Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The King

Went to this one right after the rally against the immigration/refugee ban at Copley Square on Sunday, which was a pretty good crowd, noteworthy for happening a stone’s throw from the site of the Marathon bombing. If Bostonians are going to protest in favor of refugees at the site of that event - which from the comments a lot of my movie-loving friends made about Patriot’s Day is still very much an open wound for many - I don’t know what the rest of America is afraid of.

In more immediately relevant terms of attendance, despite walking in at about five minutes before the start time, I found a small handful of people, but it must have filled in quick, because when I looked up at the end of the movie, it was a pretty full house for a Korean movie that often wasn’t even listed properly on a Sunday afternoon. It opened in Boston nine days after Seoul, which isn’t the fastest I’ve seen a movie come over (Train to Busan was a 2-day stagger), but it’s pretty good speed for a Korean movie that doesn’t have much in the way of name recognition for the cast and director and has some very specific material in it. Quick releases help!

Deoking (The King)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Not every epic film has a point-of-view character meant to help the audience approach the larger-than-life people at the center, and maybe The King doesn’t either. That’s the problem - the guy we follow just doesn’t do that much compared to the “king” of the title, but he seldom feels close to that man’s plans. It leaves the audience with a slickly made movie of great sweep that nevertheless keeps them at arm’s length.

It comes from the perspective of Park Tae-soo (Jo In-seong), who grew up in the town of Teolla-do but was inspired to become a prosecutor when he saw one utterly humiliate his tough-guy, small-time-crook father - that was power. He passes the bar, and eventually comes to the attention of Yang Dong-chul (Bae Seong-woo), who recruits him to the major case squad, where Han Kang-sik (Jung Woo-sung) stockpiles evidence of high-profile crimes that he can prosecute strategically later in a manner that consolidates his power, whether it be to protect gangster ally Kim Eung-soo (Kim Eui-song) or influence the result of Presidential elections. Tae-soo is a quick learner, making his own alliance with old classmate Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol), although eventually anti-corruption prosecutor Ahn Hee-yoon (Kim So-jin) gets wise to the pattern.

Some familiarity with South Korean history likely makes Han Kang-sik a bit more of an interesting figure; the country’s transition from a dictatorship to something more closely resembling a true democracy was gradual, and Han’s selective prosecutions might have been both what a dictatorship needs to function as well as the skills needed to rise within one. This is not a thread that comes up much during the film, aside from conversations about various Presidential candidates’ values, and as a result, Han plays as a somewhat bland villain - ruthless and capable, sure, but without any guiding motivation, and despite being portrayed as successful, he doesn’t seem to rise much. Jung Woo-sung sets his face in a demonic smirk while still portraying Han as someone not obviously monstrous to the outside world, but he’s never given the complexity that would make this “king” compelling.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Monster Fest 2016 03: Playground, Prevenge, Dearest Sister, Mondo Yakuza, Free Fire, The Windmill Massacre, etc.

Saturday was the longest day at Monster Fest, just the way it is at some other genre festivals, even without counting the overnight “Cult of Monster” marathon, which I passed on because, hey, my sleep schedule was going to be messed up enough as it was. That and because the rooftop screening looked like a cool thing to do. And while a six-film day is probably more ambitious than was good for me at this festival, they wound up being spaced out so that I could walk around, get some fish & chips, and otherwise keep the blood circulating.

Plus, the choices made for some fun moviegoing experiences:



Here’s the Q&A that followed Dearest Sister. Although my notes don’t include the moderator, that’s director Mattie Do in the center and Matthew Victor Pastor, who directed the short in front of it (“I Am Jupiter I Am the Biggest Planet” to the right. Both were pretty darn good movies, with both directors pretty fierce in talking about how important it was to them that they be of their place (Laos and the Philippines, respectively). It is not always easy shooting a movie there - I’m not sure how much of an industry Laos has at all - and they both talked about how Western outsiders who do so often come across as a bit condescending, especially around the subject of “sexpats” (and, yeah, there’s a portmanteau I never need to hear again).

That lovely gal down front is Wilma The Whippet, and she is the subject of the picture I most regret not getting at a film festival ever. Wilma is not Ms. Do’s dog - though she has two whippets that appeared in her film, bringing them from Laos to Melbourne for the festival would be logistically difficult - but instead belongs to festival founder Neil Foley, and she watched the film with him, from her own seat directly in front of me. She was exceptionally well-behaved, not barking once, even when the other dogs were on screen, and sitting up in apparent attention for the first half before lying down to rest. Exceptionally good dog, and I wish I’d gotten the shot of her sitting in the theater seat before the movie began.

Also, I love the Kickstarter reward you can see on the screen behind the filmmakers.

Cast and crew of Mondo Yakuza at Monster Fest 2016

You know this picture - the cast & crew of the locally-produced film that shows up to the festival en masse. In this case, it’s the makers of Mondo Yakuza, and my terribly handwritten notes indicate that, from left to right, we’re looking at the fight choreographer whose name I didn’t get down, producer Dylan Heath, actor Cris Cochrane, actress Skye Medusa, star/co-writer Kenji Shimada, director Addison Heath, actor/PA Simon Harcourt, PA Bill Clare, a luchador-masked member of the Screaming Meanies (who did the score), cinematographer Jasmine Jakupi, and my notes get worse from there. Clearly, I’m not a journalist who gets paid for this.

As you might expect, with a bunch of friends in the audience and a crazy movie, it was a somewhat chaotic Q&A, although you could get the gist of how this group makes a lot of movies together, grinding them out fast and trying to make each one a little better and more professional. Interestingly, they mentioned Mondo Yakuza has a distribution deal in Japan and they were looking forward to shooting a filmt here.



Finally, here’s the Lido’s rooftop cinema, which is a neat feature to have and a reminder that late November is late spring there. Not late-late spring - it was kind of chilly by 11pm, so I for one was rather grateful that there were blankets on many of these deck chairs - but certainly the part of the year where this was a regular part of the Lido’s schedule.

In some ways, it was kind of like an urban drive-in, right down to the soundtrack being piped out on a radio signal for which attendees were given receivers on the way in. I’ve to to admit, I’m now mildly curious as to which Boston-area places have flat roofs that could make this work, although I don’t know if the novelty is enough to fit it into the schedule (we’ve got a lot of 35mm midnights compared to the Blu-ray used here)

Anyway, it was a fun day that highlights what a neat festival this is. I almost wish I could make it part of my yearly rotation.

Plac zabaw (Playground)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

There’s a certain bravery to the way films like Playground transgress, although it’s a courage that is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be: The filmmakers are obliquely saying incendiary things to an audience that is inclined to search for such meaning and likely to agree with that which is being said, after congratulating themselves on enduring something that folks going to the cinema for mere entertainment wouldn’t. It impresses, it reveals a bit more under scrutiny, and yet, I honestly don’t know whether I’d recommend someone see it rather than just tell them about it.

It starts by focusing on Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), a smart and serious pre-teen in a small Polish town who has decided that today, the last day of school, is the day she’ll ask her classmate Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda) out. Szymek’s a good-looking class-clown type, the sort eleven-year-old girls like, and Gabrysia has everything she needs to do to not get him to blow it off. As the three prepare for school, Szymek has to help out his handicapped father, while his best friend Ozmek (Przemyslaw Balinski) complains about his baby brother. Gabrysia has a plan not to be blown off, although maybe she should be looking elsewhere.

It would be easy to writer/director Bartosz Kowalski to make Gabrysia the clear-cut protagonist of the film facing unfair rejection, but the fact that he doesn’t is kind of interesting: She’s pushy and demanding, not just ready to declare her affection but looking for a way to back Szymek into having to go out with her. When the film shifts to Szymek’s and Ozmek’s point of view, she comes off as snobby and entitled where before she might have just seemed socially odd, full of unevenly-distributed self-confidence. Michalina Swistun is impressive in giving Kowalski what he wants as perspective and circumstances shift - she’s never precocious in a cute, ingratiating way, but there’s nervousness to when she’s trying to be manipulative and sympathetic horror to her being called on it. Gabrysia is maybe not someone the audience is always behind, but she’s always interesting.

Full review on EFC.

Prevenge

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Given its title, I wonder if the script for Prevenge at one point had a more explicitly sci-fi angle at one point, playing out as something much more in line with The Terminator rather than taking a darker route where, if its murderous mother-to-be earns the audience’s forgiveness, it’s a much more troublesome decision. I’d kind of like to see that movie sometime, but Alice Lowe seems ideally suited for this take, and she sure as heck makes it interesting.

More than most movies, even those films conceived as the filmmaker’s own star vehicle, Prevenge is made by and for Lowe, and specifically at that time of her life: After writing the script, she directed and acted in this film when she was about seven months pregnant. I’m not sure I can recall a movie so built around the lead actress’s pregnancy in quite the way this one is before - even Absentia, if I recall correctly, is more a case of writing it into the script after casting rather than being integral enough that it was more a necessity for the shoot than a challenge - and doing so is admirably ambitious; I’m not sure how many women would deliberately schedule the intense grind of making an independent film for their third trimester. As much as it likely, in some small way, freed Lowe up from having to think about the physical aspects of the performance as opposed to simply playing the Ruth’s personality, she’s a talented enough actress that this particular bit of authenticity likely wasn’t critical.

On the other hand, it does give her instant credibility with an audience often willing to simplify the idea of pregnancy when she goes to dark places. Ruth, see, hears her unborn child’s voice, and it often tells her to kill, because some person or other will eventually do her harm. It’s a brilliant twist on the usual plot of impending motherhood teaching a woman responsibility and self-sacrifice, as what Ruth is facing is not just the loss of independence and personal pleasure - for Ruth, impending motherhood is not just a fear of being unable to measure up to other people (or alternately repeating her own mother’s mistakes), but utter uncertainty that she’s doing the right thing at all. How can someone like her be a decent mother, even if her motives are good? Have all the changes to her body and the hormones affecting her mind made her someone else, who still has all the flaws she started with?

Full review on EFC.

”I am JUPITER I am the BIGGEST PLANET”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

I’ve approached movies like “I Am Jupiter I Am the Biggest Planet” with some caution over the last few years, ever since Montreal’s Fantasia Festival concluded a FIlipino Cinema program with a hand-biting satire of the middle-class filmmakers there who make what folks call “poverty porn”, so it was good to see that this short film has much more than conspicuous commiseration to recommend it. It uses the slums of Manila and the wealthier people who scoop from there for their own gratification as a backdrop, but does so in the service of a tight story of people becoming dangerous when pushed to the brink.

Filmmaker Matthew Victor Pastor does a lot of clever things here - he introduces the characters at their own pace and lets the audience get to know them by their actions rather than talking themselves up, and he grounds the events in the location without making the film a polemic. There’s a bit of revenge fantasy to the film, and the contrast between realism and imagination is highlighted by the way he presents the film: It’s visually kind of flat and digital, consciously lacking a lot of fussy camerawork, but also very quiet, with what little speech there is presented as intertitles. It’s a fly-on-the-wall movie that is nonetheless very aware of its artifice, and generally uses both effectively.

Nong Hak (Dearest Sister)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

There’s no universal answer to how much attention should be paid to the living compared to the dead when crafting a ghost story, especially when you consider that a good one will do a great job in misdirecting the audience. Dearest Sister, for instance, puts the supernatural so near its center that it can easily look more important than it is, drawing conscious attention away from the more conventional material that it metaphorically extends. That’s kind of its job, and it does so successfully enough that it not making a lot of sense as a plot device can be quite forgivable.

Taking place in Laos, it inverts some of the traditional ways Westerners go about ghost stories. Nok (Amphiaiphun Phommapunya), for instance, heads into the city for her job working as a personal companion rather than to an isolated mansion. She’ll be helping her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) out where she can, as Ana is losing her sight and her Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) is frequently away on business. Nok is viewed with suspicion in both her new and old homes, with her immediate family thinking she’ll spend her time looking for a white fiance while Ana treats her country cousin as something between family and a servant, which makes the married couple who serve as maid (Manivanh Boulom) and gardener (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) even more hostile. It’s not exactly unwarranted, either; when Ana goes into trances and seems to see things from outside the normal world, Nok doesn’t shrink from exploiting those visions.

Nok arrives at Ana’s house quickly, too quickly to come across as a fish out of water, and that seems purposeful: The impression that forms with the audience is somebody between statuses; though she is actually in a pretty good position, she sees herself as potentially downgraded to a servant, and therefore needing to grab hold of the next level up to the extent that she can. Director Mattie Do and writer Christopher Larsen set the situation up in a way that seems so natural that it’s easy to sympathize with Nok even when she’s acting selfishly at first, with Amphaiphun Phommapunya always making sure that the audience sees how much of her can be explained as being young and in a new environment; her initial steps down a bad path come across as her being in over her head, keeping the audience with her enough to be invested in which way she’ll eventually lean.

Full review on EFC.

Mondo Yakuza

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

Mondo Yakuza isn’t quite an “amateurs making a movie for themselves and having fun” production with no commercial prospects, but it has that sort of energy, making it a fairly agreeable throwback to old-school grindhouse productions. I imagine that’s especially true if one’s old grindhouse played a lot of Seijun Suzuki, and in attempting to channel that particular Japanese auteur, these Aussie filmmakes have the room to push things pretty far and still not feel like parody, since what inspired them was so insane.

It starts rough, with a Japanese student telling her drug-dealer boyfriend that she doesn’t worry about danger too much, because her brother back home is yakuza and if anything happens to her, well, you know what would happen. The universe apparently sees that as too good a dare to ignore, so soon enough Ichiro Kataki (Kenji Shimada) is arriving in Australia, picking up a bunch of guns, and looking for the punk who killed his sister. That would be Ryan Beckett (Glenn Maynard), a raving thug who will inevitably wind up holed up in the home of his even more insane mother (Elizabeth O’Callaghan) with his at least comparatively sane brother Calvin (Rob Stanfield).

Though it’s got a vengeful yakuza injected into the middle of it, part of what makes this movie fun is that, while it doesn’t quite play as a spoof of contemporary Australian crime movies, it pretty clearly shares a lot of DNA with things like Chopper and Animal Kingdom (and likely dozens of others that didn’t make such a high-profile Pacific crossing), although it’s got the sort of over-the-top violence and characterization that more serious crime movies would pull back on. That’s actually a point in its favor at this budget level; fake blood is cheap to make and, let’s be honest, even if five not-great actors whose characters die gushing blood at regular intervals have the same amount of screen time as one guy with roughly the same talent in another movie, it’s more exciting and less wearing. The criminal day-to-day of the Beckett Boys isn’t particularly memorable, but it doesn’t completely feel like going through the motions, and the cast is at least given expansive personalities to play up rather than hanging blandly around until they can increase the body count. Rob Stanfield, in particular, brings out a lot of very entertaining frustration as the brother righteously angry that the family business, and likely his corpse, is going to get cut to pieces because his brother is a violent idiot.

Full review on EFC.

Free Fire

* * * ¾(out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Ben Wheatley has accumulated a cult fanbase by making films that strive to cut out the bits that aren’t in some way special, figuring that most people have seen enough movies to fill in the blanks or just go without if it means not seeing one more bloody scene of a local explaining his town’s weird history to the main character just because it’s going to play out later. At times, this gives his movies a thrill of discovery that they might not otherwise have; at its worst, this impulse can make movies like High-Rise seem perplexing and full of weirdos doing things at random. In Free Fire, it makes for a mainstream action movie that just doesn’t mess around, letting a crazy gunfight expand to fill almost the entire running time without making the audience wait around for the good parts.

The action takes place in 1978, where a number of lowlives have gathered in a Boston warehouse, looking to do an arms deal. Ord (Armie Hammer) is looking to buy, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is looking to sell, and former Fed Justine (Brie Larson) is brokering the deal. Seems easy enough, but the guns Vernon brought aren’t the model Ord was looking for, and one of Vernon’s guys, Harry (Jack Reynor), has a serious beef with Stevo (Sam Riley), one of Ord’s. That would be enough to get people to start shooting, even if a double-cross wasn’t already inevitable.

So they start shooting at each other, and really don’t stop until the movie ends; moments of conversation generally involve the participants hiding behind whatever may provide them cover, speaking sotto voce to the person next to them or yelling across the open space. This doesn’t make it a dumb action movie at all, it turns out - the script by Wheatley and partner Amy Jump is full of tremendously funny bits, nd while they may have a character yell out in the middle that he’s forgotten which side he’s on, the plotting is certainly tighter than they could have gotten away with. As is their tendency, these filmmakers focus on what’s interesting and exciting, understanding that the audience really doesn’t care that much about the lives of these characters outside this room and thus not wasting any time with flashback and the bare minimum on set-up, dropping enough of what a viewer needs to not be jolted out of the film by wondering why that person is doing that thing which doesn’t make sense without killing the momentum.

Full review on EFC.

”Hell of a Day”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas Rooftop (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

Though there are still a great many fans of post-apocalyptic scenarios, I’ve started to think that, unless the filmmaker has a genuinely creative way to use the situation as a metaphor for something else, I’d much rather see something like “Hell of a Day” than an extended slog through the end of the word: Give the audience a quick rush of gore and horror without giving it the time to get comfortable with what they’re seeing, and have them ready for the main feature within fifteen minutes. At this 15-minute scale, writer/director Evan Hughes can get the job done without the structure starting to feel hollow.

It’s a perfectly simple set-up - an injured girl played by Alexandra Octavia takes structure in an abandoned-looking inn, only to find that, no, she hasn’t left the living dead entirely behind, and trying to find a safe spot puts her in more danger. Hughes does a lot of things right here - the inn is a great setting whether he and the other filmmakers found it in a state of disrepair or dressed it up, dangerous-looking in its decay but also nightmarish for being a public gathering place so clearly bereft of people, for instance, and when things get bloody, he and make-up artist Liz Jenkins do not do things halfway; it’s genuinely gross. Octavia makes the audience believe that she might have the right attitude to react to the situation with the title, hardened and tough from getting through danger, but also weary and exhausted. And while the short doesn’t quite come full circle in the way that its makers seem to be aiming, it’s a nasty little puzzle box that clicks into place at the end.

The action and events of this movie could easily be the background for someone you see for ten minutes or less on The Walking Dead, and maybe that’s a part of what makes it fun - it reminds the viewer that the guys who wind up just being cannon fodder had their own horrific path to get there. It’s not deep, but it’s also not trying to stretch shallow until it looks deep, and that’s something for which a viewer can be grateful.

The Windmill Massacre (aka The Windmill)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas Rooftop (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

There are plenty of horror movies out there that try to do what the guys making The Windmill Massacre do, but in some ways that makes its relatively modest target harder to hit: While so many are trying to stand out from the pack by being consciously aware of the genre’s structure or trying to elevate themselves to something greater, Nick Jongerius and his collaborators just build something that wouldn’t be out of place in a gruesome EC comic book, and while that may preclude it from later being remembered as one of the era’s great, influential horror movies, it works well enough in the present tense.

Meet Julie - no, scratch that, meet Jennifer Harris (Charlotte Beaumont), who fled her native Australia for Europe a few months ago, although the family that hired her as a nanny has just found out about her fake ID. She flees, hopping on the “Happy Holland Tours” bus when it feels like the police are closing in. It looks like a pretty fly-by-night outfit, with a motley crew also departing from Amsterdam to tour the windmills: Jackson (Ben Batt), a soldier with PTSD; Ruby Rousseau (Fiona Hampton), a former model trying to reinvent herself as a photographer; Curt West (Adam Thomas Wright), a kid just taken out of school by his father Douglas (Patrick Baladi) and strangely unable to get his mother on the phone; Nicholas Cooper (Noah Taylor), a former surgeon; Takashi Kido (Tanroh Ishida), a Japanese tourist whose grandmother wanted her ashes spread in the Netherlands; and Abe (Bart Klever), the tour guide. One windmill not on the tour, where a madman ground murder victims rather than grain, is said to just be a legend, although when the bus breaks down and they can’t find cellular service…

Jongerius and his co-writers (Chris W. Mitchell & Suzy Quid) don’t exactly create the next great slasher villain in Miller Hendrik (Kenan Raven); he doesn’t have a great visual hook to define him or the sort of personality that could carry him into a second movie, and while sequel-readiness isn’t necessary in general for horror movies or practical for this one - his murder weapon is not exactly what you’d call portable, so a follow-up would have to be almost a remake with new tourists - it’s often a good way to measure how enthusiastic one is about the villain in the present tense. There’s enough to Hendrik that I suspect the filmmakers could flesh him out a little given the opportunity, but in this movie, he never really seems to come out of the background, even when the Jongerius gets past the point of cutting away just before the thing following someone attacks.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 January 2017 - 2 February 2017

Happy Lunar New Year! Is going to India for the holiday a big thing with folks in China this year? It seems like it is from the movies.

  • Consider, for instance, that Boston Common is opening both Buddies in India and Kung Fu Yoga this weekend. The former is the directorial debut of Wang Baoqiang, one of China’s biggest stars, who co-starred in Lost on Journey and Lost in Thailand; the latter has Jackie Chan reuniting with writer/director Stanley Tong for the first time in ten years. Both look seriously wacky, and as of Thursday night, some shows of Buddies are already sold out.

    If you like your Indian movies without a Chinese interloper,Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond continues the three subtitled films they opened Wednesday: Singam 3, Raees, and Kaabil with Boston Common also picking up the Hrithik Roshan/Yami Gautam blind-couple-romance. They also get Telugu-language film Luckunnodu for the weekend, with Dangal returning on Saturday.

    Back at Boston Common, there’s also The King, making the jump from South Korea to North America after just nine days, with Jo In-seong as an ambitious and talented young prosecutor in the 1990s and Jung Woo-sung as “the king” of prosecutors that the rest aspire to be.
  • Those Asian films are not the multiplexes’ primary attractions, of course, although the January doldrums seem to be in full effect. The big opening is Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, with director Paul W.S. Anderson and wife Milla Jovovich making their sixth entry in an increasingly insane action-horror-sci-fi series (with the last couple featuring some pretty great visual/3D work). It’s at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan’s Furniture (Imax 3D), Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), and Revere (including MX4D and XPlus).

    More obvious dumps include A Dog’s Purpose, in which a kid’s dog gets reincarnated several times to new masters before finally reuniting with the same boy, only Dennis Quaid-aged. Seeing the Amblin’ logo in front of that awful trailer is genuinely confusing. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. There’s also Gold, with Matthew McConnaughey as a small-time prospector who gets on the trail of a great strike in Indonesia; it’s at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Revere also gets Un Padre No Tan Padre, in which an old-school Mexican patriarch gets kicked out of his retirement home and winds up moving in with his son. Revere and Fenway also screen Dirty Dancing on Sunday and Wednesday

    Awards expansions and re-expansions include (but may to be limited to): Arrival at Boston Common and Assembly Row; Jackie at Boston Common; Moonlight at the Somerville and Assembly Row; Manchester By the Sea at Assembly Row and Fenway; and Lion at Fenway; and 20th Century Women at the Somerville. A sing-along version of Moana also pops up at the Capitol (weekend matinees only), Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.
  • The Brattle Theatre has two threads going this week. The main event is Dead of Winter, a week-long celebration of the cinema of the occult, with panels on Friday and Saturday and a general focus on witchcraft. Films include The Witch (Friday & Saturday), Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions (Friday 35mm), The Love Witch (Saturday), Belladonna of Sadness (Saturday), a Sunday double feature of Bell, Book & Candle & Season of the Witch (35mm), a 35mm pairing of Night of the Demon & Burn Witch, Burn on Tuesday, the combo of The Devil Rides Out & The Devils (the latter on 35mm) Wednesday, and finally a The Holy Mountain (on 35mm)/A Field in England twin bill Sunday.

    Amid all that, they’re also showing the full seven-hour version of O.J.: Made in America over the weekend in association with The DocYard, with Part 1 on Saturday afternoon, part 2 on Sunday afternoon, and both repeated Monday afternoon before the conclusion plays Monday night with director Ezra Edelman there for a Q&A.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square keep their schedule the same, although the Coolidge has some special events. The Friday/Saturday midnight in Slap Shot, one of the funniest sports movies ever made, on 35mm. The Science on Screen program Monday night is also on 35mm, with Dr. Catherine Dulac lecturing on the chemistry of love and attraction before the screening of A Fish Called Wanda.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Paz Encina to introduce two of his movies - Paraguayan Hammock (35mm) on Friday evening and Memory Exercises on Saturday. After that, they return to their Jonas Mekas retrospective, with Going Home on 16mm Sunday afternoon, a set of 16mm shorts that evening, and Sleepless Nights Stories on Monday. They also have a free screening of a group of Super 8, 16mm, and video shorts - ”Mirage: The Films of Ana Mendieta” on Thursday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has yet more of their Festival of Films From Iran on Wednesday, including Drought & Lies (Friday/Sunday), A Dragon Arrives (Friday/Sunday), Starless Dreams (Saturday), and Me (Saturday). The February program starts Wednesday, with series featuring Stanley Kubrick (The Killing in 35mm on Wednesday & Thursday) and Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies on Wednesday)
  • The ICA has a family film program as part of their “Play Date” on Saturday, and the annual screening of Sundance Film Festival Shorts on Sunday and Thursday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has two special screenings this week: On Monday, Birth of a Movement chronicles the early protests against D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, with panel discussion afterward; the entire evening is free to the public. Another documentary, After Spring, plays the next night; it focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis.
  • The Regent Theatre has a Gathr screening of Embrace, a documentary on body-shaming, on Monday, as well as a free screening of Screenager with panel discussion on Wednesday
  • I missed the Bright Lights series starting up again this past week, but it’s got a couple of notable documentaries playing, as always, for free in the Bright Lights screening room at Emerson’s Paramount Theater. Newtown, focusing on the aftermath of the 2012 school shooting, plays Tuesday and includes discussion with director Kim Snyder. On Thursday, Ana DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th plays; this is likely one of the few chances to see it on the big screen.
  • This week’s thing only playing at CinemaSalem is Trespass Against Us, featuring Michael Fassbender as a man seeking to escape the mob led by his father (played by Brendan Gleeson).

Well, lots of Asian films to see this weekend, lots of award-worthy catch-up, and… well, we all know I’m down for Resident Evil 6. I’m not proud.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

This Week In Tickets: 9 January 2017 - 15 January 2017

Eventually, these will come earlier in the week, but it's been nuts.

This Week in Tickets

The difference between the new apartment and where I was last year doesn't seem like much, but it's just chilly enough that I'm not knocking movies off at the Somerville Theatre like I was before. So, all I managed this week was Jackie, which was an interesting sort of thing.

Similarly, I haven't wound up getting to as much of the Busby Berkley program at the Harvard Film Archive as I've planned, but the double feature (with bonus cartoon!) of short-ish films was too tempting to resist that night, so I caught "Night World" and Fast and Furious, which had nothing to do with speeding cars.

Saturday was spent catching up on other things, but also involved sleeping in too late to catch the early show of A Monster Calls that was the only time it was playing locally on its second weekend. Not bad, and, as a bonus, it let out at just the right time to turn around and see Hidden Figures right afterward. You can tell that they fit into the same niche (mostly family-friendly movies meant to both gather awards and get crowds) from how they both had just about exactly the same trailer package attached.

Then, one afternoon of errands and such later, I went in to the Brattle to see Train to Busan, which I had loved at Fantasia and found to hold up pretty darn well.

Jackie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

Jackie is a weird one, but that is sort of the point - while the loss of a loved one will leave anybody at sea, losing a husband in such a public, horrifying fashion, and then being expected to be the public face of the country's grief while having the basic details of her life upended in ways that other widows don't. It's got to be a disorienting experience, and the filmmakers heighten that by cutting back and forth in time, switching up the cinematography, and sometimes seeming to present First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as three different people.

It's her job as presenting Jackie that way that makes Natalie Portman's portrayal fascinating. The devastated, hollowed-out version of the woman in the immediate aftermath of the assassination is the most raw and, in some ways, most unfiltered, but there's something downright amazing about how she and director Pablo Larrain, though building the film around a framing sequence that suggests the title character is very much in control of her public image, still manages to come off as unaware and uncertain during her time in the White House and after the assassination, leaving the audience curious about whether this moment crystalized who she was or whether she had been playing at being less capable than she was. Portman is masterful with all that, capturing her odd way of speaking and genuine uncertainty, showing this woman as both very easy to relate to and in an entirely different world.

"Night World"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 35mm)

The HFA programmed "Night World" as part of a program with another short feature and a cartoon, and that's probably the best way to see it. It's a slight thing, less than an hour, but with enough plot threads that there's not much time to do much with many of them, especially because there's a few Busby Berkeley dance bits in there too. For all that it's got a bit of everything, it feels a bit too small and lightweight for a feature film. It's not wholly satisfying, but it can be a fun part of an evening at the movies,1932-style.

And it's got a fun cast in the main parts: Lew Ayres plays a young heir whose father was recently killed, and Mae Clarke the chorus line girl who takes a shine to him and tries to keep him from falling apart. They're cute. What's really fun, though, is Boris Karloff as the club owner/manager; he'd just had his first turn as Frankenstein's monster the year before, but it hadn't yet consumed his career. Here, he's the likable manager of the club, kind of paternal toward Ruth but involved in something dangerous around the margins and suspecting that his wife is cheating on him; it almost seems like a glimpse of another direction his career could have gone. And then there's Clarence Muse as the doorman. Most of Muse's career is uncredited train porters, and he's playing that sort of uneducated servant here, but he's got a meatier character, observant and worried about his wife in the hospital, giving an experienced counterpoint to the younger cast.

The short running time sometimes feels like things have been left out, and it comes home to roost at the end, when the light melodrama gets nuts and violent. It's weird, since most of what leads to it is missing, and the plotting gets dumb, rather than just thin. This sort of B-movie is meant to be disposable and have the audience immediately move onto something else, which is good enough.

"Puzzled Pals"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 16mm)

Did you know there was another "Tom & Jerry" cartoon series before MGM and Hanna-Barbera created a certain cat and mouse? No? There's good reason for that, if "Puzzled Pals" is indication; they're not very good. Not stunningly bad, but like a lot of animation from the early thirties, kind of unnatural in its bouncy movement, tending to draw out gags and lean on the soundtrack. In this case, the jokes aren't great, so the short isn't either.

It's kind of interesting, though, with its opening featuring a stork finding itself turned away from every house claiming to be quarantined or full-up; though you can often see a certain darkness creeping in around the edges of these Depression-era cartoons, it's seldom that direct. It leads to a few goofy jokes about the unwanted baby winding up in the home of brothers/buddies/whatever Tom & Jerry, and disrupting their attempt to put together a jigsaw puzzle, which... Well, it isn't much of a story, and as the really great folks at Disney, Warner, and Fleischer would later show, the formula for animated success often has much more distinctive characters than this pair doing something that maybe doesn't have a huge arc, but at least provides a bit more of a moment of satisfaction than "Puzzled Pals" does.

Fast and Furious

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Busby Berkeley Babylon, 16mm)

No fast cars in this "Fast and Furious" movie; it, instead, is the second sequel to Fast Company, a 1938 mystery comedy in the vein of The Thin Man. All three films were written by Harry Kunitz, who wrote the original novel, with this one directed by Busby Berkeley, though it lacks his signature dance numbers. It's a demonstration of how tempting it must have been to recreate The Thin Man, and how hard it is: Those films floated on the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, but the "Fast" movies recast their married sleuths with each film, apparently never finding the right pair.

Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern, the actors playing married booksellers Joel & Garda Sloane in this version, don't get much in the way of good material to work with here. The actual mystery plot, once it gets started - a beauty pageant promoter murdered, with any number of mobsters, partners, and lovers potentially suspects - is actually pretty decent, even if it does have a few weird shifts in whether people are suspects are not. It's the comedy parts that don't really work; most are just absurdly broad, and while those are kind of funny at times, the bits getting the Sloanes to the crime scene, with Joel acting like a dope trying to hide that he's invested in a beauty pageant and been named a judge, then being even more ridiculous when any beautiful woman crosses his path. There's further goofiness involving a lion tamer, another example of how what seems like an easy sell as a joke can be deceptively difficult to pull off.

So, all told, it's kind of a pale imitation. Although, to be fair, I may possibly be docking it half a star for repeated use of the phrase "bathing beauties" in the dialogue. You can caption a photograph, but it sounds ridiculous coming out of someone's mouth in 2017, and probably sounded just as silly in 1939.

Hidden Figures

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

It is very encouraging, really, to see a movie about black ladies doing math and programming computers doing well at the box office; it is the sort of thing that one sometimes expects and fears won't be popular with the general population. Heck, I was surprised just how large and crowded the theater in which it was playing was. It just goes to show you, though, that a good movie on an interesting subject will sometimes get people in the theaters.

A movie about "doing math" is almost certainly going to come off as dull, and truth be told, director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schoeder (working from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly) don't spend a whole lot of time on just what sort of calculations the "computers" played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer do, especially when the job involves creating new kinds of math, although it's impressive that their skills do not come across as generic: Henson's Katherine Johnson is skilled with raw math and physics, Monáe's Mary Jackson tends toward engineering, and while Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan starts out as mostly management but soon learns FORTRAN. It's not technical, but it gives the audience a feel for the work without getting bogged down in it, and reinforces just what an accomplishment the space program was.

It's also a civil rights picture, of course, albeit a very genteel one; PG-rated and with the ladies facing adversaries that range from people who just haven't considered that these women might be good at math to those who are clearly prejudiced but not entirely overt about it, not the sort that poses danger to life and limb. It's mild, poking at how absurd and counter-productive the racism and sexism they face rather than venting anger. It's something that is a bit out of the ordinary these days, but lets it work as a aspirational story.

The cast is certainly nice, though, certainly helping Melfi make things move smoothly. Henson takes center stage, doing a fine job of portraying Johnson as someone who can easily get lost in numbers but also a grounded and likable family woman, with Spencer and Monáe not playing foils but providing different sorts of contrast as practical, witty friends who nevertheless have their own stories rather than being sidekicks. And while Kevin Costner must be getting kind of grumpy about playing the guy that needs to learn minorities are just as good as white folks, his natural scorn for nonsense makes a good counterpoint.

Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves, DCP)

It is really gratifying to see that a thing one liked at a festival holds up, and, man, does Train to Busan ever hold up. It's a thrilling, exciting zombie movie that doesn't necessarily create anything new, but stages a couple of great action sequences, and a better set of emotional cores for its ensemble cast than most. It was also especially fun to watch it with a better handle on the connections with Seoul Station than I had the first time.

Plus, after the disappointment of Railroad Tigers, it's good to be reminded that putting action on a train makes it 28% better.

Full review (from Fantasia) on EFC.


Jackie
Night World & Fast and Furious
A Monster Calls
Hidden Figures
Train to Busan

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 January 2017 - 26 January 2017

This week’s new releases include a return, a resurrection, and what many are calling a return to form, Not a bad haul, all told, for a January weekend.

  • The “return” would be xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, with Vin Diesel somehow resurrecting a character that was killed off for the first sequel and bringing along one heck of a fun international cast for the ride, including Donnie Yen, Deepika Pakukone, Tony Jaa, Kris Wu, and Nina Dobrev, with Samuel L. Jackson looking much less obviously Nick Fury-ish now that he’s playing the real deal over at another studio. This one is done up in Imax and 3D, and opens at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan’s (Imax 3D), Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), Revere (including MX4D and XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    The return to form, hopefully, is M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, featuring James McAvoy as a man with over twenty personalities, one of whom kidnaps a trio of teenage girls (including The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and holds them captive. Having liked The Visit and even some of Shyamalan’s lesser-loved films, I’m enjoying his take on lower-budget horror. It’s at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Then there’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, which looks like a faith-based comedy (with the title character a washed up actor who must pretend to be a devout Christian to get a job in a local church’s passion play), but if so, it’s a weird group to be making it: WWE Studios and BH Tilt (Blumhouse’s alternate label). That’s at Boston Common. In terms of awards expansion, Hidden Figures opens up at the Studio Cinema in Belmont, La La Land comes to the Coolidge, and 20th Century Women adds West Newton, Fenway, and Revere.
  • Another film expected to be an Oscar contender (as it was pushed from August to a Christmas platform release, although it was already out in Australia when I was there) is The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who saw the potential in a California drive-in by the name of “McDonalds” and built it into a global empire. That’s at Kendall Square, West Newton, Boston Common, and Revere. They also get Paterson, the most recent from Jim Jarmusch, featuring Adam Driver as a working-class poet.
  • Tower opens at The Brattle Theatre, and while I didn’t find time to write it up after seeing it at Fantasia last summer, it’s kind of terrific, an animated documentary about a 1966 spree killing at the University of Texas, the one that created the idea of a madman picking people off from a clock tower. Presenting this as animation allows director Keith Maitland to recreate the event without it seeming tacky, really allowing the horror to affect the audience. It mostly gets a regular run, although (already sold-out) screenings of Sailor Moon R - The Movie play Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, while another documentary, An Aquarium in the Sea, plays Monday with special guests, presumably including some of the Ukrainian refugees who created the stage show in a synthetic language at the center of the film. Note that there are also no shows on Tuesday.
  • This weekend’s midnight movie at The Coolidge Corner Theatre is Rocky IV, which establishes crucial backstory for Creed. Friday and Saturday nights, on 35mm film. If early morning is more your speed, there’s a Talk Cinema presentation of Land of Mine at 10am Sunday, with Applause director Martin Zandvliet telling the story of German POWs during World War II being forced to dig up the land mines that their army placed in Denmark. They also have a special screening of Disturbing the Peace on Tuesday, with director Steve Apkon and produce Marcina Hale doing a Q&A after their documentary on former Israeli and Palestinian combatants who have joined together to work for peace, while Thursday will feature a work-in-progress exhibition of Soul Winter - The Brookline Holocaust Witnesses’ Project.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond gets indie [My] Bakery in Brooklyn (apparently dropping the first word of its title to show up closer to the top of VOD menus), with Aimee Teegarden and Krysta Rodriguez as young women who inherit their aunt’s bakery but have very different ideas of how to run it, so they divide it in half and compete for customers.

    On Wednesday, they shake up their Indian schedule by adding three movies: Singam 3 is a Tamil-language action movie featuring Suriya’s third go-round as righteous detective Durai Singam (note: Singham Returns, the movie I disliked a couple of years ago that seems to be the same series, is actually from the Bollywood version of the character; different thing). Raees is a Bollywood crime thriller starring Shah Rukh Khan, and a second Bollywood movie, Kaabil features Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam as two blind people who fall in love.
  • The Harvard Film Archive starts a new retrospective on Friday, with Scenes from the Life of a Happy Man: TheFilms of Jonas Mekas celebrating the Lithuanian-American who was a crucial part of avant-garde cinema. This week’s selections are on 16mm, with Lost Lost Lost Friday night and The Brig Sunday afternoon. Around those, it’s the conclusion of Busby Berkely Babylon, with Whoopee! (Saturday 7pm on digital video), Varsity Show (Saturday 9pm on 35mm), Gold Diggers of 1937 (Sunday 7pm on 35mm), and For Me and My Gal (Monday 7pm on 35mm).
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their Festival of Films From Iran on Wednesday this week; selections include 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds wtih Abbas Kiarostami (Friday/Sunday, including a new short by Kiarostami); Lantouri (Saturday/Wednesday); Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Saturday/Wednesday); Radio Dreams (Sunday); Starless Dreams (Thursday); and Me (Thursday)
  • The Regent Theatre has a very quick run (four screenings total on Friday, Satuday, and Sunday) of Reset, a documentary following choreographer Benjamin Millepied during his time as the Director of Dance at the Paris Opera House. That has to be a stage name, right - a dance pro with a name meaning “thousand feet” seems a bit too good to be true.
  • Is The Call us Monsters the movie - a documentary about violent teenage offenders in California’s prison system - that finally gets me out to CinemaSalem? Probably not, but if you want to see it in the Boston area, that’s where you’ll have to go.

My plan is to actually get out to the movies this weekend, checking out XXX3, Split, Silence, and maybe The Founder. Tempted to check out Tower again, too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Monster Calls

This may not be a great movie, but I’m kind of surprised by how quickly it’s coming and going - opening in Boston on the 6th, it was down to one show a day at the theaters that kept it on for a second week, and not just matinees, but in the case of the two local AMC theaters showing it, early matinees - before 11am, which means relatively cheap $6.99 tickets, but also screams of just keeping it around out of something close to obligation. All the theater employees were wearing shirts promoting the movie, and there was apparently some sort of bonus point thing going on for Stubs members through the second weekend, so it would be bad form to boot the film before then.

It’s kind of surprising to me that it came and went so quickly - the previews were good, it’s got some people that you’d think would draw attention in Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, and Sigourney Weaver, and it’s an idea that seems easy enough to grasp. Then again, it sometimes seems as if people just don’t want impressive visual effects paired with something other than flat-out entertainment, like there’s a presumption that they hit two parts of the brain that aren’t just different, but incompatible. I seem to recall that director J.A. Bayona’s previous film had a bit of that going on - The Impossible was grandly shot and beautiful, but not the sort of obviously-uplifting sort of thing that folks want from that kind of tale of survival.

Still, Bayona makes great looking movies, and ambitious ones, so I wonder about him being the guy to do the follow-up to Jurassic World - is that going to make the movie more interesting or have him doing something disposable? I’m not sure, but it will be interesting to see.

A Monster Calls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

I don’t think we’ve quite reached a point where what a filmmaker can do with the technology at his or her disposal is so simultaneously incredible and accessible that it can be taken for granted, but it’s certainly easier to become jaded. The first half-hour or so of A Monster Calls, for instance, offers constant delight in not just the obvious fantasy elements director J.A. Bayona and his crew put on the screen, but just how carefully and beautifully everything else in the film is constructed; by the end, one will quite likely find oneself taking that for granted. As good, sincere, and capable as their efforts are, one can still get detached and wonder if it’s enough.

To no longer amaze as the film approaches the finish is probably a deliberate choice on Bayona’s part, and the confidence behind it is admirable: If he’s making the movie he wants to make, then the audience should be fully invested emotionally with the characters by the end, to the point where he needs to be worried that the spectacle he used to draw the viewer in might prove a distraction. So when the script by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the original novel) moves the characters from one house to another, the new place doesn’t seem quite so lovingly constructed and designed, the exteriors have less of a strong sense of place, and the final story that the monster of the title tells is not animated as the others are. The film does not abandon its fantasy elements, but it de-emphasizes them in a way that has clear intent.

The question then becomes whether the story is worth that trade-off, and it’s not quite all the way there. The basic premise of it isn’t bad - as the mother (Felicity Jones) of 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) fights a losing battle with cancer, he sees the ancient yew tree in a nearby churchyard come to life as a monster (voice of Liam Neeson). The cast of characters surrounding him - a sadistic bully (James Melville), a stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a friendly but uninvolved father (Toby Kebbell) - is a good one. But the getting things together often seems arbitrary enough to put off full involvement: When the monster shows up and announces he’s going to tell three stories and then Conor will tell him a fourth, it’s a weird enough demand for the filmmakers to have Conor remark upon it, and they never do make it seem natural, especially as a part of Conor’s subconscious. He’s not quite that imaginatively clever, and while the viewer can see the film stretching to connect storytelling and art to dealing with real-life turmoil, that connection remains just elusive enough that, when it’s supposed to be the emotional foundation of the climax, it’s just short.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

This Week In Tickets: 2 January 2016 - 8 January 2016

Let's try this again in the new year, after not really making it into February in 2016.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Beyond the Gates, 5 January 2017 in my living room.

So, yeah, things got away from me last year, which means I'm going to be following a few more rules to make sure things get done and the process is enjoyable. Number one: When I start falling a week or two behind, I'm accepting that I can't keep up, and not writing stuff up in full. Number two: I'm trying to see and write far less out of "well, someone on the site has to" obligation than before. If eFilmCritic doesn't have a review of a new release, or I can't keep up with a festival schedule, it's okay. I'll post something every day or two, and spend less time worrying about how to get all 70+ movies I see at Fantasia written up.

That said - I do want EFC to cover as much as it can, and encourage anyone who would like to write for it to submit a sample. There's no money, and that ancient-looking page is kind of indicative of what you're looking at behind the scenes, but it probably gets you more hits than your (or my) blog and is pretty helpful in getting credentialed for festivals.

So, okay, how was that first week?

Well, okay, it didn't start off well. La La Land is a pretty decent movie, but I got pretty nauseous for unrelated reasons during the screening and wound up puking twice on the way home. I felt ill enough to work from home the next day, and then instead of going out decided to catch up with Beyond the Gates on demand the next night. I'd conked out while watching it at Monster Fest but kind of liked what I saw enough to give it a second chance.

Feeling better on Friday, I checked out the new Jackie Chan movie, Railroad Tigers, finding it somewhat disappointing, but then being pleasantly surprised that Master, intially only listed as playing at 10am, had a full slate of showtimes. It turned out to be pretty decent, and has a heck of a good Korean cast.

And that was it; I had a lazy Sunday reading piled-up comics and emptying the DVR. There will come a point this year when I'm seeing and writing about movies constantly, but not just yet.


La La Land
Beyond the Gates
Railroad Tigers
Master

Friday, January 13, 2017

Monster Fest 2016.02: Autohead, A Dark Song, Beyond the Gates, Night gallery shorts, etc.

To what extent was I still on east-coast-of-North-America rather than east-coast-of-Australia time here? I zonked out for close to two complete features at the end of the day, to various levels of regret. Beyond the Gates at made enough of an impression of being a nifty horror movie that I would later rewatch it via VOD (maybe not the greatest idea), but I could not tell you anything about Dead Hands Dig Deep under the most effective combination of torture and hypnotherapy you can imagine. Kind of a shame, as the folks who came out for it really liked it - and it was a pretty impressive crowd for a documentary of an obscure American metal band in Australia. Then again, metal really travels sometimes; there’s a hard core that is fascinated by metal around the world. The filmmakers had some pretty crazy stories to tell, as well.

So did these guys:

Short filmmakers at Monster Fest

From left to right, you’ve got short film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Secretions” director Goran Spoljaric, and “Tanglewood” director Jordan Prosser. Very friendly group of locals, and I regret that I don’t have a lot more to say about their individual films a month and a half later. Both were effusive about their casts and crews, with Prosser especially proud of the caliber of people that they got to go out in the woods to shoot.

Autohead

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

There are a few moments in documentary-style drama Autohead when somebody asks either the filmmakers or the subject just why they would be making a movie about this guy, and it would probably help matters a bit if they had some sort of ready answer. The most likely one is that they were looking for exactly the thing they got, a glimpse at something ugly and potentially dangerous, but there are only hints of that, although the "ugly and dangerous" part is well-done.

The subject of their documentary is Narayan, a Mumbai rickshaw cab driver who, in addition to the regular business of bringing random customers from point A to point B, has a regular enough customer in call girl Rupa to be referred to as her pimp, and a spots crush as well. He shares a single room with the less outgoing Mohan and two others who are currently visiting their home village. This is not exactly impressive to his visiting mother, and while he seems fairly relaxed in front of the cameras, that visit may have him a bit on edge.

The first scene of the film doesn't quite set the tone, but it points the audience in the general direction that things will go, with Rupa finding the idea of anyone doing a movie about Narayan bizarre - he's no Salman Khan, after all - and most of the gag at the moment being her half-flirting with the crew, implying that they would find he a much more interesting and glamorous subject. Her casually disdainful comments about Narayan quickly inform the portrait of the man, and it is a somewhat familiar one, the sort of guy who seldom refers to a woman as anything but "bitch" but takes her interest in him for granted. His problems aren't entirely with women; he often seems an indifferent cabbie who half-heartedly tries to run up his fares, but it's women that he most feels able to intimidate. He's hardly unique in this, as seemingly everyone in Mumbai tries to establish dominance in every confrontation, but he's the one who pushes it the farthest when he can and folds otherwise.

Full review on EFC.

"Max"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

"Max" is the sort of horror short where I'm not sure whether expanding it a bit would allow some sort of connecting mythology emerge or would just see filmmaker Ryan Paturzo-Polson glue more bits on, all of which could certainly be a part of its premise even if none seem absolutely essential. It's one of those things where there's no reason why the creepy shadow can't become a boy's imaginary friend and can't then see his pregnant mother as a target, but building a situation that can happen that way is easy - one makes one's own rules when telling supernatural stories, after all - one that feels like it must happen that way is a trickier thing.

This one does, at least, have a nice performance by Lee McClenaghan as the quite reasonably alarmed mother; it's not necessarily easy to build from being amiable (even if she is the serious one in the family) through increasing fright to the sort of panic that seems well-earned to the audience but excessive to her husband in just down minutes. She's the glue that holds a somewhat makeshift ghost story together when the rest is kind of random but decent pieces.

A Dark Song

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Tales of the supernatural naturally tend to rely on a lot of hand-waving when it comes to details, both because their audiences often kind of want things to be able to come out of nowhere and because more detail will inevitably bump up against the audience's basic suspension of disbelief, because this stuff isn't real and each bit of explanation is a potential spot where the viewer no longer buys it. It's especially tricky when the movie needs an expert who can't really show his or her expertise beyond results, at least most of the time. That A Dark Song attempts to buck that trend, building a whole movie around the process and logic of working with the supernatural, would make it interesting even if it wasn't also a tense drama.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is not an expert on the supernatural herself, although she knows enough about what she plans to do to rent a house to certain specifications for a year in anticipation of the arrival of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), a modern-day Gnostic mystic who has, he says, attempted the rituals she is requesting three times, succeeding once. Her quest to once again hear her dead child's voice will not be easy - it will likely at least require six months of total commitment where neither can leave the house, with lessons on the Kabbalah and repeated rites filling their time. Not exactly an exciting sabbatical in concept, its very nature meaning that each is sharing space with a stubborn, demanding housemate, but Solomon warns of dire consequences of either crosses the salt line drawn around the building's perimeter.

Writer/director Liam Gavin needn't go into a whole lot of detail where all the magical details are concerned, although he peppers the film with enough that the audience will recognize the various fragments as things which have power - symbolic shapes, numbers which have meaning in their interactions, blood sacrifices, abstinence which turns one's focus inward. How accurately this reflects actual Gnosticism, I don't have the expertise to say, but even if it doesn't, there's something to be said for making it a sort of folklore stew, not aligned with any specific religious tradition, because for the purposes of this movie, magic has to be hard, something that requires extensive study and concentration, rather than working as a short cut. To go through with this requires a sort of mania, not a moment of transcendent emotion.

Full review on EFC.

"The Home"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

Apparently "The Home" is going to be expanded to feature length, and that sounds like pretty good news. At about eight minutes long, with some time taken to establish the setting, it seems like it has barely started to get going before its heroines have been overwhelmed. There is an awfully good supernatural siege movie to be made when you combine the snowy isolation of an Irish Catholic home for unwed pregnant women, the vulnerability and highly-motivated nature of the potential victims, some monsters who might look even better with a bigger visual effects budget, and a nice cast.

Indeed, it's the time for smaller moments that impresses me the most - there is not really a lot of time to get to know the cast of characters, and on a certain level not a lot of point, as some aren't going to be around very long at all, but there's a lived-in reality to the setting and a careful consideration of how arbitrary the disruption is that makes the whole thing work. That brevity isn't ideal, and not just because director L. Gustavo Cooper handles things well enough that I want to see more - things do feel rushed. But there's something impressively solid here, and I really do hope to see it built out.

"Det Sjunkne Kloster " ("The Sunken Convent")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

Well, that was nasty.

It's interesting to see "The Sunken Convent" right after "The Home", because while the former seemed to use its eye for detail to build connections and draw the audience in, this one attempts to use detail to isolate and unnerve, focusing on a man (Claus Flygare) with peculiar and grotesque habits, mostly eschewing dialogue to highlight how unconnected he is. It's not quite so effective; while it certainly gets a reaction from even those not inclined to be squeamish, the details tend to be little more than side ornamentation for the story, which peters out a bit after one final bid on filmmaker Michael Panduro's part to be transgressive, with the act of transgression seeming like the point rather than a tool to push into challenging territory.

Sure, that final bit is some memorable nastiness, but it's just one more ugly thing in a line of them, rather than the awful culmination of what's come before.

"The Puppet Man"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

John Carpenter's late-career transformation into a touring musician, digging out the "Lost Themes" for movies he hasn't been able to make (he has only directed two featues in the twenty-first century), will likely seem peculiar to me no matter how many horror fans I know treating him like a rock star; it seems like a weird consolation prize, even as more folks are doing blatantly Carpenter-inspired material. I doubt these two trends can cross-pollinate more completely than here, where writer/director Jacqueline Castel goes for a Carpenter-style film using those Carpenter tracks as her score and with the man actually doing a cameo.

It's some pretty basic slasher stuff, with a group of college kids choosing the wrong bar to stop in - as in, the one with a freaky spree-killer in the back room. I have to admit, Johnny Scuotto's Puppet Man didn't really work the gimmick that well for me, but he's certainly an energetic slasher, with Bradley Bailey making a good front man, and while he and the ill-fated quartet of potential victims are occasionally kind of rough performance-wise, there's a genuine grindhouse nastiness to the movie that extends beyond the faux-grain and pastiche elements.

"Inferno"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

I'm not sure if it's fair to talk about a twist in "Inferno" as being obvious or predictable, although I sometimes feel like I should talk to a filmmaker friend or two about how much they consider the fact that these short films will likely be shown at genre film festivals or as part of horror blocks, and whether that challenges them to build things in such a way that audiences have to attack it with the understanding of how these things usually go firmly in mind. As soon as characters start using the same vague phrasing again and again, the "twist" becomes clear.

So writer/director Dionne Copland kind of has to play things in such a way that convinces us that it maybe won't go in the typical horror-short direction. A good chunk of that comes from having a very likable pair of leads: Lee Booker is charming as heck as Bambi, the girl working her first night at the strip club, not so naive as this character is usually played, with Dallas Petersen doing the same as Jason, the youngest of a group of fraternity brothers. Copland does a neat job, mostly following Bambi and the girls and having Jason and his group intersect with them at various points. As much as one knows where this is going to go, the easy appeal of these two makes it seem less inevitable.

Of course, Copland does wind up in the general direction expected, which isn't exactly disappointing, but maybe not quite as fun as it seemed like it could have gone. At times, it almost seems like Booker and Petersen made placeholders more entertaining than they were in the script, to the point where just hitting the expected beats isn't quite enough.

"Secretions"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

Wouldn't be a horror film festival if there wasn't something that basically makes me think "well, that was gross", would it. And "Secretions" is pretty gross.

It is, at least, not just gross; writer/director Goran Spoljaric lays out a simple, grim story and grinds through it fairly efficiently, with the imprisoned woman whose secretions are being harvested having a chance at revenge and taking it in mostly-satisfying fashion. It’s the kind of short that, at 13 minutes, probably has a little more time for things other than cruelty being met with cruelty than it uses, but taking that tack doesn’t hurt it much.

"Eveless"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

“Eveless”, meanwhile, is the kind of gross-out short I most enjoy seeing in this sort of block. Built around one guy who probably didn’t graduate an accredited medical school (Vin Kridakorn) doing a Caesarian Section on someone just as male (Greg Engbrecht), it sketches out an outlandish premise, serves up a fair amount of stuff that’s not for the squeamish, and has a sense of its own absurdity. Co-writer/director Antonio Padovan doesn’t make it particularly silly - there’s tension and danger to what’s going on - but he and co-writer Dolores Diaz and company don’t try to bludgeon the audience with what serious business this is, which is something very welcome in the middle of a block.

"The Man Who Caught a Mermaid"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016: Night Gallery Shorts, digital)

And lo, this short and I have circumnavigated the globe over the course of 2016, as I first saw it back in February at the Boston Sci-Fi Festival, despite it actually being made by Melburnians from Swinburne University, which was promoed before every movie at MonsterFest. Crazy that this, then, winds up being its Aussie premiere!

It’s still solidly in the “pretty decent” category, with a couple different directions it can go despite the horror block often making what’s going on a foregone conclusion. There’s plenty of lesser shorts to see twice in a year.

"The Past Inside the Present"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

As pairings with Beyond the Gates go, you don’t get much better than “The Past Inside the Present”, a nifty animated short presented by Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix. It starts from grainy black-and-white footage of Betamax tapes, but then eventually has the camera zoom inside for a visit to a wonderfully trippy universe.

As someone who is no fan of nostalgia for moribund formats despite having a closet full of them - I’m generally okay right up until the point where it’s suggested that there is some sort of surperior magic to the thing that is less capable - I really like filmmaker James Siewert’s approach here. The grainy style evokes videotape in general, though the bits of impressive clarity suggest Beta in particular (the format was good enough to hang around in pro circles for some time), but diving inside presents a different landscape of imagination and possibility. It’s great fun to look at without being unrealistic about limitations or overly maudlin about how the world has moved on.

Which, admittedly, doesn’t quite describe the actual plot - lovers retreating into recorded memories rather than living in the present - quite so well, but that’s okay. It’s more a melancholy film than an angry or desperate one, and as such it makes sense for the audience to feel the pull of the past compared to the troubles of the present, or at least have that be what sticks with them.

Beyond the Gates

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)
Seen 5 January 2017 in Jay’s Latest Living Room (Monster Fest 2016 revisit, Amazon streaming)

Movies like Beyond the Gates are what happens when the enthusiasm many fans have for horror movies run hard into how difficult making an actual quality picture can be. Filmmaker Jackson Stewart has a better idea of where to start than most people building high-concept, low-budget gorefests do, but the sheer number of details that require money, some particular type of talent, and time overwhelms him and his crew to the point where a good start becomes a disappointing finish.

For instance, it’s a fine idea to play upon nostalgia that is both broadly understood and quirkily specific: Everybody of a certain age has fond memories of video rental shops, for instance, even if the one that brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) are packing up only stayed open nearly twenty-five years out of their father’s stubbornness. WIth him having vanished off the face of the Earth months ago, there’s nobody to keep it going. There’s a bit of truth in that idea - that this sort of place persists in a changing world on the back of dedicated eccentrics and will vanish once they do - that isn’t necessarily a main theme of the movie, but it’s a real thing that the audience will feel and empathize with. Fewer people particularly recall VHS board games, which involved snippets of video being used as part of play, but they wind up being just the right level of obscure, something all involved can recall vaguely, but which may require a bit of explanation, and also works as a thing that might have consumed the father, as strange hobbies do.

The main cast isn’t bad, either. Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson play the sort of separated siblings that many wouldn’t necessarily peg as related, not just in appearance but demeanor, with Skipper especially occasionally showing that awkward attitude where he wants to try to be closer but finds that the expectations of familial closeness leave him not quite sure what to do. It’s a nice contrast with Williamson’s John, whose relative comfort in his environment leaves him able to snap a bit more. Skipper also handles Gordon’s fear of his family’s self-destructive tendencies nicely, while, Brea Grant livens things up as the character’s girlfriend Margot. She often gets charged with pulling things forward with enthusiasm, and it’s a shame Steward and co-writer Stephen Scarlata don’t always have a great way to inject her into what is basically a brother movie. Barbara Crampton pops up as the “gamemaster” giving instruction on the tape, bringing a little unexpected tartness to various points.

Full review on EFC.

"What Happened to Her"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

There are a lot of weird jobs in show business, and “What Happened to Her” looks at one of the more peculiar: Playing dead bodies. It’s somewhere between acting and modeling, requiring the performer to be treated like a prop and then further dehumanized as the rest of the cast talks about “her” as a thing in take after take. And, even compared to other jobs, nudity is often going to be required, often sprung on the actress at the last second.

It’s unnerving, although the narration from Danyi Deats (who has taken this job a number of times) tends to forcus more on things of a professional nature rather than an emotional one, talking about how the conditions stink and directors are demanding. At least, that’s what her words say; her voice gives an indication of how dehumanizing the whole thing can feel. Director Kristy Guevera-Flanagan lets her talk and shapes the monologue into something informative and intriguing, complementing it with archive footage of bodies being found in various episodes of Law & Order and other procedurals. It’s interesting that she chooses those scenes, by and large, rather than mixing them up with autopsies and the like: It’s arguably when the characters stop existing as people and become objects to the world at large, as opposed to just the murderer, but these are also scenes that generally take place in the first five minutes of the show and give a reason for the rest of it to happen - in short, though it’s a thankless job, it’s also one that the rest of the action can’t start without.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 January 2017 - 19 January 2017

January continues, with a lot of stuff that doesn’t look very good and not as much expansion.

  • Given that we’re Boston, Live By Night is likely the big opening, as it’s the latest from Ben Affleck, once again adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane. Nice cast with spiffy production, although it’s apparently not quite so good as his previous films, which is a shame if true. That’s at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    More crime is on the offing in Sleepless, with Jamie Foxx as a cop being blackmailed by a gangster who has his son, and Michelle Monaghan as the Internal Affairs detective working with/against him. If this sounds familiar, maybe you spotted the original French version, Sleepless Night, a few years ago; it was pretty darn good. The new one is at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Then there’s the more-or-less straight dumps. The Bye Bye Man is the horror film, with the title character one of those guys that appears and does violence when one says its name. It’s at Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. The 3D kids’ movie is Monster Trucks, with MacGyver’s Lucas TIll as a “teenager” who discovers an unknown species that takes up residence in his truck. It’s also got Jane Levy, a bunch of neat supporting players, and direction by animator Chris Wedge. Looks dumb, but maybe kids will dig it. It’s at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    There’s also some expansion, with Silence adding the Somerville and Fenway; Patriot’s Day the Capitol and Embassy (while grabbing the RPX screen at Fenway). La La Land moves to the Imax screen at Boston Common and opens at the Venue, while Jackie from Somerville to the Capitol.

    For one-offs, there’s a Disney Junior show at Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere on Saturday; Singin’ in the Rain Sunday and Wednesday at Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and Boston Common (Sunday only); plus the Sherlock finale on Monday and Wednesday at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places to get 20th Century Women, which comes from the maker of Beginners and features Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, ad Greta Gerwig as three women with interconnected stories in 1970s California. It’s also at Kendall Square and Boston Common.

    I suppose it has happened, but I honestly can’t remember the last Friday the 13th that came without one of the movies playing at the Coolidge. Instead, the weekend’s Friday/Saturday midnight movie is The Running Man, which is notable for placing its futuristic reality-television-dominated dystopia in 2017. Saturday morning’s Kids’ Show is Fantastic Mr. Fox, while Sunday morning offers of a Goethe-Institut German film, with 24 Weeks following the difficult decisions a couple faces stemming from the discovery that their unborn child has severe Down Syndrome, at least.
  • The new film from Pedro Almodovar opens at Kendall Square: Julieta features Emma Suarez as a middle-aged woman who, before remarrying, returns to her previous home in an effort to reconnect with her daughter. They also have two more screenings of One Piece: Gold in English, Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evenings.
  • This week’s Chinese film at Boston Common is Some Like It Hot, which is not a Mandarin remake of the Marilyn Monroe classic, but a different sort of zany comedy about a guy who, with his friends going on a wacky journey after the death of a close friend.

    For Indian films, OK Jaanu features opens at both Fenway and Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond, and follows a young couple who have a passionate but not exaclty committed relationship, which may well be threatened by their careers. Apple also picks up Telugu picture Shatamanam Bhavati; not sure about subtitles on that one.

    They also pick up British drama 100 Streets, starring Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton as a former rugby star and his wife whose lives intersect with both street dealers and the wealthy.
  • The Brattle Theatre has more of (Some of) The Best of 2016 series: 10 Cloverfield Lane & Green Room on Friday, American Honey & Certain Women Saturday, a double feature of Kubo and the Two Strings & Pete’s Dragon Sunday (with Train to Busan a separate show at 9:15), My Golden Days on Monday, Cameraperson & Kate Plays Christine Tuesday, an as-yet-unannounced selection on Wednesday, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden on Thursday.
  • The Brattle will, for the first time this year, be one of the venues for Belmont World Film’s Family Film Festival, this year combining “When Books Come Alive” with special visitors from Aardman Animation, who will present Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at the Arlington Regent on Friday and two (already sold out) model-making workshops at the Belmont Media Center on Saturday. Saturday and Sunday have afternoon features and shorts programs at the Belmont Studio, before closing day at the Brattle on Monday, including a Martin Luther King program on the school holiday honoring the man.
  • There’s yet more Busby Berkely Babylon at The Harvard Film Archive this weekend, with Friday night’s 7pm show pairing “Night World”, a featurette reuinting Boris Karloff and Mae Clark a year after Frankenstein with Fast and Furious, a Thin Man-style comic mystery that has nothing to do with fast cars. Also showing are Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Friday 9:30pm), Strike Up the Band (Saturday 7pm), Call Me Mister (Saturday 9:30pm), Million Dollar Mermaid (Sunday 4:30pm), Hollywood Hotel (Sunday 7pm), and In Caliente (Monday 7pm). All are from 35mm prints aside from Mermaid, which is 16mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has more showings of The Battle of Algiers, with screenings Friday. Friday also has the the latest to screen Nick Cave music/concert documentary One More Time With Feeling. The Pierre Étaix retrospective continues with As Long as You’re Healthy (Saturday), The Land of Milk and Honey (Sunday), Yoyo (Wednesday), all in 35mm and all but Milk and Honey preceded by one of the director’s short films. They have the “Exhibition on Screen” presentation The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch screening on Saturday and Sunday, and begin the annual Festival of Films From Iran on Wednesday with a 35mm print of A Taste of Cherry.
  • The ICA screens selections from the Ottowa International Festival of Animation twice on Sunday afternoon.
  • In addition to the Children’s Film Festival, The Regent Theatre will be hosting a special screening of Sunset Boulevard on Thursday to help raise funds for a local drama company that will be presenting the musical based upon the film later this year.

My plans: Yikes, is A Monster Calls almost gone already? Guess that, some other catch-up, Live By Night, Sleepless, and Silence.