Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Because sometimes, on the day between two double-features of Oscar-nominated shorts, you want to see a goofy car-chase movie, and the one that’s playing has a good enough cast to be interesting. It was going to be leg two of a four-movie day, but I was kind of zonked at the end of this one, so I pushed the others off.

Anyway, I go back-and-forth on how much I liked this one; it’s got a lot of fun moments but some really dumb ones as well. Some good car-chase sequences, but not the type that make you say “whoa, how’d they do that”? Surprisingly capable, a few good lines, not particularly well-written.

One thing that did amuse me, though, was when the movie gets to the scene where the characters strip down to their underwear for less than no reason, Felicity Jones’s character winds up showing less skin than Nicholas Hoult’s because apparently her stockings count even though she just told him he couldn’t wear socks (it is an incredibly stupid scene). I like to think that this was negotiated in her contract, because why wouldn’t you grab that if you could?


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2017 in Regal Fenway #3 (first-run, DCP)

Somewhere in Hollywood, the show-business equivalent of actuaries run the vital statistics of each mid-sized genre movie through a formula to determine whether something merits a theatrical release or if it goes straight to the video-on-demand services. In the case of Collide, it would seem to be less one overwhelming variable than several having values that may not seem that great - you’d have to go a few spaces right of the decimal point to see them - but which, when added up, result in hard drives being sent to theaters rather than cable companies. There’s undeniably some fun in seeing its smash-ups on the big screen, but genre fans will probably be able to rattle off a half-dozen or so movies that deserved the spotlight more.

It chooses the German autobahn as the venue for its chases, although it spends the first act pretending one won’t happen, as American car thief Casey Stein (Nicholas Hoult) and American bartender Juliette Marne (Felicity Jones) meet in Cologne, but she says she doesn’t date guys involved in the sort of people he works for. So he quits, but it turns out that she needs a new kidney, and as a non-citizen she’s on the very bottom of the transplant list in Germany while she’d have to pay two hundred grand as an uninsured American. So Casey takes One Last Job for Turkish drug dealer Geran (Ben Kingsley), who is looking to double-cross Hagen Kahl (Anthony Hopkins), the seemingly legitimate kingpin who won’t bring him in as a full partner. This involves Casey and his partner Matthias (Marwan Kenzari) stealing a semi full of cocaine, and that sort of plan is almost guaranteed to go wrong.

There’s an enjoyable straight-line simplicity to this story, give or take a flash-forward prologue and a fair chunk of time getting Casey and Juliette met, together, and finally over a barrel, and there are times when it seems like filmmakers F. Scott Frazier (who came up with the story) and Eran Creevy (who directs) get a little too cute. That opening tease, for instance, shows a wreck involving a car and one of Hagen’s trucks, and while they’re clever enough to set up multiple situations where the audience might think they’re about to come full circle, setting up the same situation inevitably leads to repetition, especially when they’re also holding a little bit of information back in a way that seems unnatural; both would allow them to have more going on and the viewer not so aware of their playing screenplay games if handled a bit better.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 February 2017 - 2 March 2017

It’s Oscar week, which means studios and cinemas aren’t necessarily looking for this year’s great new movies, but rather trying to hold some screens for those trying to catch up before and after Sunday night. But...

  • ... one of the year’s best-reviewed so far does come out this weekend, a horror movie with enough buzz that it’s hitting some of the classier places too. That would be Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, whose trailer makes it look like a creepily Stepford Wives-ish thing where a young black man who makes the trip to visit his white girlfriend’s folks finds things more than a little off in their hometown. It’s at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Somerville Theatre, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    One of the screens at the Coolidge will also have a new release for the midnights this weekend, with Don’t Knock Twice looking like a kind of standard ghost story, but it’s directed by Caradog James, whose The Machine is one of my favorite genre films in recent years. The other screen will wrap the 1990s comic book series, with Blade on Friday and Batman Forever on Saturday, both on 35mm. On Thursday, they start the annual Francophone Film Festival in the screening room with Un Juif pour l’example, a Swiss film about would-be fascists trying to get Hitler’s attention.
  • The other multiplex releases are less heralded, with Collide maybe the best of the rest, with Nicholas Hoult in the middle of a chase to try and save girlfriend Felicity Jones, with Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley chewing scenery as the villains. That’s at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. There’s also Rock Dog, an animated film I haven’t even seen a trailer for, which has an anthropomorphic dog learning to play rock & roll despite the disapproval of his dad. That’s at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Bitter Harvest gets a smaller release - just Boston Common and Revere - because even though a movie about the Soviet Union violently annexing the Ukraine in the 1930s may be surprisingly current, it’snot coming in with a terribly noteworthy cast or good reputation.

    For whatever reason, Boston Common is bringing Why Him? back for a couple shows a day. More happily, Revere finishes up their month-long Disney weekend matinees with Dumbo playing Friday to Sunday. Boston Common and Fenway will also be doing more Best Picture Showcase shows this weekend.
  • One of the nominees for Best Animated Feature opens at Kendall Square and their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, and while you usually have to check showtimes to see if a Studio Ghibli production is playing in English or Japanese, The Red Turtle sidesteps that by avoiding dialogue entirely in its story of a man shipwrecked on a deserted island. It’s also the first movie Ghibli didn’t produce in-house, instead lending production support to a German filmmaker. Kendall Square also seems to be going the “charming” route with Kedi, a documentary on the thousands of stray cats that live in Istanbul (I’m guessing the kitty from Bad Cat is not among them). That one’s booked for one week.
  • New Indian movies at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond include Rangoon, a World War II-set film with Kangana Ranaut playing a Bollywood actress who winds up in the midst of a dangerous love-triangle as well as espionage. Less likely to be subtitled are Yaman (a Tamil thriller), Winner (Telugu action), Beautiful Manasugalu (Kannada action/romance), and Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol (Malayalam), with Ghazi and Jolly LLB 2 also continuing.

    They also have a couple of English-language indies this week, with Dying Laughing a documentary on stand-up comedy with a heck of a lot of good people interviewed that gets a couple shows a day. VooDoo is a “young girl comes to L.A. and finds something nasty” horror movie, buried at either noon (Friday-Sunday) or 4pm (Monday-Thursday).
  • The Brattle Theatre builds their schedule somewhat piecemeal, what with their annual Oscar party Sunday night, but at least has a lot of film on tap: Friday and Saturday start with matinees of Bugs Bunny Film Festival “Looney Tunes Revue”, while the evening has special engagements of Cinemania (a documentary about extreme cinephilia celebrating its 15th anniversary) and a return engagement of The Love Witch, all three on 35mm.

    After the Oscar Party, the DocYard and UMass Boston screen Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four on Monday, with director Deborah S. Esquenazi on-hand to talk about her film that helped get the women of the title exonerated after over a decade in prison. Then on Wednesday, they begin their ”Women Who Built Hollywood” series with a free 35mm Elements of Cinema screening of The Women, continuing on Thursday with a double feature of “Et la femme créa Hollywood” and The Wild Party (the second on 35mm), the former a documentary on the forgotten women behind the camera of early cinema and the latter Clara Bow’s first talkie, directed by Dorothy Arzner, who (it is said) invented the boom mike during its production. The series will continue into next week.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Ryusuke Hamaguchi for a couple of in-person events - Friday’s screening of “Touching the Skin of Emptiness” will be followed by an in-depth conversation, while Saturday’s mammoth Intimacies will start at 3pm so that its four-plus hours can get in and still have time for Q&A afterward. Hamaguchi isn’t scheduled to appear with Sunday afternoon’s screening of The Depths, after which the Archive will finish up their Ha Gil-Jong and the Revitalization of the Korean Cinema series with 35mm prints of Heavenly Homecoming to Stars 2 (Sunday 7pm) and Byongtae and Youngja (Monday 7pm)
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps up their February schedule with more Stanley Kubrick & Frederick Wiseman. The Wiseman films are Essene (16mm Friday), Meat (16mm Sunday), Welfare (16mm Sunday), and Canal Zone (16mm Wednesday); the Kubricks are Eyes Wide Shut (Friday), Barry Lyndon (35mm Saturday), Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (35mm Saturday), and The Shining (Saturday). Thursday is the monthly “On the Fringe” screening, starting March off with a 35mm print of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
  • Add The Somerville Theatre to the list of places playing the Oscar Shorts this year; they have screenings of the Live-Action and Animated Shorts on Friday and Sunday, while the Coolidge and Kendall Square have them all week. The ICA will be screening the documentary shorts on Sunday afternoon, and the animated shorts Thursday evening. The Somverville will also start their 35mm repertory programming for the year with a print of Gaslight on Wednesday the 1st. To make a little room, 20th Century Women and Moonlight move over to The Arlington Capitol.
  • The Bright Lights program in the Paramount Theatre’s Bright Screening Room looks to offer sharp contrasts this week, although there’s a pattern if you squint beyond both free programs (as always) being followed up with faculty discussion. Tuesday’s show is The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylish horror piece about a young girl trying to become a model in Los Angeles; Thursday’s Untouchable is a documentary about a Florida lobbyist who pushes through a tough sex-offender law, with the film (perhaps uncomfortably) looking at both the victims and the people who have been made pariahs by the law. Before that, though, ArtsEmerson’s “main” film program will be screening Queen: A Night in Bohemia from Friday to Sunday.
  • The Regent Theatre as what seems like their first film programming in a while on Friday and Saturday with The Sunshine Makers, a documentary on two of the hippies who did the most to popularize LSD in the 1960s.
  • The Rockwell in Somerville (formerly known as the Davis Square Theatre, much to the consternation of their neighbors), has a silent with live music by house band Noxaphonic on the first Wednesday of every month, and this week’s selection is the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore. It’s not the greatest venue for such things (the room is set up for concert-in-the-round and last month they projected a public domain DVD), but the music is pretty good.
  • This week’s only-at-CinemaSalem presentation is Neruda, with Gael Garcia Bernal as a policeman tracking down the poet of the title (played by Luis Gnecco) after he declared himself a communist and thus became an outlaw in 1930s Chile.

Got a lot of Oscar-nominated shorts to see, and will also try and catch The Red Turtle, A Cure for Wellness, Lego Batman, Don’t Knock Twice, and a couple other things around the Academy Awards and anticipated long days at work.

The Great Wall

I don’t read a lot of reviews before writing, but I’ve seen enough (and seen enough reporting on same) to get the impression that The Great Wall wasn’t particularly well-received in either China or the USA, to a certain extent because each thought that it was too much made for the other. I suppose, then, that this might have been why I liked it so much; as a guy who unapologetically likes both big Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese action, halfway between is likely a sort of sweet spot for me, especially when there’s a bit of goofiness to it. Maybe it was also a case of a stressful period at work and really wanting to see Matt Damon, Jing Tian, and Andy Lau kill some monsters.

Especially Andy Lau. I was genuinely shocked to discover that this was his first Western movie; as much as he’s a superstar in Asia and thus doesn’t really need exposure on the other side of the Pacific - I saw a movie a year or two ago where he cameo’d as himself with the point being that he’s as hugely popular a singer now as he was twenty years earlier - that was the case for Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, and the like in the years before the Hong Kong handover. Given how often he had co-starred with them, how many of their movies would at least partially shoot in Hong Kong, and how he just works a ton, you would think that he would have had a supporting part in something over the last twenty-five years, but that’s not the case. Perhaps that’s why, when I pointed out to a friend who likes Hong Kong movies that this was Lau’s first role that a lot of Americans would see, he didn’t know who the guy was, even though once he started looking on IMDB, he’d seen a lot of things with Lau in it.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t seem to be a hit, and I’m kind of amused at how hard it’s apparently proving to be to make one of these “world market” movies meant to play in both China and America work. Skiptrace went pretty much straight to VOD here; Rogue One was a big hit but not nearly the breakout in China you’d expect. XXX: Return of Xander Cage apparently did pretty good in China, but not so well here. The Great Wall does okay in both spots.

Not being able to deliberately crack the code is probably all to the good, though; I’d much rather get movies with diverse casts being made by people who legitimately have global influences than something made in a lab to calculatedly appeal to disparate audiences.

Oh, and the half-written opening I mention below starts by noting how the Universal logo naturally tends to fall on North America, so focusing it on China so that this movie could do a zoom-from-space not only meant a weird sort of eclipse effect so that we didn’t see it turning all the way to China, but when the continents were visible again, the globe was spinning the wrong way. Hard not to see it as a metaphor if you’re looking for it, and I wonder if the animators were thinking about that as they executed the instructions to make the logo more dynamic.

The Great Wall

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

I had a whole opening paragraph about how even the animation of the studio logo at the start of The Great Wall served to illustrate how the current attempts to engineer world-wide hits that played equally well in China and the West was a fool’s errand, but then something unexpected happened: The movie was kind of fun. Sure, in some ways director Zhang Yimou and his pan-Pacific team sometimes stumble into a good time, but it’s mostly a matter of creating an amusing, pulpy adventure story rather than getting caught up in what the producers have riding on their work.

It kicks off from the Western perspective, with a group of mercenaries having rode six months and lost many of their party in an attempt to reach China and acquire their mysterious “black powder” superweapon, but their numbers are cut even further when they’re attacked, and good fortune leaves just William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) alive, with a severed arm that is not human and green blood on on William’s sword. Fortunately, they reach the immense Great Wall of China soon after that, and while General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) leans toward killing the outsiders, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau Tak-wah) thinks that what they’ve seen could be useful in the fight against the monstrous Tao-Tie. Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) needs to be convinced, while William and Tovar can’t help but notice that the other Westerner there, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), hasn’t been allowed to leave since he came on a similar quest decades ago. The three of them may be able to escape if they work together, but William is starting to see a nobility in this fight.

These sort of clash-of-culture stories can be difficult balancing acts; one only has to look back a couple of weeks to the twin “Chinese guys have adventures in India” movies that came out for the lunar new year to see how easy it is to stumble into banal platitudes or tacky caricatures. Zhang mostly keeps the “clash” part of it low-key, letting Matt Damon show how impressed William is at the scale of the Wall and skill of the army within it via glances that are more curious than wide-eyed. There’s an elegance to how Zhang and the Western writers generally tend to build the film around celebrating the Chinese values of stability and everybody pulling in the same direction while still finding ways for William’s out-of-the-box thinking to be a major contribution without ever elevating one too far over the other, let alone making on-screen points about it. That William and Lin are going to have to learn to work together and bring their unique talents to bear on the problem is a given; that they’ll just do it without anybody making a speech about it is certainly not.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Cook Up a Storm

Thought not really a romance at all - it’s not even really bromantic in terms of the two male leads becoming close friends - Cook Up a Storm opened on Valentine’s Day and, because that was a Tuesday and there were various previews, other openings, and special events the rest of the week, it wound up having four different schedules in its first four days, which worked out okay for me because, as it slid back from nearly 8pm on Tuesday to just after 6pm on Friday, I was able to match it up with my schedule attending the Sci-Fi festival. It’s trickier than it sounds, because that one is scheduled very tight - in part because, during the winter, the Somerville Theatre doesn’t generally have 9pm shows from Sunday to Thursday, so they want the fest’s show going in pretty early (or the festival doesn’t want to pay to keep the theater open later; it works out the same way). So, if I’m going to see something at any place other than that theater, it can be tough matching the way multiplexes stretch things out to the one-after-another scheduling.

Fortunately, this not only ran at 6:45pm on a night when I figured I wouldn’t bother with Westworld, having just seen it on the big screen a couple years ago, but it had an unusually short preview package (just The Great Wall and The Devotion of Suspect X), so I had a fair amount more time to get up the Red Line than I expected. Still, getting to Boston Common by 6:45pm from Burlington meant no chance to actually eat, and while I’m no foodie - to be perfectly honest, I am a complete culinary coward - it seemed vaguely wrong to grab a concession stand pizza and soda to eat during this movie.

Pretty sparse crowd, and I wonder why that is; it’s a fairly fun movie with a nice cast, and I wonder if Hong Kong/Cantonese just doesn’t draw as well in Boston as China/Mandarin movies, or if the weird release date threw people, or if maybe Magnum is a bit behind China Lion in rallying a crowd. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this, but it still seems like a bummer. I also kind of wonder if it’s a bit delayed - there’s a goofy New Year’s thing at the end, but I’m pretty sure Chinese New Year was a couple of weeks ago.

Kuet zin shek san (Cook Up a Storm)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

There are certain themes I see in every Hong Kong movie that makes it to America these days, even though it’s kind of simplistic and patronizing to expect the changes in the city and its relationship to the rest of the world - basically, the reason why Hong Kong makes the papers - is going to be the focus of any film made there. For better or worse, it’s part of Cook Up a Storm, but so is everything else; the filmmakers are cramming about five different food movies into this one. The jumping around makes it kind of hard for any one story to really grab the audience, but there’s something kind of nice about how this allows its small stories to stay small rather than get too caught up in self-importance.

It mostly takes place in two restaurants across from each other on Spring Avenue, which has long been the culinary center of Hong Kong. “Seven”, named for its founder (Ge You), has been there for thirty years, serving Cantonese favorites at their very best. The current head chef is Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse Ting-fung), the nephew Seven took in twenty years ago when his father left to travel the world. “Stellar” just opened across the street; it’s a well-financed gourmet spot where Sino-Korean chef Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa) and his assistant Mayo (Michelle Bai Bing) tend toward European cuisine. It doesn’t take long for Paul & Mayo to rub Sky and his girlfriend Uni (Tiffany Tang Yan), Seven’s manager, the wrong way, which will play out in a number of ways, from impromptu cooking demonstrations to the attempts by Stellar’s owners to redevelop the whole street to a televised competition on “Chef Please”, the winner of which will go to Macau to compete against “God of Cookery” Mountain Ko (Anthony Wong Chau-sang).

My eyebrows raised a bit at what folks were calling Mountain, although it doesn’t seem as though there’s any connection between this and Stephen’s slapstick comedy by that name akin to the way that the recent From Vegas to Macau movies link to the God of Gamblers series; it must just be a common Cantonese phrase. Instead, director Raymond Yip Wai-man and writers Manfred Wong Man-chun, Liu Yi, and Hana Li Jing-ling combine two or three light dramas: There’s the story of a neighborhood institution keeping on in the face of gentrification here, a rival between local traditionalism and international fusion made personal there, a shocking personal betrayal for one chef and a family schism for another. That’s not a bad set of things to have running in parallel, but instead they wind up going in sequence, creating the feeling of jumping around, plots resolved without getting time to simmer, and no feeling of the stories having something similar at their base and being united.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 February 2017 - 23 February 2017

Ah, President’s Day, the first day of the year where I put in for time off from work just to watch movies.

  • It is, as usual, when the 24-hour-marathon portion of the finish of The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival finishes, although there are two days coming before that, with horror night on Friday and a full slate on Friday. It’s at The Somerville Theatre, which fills the extra screen it’s got open after that finishes up with three screenings of the Banff Mountain Film Festival world tour from Tuesday to Thursday. They also pick up I Am Not Your Negro and add it to the non-festival line-up.
  • Elsewhere, the Chinese movie gets a big release this week, with Zhang Yimou directing The Great Wall with an international cast including Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Andy Lau fighting the lizard monsters that the Great Wall of China was built to keep out in spiffy-looking 3D. Fun fact: This is apparently Andy Lau’s first English-language film, which amazes me; a fixture of Hong Kong films when Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat were coming over to Hollywood, he never even had a supporting part here in twenty years. Weird? At any rate, it’s at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX 3D), Revere, and the SuperLux. Boston Common also keeps Duckweed around, as well as Cook Up a Storm, a fun Hong Kong cooking comedy that is goofy as heck but also kind of charming.

    Also coming out this weekend is Fist Fight, with Charlie Day and Ice Cube as high school teachers who wind up at odds and, like their students, wind up with one far more enthusiastic about throwing down after school than the other. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. The other big opening is A Cure for Wellness, with Gore Verbinski directing a creepy looking horror movie wherein a low-level executive is sent to a strange clinic to bring the CEO back, and, honestly, I’m kind of shocked that he hasn’t done more straight-out horror in his career. It’s playing at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    It’s a smaller opening for Everybody Loves Somebody, which comes from Mexico and stars Karla Souza as a woman who has her American co-worker pose as her boyfriend at a wedding, only to run into her ex there. That one plays at Boston Common and Revere.

    If you’re way behind on Oscar movies, both Boston Common and Fenway are having Best Picture marathons/season pass situations this weekend. Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere and the SuperLux are all having their final screenings of the Newsies Broadway musical on Sunday and Wednesday, and Revere continues their February Disney screenings with Frozen from Friday to Monday.
  • Kendall Square and West Newton both open a couple of noteworthy films this week. Toni Erdmann is a much-lauded (and Oscar-nominated) comedy from Germany about a weird father/daughter relationship, recently optioned for an American remake. There’s also A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo as an African king who falls in love with a white woman in London, even though their marriage could cause massive controversy in his home country. That one also plays Boston Common.
  • The Salesman expands to The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the The Arlington Capitol, with the Coolidge having a special screening Sunday afternoon featuring a post-film panel discussion. The Coolidge also switches out the Documentary Oscar Shorts for the Animated & Live Action Oscar Shorts programs, which also play at CinemaSalem, Kendall Square, and (on Sunday and Monday) The ICA.

    At the Coolidge, the 1990s comic book midnight movies continue with The Crow on Friday and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday, both on 35mm. They also have a Goethe-Institut film Sunday morning, with All of a Sudden being a nifty-sounding mystery. There’s also a special screening of Oklahoma City on Wednesday, with the documentary tracing the events that led to what is, in many ways, still the defining act of domestic terrorism in the United States.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a pretty big slate of Indian movies coming out this week. RunningShaadi.com is a goofy-looking comedy about two friends who come up with a service to help people escaped arranged marriages, while the other two are more action-oriented: Irada is an anti-terrorist thriller, while Ghazi is a submarine movie set during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. I think the first two are subtitled, and am even less sure about the third. They also keep legal comedy Jolly LLB 2 around.
  • With most area schools on vacation next week, The Brattle Theatre has its annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival, presenting two programs of vintage Looney Tunes on 35mm. The “All Bugs Revue” plays Friday, Sunday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, and Thursday, while “Daffy Duck and Friends” screens Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday. Check the calendar, though, because there are a couple of special programs - the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Ceremony takes place Sunday evening, with Guy Maddin and Peter Flynn in person, the former showing some new shorts and the latter his documentary The Dying of the Light. Tuesday, meanwhile, is the monthly “Trash Night”, with this month’s piece of schlock being something called “Hologram Man”.
  • The Harvard Film Archive gives most of the schedule to Ha Gil-Jong and the Revitalization of the Korean Cinema, showing films such as The Ascension of Han-ne (Friday 7pm on 35mm), I-eo Island (Friday 9:15pm on 35mm), Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (Sunday 7pm), and I Am Looking for a Bride (Monday 7pm on 35mm). The film playing in between is the end of their Jonas Mekas series, with As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty having an early start at 6pm on Saturday because it’s a 4-hour-45-minute 16mm beast.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts still has more Stanley Kubrick & Frederick Wiseman to play this February. Those looking for Kubrick will get to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (35mm Friday), Eyes Wide Shut (Friday), A Clockwork Orange (35mm Saturday), Lolita (Sunday/Wednesday), and Barry Lyndon (35mm Thursday). f your taste runs to Wiseman, you’ve got the options of Law & Order (16mm Friday), Juvenile Court (16mm Saturday/Wednesday), Titicut Follies (35mm Saturday), High School (35mm Sunday), and Welfare (16mm Thursday)
  • Emerson’s Bright Lights program in the Paramount Theatre’s Bright Screening Room is a bit more academic and student-targeted than usual this week. Tuesday’s program is Other People’s Footage with directors Diane E. Carson and Robert Johnson on-hand to give examples of films made of pre-existing material and the cases where it is both legal and laudable, while Thursday’s Daylight Exhibitions is a “concert of 16mm films” made and presented by faculty member Robert Todd.

My plan is to live at the sci-fi festival until noon on Monday and then catch The Great Wall, Lego Batman, and some others after I’ve rested up but good.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2016.01: Anti Matter & Teleios

Another year, another one of these, and since my goal for 2017 is to try and have a healthier relationship with both movies in general and this blog in particular, I’m going to try and not stress out so much over this festival, where I’ve often dragged myself to every possible screening and then spent more time trying to get at least six paragraphs per film onto eFilmCritic because nobody else is likely to review them, even when I can’t muster that sort of enthusiasm for many. That’s not much good for anybody - not a festival I want to do well enough to be able to do better, not filmmakers who are trying to get distribution, not my mental health. That’s not to imply that I’m going to skip over talking about the stuff I don’t like, but I’m not going to force myself to do anything.

So, how’s it going this year? Writing this a few more days into the festival than just the one, things are going okay. I haven’t seen a great movie yet, but only one real stinker (we’ll get to that on day 3), and a fair amount of stuff that the sci-fi junkies who attend this can justify spending their time on for one or two things. Technically, things have gone better; the terrible BD player/office-quality projector/whatever was causing everything not projected from a DCP or film to look terrible last year has been upgraded, which is a real plus. That was a thing that really tainted my enjoyment in years past, which may seem small but which magnified any bad feelings I might have had. Similarly, I kind of remember the blizzard year where Sunday seemed to basically be running things off the schedule in random order for the five of us that made it more fondly because it was at least a good story. There was a slight hitch as Teleios started without sound, leading to some “hilarious” folks feeling free to make comments, which is always a bummer - like the other environmental factors outside the actual film itself, this sort of thing can really mess with how one feels about it.

Anti Matter (2016)

* * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Like a lot of films built around a central mystery, Anti Matter would probably be better off just laying things out and exploring its situation rather than holding things just out of reach. It would solve two problems, diminishing the import of its terrible technobabble and not forcing it to lean so hard on a twist that a large portion of the audience will see coming. Instead, the filmmakers hold back, not as obviously or ineptly as some other films in the festival, but enough that it’s disappointing to see just how little discovery there is at the end.

And that’s something that a decent core cast can’t really overcome. Yaiza Figueroa is capable enough as the grad student whose accidental discovery of potential teleportation suddenly seems to have even her partners turned against her even as her own memory becomes suspect; as those partners, Tom Barber-Duffy is pleasant but bland while Philippa Carson is enjoyably spiky, while all three sell the increasing agitation that the situation has them feeling without it necessarily reflecting frustration with the film itself. Unfortunately, Carson and Barber-Duffy get weaker as the script calls upon them to become more oblique and the lower tiers of the cast are often pretty terrible.

Writer/director Keir Burrows has a decent idea or two - Ana’s calls from Oxford to her mother in America are often awkwardly staged (right down to the flag behind her), but there’s a nugget in there about her history disappearing in her mother’s move even as her ability to create new memories is broken that could use a little nourishment and better connection to the main action. The main story that emerges, unfortunately, is kind of empty; aside from being propped up on a mix of fake physics, chemistry, and biology that never sounds like a possible situation to explore rather than a hand-waving explanation of what the filmmaker wants to do, the finale never quite convinces that its moral compass is aligned, leaving out what seems like an important bit of motivation and having the last important decision made based upon whispered information to which the audience is not privy.

You can probably guess the gist of it, of course, but that’s half the problem - there’s never much in the way of interesting surprises, either in terms of what happens or how it’s done, and in attempting to build a mystery, Burrows holds back what could have made the movie interesting.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

I suspect that I may be giving writer/director Ian Truitner a little too much credit for clever resource management when I wonder whether, when writing this film, he recognized that he probably wasn’t going to be able to afford both the visual effects he wanted and a particularly great cast, and so built it so that he could get away with just one person in the cast showing any sort of nuance, with the rest mostly robots or genetically-engineered supermen who thus act a bit weird. More likely, he was just able to get what he needed on a relative bargain during the casting process, giving the rest of the movie a little bit more wiggle room.

I suppose it stinks as an actor to be just thought of as “good enough” (at least until you’re Keanu Reeves and casting directors know how to slot you into parts that play to your strengths and make your weaknesses mostly-irrelevant), but it works out to be something of a boon as this film starts, with Commander Reginald Linden (Lance Broadway), hot-for-each-other specialists Emma Anderson & Chris Zimmer (Christian PItre & T.J. Hoban), Doctor Orson (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), and pilot Iris Duncan (Sunny Mabrey), five “GC Humans” just out of stasis on a mission to see what the heck happened on a station orbiting Titan. It’s a group of performances that mostly hit a fairly limited number of notes, but that works for the movie; when the crew has to be condescending to the sole human survivor (Weetus Cren) in a way that’s not particularly helpful, it’s something the audience doesn’t exactly question; it makes the one who has an actual personality pop as things go on.

The rest of the film is capable enough, in some ways fun to look at as it embraces some of the goofier bits of old-fashioned low-budget sci-fi movies: The futuristic uniforms that may technically be unisex but are tight enough to show off the crew members’ assets (they don’t exactly seem to come off the rack), there can be quick jumps from optimistic space exploration to outright nastiness, and pop-culture references that have a sort of knowing futuristic anachronism. At other times, it plays like a bottle episode of Star Trek (or one of many similar shows) where the producers know they might not have the budget to bring everyone back the next season, so all bets are off. Admittedly, that’s not necessarily the most ambitious framework for a feature film - there’s not a lot of new ideas or arrangements of existing ones here - but it at least looks slick enough, with decent effects and production values, that it won’t be a particularly disappointing find for those that have it recommended by the streaming service of their choice.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


I mentioned in the “Next Week” post that it was kind of frustrating that a bunch of good stuff (or at least interesting stuff) came out the same weekend that the sci-fi festival started, so there’s a lot of choosing spots and hoping other stuff will stick around. Lego Batman and John Wick 2 look like they’ll hang around, but the Chinese movie with the weird name? Maybe not.

The local audience, at least, seemed to like it; there were a couple name-drops and references that I naturally didn’t get, but that’s to be expected. It probably didn’t help me any that I’d read the latest volume of the Back to the Future comics that IDW is doing with Bob Gale - a case of how having the creator involved can really cause things to click into place in a way that other revivals don’t - and that made comparisons to those movies more inevitable and unfavorable.

I wonder if some of the weakness I found was a matter of dealing with the censor board; I note in the review that you can kind of see the bad element in this town as being connected to Hong Kong, but I wonder if filmmakers get kind of skittish about (non-Monkey King) fantasy, and so they had to build this so that any time-travel bits could just be a dream, cutting off what they could actually do with the story.

Ceng feng po lang (Duckweed)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

The credits for Duckweed include thanks for the”wisdom” of James Cameron’s The Terminator, Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time, and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and though I haven’t seen the second, I wonder if seeing wisdom as the take-away from the other two is what makes Han Han’s time travel fantasy seem so bland and unambitious.

It’s a little surprising, given how popular nostalgia pictures have been in China over the last few years, that there haven’t been more time travel fantasies made recently, although this one is kind of weird in how it jumps the gun: It opens in a 2022 that does not appear particularly futuristic, showing famous rally car driver “Lang” Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) winning a race and then calling out the father who didn’t believe in him. He then takes the father on a drive, to show him what he does, only to get hit by a train, have his entire life flash before his eyes, and then wake up in 1998, where father Zhangtai (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) runs a video store and karaoke bar, fights against a rival “gangster” who is barely bigger-time than he is (Zhang Ben-yu), though his gang is basically unemployed computer programmer Ma (Dong Zi-jian), dim bulb Liu Yi (Zack Gao), and now Lang. Oh, and he seems to be about to marry Hua (Zanilia Zhao Li-ying), which is not the name of the mother that the born-in-1999 Lang never met.

Zemeckis and Cameron took the potential paradoxes that time travel introduced and built both odd families and stories that worked intuitively despite their strangely circular construction, but Han seems so uninterested in playing with the timeline that one almost has to wonder why he made Lang come from the future in the first place; he seems only sporadically interested in ensuring his own birth, and what jokes there are about him being from the future are utterly perfunctory and never actually lead to anything. The parts of the plot that actually involve him encountering his own past are resolved in the most anti-climactic way possible, even when certain revelations would seem to raise the stakes, give Lang a new mission, or even make him ponder about whether the events he feels held him back have actually made him who he is.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Monster Fest 2016 04: The Hollow Point, My Father Die, Safe Neighborhood, etc.

And that is a wrap on my first trip to Monster Fest, and if it winds up being my only one, it will have much more to do with the time and place than anything about the festival itself - I had a great time, but given that Melbourne is crazy far away, the festival takes place on what’s Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, and I don’t want all of my vacation time being reserved for a rotating set of festivals versus seeing new places, it will probably be a few years before I go Down Under again, despite really just having the best time.

The absolute funniest thing about this trip? I was alerted to the festival’s existence by a letter from Kala Hier, who does publicity for a lot of genre films and festivals, figured it was a pretty great excuse for a vacation, and got down there only to discover that not only was Fantasia vet Kier-La Janisse the director and head programmer, but Nicole McControversy and Evrim Ersoy were also programming the festival and introducing films - the funny part being that they do the same for the Boston Underground Film Festival, even having their wedding on the Brattle stage before on film there. Both of them also found it pretty hilarious to travel all the way around the world only to run into people from home (well, former home, since they’ve relocated to London despite still coming back for BUFF), while also understanding that the whole deal where, at least at the Lido, settling into one’s seat before the show was supposed to start was just not how things are done in Australia, even if “arrive early” is always part of the instructions at every festival I’ve attended in North America.

As they were working, I generally only saw them introducing shows, but they did take a little bit of a break on Sunday afternoon to catch Mystery Radio Theatre doing a live performance of ”Maxie Diablo and the Funky Funky Sex Murders”. While I admit that I kind of go more for honest pastiche than this sort of spoof, it’s a good time, I also laughed quite a bit. They performed it in the Lido’s “Jazz Room”, a cozy little space used for small musical/spoken word performances, tucked away under the main screen (if I’ve got my geography right).

Hey, there’s Nicole, hosting the Q&A for Safe Neighborhood with producer Brett Thornquest and editor Julie-Anne DeRuvo! You wouldn’t necessarily know it to watch the film, but it was made in Australia, maybe with one or two exteriors in North America. Most of the cast was Australian as well, although even with most of them being fairly young, they managed American accents pretty well. It was funny; the guests talked about how Levi Miller was already doing enough in the way of starring roles that he was looking for something to serve as a change of pace.

(Somehow not mentioned: That he and Olivia DeJonge, who played the sitter his character has a crush on, played brother and sister in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit not long before making this movie. Weird!)

Thornquest did find the distribution situation kind of amusing - with this film set at Christmas and finished late enough that it was making the festival circuit toward the end of 2016, it would probably be late 2017 before it was hitting theaters, kind of a risky proposition for a film that is built around a bit of a twist; if it keeps playing festivals, I imagine any secrets might be well out there by the time it hits theaters. He also mentioned that, even before they started shooting, financiers and distributors were asking about sequel plans, which means I should probably groan about people asking that question at festival screenings much less. They are kicking around some ideas, although given that the cast is young and a sequel probably wouldn’t be greenlit until after this came out, they might have to be flexible.

Anyway, that let out and I decided to make that the end of my festival. There was one show left - the closing film was The Greasy Strangler followed by a “Greasy Gala”, and if I’d received a press pass, I probably would have felt obligated, but I never really got to the point of not being jet-lagged and I filed that movie as not-for-me when it was playing midnights at Fantasia. Instead, i stopped off at one of the surprising number of schnitzel places you can find around Melbourne, had some food, and then rested up to play tourist the next day.

And there was much playing tourist for the next week. I really can’t recommend Melbourne enough for folks who want a winter vacation, and Monster Fest for those who live in Australia and like horror & genre movies. I probably won’t be doing this specific trip again any time soon, but I certainly look forward to visiting Australia again!

The Hollow Point

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #4 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Because I work a full-time job in addition to writing movie reviews, covering a festival can mean the final reviews trickle out a month or two later, as reliant on notes taken during or right after the screening as first impressions, and does that ever reveal disposable genre movies like The Hollow Point for the minor works that they are. It just doesn’t make much of a long-term impression, although maybe that’s better than seeing the movie’s name and groaning.

It takes place in a border town that was a popular place to smuggle guns ten years ago; now the locals are smuggling bullets so that the narcos can keep using the guns. A drop gone wrong has a couple of transporters getting samples of their cargo, but it also puts Sheriff Leland (Ian McShane) out of commission. His replacement, Wallace (Patrick Wilson), is a younger, by-the-book type who grew up there and seems to have rubbed all his old neighbors the wrong way, though he’s still cordial with his ex Marla (Lynn Collins). The trail he follows will lead through a sleazy used car dealer (Jim Belushi) and an efficient killer who likes to disguise himself as a police officer (John Leguizamo), but can he follow that trail to its end without becoming the same sort of rule-breaking cop his predecessor was?

It’s not a perfect barometer, but you can tell what sort of a video-on-demand-destined movie you’re looking at by considering the cast. The ones with complete nobodies will likely have to be good in spite of the lack of resources, and maybe only one or two people on the set really have the talent to make it interesting (not always the case, but more often than not). The ones with someone who used to be a big star, they’re often kind of bizarre - that guy is going to run roughshod over an inexperienced director, or joined up because he saw something unusual/interesting enough to get attention and maybe climb back to theaters. There are the folks who are super-famous within a certain niche, dependable in terms of delivering something specific. And then there are the ones like this, chock full of people like Patrick Wilson, John Leguizamo, Lynn Collins, and Ian McShane - the people who seem capable enough, and have been in movies people like, but never broke through to the point where they’re the reason anyone but a select few eccentric fans buys a ticket. They star in movies like The Hollow Point, professionals putting in a solid shoot’s work, making the movie watchable in that the folks gathered around the TV aren’t going to mock it but not getting a chance to elevate the script into something more interesting with their performance.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #4 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

What director Riyana Kasmawan and writer Hannah Passmore are trying to get across with “Dummy” isn’t exactly complicated, and the way it does so will likely be fairly familiar for those who watch short films on a regular basis, but they do a pretty fair job of it anyway. You can predict the beats of this story of a kid who goes out and “befriends” a discarded mannequin without a whole lot of trouble, but the craft is quite nice.

The simplicity is perhaps the film’s greatest asset. It introduces a silent kid (Kieran Cochrane) left to his own devices when the brother mean to look after him (William Freeman) instead heads into the bedroom with his girlfriend, and then doesn’t bother with a whole lot of extra detail. He could be mute, he could just be introverted, but it doesn’t really matter; it makes him easy to ignore. What’s important is that what affection anybody in the film is shown is on the rough side, and that tendency is passed down as he plays with the mannequin. It’s not exactly chilling psychopathy - there’s probably a reading where his taking frustration out on an inanimate object is better than on people like others do - but the cycle is important: He decides to treat this thing as a person, and then he decides not to, and that’s the decision that matters.

Kasmawan puts it together nicely; the area around the brothers’ house is run-down enough that one can feel a bit of isolation and not be surprised stuff is just being tossed outside nearby, but not so much as to seem pitiful, and the play-acting is kind of cute and sad but not transcending. The arc of the story pushes forward steadily, hitting all the stops without short-changing or dragging. It doesn’t sound like much, but fifteen minutes doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, and this one manages to avoid stepping wrong.

My Father Die

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #4 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

The title of My Father Die may not be great in terms of English grammar, but in terms of describing the raw rage that drives the characters in this movie, it seems perfectly reasonable: The building blocks of what someone feels without all the formal niceties, ready for action (although I wonder if it’s close to how one might express an idea in American Sign Language). This movie gets overheated at times, but is committed enough to that temperature that it works out pretty well.

It’s pretty basic - when Asher Rawlings was a kid (Gabe White), he idolized his big brother Chester (Chester Rushing) despite being fond of the same girl, though both feared their father Ivan, and for good reason - the prologue ends with him beating Asher so violently as to cause permanent hearing loss, and as the film proper opens, it’s just Asher (Joe Anderson) and his mother (Frances Reagan James) living in a run-down shack in the rural South, and she isn’t of much use. When Sheriff BIllings (William Mark McCullough) comes by to say that Ivan (Gary Stretch) has been released from jail, Asher doesn’t think twice about what comes next: He’s going to get Ivan before he gets them, although he’ll make enough of a mess of the attempt that he’ll wind up pursued by a state detective (John Schneider) and wind up hiding out with Nana (Candace Smith), that girl he and Chester always had the crush on.

Writer/director Sean Brosnan does not spend much, if any, time worrying about the rightness of Asher’s goals; Ivan is a monster from the word go and there’s never much doubt that no good will come of waiting for him to do Asher’s family some harm before they fight back. This is not a great attitude to have in real life, but in this sort of movie, the lack of time wasted before getting to the spot where we were always going to wind up is kind of refreshing. The important thing is that Brosnan doesn’t let Asher feel entirely good about doing what he can to win a rigged game; though there’s never much doubt about what he needs to do from the start, he constantly seems to be asking himself if this is a step too far, especially when Nana and her son Chess (Jonathan Billions) are involved, or when the fact that he doesn’t exactly have the skills to execute his violent instincts rears its ugly head.

Full review on EFC.

”Do You See What I See?”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #4 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

Given that it’s mostly playing at genre festivals, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Justin McConnell’s & Serena Whitney’s short film “Do You See What I See?” takes a turn by the time its fifteen minutes play out, and to be completely honest, it doesn’t completely stick the landing. Even if that’s a sticking point for some viewers, they’ll probably be inclined to be generous, and not just because this one is set at the Christmas season. It’s good enough at being what it initially seems to be and clever enough in what it becomes that the two not quite fitting isn’t a huge deal.

What it appears to be, at first, is a snarky comedy with Caleigh Le Grand as Sloan, a wiseass at a twee Christmas party organized by her sister Jessica (Jorja Cadence) and her put-upon husband Jimmy (Adam Buller), who meets the one guy who isn’t a parody of married suburbanites (Emmanuel Whitney-Alexander), only to find out it’s a set-up before… Well, it played before a Christmas-themed slasher, you go ahead and guess. Still, it works; Whitney & McConnell give the characters some pretty funny lines which the cast, especially Le Grand and Whitney-Alexander, execute with cheery sarcasm. And even when they’re not quipping, they manage to capture how, while it’s clear that this group occasionally exasperates each other, they’re fond of one another. It’s not one of those movies where the only hint that the characters are friends/family is in the exposition.

McConnell and Whitney let the horror material enter the picture relatively slowly rather than just flipping a switch, which works out fairly well, and do allow things to get enjoyably messy along the way. This does mean that they don’t get a whole lot of time to play with the horror premise; even if it’s not quite a movie-ending twist, it still seems like a bit of a waste that they don’t get to do more. Indeed, walking out of the theater, I found myself wishing that this and the feature after it had their lengths switched; this seemed like a fun idea you could play with or dig into without it becoming a grind.

Safe Neighborhood

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #4 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Talking about something being fun when it comes to horror movies probably strikes non-fans as bizarre even at first glance, with trying to do so in specific terms raising the ante to alarming, and trying to do so without spoiling the surprises marking the speaker as completely insane. So, pardon me if this review of Safe Neighborhood makes me sound nuts, because my feeling conflicted on it being fun or not extends right down to the premise at its very core.

It takes place shortly before Christmas, with Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and Robert Miller (Patrick Warburton) heading out for a friend’s Christmas party, leaving son Luke (Levi Miller) with Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). Given that Luke is 12, you’d think he’d bristle at this arrangement, but Ashley is super-cute and watches horror movies with him most nights, so he’s got a heck of a crush. Tonight, he tells his friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), he aims to do something about it, but that’s before they start seeing signs that there’s someone trying to break into the house.

With the burglars spending much of the movie just out of sight and only Ashley’s boyfriend Jeremy (Dacre Montgomery) having much of an unmasked role beyond the people have been mentioned, this a movie where a strong cast is a must, and the mostly-young group tends to deliver. Olivia DeJonge captures that Ashley is pretty bright and self-aware while still coming off as fairly inexperienced; for instance, the scene where Ashley tells Luke that, yeah, she’s still with Jeremy despite his flaws plays as her obviously being more mature than Luke but still figuring that sort of thing out himself, not a wise or condescending adult. Levi Miller, meanwhile, plays Luke as having way too much confidence, clearly clever enough to outwit a set of home invaders but obviously messed up about what lines people will cross and how folks think generally. The secondary folks are fun too; Darce Montgomery and Ed Oxenbould play off DeJonge and Miller naturally, gaining both laughs and making enough of an impression that the audience will feel some loss if they’re knocked off on the way. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen make little more than cameos as the parents, but their scenes sing.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 10 February 2017 - 16 February 2017

Typical; not a whole lot to get me excited about going to the movies, and this week, when it’s time for the event I go to more out of hope than enthusiasm, all sorts of things I want to see elsewhere.

  • Probably not the greatest set-up for The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, but long-time readers of this blog are likely fairly familiar with my difficult relationship to this event: I always hope that the week of independent sci-fi/genre films that lead up to the President’s Day marathon will include something great, but it tends to require a lot of sifting and some frustration with tech screw-ups and weather. I’m hoping that the apparent greater involvement of host venue The Somerville Theatre augurs good things; at the very least, they’ve got a nice set of family-friendly stuff for the weekend afternoons (April and the Extraordinary World, Fantastic Planet, Castle in the Sky, Fantasia/Fantastic Fest selection Nova Seed), a lot of shorts, a schlock triple-feature, and a pair of throwbacks.

    This means that they don’t have much time for Valentine’s Day stuff, but their sister cinema, The Arlington Capitol, will be screening the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac, featuring José Ferrer and Mala Powers, at 7pm on Tuesday the 14th
  • And the stuff that looks fun? Well, there’s The Lego Batman Movie movie, which appears to zero in on one of the funniest parts of The Lego Movie - how a comic book character who has often been cool in a fun, goofy way, is often made absurdly serious. Oddly, in terms of exhibition, the Imax shows, for whatever reason, are only in 2D around here, though there are plenty of regular 3D shows. It’s at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Studio Cinema Belmont (2D only), Jordan’s (Imax 2D), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 3D), Revere (including MX4D & XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Speaking of sequels that initially seemed unlikely, John Wick: Chapter 2 features the return of Keanu Reeves’s assassin who just wants to retire, a new dog, and supposedly even more amazing action and cool world-building that the surprisingly great first one. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. For those who want something else from their sequels, there’s Fifty Shades Darker, which has more of what the first had, I guess. It’s at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway (including RPX), Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Revere continues its February Disney Weekends with Aladdin matinees from Friday to Sunday, and, boy, would I try to be making it out there for that if it were any other weekend. Revere, Assembly Row, and Fenway will also have An Affair to Remember on Sunday and Wednesday, while there will be screenings of the Newsies Broadway musical at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux on Saturday afternoon and Thursday evening.
  • Kendall Square gets Oscar-nominated Iranian film The Salesman, in the news lately since director Asghar Farhadi can’t attend the ceremony because of the travel ban, although the fact that he tends to make really good movies and this one, about a couple who find both their relationship and lives imperiled after moving to a new apartment, looks pretty good should be enough. They’re also among the first in the area to play the Animated and Live-Action Oscar Shorts, I believe with a full complement. The shorts also play at CinemaSalem this week. In addition, Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro expands to their sister cinema in Waltham (the Embassy) and Boston Common.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre, meanwhile, gets the Documentary Oscar Shorts, as usual split into two programs because these tend to push the length definitions of a “short” (they also play at CinemaSalem as one long program).

    In addition, their February midnight program of 1990s comic-book movies continues, with Friday night featuring The Shadow in 35mm and Saturday featuring Tank Girl. I love both of these non-ironically. If you prefer to get up early than stay up late, Sunday morning’s Talk Cinema preview is The Ottoman Lieutenant, a love story taking place in World War I Turkey. Monday’s almost-Valentine’s Day Big Screen Classic is The Lady Eve, while Wednesday features both Open Screen and the AAS Science Film Showcase, a Science-on-Screen special with scientists and the producers of five science documentaries speaking and showing excerpts from their productions.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond is pretty terrible about announcing when their English-language indies have special guests, such as when writer/director/star Jack Fessenden and producer/cast-member Larry Fessenden show up Friday night to present Stray Bullets, a thriller that the 17-year-old Jack made over the last few years, featuring teens finding what they think is an abandoned trailer in the woods, only to find that it’s actually housing fugitives. The distributor’s event page also includes Saturday, but since it also shows a similar event in New York that evening, I’m guessing it’s actually one night only. Speaking of that, they’re also giving a super-thin booking to 1 Night, which has two couples figuring out things out in a hotel; it appears to only be playing 11am shows through the weekend, moving to 1:30pm on Monday.

    The big opening for their Indian slate is Jolly LLB 2, with Akshay Kumar taking over the title role in this Bollywood comedy (with subtitles) about a small-time lawyer who manages to find himself trying a major case. They also keep keep Telugu biopic Om Namo Venkatesaya, Singam 3 in subtitled Tamil and Telugu, Telugu comedy Nenu Local, and Kannada comedy Kirik Party.

    On the Chinese side, Boston Common keeps Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back around, though it loses the Imax room, with Duckweed opening on Friday, with Deng Chao having a near-death experience that sends him back in time to the 1990s, where he meets his younger parents (Eddie Peng & Zanilia Zhao). And while it’s not on any of the ticketing sites yet, the distributor has Cook Up A Storm, a Hong Kong flick featuring a the chefs at a neighborhood take-out spot and a fancy Michelin-starred place facing off on a televised competition, opening Tuesday night. It stars Nicholas Tse and Tiffany Tang and is directed by Raymond Yip.
  • The Brattle Theatre, as is traditional, celebrates Valentine’s Day with a week of Great Romances. It kicks off on Friday with single features of Carol and Purple Rain (the latter on 35mm), with Saturday offering a double feature of Wings of Desire & Amélie while Sunday has a 35mm pairing of Roman Holiday & The Philadelphia Story. Tuesday and Wednesday are, of course, Casablanca on 35mm, with The Princess Bride (booked when they thought they couldn’t get Casablanca this year) playing at 10pm.

    In between, there’s a DocYard screening of The Russian Woodpecker on Monday, with director Chad Garcia attending in person to introduce his Sundance-winning documentary which started out as an investigation into Chernobyl conspiracy theories but wanders through amid the conflict between modern Russia and Ukraine.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Jonas Mekas for a visit on Friday and Saturday, showing a 16mm print of Walden: Diaries,Notes, and Sketches the first day and a pairing of Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man with an excerpt from his “365 Day Project”on Saturday.

    Sunday and Monday, on the other hand, are given to their Ha Gil-Jong and the Revitalization of the Korean Cinema series. Yoo Hyeon-ok’s Flame plays Sunday at 4:30pm, Vow of Chastity that day at 7pm, and Kim Su-yong’s A Splendid Outing on Monday. All three are on 35mm film.
  • Along with Friday night’s already-sold-out screening of Moonlight (with panel discussion afterward),The Museum of Fine Arts continues their parallel retrospectives. The week’s Stanley Kubrick films are Killer’s Kiss (16mm Friday) A Clockwork Orange (35mm Saturday), 2001: A Space Odyssey (35mm Saturday/Thursday), The Shining (Friday), Full Metal Jacket (35mm Sunday), and Spartacus (35mm Wednesday). Frederick Wiseman is represented with Essene (Friday), Primate (16mm Saturday/Thursday), Basic Training (Sunday), and Meat (16mm Wednesday).
  • This week’s Bright Lights selections att he Paramount Theatre’s Bright Screening Room both played Fantasia last summer, although I only caught one there. Some Freaks, on Tuesday, was the one I missed; it stars Thomas Mann and Lily Mae Harrington as high school outcasts who find things getting odd after their first year of college. Director Ian MacAllister McDonald will skype in afterward, with producer Sarah Edrie and composer Walter Sickert there in person. On Thursday, they have the pretty terrific Under the Shadow, which has a woman in 1980s Tehran possibly being haunted even as the city evacuates; a panel discussion will follow.
  • The Museum of Science has recently added ”Journey to Space” to its roster of Imax films; this Patrick Stewart-narrated featurette looks at the future of space tourism and the possibility of manned missions to Mars.
  • Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will be accompanying Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances at the Aeronaut Brewery on Sunday
  • Though their main series won’t start for another few weeks, the Belmont World Film has been running a short series on the global refugee crisis; this Thursday’s finale, All of Me, comes from Mexico and tells the story of a group of women who meet the trains full of immigrants passing through on the way from Central America to the United States. It’s at the Belmont Public Library, and though free, an RSVP is required. It’s co-sponsored by the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which is also one of the sponsors of a free screening at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall on Sunday, The Heart of Nuba, which follows a doctor in the Sudan who single-handedly runs a hospital serving the Nuban people.
  • .

I’m going to try and be a bit more selective at the sci-fi festival this year, hopefully avoiding obvious crap and giving myself more time to do something else or catch the other stuff I want to see this week; otherwise it’s early Saturday shows.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons & The Demons Strike Back

Clearly, the best way to get me to actually watch my DVD/Blu-ray collection is to release a sequel to a movie in it; in order to be prepared for the cinematic viewing, I will watch that movie the night before (and, if I fall asleep, the next morning), but if it’s just a matter of the movie sitting there, nope, I’ll just go on Amazon to see if the movie that comes before whatever Chinese release for the weekend is streaming. You laugh, but I’ve got a copy of Trainspotting on order, because I somehow have not watched that in the past twenty years despite really liking Danny Boyle, Ewan MacGregor, etc., and I just saw a trailer for T2.

I was a bit surprised to see that The Demons Strike Back got a two-screen release at Boston Common, with one screen split between normal 2D & 3D DCPs while it played in 3D in Imax. It looks like a pretty last-minute thing, with there being far less audience for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter than anyone thought (the other non-museum Imax theaters in the area bumped its second week in favor of La La Land). It’s always kind of fun when a Tsui Hark movie gets that sort of release; he has dug big special effects for a long time and his remake of Dragon Gate Inn with Jet Li was one of the more entertaining uses of the giant 3D screen I can remember. This one wasn’t quite at that level, but still a lot of fun, and pretty well attended despite the theater apparently charging full price for a matinee screening.

Gung fu yu ga (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3/4 February 2017 in Jay’s Living Room (catch-up, Blu-ray)

Watching a movie twice in fairly short order is a luxury I don’t often afford myself - there are, after all, so many new things to watch that it seems like a bad idea at times, but I’m glad that I nodded off toward the end of my first viewing of this so that I felt the need to re-watch with different assumptions. I came in looking for a fairly typical Stephen Chow comedy and a typically Monkey King-centric version of Journey to the West, and found myself impatient the first time through; seeing it as a horror-comedy paired with a romance that is both endearingly sweet and goofy revealed just how impressive was Chow and co-director Derek Kwok managed was.

Horror comedies like this are hard, after all; how do you make something legitimately scary if you’re also trying to get laughs at the same time? In this case, it’s by skillfully mixing monster attacks that have deadly consequences with physical comedy that is always based upon the humans and their skills in fighting their attackers - whether supernaturally gifted or stumbling about, they never undercut the sense of danger. The set-up is always honest comedy with increasing danger, a recipe for being able to laugh without dismissing.

And the romance? Well, having Shu Qi is huge. She imbues expert demon-hunter Duan Xiaojie with plenty of tomboyish vigor, but it’s her ability to take that confidence and translate it into assurance that she finds this goofy looking guy worthy because of his moral code that makes them an interesting pairing rather than just the typical nerd fantasy of the beautiful girl falling for the dork (although Miss Duan being a pretty big goof on her own helps even it up). The complementary routes that they take to get the point of being together are spiritual in their own ways - it’s not just them falling in love, but something greater, the woman of action recognizing the greatness of holding strong to principles rather than just expediency, while he learns that devotion to “higher” goals does not mean one must forgo earthly ones. It’s a story that allows them to meet someplace much closer to the middle than usually happens in popcorn movies, even as the finale gives this discovery a lot more weight.

Plus, you know, it’s really funny, with Chow’s slapstick no less certain for being the first time he’s constructed it for other people rather than himself. Indeed, the material in here could have worked quite well if Chow had gone with the completely spoofy take originally envisioned; that he stretches himself in a couple different (and seemingly opposite) directions is a real treat.

Da nao tian zhu (Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

For all the noise some critics made last year about Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid being “hidden” because they hadn’t been paying attention to how release patterns and promotion for Chinese movies had changed, Chow’s previous film is the one that is truly overlooked: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was a shockingly good take on an oft-told tale, providing not just the expected slapstick and action but some genuine horror and thoughtful romance that all but went straight to video in America. It’s a tough act to follow, even with fellow Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark in the director’s chair, although when The Demons Strike Back disappoints, it’s less for its actual shortcomings than for only being the movie its predecessor appeared to be.

As it opens, monk Tang Seng (Kris Wu Yi-fan) and the three demons that he and Miss Duan captured before - fish creature “Sandy” Sha Wujing (Mengke Bateer), “Pigsy” Zhu Bajie (Yang Yiwei), and Monkey King Sun Wukong (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) - are voyaging to India to bring the original 22 Buddhist sutras to China, and it’s not going well: Not only are they broke, but Tang is sick, and the demons are starting to figure out that he may not be able to summon the Buddha’s Palm that defeated the Monkey King at will. And there are monsters everywhere, whether it be a mansion infested by spider demons; Bi-Qiu Kingdom with its childish, rejuvenated king (Bao Bei-er) and lovely prime minister (Yao Chen); or Rivermouth Village, home of young songstress “Felicity” Xiao Shan (Jelly Lin Yun).

Chow’s 2014 movie was, in many ways, set-up for this one, a movie-long lead-in to Tang Seng going on the grand adventure for which the series is named, but the set-up it left was intriguing, emphasizing that Tang Seng’s traveling companions are not just mischievous spirits, but killers, with Sun Wukong having devastated Tang in particularly cruel fashion and not having the others’ backstories of being decent people driven to a demonic state by rage. That tension is kind of thrilling when Hark focuses on it - there’s real danger in the distaste that Tang Seng and Sun Wukong have for each other, and it makes Pigsy and Sandy seem like a little more than the simple comic sidekicks they are often played as. The trouble with that, in this case, is twofold:

Full review on EFC.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 3 February 2017 - 9 February 2017

I think that at least two of this week’s movies have pushed from last year, which isn’t a great sign, but there’s a Tsui Hark/Stephen Chow movie in Imax 3D, so that’s cool.

  • The Space Between Us, for instance, was tagged for a mid-December release, but decided there was no need to be a sci-fi film coming out at about the same time as Rogue One. It looks like it’s based upon some popular young adult novel, but it’s a original, with Asa Butterfield playing the first child born on Mars and Britt Robertson as the girl on Earth that he falls for. Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino are in it, too. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Also opening after a delay is Rings, a follow-up to the American The Ring movies that upgrades the series’s villain from a haunted VHS tape to streaming and other digital platforms (in Japan, they’ve crossed it over with the Grudge movies). That one’s also at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Not necessarily a lot of awards expansions going on, although some places will be adding an 8-minute behind-the-scenes segment to Arrival, while La La Land grabs the Imax screens at Jordan’s Furniture and Assembly Row. Moonlight does (re)open at the SuperLux. For special screenings, Fenway has Sailor Moon R: The Movie: The Promise of the Rose on Friday and Saturday, while Revere begins a month-long animated Disney series with screenings of Alice in Wonderland from Friday to Sunday. There are also 25-year-anniversary screenings of Wayne’s World at Fenway on Tuesday and Boston Common on Wednesday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square open IFFBoston Fall Focus selection I Am Not Your Negro, a pretty great documentary based upon an unpublished book by James Baldwin about the civil rights movement that evolved into being as much about Baldwin himself. The Coolidge also kicks off another month of midnight comic book movies, this time focusing on the 1990s, with Michael Jai White as Spawn on Friday night and Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher on Saturday, both in 35mm.
  • The Brattle Theatre also has something from the Fall Focus, nifty horror movie The Autopsy of Jane Doe, with Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as small-town coroners examining a very peculiar body, running all week. There are a couple of special screenings as well, with an IFFBoston preview of A United Kingdom on Tuesday and author John Darnielle introducing Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets on Wednesday.
  • Kendall Square doesn’t just get the Baldwin movie, but is also among those opening The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro as one of New York’s most famous stand-up comics who, though he his career is on the ebb, may be able to reinvent himself by mentoring someone younger. It’s also at the Embassy, Boston Common, and Revere. The Kendall also has a “Deconstructing the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’” lecture on Monday, while they and Fenway have screenings of the animated version of Ghost in the Shell on Tuesday and Wednesday. Not sure whether it’s the original or remastered “2.0” version; Kendall has subtitles on Tuesday and a dub on Wednesday, though I’m not sure how Fenway is playing it.
  • In addition to last week’s Lunar New Year programming of Buddies in India & Kung Fu Yoga, Boston Common gets Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back both in Imax 3D and regular 2D/3D shows. It’s the sequel to the Stephen Chow film from a couple years back, though Tsui Hark is in the director’s chair this time.

    Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond keeps Raees and Kaabil around, and also adds Telugu comedy Nenu Local, Tamil action/adventure Bogan, and Kannada college comedy Kirik Party, with Saturday screenings of Marathi romance Ti Saddhya Kay Karte and Malayalam drama Jomonte Suvisheshang. Singam 3 returns in subtitled Tamil and Telugu on Wednesday, and Telugu biopic Om Namo Venkatesaya opens Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins a monthlong Ha Gil-Jong and the Revitalization of the Korean Cinema series this weekend, with the first selections being The Pollen of Flowers (Friday 7pm), Woman of Fire (Friday 9pm), March of Fools (35mm Saturday 7pm), Yeong-Ja’s Heydays (35mm Saturday 9:30pm), and Night Journey (Monday 7pm). On Sunday, they have two 16mm prints of Jonas Mekas films - Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania at 5pm, and Lost Lost Lost at 7pm.
  • This month’s “On the Fringe” screening at The Museum of Fine Arts is Abel Ferrerra’s Ms. 45 at 8pm on Friday. Aside from that, they continue their two filmmaker focuses, with The Shining (Friday), Paths of Glory (35mm Sunday/Thursday), and Fear and Desire (35mm Thursday) by Stanley Kubrick and Hospital (Sunday/Wednesday), Basic Training (Sunday), Law and Order (Wednesday), and High School (Thursday) by Frederick Wiseman.
  • The ICA has their last two screenings of a program of last year’s Sundance Film Festival Shorts on Sunday.
  • Bright Lights has a couple of good ones in the Paramount Theatre’s Bright Screening Room next week, as always for free and followed by discussion. Tower plays on Tuesday, with animation director Craig Staggs on hand to talk about transforming a documentary into something different, while Loving will be followed with a Skype discussion with producer Sarah Green/
  • CinemaSalem remains kind of nifty-looking, as they are the only guys picking up the release of Studio Ghibli’s The Ocean Waves in the area (though not new, this has been part of the touring series but never had a release of its own before now).

Time to buckle down; aside from Journey to the West, there’s a bunch of catch-up to do before the sci-fi festival starts up in a week.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Lunar Year in India: Kung Fu Yoga & Buddies in India

I planned these two as a Saturday double feature with The King an Resident Evil 6 arranged somewhat differently over the weekend, but it didn’t quite shake out that way, but this is fine; seeing them back-to-back would have probably had me comparing them more directly, and since neither of them are much above average, that probably wouldn't have been good for them ("movie B can’t even do thing X as good as movie A? Ugh, what crap!"). This got them their own play, which is more fair.

I do have to do one direct comparison, though: I enjoyed the ending song for Kung Fu Yoga a whole lot more than the one for Buddies in India; Farah Khan choreographic a big dance number with Jackie Chan looking goofy and some CGI assistance (the camera moves around and catches the same actors in multiple spots of a massive set-piece) is much cooler than what looks like footage of an uncomfortable holiday variety show appearance promoting the film.

Gung fu yu ga (Kung Fu Yoga)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

There’s a peculiar paradox to Kung Fu Yoga coming out roughly a month after Railroad Tigers (with their American releases even closer together): It demonstrates that he’s still popular enough to open movies on holiday weekends in short succession, and that he can keep grinding them out, but they also make it clear that he’s not what he was as a martial-arts star these days; even reunited with Stanley Tong, the director of some of his best-known films, he seems a bit faded, still showing skills but delegating the good action a bit more.

Heck, the film opens with (presumably) motion-captured animation, telling the tale of a Chinese General who visited India in 647 AD, returning with a treasure meant to convince the Emperor to intervene in a civil war, but the bulk of his party was lost crossing a frozen lake. At least, that is, until Beijing archaeologist Professor Jack Chan is visited by an Hindu counterpart, Asmita (Disha Patani) who suspects that an unreadable family heirloom may reveal a map using Chinese scanning and restoration technology. It does, so Jack and Ashmita follow, along with not just grad students Xiaoguang (Zhang Yixing), Nuomin (Muqi Miya), and Kyra (Amyra Dastur) but treasure-hunter Jones Lee (Aarif Rahman), the son of one of Jack’s colleagues. Also following: Bombay billionaire Randall (Sonu Sood), who believes the treasure is rightfully his, especially when it turns out to be the sort of find that includes an artifact that points the way to an even bigger trove.

The movie isn’t out of its first scene in the present day before it’s making obvious references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, though there’s something to be said for stealing from the best. Tong’s script seems kind of half-baked in a lot of ways, as though he discovered a neat piece of history and then glued the easiest pieces to find onto it in haphazard fashion: There are things meant to be romantic pairings with no sizzle, folks who switch sides or are revealed as not being what they seem without a whole lot of consequence, characters who enter and leave in such a way as to feel that their story purpose could have been accomplished in a more entertaining way, abrupt and disconcerting shifts in situation, and an ending that basically amounts to throwing up his hands and saying he’s done. There are a lot of lines where Tong seems to feel the need to balance his intended message of Chinese and Indian friendship with the Chinese boosterism expected from Mainland movies, offset a bit by the Chan character’s persistent humility.

Full review on EFC.

Da nao tian zhu (Buddies in India)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Though Kung Fu Yoga likely has the higher American profile of the two Chinese movies involving weird, action-filled trips to India released to coincide with the Lunar New Year, Buddies in India actually had the bigger opening weekend in China. The directorial debut of star Wang Baoqiang, it’s colorful and silly, often to the point of tackiness, though usually funny in spite of itself.

It opens at the home of Wu Kong (Wang), which aside from being full of the monkeys he trains is also notable for being surrounded by a massive excavation, as it is smack dab in the middle of the site of a new skyscraper. Tang Sen (Bai Ke), the son of the construction company’s owner, is attempting to drive him out, but so far Wu and his monkeys are repelling all attacks. Things take an odd turn when Tang’s father has a heart attack while watching the video feed, and his dying words are that his will is located in India, and he thinks that Tang should have Wu’s protection when going to retrieve it. Wu reluctantly agrees, and they are met by a local employee of the company, Zhu “Piggy” Tianteng (Yue Yunpeng), and the trio start out on a quest that will have them cross paths with Wu Jing (Liu Yan), a one-night stand of Tang’s who is still upset years later; two bumbling assassins hired by Tang’s uncle; and a bunch of local eccentricity.

A quick look at the names will alert one that this road movie is at the very least inspired by one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West (and most ubiquitous - another comedic take on the material is opening the very next week!), although it is thoroughly contemporary and, a couple of throwaway jokes aside, non-supernatural. People with more experience with the story can weigh in on how closely it tracks the source material, but it’s a fun way for Wang to give his movie a little structure - road movies can get away from a filmmaker if he doesn’t nail a few things down - along with a few fun bits of inspiration: The opening take on the Monkey King’s “havoc in heaven” is a fun action scene to kick things off with, and one can sense the love in a cameo at the end of the film even before the credits make it explicit.

Full review on EFC.