Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Saturday cartoons: "Olaf's Frozen Adventure", Coco, and The Breadwinner

The worst thing about going to see an animated movie as an adult who likes the medium is not the sinking feeling that you're not supposed to be there (because you're in a room filled with kids and parents or at a nearly-empty 9pm show) or the like: It's the inevitable group of terrible trailers for terrible movies that play before them, generally from Open Road, the Weinstein Company, or the like, showing animation that is clearly below the standard that the big studios set, C-list celebrity voices, and jokes so terrible that you look on the 88 minutes that didn't contribute to the trailer with a sort of dread. Ferdinand doesn't exactly look good, but its vague competence after trailers for Sherlock Gnomes and Peter Rabbit is refreshing, while Paddington 2 looks like some sort of miracle.

Stuff like that is why I can't really fully join in the outrage at being forced to sit through "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" and kind of laugh at how the ticket-ripper was warning folks in the audience that it was playing before Coco - I mean, Gnomes seems like something far more horrifying, though I suppose that the main issue here is people coming out to say something's wrong, rather than it being bad.

(I am kind of surprised this wasn't a bigger part of the promotion for Coco - or at least, not in places where I'd see it; maybe ads on The Disney Channel pushed it hard.)

One thing I'm kind of curious about with both of Saturday's animated features is just how well they play to the folks who share ethnicity/culture with the main characters. Coco was directed by Pete Docter, who is not Latino as far as I know (though Adrian Molina is listed as co-director and has writing credits), and I'm pretty sure The Breadwinner's Nora Twomey is not Afghani. Neither seems particularly exploitative, but I'm hardly in a position to judge. I've seen some positive word on Coco, but I do find myself kind of wondering how people closer to the stories might have handled them differently, especially in the light of how, last year, the makers of Moana seemed to get a lot more pushback on them telling a Polynesian story than they got with Aladdin back in the 1990s.

Anyway, in terms of niece-appropriateness, I think the 6/7-year-olds would probably go for Coco (even if two would be mostly down for the Frozen "short"), while The Breadwinner should probably be saved for the 11-year-old, content-wise, as it's a fine example of how something realistic can be scarier than the thing that has skeleton's running around. She likes realistic stories about girls her own age anyway.

"Olaf's Frozen Adventure"

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Would "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" seem like less of a slog if it appeared where it belonged - on ABC at 8pm on some weekday night in December, maybe leading into the Toy Story special that's been running for a few years? Maybe. It still wouldn't be good, of course, but it would be twenty minutes less for kids to sit still in a theater with 3D glasses on, including something like three musical numbers and the feeling that you've gone through a whole narrative cycle before the one you actually paid for. It's a small meal rather than the creative aperitif that usually plays before a Pixar film.

That said, it's not a bad idea. If you liked Frozen - as I and many others did, including my Elsa-crazed nieces - there's a worthy next chapter at the heart of this short, as Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) find themselves trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas as both a royal and conventional family after Elsa being shut away for so long. It's a plot that the audience actually cares about and which doesn't lose track of how a huge part of the movie's appeal is their relationship as sisters. It makes Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Goff) kind of a third wheel, but so what? He could easily fit into the part of the story that keeps things moving, as Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) tries to inventory individual holiday traditions to find one for the ladies.

The thing is, Olaf's a weird comic-relief character who makes for fun out-of-nowhere jokes (including some truly bizarre slapstick), but really doesn't fit in terms of a guy you'd want to hang the plot on; his child-like naivete seems foolish rather than charming in this context. It also shifts what could be a really charming core for the story - that everyone has different holiday traditions that are beautiful in their own ways - into something to snark at rather than celebrate, and that's before considering Kristoff's troll-inspired holiday traditions being played as gross-out gags.

Disney's done worse piggybacking off their animated classics, and despite this thing's almost-certain TV origins, it looks pretty good on the big screen in 3D, if not quite so smooth as something built for that format. This is just filled with enough bad decisions to obscure the good Anna & Elsa stuff that the kids who really want it would actually care about.

Coco (2017)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

The latest from Pixar saves the gut-punch for the end, and it's good to see they can still manage one every once in a while. They've been doing good work but had fallen a bit behind the main Disney group in both inventiveness and emotion.

Coco, fortunately, shows that they're still quite capable of making a movie that punches way above the weight class of the inevitable trailers for terrible animated films that run before it. Though the story seems a little stretched and unlikely at first - that many generations of people (including in-laws) acquiescing to an inherited disdain for music requires swallowing a lot - the cheery design and animation style makes up for it, at least long enough to get to the part where this sort of broad set-up feels right, as music-living kid Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

There, things get more fun, as the skeleton characters and the gravity-defying landscape give the designers, animators, and stereographers plenty of room to create an eye-widening world, a quest based on a metaphor can work without question (Miguel must literally obtain his family's blessing), and the expected big musical numbers and action pieces can impress but gracefully move aside as the script gets clever, folding what sends like a side sorry into the center of the movie.

It might be nice, perhaps, if the writing was a little sharper in the details - aside from the trouble getting started, I've kind of seen enough animated movies where fantasy-world bureaucracy mirrors reality to last me a long time - but when a movie is not just great-looking and well-voiced, but actually has a moment when the audience might just tear up, it gets a little slack.

The Breadwinner

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The Breadwinner is a pretty terrific film that may not get the attention that it might have even a year ago because of certain changes to Academy Award voting rules expected to favor big-studio blockbusters over more adventurous, individual films from around the globe. That's a crying shame, because nominating movies like this and getting them onto people's radar is where the Oscars are most useful - this one, for instance, is not what most expect from an animated film, but it uses the medium for clear, powerful storytelling that leaves a strong impression.

In Kabul, under the rule of the Taliban, one-time teacher Nurullah (voice of Ali Badshah) is reduced to selling his family's prized possessions on the street and taking money to read and write for those who can't, with 11-year-old daughter Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) assisting because he is disabled. He passes the time telling her stories, at least until he gets on the bad side of a young man happy to use the regime to settle scores and is carted off to jail. The is devastating to the family, because his only living son is a toddler and women and girls like daughters Parvana and her older sister Soraya (voice of Shalasta Latif) are not allowed out unescorted. When his wife Fattema (voice of Laara Sadiq) tries to make her way to the jail to plead his case, she is beaten badly. With food and water running out, Parvana cuts her hair, puts on the clothing of her dead brother, and hopes that this deception will allow her to work and buy what the family needs.

It's a fairly sharp turn for studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous films were grounded in the folklore and history of their native Ireland, to do a film set in modern Afghanistan, but they keep their signature style of simple, sometimes almost geometric character designs and still make them remarkably expressive - the silent acting of Soroya when she knows that she's more or less been sold into marriage to guarantee the family's safety is the most notable. There's a particular sharpness to the characters' features that not only marks them as Middle Eastern but signals their determination, and a fine attention to body language even when the women are dressed in something deliberately shapeless and unrevealing. Little details help, like the way one corner of Parvana's head covering tends to fly away and get tucked back in, signalling how she has to remain nondescript even if it isn't in her nature.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 4: Thousand Cuts, A Thousand Junkies, Attraction, Jailbreak, Fashionista, Geek Girls, Mumon: Land of Stealth, Lu Over the Wall, Prey, and The Endless

And that's 72 feature films reviewed on eFilmCritic for Fantasia, give or take - it's not counting A Taxi Driver, which opened in Boston the week I got back and was thus skipped in Montreal accordingly, but is counting Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I didn't actually see as part of a festival screening but did go to see between the start and end of the festival. There were also 4 short film packages that got pretty good write-ups (as did most of the shorts I saw), and 7 features I saw, but didn't get a chance to expand into full reviews. One was in unsubtitled French, so maybe give me a pass on that, and a couple of the others… Well, the filmmakers would probably rather I not share my feelings on a couple in any depth.

Yeah, it took three and a half months after the actual end of the festival, which is not ideal, but given that I kind of tapped out last year, it's an improvement, and I'm glad I figured out a bit more of a better way to go about it. Picking back up on updating my Letterboxd account and not shying away from using the international plan on my phone let me update a fair chunk in real-time. I didn't have more time during the fest, or immediately after, but a good chunk of first impressions being down as an initial draft helps, and getting this chunk down has helped me discover something reassuring - that, contrary to what some seem to think, it is much easier to write about what we love than what we dislike. That sticks around.

It means that, though it took me months to write them up, I was able to say all I want Mumon: Land of Stealth and The Endless, saving the best for last, so to speak. I'm kind of surprised that The Endless didn't get bumped up because of an impending release by Well Go, but I'm hoping that they find an early-2018 slot that gets it a semi-wide release. I've been waiting months to talk about something in this movie, and even if I figure that a lot of the people I'd want to discuss it with have already, you like to do it publicly these days. A far sadder consequence of the delay can be seen with A Thousand Junkies: The film I saw as darkly funny when watching it feels quite different on the other side of one of its stars dying what may have been a drug-related death. I really wasn't sure how to handle that when expanding the review; I tried to just stick to my initial impressions.

By interesting coincidence, I saw Mumon: Land of Stealth pop up in a YesAsia email, and it got me frustrated with the Japanese film industry's apparent disinterest in the world market all over again. Yoshihiro Nakamura's films may not quite get the buzz they deserve at festivals, and apparently haven't found favor with the broader J-pop fandom here, but they're consistently great. Because the audience is currently rather niche, nobody is paying the fees Japanese studios want to license their movies, but the studios don't want to jeopardize that potential revenue stream, so they don't put English subtitles on their Blu-rays. Or maybe it just doesn't occur to them to make them English-friendly because they don't see enough opportunity there - certainly, there are very few of us that will pay the ridiculous prices they want for those discs (the three editions up for pre-order have list prices from $45 to $90). The upshot is, nobody sees these films outside festivals, and it seems as if the desire to get the most potential money out of them is preventing people in North America from buying them at all.

But you know what's not expensive?

Yes, it's a Jay-at-Fantasia tradition, where I spend the last loonies in my pocket on Crush Cream Soda and Oh Henry bars that you can't easily find in the United States, saving them until after I finish my reviews. They will taste so good tomorrow!

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

You can tell Thousand Cuts ("Le serpent aux mille coupures" in the original French) is going to be an excellent slow burn from the start, as director Eric Valette contrives to bring three or four more or less unrelated groups to the same deserted spot in rural France and doesn't make it seem like a ridiculous premise despite being a huge coincidence. It's a tingly feeling that this could be a really entertaining mess, a sensation that only increases as an even more dangerous fellow shows up after the first bit of violence and two law-enforcement agencies get involved.

It starts with a drug deal going down; Jean-François (Stéphane Debac) doesn't really want to go through Spanish drug kingpin Javier any more. He soon won't have to, as an escaped felon (Tomer Sisley) crosses path with Javier's crew and comes out injured, but at least alive, disposing of the car and bodies well enough that a cartel lawyer and fixer (Terence Yin) are dispatched to find out who is responsible. Adrien holes up in the nearby farm, where owner Omar (Cédric Ido) and his wife Stéphanie (Erika Sainte) are already on on high alert because a lot of the locals do not like that a black man purchased the place after the previous owner went bankrupt - and, indeed, the key witness who could unravel the whole thing (Guillaume Destrem) was there to vandalize and destroy crops.

From there, it's all about turning the screws, and Valette does a fine job of that making not just the audience but the less-hardcore thugs wince as the worst of them tortures his way to what's going on while the folks pegged as heroes are more or less helpless. It does, eventually, wind up with Valette and co-writer Hervé Albertazzi (who wrote the source novel and is credited under nom de plume DOA) stretching themselves a little thin - Omar and his family disappear for a while as the situation in town gets more out of control, and while the various law-enforcement agencies getting along is a nice change of pace, it implies we don't need quite so many people involved. This mostly works, because the careful, measured progress keeps the audience glued to the screen as the very implausibility of the set-up keeps everybody orbiting each other, eventually drawing closer until the big confrontation comes.

Full review on EFC.

A Thousand Junkies

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

At some point during A Thousand Junkies, a viewer will likely think it's getting dark, but of course it's been dark since the start, when its main trio got into their beat-up Volvo to score their first heroin of the day, and starting to get strung out really just emphasizes what the oddball banter had been hiding. It's a humanizing though not particularly sympathetic look at being that far into addiction, though I've got no idea how accurate it may be.

Tommy (Tommy Swerdlow) is the guy with the car, and he starts his day before 7am, picking up T.J. (TJ Bowen) and Blake (Blake Heron), and putting in a call to Jimmy, their favorite dealer, who will, as the day goes by, always seem just out of reach. In the meantime, they chase down other leads, like Igor (Dinarte de Freitas), a rich Russian kid that Blake knows who doesn't like to shoot up alone; they'll also think back to how they met and how they got the car.

This is a story set in Los Angeles, so it's almost fitting that the car gets an origin story of its own; it's an indispensable part of the group, and as run-down, desperate for fuel, and close to collapse as its human occupants. It's not a character in the movie, but it's a necessary part of the framing: Director Tommy Swerdlow shoots a lot of scenes through the windshield, of course, but it's also important as the only true home these three have - they may have places where they sleep, but those belong to other people. The car is the only place or piece of the scenery that is constant as the men travel from one neighborhood to another, never letting a true sense of place build up. And when they finally start to get desperate enough to turn on each other, the car is part of that, too.

Full review on EFC.

Prityazhenie (Attraction)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

It's something of a pleasant surprise that Attraction is more of a Russian take on The Day the Earth Stood Still than War of the Worlds or Independence Day, although I suspect that few looked at The Day the Earth Stood Still and thought that the movie needed more dumb teenagers, although it's possible. It makes the constantly changing impulses a bit more believable, at least, although is justifying the weak bits better than avoiding them?

As it opens, a Moscow high school class is more or less ignoring the teacher going on about the night's meteor shower - well, the nerd everyone calls "Google" (Evgeniy Mikheev) is interested, while Yulia Lebedeva (Irina Starshenbaum) and her friend Svetlana Morozova (Darya Rudenok) make plans to watch it from the top of Sveta's apartment building. Or not - "watching a meteor shower" makes for an excellent excuse for Yulia to sneak off with boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov) without Yulia's strict military father Valentin (Oleg Menshikov) being terribly suspicious. It works out well until one of those meteors hits an alien spaceship, the spaceship crashes, and Sveta is in the impacted area that Valentin is placed in charge of securing. Yulia, Artyom, and some of his friends sneak in and find both some alien tech and an injured member of the crew - and this "Hakon" (Rinal Mukhametov) not only looks human, but kind of cute.

Though the film has its problems - it can tend toward spinning its wheels on the way to an extremely obvious "power of love/danger of jealousy" story - its heroine Yulia actually manages to grab hold of the movie once it had settled on her being basically decent and wanting to help, albeit in a somewhat entitled way (she is the type that rebels against her military father while still being comfortable throwing his weight around). Irina Starshenbaum has the right sort of attitude for the bratty but basically decent Yulia, and she's able to sell the necessary quick growth while still showing the same prickly exterior. She's kind of got to; neither Alexander Petrov or Rinal Mukhametov is nearly as charismatic in their parts as she is, leaving her having to do the heavy lifting to make those scenes compelling.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Like a lot of action flicks from places that don't export a whole lot of movies, Jailbreak shows that there are a fair number of folks in Cambodia who know some martial arts and aren't particularly concerned with the safety standards other places have in place. Whether the excited reception this movie got at the festival will translate into a steady stream of Cambodian action movies or not, time will tell, but this first foray into cinematic mayhem is a high-energy hoot.

As it opens, the local authorities have just captured "Playboy" (Savin Philip), the presumed leader of the Butterfly Gang, and he's being transferred to Prei Klau Prison by an elite escort: Dara (Dara Our), the team leader; Sucheat (Dara Phang), just transferred from an undercover unit; Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), tough enough to hang with the guys; and Jean-Paul Ty (Jean-Paul Ly), a French GIGN agent. Of course, Playboy being the actual leader of an all-female gang rather than just the money man is unlikely, and he's ready to roll on Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), and knowing this, she's made it known to Scorpion Gang leader Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) that there's a price on Playboy's head and an opportunity for a breakout. There are, of course, a whole ton of Scorpions in this prison, and Playboy is supposed to be locked up with the worst of the worst.

This may be giving the plot a bit more credit than it deserves. It's basically twenty minutes of enough exposition for the cops to be more than "the girl", "the guy with the beard", and the like, and then all hell breaking loose. Once things get started, the movie is basically one brawl after another, as the cops are constantly outnumbered by less-skilled but more numerous prisoners, and they just keep going, knocking each other around, throwing the occasional knife into it, and every once in a while going for a one-on-one with a featured heavy. Director Jimmy Henderson and his co-writer Michael Hodgson don't clutter things up with a lot of complexity or worries about people switching sides, but they're good at splitting the group up and bringing it together to make for good fights, and not cheating too badly with the geography of the place. It's not the detailed, obviously creative choreography you'd see from Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen, but it's busy and exciting without overloading the audience.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Roughly a minute or so into Fashionista, I could feel my eyes start to roll as the opening credits not only cut to a similarly-framed shot of Amanda Fuller's April with a different outfit for each new name put up, but the soundtrack changed as well (my notes say something along the lines of "oh, this is just precious!"). It works, I suppose, as shock therapy to get the audience used to the way director Simon Rumley puts his movie together, taking a lot of distinct moments and putting them next to each other without obvious transitions and trusting that the audience will see the through-line even on the first time through.

April (Amanda Fuller) has more than enough outfits to make that happen; she and her boyfriend Eric (Ethan Embry) run the Austin second-hand shop that bears his name and the overstock fills their apartment. It's alarming to see, really, but seems relatively benign until a few things start to threaten that status quo, like when Eric starts taking trips to Dallas to discuss opening a location there with the uncle of cute customer-turned-employee Sherry (Alexandria DeBerry), leading to some fierce arguments. It's after one of those that she meets Randall (Eric Balfour), a well-to-do man with fingers in some unsavory pies and whose own clothing obsessions complement April's. Soon he's paying for fancy, designer outfits, and it's a big change for someone who so closely identifies with her outfits.

The big idea at the center, how April's creative fashion sense comes across as fun and cool and hides a tendency toward hoarding and addiction, is kind of fascinating. Lots of movies link creativity and addiction in a way that positions the latter as the necessary side-effect of the former, and in April's case it goes further because she often seems to literally be creating herself. In her mind, how she presents herself is a large part of who she is, and the wardrobe upgrade Randall offers feels like a sort of upward mobility even if it is still putting on the outfits another man gives to her, and within a more narrow range. It's a tendency to define herself by what she has and allowing herself to be trapped by what feels like her own initiative.

Full review on EFC.

Geek Grils

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

A great number of documentaries might be said to have the prime of their lives on the festival circuit; that's where they're most likely to find packed houses and lively discussion, far more so than during the later years when they're getting one viewer at a time on whatever streaming services pick them up and their information ages. This is especially true for Geek Girls, which seems especially designed to play to audiences at genre film festivals, whether as a rallying point or a useful wake-up call, depending on one's perspective.

It's the work of Gina Hara, a Canadian born in Hungary who, like many women who enjoy comics, video games, and science, has occasionally been made to feel unwelcome by male would-be gatekeepers, enough to be interested in documenting the phenomenon. And so she does, starting in Tokyo's Akihabara district ("where geek history began") and initially finding nobody who would agree to be interviewed on camera, causing her to circle back to North America with a stop in her childhood hometown, talking to an interesting group along the way: Jamie Broadway of Black Girl Nerds, competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Anita Sengupta, and many others, before returning to Japan for an interview with a pair of tentative, anonymous young women.

One of the more interesting facets of the film is actually one of its more implicit, in that the way Hara defines the geek world is markedly different than how I would as a man a decade or two older who loves genre material but never embraced the term "geek". Calling Akihabara ground zero highlights the focus on manga, gaming, and cosplay, which from one perspective is a bit of a slight on folks like Bjo Trimble (an important figure in early Star Trek fandom) and authors like Andre Norton and C.J. Cherryh who injected a female perspective into science fiction and fantasy even if they had to do so under androgynous pen-names. It's an important choice in a couple of important ways: It focuses the film on the present rather than the past, and it serves as an important reminder that what men generally place at the center of geekdom - and the mostly-male media that treats this as the default - can be markedly different from what women do, with much of the friction where these two spheres intersect.

Full review on EFC.

Shinobi no kuni (Mumon: The Land of Stealth)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, HD Cam)

When attending a genre festival, find the movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura. It will often be relatively unheralded, either because he's not as outrageous as fellow very productive Japanese auteurs like Miike or Sono, or because he's not adapting something that has already found a fandom across the Pacific, but it will almost certainly be one of the best films there. Such is the case with Mumon: The Land of Stealth, and on top of that, it's one of Nakamura's very best. It looks every inch the silly bit of ninja action from the start, but there's a biting criticism of capitalism lurking underneath, so that when it comes to the fore at the end, the audience shouldn't be surprised, but it still hits a bit harder than expected.

As it opens, it's September 1579, and the ninjas of Iga are battling again. They're not really enemies - ninjas are too much the dedicated mercenaries to really hate the rival clans - but fighting is what they do, and being on top leads to the best jobs. Heibe Shimoyama (Ryohei Suzuki) recognizes it as a stupid exercise, but it should be relatively harmless; his clan's fortress is well fortified. At least, it seems that way before Mumon (Satoshi Ono), whose name means "no door", crashes through and then steps aside because he was only paid to make an entrance - at least until he's offered a better deal. The he returns home to his wife, Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) who is refusing to let him into their modest house until he makes good on what he he promised when he kidnapped her from her hometown of Aki. Meanwhile, in Ise, Nobunaga Oda's plans to unite the kingdom are blocked by Iga, but who wants to fight a province full of ninjas? Instead, he sends his son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), to keep them busy by building a fortress. They figure, fine, we can just tear it down when we're done.

It's a whimsical, silly series of events, adapted by screenwriter Ryo Wada from his own novel Shinobi no Kuni, and the filmmakers deliver a lot of poppy, bubbly scenes that serve as a fun contrast to how dour this sort of period film can be. There's a skewed logic to how scenes play out, with the ninjas coming off as simple folk with simple needs, almost refreshing in how they outright avoid tying themselves in knots. In a way, they're almost like children, and there's great hay made out of how these fearsome warriors are kind of goofy, with Mumon easily admonished and pushed around by a woman who is technically his prisoner.

Full review on EFC.

Yoake Tsugeru Lu no uta (Lu Over the Wall)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, Bu-ray)

Masaaki Yuasa had two feature films at the festival, which is some pretty spectacular productivity for someone working in animation, and I suppose that when you're on that kind of roll, it's no surprise that both wound up pretty darn good. Lu Over the Wall is a different sort of delight than Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, in some ways a more conventionally unconventional coming-of-age fantasy: It's hardly the first story with magical creatures helping a lonely kid find his place and save the town, although few are quite the same feast for the eyes and ears.

The kid is Kai (voice of Shota Shimoda); he lives in Hinashi, a fishing town denied sunlight by its massive "Shadowstone" wall, which also hides Merfolk Island, a failed amusement park built around the legends that mer-people lived nearby. He and his father just moved there from Tokyo, and Kai is trying to be invisible, but when classmates Yuuho (voice of Minako Kotobuki) and Kuniko (voice of Soma Saito) discover his DJ skills from something he posted on YouTube, they get him to join their band. They are not the only ones who hear Kai's music - Lu (voice of Kanon Tani), a young mermaid, hears it and sings along, and she gets so caught up in it that it gives her legs to dance with. Soon, she's joined the band, even though Yuuho and Kuniko don't know anything about their new singer other than her amazing voice.

That's just the basic plot, and while that's effective as heck - Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida pack all the coming-of-age themes, young romance, running around to keep a secret, and subplots which flesh out the supporting characters as complete, interesting people into a leisurely but not over-stuffed film - it's the way that this story sometimes gives Yuasa the chance to suddenly jump into something new that lets it grab a spot in a viewer's head. It's using music as a jolt from the very start, where the audience not only gets a sense of the strong feelings Kai is holding in as he composes and arranges in the opening before sudden jump to a bouncy theme song that occasionally feels like it has set too high a bar for the rest of the film because the music won't quite be so popping and married to fantastic visuals until almost the end. Teenagers in a band can often seem like shorthand, piggybacking on the viewer's own memories of a time when music was a direct line to their passion, but Yuasa and Yoshida seldom actually have their characters talk about this rather than just throw themselves into it in various ways.

Full review on EFC.

Prooi (Prey)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Prey is, make no bones about it, a silly extra-large-animal-attacks-humans movie, but it's one that is quite well aware of precisely what audiences want from that sort of picture. There is not really a single sequence that doesn't play out with exactly the beats that one might expect for this sort of B-movie, which adds up to the film in general playing in the same sort of way. This is thankfully more of an asset than a weakness here - director Dick Maas and company hit familiar genre notes, but hit them fairly well.

After a poor suburban family encounters something wild and hungry, we meet Lizzy (Sophie van Wilden), a veterinarian at Amsterdam's Artis Zoo who specializes in large animals, whom she generally considers less troublesome than her recently-discarded-but-still-hopeful ex-boyfriend Dave (Julian Looman). She's called in by Detective Olaf Brinkers (Rienus Krul), who has her name on file for dealing with animal attacks. He's hoping for a coyote or the like; she frightens him by saying it's a lion, larger than average, maybe escaped from some illegal private menagerie. Olaf's boss wants to keep it quiet and have a cousin who has gone on safari handle the situation, but eventually they're going to have to call Lizzy's former colleague (and lover) Jack (Mark Frost), not aware that his last job has left him a little less equipped to hunt down this sort of predator.

The long tradition of people who would ordinarily encounter an actually dangerous animal being menaced by something large and carnivorous isn't exactly distinguished - for every Jaws, there are a great many inferior imitations. Fortunately, director Dick Maas is a B-movie pro, and he hits the right notes at the right moments, so that while the film never really has great moments of surprise and shock, it's very satisfying in terms of execution. There's a certain comfort to being able to see that the people involved know what a killer-animal movie is supposed to do and do that, giving the audience what it wants with just enough color to keep it from being self-parody. The moments of black comedy feel more genuine than ironic.

Full review on EFC.

The Endless

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson have not only not made a bad movie yet, but they're 3-for-3 in making fantastic films that at some point make the viewer's eyes bulge with delight at one point or another, when it becomes clear that they are doing something really clever. The Endless is no exception, building tension in an almost conventional way and then making sure that both the things that build mystery and resolve it are genuinely thrilling. It's a genuinely great horror film that will excite their fans and likely impress even those who aren't huge fans of the genre.

Benson & Moorhead also star in the movie, playing brothers Justin and Aaron Smith, who escaped from a cult ten years ago. Or at least, that's how Justin puts it; younger brother Aaron still romanticizes the group and tends to skip his deprogramming appointments. He might be tempted to go back if the pair didn't receive a videotape in the mail, but that's what it takes to get Justin to join him for a visit, especially with it referencing a mysterious "ascension" and seeming to end with disaster. So they return to Camp Arcadia, past the oddly-fresh memorial for their mother on the side of the road, and see that things have not changed much - Hal (Tate Ellington) is still working on some strange equation, Aaron still has a huge crush on Anna (Callie Hernandez), and neighbor Carl (James Jordan) is still kind of a jerk. There are new additions - cute artist Lizzy (Kira Powell) and Jennifer (Emily Montague), who came to California after her husband disappeared. There are secrets here which could, at the very least, tear the brothers apart.

This is only the pair's third feature (after Resolution and Spring), but one can already see strong themes emerging in their work that runs deeper than the love of analog media or the threat of something too ancient for its origins and purpose to be properly remembered. All of their films deal in some way with the idea of getting stuck at some point in one's life and someone trying to break free, and they aren't shy about laying this idea right out there from the start, with Aaron especially wanting to return to the safety of the place that sheltered them when their mother died and Justin trying to mount an argument for moving them forward. Right at the start, it's feelings that most in the audience can immediately connect with, even if the source is unusual, and it forms the bedrock of the movie.

Full review on EFC.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 November 2017 - 30 November 2017

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy a long weekend of movies as I shall.

  • A new Pixar movie is always good news (except when the guy at the top is the latest snagged in misconduct scandals), and Coco, their latest, is a spiffy-looking 3D adventure inspired by the Day of the Dead. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), West Newton (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. If you like animation from a different legendary source, GKids's final Ghibli presentation plays over the weekend, with Howl's Moving Castle playing at Fenway and Revere on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday (subtitled Monday, dubbed the other days). Fenway also has The Polar Express on Saturday afternoon.

    There's also Roman J. Israel,Esq., with Denzel Washington as the title character, an attorney who goes from being idealistic to mercenary (and, presumably, back again), with Nightcrawler filmmaker Dan Gilroy writing and directing. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also expansion for Lady Bird and Three Billboards, which gain screens at the The Somerville Theatre, The Lexington Venue, Fenway, and other spots.

    Explosion plays Boston Common, their first Asian film in a while. It opens Friday and stars Duan Yihong as a demolitions expert investigating a suspicious explosion in a mine.
  • Over at Kendall Square, Kendall Square, they open The Man Who Invented Christmas on Wednesday, with Dan Stevens playing Charles Dickens during the period when he wrote A Christmas Carol and Christopher Plummer as Ebeneezer Scrooge. It also plays West Newton and Boston Common. On Friday, the Kendall gets The Breadwinner, an animated feature about an Afghan girl who disguises herself as a boy to earn money to support her family. It's notable for being from Cartoon Saloon, with director Nora Twomey having served as co-director on producer Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells, which is a very nice pedigree to have.
  • The Museum of Science will add "Mysteries of China" to their line-up at the Omnimax theater starting on Friday.
  • It's Hanks-giving at The Brattle Theatre, a pun and series that the creative director admits he should have thought of long ago. It starts with a double feature of Splash (35mm) & Big on Wednesday and Thanksgiving, another of The Money Pit & The 'Burbs on Friday, Turner & Hooch (35mm) & Dragnet on Saturday, A League of Their Own & That Thing You Do! (35mm) on Sunday, Catch Me If You Can (35mm) on Monday, and a free "Elements of Cinema" screening of Toy Story before before Joe Versus the Volcano (35mm) on Tuesday. They're closed on Wednesday, but then one of the most delightfully offbeat recurring events - The International Pancake Film Festival - plays a special tenth-anniversary show on Thursday, with the usual free pancakes and video games.
  • At The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the After Midnite crew continues their tribute to Adrienne Barbeau with Two Evil Eyes on 35mm Friday night and The Convent on Saturday. They have a kids' show on Saturday morning in the form of Where the Wild Things Are, and then a Big Screen Classic of The Seventh Seal on Monday evening.
  • The Harvard Film Archive doesn't break for the holiday, wrapping up the William Wellman series with 35mm prints of A Star Is Born (Friday 7pm), Yellow Sky (Friday 9:30pm), The Track of the Cat (Saturday 7pm), Westward the Women (Saturday 9pm), Midnight Mary (Sunday 5pm), and Frisco Jenny (Sunday 7pm). Shuji Terayama's Video Letter finishes up his series on Monday, and there's also a special presentation at the Carpenter Center, Basma Alsharif: Drawing a line through the Ouroboros on Friday, with Ms. Alsharif giving background on the creation of her film Ouroboros before it screens in December.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts similarly finishes their November schedule with a number of films playing irregular schedules: Dawson City: Frozen Time (Friday), "No Maps on My Taps" & "About Tap" (Friday/Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday the 29th/Thursday the 30th), Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (Friday/Saturday/Sunday), and The Teacher (Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday the 29th).
  • The Regent Theatre has a busy holiday weekend planned. Friday and Saturday have matinees double features of Kid Flix, programs of short films from the 2017 New York International Children's Film Fest. Those same days will also have a double feature of Saturday Night Fever & Dirty Dancing, while Monday features concert film Blue Wild Angel, featuring Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight.
  • CinemaSalem will have documentary The Paris Opera in their 18-seat screening room starting from Friday.
  • Bright Lights returns after Thanksgiving break with director and Emerson alumnus Romana S. Diaz presenting Motherland on Tuesday the 28th and various artists in the Opertura collective there for "Weird Healing: The Animation of Opertura" on Thursday. Free in the screening room at the Paramount.
  • The Capitol has their monthly Throwback Thursday screening - Terms of Endearment - on the 30th.

Looking at Coco, The Breadwinner, Three Billboards, the League of Their Own/That Thing You Do! double feature, Explosion, Dawson City, the pancake movies, and probably even more. Good thing there's extra days off!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 November 2017 - 21 November 2017

Thanksgiving next week, so movies open Wednesday, so it's kind of a short week.

  • There may be some films getting more advertising, but is anything more highly-anticipated than IFFBoston Fall Focus finale Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Starring Frances McDormand as a grieving mother who buys the advertising in question to put pressure on the sheriff investigating the murder of her daughter. Dark, dark comedy from In Bruges director Martin McDonagh with a great cast; it's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common.

    In a couple weeks, the Coolidge's After Midnite guys will present an award to Adrienne Barbeau,and they're getting the tribute started this weekend, with a double feature of Swamp Thing & The Return of Swamp Thing (the latter on 35mm) at 11;30pm on Friday and a print of Creepshow (preceded by short film "Alice Jacobs Is Dead") on Saturday. They also have a 35mm print of The Room late on Friday.
  • If you told me even five years ago that I'd have only the vaguest interest in a Justice League movie, maybe I wouldn't have been completely unbelieving,but, wow, it's been kind of a slog getting to this big 3D action/adventure movie which has them battling one of the less well-known New Gods, presumably saving Darkseid for the sequel. This time around, it's at the Somerville (2D only), Fresh Pond, the Belmont Studio (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D), Revere (including MX4D/XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    For those looking for something less bombastic, Perks of Being a Wallflower director Stephen Chbosky delivers Wonder, featuring Room star Jacob Tremblay as a kid with facial discolorations attending school for the first time, with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his parents. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. Also family-friendly is The Star, a digitally-animated film about the nativity told from the perspective of the animals, primarily a donkey voiced by Steven Yeun. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.
  • Another IFFBoston Fall Focus selection, Last Flag Flying, opens at Kendall Square and Boston Common; it's the latest from director Richard Linklater and features Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston as old army buddies hitting the road to bury the son of Carell's character in Arlington. The Kendall also gets God's Own Country, featuring Josh O'Connor as a young farmer who finds his life changing when a handsome Romanian worker arrives on the farm. You'll have to go to their sister cinema in Waltham, The Embassy, to see Mudbound, Dee Rees's film starring Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as two men - one black, one white - working on a southern farm after World War II. Rave reviews, but as a Netflix film, it's lucky to get that screen.
  • Apple Fresh Pond gets Tumhari Sulu, with Vidya Balan as a Mumbai housewife who gets the job of overnight disk jockey at a local radio station. They also pick up Telugu film Khakee for a late-night shows.

    They also have matinees of Angelica with Jena Malone and Ed Stoppard as a couple in Victorian London whose house seems to be haunted after the birth of their daughter. It's been on the shelf for a couple of years, which isn't a good sign, but it's directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein of Teeth, which makes it interesting.
  • The Boston Jewish FIlm Festival wraps up this weekend, with shows Saturday to Monday at the Brattle, JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater, MFA, Somerville, ICA, Orchard Cove, West Newton, the Boston Public Library, and Center for the Arts in Natick. Sunday features Marlee Matlin presenting Dirty Dancing at the MFA at noon, while Keep the Change at the BPL.
  • The Brattle Theatre put a second show of Don't Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker Friday night after the first sold out; it documents a band, and member Blake Schwarenbach will be on-hand for both shows. They've got a screening of anime film Fate/Stay Night [Heaven's Feel] on Saturday afternoon, and then spend the rest of Saturday and Sunday playing host to the BJFF. Monday's DocYard presentation is "Acts and Intermissions: Emma Goldman in America", with filmmaker Abigail Child, and then it's Trash Night on Tuesday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has more from William Wellman , with Nothing Sacred (Friday 7pm); Good-bye, My Lady (Saturday 3pm), Safe in Hell (Sunday 5pm), Heroes for Sale (Sunday 7pm); and a double feature of Wild Boys of the Road & The Star Witness on Monday, all on 35mm except Good-bye, My Lady, which is on 16mm but is also Saturday's $5 family show. There are two Shuji Terayama short programs in between on 16mm, with Julian Ross & Chizuru Usui introducing one Friday at 7pm and Henrikku Morisaki doing a special presentation and performance at 7pm on Saturday.
  • Like the Brattle, The Museum of Fine Arts uses its screen for the BJFF on Saturday and Sunday, but has screenings of Slovak film The Teacher on Friday & Saturday, with screenings of George T. Nierenberg's short documentaries "No Maps on My Taps" & "About Tap" on Friday evening.
  • The Regent Theatre screens documentary The Last Dalai Lama? on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, and then hosts the premiere of short film "Flower Girl" on Sunday afternoon, with performances by Session 450 and Watch City along with other special guests. Then, on Monday evening, they welcome Dweezil Zappa for a Q&A session for a special screening of a documentary on a disastrous concert put on by his father Frank in Summer '82 - When Zappa Came to Sicily.

I'm a fool, but I'll see Justice League, and I'm planning an extremely ill-advised trip to New York to see the Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image and Murder on the Orient Express on 70mm film. Then, Three Billboards, and it's almost time for Coco and Darkest Hour.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

It's a bit odd to be seeing movies while on vacation, especially ones that I could have caught at home - there's this feeling that with limited time in Vienna, I really should have better, only-in-Austria ways to spend my time than watching movies. But, hey, this city kind of closes down at 6pm aside from the bars, and it's chilly. Might as well use that time when half my brain figures it's only noon anyway, just like half of it figures it's only 6:30pm even though the clock says it's past midnight (the other half is kind of tired).

I've discovered a couple of neat theaters here which specialize in showing film in English, though - "Haydn Kino" is also called "English Cinema Haydn" and does, in fact, show all English movies without subtitles (although when I saw Thor: Ragnarok there last week, the on-screen title was "Thor: Tag der Entscheidung"), while Burg Kino didn't have subtitles on its regular screenings of The Third Man. It's kind of nuts, speaking to the degree to which English is the world's second language and how a certain chunk of Viennese filmgoers, at least, are kind of hardcore. I mean, I totally understand wanting to see a movie in its original language, but even if my French didn't suck, I kind of figure I'd still want subtitles when I saw a Francophonic film, just as backup. I mean, there can't be enough visitors like me or expatriates watching these movies to drive multiple theaters showing these movies without subs, right?

(Well, okay, maybe The Third Man is mostly visitors, but that's like three shows a week)

Of course, there are different definitions of hardcore: There's been another round of folks grumbling about theaters not masking their screens properly back in America, and that's a fight that seems to have been lost in these theaters - The Third Man was presented on a 2.35:1 screen, projected from a 1.85:1 DCP, with a 1.33:1 image in the center (all ratios approximate, so don't nitpick) and no masking; the 1.85:1 Mark Felt wasn't masked either. But the folks are seeing it unsubtitled in a foreign language.

(Also: At both spots, you pay a different price based on what screen something is on at the very least and often depending on the film, something else Americans have been freaking out about a chain introducing next year.)

And enjoying it - the audience certainly enjoyed Mark Felt a bit more than I did, with a bit of applause at the end. I think it might actually have lasted longer here than back home - this is the second weekend it's playing one show a week, and I figure it must have had one week of full shows, which is three. I'm pretty sure this only lasted two in Boston.

Anyway, it's been fun, and I'm looking forward to getting back to the familiar spots back home even if I have enjoyed this vacation quite a bit.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (aka The Secret Man)

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2017 in Haydn Kino C (first-run, DCP)

It's quite possible that the biggest mistake filmmaker Peter Landesman made in adapting the memoirs Mark Felt wrote with John O'Connor is focusing on his role in first investigating the Watergate break-ins and then leaking them to the press. Yes, they are the most dramatic parts of his career with the widest-reaching consequences, but are they the most interesting stories to tell about this man? I'm not sure. And if they are, they may still be too complicated to address in a film this size, even without the other elements of Felt's story being given time.

Take the question that opens the film, before the Watergate break-ins, when John Dean (Michael C. Hall) and other Nixon advisors bring Deputy Assistant FBI Director W. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) in to a meeting to feel out what it would take to get director J. Edgar Hoover to resign. Felt dismisses the notion as impossible, emphasizing the private files Hoover has on all of Washington - which, by the way, all went through him. But when Hoover dies, Felt executes Hoover's orders to destroy the files, and it's an intriguing dynamic - this information, unsavory as it was, had in practical terms guaranteed the Bureau's autonomy. Felt believes in this autonomy fervently, fanatically even, but doesn't seem to have the stomach for gathering and managing blackmail material. It's a potentially fascinating thread that seems like it should be at the center of the film: That the Watergate break-in itself might have only been considered because the FBI had weakened itself, and giving the investigation its proper teeth required Felt to go outside the Bureau's proper mode of operation, albeit in a different way.

It's likely something that Landesman (and, earlier, Felt and O'Connor) considered, but it's not addressed directly, with Felt visibly wrestling with it. Perhaps the very fact that I'm mentioning it now means that the filmmakers did well enough in laying it out, especially since it's arguable that this sort of career G-man would not have been prone to this sort of open self-reflection. Still, Landesman is not opposed to shoehorning in some awkward exposition in other spots, and he has Liam Neeson play Felt with such firm assurance that it's often easy to recall the credit from the start that points out that this was adapted from books Felt co-wrote - it begins to feel almost self-serving, despite the many hands that it would have to pass through between Felt trying to justify his actions and the screen. It doesn't help that the film ends in mid-pregnant pause, like Landesman found a great stranger-than-fiction moment but couldn't figure out how to make it fit his take on Felt, so he just stopped.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

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

Still on vacation well out of town, but that means there's some catch-up to do when I get home and maybe a chance to catch something here in the evening.

  • Plus, I'd kind of like to know how long Murder on the Orient Express is playing on 70mm film in New York, although I hope it's at least in the local place's plans for next year's big-screen festival. It's a lavish take on one of the classic Agatha Christie mysteries with an all-star cast, with director Kenneth Branagh playing Hercule Poirot. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    The other main opening is Daddy's Home 2, in which the mismatched father/stepfather pair of Mark Wahlberg & Will Ferrell are joined by their fathers, played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow. It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    There are a few more showings of Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You! on Saturday and Tuesday at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere (Saturday only) for those who have not yet seen how Ash and Pikachu met. The monthly TCM classic is a biggie - Casablanca, playing Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. And somehow there's a Lazer Team 2, playing Revere Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, Lady Bird, is a coming-of-age story starring Saoirse Ronan (whose character has a complicated relationship with a mom played by Laurie Metcalf), and it sold out at the IFFBoston Fall Focus. This week, it opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common; the Somerville is advertising it as coming in a couple of weeks.

    The Coolidge goes for musical midnights this weekend, with Brian De Palma's nutso Phantom of the Paradise playing Friday and This Is Spinal Tap getting the late-late show on Saturday. They also have a "Stage and Screen" presentation of Trouble in Paradise on Monday (including guests from the Huntington Theatre's production of Tartuffe), and a restored "Rewind!" screening of Donnie Darko on Thursday.
  • Kendall Square and West Newton open Novitate, with Margaret Qualley as the title character, who finds that being a nun is not all that she expected, especially as she clashes with Melissa Leo's strict Reverend Mother. Kendall Square also has a one-week booking of IFFBoston alum Dina, a documentary about an unconventional woman navigating a new relationship.
  • Apple Fresh Pond keeps PSV Garuda Vega 126 and Secret Superstar while adding Bollywood romance Qarib Qarib Singlle (with Irrfan Khan and Parvathy) and Tamil drama Aramm. There's also Kannada-language Dayavittu Gamanisi (Saturday/Sunday) and Marathi-language Faster Fene (Sunday).
  • The Boston Jewish FIlm Festival spends time at the Coolidge, the Brattle, the Somerville, the Arlington Capitol, West Newton, the MFA, Foxboro Patriot Place, the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater, The Center for the Arts in Natick, and Maynard Fine Arts. The Biggest event this week is Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story at the Coolidge on Wednesday, presented with GlobeDocs, but it's an expansive, well-programmed festival.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens the weekend with a special 35mm screening of The Earrings of Madame De… on Friday, introduced by Man Men creator and novelist Matthew Weiner. They've also got matinee showings of the newly-restored Steamboat Bill, Jr., one of Buster Keaton's best, on Saturday and Sunday. The Boston Jewish Film Festival claims evenings on Saturday and Thursday.

    In between, their film noir "series-of-series" ends (for 2017, at least) with a set of New Chinese Noir films, presented with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, interesting in part because it doesn't seem to be drawing from the usual Hong Kong-based suspects, but rather the Mainland. Films include Black Coal, Thin Ice (Sunday 5pm), The Dead End (Sunday 8pm), Lethal Hostage from The Wasted Times director Cheng Er (Monday 8:30pm), The Coffin in the Mountain (Tuesday 8:30pm), and Free + Easy (Wednesday 8:30pm). I saw the latter at Fantasia, and if it's representative, this is a really interesting series.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has a couple from its William Wellman retrospective this weekend - Wings, the great silent war movie which won the first Best Picture Oscar (Friday 7pm), and Other Men's Women on 35mm (Sunday 5pm). Mark McElhatten will be on hand Saturday to introduce two Stan Barkhage programs of 16mm and 35mm shorts: "The Book of Wonders" (7pm) combines Barkhage's work with that of Georges Méliès; "Luminosity Ecstasy Trauma" is all his own. The weekend finishes with two from Shuji Terayama on 35mm: The Boxer on Sunday night and Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets on Monday.
  • In addition to the BJFF, The Museum of Fine Arts shows Dawson City: Frozen Time (Friday/Thursday), Slovak film The Teacher (Friday), and Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (Wednesday Thursday). They also conclude their events with the Boston Turkish Festival for the year on Saturday, with the finalists in the short film competition and an encore showing of The Turkish Way
  • The Regent Theatre has a busy week, with films on three days: Unrest, on Sunday afternoon, is a documentary by and about Jennifer Brea, suddenly stricken with Myaligic Encephalomyelitis (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome); "Festival!", on Wednesday, is a 50th Anniversary restoration of Murray Lerner's document of the 1963-1966 Newport Folk Festivals; and The Truth About Lies, which stars Fran Kranz as a guy trying to impress a girl (Odette Annabelle nee Yustman) with increasingly outlandish lies, on Thursday.
  • .ArtsEmerson's Film Program has a "Reel Life Experience" presentation of Justin Tiping's inner-city drama Kicks on Friday, with reception and performances before the movie and a panel discussion after. $15 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room.

    The free Bright Lights series returns to the location on Tuesday with The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson; both director David France and producer L.A. Teodisio will be there to discuss their documentary on the New York City trans rights activist. Thursday is the annual "Silversonic" show, featuring music videos directed by Emerson students and alumni.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a number of live events and BJFF shows taking up one of their screens on any given day, but also has room for Warren Miller's Line of Descent, the prolific action-sports filmmaker's latest ski & snowboarding film, on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Tragedy Girls only had a week at Fenway, but moves over to the 18-seat screening room at CinemaSalem for a second week in the area.

I've been doing pretty good about not spending a whole lot of vacation watching movies when there's cool stuff to see, but I'll probably catch The Third Man while I'm in Vienna. Once I'm back home, I'll probably try and catch some Chinese noir or just drop because I'll finally have fully acclimated to European time by the time I get home.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

IFFBoston 2017.183: Thoroughbreds & Thelma

Kind of disappointed in myself in only getting to two days of IFFBoston's Fall Focus, but not beating myself up over it too much - I'd already seen one and most of the rest will likely play a fair number of theaters in coming weeks. These two seem the most likely to get lost in the shuffle, so it's nice that my schedule worked out best with them.

Thoroughbreds, kind of amazingly, isn't set to come out until next year, which wouldn't be bad if it just got finished recently, but co-star Anton Yelchin died in 2016. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke won't quite have aged out of playing teenagers by then, but it's not a ridiculous possibility. It's far-enough away that Focus may opt to send it straight to VOD, or Universal could even decide that they don't need a boutique label by then. It's an odd enough movie that this sort of thing wouldn't surprise me.

As for Thelma, it's listed as being released this weekend, but the Boston showtimes haven't updated at this point, so who knows if we'll get it this week or next, or at all? It's worth remembering that for one of director Joachim Trier's previous films, critics basically had to beg theaters to get it to play in the area. I missed it, later catching it on video, and I'm kind of not sure where this one plays - it's just genre enough to not play the Kendall, but foreign enough not to play Boston Common. Maybe it gets a 9:30pm-in-the-Goldscreen-plus-midnights week at the Coolidge, but who knows?

Anyway, as much as I wish I could have gone to more than three movies, I caught three of the right ones. Both halves of this dangerous-young-women double feature had some issues, but they're good enough that I'm glad I got to see them on a big screen and that Brian, Nancy, and the rest of the IFFBoston/Brattle crew helped me prioritize them.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2017, DCP)

The teenage girls in Thoroughbreads watch an old movie or three over the course of their own film, and, boy, would Anya Taylor-Joy be looking at a heck of a line in femmes fatales if there were still the same sort of regular demand for them. Her performance as a potentially-monstrous teenager is delicious, begging to be inserted into a film that has higher stakes or which gives her someone to pull down from a much higher pedestal.

She's playing Lily, who used to hang out with Amanda (Olivia Cooke) before transferring to boarding school a year and a half ago. Nobody is talking to Amanda these days, but Amanda doesn't mind - indeed, she says she can't, that she's unable to feel emotion but can fake it well enough to get by, and she that knows Lily's just tutoring her for the SATs because her mom is paying. As much as this confession initially freaks Lily out, she quickly comes to like having a friend for whom she doesn't have to keep up a sweet, placid exterior - at least, until Amanda picks up on the enmity between Lily and her stepfather (Paul Sparks) and bluntly raises the option of killing him.

Writer/director Cory Finley has Amanda spill that she's not capable of feeling emotion early, and there are times when it makes what Olivia Cooke does a little less interesting; she can be flat in her delivery and the audience will basically take it as given, with any display of emotion immediately recognized as a technical exercise even when the script doesn't have her actually giving an explanation on how she fakes crying. Amanda's stated lack of feeling distances the audience from her in the same way it distances her from other people, something the film perhaps waits too long to address, especially since it serves to camouflage the little things Cooke does right, principal among them being flat but never really cold. Finley is careful never to describe her as selfish or a sociopath in hiding, and Cooke is often quite good at finding the delivery that's neither robotic nor obviously inflected.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2017, DCP)

I love the themes that director Joachim Trier eventually gets around to really poking at, the idea of institutions and even family holding determined women back by any means necessary. There are times when it gets well out of the filmmaker's hands, like he's got this idea but doesn't really know how to pull it together as a story and ultimately decides to just go with what feels right (or horrible, depending on the scene), but mostly this movie seems to be on the right track.

After a brief prelude, the audience meets present-day Thelma (Eili Harboe), a bright girl who grew up in a small town but has come to the city for college. She and her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen & Ellen Dorrit Petersen) appear to be close, but maybe not quite so close as they first appear: Thelma isn't exactly actively rebelling against her religious upbringing, but she fibs about which courses she's taking and sees a pretty big difference between believing in God and believing the world is 6000 years old. Given this, it's almost a given that she won't tell her parents how close she is getting with her classmate Anja (Okay Kaya), but not telling them when she starts having seizures - and the doctors can't find any signs of epilepsy or similar neurological disorders - is something else.

It would be one kind of movie if the seizures stayed in her head, but from the way that all those birds were crashing into the window the first time, that's not going to be the case, and when that happens, a story can either go in the Carrie or X-Men directions, and both are kind of minefields. The second almost inevitably makes the character's abilities the focus of the story, making it a question of practical application rather than the internal struggles that the storyteller wants to tell on a larger-than-life scale. Enlarging it to that scale, though, tends to break the metaphor, making the girl with great potential inherently dangerous, not just something that makes people uncomfortable or nervous. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt don't really have a solution for that, story-wise, and to be fair, they don't need one, though their film would likely be a bit more compelling if there were a little more evidence offered that Thelma could change the world in a positive way.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, November 03, 2017

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

I won't be here for any of this, but might as well do something while waiting to change flights in the Dublin airport, and there is some stuff anyone in Boston (or America, generally) should see.

  • No need to bury the lede, of course - the new Marvel 3D movie comes out this weekend, it's Thor: Ragnarok, and they've brought in Taika Waititi to give what has been one of the toughest Marvel characters to get a handle on for film some zing, and grafted a good chunk of Planet Hulk onto the movie, which brings in a fun "guest cast" including Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblum on top of the usual Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX), Revere (including MX4D/XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    A Bad Moms Christmas opened on Wednesday, playing at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux, and that's mostly it at the big multiplexes, although in an interesting twist, it's Fenway that pokes a toe out of the mainstream and opens Tragedy Girls, in which two teenage girls with a true-crime web show start boosting their hit count by making sure that there's plenty of crime in their town. It was a hit at Fantasia, and I believe the Boston Underground Film Festival folks will be giving it a special premiere on Friday night.

    Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! is the latest in the long-running series, and goes back to the beginning to show how Ash and Pikachu met; it plays Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. There's a one-night presentation of The Price of Fame: The Story of Ted "Million Dollar Man" DiBiase at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Tuesday (apparently the classic WWE heel became a preacher), while The Notorious: Conor McGregor plays Revere Wednesday night and tells the rags-to-riches tale of the UFC fighter. Fenway also plays A Silent Voice on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, although it's not clear whether that's the start of a more open-ended engagement or not (it continues to play at Boston Common).
  • Most Beautiful Island opens at Apple Fresh Pond for a couple shows a day - the normal deal when it's something also hitting VOD - but give it a look. It took me by surprise at BUFF and was a big hit at Fantasia, making two really excellent turns. Sure, you can see it at home, but this theater's got the comfy seats, accepts MoviePass and has $5 Tuesdays and Sundays.

    They also keep a decent amount of Indian cinema going, adding Telugu spy comedy PSV Garuda Vega 126, subtitled Hindi new-parent drama Ribbon, and Malayalam thriller Villain (the latter through Sunday) to holdovers Secret Superstar and Golmaal Again. Kannada-language comedy Dayavittu Gamanisi plays Saturday & Sunday, while Marathi-language action-comedy Faster Fene plas Sunday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square open The Square, the new one from Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund which sees a contemporary art museum curator's envelope-pushing conceptual program go completely off the rails. The Coolidge also gives some GoldScreen shows to Faces Places, a collaboration between French cinema legend Agnes Varda and muralist JR as they travel their country, document the people, and create massive images.

    There's no rest for the After Midnite crew at the Coolidge, as they run a 35mm print of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on Friday and then welcome Joe Bob Briggs on Saturday for a midnight lecture on the History of the Redneck in Film. On Sunday, the theater teams with Goethe-Institut to present LOMO: The Language of Many Others with Q&A from director Julia Langhof. Monday's Science on Screen show is Office Space with an introduction by "Soonish" podcaster Wade Roush, and there's Open Screen on Tuesday.

    Wednesday is the opening night of THe Boston Jewish Film Festival featuring a remote Q&A with Bye Bye Germany director Sam Garbarski and a passholder party after the film. Holy Air and Let Yourself Go play the Coolidge on Thursday, with a short competition at the Somerville and 1945 in West Newton, and ten more days after that.
  • I'm not sure the "Takashi Miike's 100th Movie" claim really adds up for Blade of the Immortal, but who cares? Miike adapts the hit manga into a pretty great fantasy samurai bloodbath, his best pure action film since 13 Assassins. It's at Kendall Square and CinemaSalem. The Kendall also has a one-week booking for Jane, pulling together hours of unseen footage of Jane Goodall and putting it to a Philip Glass score.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a little room after the TerrorThon, and they use it to open LBJ, Rob Reiner's biography of President Johnson with Woody Harrelson as the Lyndon Baines and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird. It also plays West Newton. They also pick up The Killing of a Sacred Deer and give a one-week booking to Mansfield 66/67 a documentary about the last two years of Jayne Mansfield's life that bills itself as "a true story based on rumour and hearsay".

    They also play host to the Boston International Kids Film Festival, which offers short films, features (including IFFBoston selection Step), and workshops, from Friday to Sunday; they also play "Reel Rock 12", a selection of five new rock-climbing films on Tuesday.

    West Newton also goes kind of off-brand with Bad Match, which looks like a sleazy thriller from Cheap Thrills co-writer David Chirchirillo
  • The Brattle Theatre has a new restoration of classic Mexican Western Time to Die from Friday to Sunday, although the late show goes to Okja, as Netflix is finally letting all the theaters that wanted to play Bong Joon-ho's dark fantasy adventure do a few screenings this month. It plays through Wednesday. Weekdays include a number of special screenings and guests: The DocYard welcomes Quest producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon to discuss Jon Olshefski's decade-in-the-making look at a musical family in Philadelphia on Monday, while Tuesday is a special screening of Grey Gardens to celebrate LIttle Edie's 100th birthday. Okja gets an early show on Wednesday, while another sci-fi cautionary tale, Ex Machina plays on Thursday with post-film discussion led by "The Technoskeptic"'s Mo Lotman.
  • The Harvard Film Archive starts November with a few from its Shuji Terayama, Emperor of the Underground retrospective, with short programs on Friday and Saturday and three features: Pastoral Hide and Seek (Friday 8:30pm), Fruits of Passion (Saturday 7pm), and Farewell to the Ark (Monday 7pm). Sunday is William Wellman day, with Carole Lombard comedy Nothing Sacred at 5pm and Gary Cooper adventure Beau Geste on Sunday. Features are on 35mm, shorts a mix of 35mm and 16mm.
  • First Friday of a new month means weirdness on film at the The Museum of Fine Arts, with this month's 35mm treat being Jacob's Ladder. Much of the rest of the week is given to the Turkish Festival's Documentary & Short Film competition, with short packages on Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday. Thursday is a special Evening with Bill Morrison and Guy Maddin, with Maddin taking questions after showing My Winnipeg on 35mm and also talking with Morrison after his film, Dawson City: Frozen Time. The latter also plays Sunday afternoon, as does "Chartres: Light Reborn", although that particular screening (in the Alfond Auditorium) is sold out.
  • The Regent Theatre has added two screenings of meditation documentary Walk with Me for Saturday afternoon and evening (it must have done well last week) and screens I Am Another You, in which filmmaker Nanfu Wang joins a drifter who is homeless by choice, on Monday evening..
  • .ArtsEmerson's Film Program hosts the "Wicked Queer Cinema Club" in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room on Friday as they screen Apricot Groves, in which an Armenian trans-man who has lived in the US since youth returns to his home country to meet his girlfriend's conservative family, connection with his brother along the way.

    Bright Lights uses that room for two documentaries this week: The Witness, on Tuesday, is presented with subject Bill Genovese and director James Solomon in attendance; Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive plays Thursday with director Adam Strange there. As always, Bright Lights is free to the public.

I'll see, like, none of this, as I'm out of town, although I'm about to go on a walking tour following the trail of The Third Man. Okay, at some point I'll probably see Thor with German subtitles.

Hearing-Impaired But Well Worth Seeing: A Silent Voice & Wonderstruck

I wasn't necessarily planning this as a themed cross-town double bill, in part because the obvious dobule feature was Geostorm and A Silent Voice at the Common with Wonderstruck being the "if time and T allows" bonus. Also, while I knew that both of these films had deaf kids as characters, I didn't know quite how central that would be. It turns out to be pretty important, but also far from their defining characteristic in both.

It was a pretty good thing I opted for both over the weekend, because it doesn't look like either will be around long enough to catch again after I return from vacation, with both being cut down to half a theater's screenings for the day at the multiplexes (and if the Coolidge is still giving Wonderstruck a full slate, I'm guessing that at least a few are in the video rooms). Of course, that feels like a bit of a victory for A Silent Voice - a second week for an animated foreign film is a pretty good showing - but kind of a bummer for Wonderstruck, which looked like it was getting a platform release, maybe looking for awards consideration. I think that the original novel is kind of a big deal, too, not Harry Potter-level popular but considered noteworthy when it came out a few years ago, especially since it hit at roughly the same time as the Hugo film.

Looking at both in terms of niece-appropriateness, I'm thinking they're both more for the 11-year old rather than her younger sister or cousins, and I'd probably recommend Wonderstruck more, and she might even dig it a little more since she learned some ASL when she was really little. Heck, she'd be getting it for Christmas if the release windows were shorter, and when I pre-order mine, I'll probably get one to save until her birthday next October.

Koe no katachi (A Silent Voice)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2017 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Redemption stories are hard, whether in fiction or real life, and this one probably has a tougher uphill climb than most, taking the perspective of a boy who bullied a deaf girl in elementary school and flipping it so that he winds up the outcast. It's not easy to get the audience behind him, especially when she is often the one still desperate for his interest and approval. Fortunately, A Silent Voice has time to get the audience there, even though it's easy to dig in and say you'll never forgive.

The film starts ominously, with 17-year-old Shoya Ishida (voice of Miyu Irino) putting his affairs in order in preparation for April 15th, the day he plans to jump off a bridge. He's shunned at school now, but he was a popular kid back in sixth grade, at least until the deaf but eager-to-please Shoko Nishimiya joined his class and was given the seat in front of him. Kids don't make accommodations well, and while most of the class talked about Shoko behind her back, Shoya was the worst, eventually ripping her hearing aids right out of her ears and eventually crossing a line that had Shoko transfer schools and the rest of his class turn on him. He's trying to be a better person now, stepping in when he sees classmate Tomohiro Nagatsuka (voice of Kenshio Ono) being bullied and trying to make amends to Shoko (voice of Saori Hayami). She seems receptive, but her sister Yuzuru (voice of Aoi Yuki) is very protective and not the only one suspicious of Shoya.

The rapprochement between Shoya and Shoko seems to happen awful fast, maybe with a step or two missing from the story (director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida seem to have a little trouble deciding where the present-day story should pick up). But, then, it's not like teenagers have ever made a whole lot of sense, and one thing A Silent Voice does right is to let its kids be changeable and over-emotional, way too willing to place blame in the wrong place. Eventually, the filmmakers come up with a way to make their unlikely connection work - it must be a hell of a thing to be that young and feel you've got such little worth - and they've played it out at just the right pace to make the audience go with it. Mostly, though, they do well in observing the mechanics of blame; the moment when young Shoya sees all the responsibility falling on him is true, as are later ones where people are trying to parse motivations in ways that will inevitably see them fall short.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2017 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

A couple of people in the audience for Wonderstruck were saying this wasn't a PG movie as we exited the theater, and, yeah, it's heavy at times, and I'm sure that my brother and sister-in-law are going to cringe at some of the scenes of 1977 New York when I give a copy to my niece for her 12th birthday next year, but she's a smart kid, and bright girls like her should be able to handle it. This movie is frequently sad and occasionally scary, but it's also ambitious and kind of terrific, the sort of smart entertainment middle-schoolers deserve.

It's built around two great, parallel performances, with Oakes Fegley as Ben, an orphaned boy who runs away to New York to learn about his the father he never met, and Millicent Simmonds as Rose, a girl the same age who did the same thing to see her absent mother fifty years earlier. Though both play hearing-impaired characters (with Simmonds herself Deaf), they are given very different approaches to their similar stories: There's a restlessness to Fegley's Ben, a chip on his shoulder that doesn't make him mean but does have him defensive quickly, and Fegley does a fine job of showing him on edge emotionally even if he can seem seem overly relaxed in how he deals with what seems like a dangerous world around him. He's got a great rapport with Jaden Michael, who plays the kid Ben meets in New York - the pair bring out their characters' curiosity, and Michael plays Jamie's more subtle loneliness as a muted but still keen reflection of Ben's.

Simmonds, meanwhile, plays a character who has been deaf since birth and isolated because of it, and as a result her defiance is more baked-in, her body language a bit stiff and like she's pushing through something. But even when she's doing that, there's a mischievous streak of creativity to her, a sense that concentrating on a problem or a discovery takes her away from the unfairness she must spend much of her time dealing with, and a genuine joy when she finds a situation where her disability is actually irrelevant, whether it be the wonders within New York's American Museum of Natural History or the brother who is genuinely fond of her. Simmonds often holds up her end of the movie without a lot of obvious help, especially since, with the exception of some fine work by Julianne Moore, the most recognizable folks in both halves (Moore, James Urbaniak, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan) are often in small but well-placed roles, with the kids carrying most of the film.

Full review on EFC.