Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Between seeing this on Saturday and the Brattle's 35mm screening of Hard Boiled on Monday, I found myself pondering the idea of writing down when English was used in Hong Kong movies and trying to figure out if there was any sort of common thread. There is "Yes Sir!" left over from British rule and the characters who are described as American or Canadian born, sure, but there are other times when I'll hear a bit of English dropped into the dialogue of one of these movies and wonder if it's just a phrase that doesn't translate naturally into Cantonese. There's not a lot of random English in 29+1, but given that it's been long enough since the handover that I don't imagine English is quite as pervasive in HK as it used to be, I'm kind of curious which phrases survive and why.

(The same, I suppose, also applies to Indian movies, although I'm not seeing as many of them right now.)

Without much more ado, since I don't expect this will be at Boston Common past Thursday, what with Beautiful Accident and God of War due to open within the next week on top of screens being needed for Wonder Woman, I liked this one a fair amount. Hong Kong movies don't seem to get quite the audience their mainland cousins do, possibly because they take a couple of weeks to cross the Pacific and that window allows the pirates to do their thing, but even something as aspirational, for lack of a better word, as this seems a little less overdone than what's coming out of China proper. Go see it, if you can.

I mean, I went and made sure to add Mr. & Mrs. Player to a DDDHouse order something like 60% for reasons of "liking Chrissie Chau a lot in this", and ordering discs from the other side of the planet has to count as a pretty strong endorsement, right? And it doesn't even look like it's particularly a part of the "Chrissie Chau wears a bikini for much of the movie" portion of her career, either! Admittedly, I stumbled on that while looking for Amazon links later, but she certainly comes off as funny enough in this that putting her in light sex comedies looks like good fun.

(Why, yes, I will be looking for her name on Hong Kong imports the way I look for Deepika Padukone's on movies from India, why do you ask?)


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

From the footage shown over the closing credits, writer/director Kearen Pang Sau-wai had been doing 29+1 as a one-woman show on and off for ten years or so prior to making this film, which means that she knows what works very well by now. Fortunately, she also seems to grasp that a fair amount of it wouldn't translate to a conventional film - including, perhaps, that she's aged out of playing a woman about to turn thirty - which means that, while the film she made is likely different from her play, it's nevertheless a nifty movie which takes on the same ideas.

As the film opens, it's 4 March 2005, a month from Christy Lam (Chrissie Chau Sau-na) celebrating her thirtieth birthday. She's successful - just getting promoted to regional marketing director by a tough-to-please boss (Elaine Kam Yin-ling) - has a nice apartment, and she's at a good place with her boyfriend Tsz-ho (Ben Yeung Sheung-bun), even if his cat doesn't much like her. Sure, her father's mind is deteriorating, and that boyfriend may not really like how much she works, and that leak in her flat that just did a number on her handbags may not be an issue much longer because the landlord (Jan Lamb Hoi-fung) sold the place, but he at least found her a spot to stay while she looks for a new home: Wong Tin-lok (Joyce Cheng Yan-yi) is subletting her apartment while she takes a trip to Paris for her birthday, which just so happens to be the same as Christy's.

Given how much Hong Kong movies are directed at the local market these days, Chrissie Chau must have been dealing with some pressure in taking the part of Christy on the big screen, but she's certainly up to it. Chau has a half-dozen or so ways of reacting to the nonsense Christy has to deal with over the course of the movie, and the nuance to capture whether this is a sort of funny aggravation, something more genuinely frustrating, or the sort of experience that genuinely wears a person down. She's good enough at the comedic side of the film to snap from something cheery to a sharp aside, but also able to show the weight of what she's dealing with bearing down on her.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

BUFF 2017.05: Trinity, Get the Balance Right, Hidden Reserves, Dave Made a Maze, and Bitch

Busy, guest-filled day to close out this particular festival, and no place to take much of a breather, either.

TRINITY filmmakers

First-up with the Sunday-noon movie, with Izzy Lee, Skip Shea, David Graziano, Sean Carmichael, Aurora Grabill, and Diana Porter repping Izzy Lee's "Rites of Vengeance" and Skip Shea's Trinity (with one of the festival staff on the far left), with all of the expected comments about this being how the Underground weirdoes do Sunday mass. It's the expected thing, but, hey, sometimes you do the expected thing.

As you might expect, both found a very friendly audience, because even if Trinity is not exactly a good movie, it's clearly important to Shea, and getting those feelings out there is a big thing. It was good to see that he appears to be an affable, non-destroyed guy, which is the most important thing to take away.

"Opolis" filmmakers

I'm guessing that the folks who made "Opolis" (musician Alec Jackson and director John F. Quirk) are local, because they're the ones who showed up to support their three-minute short for the animation block. Cool that they got to come up and talk after their movie was the last one to play. Unsurprisingly, the music was pretty integral to the short, dictating its energy, if not its content.

(Sorry about not reviewing all of the shorts in that block; by the time I got around to starting, let alone completing, this post, it was easy for things that were just a few minutes long to not retain enough brainspace for a useful review.)

Oh, and about the bottom of that picture? There were donuts. Lots and lots of fancy donuts, which probably lasted through the third or fourth show of the day. Some of them were insane. This is a good thing for a film festival that often schedules things way too tight to even get in and out of the burrito place across the street.

The highlight of the day - and possibly the festival - was Dave Made a Maze, with director Bill Watterson and star Meera Rohit Kumbhani also delivering one of the more entertaining Q&A (introduced by Nicole McControversy on the left), which actually started with them running down the aisle and somersaulting onto the Brattle stage, which is not an entrance I've seen before.

So far as I can tell, most people who have seen this movie on the festival circuit have loved it, so I'm expecting some very good word of mouth when Gravitas gets it in theaters later this year (even if that will likely mean 1pm and 7pm shows at Fresh Pond in the Boston area). It's an enthusiasm that we share with the filmmakers, which is pretty unusual - usually, when something plays a festival, the active, exciting parts of making the film were completed months ago, the cast has done two or three other jobs since, and only the first festival gives them jitters. BUFF was still early in the festival cycle, but Watterson and Kumbhani were either still psyched or very good at appearing that way.

It made for a really fun interaction, though, as questions about how crazy some of what appeared on-screen would be greeted with "I know!" followed by something that made the production seem even crazier. It was apparently shot on a ridiculously tight schedule of two or three set-ups a day, with the set-builders firing up their hot glue guns as soon as Watterson said "cut" to get a little bit ahead, so they wouldn't have to work straight through the night. On the other hand, the fact that they did do that meant that working on the set was an amazing experience, because, as Kumbhani pointed out, it's not that often an actor really gets to come onto the set every morning to something surprising/new/amazing, and it certainly helped them deliver those emotions as their characters explored the maze. It was apparently an absurd number of set-ups to get through in 20-odd days, and that wasn't all - there's a scene with a zoetrope that wasn't shot until December (crazy close to when it would play SXSW and BUFF in March), and another scene also got shot after everyone had gone home, although they get around that in a clever way I won't spoil.

Final fun fact: The cardboard budget for the movie was actually zero, with everything used to build these sets scavenged from nearby businesses and, presumably, the cast and crew's Amazon orders.

Nobody on-hand for the final show, since, really, who wants to be doing a Q&A when the closing-night party is waiting? I was kind of surprised to see that some friends outside the festival didn't show up or at least give a heads-up for the short before Bitch, as not only did it star one of their favorite character actresses, but one had a bit part in it. You've got to tell your friends about that, Vicki!

"Rites of Vengeance"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’m pretty thankful that I have never, the the best of my recollection, seen Izzy Lee angry in person. Disgusted and/or disappointed, sure, and maybe she’s not actually demonstrative much beyond that, at least until she sits down in front of a computer and starts writing a script wherein whoever has earned her ire gets exactly what he deserves.

Which is what she does here, and does fairly well. A Catholic priest (Michael Thurber) has abused some kids only to have the church leadership sweep in under the rug, but the parish’s nuns (Silvia Graziano, Stee McMorris, and Heather Buckley) have access to sharp objects. This being a five-minute short, things take their course rather directly, and the credits roll. But it’s done well; she’s able to get the story across without dialogue, and it’s well paced given that Izzy lets the environment and the associated music set a sedate pace, and she’s got a few events to get through.

It’s a good opener for Trinity, or probably whatever program it gets attached to. It might get swallowed up in another setting, but it certainly does what its maker wanted from it, quite nicely.

Trinity (2016)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’ve mentioned the Sunday-noon programming at BUFF in previous years, and I suppose I should actually go back over various festival programs to see how often the pattern I’ve observed - that it’s something by a local filmmaker but of questionable quality, the sort of movie that you wouldn’t want representing the fest in a prime slot, but will put friends’ butts in seats when much of the rest of the festival audience is hungover - actually holds. It makes a certain sort of sense, but it’s also a little cynical.

Unfortunately, that seemed to be the case here, because Trinity was painful to watch, and not just because of the subject matter (an artist unexpectedly runs into the priest who abused him as a child). It circles around the secret that everybody coming into the theater is aware of, it goes off on tangents about art and the tarot that undoubtedly have meaning for the filmmaker but which are so specific that they are either meaningless to some in the audience or explained in painful detail on-screen. The acting isn’t great, and there’s a tremendous amount of breaking the fourth wall that doesn’t really communicate anything.

And it’s a shame, because this is one you want to be really good; it’s made by a survivor of abuse that everybody at the festival seems to like; he certainly strikes one as a genuinely good dude. So I hope this was cathartic for him, and I hope it speaks to other people who have been through something similar. If that’s the case, then the film has value, whether I got much out of it or not.

"The Past Inside the Present"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Second shorts package I've seen this short in,and it was a different experience; not just for being on the other side of the planet, but the way that the science fiction elements are actually far more central than the nostalgic imagery of 1980s technology. It's a sign, perhaps,of how imagery can sometimes overwhelm narrative when watching films, especially after a bit of time and when your brain isn't necessarily recording properly.

Original review from MonsterFest


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Nifty little animated short apparently built out of a video game engine, and I wonder a bit if it would resonate a bit more with me if I knew the game. It's still kind of cool, with director Veselin Efremov getting intriguing humanity out of the robot characters, starting by showing the main bot "breathing heavy" as it activates, which implies a human consciousness in there somehow, adding a small layer of horror to what is already something of a horror-of-war short. It winds up a little bit of everything in a good way, and all the more impressive given that even those who haven't played the game can enjoy the end result.

"Panic Attack!"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Eileen O'Meara's short may not have the cleanest art style or smoothest animation of the group, but it has a stream-of-consciousness sense of absurdity that leads to a steady stream of laughs. O'Meara's gags work well enough that, even if neither the initial anxieties nor the escalation feel particularly identifiable to a given viewer, there isn't a particularly wasted or off-putting second.

"Roger Ballen's Theatre of Apparitions"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

I wonder how this plays to folks who have previously heard of photographer Roger Ballen; I had not, and not being particularly drawn to that sort of art, the images of Ballen sitting in an audience of ghostly faces, perplexedly watching surreal images come to life and chase each other, made a bit more of an impression on me than the actual Ballen works. I relate more to the deadpan reaction to strangeness to the actual oddity.

Giving it another watch, I'm still not sure that there's a lot more than peculiar impulse there, but I love the energy that animators Emma Calder and Ged Haney bring to it, as well as how John Webb's circus music gives it even more life. It's a weird five minutes, but the decision to embrace a rambunctious attitude rather than be somber is a great one.

(Available to watch on Ballen's webiste)

"The Golden Chain"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

The "people alone at the edge of the universe" genre can seem easily tapped out - once you've seen one artist use it as a way to throw a bunch of weird images at the screen, you get the gist for the rest - and in some ways, "The Golden Chain" is just that sort of thing except more specific. But that specificity counts; by going for an Afrofuturistic set of imagery, filmmakers Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels constrain themselves a bit, forcing themselves along a path. There's also more of a feel of a real world worthy of exploration in its story of Nigerian astronaut/scientist Yetunde going a bit peculiar as she studies something impossible, and that discovery resonates with how much more an audience might like to learn themselves, despite being restrained by the limits of a short film.

"The Itching"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Truth be told, the actual itching is the part of Dianne Bellino's film that I kind of like the least; it quickly becomes body-horror imagery that is not for the squeamish even if it is presented as different-colored clay on a stop-motion wolf. The material around it, though, is gold - that nervous wolf girl going out of her comfort zone to meet her bunny-rabbit friend (boyfriend? girlfriend?) at an otherwise all-bunny nightclub; the rippling way the itching criss-crosses her body; the only thing close to speech being the whines of a scared dog; the way that we see the bunny comforting the wolf and getting her not to scratch at the end.

The question, then, is if all of that would work quite so well if the middle wasn't so horrifying to watch; it's a visceral evocation of the urge to engage in self-destructive behavior even though the thing that seems to promise relief is only making it worse. It's something most of us understand but seldom see presented so forcefully, perhaps precisely because of how off-putting it can be. In that way, "The Itching" is likely a success, even if one does wonder a bit if it could say what it was saying without seeming repellent rather than just unnerving.

(Available to watch on Vimeo)


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Not quite just a music video for a Blues Dreambox song, but pretty close; the rhythm & blues riff is a good part of what will wedge in the viewer's head after watching it; the various pop-culture references and transformations can seem arbitrary and fleeting, aside from Ultraman (or some similar sentai hero) who jumps from a child's TV to a billboard to fight off an invading space triangle. The images don't flip by faster than the laid-back pace of the music, but don't quite have a chance to grab onto anything in the viewer's head.

It's a pretty good song, though, and there is a basic story there that can be followed even if the details don't quite build into something. It's fun to watch even when it's not exactly something that extends passt those three minutes.

(Available to watch on Vimeo).

"The Quantified Self"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

A lot of short films get made as pilots for a feature, and while I don’t know that this is the case with "The Quantified Self", it feels like one, with more world-building than it (or its budget) can really hold and not quite enough story to make it run smoothly.

Which is not to say that the story and world it has is bad; it’s a quick, clever introduction to a family whose entire life is measured minutely, with cut-aways to screens full of metrics projected over the characters as they explain their ambitions or anxieties. The emerging story of one of their twin daughters, Daniela 2 (Madeleine Ruley), being far less enthused about this than sister Daniela 1 (Charlotte Ruley), despite the complete buy-in of their parents (Nando Del Castillo & Maggie Fine). It builds, things seem fairly snappy, and then there’s a fairly abrupt ending that is cynical enough to work as satire but doesn’t quite have a ring of truth.

And then there’s the whole thing with "the tower" that undercuts a great deal of what the filmmakers do because the rickety wooden thing shown (presumably in the filmmakers' backyard) just doesn't fit with the otherwise high-tech, reasonably detailed world the rest of the short posits. There's a near-connection there, that modern worship of that sort of technologically-measured wellness is not far from the idolatry of previous eras, but the production falls just short of making it work.

Stille Reserven (Hidden Reserves)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

There's a chill to Hidden Reserves that doesn't show up in a lot of science fiction film these days; creators have the resources to have fun, so it's not quite so easy or natural to follow one's darker thoughts as it was when dystopias were much easier to create than their opposites. Filmmaker Valentin Hitz has come up with an idea that lends itself to such a resolutely morose environment, and that's what makes it kind of intriguing; the darkness does not seem like an affectation and the moments of light feel more precious as they struggle to escape.

Hitz's idea is "Death Insurance", which Vincent Baumann (Clemens Schick) sells to people afraid that their debts might be collected post-mortem not just by having their bodies used for transplant organs, but as pregnancy surrogates, or having their memories mined and what is left of their brains used for data storage. His latest assignment is Wladimir Sokulov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Ukrainian industrialist who believes that his fortune should be enough to buy him an eternal rest. When Vincent cannot make the sale, his boss and lover Diana (Marion MItterhammer) gives him a demotion - though this also serves as cover to get close to Lisa (Lena Lauzemis), a cabaret singer believed to have connections to an underground plot to free the enslaved dead, though the last undercover operative they sent (Stipe Erceg) made little progress.

Many films have scenarios described as morbid, though few take it quite so literally as this one. The unnerving thing, of course, is that the idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem; CGI effects have put the likenesses of dead actors to work for a generation and it's not hard to foresee a time when enough people are more likely to inherit debt than assets that actually having the person who racked up that debt work it off might behind to sound reasonable. It also works as a metaphor for just how dehumanizing a lot of the work available for those without much in the way of means can be, and the idea of having to continue doing things that are just mindless toil even after one is dead is as unnerving a science-fictional take on Hell as can be imagined.

Full review on EFC.

"From the Dizziness of Freedom: The Philosophy Vessel"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

As mentioned up top, the choices of shorts to play with features at this year's BUFF have been impressively on point, often reflecting the themes of the films they accompanied in ways that don't fully sink in until after one has finished both. And then there's this, which gets stuck in front of Dave Made a Maze because both have labyrinths and minotaurs, but often seems more like a catalog than a short with something to say.

When viewed as a survey of this sort of mythology, it's okay - it's got Icarus, fairies in hedge mazes, a female minotaur, and other related imagery, often given an even darker twist and put presented with the sort of hesitating stop-motion that seems even creepier because it really seems to want the audience aware of the wire armature underneath its characters' rubbery skin. Filmmaker Melissa Ferrari shows some impressive skills editing it, as well, shaping the dialog-free images into something with a through-line as it flows from one piece to the other, even if it doesn't exactly become a story.

Maybe, if it had a stronger narrative, it would have stuck in my head better, although I suspect that the pointed joy of the feature it played was going to overwhelming its dour sensibilities anyway. It's got some nice images, but didn't stick with me like one would hope.

Dave Made a Maze

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I'm a tiny bit worried that Dave Made a Maze will come across as saying that some people just shouldn't try to make art when I inevitably revisit it, as that theme is certainly there to an extent even if the experience of watching the movie tends to focus on just the opposite: It's joyously creative in the moment, with hilariously low-fi wonders around every corner, so it certainly should be received as a wonderfully absurd adventure.

It's off-kilter from the start, when Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) gets home from a trip to see that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has built a labyrinth out of cardboard boxes in their living room, and seems to have gotten himself lost inside - but don't make a new entrance with box-cutters, because he worked so hard, and do not come in after him. She calls their friend Gordon (Adam Busch) for help, and he calls everyone else they know, because, come on, this is hilarious. So soon it's like a party, and Annie decides to go in after him, followed by Gordon, super-close couple Greg (Timothy Norwind) & Brynn (Stephanie Allynne), highly-enthusiastic Jane (Kirsten Vangsness), older burnout Leonard (Scott Krinsky), documentary filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak), his crew, a couple of Flemish tourists… They all fit, without even stooping over, because it's much bigger on the inside than the outside.

They may not all get out, because it is filled with deadly traps.

And a minotaur.

Mostly, though, it's wall-to-wall cardboard wonders which one could see as a spectacular rebuke to movies that spend millions upon millions of dollars on incredibly elaborate worlds that elicit no wonder or excitement. Filmmaker Bill Watterson and his art department (led by Trisha Gum, John Sumner, and Jeff White) are having none of that; while they may be making their sets and props out of the most basic material they can find, there's a sense of delight and discovery with each new room, with each shot a model of clarity while the detail work speaks to Dave's obsession in creating it without being visually overwhelming - it will look good on big and small screens. And, just when one might feel that they've gotten used to the madness, Watterson and the crew will pull out something new and delightfully absurd, getting a big laugh even if it is sort of violent.

Full review on EFC.

"The Bridge Partner"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I ought to dig out the original Peter S. Beagle short story to see if "The Bridge Partner" was originally built around older characters, or if it's more of an accommodation to the fact that not many people pick up bridge these days. It had to be mainstream at some point - newspapers weren't wasting valuable real estate on the comics/puzzles page for something that didn't appeal to a good chunk of its readers - but now it doesn't have that same position, and that might change the story, from one where a character's extreme competitiveness is scary to one where it's absurd.

That's the crux of the matter, as Mattie (Beth Grant), who is not very good at bridge and kind of dowdy in general, winds up teamed with recently-arrived European sophisticate Olivia (Sharon Lawrence) in a local tournament, and while Olivia seems all charm and graciousness, she whispers a threat to Mattie. It's something that could be a lot of fun, either as a simple thriller or an example of how a genteel exterior often masks a monstrous heart - or even, should one try to go this way, how a person can imagine themselves threatened as a result of her own insecurity - but writer/director Gabriel Olson doesn't really do a lot with it. Olson and composer Miles Hankins will goose the soundtrack in the right places, but Olson seldom actually has anything happen, even to the extent of setting up the potential for misinterpretation. Things just don't go anywhere.

He still manages to make a lot of things work for a moment or two, setting up a few fine beats and moving things along nicely. And it's nice to see some good work from the main cast - Beth Grant works a ton but often in exaggerated roles or on lower-tier projects whose filmmakers don't really have a grip on handling her distinctive accent and delivery, and Sharon Lawrence doesn't seem to get a part that's this much fun very often. It's always nice to see Robert Forster. It would be nicer if they had a bit more to do.

Bitch (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The biggest issue with Bitch is not that it's a relatively-straight take on an idea that is generally played as a silly fantasy; that's something that filmmaker Marianna Palka and her cast do fairly well. It's unnerving at times, but in the way it's supposed to be, and even the fact that Palka paints her way into a corner story-wise isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you wind up in corners. But there comes a point where she seems to wind up stuck doing the things that are beneath the ambition otherwise on display, and I don't know if anyone watching this film would want that conventionality.

The set-up is kind of conventional: Jill (Palka) is the stay-at-home wife to Bill Hart (Jason Ritter), looking after their three kids while he works long hours and has a thing on the side with Annabelle (Sol Rodriguez), always with a reason why Jill can't take some sort of break. One day, as she's at a breaking point, a dog catches her eye and she almost seems to fall into a trance. The next morning, that dog bursts out of her bedroom, and the woman left behind is on all fours, barking, and snapping at anyone who comes near. Although Jill's sister Beth (Jaime King) is willing to help, they can't keep Jill locked in the basement long-term, despite the way Bill's pride won't acknowledge this as a problem he can't handle, even if he is risking his career and making a fool of himself trying to learn how to be an actual parent on the fly.

That dog running out of the house gives a brief impression that maybe Bitch is going for an uncomfortably realistic body-swap, and although it might be interesting to see someone try that angle, Palka dispenses with that fairly quickly; reversing some sort of supernatural event would probably not show the sort of growth in Bill that Palka is looking for. Instead, she takes the tropes of that sort of movie as a starting point and plays it as disturbing rather than funny, as Jill takes on the persona of a feral dog rather than a family pet, complete with biting and just crapping on the floor and making a mess. If this break was brought on by a yearning for a dog's easy life or freedom, then being locked in the basement is an especially cruel irony, although it's a sharp commentary on how poorly most people handle mental illness, which gives a little more edge to the inevitable scene where Bill and Beth have to run through the neighborhood calling Jill's name, which does not play like a funny dog-thing-but-with-a-person bit.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 26 May 2017 - 1 June 2017

You know, I'm almost tempted to see this weekend's big new release, but I feel like seeing two movies with Johnny Depp in the same calendar year would make me feel dirty.

  • I mean, sure, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is kind of tempting, but I doubt that they'll let Javier Bardem's Captain Salazar kill Jack Sparrow, even if it is the last one. The directors are the Norwegian guys who did the well-regarded Kon-Tikia few years back, though, and 3D swashbuckling should be fun. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's (Imax), the Studio Cinema (2D only), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), Revere (including MX4D/XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Or you could come ashore for Baywatch, with Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron as lifeguards getting into goofy adventures, with Priyanka Chopra as the villain and Alexandra Daddario as what I hope is Johnson's girlfriend, seeing as she played his daughter in San Andreas a year ago. It actually opened Thursday night, and is playing at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • Two new movies open at The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Boston Common, squarely hitting the mainstream/boutique crossover. Paris Can Wait (apparently also called "Bonjour, Anne") comes from Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis Ford, making her first feature film at the age of 81; it stars Diane Lane as a vaguely unsatisfied woman who winds up taking the scenic route through France when her husband's friend offers to give her a lift to Paris. It's also at Kendall Square and the Embassy.

    There's also Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, which isn't an official follow-up to the Wim Wenders movie, but does focus on several of the same musicians, twenty years older and with fewer still around. It also plays West Newton.

    This week's midnight cult filmmaker is Guillermo Del Toro, with 35mm prints of two of his great Spanish-language films, with The Devil's Backbone on Friday and Pan's Labyrinth on Saturday. They've also got a print of Apollo 13 on Monday, with MIT Professor Laurence Young doing a Science-on-Screen-style introduction for this JFK100 screening. Tuesday's special screening is Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead, Amir Bar-Lev's jumps sized documentary (nearly four hours) of one of the world's most unconventionally successful bands. On Thursday, there's a tribute to Jonathan Demme with a 35mm print of Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.
  • Kendall Square is still down to four screens (not sure whether they're the same four screens), but they open Wakefield as well as Paris. That one features Bryan Cranston as a man who has a nervous breakdown and retreats to the attic, observing his wife (Jennifer Garner) unseen for months.
  • Boston Common clears the Chinese films which have been running all month out but brings in 29+1, a story of two 29-year-old women in Hong Kong whose lives intersect as they move in different directions. It stars Chrissie Chau and Joyce Cheng, and is written and directed by Kearen Pang from her own stage play. Pang co-wrote Isabella, which was pretty darn good.

    The Bollywood film opening at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond this week is Sachin: A Billion Dreams, a biography of "God of Cricket" Sachin Tendulkar directed by a guy who has been doing a bunch of sports films in recent years. They also open Telugu romance Rarandoi and keep around Hindi Medium (early shows only) and the subtitled Hindi version of Baahubali 2.
  • The Brattle Theatre is having a full Reunion Week this year as Harvard alumni back in town after a multiple of 25 years (and the rest of us) can revisit what was playing at the time. The movies on tap are 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons (Friday, 35mm, with an introduction by author Colin Fleming); 1992's Poison Ivy (Friday, 35mm); 1942's The Palm Beach Story & Woman of the Year (double feature Saturday, the latter on 35mm), 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Saturday, 35mm); 1967's Playtime (Sunday, 35mm); 1942's This Gun for Hire (Monday, 35mm); 1992's Hard Boiled (Monday, 35mm); 1967's In Cold Blood (Tuesday, 35mm); 1967's Branded to Kill (Tuesday); a free Elements of Cinema screening of 1992's Autumn Moon (Wednesday, 35mm); and 1992's Malcolm X (Thursday, 35mm).
  • ArtsEmerson continues Chapter & Verse with Daniel Beaty in the Bright, with shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • It's almost all Frederick Wiseman: For the Record at The Museum of Fine Arts, with screenings of Boxing Gym (Friday), State Legislature (Friday), La Danse (35mm Saturday), Domestic Violence 2 (Saturday), At Berkley (Sunday), Domestic Violence (Wednesday), In Jackson Heights (Thursday), and The Last Letter (Thursday). They will also have a matiinee screening of Orchestra of Exiles on Monday as part of their Memorial Day Open House.
  • The Regent Theatre is mostly still booked for a live show, but they will have 8th Annual Ciclismo Classico Bike Travel Film Festival on Wednesday.

That's not a whole lot of new stuff, actually; I'll probably catch 29+1, Baywatch and Wakefield, maybe check out a bunch of the Brattle's anniversary stuff. That choice between Hard Boiled and Apollo 13 on Monday is kind of cruel, though.

The Lost City of Z

I hope like heck that I get a chance to see this on 35mm sometime soon; it's a smart, impressive film to start with but its photography of the jungle in which its main character spends much time is not just spectacular, but the sort of environment that 2K digital never seems to do justice. The credits seemed to indicate that there were 35mm prints made as opposed to it simply being photographed on film, although I haven't heard from anybody who has seen one in the wild, so it's possible I just misread them.

Hopefully, Amazon and Bleecker Street have made one or two to send around when repertory screens inevitably start calling. I can almost see that becoming a regular strategy - make a few prints, but not use them on the original release when they'll get run a few times a day for several weeks, just when you know they'll play once or twice with a good projectionist in the booth. Maybe we'll see when/if the Brattle brings it out for a screening later this year, which I could see happening. I caught this in what is probably its last weekend in the Boston area, and expect that a lot of folks are going to feel bad about just missing it, especially if it gets awards talk.

At any rate, I find the timing of seeing it theatrically kind of amusing - there was a lot of talk last weekend about how Cannes was looking to exclude films which don't intend a theatrical release in the future, a move clearly aimed at Netflix, which had a couple of films there which likely won't see theaters in a number of characters, with Bong Joon-ho's Okja being the one this all crystallized around. I'm with those who want releases in general principle - something I'd elaborate on if I could find the time - and I think The Lost City of Z is a great example of why. What a loss it would have been if this had landed at Netflix rather than Amazon, immediately vanishing into a walled garden rather than anybody getting a chance to see it on a big screen and likely being close to invisible when the time came for awards consideration.

(Plus, it's fun to have a movie about exploring the Amazon in the hands of a company with the same name, right?)

The Lost City of Z

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 21 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

Stories like the one James Gray tells with The Lost City of Z can often seem to be just as much a relic of bygone eras as the evidence of fallen civilizations that the people playing them out find. The world has fewer unexplored corners, the people doing the exploring have a few more questions about filling them in, and wrestling with these questions doesn't seem like the basis of an entertaining adventure. That relative rarity and difficulty is what makes Z such a terrific and different night at the movies; it combines the excitement of early-Twentieth Century pulp with the perspective of the Twenty-First.

The film starts in 1905; when Major Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a capable soldier but one who has had little opportunity to make a mark or achieve social rank. When offered a commission by the British Geographical Society to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil, he hesitates - it will mean two years away from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), pregnant with their second child - but ultimately accepts, sailing to South America and making his way up the Amazon with fellow explorers Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), as well as native guide Tadjui (Pedro Coello). They lose people, but they do finish their mission, with one final surprise: Fawcett finds scraps of pottery, indications of ancient settlement and civilization which give new credence to legends of a city of gold. The desire to find this city, which he calls "Z", will come to define him, leading to further expeditions: One, before the war, sponsored by aristocrat James Murray (Angus Macfadyen); one after, undertaken with now-grown son Jack (Tom Holland).

That's a lot of time to cover, but director James Gray is relaxed with his pacing, allowing the audience to feel that passage even if there's not a lot of padding. As he lays out his themes clearly, he seldom seems to be wasting time. Take the opening scenes, where the Fawcetts are guests at an estate for a hunt. It seems disposable in terms of the actual plot, but Gray establishes so much that will shape the way that he and the audience will see the world and time over the rest of the film: The sight of the hunt is that of the British Empire in its fine uniforms attempting to overwhelm a deer with sheer numbers, while Percy's breaking off from the pack establishes his capability for both excellence and savage obsession, even if there is very little satisfaction in the scene of him standing over the dying animal. He and Nina talk about the lack of medals on his chest - he has never been sent to war - in a way that acknowledges both the attitudes of the time and how these two can see some of the absurdity of it. Before the action proper has truly started, the audience has an unusually nuanced perspective on these characters and the world they live in, and it's been done through action and moments of sly wit, so the time spent doesn't feel like clunky set-up.

Full review on EFC.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Caught this on the last screening at the Museum of Fine Arts - I'd meant to get there a week earlier, but between trying to fit one last bit into Sunday morning and the MBTA's weekend shuttle-bus shenanigans, I got to the museum at 2:05 for a 2pm show, and between not expecting trailers before something at the MFA and the movie only being 75 minutes long (plus having to snake one's way through the building after buying a ticket), I bailed that day. So, if you're looking for a Boston-area recommendation, it's too late. Sorry!

I'm mildly curious as to how Kendall Square being below half capacity might have affected the distribution of this movie here. If they're running four instead of five screens, some stuff is going to get shoved to the side, and maybe they don't book another niche animated film anyway while Your Name has a nice month-and-a-half-long run. So stuff which might normally play Cambridge gets pushed off other places. It didn't much seem to hurt Their Finest, which opened at the Coolidge and then popped up in other places, but this movie probably could have benefited from opening at the Kendall, as the MFA's film program can be pretty far off the beaten path.

Of course, it might not have even opened elsewhere at all - even if GKids is pretty good at getting things into local theaters, this movie's weird and the audience for adult-skewing animation may not be that big.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2017 in the Museum of Fine Art Remis Auditorium (first-run, DCP)

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is very much not for every taste - it's got a style of art and animation that looks primitive, hipster adults playing high-school sophomores and a bunch of self-referential gags. On the other hand, it tends to work because it's got a teenager's honest stumbling excitement of creating something without playing by the established rules; writer/director Dash Shaw will get an idea and throw it in there when asking himself why the heck not doesn't yield an obvious reason to stop, but not get so self-satisfied that he strings it out past the point of actually being funny.

"Dash Shaw" is also the name of the film's main character (voice of Jason Schwartzman), half of a writing team on the Tides High school paper with best friend Assaf (voice of Reggie Watts). The editor, Verti (voice of Maya Rudolph) is more taken with Assaf, and the bitter things he puts in the paper about the pair wind up leading to a mark on his Permanent Record. Sneaking into the school records room to remove the document, he and cheerleader/student councilor Mary (voice of Lena Dunham) - there to steal back her confiscated cell phone - discover that Principal Grimm (voice of Thomas Jay Ryan) have faked the approvals for the new rooftop auditorium, which is apparently extremely unsafe, especially with the school located at the end of a peninsula over a fault line.

I'm not sure whether I want to give Shaw too much credit for imagining high school as a structure where you must climb to the top - Tides High has each class on a separate floor, freshmen on the bottom - avoiding sharks that want to pull you under and apart before being airlifted out, leaving with the ability to write a story about how you survived. That's there, sure, and maybe it only seems like happenstance because he makes the rest of the film seem very casual, with the jokes either tending toward the silly or deflating such pretense. It winds up putting the film on the sweet spot of the range between high school being intensely melodramatic and just high school, self-aware but not smirking at how dumb this all seems in retrospect.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What a Wonderful Family (2017)

Hey, folks who distribute Chinese films in America, could you take an hour or two to and fill in your movie's IMDB entry? I know the English-speaking audience is very much a secondary concern for you, but us being able to easily dig up who we liked in a movie and write about it can't really hurt, either the movie you've got in theaters now or the next one with that person. I've had to use my phone to take a picture of the closing credits way too many times, and it's not very useful when the movie's in 3D or, in this case, the credits just zoom by.

So, if I've misattributed anybody, I apologize, let me know and I'll fix it.

I also apologize for never getting around to reviewing the original What a Wonderful Family!, which was one of the highlights of last year's Fantasia Festival for me. I got generally bogged down trying to cover too much and work last year, and while I'm ahead of that pace right now, I'm thinking that you've got to be a great deal younger or more obsessive than I am right now to keep up the pace I did the first few years I went to that festival. Or, I guess, actually doing it as a job and therefore setting time aside to make sure the thing you get paid for gets done.

It is kind of screwy, though, that since the time I saw that film, not only some folks in China have managed to shoot a remake, but Yoji Yamada has written and directed a sequel which should be releasing in Japan right now and will hopefully play Fantasia and/or the New York Asian Film Festival this summer, but it still hasn't made it to the US. You'd think a genuinely funny comedy by the guy who made those great samurai movies a few years back might get some sort of American distribution, but it looks like another case of the Japanese studio either asking for the moon or just not considering it worth the effort to aggressively court foreign distribution so that they could strike while the iron was hot. I don't get it sometimes; as much as it's cool that Japanese pop culture can do pretty well for itself without worrying about export, part of that seems to be because DVDs cost legitimately stupid amounts over there, and you'd think getting some money from foreign sales could help.

Which is why I'll probably order the Hong Kong BD of the first movie rather than the Japanese or hypothetical American one, to maybe catch up before hopefully seeing the second at a festival. But the fact that I have to is just another data point for the "Asian film distribution in America is screwy" hypothesis.

Duan Pian Er (What a Wonderful Family! '17)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! was one of the best comedies I saw in 2016, and that other movies more likely to get an American release pushed ahead of it in my review queue is something I rather regret, both because it was a missed opportunity to bring some attention to a very funny movie and because it would have had something more concrete to refer to when writing up this Chinese version arriving roughly a year later - am I remembering the Japanese as better than it was and therefore seeing the remake fall short of an ideal rather than a reality, are the jokes blunted because they trigger memory before they trigger laughter, or is this just what it looks like, a copy that isn't quite as sharp as the original.

Both movies feature a large family that mostly lives under one roof. Retired civil servant Wen Jinghui (Lee Lichun) and his wife Pan (Zhang Weixin) bought this house in the Beijing suburbs a dozen years ago, and share it with their two sons, mild-mannered piano tuner Cong (Huang Lei) and businessman Yuan (He Jiong), as well as Yuan's wife Ding (Li Sun) and their young sons Jun and Han. Middle daughter Jing (Christina Hai Qing) moved out when she married her equally high-strung and eccentric husband Wanli (Wang Xun), and Cong is considering it as he prepares to propose to his girlfriend Lin (Kirsten Ren Rongxuan). This apparent stability comes crashing down when Jinghui, coming home after another afternoon playing badminton and drinking with friends, finds out he's forgotten Pan's birthday, but she's already decided what she wants, and has the application for a divorce already prepared for his signature.

I'm not sure that the engine that makes this story work functions quite as well in Beijing as it does in Tokyo; a friend of Jinghui's mentions that having this whole family under the roof of one house is unusual while it has traditionally been the norm in Japan, and while one-child-per-family has been relaxed in recent years, there are a lot of siblings running around here. Allow it, though, because it lets the shock of Pan's bombshell spread quickly through a large group, getting especially funny material out of the broadest characters, as Jinghui, JIng, and Wanli have the most obviously hysterical reactions. Indeed, the general panic among that trio leads to a bunch of funny moments as co-writer/director/co-star Huang Lei uses their panic over how what they'd taken for granted may not necessarily be the case fuel some pretty good farce, including a private investigator and slapstick that reassures the audience that Jing and Wanli are probably on more solid ground than they think.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Were there 3D trailers for Alien: Covenant? I feel like there were, although I can't see any credits for stereographers on IMDB. This will please the anti-3D people, I suppose, but it seems like a weird switch, considering how good Scott seems to be at this.

Speaking of Scott and trailers, the Somerville had one for Blade Runner: 2049 before this movie, and though it's pretty okay, the thing I may love most of all about it is that it apparently takes place in an alternate future where Atari is still a huge, important entertainment company.

But, anyway, I spent some time thinking on the walk back from the theater: Who would be a good person to direct the next Alien movie after Scott's Prometheus trilogy? The thing that makes it a tricky question is that I'd like to see Fox go back to what was going on with the first few, where they were putting people whom no sane person would put in charge of a signature series in the director's chair. Remember, this was Ridley Scott's second feature. Pretty much James Cameron's second. David Fincher's first. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's first solo feature, and his two previous ones with Marc Caro were peculiar avant-garde French things. Scott and Fincher weren't coming from genre backgrounds.

It's tough, right? Like, if you can think of a name, they're probably more well-established than any of the previous Alien filmmakers were. My first thoughts were Jennifer Kent of The Babadook (fun fact: All six of these movies have had female leads but none have been directed by women), which leads to Babak Anvari of Under the Shadow. John Maclean of Slow West seems like a good choice.

Any other ideas?

Alien: Covenant

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

That the original Alien movies wound up being made by four different filmmakers, each of whom would have noteworthy careers, doing a distinct take on the material, was likely less the product of design than the studio looking for people who would work cheap on a series that had a moderate number of devoted fans. It made that series a fascinating, if uneven, anthology in retrospect, and this second return of original director Ridley Scott in an era when studios prize the predictable stability of a series that is now a popular brand is the opposite of the reinvention that characterized the series originally. So this is a new, fairly capable Alien sequel, but it's a predictable one, and maybe these movies shouldn't be that.

The Covenant of the title is a colonization spaceship with a crew of 15 - seven couples and synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) - plus two thousand colonists and another thousand embryos. Walter is the only one not in cryo sleep when a neutrino burst damages the solar sails, necessitating waking the crew, though a malfunctioning cryo pod causes their captain to burn up. The crew intercepts what seems like a human transmission from a nearby planet during EVA and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) opts to investigate; they can get there in days versus another seven years in cryo, though the deceased captain's widow "Dani" Daniels (Katherine Waterston) thinks this is a little too good to be true. She, of course, is right - this is the planet where the Prometheus disappeared ten years (and one film) ago, and though the xenomorphs are dormant, a ship full of fresh meat and bodies to spawn in will take care of that.

We've seen this situation play out before, of course, five times over not counting the crossovers with the Predator franchise and the other-media tie-ins, and that in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing: H.R. Giger's Alien still looks fantastic and comes across as believably unstoppable, and over the past 40 years, the Alien universe has built up a framework where one can have the aliens run amok without feeling trapped in a single box. The trouble here is that Scott and at least four writers put themselves in a box willingly; their pokes at grander themes are all either callbacks to Prometheus or foreshadowing of whatever the third movie in this trilogy winds up being. Alien: Covenant, itself, is a set of familiar sci-fi plays and frantic violence, not using the familiarity of its pieces to dig a little deeper.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 May 2017 - 25 May 2017

Today in "falling behind writing about festivals", I feel terrible about not having written something I saw at Fantasia last year up now that the Chinese remake is in theaters and likely not quite so good.

  • But, first, the long-running franchises. Surprisingly, Alien: Covenant isn't playing in 3D, even though Prometheus did and looked particularly good that way. Anyway, the advertising for it has made it look a lot like Alien and Aliens, only this time with couples likely to become xenomorph incubators, although it apparently follows Prometheus up fairly directly. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row, Fenway (including RPX), and Revere (including XPlus).

    Meanwhile, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul maybe doesn't count as the fourth in a "long-running" series, although it's been a long-enough layoff since #3 that it's basically been entirely recast because the kids have aged out. It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Everything, Everything, meanwhile, aims at the teen audience between those two, with a romance between a girl whose compromised immune system means she never goes outside and the new boy next door; that one plays at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    With Memorial Day next weekend, Baywatch tries to get a jump on the pirate thing, opening Thursday(which really means Wednesday night) at the Somerville, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. There are also anniversary showings of Smokey and the Bandit Sunday and Wednesday at Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre gets two new movies, with Obit mostly playing in the wee Goldscreen, except for 2pm on Sunday, when it's in the big house so that director Vanessa Gould can answer questions about her documentary on obituary writers afterward. They also get The Wedding Plan, an Israeli import about a woman who, when her fiancé breaks their engagement a month before the ceremony, decides to go on with it, hoping chance and matchmakers will find her a groom by then. It also plays Kendall Square, still down to four screens, and West Newton.

    Nicolas Winding Refn is the cult filmmaker featured in this weekend's midnights, with Brosnan (Friday on 35mm) and Drive. On Monday, they have a 35mm print of PT 109 as part of the JFK Centennial (they're just down the street from his birthplace); there will be a special intro by a local Navy veteran. The week finishes off with a Cinema Jukebox show of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which not only plays on 3mm film but has a pre-show concert by local hip-hop artists.
  • The Brattle Theatre uses most of its schedule for The Death of Louis XIV, the new film by Albert Serra that, mostly, is what it says on the label: A look at the final days of the Sun King, as the court jockeys for position. Full schedule through Monday, matinees only Tuesday to Thursday.

    Those evenings, they have a pretty eclectic group. Tuesday is Trash Night, with 2019: After the Fall of New York open for audience mockery. On Wednesday, The Social Network plays on 35mm with Ben Mezrich, the author of the book Aaron Sorkin & David Fincher directed, on hand to discuss it. On Thursday, the get Sigur Rós fans psyched for their playing Boston Calling opening night with two concert films, Heima & Inni. It looks like that music festival's film component has been quietly dropped and replaced with comedy.
  • In addition to getting The Wedding Plan, West Newton will also be showing Fight for Space a couple times a day, examining why the America's space program is less ambitious than it once was.
  • Boston Common opens What a Wonderful Family, the Chinese remake of a tremendously funny Japanese film. The original was one of my favorites at Fantasia last year; hopefully this take on a family caught flat-footed when grandma asks for a divorce on the eve of her fiftieth anniversary is half as good. Love off the Cuff, Battle of Memories, and This Is Not What I Expected are also still kicking around for those who aren't caught up on their Chinese May Day releases.

    Baahubali: The Conclusion is still going strong in multiple languages at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond, but they also open a few more from the subcontinent this weekend. Hindi Medium stars Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar as young parents who decide to start moving into English-speaking circles because having that as her primary language might be good for their daughter's future. Half Girlfriend also plays in subtitled Hindi, and also appears to focus on linguistic challenges. There are also (mostly) late shows of Keshava a Telugu-language romantic thriller.
  • ArtsEmerson gives Chapter & Verse something akin to a regular run in the Bright Screening Room, with noted playwright Daniel Beaty playing a reformed gang leader delivering meals to the elderly, including the feisty Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine). It runs from the 19th through the 28th at various times, though it skips Monday and Tuesday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has their last couple screenings of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea on Friday and Saturday, with Friday also featuring the last day of Bulgarian drama Glory. The weekend also features the end of The Nation Center for Jewish Film's 20th Annual Film Festival, with Moon in the 12 House (Saturday), Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Aalev (Sunday), and Fanny's Journey (Sunday).

    Then, it's back to Frederick Wiseman: For the Record, with his two Domestic Violence movies playing Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, while those evenings feature Boxing Gym and La Danse, respectively, the last on 35mm.
  • The Harvard Film Archive concludes their Želimir Žilnik retrospective with his Kenedi trilogy - Kenedi Goes Back Home on Friday, and short subject "Kenedi, Lost and Found" playing before Kenedi Is Getting Married on Saturday. Thursday afternoon's Marble Ass also has a short, "Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time"; the shorts are on video while the features are 35mm. They also continue their punk-Japan Hachimiri Madness! series with Happiness Avenue at 9pm Saturday and Saint Terrorism at the same time Saturday, with The Rain Women and Makoto Tezuka short "UNK" playing at 7pm Sunday to wrap that series up. The spring calendar officially ends on Monday, when Houghton Library coordinator Peter Accardo introduces a 35mm print of Civil War picture Glory (a very different thing than what is showing at the MFA!); the archive contains a collection of letters by one of the film's main characters.
  • CinemaSalem is the place to go for the latest from Cristia Mungiu, Graduation, in which a father must decide whether to take extreme measures to give his daughter the chance to attend college abroad.

I'm hitting Alien: Covenant, The Lost City of Z, What a Wonderful Family, and hopefully actually making it to My Entire High School… this time.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.02: Furusato and The Crest

I don't set out to curate days at film festivals; it's just that this sort of thing can happen when you're there on a pass and not building around certain films: The thing that strikes your fancy for the 7pm film also strikes your fancy at nine, and you wind up seeing two movies about people returning to an evacuated ancestral land.

This pairing probably makes The Crest look a little more lackluster than it actually is, especially when you get to the Q&A and one of the subjects is talking about how he goes back to Ireland every year since this first visit, because it really does exert a magnetic pull. I mean, I don't doubt that he feels that way, but a week-long summer vacation a boat-ride away from the actual island one's great-grand-parents emigrated from is something a bit different from the people of Minamisoma, who in many cases are returning to homes that their family has occupied for centuries despite the fact that the radiation sickness could very well kill them in ten years.

FURUSATO filmmakers

Speaking of, say hi to Furusato director Thorsten Trimpop in the center, flanked by Tess from the festival and Megan O'Grady, who I believe is from a Cambridge-based organization that supports documentary film (please correct me). Trimpop gave us plenty of tales of how this was, as he shot it, very close to being a one-person operation at times, with him actually heading to Japan even before funding was secured, and often carrying his own camera and holding his own boom mike. Docs are often made on tight budgets, but that's impressive even by those standards. It gave him a lot of room to improvise, though - he talked about how he met one of his first subjects just walking around and seeing somebody carrying music equipment around on the street.

It was a drawn-out, often odd shoot; he mentioned that they shot over several years, which created challenges when it came time to edit - put the film together chronologically, and you're rushing through seasons, both creating a certain unsteadiness and causing subjects to drop in and out; edit it to look more like a single year or so, and you're losing a dimension. They opted for the former, for the most part. Also kind of weird was the official representative of the energy company that operated the Fukashima plant; it seems that they made a token request, not expecting anyone to get back because the company has generally not commented, and then this guy shows up in Boston saying he can talk and film for a couple of days. Cut him out, and the filmmakers would be accused of ignoring part of the story, but that perspective is really not part of the movie. They kind of decided to make his scenes informative but kind of surreal, especially since his presentation and ideas were a bit along those lines anyway.

THE CREST Filmmakers

And here are the folks from The Crest: Cinematographer Georgia Pantazopoulos, director Mark Christopher, and subject Dennis "DK" Kane. Ironically, DK is the cousin who lives in California; his cousin Andrew, from Cape Cod, didn't make it. He was actually in Ireland, appearing with an exhibition of his art at the Blasket Center shown in the film.

Covino talked a bit about how, as with his previous film A Band Called DEATH, this one kind of happened organically - he found the subjects, saw that something interesting was on the cusp of happening, and following. This time, the story didn't develop as well, even though DK talked about how Covino was trying to direct it into being a more narratively-focused movie

Anyway, lots of friends and family of the cast and crew here for this one, which always makes the disgruntled feeling with a disappointing movie feel a little worse. I don't begrudge anyone liking it, and I could see why they did, but I also couldn't help but notice where it was leaning on that pre-existing affection for the subject matter.

Furusato (2016)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

According to the director's introduction for Furusato - a low-key documentary about the people still living in a city near the Fukushima Daichi reactor - most people simply translate the title as "hometown", but a more poetic reading is "the first and last landscapes one sees". That's something to keep in mind while watching the film, which is far from rabble-rousing or blame-seeking, but instead something of a chronicle of stubbornness and inertia, as people try to continue their lives despite what they face.

The hometown examined is Minamisoma, located at such a distance from the reactor that the border between officially inhabitable and evacuated runs through the center of the city. As the film opens, evacuated families are returning - some just to quickly recover their possessions, others to work their family farm, others because their home is a shrine, and maybe they would have resettled if that were not the case. As volunteers attempt to meticulously remove and test the black dust that has blown into the area, the town struggles to return to normal, even as many have seen the writing on the wall and left.

Director Thorsten Trimpop does not spend a lot of time with experts; the fellow from the power company tends to talk in banal generalities and it slowly becomes clear that Kenji, the man with a hazmat suit doing much of the testing and cleaning is not doing so in any sort of official capacity. Instead, he mostly follows a group of ordinary people, though he varies his approach: The woman who returned because her home is a shrine spends most of her time on-screen talking directly to the camera, with frustration and fatalism coming to the fore much more quickly than might be expected, while Miwa, a woman in her twenties, occasionally makes an aside as she and her father go about the work of trying to work a poisoned farm. The film is affecting, at times because it can be stoic as opposed to overtly passionate, zeroing in on this interesting group and letting them just be rather than spending a lot of time filling the gaps of their stories.

Full review on EFC.

The Crest

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Surfing footage and shots of the Irish countryside are things that seldom fail to impress on screen, and The Crest doesn't really let down when that's what the camera is pointed at. Knowing that they were going to be starting from there, the makers of the movie must have felt that they were in good shape early on, but documentaries are risky endeavors by their nature. Eventually, the interesting idea and nice-looking footage need an actual movie to form around them, and this one maybe doesn't come up with enough material.

It has a neat hook: Two Americans living on opposite sides of the country - Cape Cod surfer Andrew Jacob and Dennis "DK" Kane, who builds custom boards in San DIego - are both descendants of Pádraig Ó Catháin, aka "An Rí", who was King of Ireland's Blasket Islands around the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The cousins have never met, but after learning about each other they decide to take part in a family reunion and journey to their ancestral home to surf the waves near the now-abandoned islands off the coast of Dingle. Should be fun!

And it is, sure, but there just doesn't wind up being a feature-length movie there. Andrew and DK are nice guys, folks most people would enjoy hanging around with, and perhaps too loose and too similar to each other to have especially interesting points of view on what they're learning. They're pleasant and friendly but we seldom see them doing much more than passively observing each other and Ireland, and there's not the sort of on-screen chemistry that makes a great movie. They're good dudes but not great characters, and when the surfing tale director Mark Christopher Covino hangs the film on doesn't amount to much, there's not any sort of a backup plan.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.01: Stumped

Another IFFBoston already completely in the books, and I'm just starting to get the reviews posted, because this ain't my job, evident from the member pass I purchased my own self rather than the press pass I've had in previous years. This puts me three festivals behind right now, although BUFF just has a few shorts as stragglers and the sci-fi fest isn't much of a priority.

After fifteen years, a lot of opening night is familiar. Get off the T, pick the pass up, back in a different line to hang out with friends I don't see that often before getting in, finding the area I usually grab in Somerville Theatre #1 is taken and so wind up at the far right, which is going to make the "horrible photography" tag even more appropriate. I mean, just look at that picture to the right of Jon Bernhardt; it just doesn't do him justice. But, I think we can agree, this is the proper attire for theremin players, right? Much like tuxedos are de rigeur for the symphony, this is how one must dress to play an instrument that involves moving your hands through magnetic fields.

Eventually, Brian got up on stage, thanked the volunteers and the sponsors (fun fact: I still have only the vaguest idea what a Talamas is), and then we were off to the races. It was kind of odd when Stumped was announced as the opening-night film, mostly because it seems like it's been around for a while; I'm pretty sure a short or work-in-progress version has appeared in Emerson's Bright Lights series a couple of times. It's not something I've seen, but something I could have.

It wound up being a pretty good movie, with an impressive group of guests:

Left to right, we have director Robin Berghaus, subject Will Lautzenheiser, his partner Angel Gonzalez, and comedic collaborator Steve Delfino.

In a lot of ways, the Q&A followed the arc of the film - very funny and irreverent at times, but also with an overpowering sense of gratitude toward Will's donor that could have seemed like too much if it weren't obviously sincere. Indeed, I think one of the more intriguingly telling moments of the session was Will saying that he wasn't planning on doing more comedy around his new situation and challenges because he had a hard time coming up with gags that didn't have the potential to come across as disrespectful either to his donor or the entire transplant process.

Stumped (2017)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Unlike a lot of documentaries that necessarily change during the making, Stumped handles the fact that its subject's life doesn't stand still worth aplomb. Though it would have likely been a nifty documentary if its subject - a young filmmaker who needed all four extremities amputated after a horrifying infection - had just used stand-up comedy as a way to cope with the new challenges he faced, the fact that he was able to have a dual arm transplant during filming adds new, intriguing material.

Indeed, I believe that a short version with just the first half of the story had been making the rounds for a few years, and I suspect that it's uplifting enough on its own, despite how the opening, where Will Lautzenheiser feels a pain two days into his job teaching film at Montana State University and, by the time he gets to the emergency room, this group A staph infection has snowballed into toxic shock, necessitating the amputation. It's hard to see anything coming after that as a best-case scenario, but it's arguable that this is what happens: He commits to full-time rehab, learns to accomplish what he can with limited capacity and prosthetic limbs, and eventually takes to the stage at a Boston improv club with jokes nobody else could get away with making. That positive attitude is part of the reason that the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital find him to be an excellent candidate for a transplant, as the rehab for that is tremendously intense.

Stick with the first half of the story, and you've got a fairly strong documentary. It's based around a very personable guy with a likable support network, and both Will and filmmaker Robin Berghaus have a good idea of what's entertainingly self-deprecating without being disrespectful of the greater community dealing with that sort of disability, getting genuine laughs rather than ones given begrudgingly because He's So Brave. There are moments of calculated unease, from photos of how quickly and thoroughly the infection destroyed healthy tissue to the understandable discomfort that co-exists with his twin brother's support, but also a willingness to show how WIll managed both simple and complex things that carefully stokes and satisfies the audience's curiosity (and I daresay his handwriting is better than mine). Overall, there's a fine balance between demonstrations of what his rehab and day-to-day is like and the more personal, less technical material.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Wall

Because one or two crazy-long baseball games have been played in the first month or so of the 2017 season, there have been more than a few columns written on sports pages about how to prevent baseball games from potentially going on forever, from starting extra innings with runners on, allowing ties after twelve innings, etc. It's not a matter that most of the readers care about - most fans like extra innings, yelling "bonus baseball!" when there's a tie after nine and, if the game makes it to about the 13th or 14th and said fan hasn't tapped out for one reason or another, eagerly anticipating what sort of weirdness is on tap as managers have to deal with a severely depleted bench. But the writers who are still on deadline and have often had to delete their half-written game stories, these things are horror shows.

As movies have started to stretch longer over the past few years, you start to hear a lot of the same things from critics, about how there's no reason for every movie, whether prestige project or superhero flick, to be something like 137 minutes or more. I've certainly done it a little, praising the 75-minute horror movie. I wonder how much of that comes from the same sort of professional irritation, especially considering how many studios are now skipping press screenings (or stacking them on the same day), leaving the critic to watch the Thursday night previews, which have the same 20-minute preview blocks as regular runs, and then stay up as late as their sportswriter colleagues to have something online by morning.

I wonder if that will cause some to be a little kinder to The Wall while the folks in large markets who are paying $15 for a ticket feel they're getting less for their money. I kind of doubt it - I think critics are more likely to complain on Twitter than hold a film's length for or against it unless there's some concrete point where it helps or hurts. This doesn't seem to be getting a lot of great press, but then, it's not close enough to the "recommend" line that its length will noticeably move the needle.

Still, it affected me going to see it a bit. I bailed on a screening that I arrived five minutes late for the previous afternoon because that's a not-inconsequential chunk of the 65-minute silent The Adventures of Prince Achmed; arriving five minutes late for this one, I was kind of glad AMC did have that 20-minute buffer at the start, but I certainly wasn't going to hang around any length of time for the next. On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice it was an Amazon Studios production, and I once again wondered if the streaming services favor short movies, as they seem more manageable when you're sitting in front of your TV (go out for the evening, and 137 minutes is no big deal, as you've earmarked the whole night for this entertainment, but at home, you might be thinking about how many episodes of Fargo you can watch afterward).

So maybe this will have a better life on Prime than theaters. It fits Amazon's model well, even though I did like seeing it on the big screen.

The Wall

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Usually, Roger Ebert's line about long and short movies is used in praise of lengthy yet electrifying films; I suspect it will get some use in the other direction here, because while The Wall is a mere 81 minutes long, it still drags on occasion, particularly during a center section that never quite manages to be the game of carry and mouse it strives for. At least being compact means that the good parts don't get completely drowned out.

The action takes place in 2007, with the Iraq war winding down, but not completely over: At a pipeline construction site, six people lie dead, all from headshots, and an American sniper team is staking the area out to see if the killer is still there. After eighteen hours, shooter Matthews (John Cena) decides that the he is gone, though spotter Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) thinks otherwise. Isaac, of course, is right, but their target is canny enough not to show his hand until the Americans have moved to open ground with just the remains of a stone wall as potential cover, and he's a sadist to boot.

Director Doug Liman has had his ups and downs as a filmmaker, and because of that he does not always get credit for how strong the action in his movies has been. Like the rest of the film, it's pared down to the bare essentials here, a wide-open field with minimal cover, shots wide enough to give an idea of the challenge of hitting distant targets, even as movements of inches in close-up can be crucial. Isaac and Matthews are limited by injuries from very early on, and neither Liman nor writer Dwain Worrell cheats with that; they use it to increase the stakes without having to rely on a score or a lot of verbal explanation (the general use of sound, on the other hand, is terrific). There are only two major action scenes, but those two sequences are excellent, with Liman making every one of the mere handful of shots fired count.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 5 May 2017 - 11 May 2017

Second week of the summer movie season, and there's kind of a lull as the studios want to grab a weekend but don't really want to get chewed up by Guardians. So there's a lot of stuff but not necessarily a lot of great stuff.

  • Like, the big 3D King Arthur: Legend of the Sword that has Guy Ritchie re-imagining Arthur Pendragon as a working-class brawler played by Charlie Hunnam, because that's what Richie does. I guess there's giant elephants and Jude Law, too. That's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. Or Snatched, with Amy Schumer as a young woman who gets kidnapped while on a South American vacation with her mother, played by Goldie Hawn, who apparently hasn't had a movie role in fifteen years. That's nuts. Anyway, it's playing at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    A smaller release comes for a smaller movie, The Wall which has Doug Liman directing Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena pretty much solo as two soldiers pinned down by a sniper in Iraq. Sub-90 minutes, which is the compact sort of movie that often gets sent straight to VOD,but it's at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere.

    There are also 20th Anniversary screenings of The Fifth Element at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday, with an early look at director Luc Besson's Valerian movie.
  • Meanwhile, there's nearly as much turnover at The Coolidge Corner Theatre despite only having a few screens to play with. They and Boston Common pick up the first IFFBoston alumnus to hit theaters this year as Chuck opens, featuring Liev Schreiber as the real-life inspiration for Rocky Balboa. They also get The Lovers along with Kendall Square, with Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as an unhappily-married couple who suddenly feel a renewed spark, which makes things awkward with their long-time lovers. They also give a showtime or two daily to Risk, mostly in the GoldScreen, although it moves to the main room on Sunday afternoon as director Laura Poitras visits to discuss her all-access documentary following Julian Assange over six years.

    To make room, they end their run of Colossal, though it has two last shows at midnight on Friday and Saturday. The other midnights those days are the films of John Carpenter, with Assault on Precinct 13 playing Friday night and They Live on Saturday, both on 35mm film. They also use the film for Monday night's Big Screen Classic, Bonnie and Clyde.
  • The Brattle Theatre is doing the "movie about filmmakers with associated films in the off-hours" thing again, this time with David Lynch: The Art Life playing Friday through Wednesday with a number of companion films: Eraserhead (with early shorts on Friday night and on its own Saturday afternoon), Mulholland Drive on Saturday night, a 16mm print of inspiration Dreams that Money Can Buy Sunday night, and a "Twin Peaks Social" to get psyched for the new season on Wednesday.

    There are a number of special screenings in the gaps. An English dub of My Neighbor Totoro runs on Saturday morning as a fundraiser for the MLK school, while Sunday is the traditional Mother's Day screening of Psycho. Director Allison Anders stops by tuesday evening to introduce a 25th Anniversary screening of Gas Food Lodging on Tuesday, while novelist Colm Toibin is on-hand to introduce Thursday's screening of Brooklyn.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond adds Malayalam screenings of BaahuBali 2 to the subtitled Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu ones. There's also a new full opening of Meri Pyaari Bindu, in which a writer returns to his hometown but gets hung up on his old girlfriend, playing in subtitled Hindi. They also have Telugu action-comedy Radha

    English-language selections include one from last year's IFFBoston, Folk Hero and Funny Guy, featuring Alex Karpovsky and Wyatt Russell as old friends whose performing careers have gone in opposite directions in recent years going on tour together. There's also Tracktown, with co-writer/director Alexi Pappas starring as a top cross-country runner having to take a break from her obsessive training after twisting her ankle. And, Friday at midnight, there's the monthly screening of Rocky Horror, which as always also screens at Boston Common with a different cast on Saturday.
  • The National Center for Jewish Film's 20th Festival spends most of its time at the The Museum of Fine Arts this week with Hummus! The Movie (Friday with samples), The Wedding Plan (Sunday), The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev (Wednesday), and The Exception (Thursday). They're at the Cooldige on Tuesday, with an afternoon encore of Hummus! and a 35mm print of To Be or Not to Be for its 75th anniversary.

    There are also more screenings of Bulgarian drama Glory (Friday/Saturday/Wednesday) and My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Saturday/Sunday). Thursday afternoon, they have their annual animation show of short films made by MassArt seniors as part of their graduation projects.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Serbian filmmaker Želimir Žilnik, who will introduce 35mm prints of his 1969 film Early Works on Friday and The Old School of Capitalism (from 40 years later) on Saturday. In between, on Saturday afternoon, they will close out their family-friendly Saturday matinee series (at least, for this calendar) with a hand-tinted and toned print of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with Robert Humphreville accompanying this groundbreaking animated film.

    Sunday night is the end of the Jem Cohen series, with Gravity Hill Newsreels: 12 Short Observations about Occupy Wall Street preceded by his latest short, "Birth of a Nation". Houghton Library administrator Dennis Marnon introduces a 35mm print of Billy Budd on Monday, and there's a free program of 16mm bicycle shorts on Wednesday.
  • This month's "Silents,Please" screening at The Somerville Theatre plays on Sunday, with Jeff Rapsis accompanying a 35mm print of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. There's also a special screening of Israeli sci-fi comedy Tomorrow Ever After, in which a historian from the utopian 27th century finds herself stranded in 2015, with director Ela Thier there for a Q&A. Their friends at The Capitol, meanwhile, pick up Their Finest, and it's cool to see that fun film sticking around the area.
  • Belmont World Film closes out their annual series the Studio Cinema on Monday with The Olive Tree, with a family traveling from Spain to Germany to recover a tree that had been growing on their property for two thousand years. As usual, there's a speaker to go with it, but a separate ticket also includes a special dinner with Spanish cuisine.
  • CinemaSalem continues to look like the coolest screen on the shore by using their itty-bitty screen to show Hounds of Love, a great, nasty crime thriller from Australia that was one of the standouts at this year's Boston Underground Film Festival.
I'm looking at The Wall, Prince Achmed, Greed, and Tomorrow Ever After. And, fine, I'll probably see King Arthur in 3D. I'm not proud.