavesdrops on much of the rest of the house; night seems to be uniformly lacking moon and stars, like somebody has turned out the lights as the world ends. Dream sequences seem legitimately feverish, and an obvious trick of presentation is done much less ostentatiously than it might be.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

I admit, I sometimes come into the movie with an angle for the review, and the one I came in this time is still true: A Mummy reboot feels weird because it doesn't seem like the series with Brendan Fraser was really ever done; sure, it's been almost ten years since The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but, honestly, you'd have been just as down for Fraser dealing with mummies in South America as Cruise dealing with them in London, right? It wouldn't have seemed surprising or like they were pulling something old out. Heck, Fraser's younger than Cruise!

But, that's not going to get a new shared universe started unless you were doing something Captain America-like (and, to be fair, you could have Rick mummified for sixty-odd years, or go the legacy-quel route), and presuming everyone involved wants a fresh start, okay. And, honestly, I see a ton of potential in Dark Universe - if they keep the tone along the same lines as this movie but clean up the plotting, it can be a lot of fun, and it seems like they've seeded something potentially cool ideas. In my head, this is all being built around some Lovecraftian horror trying to force its way into our world (from a "dark universe", if you will), with Set being the first manifestation. Heck, if you build this to actual Lovecraft, with Guillermo Del Toro directing, a certain segment of fandom would go absolutely berserk.

The Mummy (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

It's fitting that Russell Crowe's Dr. Henry Jekyll is set up to be the Nick Fury of Universal Pictures' "Dark Universe" franchise, because the version of The Mummy that kicks it off has a heck of a split personality: not great, perhaps, but plenty of fun when it stays in its lane with mummies serving as a means to zombie-movie mayhem and the sort of big, fancy action sequences that star Tom Cruise dives into like few others. It can be a real downer when it tries to set up something larger, enough to sabotage what works and maybe make a viewer resent the world-building.

After a bizarre, disconnected London prologue splitting time between the middle ages and today, the action moves to Iraq, where American soldiers Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) have gone off-mission in search of antiquities, as is their wont, only to find something truly incredible after an airstrike: An Egyptian tomb built like a prison, with a sarcophagus smothered in mercury to prevent its contents' escape. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), the historian from whom Morton stole the map leading him to the tomb, reads the hieroglyphics to discover that this is Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who made a bargain with Set, the god of death, after her path to the throne was blocked, killing her family and being sentenced to being mummified alive and interred far from home. Some sort of strange power still surrounds her, allowing Morton to miraculously survive when the plane bringing them back to England crashes. Fortunately, this happens to be the home base of the Predigium, and organization dedicated to fighting supernatural evil headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).

The first part lifts from a lot of things, perhaps most surprisingly and notably An American Werewolf in London, but mostly from pulpy material. As they bring mummy movies into the present day, director Alex Kurtzman and his five credited co-writers see a line between the slow-moving mummy of the 1932 original and modern zombies, and following that line gives them things that hit a sweet spot between classic, modern, and inventive, as Ahmanet's draining the life force from others gives her an army of shambling corpses, and an early comment about London being one large cemetery certainly pays off nicely. It's fun when Kurtzman can just mess things up with some good mummy action as a lot of punches getting stuck in decaying corpses, and the bigger showpieces are a kick as well.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.04: Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive, City of Ghosts, Dealt, and Lemon

Not included: Love Off the Cuff, where I caught the early show at Boston Common because, beloved local film festival or no beloved local film festival, I'm not missing the new Pang Ho-cheung movie. Sure, it wound up playing for another two or three weeks after the festival, but I've been burned on Hong Kong movies not hanging around before. I was at 10am or so, and the MBTA was dinking around with buses replacing the Red Line between Alewife and Harvard this weekend so I had to be out and about early, which may be kind of important later.

At any rate, that made the choice of which film to start with easier, going for Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive at the Brattle. It was okay, the sort of documentary you know is going to PBS eventually, but that's a useful-enough thing.

Left to right, editor Peter Rhodes, writer/director Eric Stange, and producer Jen Pearce. Nice folks who stuck around to answer a bunch of questions. It had the feel of a bit of a friends-and-family crowd, many very impressed that they were able to land Denis O'Hare, who is sort of recognizable but by no means a big star. Plenty of genuine curiosity about what they learned about 19th-Century America in general.

It lasted long enough that by the time I could get out and onto the bus, not only was my plan A for the rest of the afternoon sunk (I really do hope to see Spettacolo, by the folks who made Marwencol, sometime later this year), but I wound up breezing into City of Ghosts just as it started. It's a pretty strong documentary.

DEALT cast & crew at IFFBoston 2017

The evening film was Dealt, probably my favorite documentary of the fest. Maybe not the best, but my favorite. Director Luke Korem, Jack Laquerez (or so my terrible notes say), and subject Richard Turner attended, and I'm sorry about the truly egregious necessity of the "horrible photography" tag, but Turner just doesn't keep still. He is, however, pretty much exactly the guy you would expect from the film, charismatic and funny, and, yes, he was practicing his card-deck manipulation throughout the entire Q&A session, probably throughout the movie. He was much more willing to talk about his blindness than he would have been at various points during the film, although that's not terribly surprising; once he's made a decision, he runs with it, and though he'd rather talk about his achievements on their own, being open about this and being a role model to other unsighted people is something to which he has committed.

We did get some card tricks, and, yeah, even from the third row, knowing that his thing is dealing the second card in the deck rather than the top card, good luck catching him. There was also a fair amount of jargon - he'd now a consultant to the biggest manufacturer of playing cards in the U.S., in part on the basis of contacting them repeatedly one year about how sheets of cards were going through the cutting device upside down, because he could feel they were wrong. He's got a fairly narrow specification of how he likes his cards in terms of thickness and slickness, although he's not completely dependent upon that; he once won a good-sized piece of furniture by betting the guy at the store that he could cut a stack of business cards to a specified number.

After that, back on the bus to the Brattle Theatre for the last in a string of three disappointing 9:30-9:45pm screenings. Maybe Lemon plays a bit better for me if I'm not on movie five of the day with everything since 1:30pm documentaries that were enjoyable straightforward, but I did feel trapped in the middle of a row by the time it was halfway through. Not quite zonked for this one, but not exactly digging it, either.

And then, back to Davis and to bed to do the same thing the next day, only more so!

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

It's somewhat ironic, but inevitable, that despite Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive leading with the idea that much of the conventional wisdom about Poe is greatly influenced by an obituary written by a rival as character assassination, writer/director Eric Stange winds up going back to the familiar. There is more to Poe than everyone knows, but it turns out that what makes him flawed also made him interesting.

In positioning his film in opposition to the history as set out by Reverend Rufus W. Griswold from the start, Stange sometimes finds himself backed into a tricky position where Poe still has a fair amount of weird stuff in his history and it comes off as kind of odd when the thesis of the movie is that Poe wasn't the fiend that Griswold portrayed. It particularly comes off as strange when talking about his relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman - the film opens by talking about how Poe was about to return home to his childhood sweetheart at the time of his death, and the down-the-middle telling of what sounds like a man looking to marry into money to finance his ambitions seems a bit in opposition to this.

Whether they reflect well or poorly on Poe, things like that are interesting stories, and Stange does a decent job of stringing them together, pointing out a lot of the other parts of the writer's career that sometimes gets lost in the shadow of his justifiably more famous horror stories - the literary criticism, the comedic and romantic material, the less-overshadowed-but-still-possibly-not-given-its-due invention of the detective story - as well as his early life. Not every chapter is thrilling, and the tracking of his vagabond progress up and down the East coast doesn't make for the sort of clear landmarks one might hope. Often, Poe's specific history is less interesting than the looks at 19th-Century America needed to put it into context, from the precarious financial positions of writers in that environment to the kidnappings which might explain his mysterious, erratic last days.

Full review on EFC.

City of Ghosts

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

A solid documentary centered on the founders of the blog "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently", City of Ghosts gives a brief introduction to the city in question, allows the citizen journalists to tell their own story, and, while allowing the subjects to be even-tempered, friendly people, never lets up is disdain for Daesh. It will not fully educate one on the causes and effects of what is happening in Syria, but it presents a human face to a crisis that can often seem abstract from the other side of the world.

Raqqa, the subjects point out, is not a large city, which is why, when the group known in the West as ISIS declared a caliphate with Raqqa as the capital in June of 2014, it didn't get a lot of the sort of on-site news coverage that helps shape the sense of an urgent crisis (note that "ISIS" is often called "Daesh" by Arabic speakers in opposition to the organization, as this Arabic acronym meaning "one who tramples"). To bridge the gap, a number of locals started a blog anonymously documenting what was happening, which expanded as more people began contributing video. The film introduces the viewers to several, most notably three of the founders: Aziz, a college student who was not initially of an activist bent; Mohammed, a high school teacher who becomes a reporter; and Hamoud, an introvert whose work as a cameraman gives him a taste for danger. As they become wanted men, they eventually flee across the border to Turkey, and will have to go farther to escape their foes' reach.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, who produces, shoots, and edits on top of serving as director, understands the perils of perspective that his sort of movie can face, a kind of survivorship bias that comes of talking to those who escaped a bad situation to be honored. He attempt to head it off early, revealing the blog's name after a photographer at an award ceremony asks the correspondents to smile for a photograph, a contrast which both pointedly indicates that, even if these guys are okay, their home is still being "slaughtered", and maybe gets audiences thinking about how much impact these stories make on them. It's one of the few times where the way he presents information is as much the point as simply putting things in front of the audience, but it's effective.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Dealt is a frequently-delightful documentary on Richard Turner, an intriguing and entertaining man at the top of his corner of the magic business despite a major handicap to work around. It's a nifty little story that, in addition to featuring some really astounding close-up magic, manages to take a few nifty narrative turns. Indeed, it arguably wouldn't have been half the movie it is if Turner didn't change between the beginning and the end.

Turner doesn't think of himself as a magician, but a "card mechanic"; the phrase literally means he knows how to manipulate cards, but as he puts in, you get an auto mechanic to fix a car, and you get him to fix a card game. In the opening bit, he performs some amazing bits of trickery - he is the best in the world at dealing the second card from the top of a deck rather than the first, and can un-shuffle a deck - but what both the audience at the show and the one watching the movie soon realizes is that he's not really looking at them, but just a little above. It slowly dawns on them that Turner is visually-impaired. In fact, he is completely blind, having lost his vision as a result of macular dystrophy when he was a child.

Turner, to put it mildly, does not have the healthiest relationship with his disability. Early on, the main impression is that he is practical and surprisingly not bitter; there's an easy rapport to how his son Asa doesn't just warn his father about obstructions, but describes things to Richard's rapt, genuine interest. Director Luke Korem lets the audience coast on the general "that's amazing" good feeling of the premise for a while before starting to play up that Turner's desire to not be defined by his disability can border on denial, as he gets incensed when news stories about him as a card shark even mention that he is blind and he refuses on principle to use the tools that many other visually impaired folks do. This includes his sister Lori Dragt, whose own vision practically disappeared overnight at roughly the same time. By about midway through the film, the audience is starting to wonder just when their discomfort started making a dent in their admiration.

Full review on EFC.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Whatever the heck that was, I can't say I liked it. It feels like a couple dozen ideas for jokes that were not attached to a character recognizable as an actual human being, so even when the gags themselves were executed fairly well, they still only felt like ideas: Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo and the cast worked out all the blocking, delivery, and visual presentation, but without attaching them to interesting characters, that winds up being technical exercises.

Heck of a cast wasted, too. Maybe someone other than co-writer and star Brett Gelman makes his fringe actor appealing or at least interesting enough to serve as the center of the movie, but his Isaac is a drag and in every scene. There are some good bits with Michael Cera and Gillian Jacobs as two younger students in his acting workshop whose individual talent is inversely proportional to the amount of attention and praise he gives each of them, Nia Long is appealing as a potential new girlfriend after Judy Greer's Ramona dumps him - and Marla Gibbs does excellent silent misery as the wheelchair-bound, stroke-victim grandmother at her family's cookout. The best performance probably comes from David Paymer as a heartbroken family friend trying to grab onto some sort of replacement connection as the guest at a seder.

Somewhere in that mess of characters and situations, there's potential in finding something universal in African-American and Jewish family traditions, unrequited love and loneliness, but Bravo and Gelman always go for the gag, and most of the time that joke seems too inside and never quite able to root out the funny part of weird things and situations.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 9 June 2017 - 15 June 2017

This week features a bunch of people I like in movies that leave me saying "hm, sure, I guess". Kind of weird, that.

  • Take the new, 3D version of The Mummy. Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Sofia Boutella (pretty great in Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond) star; Alex Kurtzman has been part of good genre work; and I don't think "Dark Universe" is the worst of ideas for a cinematic franchise. But, man, it sort of feels like it should be kicked off by Frankenstein and the previous Mummy series doesn't quite feel dormant yet. I will still watch Cruise try and kill himself on a giant screen, though. It's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 3D), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Then there's Megan Leavey, featuring Kate Mara as an Army NCO who fights to be able to adopt the bomb-sniffing dog she handled in the middle east after she is discharged; I like Mara and the idea of her getting a big starring role a lot, and it's got a supporting cast full of good folks, on top of being directed by Blackfish's Gabriela Cowperthwaite. But, you know... eh? It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere.

    It Comes at Night, on the other hand, stars Joel Edgerton, whom I've seen in a dozen movies at least and could not pick out of a lineup. Krista filmmaker Trey Edward Shults will be the draw for some, directing a post-apocalyptic-looking horror movie where the larger threat may be the paranoia inside the house. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    In addition to picking up Dean (which opened at the Kendall last week and also expands to West Newton), Boston Common also gets Middle Man,starring Jim O'Heir as a middle-aged would-be comedian who winds up with a corpse in his trunk when he picks up a hitchhiker on the way to Vegas. Elsewhere, TCM's Big Screen Classic of the week is Some Like It Hot, which plays Sunday and Wednesday at Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.
  • My Cousin Rachel gets a reasonably broad opening, playing not just The Coolidge Corner Theatre but the Capitol, West Newton, Kendall Square, the Lexington Venue (hey when did the Venue get a website?), and Boston Common. Rachel Weisz plays the title character, whom a young man believes killed his cousin, but when he meets her and falls in love… It's from a Daphne Du Maurier novel, so that's a nice pedigree.

    They also open IFFBoston Closing Night selection Band Aid, in which writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play a couple that opts to turn their arguments into songs, to mixed results. Generally pretty funny. And, speaking of festival alumni returning, The Survivalist played the Boston Sci-Fi Festival in 2016, and plays at midnight Friday and Saturday. It's a pretty good post-Apocalyptic thriller about a survivor whose determined isolation is tested when a mother and daughter show up at his door.

    Much-loved horror sequels are the other half of the midnight schedule, with Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn on Friday night and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors on Saturday, both on 35mm. The Sunday Morning Goethe-Institut film is Paula, with Carla Juri as a woman who married a fellow art enthusiast on the way to becoming a famous painter. There's a special Monday night preview screening of The Bad Batch with director Ana Lily Amirpour in person. The week finishes with a 35mm "Rewind!" screening of Men in Black, with the after-party at Osaka.
  • This week's indication that Kendall Square is still under reconstruction is Past Life only opening at The Embassy in Waltham, a film from Israel about two sisters in 1977 seeking the truth of how their father survived World War II. The Kendall does have anime feature Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic for two shows, with subtitles on Monday and dubbed on Wednesday.
  • Nothing new from China, but Didi's Dream sticks around at Fenway. North of the river, Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond keeps Ami Tumi around and also opens Bollywood romantic thriller Raabta. Will I catch it for a mere Deepika Padukone cameo? Hmmm… There's also Muramba on Saturday & Sunday afternoons.

    In English, they've also got a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening with Teseracte at midnight on Friday (Full Body does their regular show at Boston Common on Saturday). They also give half a screen to 11:55, starring Victor Almanzar as a Marine who returns to his hometown and gets sucked back into a life of crime.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues their year-long "Women in Cinema" series of series with Seven Beauties: The Films of Lina Wertmüller, a retrospective of one of the 20th Century's most significant filmmakers. The seven films are Swept Away (Friday/Saturday), Seven Beauties (Saturday/Sunday/Thursday), The Seduction of Mimi (Saturday/Sunday), Love & Anarchy (Sunday/Monday), All Screwed Up (Monday/Tuesday), Summer Night (Tuesday), and Ferdinando & Carolina (Wednesday). There's also an eighth, Wertmüller documentary Behind the White Glasses, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive does deep dives into filmmakers with long careers every summer, and first up for 2017 is The Complete Jean Renoir, with The Rules of the Game (Friday 7pm), Picnic on the Grass (Friday 9:30pm), Whirlpool of Fate preceded by "The Little Match Girl" (Saturday 7pm with live accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence), Night at the Crossroads (Saturday 9:30pm), Chotard et Cie (Sunday 4:30pm without subtitles), and Nana (Sunday 7pm with Laurence). They also begin a pair of monthly series, with Howl's Moving Castle on Saturday afternoon the first of the summer's $5 family films and Zoot Suit on Monday evening kicking off "Cinema of Resistance". All in 35mm aside from Chotard et Cie.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has an Arab Film Weekend, with Go Home from Lebanon (Friday/Sunday), Clash from Egypt (Friday), Foreign Body (Saturday/Sunday), and The War Show from Syria (Sunday). They've got another screening of Matisse: From MOMA and Tate Modern on Saturday (see their exhibition while you're there!). Holocaust documentary Line 41 plays Wednesday and Thursday, as does The Freedom to Marry. Both of those two are co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the latter also presented by Wicked Queer.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a collection of the best 48 Hour Film Project entries for the year on Sunday, and then continues the "Summer of Love" screenings on Wednesday with Valley of the Dolls
  • CinemaSalem picks up Citizen Jane: Battle for the City up from the Coolidge.
  • The Rockwell will host the Massachusetts High School Film Festival on Saturday afternoon, presenting a number of short films made by (mostly-local) teenagers.
  • Not a lot of outdoor screenings on the Joe's Free Films calendar yet, with just On Golden Pond at the Boston Harbor Hotel on Friday evening this week.

I'll take in The Mummy, It Comes at Night, My Cousin Rachel, Valley of the Dolls, and probably Megan Leavy, and Dean. Maybe some of the Renoir and Wertmüller stuff as well. I'd love to hit The Bad Batch and/or Black Butler, if only to see how far the live-action version I saw at Fantasia is from the source, but Monday's a baseball day. Not sure I'm up to a midnight, but it's been a while since my last 35mm screening of Evil Dead 2.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Chinese Romantic Fantasies: Beautiful Accident & DiDi's Dream

So much Chinese cinema hit Boston screens this weekend that one movie wound up at Fenway, which is where China Lion stuff came out for a while between their deal with AMC expiring and the guys program Boston Common realizing that Chinatown was right behind them. I was planning on making these two a cross-town double feature over the weekend, but it didn't quite shake out that way

At any rate, I was glad to see that both of them wound up better than expected. I didn't particularly love Beautiful Accident, but I liked that it has a bigger effect on the main character's attitude than her dreams and ambitions. It's less transformative than usual, but that's fine, perhaps even admirable.

I really liked DiDi's Dream, though, and while "from the studio that brought you ____" often doesn't mean that much, I couldn't help but note that Cheng Cheng was the group that distributed She Remembers, He Forgets and SoulMate here, and it's not hard to see a pattern: Aside from all three having female leads and multiple timelines, they all seem to trade a little bit of the crowd-pleasing material for melancholy and the folks who let you down just messing up rather than turning out to be bad people.

Granted, they've only been able to get about half the movies they distribute into Boston, so the others may go a different route. They're something like the #4 distributor of Chinese films in the USA, after China Lion, Magnum, and Well Go (we'll see how the guys who have been pushing Wu Kong in trailers do), aiming for something a bit less mainstream but still pretty accessible if you don't mind the Chinese subtitles. It's kind of amazing to me that, over the past few years, the market for Chinese-language movies in the U.S. has gotten big enough that these companies can all have specialties, to the point where you could pretty easily tell which one playing this weekend was from China Lion, Well Go, and Cheng Cheng.

Mei Hao De Yi Wai (Beautiful Accident)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 June 2017 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

I'm a bit of two minds on Beautiful Accident - on the one hand, it's very easy to see this movie taking its premise of a career woman suddenly being placed in the position of a housewife for a week due to a filing mishap in the afterlife and getting entirely too cute with it, and when it ended, I found myself fairly pleased that it hadn't. The flip side of that, though, is that as the movie was playing out, it never quite seemed to manage the clever, weird, or really involving things it might have. It hits a lot of spots that mark a clear path but verges on making them a little too well-considered, and could use a bit of chaos.

The lawyer is Lee Yu Ran (Gwei Lun-mei), who demonstrates her cutthroat nature by intimidating the mother of a teenager who has been attacked her boyfriend. In her mid-thirties and never married, she's going to Germany to study in a few weeks, something that seems highly unlikely when she a truck smashes into her car. But, as Director Lee (Wang Jingchun) points out when she arrives in the "Terminal of Fate", she has arrived early, but so has someone else, who has moved on, so if Yu Ran could take her place for a week (they will update the "settings" for everyone else so as not to notice that Yu Ran still has her own name and face), she can get back to her own life. Of course, the folks at the Terminal didn't mention husband Zhang Tao (Kun Chen) or kids Xing Xing (Nana Ou-yang) and Tian Tian (William Wang Yuan-ye), and that nine-year-old Tian believes aliens have replaced his mother with a clone while she is on a trip to space.

Though the filmmakers leave some odd gaps when moving the plot along initially - most everything with the Terminal workers involves them withholding information from Yu Ran so that she'll seem foolish despite it being in their best interests for her to succeed - they prove pretty fair at using the look of the film to set tone quickly. The bits with Yu Ran's real life have a nice background detail like her martial-arts workout clothes being perfectly pressed for each obvious thing like her solitary dinner of rare steak and wine afterward. The afterlife is, of course, a Gilliam-esque bureaucracy, although not to pointless excess, and the life into which she is inserted is colorful but a bit faded. Director He Weiting and company are careful with their choices without ever pushing them so far that a viewer sees things as unreal.

Full review on EFC.

"Chi Chi" De Ai (DiDi's Dream)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2017 in Regal Fenway #7 (first-run, DCP)

This one really took me by surprise; the lowest-profile of three Chinese-language movies to open in North America on the same date, it wouldn't be a surprise if it were the scraps that someone had to settle for. Instead, it's an odd charmer, coming on like good screwball comedy and then getting much sweeter than I would have expected. It's genuinely eccentric but also impressively sincere.

Shangguan LingLing (Lin Chiling) is one of Taiwan's most popular actresses, a superstar about to start a new picture with legendary director Xia Wuji. Her younger sister, Shangguan DiDi (Dee Hsu Hsi-ti), is not so successful by a long shot, getting jobs at the fringes of show business in between auditioning for sadistic producers. Her boyfriend Button (Jin Shijia) is nice, though. But, just as DiDi gets news that encourages her to make a big push in her career, LingLing finds herself involved in a scandal that the studio producing her new film could use some distraction from, and casting the previously-obscure sister that she hasn't spoken to in years would do it.

Not that it starts out with that - no, it starts out in a noodle shop on a space station, with the camera doing one of those impossible tracking shots through a frozen moment in time. If it were just a genre fake-out like Pang Ho-cheung recently pulled at the start of Love Off the Cuff, it would be fun, but filmmaker Kevin Tsai Kang-yong shoots it so that it always looks like someone might have moved over in the corner, a bit of knowing artificiality which pays off just far enough from the expected way to get a bigger laugh than expected. Tsai segues from this to having a lot of fun with show business silliness, poking at how every dumb thing one sees on TV has somebody with greater ambitions behind it with some really well-executed jokes; there's a bit involving a line being a tongue-twister that scores even if one doesn't speak a bit of Mandarin because of how well the cast approaches it (I actually wonder how well it works for Mandarin-speakers; it's not actually subtitled in English until an end-credits callback, so I didn't realize what utter nonsense it was until then).

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

God of War

AMC Boston Common has taken to using a holding pen for movies that don't start within the next 25 minutes, which frustrated me a bit last night, as I had my 7:20pm ticket at 6:40 and would really have liked to use the restroom and concession stand upstairs before they got crowded with Wonder Woman folks. Ah, well.

Pretty small audience for this one, and I wonder why that is - have the students left for the summer, did this already get pirated despite only being released in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, or is the audience for Chinese movies here skewed toward romantic comedies (two of which also opened Friday)? Probably some sort of combination of the three, but the shame is that, despite mostly having trailers for Hollywood movies attached to it, I don't think I saw a preview for God of War on anything but Chinese movies at the Common, and I have to think that some people there for an action movie might have given it a look based on some of what we see in the final couple of battles, which are absolutely top-notch. Sure, they're speaking Chinese, but fists and swords are pretty universal.

Dang kou feng yun (God of War)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2017 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

Chinese military epics can have a bit of a tendency to blend together after you've seen enough of them, especially if you're in them for impressive action more than any sort of strong affinity for Chinese military history - there are a lot of forces pushing them to fit a standard script and prioritizing style over clean execution. God of War certainly falls into that trap for for a time, but makes an incredibly strong recovery at the end, serving up some darn impressive old-school action.

The year is 1557, and China is besieged by Japanese wokou pirates. General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) has been trying to rout a particularly dug-in group for months, but his predictable attacks are rebuffed by the pirates, mad dog Kohata (Ryu Kohata) making jokes about how disciplined the Ming Army is after surviving the latest noon attack. High commander Hu Zongxian (Wang Ban) thus opts to bring in younger, more creative general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao Wen-zhou), and though the pair clash, they soon come to appreciate each other's skills. The innovative new opponent does not go unnoticed by the wily samurai secretly commanding the pirate forces (Yasuaki Kurata), who begins to plan a daring three-pronged attack as Yu is caught up in politics and Jiguang seeks to train a new type of soldier.

Director Gordon Chan Ka-seung and action director Qin Peng-fei open the film with a few strong sequences that do a fair job of establishing tone and the general atmosphere without a lot of fuss: It's fast-paced and bloody, not shying away from the ugliness of war even as the audience gets a good look at the glory of its pageantry: The highly-detailed armor and demon-faced shields that the Ming Army sports, the pirates' fans that ripple like water as they hold the up to dazzle their enemies. The early scenes do a nice job of setting up enough interesting details to keep the film from just being heroic Chinese versus evil Japanese invaders, with interesting conflicts in both camps.

Full review on EFC.

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.08: Band Aid

Doing a quick skip to the end for IFFBoston postings because closing night film Band Aid is opening in some cities this weekend. Not Boston - it kind of looks like the festival was it, between what looks like a quick turnaround to VOD and the Kendall being short-screened right now. Maybe not a huge shame, although it underlines how it can be easier for Chinese romantic comedies to play here than American ones.


Left to right, writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones, producer Natalia Anderson, and Boston Globe "Love Letters" columnist Meredith Goldstein. Nothing against her, but I'm not sure what unique expertise she brought to moderating this Q&A, but I tend to wonder that about guest moderators anyway (and I don't recall the Globe being listed as a sponsor for the other explanation). But, hey, it was the last night, Brian, Nancy, and everyone else was probably wiped, so why not bring a fresh mic in?

The most interesting nugget to come out of the Q&A is that the film had an all-woman crew, which is pretty unusual but kind of fun to note, especially since the film is not as entirely about female-specific issues as the hypothetical film that does that, and while I (being a guy) tend to feel kind of odd about that, I do hope that the line on their résumé that they may not have had otherwise as producers perhaps follow unconscious biases helps them in the future.

The other fun question was that, yes, she and Adam Pally were going to do some shows as part of the promotion for the movie and the songs would be available on BandCamp (although I couldn't find it, not remembering the band name from the movie). Maybe a novelty that wears off quickly, but fun, which perhaps puts it in line with the film as a whole.

Band Aid

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2017 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Zoe Lister-Jones has kind of a cute idea for a movie, and for the most part manages to get it to 90 minutes without having to load too much extra into it. It can be kind of a near thing; it's a fair number of quick hits at easy targets and not a whole lot of insight when the time comes to get serious, so a lot winds up riding on how its jokes play for the audience. But that is ever the way with comedies, and this one hits more often than it misses.

It's about Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), married a while, feeling like they've underachieved career-wise, and getting to the point where it's kind of annoying that the only time they ever see their friends is at baby showers and kids' birthday parties, and that they aren't throwing those is a source of some tension. So they fight a lot. After goofing around with toy instruments at one of those parties, Ben finds his old guitar in the garage, Anna reminds him that she plays bass, and they decide to make songs out of all their fights, to get them out there and not directed at each other. It goes well enough to form a band with weird neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen) on drums, but they can't outrun the fact that, even if they've been making a game of it, they still clearly have problems.

Writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones doesn't get cute about building up to the movie's one-sentence description, nor does she drift far from it; at one point Anna says "we should make our fights into songs and sing them" and then the meat of the movie is them making songs about their fights and singing them. And even if these fights are often the staples of relationship-based stand-up comedy, the presentation is just different enough to make the punchlines work a little better and the point of view is just skewed enough in some cases to make a weird gag funny. That straightforward mission statement sometimes seems like it can lead to missed opportunities and misjudging how funny the other stuff is - Anna's rideshare fares seem like they'd work better as a running gag than a quick montage to illustrate how much her doing this rather than writing for a TV show like she should sucks (both spouses often seem to have only-in-Hollywood career issues), and there are also a fair number of drug gags that seem to operate on the assumption that watching people who are high is inherently funny as opposed to something that gets old fast..

Full review on EFC.