Wednesday, January 25, 2017

This Week In Tickets: 9 January 2017 - 15 January 2017

Eventually, these will come earlier in the week, but it's been nuts.

This Week in Tickets

The difference between the new apartment and where I was last year doesn't seem like much, but it's just chilly enough that I'm not knocking movies off at the Somerville Theatre like I was before. So, all I managed this week was Jackie, which was an interesting sort of thing.

Similarly, I haven't wound up getting to as much of the Busby Berkley program at the Harvard Film Archive as I've planned, but the double feature (with bonus cartoon!) of short-ish films was too tempting to resist that night, so I caught "Night World" and Fast and Furious, which had nothing to do with speeding cars.

Saturday was spent catching up on other things, but also involved sleeping in too late to catch the early show of A Monster Calls that was the only time it was playing locally on its second weekend. Not bad, and, as a bonus, it let out at just the right time to turn around and see Hidden Figures right afterward. You can tell that they fit into the same niche (mostly family-friendly movies meant to both gather awards and get crowds) from how they both had just about exactly the same trailer package attached.

Then, one afternoon of errands and such later, I went in to the Brattle to see Train to Busan, which I had loved at Fantasia and found to hold up pretty darn well.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

Jackie is a weird one, but that is sort of the point - while the loss of a loved one will leave anybody at sea, losing a husband in such a public, horrifying fashion, and then being expected to be the public face of the country's grief while having the basic details of her life upended in ways that other widows don't. It's got to be a disorienting experience, and the filmmakers heighten that by cutting back and forth in time, switching up the cinematography, and sometimes seeming to present First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as three different people.

It's her job as presenting Jackie that way that makes Natalie Portman's portrayal fascinating. The devastated, hollowed-out version of the woman in the immediate aftermath of the assassination is the most raw and, in some ways, most unfiltered, but there's something downright amazing about how she and director Pablo Larrain, though building the film around a framing sequence that suggests the title character is very much in control of her public image, still manages to come off as unaware and uncertain during her time in the White House and after the assassination, leaving the audience curious about whether this moment crystalized who she was or whether she had been playing at being less capable than she was. Portman is masterful with all that, capturing her odd way of speaking and genuine uncertainty, showing this woman as both very easy to relate to and in an entirely different world.

"Night World"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 35mm)

The HFA programmed "Night World" as part of a program with another short feature and a cartoon, and that's probably the best way to see it. It's a slight thing, less than an hour, but with enough plot threads that there's not much time to do much with many of them, especially because there's a few Busby Berkeley dance bits in there too. For all that it's got a bit of everything, it feels a bit too small and lightweight for a feature film. It's not wholly satisfying, but it can be a fun part of an evening at the movies,1932-style.

And it's got a fun cast in the main parts: Lew Ayres plays a young heir whose father was recently killed, and Mae Clarke the chorus line girl who takes a shine to him and tries to keep him from falling apart. They're cute. What's really fun, though, is Boris Karloff as the club owner/manager; he'd just had his first turn as Frankenstein's monster the year before, but it hadn't yet consumed his career. Here, he's the likable manager of the club, kind of paternal toward Ruth but involved in something dangerous around the margins and suspecting that his wife is cheating on him; it almost seems like a glimpse of another direction his career could have gone. And then there's Clarence Muse as the doorman. Most of Muse's career is uncredited train porters, and he's playing that sort of uneducated servant here, but he's got a meatier character, observant and worried about his wife in the hospital, giving an experienced counterpoint to the younger cast.

The short running time sometimes feels like things have been left out, and it comes home to roost at the end, when the light melodrama gets nuts and violent. It's weird, since most of what leads to it is missing, and the plotting gets dumb, rather than just thin. This sort of B-movie is meant to be disposable and have the audience immediately move onto something else, which is good enough.

"Puzzled Pals"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 16mm)

Did you know there was another "Tom & Jerry" cartoon series before MGM and Hanna-Barbera created a certain cat and mouse? No? There's good reason for that, if "Puzzled Pals" is indication; they're not very good. Not stunningly bad, but like a lot of animation from the early thirties, kind of unnatural in its bouncy movement, tending to draw out gags and lean on the soundtrack. In this case, the jokes aren't great, so the short isn't either.

It's kind of interesting, though, with its opening featuring a stork finding itself turned away from every house claiming to be quarantined or full-up; though you can often see a certain darkness creeping in around the edges of these Depression-era cartoons, it's seldom that direct. It leads to a few goofy jokes about the unwanted baby winding up in the home of brothers/buddies/whatever Tom & Jerry, and disrupting their attempt to put together a jigsaw puzzle, which... Well, it isn't much of a story, and as the really great folks at Disney, Warner, and Fleischer would later show, the formula for animated success often has much more distinctive characters than this pair doing something that maybe doesn't have a huge arc, but at least provides a bit more of a moment of satisfaction than "Puzzled Pals" does.

Fast and Furious

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 16mm)

No fast cars in this "Fast and Furious" movie; it, instead, is the second sequel to Fast Company, a 1938 mystery comedy in the vein of The Thin Man. All three films were written by Harry Kunitz, who wrote the original novel, with this one directed by Busby Berkeley, though it lacks his signature dance numbers. It's a demonstration of how tempting it must have been to recreate The Thin Man, and how hard it is: Those films floated on the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, but the "Fast" movies recast their married sleuths with each film, apparently never finding the right pair.

Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern, the actors playing married booksellers Joel & Garda Sloane in this version, don't get much in the way of good material to work with here. The actual mystery plot, once it gets started - a beauty pageant promoter murdered, with any number of mobsters, partners, and lovers potentially suspects - is actually pretty decent, even if it does have a few weird shifts in whether people are suspects are not. It's the comedy parts that don't really work; most are just absurdly broad, and while those are kind of funny at times, the bits getting the Sloanes to the crime scene, with Joel acting like a dope trying to hide that he's invested in a beauty pageant and been named a judge, then being even more ridiculous when any beautiful woman crosses his path. There's further goofiness involving a lion tamer, another example of how what seems like an easy sell as a joke can be deceptively difficult to pull off.

So, all told, it's kind of a pale imitation. Although, to be fair, I may possibly be docking it half a star for repeated use of the phrase "bathing beauties" in the dialogue. You can caption a photograph, but it sounds ridiculous coming out of someone's mouth in 2017, and probably sounded just as silly in 1939.

Hidden Figures

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

It is very encouraging, really, to see a movie about black ladies doing math and programming computers doing well at the box office; it is the sort of thing that one sometimes expects and fears won't be popular with the general population. Heck, I was surprised just how large and crowded the theater in which it was playing was. It just goes to show you, though, that a good movie on an interesting subject will sometimes get people in the theaters.

A movie about "doing math" is almost certainly going to come off as dull, and truth be told, director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schoeder (working from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly) don't spend a whole lot of time on just what sort of calculations the "computers" played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer do, especially when the job involves creating new kinds of math, although it's impressive that their skills do not come across as generic: Henson's Katherine Johnson is skilled with raw math and physics, Monáe's Mary Jackson tends toward engineering, and while Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan starts out as mostly management but soon learns FORTRAN. It's not technical, but it gives the audience a feel for the work without getting bogged down in it, and reinforces just what an accomplishment the space program was.

It's also a civil rights picture, of course, albeit a very genteel one; PG-rated and with the ladies facing adversaries that range from people who just haven't considered that these women might be good at math to those who are clearly prejudiced but not entirely overt about it, not the sort that poses danger to life and limb. It's mild, poking at how absurd and counter-productive the racism and sexism they face rather than venting anger. It's something that is a bit out of the ordinary these days, but lets it work as a aspirational story.

The cast is certainly nice, though, certainly helping Melfi make things move smoothly. Henson takes center stage, doing a fine job of portraying Johnson as someone who can easily get lost in numbers but also a grounded and likable family woman, with Spencer and Monáe not playing foils but providing different sorts of contrast as practical, witty friends who nevertheless have their own stories rather than being sidekicks. And while Kevin Costner must be getting kind of grumpy about playing the guy that needs to learn minorities are just as good as white folks, his natural scorn for nonsense makes a good counterpoint.

Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves, DCP)

It is really gratifying to see that a thing one liked at a festival holds up, and, man, does Train to Busan ever hold up. It's a thrilling, exciting zombie movie that doesn't necessarily create anything new, but stages a couple of great action sequences, and a better set of emotional cores for its ensemble cast than most. It was also especially fun to watch it with a better handle on the connections with Seoul Station than I had the first time.

Plus, after the disappointment of Railroad Tigers, it's good to be reminded that putting action on a train makes it 28% better.

Full review (from Fantasia) on EFC.

Night World & Fast and Furious
A Monster Calls
Hidden Figures
Train to Busan

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