Saturday, April 29, 2017

Love Off the Cuff

As I mentioned in the other day’s “Next Week in Tickets” post, the weekend of Independent Film Festival Boston is the best time for me to try and see a number of Asian films that will likely be pushed off screens by a big Marvel movie next week, so I try and cram them in where possible. In this case, that means the 10:15am show on Saturday morning, but the new Pang Ho-cheung movie, and a sequel to two I liked at that, means you find a way.

I do have a few questions after watching it, though. Looking at my Love in the Buff review from 2012, I noted a ten-year age difference there, while they are described as 36 and 40 in this movie. It’s believable enough, in that Shawn Yue has filled out a bit in the last few years, but I wonder if this is a deliberate change or just a matter of different translations. I’m also kind of curious about how specific some of the pop-culture references are, especially when characters are name-dropping during a song at the end. How specifically Hong Kong is it?

Chun Kiu gau Chi Ming (Love Off the Cuff)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

Pang Ho-cheung’s Love Off the Cuff looks like a period horror movie as it opens (especially for those of us that can’t read the Chinese opening titles), and this bit goes on long enough that a viewer might start to wonder whether the theater had ingested the wrong DCP into their projection system. It says something that, despite having paid for a romantic comedy, I’d have happily watched this monster movie; no matter what he’s doing, Pang has a sense of fun even when he’s playing something straight. That’s what makes this one pretty good when it does finally deliver the expected; Pang and his cast can make this silly while still finding something real to consider in the characters’ relationship.

For those who came in late, Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue Man-lok) and Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung Chin-wah) met eight years ago when their smoke breaks coincided and started going out even though she’s a few years older than him; they split but eventually reconnected when both were transferred from Hong Kong to Beijing. Together ever since, they’re now back home, and things have been going well, although they’ve maybe fallen into a rut, despite the public indecency charges they are hit with early on. For better or worse, a couple visitors could throw things upside down: Cherie’s father (Paul Chun Pui) has arrived with his fiance Apple (Wang Xiaochen), who may be younger than the daughter, while Jimmy’s “Godmother” Flora (Jiang Meng-jie) is also younger, with that being a joke nickname given to her while they were kids in Toronto, and she’s got a big favor to ask.

This is Pang’s third visit with the couple he, Shawn Yue, and Miriam Yeung first introduced in Love in a Puff, and it’s impressive just for being the third entry in a romantic comedy series that in many ways has the same basic conflict without wrecking what made it work in the first place. Part of this is that, for all that both threads tend to remind Cherie that older men tend to seek younger women rather than vice versa, there’s not a lot of overt talk of this - it ties in with a lot of Cherie’s other fears and Jimmy’s temptations, but it’s also something that, by dint of them getting this far, it’s mostly accepted.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, April 28, 2017

BUFF 2017.04: Fraud, Neighborhood Food Drive, Most Beautiful Island, and The Void

It figures - the times when BUFF has two screens running, there are tricky choices, but when there’s just the one, it’s something I’ve seen elsewhere and don’t need to do again. On the other hand, that does leave one a nice window for the grocery shopping and other errands that I had no time for what with no just normal being at home after a week on vacation.

Most of what I missed out on by spending Saturday afternoon at the Harvard Film Archive was shorts of one sort or another. Someday, at some festival, I’ll actually make it to Keir-La Janisse’s Saturday Morning Cartoon show with the cereal bar, even though I doubt the cartoons I watched as a kid have aged well. I’m probably never going to prioritize something else over the “Sound & Vision” music video program. I was disappointed to skip out of the dark comedy block (called “Don’t Look Back into the Sun” this year), but it was up against what wound up being one of my two favorite films of the festival, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

And they were apparently lucky to get that favorite film. According to the introduction, after Most Beautiful Island was an upset winner of the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW (if you can call festival prize winners “upsets”), the producers apparently stopped booking it at other festivals, probably thinking this could net them a better distribution deal but a niche film showing at the festival might prevent regular theaters in the area from booking it. No idea if that’s how it works, but it seems like the only explanation for some of the odd behavior around booking this year.

Anyway, my first three shows of the day were at the Harvard Film Archive, and the middle one, Neighborhood Food Drive, had these folks in attendance:

I didn’t get the name of the host on the left, but that director Jerzy Rose and co-writer/producer Halle Butler on the right. They delivered a lively Q&A, the sort that often feels like it comes from people making a far less planned-out, specific movie than they have, either an indication that they’re exceptionally laid-back in some ways, or that a great deal is instinctive.

After that, I bailed on She’s Allergic to Cats, although looking at my Fantasia review from last year indicates that I liked it more at the time than I remembered. Still, with a festival scheduled as tight as this one - it’s not uncommon to leave the theater, go back around to the box office for the ticket to the next movie, and not really have time to get snacks before heading back to one’s seat, the ability to get something done and then actually sit down to eat was a big deal. And it gave me plenty of time to make it back for The Void.

For that, we were once again visited by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, with Chris Hallock leading the Q&A. It’s kind of funny that last time I saw them, they talked about not making your film both horror and comedy, because it was awfully difficult to get distributors to pick something like that up, and this time they had a few words about how it’s a little harder to make a straight horror movie when you don’t have jokes to lean on. Not much, but I did get the sense that this was something where they were a little more concerned about the reaction. So much of the Astron-6 stuff was movies for their own amusement, while this was something more for an audience that didn’t necessarily share their view of the genre.

It did have one of my favorite Q&A questions ever, though, when someone asked about references and they flatly said “we are not referencing any movie”. Fair for people to ask, but the answer underscored what I liked about The Void and the potential that’s always been in the filmmakers’ previous work in terms of creativity, and hopefully it doing well will inspire them to do more movies about more than their own influences.

”Troll: A Southern Tale”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive(Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’m curious as to whether Marinah Janello started “Troll: A Southern Tale” with the intent of doing a short documentary about an internet troll only to find the interview wandering, or if that’s what she picked out of her interviews . The idea is most likely to take a guy who spends time causing grief on the internet and figure out what makes a guy who maintains 75 Facebook profiles for the purpose of making people think that they’ve kicked a bigger hornet’s nest than they have tick, but the film wanders enough that it’s not obvious what the starting point is.

Not that it necessarily matters; though “Troll” doesn’t necessarily pose and explore a question quite so explicitly as it could, it’s unusually good at presenting a concept in the nebulous form in which it exists in reality despite film generally being a specific medium. Her subject is a bearded guy in his twenties, a pleasant enough interview that he doesn’t come across as particularly hostile to either Janello or, through her, the viewer. He is, one thinks, the product of an environment that has let him down; he’s filmed in a number of buildings that have burned, collapsed, or otherwise decayed, and he talks enough about The South with a certainty born of both first-hand experience and detached consideration that one is inclined to connect dots, maybe figure out what can be done.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the dots don’t really connect, and that’s a part of what Janello is getting at. There’s not actually much passion coming from the subject, whether toward the people he trolls or when talking about his own music, which he describes as sucking but he’s made a lot, and that’s something, right? The portrait that emerges is a sort of nihilism, which is a reasonable-enough response to the situation at hand, but the presentation of it is a little less than it could be. Voids need to be brought into sharper relief than excesses, and Janello only hints at the emptiness here.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I am reasonably certain that “Fraud” is not a documentary, despite several film festivals labeling it as such and the lack of credits identifying the cast and crew at the end; it simply commits to its found-footage conceit more completely than is typical. It’s convincing even for those who know otherwise, and that may be an issue for some; it’s convincingly amateurish enough to not be a smooth watch and for the “subjects’” bad acts to come off as repellent rather than generic. Get past that, though, and it’s on point.

It’s presented as a collection of home movies from a North Carolina family with two young kids, a young mother, and a father who likes to film them. He mostly seems to do it on Sundays when the tapes start in May of 2012 with a number of jittery segments that often focus on trips to the mall or other prosaic matters. It’s not long before the viewer starts to notice overdue bills piling up. By late July, mother Paige is learning about filing an insurance claim, and soon after that, you’ve really got to question the wisdom of the father filming this stuff as they give themselves reason to do so.

That, of course, is an obvious plot issue with a lot of found-footage films, and there’s a certain non-intuitive realism to the way that director Dean Fleischer-Camp doesn’t bother to explain it. Sure, folks might shoot themselves committing a crime - it’s probably the most exciting, thrilling thing they’ve ever done - but monologuing about why is a step too far. Besides, the compulsive way the father shoots, right down to the way shots will linger on his wife’s well-maintained body, can be all the explanation needed: Pulling out the camcorder is something he does on his day off, to the point where the rest of the family has likely learned to ignore it, and that’s before you even get to the question of whether they think they’re doing anything wrong.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Lori Felker’s “Discontinuity” is the very epitome of an underground-festival comedy short - it’s got a sense of humor that zips past “offbeat” to “random”, characters who often act in ways that just don’t seem recognizable as the actions of human beings. It’s got an abrupt ending that may seem something of a relief after its frequently cringe-worthy moments.

And yet, it works, a whole heck of a lot better than many, probably because the very title suggests that Felker sees how there’s something potentially powerful in the randomness. It opens with Tabitha (Sam Howard) returning “home” after working and caring for her ailing father for the better part of two years, only to find that her boyfriend Stephen (Ben Johnson) has become quite peculiar in that time, accumulating cats, getting particular about what they watch on DVD, and being beyond awkward when talking about the funeral. The cats multiply, a kid appears, and things just don’t seem right moment-to-moment.

It’s weird, sure, but you get what it means, that Tabitha’s finding a situation that should be familiar, normal, and what she’s been wanting to get back to utterly alien. It’s just odd enough to not be entirely creepy, with things absurd enough that it gets a laugh. Sam Howard makes Tabitha thoroughly likable, with a nice balance of enthusiasm and stress at the situation; she plays into the metaphor enough that the audience can see her wonder if it’s just weird from her point of view and sympathize. Ben Johnson goes deadpan as Stephen, and it’s generally a good enough joke to mostly cancel out what a head-scratcher it is that Tabitha went for him in the first place. Which, in some ways, is the short in a nutshell: The weirdness and symbolism mostly works, even if the set-up is something you just have to run with.

Neighborhood Food Drive

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Neighborhood Food Drive spends a lot of time taking aim at fairly easy targets, but they’re deserving targets and director Jerzy Rose scores some direct hits. It makes for a comedy that is not quite so delightfully vicious as Roses’s previous film (Crimes Against Humanity), but which is certainly able to score some points with those who enjoy watching clueless people get themselves into trouble.

There are two pairs of such people here. Madeline Bruhnhauer (Lyra Hill) and Naomi Florida (Bruce Bundy) have recently opened a new restaurant, “Ciao”, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area, and even if business were great, they’d still be getting reviews that point out that their fancified and expensive “comfort food” offerings don’t exactly match the character of the neighborhood. How to give back? A food drive! They bring on college undergraduate Bianca Pentecost (Ruby McCollister) as an unpaid intern to coordinate it, possibly unaware that she’s the girlfriend of their waiter Steven Hughes (Marcos Barnes), and that the pair is doing a weird sort of counseling thing with one of their professors (Ted Tremper).

A funny bit early on has somebody with experience in running food drives laying out exactly why this sort of event is a bad idea in practical terms, a fine deadpan gag in and of itself but one that becomes the setup for something surreal as this has the potential to haunt the characters. Presuming, of course, that they can feel haunted - the characters are almost all fairly self-centered and a little too self-aware, from the way Bianca and Steven are analyzing their relationship minutely when they should be winging it to how Maddie’s attempts to calm the high-strung Naomi are fairly practiced and clinical. Those two will even repeat the film’s title like a mantra at times, something that comes off as half what these guys would do and half Rose and co-writers Halle Butler & Mike Lopez being quite aware of their film’s artificiality.

Full review on EFC.

Most Beautiful Island

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

We are fortunate to have multiple great film festivals in the Boston area - in fact, this very review is part of a (failed) frantic attempt to talk up all the movies from the Underground before the Independent starts. With so many, and films generally making only one festival stop per city, where a given film ends up can sometimes be surprising. That is the case with Most Beautiful Island, which initially seems more art-house than midnight-movie, but that it navigates between those two very different styles is what makes it kind of brilliant.

It’s a day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), who has made her way to New York from Spain after a tragedy that has made staying where she was too painful, but she’s starting to bottom out there: Well behind in rent on the dingy apartment she shares with a roommate who has taken to labeling everything in the refrigerator “not yours”, having to beg for a doctor to see her off the books, and taking odd jobs like handing out flyers in Times Square to even afford that much. After a morning of that, she and her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) are relaxing when Olga gets a call and asks if Luciana can cover another job she has that night - $2,000 to help pretty up a cocktail party. Sure, it will be a tight squeeze getting the black dress and heels needed around her afternoon job as a babysitter, but that’s good money for a night’s work, even if it probably does involve a little more than what Olga is selling it as being.

It will eventually require a lot more, but before it gets there, writer/director/star Ana Asensio essays an illuminating narrative about being a (likely undocumented) immigrant in New York - the scraping, the conning, the casual and constant disrespect. There are three or four scenarios strung together that could each work as the basis of an individual short or even feature if Asensio stretched them out a little more or fleshed out the other people moving through Luciana’s day a little more, but there’s an interesting flow to the way she sets it up: Though there is a point or two when it seems like a certain amount of trouble could be avoided if Luciana just popped back into her apartment for a moment, Asensio instead silently emphasizes that there’s an unsteadiness to Luciana’s life, that she’s got to keep moving forward or be ready to survive with just what she has with her. It’s not constant immediate danger, but it’s not stability, either.

Full review on EFC.

”An Eldritch Place”

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Someone with a lot more free time and obsession to detail than me should make a list of every feature or short film over the last five or ten years where the credits are done using John Carpenter’s favorite typeface and see how many of them use similar music or how many truly creative ideas they have. “An Eldritch Place”, for instance, is a pretty basic riff on Lovecraft done in Carpenter style, right down to Sarah Boom’s synth-based soundtrack. Like many Carpenter-inspired movies, it announces what director Julien Jauniaux is a fan of as much as what he’s got to say. That’s not a criticism, so much as an observation.

It is, after all, a pretty good horror short. It offers up Abdel (Habib Ben Tanfous) who, trying to simply get by - in this case by taking a job guarding the workspace of Dr. Francis Wayland (Ludovic Philips) - finds himself thrown into a world of otherworldly danger and malevolence. Director Julien Jauniaux and Ben Tanfous do a fairly impressive job of making Abdel just the right sort of protagonist for this sort of thing, imperfect enough to get himself into trouble, but not really deserve what’s about to happen, without the film needing to stress his likability. There’s a rough, working-class feel to the situation that is upended that both contrasts with and flows into the strange realm of the elder gods that Abdel finds himself in. There’s a genuine feeling that, despite the fleeting glimpses we see and the vague nature of this sort of Lovercraftian threat beyond human comprehension, what Abdel encounters could legitimately end the world.

So, sure, in a lot of ways “An Eldritch Place” is a riff on the work of a couple of genre icons more than a new vision, but Carpenter and Lovecraft are pretty good guys for someone directing their first film to find inspiration; it will be interesting to see what evolves from this.

The Void

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski haven’t made a whole lot of movies as part of the Astron-6 collective, and I haven’t reviewed all of them, but it still feels like I’ve written something about how wasteful it is that they didn’t seem to trust their very real talent, using parody as a crutch. While The Void does not have an A-6 title card on it, it was done by many of the same people, but it’s a straight horror movie, and it’s a terrific one, distilling what made the 1980s horror they clearly love great and presenting it as something that doesn’t feel dated or silly at all.

It’s got a nifty little twist at the start, though, as it opens with a couple of folks fleeing a cabin in the woods and not looking back. Unfortunately, James (Evan Stern) isn’t in good shape when local cop Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) finds him by the side of the road. He brings the unconscious man to the nearby hospital, where his ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and her mentor Richard Powell (Kenneth Welsh) are the only doctors on duty, but there aren’t many patients, as much of the staff is packing up to close the place and consolidate with another hospital. Of course, people start getting homicidal, with the heavily-armed Vincent (Daniel Fathers) and his mute sidekick Simon (Mik Byskov) arriving just as the parking lot fills with a bunch of robed cultists, setting up a supernatural siege.

Those robes and hoods are a simple costume, but the perfection of their execution is impressive; the triangle where the face should be is the sort of material that should allow the man inside to see out, except that it’s inverted so that the point is between the eyes. It looks wrong, but doesn’t broadcast how impractical it is, and the simple shape can be reused in a lot of ways, tying a number of supernatural elements together without it seeming forced. Not everything in the movie is low-key and geometrical like that, but it’s a good start and a good link to the weirder, gorier stuff, with the blood and the tendrils and the other abominations before nature. That stuff is especially excellent, top-notch practical work, with the obsessive visual detail that this team is best known for (paired with a great sound mix and thoroughly-appropriate score) in full force.

Full review on EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 April 2017 - 4 May 2017

Man, the major studios just don’t want to compete with IFFBoston at all, leaving foreign imports and smaller distributors to pick up the slack. Or, perhaps, nobody wants to be caught between The Fate of the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. One or the other.

  • Still, if you’re in Boston, Independent Film Festival Boston 15 is the big event, playing on all five screens atThe Somerville Theatre as well as the Brattle through Monday, and then moving over to the Coolidge for the Tuesday and Wednesday. Big attractions include Sam Elliott in The Hero, Joe Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy, Errol Morris’s The B-Side, nifty casts in Lemon, Lost in Paris, and Little Hours, plus the new Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon Trip to Spain, among others.

    It looks like the Somerville takes a breather afterward, before re-opening next Friday, although The Brattle Theatre has a couple of special shows after the festival. On Tuesday, they play Michael Mann’s Heat at 8:30pm, and have a special skype call with Mann afterward. Then, on Thursday May the 4th (“ with you”), they begin a new tradition of trolling Star Wars fans annually, this year with a double feature of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on 35mm and Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. The former also functions as a sneak preview of the series of companion films they’ll be playing with Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story next week.
  • The only bummer about this is that it’s going to make it hard for me to get to a nice slate of Asian movies this week. My most anticipated is Love Off the Cuff, Pang Ho-cheung’s third film pairing Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as an unlikely set of lovers, this time feeling a seven year itch. That’s from Hong Kong, while Battle of Memories comes from mainland China and features Huang Bo and Xu Jinglei in a sci-fi story about an author invading the memories of a serial killer. South Korea, meanwhile, offers up The Mayor, starring Choi Min-sik as a two-term mayor of Seoul trying for an unprecedented third term that could set him up as the front-runner in the next Presidential election. All three are playing at Boston Common.

    Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond, meanwhile, has BaahuBali 2, a gigantic fantasy sequel on four screens: Two in Telugu, one in Tamil, and one in Hindi, with the latter marked as having English subtitles. It’s also playing at Showcase Cinemas Revere in subtitled Telugu. Apple also has Voice of the Stone on half a screen, that one being a supernatural thriller featuring Emilia Clarke as the new nurse in a haunted castle.
  • It’s actually not completely dead at the multiplexes, with The Circle starring Tom Hanks as the head of a tech company invading all the privacy, with Emma Watson and John Boyega as the young employees who suspect something is up. Heck of a cast below the line, with Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton, and more. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. How to Be a Latin Lover also features a star-studded cast, with Eugenio Derbez as an aging lothario who moves in with his sister (Salma Hayek). Also features Kristen Bell, Raquel Welch, Rob Lowe, and anyone else director Ken Marino could rope in. It’s at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    There’s also a smaller opening for Sleight, with a street magician trying to outsmart the gangsters who kidnapped his little sister. It’s at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Fenway seems to be the only place showing Grey Lady, a locally-shot thriller with Eric Dane as a Boston cop investigating the murder of his partner on Nantucket. There’s also a one-night-only show for I Am Heath Ledger, a documentary on the late actor, at Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, West Newton, and Boston Common pick up Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, which stars Richard Gere as a man in finance who manages to get the ear of the new Israeli Prime Minister. With Kendall Square still undergoing renovations, it’s actually got the same screen count as the Coolidge right now.

    This weekend’s Coolidge midnights pay tribute to Kathryn Bigelow, with Near Dark playing Friday and Point Break on Saturday, both on 35mm. There’s a Talk Cinema screening of Moscow Never Sleeps Sunday morning, and a Sound-of-Silents screening of The Freshman on Monday
  • The Harvard Film Archive is only programming two days this week, with nothing open to the public on Friday and Saturday. Istrument by Jem Cohen and “post-hardcore” band Fugazi plays Sunday afternoon, while the “Želimir Žilnik and the Black Wave” series starts that evening with Žilnik’s Brooklyn - Gusinje. Monday brings a visit from John Gianvito, who will present his documentary Profit motive and the whispering wind.
  • Just one Frederick Wiseman film at The Museum of Fine Arts this week, but it’s one of his big ones, with Belfast, Maine running upwards of four hours on Friday. Their only other film program this week is the first night of Jewishfilm 20 on Thursday, with Ben-Gurion, Epilogue playing with post-film Q&A with director Yariv Mozer.
  • Belmont World Film visits Iran this Monday without leavig the the Studio Cinema with Daughter, Reza Mirkarimi’s film about a girl who sneaks out to attend a party in Tehran, but has her father come looking when she’s not back the next day.

I’ll be living at IFFBoston for most of the week, with tentative plans of Whose Streets? and Tormenting the Hen on Friday; Edgar Allen Poe, City of Ghosts, Dealt, and Lemon on Saturday; Street Fighting Men, Abacus, Shorts H, and either Dean or The Little Hours on Sunday; Menashe and The Force on Monday; Trip to Spain and Landline on Tuesday; and Band Aid on Wednesday. It may just be possible to also fit the Chinese and Korean movies in if I don’t care too much about sleep and if the Thursday shows aren’t bumped for Guardians, but I wouldn’t exactly count on that.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 April 2017 - 27 April 2017

Like quality independent films? Of course you do! So be glad that Boston’s biggest film festival starts this week, because we’re down a few screens elsewhere.

  • That festival is Independent Film Festival Boston, in its fifteenth year and kicking off on Wednesday the 26th at the Somerville Theatre and then picking up the Brattle on Thursday. Opening night is Stumped, a documentary about a filmmaker who turns to comedy to cope with becoming a quadrilateral amputee after an accident. Thursday’s offerings include a documentary showcase at UMass Boston, Rat Film at the Brattle, and showcase presentation Columbus (along with four shorts programs) at the Somerville.

    Because they’re going to be using all five screens for the festival come Thursday, most of what’s at The Somerville Theatre is probably on its way out. In the meantime, they pick up The Zookeeper’s Wife from the Capitol and have special 10pm screenings of The Void on Friday and Saturday, so all those who had trouble seeing the BUFF favorite at midnight at the Coolidge the last couple weekends can catch it there.
  • The multiplexes basically know that The Fate of the Furious is going to keep rolling this week, so they open a few lower-profile things. The most fun is likely Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s new one which starts with an arms deal in 1970s Boston, only things go sideways about twenty minutes in and the ensuing firefight lasts the entire remaining hour of the film. Fun cast of Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, and more. It’s at the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    After that, it’s a varied group. The Promise is a romance featuring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, and Christian Bale against the background of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It’s at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. A tackier love story plays out in Unforgettable, in which Katherine Heigl plays the deranged ex and Rosario Dawson the sane new wife of Geoff Stults. Interesting to note that Denise Di Novi, Tim Burton’s longtime producer, is making her directorial debut. That one’s at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    With Earth Day on Friday, Disney releases their annual nature documentary, with Born in China focusing on pandas, monkeys, and other animals in the Chinese plains and mountains. It plays the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Those who like their documentaries more fictional have Phoenix Forgotten, the second film in as many years building a bit of found-footage horror out of the peculiar “Phoenix Lights” phenomenon of twenty years ago. Find that at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Revere.

    Or, if you’re looking for a classic, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere have a TCM presentation of The Graduate on Sunday and Wednesday. Fenway and Revere have TED presentations on Monday and Tuesday, and Fenway screens Alien on their RPX screen for “Alien Day” on Wednesday (the planet in the film is “LV-426”).
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places opening The Lost City of Z - it also plays Kendall Square, the Embassy, and Boston Common - and it looks like a nifty one. Charlie Hunman plays an explorer who, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, found evidence of a lost advanced civilization in the Amazon, and spent the rest of his life trying to prove its existence. It’s a passion project for director James Gray, whose last film was the impressive The Immigrant. They also pick up Colossal, as does Fenway,to add to its runs at Somerville, Boston Common, Kendall, and the Embassy.

    At midnight, it’s David Fincher weekend, with Seven on Friday and The Game on Saturday, both on 35mm. Between those, on Saturday morning, they celebrate Earth Day by showing the new documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzard, Seasons, which depicts the animals living in Europe at the end of the last ice age. The week’s other Science on Screen program is on Monday, with Harvard professor Dr. Evelynn Hammonds introducing Hidden Figures. Then, on Tuesday, Berklee professor Sheldon Mirowitz leads a master class in composing a silent film score that serves as a preview of an upcoming show of The Freshman.

    It’s worth noting that Kendall Square is down to four screens from the usual nine this week (in addition to Z, they keep A Quiet Passion, Colossal, and Your Name), likely renovating to put in those bigger seats with recliners and such that have been hanging around the lobby for the past few months. Expect a bit of grumpiness about how those aren’t always good things from me soon.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has two Jem Cohen shows this weekend, with Chain on Friday a rejiggering of an exhibition and Benjamin Smoke on Sunday a 16mm music documentary. The “Hachimiri Madness!” series begins on friday with early short works by Shinya Tsukamoto (”The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo”) and Sion Sono (”I Am Sion Sono!”). Filmmaker Mike Henderson visits to introduce a selection of his films on 16mm Saturday, and one by collaborator Robert Nelson on Sunday evening. There’s also a “Houghton at 75” presentation on Monday, with assistant curator Heather Cole introducing a screening of Jane Campion’s John Keats biography Bright Star, as the archive contains many manuscripts and letters from Keats.
  • More Frederick Wiseman at The Museum of Fine Arts this week: Aspen (Friday/Sunday), Zoo (Friday/Wednesday), Public Housing (Saturday), La Comédie-Française (Sunday), and Ballet, all listed as 16mm prints.
  • The Brattle Theatre is being used by the Women in Comedy Festival through Sunday. Then, on Monday, the DocYard and Crows & Sparrows present Behemoth, with Zhao Liang skyping in after his film about Chinese mining operations. Tuesday is Trash Night, and then on Wednesday they pay tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds and Carrie fisher with a double feature of Singin’ in the Rain (on 35mm) and Postcards From the Edge, and then IFFBoston on Thursday.
  • ”Amazon Adventure” opens in IMAX 3D at the New England Aquarium on Monday; it continues to play The Museum of Science in OMNIMAX.
  • Telugu film Mister and join Tamil film Kaatru Veliyidal at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has Kannada-language drama Shuddhi for the weekend, joining scattered shows of Tamil dramas Pa Paandi and Take Off. BaahuBali 2 opens Thursday, with both Telugu and Tamil screenings.
  • ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theatre brings back a recent Bright Lights selection on Saturday as part of its “Reel Life Experience” series as Moonlight plays with reception, performances, and a panel discussion. Bright Lights itself would be done for the spring, but Trumbo was snowed out back in March, so it has been rescheduled for Tuesday in the Paramount’s Bright Screening Room, with Emerson faculty member Tom Kingdon doing a Q&A after the free screening.
  • This week’s Belmont World Film presentation at the Studio Cinema comes from Australia, with direcotr Ivan Sen skypin in after the Monday night screening of western noir Goldstone.
  • The Regent Theatre is mostly booked by a stage show through June, but there are some film programs this week: The Silence of the Priest, or Alter Ego, telling the story of the supposed savior of Armenian music, plays Sunday afternoon, while The Jazz Loft.has its premiere in the small underground space on Monday.

I’d kind of like to catch some of the bad-looking stuff opening this weekend, but there’s stuff like Get Out, Personal Shopper, and Your Name that needs seeing before IFFBoston (and baseball on Tuesday).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Moments in UK history: Tommy’s Honour & Their Finest

Oddly enough, I think Boston-area folks would have to go out to West Newton to see these as a double feature; though both slipped into theaters last weekend, they went to separate spots and bypassed Kendall Square, which is the first place you’d expect to find them. A pair of sedate, generally-cheerful British period pieces makes for a reasonable bit of counter-programming for The Fate of the Furious, but I don’t know how many people would even know about them; I don’t recall seeing any posters or trailers. I suppose Tommy’s Honour should consider itself lucky to be playing theaters at all; I can’t remember the last time I saw the Roadside Attractions logo before a movie without being followed by one for Amazon Studios.

Fortunately, it looks as if Their Finest is getting another week at the Coolidge, though likely in one of the smaller rooms, while I wouldn’t bet on Tommy’s Honour sticking around. I don’t know if it will wind up on any sort of favorites list were I the type to make those lists at the end of the year, but I’m kind of surprised it’s not getting a bigger push - STX/EuropaCorp have given bigger pushes to much less impressive pictures, and I’ve got to think you could cut a pretty good trailer for it. Heck, just the poster with a clapper reading “Dunkirk Movie” seems like something you could play with a bit more this year.

Tommy’s Honour

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Normally, the movies that make me wish I’d brought someone else with me for a different perspective are aimed at kids, but things like Tommy’s Honour have a similar effect. It’s an amiable enough sporting biography, sure enough, but what the filmmakers tackle is specific enough that, while it won’t leave us non-golfers confused or out of the loop, it may perhaps have more interest to my golfing friends than it does to me, and if they’d find its details more intriguing.

While golf has been played in Scotland for centuries, it in many ways attained its modern form and had its popularity explode in the 1860s, when Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) was the groundskeeper and chief caddy at Saint Andrew, a maker of clubs and balls, and until recently one of the best players in both the Open (the world’s first) and matches organized on behalf of the club’s patrons. His son and namesake Tommy (Jack Lowden), on the other hand, is a prodigy, as good as his father ever was at the age of 15. The son is also canny enough to see that the wealthy gentlemen at the club are exploiting them, and willing to press that point. His rebellious nature also ruffles feathers at home, as Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), the serving-girl he falls for, is six years his senior and considered scandalous for other reasons.

How tightly the actual action of playing a sport is integrated into a film like this is always a judgment call for the makers, especially when, as is the case here, there’s a not-inconsequential gap between the modern game and the way it would be played by these characters. Here, it's certainly fun to watch the game scenes from a time when golf was not quite refined into its current form; there’s a roughness to the grounds, equipment, and tactics that don’t match today’s fields where the grass is a perfect sea of green with every blade the exact same height. The differences from the modern game make it a bit harder to recognize young Tommy Morris's brilliance, perhaps, but the improvised game played, and the sometimes even rowdy crowds, can be a real kick to watch. It doesn’t hurt that director Jason Connery and writers Kevin Cook (who also wrote the book the film was based upon) & Pamela Martin are mostly casual with how they depict how the Morrises evolve the game, and the moments that do feel like origin detours at least have amusing stories to go with them.

Full review on EFC.

Their Finest

* * * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2017 in Coolidge Corner Cinema #1 (first-run, DCP)

What a surprisingly delightful film. Their Finest is, to start with, about what you'd expect, a likable tale of Brits Doing Their Bit during WWII, cheekily aiming for the same sort of impossible mix of optimism and realism that the characters within are aiming for in order to keep spirits up. That would be quite enough, because it really is quite good on that count, but it’s got a level of self-awareness and ability to quietly be the sort of thing it venerates that makes it resonate all the more.

As the story starts, it’s 1940 and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is about to have a job interview. She thinks it’s for another secretarial position, but it turns out that someone at the Ministry of Information saw a comic strip for which she had stepped in to do the dialog because so many of the male copywriters were called up to serve; they want her to help punch of the women’s lines in widely-mocked propaganda shorts. This leads to work on a feature, which she’ll help Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) write, though the true story of heroism it’s based upon may be exaggerated. Making a movie isn’t easy in the best of times, of course, and with a war on, there are contradictory demands coming in even without considering reluctant co-star Ambrose HIlliard (Bill Nighy) or Cartin’s husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled artist and air-raid warden who feels threatened by her earning the rent money.

The films of the late 1930s and early 1940s had some rough edges, certainly, and can be an acquired taste three generations later, but there’s an earnestness to them that merits notice, and Their Finest is a loving tribute to British films of the period in all their methodical, mannered glory. Director Lone Scherfig and her cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov shoot the film in modern, realistic style, with widescreen compositions and charcoal grays that reflect Ellis’s paintings, but when we finally get to see the film-within-a-film (and even as Catrin imagines what it will be like), it recreates the films of the period perfectly: Square, with somewhat primitive effects work, fairly stationary camerawork, and jolting patches of color. The thing is, it’s done without the twee superiority of a Wes Anderson or any grinning irony, earning the live audiences show, even though (and in some ways because) they’ve been allowed behind the curtain.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 April 2017 - 20 April 2017

So, did you all see Your Name this week? It’s still playing this week, so you can see it again. After all, folks are mostly running scared of F8, and Boston Common has switched up times to make it easier.

  • After all, The Fate of the Furious is the only really big opening this week, with the eighth entry in a series that started out as a pretty low-key thing and has grown into a star-studded, over-the-top super-franchise full of impossible automotive action and ludicrous ensemble casts; everyone from Vin Diesel to Helen Mirren is in it. It’s at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan’s Furniture (Imax), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Revere (including MX4D/XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Some places have more screens to fill, though, and have some unheralded but possibly interesting releases. Tommy’s Honour, for instance, stars Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden as the father and son who codified the modern rules of golf in the 19th Century, with Sam Neill and Ophelia Lovibond in the supporting cast, and Jason Connery in the director’s chair; didn’t realize Sean’s kid had moved behind the camera. It’s at West Newton and Boston Common. There’s also Spark: A Space Tail, an animated Canadian-Korean co-production about teenagers in space that looks kind of Monkey King-inspired from the stills I’ve seen (in that the main character is a monkey-boy with a golden staff). It’s at Boston Common and Revere.

    The Somerville Theatre picks up Personal Shopper, but because they need an auditorium for live events, it starts there on Sunday, and won’t play Wednesday. The multiplexes have some special-event programming, with the season premiere of Doctor Who (along with the first episode of spin-off Class) playing Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere on Monday and Wednesday, while the same spots offer Boston: An American Running Story on Wednesday, two days after the marathon it documents.
  • Another sort of “big release” would be Colossal, which comes from director Nacho Vigalondo of Timecrimes fame and stars Anne Hathaway as a woman who, post-breakup, appears to be manifesting a giant monster on the other side of the road. It’s at the Somerville, Kendall Square, the Embassy, and Boston Common.

    Kendall Square also opens A Quiet Passion, the new film from Terence Davies which features Emma Bell and Cynthia Nickinson as Emily Dickinson at various stages of her life.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is the main spot for Their Finest, the new film from Lone Scherfig, which stars Gemma Arteton as a screenwriter in 1940 looking to make a movie (with an actor played by Bill Nighy) that will lift the UK’s spirits and perhaps inspire America to join the war. It’s also at West Newton.

    The Void comes back for a second weekend of midnight shows on Friday and Saturday after selling out last weekend. The midnight shows on the other screen are David Lynch flicksto celebrate the imminent return of Twin Peaks, with a 35mm of prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me on Friday and Lost Highway on Saturday. In between, there’s a kids’ show of Despicable Me Saturday morning. On Wednesday, they have a work-in-progress screening of Soul Witness: The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project, including a Q&A with producer R. Harvey Bravman and a tribute to the founders of the project. Then, on Thursday, they have a Cinema Jukebox presentation of Pink Floyd: The Wall on 35mm with a pre-show performance by local high-schoolers.
  • The Museum of Science adds ”Amazon Adventure” to their rotation, relatively unusual in that this biography of explorer Henry Bates is a dramatic film rather than a documentary, presented in full-scale OMNIMAX. It’s also slated to open in IMAX 3D at the New England Aquarium on the 24th. Note the capital letter there; that means we’re talking about genuine 70mm-threaded-horizontally-projected-with-a-lamp-that-doubles-as-a-death-ray-onto-a-screen-the-size-of-a-medium-office-building IMAX.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a weekend of films in conjunction with The Cambridge Science Festival: “Contact!” mostly focuses on films about peaceful first contact, with Arrival on Friday and screenings of The Iron Giant, Arrival, Gattaca (followed by a special panel discussion), and Paul on Saturday, plus a double feature of Contact (on 35mm) and the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still on Sunday.

    It cuts into their traditional Muppet Madness! program, which isn’t even really an alternate marathon on Marathon Monday this year, with matinee and evening double features of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth surrounding a late-afternoon sing-along screening of The Muppet Movie. On Tuesday, IFFBoston presents a free screening of the fantastic Free Fire with writer/director Ben Wheatley doing a Q&A afterward. There’s nothing on the schedule for Wednesday, and then they host the Women in Comedy Festival starting Thursday (after opening night at the Somerville on Wednesday).
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues their Jem Cohen retrospective, with a program of shorts at 7pm Friday night and feature Counting at 9pm on Saturday. They share the screen with the last three Contemporary French Alternatives - A German Youth (Friday 9:15pm), La Sapienza (Saturday 7pm), and A Young Poet (Sunday 7pm). On Monday, Paul Bush will present a program of his experimental and animated short films on 16mm and 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts hasmore Frederick Wiseman on tap, with Missile (16mm Friday/Thursday), Fire at Sea (Saturday, High School 2 (Saturday/Thursday)), Public Housing (16mm Sunday), Ballet (16mm Wednesday), and Central Park (16mm Wednesday). Hollywood Scriptures:Migrations also continues this week, with When I Saw You (Friday) and Dheepan (Sunday).
  • Telugu film Mister and Tamil drama Pa Paandi join Tamil film Kaatru Veliyidal at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond this week, with Malayalam drama Take Off screening Saturday, and Bengali film Asamapta on Sunday. They also have their monthly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the Teseracte Players on Friday (as always, Full Body Cast does their think with RHPS at Boston Common on Saturday).
  • Though the Wicked Queer festival is over, they present the two Bright Lights shows at the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount this week, and they’re both good ones: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden on Tuesday and Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winner Moonlight on Thursday. As always, free and followed by discussion, so check them out.
  • The Bright room will be the home base for The Boston International Film Festival, which runs through Monday at the Paramount, Broadway Entertainment Studios, and a few shows at AMC Boston Common.
  • Belmont World Film is back to Monday nights at the Studio Cinema for the rest of the schedule, with this week’s Where I Grow Old following two Portuguese friends who move to Brazil but pine for home.

I’m catching Colossal, The Fate of the Furious, Their Finest, Your Name, Get Out, Trainspotting 2, Personal Shopper, and maybe Tommy’s Honour. Plus a ballgame or two. I know, some of those names have shown up before, but I mean it!

Monday, April 10, 2017

BUFF 2017.03: Buster’s Mal Heart & 68 Kill

Friday at BUFF was a bit more defined by what I didn’t wind up seeing than I’d necessarily like: There was no getting back to Cambridge from work in Burlington in time to see the Homegrown Horror shorts at 5:45pm, which is a bummer; Chris generally does a pretty good job of programming that block, and it’s always fun to see these movies that are unabashedly New England. On the other end, I skipped out on the “Midnight Transgressions” block because I’m old and need sleep on the one hand and because I just don’t love the nastier material. It’s a little harder given the current location of my apartment, too - I’d rather not be walking at 2:30am.

So, I was just at two of three slots, and the first was on the schedule as a secret screening. It was promoted in the program as one of the best/most anticipated genre movies of the year, so my first guess was Free Fire, which fits that bill and is made by Ben Wheatley - a guy who may not have actually had any movies play BUFF but is certainly their type of filmmaker. A couple days before the festival started, I got a publicity email for Netflix’s Death Note movie, and figured that might make more sense as a secret, since it wouldn’t be hitting the service until July, although director Adam Wingard is someone who has played the festival before.

Instead, we got Buster’s Mal Heart, which is okay, and makes sense as a secret screening because a known playdate might cannibalize a chunk of the audience that might be interested in it when/if it opens in late April. Which doesn’t say much about it being anticipated. And, it’s only kind of so-so as a movie. It’s got some interesting bits to it, but it’s kind of an acquired taste.

The second feature of the night was pretty darn good, though, the newest from festival veteran Trent Haaga, and although he couldn’t be there, he sent a fun video introduction from Japan.

”Three Point Dynamics”

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Because I spent my education studying science and math instead of storytelling, I suspect that I would have liked Keaton Smith’s “Three Point Dynamics” much more if the quantum physics its main character was going on about were comprehensible, or at least were fake in a way that gave him a chance to explain it so that their details could be reflected thematically. I can’t know the mind of the filmmaker, but I’m more inclined to be interested when the story seems to be inspired by possibilities rather than just using them as a prop. And just in terms of storytelling, it might be useful to have a handle on whether this guy is a crank or what he intends to do.

Still, deal the movie you’ve got rather than the one you wish you had, right? By those standards, “Three Point Dynamics” is still kind of scattered, although it’s got an impressive core, as we’re introduced to an older guy who comes across as an eccentric but harmless crackpot, annoying the other people at the bus stop and getting himself involved in awkward situations around younger people, only to get shifts in perspective to show that this behavior isn’t really cute, but probably indicative of more troubling issues. That’s fairly well-done, as are some of the flourishes: The dreams of being trapped in roofless towers that extend a long way upwards but seem to have no doors or ways to reach the top, or how the scientist’s shirt and bolo tie have triangle motifs. Is there something important about the triangles in the necklace of the girl he meets, or is it just coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, and that’s the trouble with “Three Point Dynamics” - it falters not necessarily because it’s not entirely clear, but because its symbols don’t seem to matter one way or the other.

Buster’s Mal Heart

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I like where writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s head is at with Buster’s Mal Heart, and I think I’d like the actual movie more if she’d played it something closer to straight, rather than getting cute with narrative gimmicks, black comedy, and other diversions. The central driver of what’s going on with its main character is something that merits a lot of thought and consideration, and making a puzzle out of it tends to deny it that.

“Buster” is what the locals call Jonah (Rami Malek), because they don’t know his name; he’s just a crazy guy who lives in the woods, calling rants in to talk radio, breaking into unoccupied houses when it gets cold in the winter. He wasn’t always like this; a few years back, he was the amiable night manager at a nearby hotel. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable living with his in-laws, but he and wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) figured that this is what would allow them to save up and buy a small bit of property to settle with daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), living off the land as much as they could. That quest for independence is shared with a guy who starts hanging around the hotel lobby (DJ Qualls); who lives off the grid, not even wanting to give out his name, doing Y2K-compliance work for cash, with talk about an semi-mystical “Inversion” about to come.

It’s interesting that Smith drops that Y2K reference in there; nothing else about the film seems to be pointedly set in that time period, and what plot there is does not hinge much on this guy’s work, nor does it seem like it would be particularly ruined by tech like smartphones. And yet, it’s an important and apropos moment to consider - for all that nothing actually happened, it was a moment when it seemed like “the system” could collapse, something which could feel like a clean start to several of the characters. It’s a freedom Jonah and his new friend crave for various reasons. What initially seems like a laudable desire for self-reliance on Jonah’s part grows stronger even as Marty starts looking at apartments, an arrangement anathema to Jonah’s desire for independence - and, perhaps, too much like the hotel that takes him for granted - with the idea of this “Inversion” taking on mystical qualities, another step on the road to being a talk-radio crank.

Full review on EFC.

”Walden Pink”

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

There’s a certain style-slash-genre of short films that you see at festivals like this, built around a cranky straight-man who confronts a series of low-key peculiarities and indignities, either with an extra-bizarre twist as the climax or just petering out. Trying to write this up two weeks later, but not really having any details come back, I’m guessing it is the petering-out sort; I remember the opening image of a sad sack sitting at a park bench in black and white, leading to a couple of hostile confrontations with folks seem kind of especially clueless. There’s a Chekhov’s Gun that never fires.

I do remember it as being pretty okay, though; the film never becomes as misanthropic as its title character and the jokes don’t overextend. Filmmaker Peter Bolte (credited with just about everything) makes a clean-looking movie, which is not always the case with this sort of thing. It’s not exactly a sticky one, but it’s a decent bit of work that bodes well for the next thing he does.

68 Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

68 Kill is an impressively tacky bit of trailer-trash pulp, which is in no way meant as an insult - Trent Haaga's latest is fast-paced, funny, and impressively violent, but also never boring and frequently inventive. It’s a bloody, high-spirited caper whose filmmakers sometimes don’t know the line between enjoyable anarchy and unpleasant excess, but it’s at least made with an energy level that keeps the fun stuff from being retroactively spoiled.

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) and LIza (AnnaLynne McCord) seem like a bit of a mismatch, with Liza far too good-looking for a gangly guy who pumps septic tanks for a living, but since she’s a call girl and the living embodiment of the idea that all the hot ones are crazy, she’s probably burned more bridges than just the strip club. One of her johns (David Maldonado) has made the mistake of letting slip that he’s got sixty-eight grand in his safe, and she sells Chip on stealing it, saying no-one will get hurt. Of course, not only do people get hurt, but a girl winds up in Chip’s trunk, though Liza says she can solve that problem by selling Violet to LIza’s creepy brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson). It is, on every level, more than the generally-well-meaning Chip signed up for.

Chip being dumb but generally decent is the fuel that drives the movie, and it’s the sort of thing that isn’t as easy as it looks. He’s got to be dumb and prone to bringing trouble upon himself, capable enough to get out of some of it, goofy enough for a laugh, and just barely serious enough to believe that a couple of women who seem like they’d have better options would generally choose him. The last is the one that tends to raise the most eyebrows; Gubler gives an energetic and funny performance - he knows his physical comedy and how get a laugh out of sincere horror - but the amount Chip gets laid what is basically a day and a half seems to land things a little more squarely in the male fantasy area than even a film this happily excessive can sell.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, April 09, 2017


Probably much better movies to see as part of a catch-up after a week without movies (but plenty of baseball) in San Diego and then a binge at BUFF, but this is what fit after doing laundry but not wanting to be on the T at midnight or so.

At least, I think it is, because they changed the ticketing machines and I couldn’t figure out how to get it to print out a ticket, so I had to scan the QR code at the ticket taker’s, and thus I don’t have an actual stub to refer to later. It may have started at 10:05 or something, and I don’t know while I’m finishing the review a week later. Sure, it sounds like a weird thing to complain about, but I’ve been saving and scrapbooking ticket stubs for the better part of a decade now, so it’s weird to not have that tangible reminder. I wound up searching the floor for a stub someone dropped.

(Didn’t find one)

My first Letterboxd entry on this apparently came off more negatively than I might, but something in it and which got repeated in the review, but I’m actually really happy about how movies like this exist. I’ve always worried that Star Trek and the like have given people an unreasonable idea of how easy space travel was going to be, because they always showed humanity traveling between planets on ships that had steady gravity that had no relation to thrust at all, landing on planets that had standard Earth atmospheres, edible flora… You know the drill. I always kind of worried that, for all that people were becoming more interested in science fiction, showing that sort of future might kill people’s interest in the sort of space exploration we can do now, because it’s hard, and puts the exoplanets that NASA is starting to discover centuries away, and what manned exploration can be done in our own system is very limited.

Funny thing, though - it seems like the wheel is turning a bit. Not a sea change - stuff like Star Wars and Valerian is massive anything-goes space opera - but there’s a nifty new wave of material that seems more interested in what is, if not quite within reach, between now and then. Gravity was the big one, but there’s been this and The Expanse since then, with Passengers at least going for some zero-gee scenes and the centuries it would take to get to a new planet. It seems as though being able to do this sort of thing in a movie has helped people realize that it as actually pretty cool.

Will that help re-ignite interest in the sort of space science that we need to do to get there? One can hope, although it doesn’t necessarily help that the ISS hasn’t exactly done well in these movies.

Life (2017)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2017 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

In an earlier decade, Life would have a title that either ended with an exclamation point or would look perfectly normal if one were added, but that doesn’t happen today, because even if a movie studio willingly spends tens of millions of dollars on a blood-soaked script about alien stem cells reviving and attacking a space station crew, they wouldn’t want people to think it’s pulpy silliness. So, without actually lying or misrepresenting the film, they try and make it look like Arrival, when it’s actually more like The Thing from Another World!

Having the sort of resources that make a studio want to make their movie seems classy means that it can be set on the International Space Station, where commander Ekaterina Golokina (Olga Dihovichnaya), systems specialist Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), and technician Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) are joined by Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the exobiologist who will be searching samples taken from an unmanned mission to Mars for signs of life, and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who is tasked with enforcing the quarantine. The trouble is, the isolation plans were built around the assumption that they’d be dealing with the Martian equivalent of bacteria, not a colony organism that can rebuild itself from a single cell given adequate nutrition.

Director Daniel Espinosa stumbles a bit toward the beginning, although he and writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick tend to stumble in the right direction: For later bits to work, the world needs to be a little more open before it contracts to just the station; astronauts can be so capable and professional as to seem dry before things get messed up; and starting off with enough careful scientific investigation that the characters don’t seem like idiots might bore the audience, so you need an early action sequence. Messing up any of that stuff wouldn’t necessarily hurt the part of the movie one pays money to see, but it would be nice if everything seemed locked in from the start. That’s not really the case; the opening sequence with a too-hyper Rory having to operate an armature from outside the station for no good reason is one of a number of early bits that try too hard, as the most obvious example.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 April 2017 - 6 April 2017

So, I try not to make demands here, but something from one of my favorite filmmakers is coming out this weekend, and it’s not like there’s a lot of competition for it among the new releases. So go see it.

  • That would be Your Name, the new film by Makoto Shinkai, which was a massive hit in Japan last year - it is now the highest-grossing Japanese animated film of all time - and it feels great to see a guy I’ve loved since his first short film having that sort of success. This one’s a body-swapping fantasy that has a pretty dazzling finale and gorgeous, detailed backgrounds. It’s at The Coolidge Corner Theatre , Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Revere, although check showtimes for whether shows are playing dubbed or subtitled: The Coolidge and Kendall are playing dubbed shows before 4pm and subtitled ones after, while Boston Common and Revere alternate, with the “main” showtimes (the 1pm and 7pm hours) dubbed and the early/late shows subbed.

    There’s also a boutique/multiplex split for Gifted, directed by Mark Webb (note how the previews talk of 500 Days of Summer but not the two terrible Spider-movies), and starring Chris Evans as a man raising his niece, discovering she’s a child prodigy. He wants her to have a normal life; her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) wants her funneled into special schools. It’s also at the Coolidge, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Revere.

    The Coolidge also gets The Void as a new release, although just Friday and Saturday at midnight. It’s a throwback horror movie by members of the Canadian Astron-6 group, although played straight rather than as comedy; it was a big hit at BUFF a couple weeks ago (if you don’t mind heading out of town to see it at non-late-night shows, it’s also playing at CinemaSalem). The other midnights are a pair of David Cronenberg/Viggo Mortensen collaborations on 35mm - A History of Violence on Friday and Eastern Promises on Saturday. Other special presentations include Sunday morning’s Goethe-Institut presentation Wonderland, a Swiss anthology film based around a massive hurricane bearing down on the country; newly-restored Big Screen Classic Tampopo on Monday; and Open Screen on Tuesday.
  • C’mon, doesn’t Your Name sound better than the other new animated option of Smurfs: The Lost Village? Admittedly, this new 3D all-CGI Smurfs movie looks like more fun than the “Smurfs in the real world” stuff that they’d been doing before, so I suppose the kids could do worse. It’s at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Also getting a revisit is Going In Style, with Zach Braff remaking the 1979 heist film with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin as the over-the-hill would-be bank robbers. That one’s at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    While Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake continues to go strong (it expands to the Lexington Venue), several of the places where it is running will be having special sing-along shows with lyrics on the screen; go or avoid as you see fit. Revere is also showing The Case for Christ, which I’m guessing is self-explanatory.
  • There’s a lot coming from Japan, either directly or the long way, over the past few weeks, and one of the best is the latest from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, After the Storm, which plays Kendall Square. It features Hiroshi Abe as an award-winning writer now working as a private detective, trying to connect with his son even though he’s kind of a screw-up.
  • If Your Name is not enough gender-bending for you this week, Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has The Assignment, Walter Hill’s action movie about a hitman (Michelle Rodriguez) going after the doctor (Sigourney Weaver) who kidnapped him and gave him gender-reassignment surgery for her own revenge. Not tacky at all! It splits a screen with 1 Mile to You, about a teenager who finds cross-country running allows him to remember his dead friends better (it’s one of those indies that doesn’t look very good but is filled with good character actors). Both have been renamed to show up earlier in their true homes on VOD menus. In Indian film, there’s Telugu romantic thriller Cheliya and Kaatru Veliyidal in Tamil.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues to be Wicked Queer central with shows through Sunday, with the Museum of Fine Arts and ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theatre downtown also hosting screenings.

    The festival caused them to miss out on the 1984 festivities last week, but they catch up on Sunday evening with a 35mm print, playing it as a double feature with Fahrenheit 451 on Sunday evening. On Monday, the DocYard presents The Islands and the Whales with director Mike Day doing Q&A after his documentary about Faoese whalers whose way of life and island are both vanishing. They’ve also got anime on tap, with vampire-hunting adventure Kizumonogatari showing on Tuesday (parts 1 & 2) and Wednesday (part 3). Then, on Thursday, they’ve got a new restoration of Donnie Darko (the original cut) for its 15th anniversary.
  • The first guest at The Harvard Film Archive this weekend is Jem Cohen, who will personally host two shorts programs on Friday and Saturday evenings, though he his not scheduled to be there for feature Museum Hours on Sunday evening. No guest for Rules of the Game, one of the entries in their new French independent cinema series on Sunday afternoon, but Matias Pineiro will be on hand to introduce his new film Hermia and Helena on Monday.

    They also have their monthly $5 family film on Saturday afternoon, with Mary Poppins on a 35mm print that they say is gorgeous.
  • The Somerville Theatre kicks off this year’s “Silents Please” program on Sunday with a 35mm print of The Wind, with Jeff Rapsis accompanying on the keyboard. This one stars Lillian Gish as a woman driven mad (by, among other things, the windy weather) when she moves from Virginia to Texas.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts combines Wicked Queer with their monthly “On the Fringe” program Friday night, breaking out a newly-restored 35mm print of 1983’s Born in Flames, with co-star Jeanne Statterfield doing a Q&A after what was an unusually political sci-fi film for 1983. Once that festival is finished, they get back to their Frederick Wiseman series, with a prints of Near Death on Wednesday (note that 498 minutes is a lot of 16mm film), and Central Park (176 minutes) on Thursday. Thursday also starts their annual “Hollywood Scriptures” series, this one focused on “Migrations”, with Fatima.
  • The Bright Lights shows at the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount are two looks at the same story - the on-air suicide of news anchor Christine Chubbock - from different angles. Christine on Tuesday is a conventional biopic, while Kate Plays Christine on Thursday features Kate Lyn Sheil going through the motions of researching Christine to play her in a (non-existent) TV movie.
  • Belmont World Film is at the Studio Cinema on Sunday this week, with He Even Has Your Eyes flipping the usual script with a Senegalese family in France adopting a blonde-haired baby boy.

Although I’m going to spend a lot of the weekend binging Netflix stuff while Comcast has them on demand for free (really enjoying Sense8!) and have my first Red Sox ticket of the year on Tuesday, I will try and kick a little money Your Name’s way, maybe catch up on Tampopo, Get Out, and Beauty and the Beast (and probably also see The Assignment because Walter Hill is usually at least interesting and I like gender-bender stories).

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Am I borrowing a little too much outrage as I write about The Zookeeper’s Wife? It’s tough to know; I don’t exactly have any personal stake in feeling slighted by how the filmmakers treat certain characters, but I’ve been trying to be more mindful of how people are portrayed in the films I watch, as it is easy to take things for granted when I don’t have to worry much about how I am represented, and this is a sort of tricky one: Nobody but Nazis necessarily comes off as bad, per se, and screw Nazis, but there are other factors to how people are portrayed that come off as uncomfortable. In this case, I see corrals and cages, and think, hmm, especially since the filmmakers do seem to be drawing a direct line between how animals and people are treated.

Sometimes, this is really obvious, such as in the movie’s weirdest scene, when the German naturalist’s pushing two buffaloes to mate in the background is contrasted with him practically raping Jessica Chastain’s character in the foreground. It’s a weird scene, and not just because it’s not exactly something you expect to see in a PG-13 movie. Sure, it’s one where I sort of raised my eyebrow early, thinking that’s more nipple than you usually get with PG-13, which is in and of itself is kind of worth noting: Though it doesn’t have a lot of automatic-R stuff beyond that - no f-words and no really graphic violence - it’s still weird. This doesn’t really have the violence and outright horror that Holocaust films often do, and maybe it should. It substitutes killing animals for killing people, maybe so that it’s not too disturbing. The PG-13 may not have been what the filmmakers were shooting for, but I’ll bet they were looking for an R that didn’t batter people, and with this topic, should they?

They were almost certainly looking for an audience like the folks behind me, older folks who came out talking about what a good movie that was. I don’t necessarily fault them for that, but like I say in the review, they came out empathizing with the folks who weren’t going to be rounded up and gassed, and whose resistance wasn’t easy but also wasn’t as hard as it could be. It really felt like it was made to make people feel like they could have smuggled Jews out of the ghetto, rather than showing how terrifying and dangerous it was for everybody, and that does everybody involved a bit of a disservice.

Is that just me, or am I onto something here? I really don’t know; I’m analyzing it and getting to an emotional place through that route, which isn’t always the best way to get to the truth. But, once I saw that (and that the movie really wasn’t that great in the first place), it was hard to avoid.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

* * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2017 in Capitol Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

The Zookeeper’s Wife is not quite the movie it looked like, thankfully, although that might not be saying too much. I was fearing "Holocaust rescue but with cute animals to offset the horror", and it falls well short of that. Unfortunately, it’s still something that seems sanitized enough that the moments where it does get properly ugly come off as something the filmmakers can’t handle.

The zookeeper’s wife of the title is Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain); in 1938, her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, although the friendly-seeming visit of Berlin naturalist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) is a telling preview of the forthcoming invasion. Soon, Warsaw’s Jewish residents are being relocated to the ghetto, and everyone knows worse is on the way. Antonina and Jan start out by hiding one of their best friends in the attic, but soon set a larger plan: They offer up the now-empty zoo as a pig farm, with the hogs fed by the ghetto’s garbage, with weekly collection runs a way to smuggle people out. Heck, now a senior SS officer in Warsaw, agrees to the farm, but also insists he use some of the park for his pet project, which means the refugees must keep very quiet lest the Nazi guards be alerted.

Put aside the “based upon actual events” tag, and this is a good set of characters for this sort of story, and we know that from the start: The opening shows how well the Zabinskis get along with everybody, even if Antonina is the more outgoing one, especially as their backgrounds get filled in. I don’t know how much of Zeck is real and how much was created for the story, but there’s something supremely perfect about him as the outwardly-benign Nazi; he’s introduced telling a story of conservation that involves shooting wild animals but raising their cubs in captivity, his special breeding project is a doomed and absurd exercise in eugenics, and his sense of entitlement doesn’t initially seem outsized. It’s a great foundation for this sort of story, so long as the filmmakers careful where they go with it.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Made in Japan, Remade Elsewhere: Ghost in the Shell ‘17 & The Devotion of Suspect X ‘17

That these two adaptations of things that were big in Japan a decade or two ago and still see new franchise entries released there - at least, I think there are still new Galileo novels released regularly, and Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society just came out a couple years back, it seems. Naturally, only Ghost got a bunch of write-ups about how doing a non-Japanese version was an affront to everyone, although, to be fair, Suspect is far less-awkwardly localized.

Seeing these as a double-feature made for a really quick turnaround, though - seeing the cheap Imax show of Ghost meant being at the theater at 10:45am, and Devotion started at 12:45pm. Naturally, only the former had the twenty-minute trailer package. But, hey, at least it was freakishly nice when I got out, after having to push it back because Saturday was one of those days when slop just falls straight from the sky.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

As an adaptation of the Shirow manga goes, the new movie has some problems, although the most important one - that Major Motoko Kusanagi never needed this sort of mysterious secret origin, and adding it changes the underpinnings of her character a great deal - probably won't be much of a concern to many, at least not so obviously as "Mara Killian" being played by Scarlett Johansson. It bugs me, though I sort of understand why the filmmakers would go with something a bit more conventional, as my first go-rounds with both the manga and the anime were kind of overwhelming. I don’t like sacrificing what had originally been a sort of subtext about humanity self-evolving away from their bodies for an evil corporation kidnapping people and forcing it upon them, but it’s easier to get a handle on.

The thing is, that sort of pushes Ghost in the Shell toward being a big, effects-filled action movie, and director Rupert Sanders is really not that good at action. He can shoot Johansson jumping off a building toward a green screen, sure, and frame an explosion well enough - he’s actually got impressive visual sense when it comes to setting up a situation or showing the aftermath - but scenes of Mara and her squad actually putting the hurt on someone are fairly weak; there’s always something muting the impact, and he never makes Mara’s stealth mode feel overwhelming. The “spider tank” in the finale is built up in dialogue, but never feels like the grotesque overkill it’s supposed to be.

And yet, taken on it's own evil-dehumanizing-corporation terms, this movie is often pretty neat. It's almost certainly the best a movie like this has looked since Blade Runner, for example, and while it’s the sort where the sheer amount of what Sanders and all stretches the effects budget, it works as style more than is sometimes the case. This sort of woman wrestling with the question of her own humanity is right in Johansson's wheelhouse - she’s done it in enough movies that people are writing about how it’s a trend, and how she’s exactly the person you’d want if ethnicity wasn’t an issue. The latter is something one has to wrestle with, as the basic idea of setting it in a melting-pot nation isn’t a bad one, even if it results in some odd matches between character names and ethnicities, but the reality is a bunch of Japanese characters made caucasian. Even having an international cast doesn’t really help; though Pilou Asbaek makes a fine Batou, the movie gets far less than it seems it ought to from “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and Juliette BInoche.

It's a mess in a lot of ways, but it's far from the disaster it could have been. In a lot of ways, it’s an impressively faithful bit of cyberpunk, and at another time the casting might not have beens such an issue, though it would still have had weaknesses of its own.

Xian Yi Ren X De Xian Shen (aka The Devotion of Suspect X, 2017)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

Like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, Keigo Higashino’s novel The Devotion of Suspect X made the jump from being one entry in a detective series to being a definitive piece of genre work, the sort whose story is immediately memorable even though a lot of mysteries can run together, although few mysteries of that sort are as memorable for their characterization as they are for the puzzles. This Chinese film is the third time the story has hit the screen - there are Japanese and Korean versions, with an Indian television series coming and an American film in development - and while I haven’t seen the others to rate this one in relation to them, it’s a quality mystery, worth a trip to whatever theater in your city shows Chinese movies.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is the latest case for Luo Miao-shen (Ye Zuxin) and Tang Chuan (Wang Kai), the former a detective in the Jiangbei police department, the latter a physicist who consults on cases suspected to involve “high-IQ offenders”. That doesn’t seem to fit Chen Jing (Ruby Lin Xin-ru), a prime suspect in the death of her lousy gambler of an ex-husband Fu Jian (Zhao Yang), but it may very well apply to Shi Hong (Zhang Luyi), who lives next door, eats at Jing’s snack bar every day and teaches math at the elementary school her daughter Xioaxin (Deng Enxi) attends. He is, however, more than he appears, a brilliant mathematician who, when they were younger, went to school with Tang, the pair challenging each other to solve increasingly difficult brain-teasers.

I don’t know how much Higashino’s “Galileo” novels function as brain-teasers versus character studies, but this Chinese adaptation slots in somewhere between those two poles, tone-wise. Su and screenwrier Xu Jia-peng reveal who killed Fu Jian fairly early, and that lets them give the focus to how the characters play off each other, letting how Tang, Shi, the Chens, and an amiable enough fellow who has long been fond of Chen Jing bounce off each other without the audience having to discount what they are seeing and thus holding their reactions at arm’s length. There are still bits to figure out - the filmmakers don’t immediately spill details that don’t necessarily matter - but they feel kind of like side-issues, things that will reflect what’s going on at the center of the story but which the audience doesn’t need to know in order to appreciate the main question of just what kind of man Shi Hong is.

Full review on EFC.