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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Romance

If you're reading this in the Boston area on Thursday afternoon (the 11th), this movie's got its last first-run screening at the Brattle at 7pm, and it would in no way be a bad way to spend an hour and a half this evening. Sorry it took so long, but I didn't see it until Sunday night, there was other stuff that took a while to get done, and so on. Hopefully it will be on VOD and disc soon, and I can see it coming back to the Brattle as part of a Recent Raves series.

And, yes, I will probably get it on disc when it's announced, if only for the poster/cover art. Unfortunately, my email is acting up so I can't tell when the first picture of Patrick Mate's poster appeared in it - this film has been bouncing around festivals for a couple of years, but it struck me as cute and charming from the first. It's mildly vexing that I can't find the poster for sale on Amazon, either to be the review's link to things nobody ever buys to help this blog pay for itself or to get one myself. Guess I'll have to settle for the disc when that comes out to have a copy.

Kind of wish I'd been able to get to the movies the Brattle had play as companions (tonight's is History of the World: Part I), since that's a really nifty thing to do when you've got documentaries on film and filmmakers playing.

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Romance

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2017 at the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

Like the world in general, the world of film is built on people like Harold and Lillian Michelson, folks who are good something that contributes to the success of a larger undertaking, do it for a long time, and similarly put in the effort to have good lives when they get home from work. Even when their contributions are, in fact, important parts of highly-visible successes, telling their stories can be hard - it's technical on the one hand and expected on the other. Lucky for us, this couple made friends with good storytellers, who have brought their shared life story to the screen in a way that, aside from being charming, highlights their importance.

Both Harold Michelson and Lillian Farber grew up in the Miami area, with Harold meeting his kid sister's best friend after returning from World War II. It wasn't a match Harold's parents approved of, so they decamped to California, where Harold started out as a background artist who, when given a chance to work on storyboards, had an innate sense of what the camera would see. They had three children, and when they reached school age, Harold recommended that the head of MGM's research library take the restless Lillian on as an apprentice. It eventually became her library, moving with her from one studio and institution to another until she retired from DreamWorks in 2010.

Harold became a production designer during that time, a more high-profile way to put his artistic talents to use, but it's his time as a storyboard artist that forms the framework for director Daniel Raim's movie in more ways than one. Filmmakers from executive producer Danny DeVito to Francis Ford Coppola talk about how crucial his work was, pointing out that Harold had a knack for recognizing perspective and what specific cameras would pick up that made it much easier to visualize the final product, and then going further to point out that certain crucial bits of framing in The Graduate, including the famed under-the-leg shot, first appeared in his boards. This isn't used to diminish director Mike Nichols's work; ultimately going with that shot was his decision, as was doing the work on-set to make it effective on screen. Instead, it demonstrates that this process is a lot less top-down than many people imagine. It's something hinted early on when the on-screen definition of Lillian's work is "discovering facts to stimulate filmmakers' imaginations", showing how what makes a movie comes from a number of sources.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

May Day Movies: This Is Not What I Expected & Battle of Memories

Around this time of year, a friend grumbles on Twitter about the rest of the world getting Marvel movies before the United States, and I don't know that I've actually proposed the idea that May Day being an important holiday in the rest of the world but probably a little less important than Free Comic Book Day here - and that's not a big deal, really.

But, apparently, May Day is a big movie weekend in China, enough so that the day-and-date releases in the U.S. had to be spread out - Love Off the Cuff and Battle of Memories that weekend, with This Is Not What I Expected and Shock Wave coming out the next week (although the latter didn't make it to Boston, which is a bummer). Helpful for me, that - I would have been even more overwhelmed IFFBoston weekend otherwise - but an interesting reminder that the schedule we always think of in U.S.-centric terms here can be really different elsewhere.

Anyway, of these two, I liked This a lot more than expected, but found myself kind of disappointed by Battle of Memories. Chinese sci-fi is a tricky thing; I'm enjoying the Three-Body Problem books, but they're it's worth noting that they are grand-scale things, not particularly reflecting the present much. There was something that caught my eye, though:


I've been racking my head for the past couple of days, trying to think if I've ever seen a gay character in a Chinese movie before; heck, it's rare to see gay people mentioned. So it raised my eyebrows a little bit in this one when I saw that Shanshan seemed to be awfully close with Huilan, and later seemed to get friendly with Daichen quickly. It was kind of a disappointing set-up when Huilan seemed to say Shanshan was disgusting, seeming to seal Shanshan's motivation as the murderer.

That didn't wind up being the case - the movie suddenly pivots to someone I didn't realize was even a possibility because I don't recall any scenes that hinted at him knowing Huilan before investigating her murder - and it's kind of a weird mixed bag. Sure, on the one hand, the only gay person in the film doesn't wind up being the murderer, but, then, the "disgusting" comment makes a little less sense, and it erases half the evidence that Shanshan might like women. Which is weird, because they off-handedly shoot her in the head rather than risk her having more chemistry with Daichen in the last scenes than Jiang does.

I guess this sort of queer-baiting might be seen as progress in Chinese cinema, considering that we're less than a year removed from them making Rupert Everett's iconic Gay Best Friend character straight for their remake of My Best Friend's Wedding. It's weird to watch, though, almost like the filmmakers wanted to go that direction with Shanshan but didn't find out that it wouldn't fly with the censor board until they were actually shooting. Or maybe this was a trial balloon to see what audiences and censors would or would not freak out about.


Interesting, if nothing else. Anyway, here's hoping we do get Shock Wave this weekend, because who doesn't want to see Andy Lau defusing bombs in a Herman Yau film? Terrible people, that's who.

This Is Not What I Expected

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

I feel marginally less guilty than usual for eating some less-than-great mozzarella sticks during a movie about delicious and beautiful food than usual here, what with this being a somewhat faster-paced and less food-porn-y flick than something like Cook Up a Storm. Instead, it's a simple but no less enjoyable romantic comedy, with opposites attracting and trying to keep their identities secret, stretching things out a bit but mostly working out.

The Rosebud Hotel in Shanghai is not a particularly impressive one, but it is one of several in the city that has been targeted for purchase by the VN Group whose CEO, Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is making his customary visit to scope them out. It's not going so well - as he's leaving the previous hotel, he comes upon Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) vandalizing his car on behalf of a dumped friend (it turns out that there are a lot of black Audis in the garage) - and the notorious foodie is unimpressed by the six dishes room service sends up. Desperate to please, the hotel's general manager (Yo Yang) has a young but creative sous-chef prepare him a dish before he checks out at noon. Lu is impressed enough to stay and try more dishes, unaware that it's Shengnan - who has found a number of ways to inadvertently make his life difficult - that is cooking for him.

Like most romantic comedies, This Is Not What I Expected is built on the cast, with Takeshi Kaneshiro giving an especially hilarious performance as the wealthy food-lover. Most of his Chinese-language career has been somber dramas and historical epics, so it's a bit of a surprise to see him in a comedic role, but he brings a perfect combination of imperiousness and fussiness to Lu. Though it's something that should be seen in a lot of films of this genre, not many actors manage to plant a seed of being easily flustered within their pushiness, and it not only leads to getting a laugh where one might otherwise think "what a jerk!", but it lets a decent guy emerge later on when we need to buy that Lu and Shengnan might actually have something besides a mutual interest in good food.

Full review on EFC.

Battle of Memories

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

For all that box office reports will often lead off with how China has made a sci-fi movie that didn't do that well in America something of a hit, they don't export seem to export many. There are plenty of potential explanations for why China makes relatively fewer and they don't tend to cross the Pacific, and that's before you get to how, if Battle of Memories is typical, they're not great; the filmmakers had a neat hook to set up a futuristic murder mystery, but are often so set on twists, turns, and misdirection that a story that makes sense never emerges, and they can't dazzle their way past that..

The time is the near future; the place is "Nation T", the only place in Asia where "Masters of Memory" has a location. Famed writer Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) is there to have the detailed memories of his failed marriage removed - he won't completely forget wife Zhang Daichen (Xu Jinglei), but those experiences will be more like a book he read some time ago than his own memories. This seems to be what's happening with the couple whose confrontation ends in a murder-suicide, during which time the memory unit containing Jiang's memories is damaged. Once he gets back home, though, Daichen refuses to sign the divorce papers while he's in this condition, and while the memories can be restored for 72 hours, there are consequences to that, as the memories will either be present or gone for good. There's also a bigger problem - the memories re-implanted are not his own, but those of the murderer of battered wife Li Huilan (Wang Zhen'er). Of course, when he goes to the police, Detective Shen Hanqiang (Duan Yihong) and Lei Zi (Liang Jieli) aren't exactly sure what to do with a guy who claims to remember a murder he didn't commit, especially since his subjective memory offers few clues as to the real killer and some of what he says contradicts what medical examiner - and friend of the victim Chen Shanshan (Yang Zishan) - discovered in her autopsy.

When making Minority Report, Steven Spielberg hired Scott Frank - who writes great thrillers and crime but felt out of his element doing science fiction - and told him to come up with the best mystery he could, and he'd handle the futuristic material. If there was a similar dynamic between director "Leste" Chen Zhengdao and his co-writer Ryan Ren here, it's somewhat less successful. The murder of Li Huilan initially doesn't seem to offer the sort of complexities that require extraordinary measures to solve it, and when following them up does reveal a more complicated story, that doesn't necessarily make it more interesting, especially since the film opens with a scene that points so firmly in one unorthodox direction that the way Leste dances around it is frustrating. The direction things ultimately go seems random, especially compared to some of the other options presented earlier.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, May 05, 2017

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

Is it churlish for me to be upset that we're not getting the new Andy Lau action movie this weekend even though the place that would play it is using three screens on Chinese movies? It is, isn't it? I'm selfish to want that when I've got stuff to catch up on and a great bit fun Marvel movie this weekend.

  • That would be Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the follow-up to 2014's very fun superhero space opera which adds Mantis and Ego, The Living Planet to the mix, and, guys, I think that James Gunn might just be open enough to the goofy that we'll see a CGI planet with Kurt Russell's face on it. This is a glorious time we live in, that something like that can not only get all the big, fancy 3D screens, but everything else basically runs from it. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, the Studio in Belmont, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), and the SuperLux.

    And, that's close to it. Fenway and Revere will have the (new?) director's cut of Saturday Night Fever on Sunday and Wednesday, while those theaters and Boston Common have added another screening of Boston: An American Running Story on Tuesday.
  • Over at Kendall Square, construction continues, as they try to add The Dinner while still running four screens, which means taking a showtime from everything else. It looks interesting, with Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, and Laura Linney as two couples meeting to figure out how to deal with something their sons have done. It's also at the Capitol, West Newton, and Boston Common. That means it's on their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, to open Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a documentary on a chef whose mercurial nature has found him more trouble than many people in a profession that attracts many. It's also at Boston Common.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre teams up with WGBH Jazz 24/7 to book Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, with musical-doc specialist John Scheinfeld tracking the life of the jazz legend. They also have another new release at midnight on Friday and Saturday, with pretty darn cool BUFF/MonsterFest selection A Dark Song telling the story of a woman who hires an occult expert to help contact her dead son.

    The other big screen is also active at midnight those days, with this weekend featuring the work of Brian De Palma - a new digital restoration of Body Double on Friday, and a 35mm print of Dressed to Kill on Saturday.

    Then, on Sunday morning, the Goethe-Institut film is The Bloom of Yesterday, whose premise sounds like a bad idea - a romantic comedy about the grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal and a Holocaust victim - but it's award winning and will feature a post-film discussion as part of Jewishfilm.20. They also have a guest on Monday night, as Balagan welcomes Shireen Seno to present a program of short films from the Philippine Islands. Wednesday's visitor is Robert Milazzo, who will host an "In:Pictures" program featuring conversation with Dr. Henry Louis Gates about films that shaped his thinking. Finally, Thursday morning is the start of a weekly "Family Bonds" class, with Kaj Wilson presenting Ozu's Late Spring along with a lecture and conversation.

  • Out in West Newton, they open In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a documentary on how Israel's broad immigration has resulted in some unique fusion dishes.

    It's a feature that dovetails nicely with The National Center for Jewish Film's 20th Festival, which splits time between West Newton and the Museum of Fine Arts this week, with Body & Soul at the MFA on Friday (with filmmaker Q&A) and West Newton on Sunday, Past Life at the MFA Saturday and West Newton Tuesday, Aida's Secrets and Moon in the 12 House at West Newton Sunday, Ben-Gurion, Epilogue there Tuesday, Paradise at the MFA Wednesday with Q&A, and Fanny's Journey at the MFA with Q&A on Thursday.

  • The Brattle Theatre has two new releases this weekend, one of them a return, as Buster's Mal Heart was the secret screening at BUFF a month or so ago, which and it's at the very least interesting, with Rami Malek as a hotel concierge whose encounters with a paranoid man push him into becoming a mountain man. It plays late shows from Friday to Sunday.

    The main program this week is Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, a documentary about two people who have worked on iconic movies with very little credit - he as a storyboard artist, her as a researcher. In addition to having one of the greatest movie posters going, it's also an excuse for the Brattle to show some of the films they've worked on: The Birds on Saturday, The History of the World: Pt. I on Sunday and Thursday, a 35mm print of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Monday, The Birds on Wednesday, and a double feature of Pretty Poison and Rosemary's Baby on Wednesday.

  • Boston Common keeps Love off the Cuff and Battle of Memories around, good news for those who couldn't make it out there because of IFFBoston, and add This Is Not What I Expected, a romantic comedy featuring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu as a methodical CEO and a free-wheeling chef who eventually come together over their love of food.

    Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond sticks with BaahuBali 2 for their main Indian film, with one screen subtitled Hindi and the other alternating Tamil and Telugu (its native language). They also have Malayalam film The Great Father on Saturday.

  • The Museum of Fine Arts has its monthly "On the Fringe" presentation on Friday night, with a 35mm print of Repo Man. They also serve up cultish material with My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, a fairly adult-skewing animated flick nevertheless distributed by Gkids. It plays Saturday, Sunday, and Thursday.

    They've also got room for a couple matinees of Bulgarian drama Glory, about a railroad engineer who is pushed as a folk hero when he finds a bag of money in the course of doing his job. And, in between all that, there's a 35mm screening of Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies o Saturday afternoon.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has a selection of Želimir Žilnik short films on Friday, though the Serbian director will not be visiting until next weekend. That night also has another shorts program, with Hachimiri Madness! selections "Isolation of 1/880000" and "Tokyo Cabbageman K" playing at 9pm, while feature Hanasareru Gang plays Saturday at the same time. Saturday evening offers a shorts program, featuring 16mm prints of films by Robert Nelson. Then, on Sunday and Monday, they welcome João Pedro Rodrigues, who will be presenting his new feature The Ornithologist on Sunday, and then he is joined by partner João Rui Guerra da Mata for documentary short "Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?" on Monday, with the screening following a performance the the feature's composer, Séverine Ballon.

  • The Somerville Theatre adds The Lost City of Z as it gets back to normal after the festival, but their big presentation is Cage Against the Machine, a burlesque show inspired by the films of Nicolas Cage, on Saturday night; it will be followed by a 35mm print of Face/Off. Another special screening with live entertainment happens on Thursday at their sister theater in Arlington, The Capitol, as Jeff Rapsis accompanies silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth, where Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper vie for the affections of Vilma Bankky.

  • White Sun plays the Belmont World Film at the the Studio Cinema, featuring a story of brothers who were on the opposite sites of the Nepalsese Civil War; a lecture from Nepalese native Sarthak Giri, who witnessed both sides first-hand.

  • CinemaSalem not only picks up Colossal this weekend, but they also seem to be the only place in the area showing Tomorrow ("Demain" in the original French), a documentary where actress Mélanie Laurent teams with Cyril Dion to showcase people working to fight climate change.
My plans include heading out to the furniture store to see Guardians 2, My Entire High School…, catching up with the two Chinese films I haven't seen, the silent, Harold & Lillian, and, well, gee, that's a lot, isn't it?

Monday, May 01, 2017


This was Day Two of “cramming an extra movie that will likely be squeezed out of theaters by Guardians in around IFFBoston”, and it was going to be a bit more nuts, except that festival start times slipped a bit as they do, and a Skype Q&A was added to the last film of the day, which made getting back to Boston Common for The Mayor or Battle of Memories at 10:40pm (and then taking a cab back home at 1am) impossible. My employers probably thank the festival for this.

For all that it meant getting up early on a Sunday and making a day which already had a bunch of going back and forth between venues a little more T-intensive, though, I’m glad I caught it. It’s got a few real problems, for sure, but it does a few things very well. I kind of hope that someone at Marvel has jotted down some names while the credits ran on this one. It strikes me that they could do a lot worse than hire J.M. Dillard to direct Storm Reid as Riri Williams should they want to pick up Iron Man with reduced involvement by Robert Downey Jr. backup after Avengers 4, even if that may seem a little bit on the nose.

Oh, and speaking of studios with (what you’d think would be) very specific products, this one comes from WWE Studios and BH Tilt, and while I know Blumhouse is not necessarily all horror, I don’t think this has any wrestling connection at all (checks to see if the big henchman in this film is a “superstar” - do they still call everyone that? - and nope). I guess it’s an acquisition title for WWE, but that just makes the company’s tendency to produce/distribute entertaining genre films that aren’t exactly on-brand an even more enjoyable curiosity.

Probably worth noting for context: At IFFBoston the night before, I saw Dealt, which is about the world’s greatest card mechanic, who can do some pretty amazing things with a deck of cards, so maybe my standards for card tricks were kind of high.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

As much as it's nice to see a movie that acknowledges that its impossible magic tricks are actually impossible, doing that muddies Sleight a bit,chipping away at the desperate underdog situation once its hero actually has to use his amazing-but-homebrew invention to get out of a bad situation in a climax. It's a good hook and nifty overall, but doesn’t entirely come together.

The street magician in this case is Bo (Jacob Latimore), a 19-year-old kid in Los Angeles who could have gone to college on an engineering scholarship, but passed it up in order to take care of his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) after their mother died. There are some perks - Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) dropped her phone number in his hat along with a couple of bucks, for instance - but most of his money comes dealing drugs for Angelo (Dulé Hill). Unfortunately, he does it a bit too well, so despite his efforts to avoid the violent side of the business, Angelo takes Bo along to confront Maurice (Mane Andrew), who has set up operations on Angelo’s turf. That starts a spiral that will be difficult to escape, even with the secret weapon Bo has in his arm.

Sleight tips off that it’s got a fantastic element or two early on, so what happens later on isn’t a complete right turn, but it’s the somewhat conventional foundation that makes it worthwhile. It’s anchored by Jacob Latimore’s performance as Bo, a sheepish genius who keeps winding up in situations where one would expect more outward confidence. There’s no smirk when Bo is performing street magic, and the sequence where he apparently holds a gun for the first time as Angelo’s crew goes to teach Maurice a lesson is a fantastic example of someone clearly not knowing what he’s doing or wanting any part of it without it ever becoming physical comedy. There’s a wonderful decency to him as well as an ability to make bad decisions utterly believable and forgivable, youth in over its head without making a big scene of it.

Full review on EFC.