Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Fantasia 2018.05: Relaxer, Being Natural, Neomanila, and Profile

Can't say I really liked the first movie I saw today, but an entertaining Q&A helps it go down better.

That is Camera Lucida programmer Ariel Esteban Coyer flanked by Relaxer director Joel Potrykus and co-star David Dastmalchian, who both talked about how growing up in the midwest had them both very familiar with this culture of challenges and constantly needing to prove themselves, with California seeming like the promised land. Dastmalchian especially was hilarious in how he answered questions, pointing out that he was only on set for a couple of days, but that the final scenes were actually shot first. This surprised me a bit, but it makes sense Hair only grows so fast, and even if bits of the set would have to be destroyed, repaired, and re-destroyed, the crew can do that quicker than the star can grow a beard.

Of to either side, there were people drinking milk as part of a challenge, but the 1-liter containers were much smaller than the gallon jugs usually associated with that particular bit of foolishness. They ran out of milk at roughly 2L apiece, at which point one of the contestants was clearly suffering.

It came out while I was waiting in line for Being Natural, but even if Oscilloscope Pictures hadn't supplied barf bags (I arrived too late to add that to my collection of festival swag), the crack festival staff was on it, with a whole trash can in place when it happened.

After that, I decided to see Neomanila right away at 5:30pm rather than seeing Tornado Girl at 7pm, in large part because I wasn't hungry yet. Indecisiveness after that movie got me at the back of the line for Mega Time Squad, but it was soon clear that there weren't going to be enough folding chairs for al the pass-holders in line. Ah, well, I can see it today. Gave me time to do a little shopping so that there's food in the apartment in the mornings and tissues in my pocket, and get myself a burger. Apparently you can get a burger medium-rare in Canada now (used to be they wouldn't even ask), and it's funny - there are lots of burgers I like here, but I'm used to having them at least medium because that's what the local regs insisted on, and now they're good, but kind of odd compared to what I was expecting.

After that, back to Hall for Profile with Timur Bekmambetov.

We almost didn't need an audience Q&A, since Timur (right) was there to talk and Mitch is good at facilitating these things. Bekmambetov seems genuinely excited about making what he calls "Screen Life" films, with the idea really clicking in his mind ever since his producing partner did a screen share and then forgot to stop it until a few minutes after he'd seen what he was supposed to see, and he said it was a fascinating first-person view, seeing how she hesitated, deleted half-formed thoughts in the chat window, fiddled with stuff while waiting for him to respond, etc. "It was like being inside her" is how he put it.

His company wound up developing what he calls "Screen Reality" ("SR") software to capture these movies, since most existing screen-recording software (like the ones actually used in the film) effectively functions as a camera pointed at the screen, while they need to be able to manipulate what is happening in the edit. It's apparently also going to allow the home release to be more interactive, something Bekmambetov says both excites him about the medium but makes him feel defensive as a director.

Lots of interesting information about the making of it, too - unlike Unfriended, where they wound up shooting everything in the same room and compositing the screens together, the Skype conversations between the characters in London and Syria were actually shot live, with Cyrpus standing in for Syria, because this was the best way to have authenticity in how the lag, pixelation, and reaction times worked. It actually got him a warning from the Directors' Guild of America, as you're supposed to actually be on the set in order to be credited as director, but Bekmambetov was apparently able to successfully argue that his set was 3,000 miles across. They also created an unusual sound mix, with the main character's dialogue not coming from the front-center channel but the surrounds, so that it would be in the center of the audience, while everything from a screen was from the front. The soundtrack was actually from the Spotify playlist of the original journalist whose life this was based upon, with the actress playing and "mixing" live on set.

Leaving this particular movie aside, Bekmambetov mentioned that he was thinking of making Dusk Watch as a Screen Life movie, and I must admit, I admire his commitment to the idea that he will actually complete the Night Watch trilogy at some point. It was going to be split between Moscow and New York when it looked like he was going to cross over into Hollywood in a big way, it was going to be 3D at another point… Hey, it could still happen, even if it has been 12 years and counting since Day Watch.

So that finished that day off. Today's plans are circling back around to Mega Time Squad, taking the rest of the afternoon off, and then probably choosing Room Laundering over The Nightshifter before the 35mm show of The Blonde Fury (which, if evidence on this blog is to be believed, I liked okay when it was part of the Coolidge's long-missed Midnight Ass-Kickings series exactly fourteen years ago. Tremble All You Want is recommended, for those who missed it opening night.


* * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There is, I suppose, a good movie to be made about someone so dedicated to not being labeled a quitter that he just doesn't get off the couch until he has completed some sort of challenge, no matter how isolated it ultimately makes him, but this isn't it. It's just nasty and gross, never finding enough of Abbie's ingenuity or enough pathos to make watching him interesting.

Instead, it feels pointlessly mean, and seldom with interesting enough execution to make it worthwhile. The opening bit, cruel as it tends to be, at least feels like an impressive single take, but nothing after that ever feels close to that inspired.

Being Natural

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, digital)

Before it takes a turn for the weird, Being Natural is kind of a low-key charmer, playing as a group of guys in late middle age growing closer, even though those bonds are not exactly of the strongest material. It's pastoral but not over-romanticized, as these things can sometimes be.

That doesn't mean I want the back half gone or the other thread minimized, though. In fact, I think I'd like it a bit more if the "invading" family looking to get back to "how life should be" was played broader and given more time, perhaps with the daughter (clearly not as enthused as her parents) fighting more. It would make the more conventional parts work better and the bonkers finale perhaps an even better twist.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I wonder just how this crime flick plays in its native country, where the sort of vigilante killing at the center is a Thing That Happens rather than something as far outside the norm as it seems in North America. Is it just piercing rather than shocking?

Regardless, it's sharp as can be, setting up its loose-seeming but tight in actuality plot, filling it with memorable side characters, and playing its violence completely straight rather than making it fun.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Though producer credits can often go unnoticed by filmmakers who also do other things, Timur Bekmambetov has become fascinated by the idea of stories which play out entirely through a character's online interactions in recent years, having produced Unfriended and then a number of other similar movies reaching the screen this year. Profile is his first one where he actually directed the film, and though it's a story well-matched to the technique, there are sometimes still a few kinks to work out in the telling.

Based upon a true story but relocated to London, it picks up with freelance reporter Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) logging onto her computer on 13 October 2014, starting on a story about European women who, in a shockingly quick turnaround from their first online contacts, wind up in Syria as part of ISIS/Daesh. It is, in some ways, shockingly easy - she creates a new profile, searches for ISIS-affiliated pages, and after sharing some of what she finds, she's contacted by Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif), who though currently fighting in Syria was actually born not far from her in London. It causes her some momentary panic, but she presses on, trying to get Bilel to tell her alter ego of recent convert "Mellody" how she can reach him even as money and relationship issues make her real life more stressful.

One of the most interesting things about telling this story through Amy's on-line activity is how it puts exposition on blast, using Amy's offhand need to research to rapidly throw information at the audience without pretense of doing anything else, and through that establish some emotional stakes: While articles about jihadists and converts and the like jump on-screen, YouTube videos of the girl whose case put Amy on this trail also show up, and they're quietly heartbreaking, featuring the trembling voice of someone lost and generally limited to a quarter of the screen, making her feel more diminished and isolated.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia 2018.04: Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, Cold Skin, L'Inferno (1911), and The Scythian.

Never underestimate the manga/anime crowd at Fantasia. You may think that something is just big in Japan because you haven't seen it in the local comic shop, and it doesn't really seem to fit with the festival from the description, and then you show up at Hall and it's packed to the gills forDestiny: The Tale of Kamakura, and then again for Aragne: Sign of Vermillion.

Axis programmer Rupert Bottenberg on the left, Aragne director Saku Sakamoto and producer Osamu Fukutani in the middle, translator on the right (can't find a name in the program). We were given autographed prints as we entered, too, which was pretty cool.

Most of the Q&A was in French, so I couldn't pick much up. I did rather sympathize with one of the English-speaking people who asked a question, basically saying she got kind of lost by the end, and what was going on? The response was basically "I don't want to invalidate anybody's interpretation", but I think this is more a case of viewers being frustrated because the telling was unclear, not something being left open-ended. Storytelling is communication, and if your pretty imagery doesn't get something across, I kind of wonder what it was going for.

It was kind of interesting to actually hear them admit that the story started as one thing but wound up having other pieces added to it as it went on; it may explain why the movie seemed somewhat disjointed and lacking direction.

Stuck around Hall for Cold Skin after that, which meant there was very little time to get across the street and into L'Inferno. I don't think it quite got to the point of needing to find some folding chairs to seat all the passholders, but I don't think there were any seats left once I got it.

Mitch Davis, as always, was effusive in introducing Maurizio Guarini of Goblin, who accompanied the film. It was an interesting score - I admit, I sometimes have trouble wrapping my head around something so obviously synth-based for a silent film - that mostly distracted from the guy next to me who occasionally seemed to be boasting to the lady next to him about how he could spot some of the more obviously fake bits. Congratulations, you saw through the special effects of a 107-year-old movie!

Ah, maybe I was just crabby because I was hungry. There was enough time before the last film of the day to get a proper burger, some poutine, and a milkshake to help with the sore throat. I suspect I would have found The Scythian a ton of violent fun anyway, but a full stomach helped.

Today's plans include Relaxer, Being Natural, Neomanila, Mega Time Squad, and Profile.

Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari (Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Destiny is a cute fantasy romance that does a pretty nice job of building a magical world around its laid-back setting, but which is maybe too slight for its finale. The filmmakers never quite build up the connection between its husband and wife enough to convince us that the big, epic confrontation at the end and story of a love that spans multiple lifetimes is justified.

As a collection of smaller stories, though, it works quite well, with fanciful and good-natured episodes that make this a place I could see visiting regularly. The effects work is also top-notch, especially toward the end, where Japanese fantasies often start breaking down because they can't quite afford that step up to something even bigger. Not a problem here, as the film does a nice job of building up rather than going too big too fast.

"Walking Meat"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival:AXIS, digital)

Zombie stories have arguably reached a dangerous level of oversaturation, where they are so common that you take some of the horrors involved for granted. Shinya Sugai does a nice job of pushing past that with "Walking Meat", positing a take where people also consume zombies and having fun with "older guy not understanding millennials" bits.

Which sounds groan-worthy at times, but works better than you might think; it gives him a set of broad, funny characters to throw into the usual mayhem, and he's not above making the frustrated mentor character look ridiculous as well. The director's background in visual effects sometimes has him a little too enamored of the first-person shot, but the action is mostly on point otherwise, and the way that the film actually focuses on the characters rather than how much mayhem can be done to the zombies is kind of refreshing.

I suspect some of the millennial jokes are kind of Japan-specific, right down to the punchline of having plans after work (compared to more traditional drinking with colleagues, I guess). Mostly, though, it's fun, comedic zombie mayhem.

Aragne: Sign of Vermillion

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is the sort of anime that would has always excited audiences looking for something they couldn't find in American cinema a generation ago, a combination of science fiction, horror, and mystery that plays has a whiff of the exotic and has plenty of room for fan theories and speculation. Those movies are not always as rich as they seem, unfortunately, and this one suffers badly for not having a more defined story, even though horror can often get further on atmosphere than other genres.

After opening with a nightmarish vision by a mental patient - or did that actually happen? - focus shifts to Rin Shida (voice of Kana Hanazawa), a timid university student living in an apartment that does not live up to its billing as "eco-friendly living atop a reclaimed toxic site". She's catching glimpses of strange, insect-related horrors, but are they real or in her head, her imagination working overtime to connect a series of mysterious deaths and rumored cult activity?

Well, maybe that's not really what's going on, but it might as well be. Writer/director Saku Sakamoto keeps throwing new revelations and explanations at the audience, but as good as he is at creating striking imagery, he's not that great at building a story, almost seeming indecisive at times. Here, he'll talk about some sort of rare insect-borne disease from decades ago being the explanation for a series of deaths, but then it's some sort of weapons development from decades before that. Characters are introduced in such perfunctory manner that they don't even feel mysterious because you need to know something to figure that the rest doesn't fit. It winds up feeling like Sakamoto had an idea but couldn't get a feature-length story out of it, and wound up tacking other bits on until the movie was feature-length but the original central story had been buried.

It makes for a disjointed film that is not done many favors by its tendency to make the audience distrust what they are watching. Sakamoto repeats fading to black and then having Rin wake up disconnected from the previous action - repeat it one more time and the audience probably starts laughing at it rather than holding that in - and for all that this sort of feeling of moving from one nightmare to another helps create atmosphere, it doesn't give the audience much to hang on to. Later on in the movie, there are what appear to be strange revelations about Rin, but given that the audience hasn't really gotten to know her that well, there's not a lot of impact to "everything you know is wrong".

That sort of plot-oriented storytelling doesn't really seem to be Sakamoto's forte - he has come up through effects animation - but there's no denying that he is good at the visual half of the storytelling. He draws Rin as both ethereal and down-to-earth, gets a great visual gag out of the difference between how the apartment building was advertised and the reality, and does a really spectacular job of going for the gross-out throughout the movie. From moth wings to brain beetles, he gets the most out of the "spirit bugs" he introduces early. He does have a bit of a weakness for filters at times, but does a fair job of integrating obviously first-person material into a movie that is otherwise trying to use the aesthetic of traditional animation.

To be fair to Sakamoto, this is an independent production in a way that is often only possible with animation - he wrote, directed, composed the music, and handled the visual effects, mostly crowdfunding the work. If this has some success, he'll probably have more assistance to smooth over his weaknesses and help him learn later on. For right now, he's still got a lot of storytelling to learn, because this movie doesn't hold together at all.

Full review at EFC.

Cold Skin

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Cold Skin is maybe not quite as clever as it could be, but it's a nicely chilly/claustrophobic piece that holds up with two or three characters at a time (although its horror does involve a horde or ten). It doesn't exactly keep the conflict between the main pair at a background simmer, but letting the audience concentrate more on the vicious-seeming humanoids allows what those two represent to occupy a little bit less of the conscious mind, letting it sink in.

In some ways, the film comes up with some of its most interesting bits too late to really expand on them - the Prometheus symbolism toward the end seems like the start of another film rather than the end of this one - probably weighting it more toward pulp than the cerebral horror of its best ambitions. It's good pulp, though, and certainly smart enough to be worth a little though

L'Inferno (1911)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival Ciné-Concert, DCP)

The sort of silent film where one has to be committed to meeting it on its own ground, because this thing's from 1911, has a somewhat relaxed pace, and probably assumes a certain level of familiarity with the source material.

Meet it on those terms, though, and it's fascinating, a film that leaves no doubts about the horrors of Hell even when the capabilities to visualize them are primitive. The score that accompanied this screening sometimes worked against that, occasionally emphasizing camp, but the effects work is sometimes eye-catching, especially in context.

Skif (The Scythian, aka The Last Warrior)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's always a tricky business to mix ancient or medieval settings with modern sensibilities, even when one knows it is necessary (the elegant prose that survives from those ages almost certainly doesn't match how people actually spoke, but making things too simple and modern also often sounds wrong). The Scythian seems to handle that better than most, but not necessarily because it seems particularly realistic. Some mix of its roots in Russian legend and straight-ahead action plotting makes it click, even when it mixes modern glibness with brutal period action.

It takes place roughly a thousand years ago, when Christian Russia was expanding into pagan lands. Lutobor (Aleksey Faddeev), a skilled warrior and trusted lieutenant to Lord Oleg (Yuriy Tsurillo), the prince of Tmutarakan, has just been informed that his lovely wife Tatiana (Izmaylova Vasilisa) has just been given birth to their first child, but the celebration not only brings Oleg and his son Vselav (Aleksandr Patsevich) - Lutobor's closest friend - but a group of mercenaries known as the Wolves of Perun, who kidnap Tatiana and leave a note commanding that he assassinate Oleg. After the plot is discovered, Lutobor escapes with Marten (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), the pagan assassin captured during the kidnapping, hoping to stay just far enough ahead of their hunters so that Marten lead Lutobor to his family and the means to clear his name.

Strip the trappings away and The Scythian is basically a buddy-cop movie set in medieval Russia, with Lutobor the falsely-accused straightlaced cop and Marten the wily criminal he's stuck working with (the character is actually named "Kunitsa" but subtitled as "Marten", apparently expecting more people to recognize that a marten is a type of weasel). And while both are far too cognizant of how the other is a not-to-be-trusted enemy to ever truly feel like a team, the interplay between them is entertaining, and they are both enjoyable examples of their types: Aleksey Faddeev is kind of sardonic and cool as Lutobor, but he brings a sense of honor to it that's not overbearing, while Aleksandr Kuznetsov is good at giving the impression of always looking for an opportunity without actually having his eyes darting about - it's a slick, energetic performance.

And that energy will often be necessary, because director/co-writer Rustam Mosafir puts the pair through a lot of mayhem, and if you like this sort of big, muscular action, it's good stuff: Heavy swords that make crunching impact against armor and spark when they hit stone, kicks where you feel the power even if they don't people flying like wire-fu when they connect, fist-fights where it sometimes seems sparing an opponent will be more difficult than killing them. Mosafir and his crew shoot this all in fine fashion, and when they kick it up a notch to fantastical proportions in the middle - when Lutobor powers up to the level where he can literally rip opponents apart with his bare hands - it is larger-than-life, but not out of bounds, even as it gets gloriously bloody.

The moment when things really go over the top is when they pass through the land of the Forest People, and it's just delightfully weird to look at. The whole thing feels grimy and primitive, but with an eerie, imaginative set of looks. There's an earnest consciousness of the gold being applied to Oleg at the start and a sense of wear to the costumes of the people being squeezed out, a sense of being ancient but weathered. It's a good balance between being imaginatively ornate while still feeling grounded.

It's pretty good-looking for this sort of brutish action, a notch or two better than most other films in the genre which can't quite strike the right balance between celebrating the grim violence and making it palatable. The Scythian is ridiculous in its own way, but it still works.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fantasia 2018.03: Hanagatami, Unity of Heroes, True Fiction, Buffalo Boys, and Summer of '84

This was not a great day to have a cold, folks. Not only was it a five-film day, but almost all of them seemed to be dragged out in one way or another. Just got myself a whole bunch of cold medicine, so I'll probably be in better shape over the next few days, but it's probably going to be better for me to circle around later.

We did get a couple fun groups of guests, though!

That's "Action!" programmer Eric S. Boisvert on the left kicking off his section with folks from Indonesian western Buffalo Boys: Director Mike Wiluan, co-star Pevita Pearce, co-writer Rayya Makarim, and producer Eric Khoo. They led a pretty interesting Q&A that touched on how peculiar making a western in Indonesia seemed to be, how the animal wranglers initially got a cow when a buffalo was called for, and a lot about really thinking about what they wanted to do with their action. Most Indonesian action films, Wiluan pointed out, are heavy on the silat, but that's a really complicated, formal martial art, not fully developed in this picture's time period. They were looking more at barroom brawling, plus some seriously over-the top gunplay. Speaking of that, they also had to fabricate most of their weapons, because you don't find a lot of even the more realistic nineteenth-century firearms lying around Java.

This was their world premiere, but they're already looking at the film as a franchise: There are comics, and a planned spin-off for HBO Asia.

The most feted guests, though, were probably these guys:

Most of the introductions were in French, so there are gaps: Jean-Nicolas Leupi & Jean-Philippe Bernier of Le Matos (with someone else hanging back behind them), directors François Simard & Anouk Whissell, star Graham Verchere, director Yoann-Karl Whissell, and producer Jameson Parker. Local folks, leading to a bilingual Q&A, with a lot of calling out how great their production design crew was.

I did feel kind of disappointed when they said that how far the script went was part of what they liked about it; my mind may change when I get a chance to think about these movies individually, but at the time, it felt like one more instance of a film packing too much onto the end, just a bit of extra sadism after the movie was basically done.

Feeling better today, though, with plans for Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, L'Inferno with live score, and The Scythian.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Friends, do not watch long movies on an empty stomach - it may not be as bad as needing to hit the restroom, but bringing that sort of impatience with you doesn't help things.

Which is a shame in the case of Hanagatami, which is every bit as gorgeous as you might expect from the director of not just House but a number of less-obviously insane but painterly productions he has made since - most notably, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, another WWII-set nostalgia piece. There's not a shot in this picture that isn't exquisite, and he's not content to let the grass grow under his feet. The teenage characters are busy, right up to the point of being frantic. There's no chance of complaining that nothing is really happening, but it becomes a sort of blur, not quite exhausting, but with no time to consider what's going on.

Also, I kind of hate the bulk of the cast. Main character Toshihiko Sakaiyama in particular seems especially clueless, with star Shunsuke Kubozuka way too old for the part and feeling like a parody of youthful innocence rather than anything sincere. The way the who group plays off each other in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor is random at best, downright abusive at worst. It leads up to an ending that doesn't pull much out of its surreal nature to make the audience feel anything beyond the most obligatory tragedy.

Unity of Heores

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

This is the second movie in a row this day that feels like it could have been much improved by the vampires that were clearly hinted at (the Evil White Guy is even named "Vlad"!) and the exploding heads that were teased. Step up your game, filmmakers!

Take that out, and it's a fairly decent movie when you consider that it's the Chinese equivalent of a Netflix picture, pretty good for half your attention most of the time and with some good work done on the set-pieces at either end. It could have used more of Vincent Zhao returning to his role of Wong Fei-hung, as he's good when he's there and missed when the film focuses on his students. He does show up for the wire-fu, at least, and it certainly looks decent on the big screen, even if it might be a little more at home on a smaller one.

"The Great Hand and the Bulgasari"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

A pretty delightful animated short which starts out in "Duck Amuck" territory, with a sort of hand-of-god picking characters up and placing them where it wants, only to have them rebel, looking for a chance to escape and eventually growing a caterpillar to massive size, feeding it orion so that it can defeat anything the Hand throws at it.

The animation itself is delightful, looking like cardboard cut-outs with nifty parallax in how it's set-up, and I also love the snarling, bitter characters. The physical comedy become cartoonishly gruesome, but always remains funny enough to balance its nastiness. There's something kind of wonderful about how The Great Hand doesn't really make sense, looking right as part of the moon and reaching down from the heavens, but trying to make this into a real three-dimensional thing will break your head.

Sal-in-so-seol (True Fiction)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The hardest part of writing this sort of thriller must be hitting the point where you feel like there's enough, the point where playing attention has been rewarded but where the audience has not yet said "screw this latest reversal, it doesn't matter, because none of what we've been told matters!" True Fiction unfortunately blows way past that second point in its last act, although by then it's established strength enough that it can avoid losing some.

Which sucks, because the first half of the movie is delightful, a rapid-fire series of selfish decisions blowing up combined with the delight of someone having got one over on people who really deserve a comeuppance, which is just as fun as it is suspenseful. The soundtrack is playful, the audience feels like things are on their level, and what happens next could be anything for human reasons; you can see people trying to figure out how to get up on the other guy..

Unfortunately, by the end, it's just a puzzle with too many pieces and no way to wrap it up in a satisfying way. There's a certain impressive fatalism to that, but it's not just a downer, it's draining after the rest of the movie has shown such energy. An improvised caper is often much more fun than a meticulously-planned one.

Buffalo Boys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

As loud and action-packed as you would hope for an Indonesian western to be, going big on the martial arts, gunfighting, and melodrama. It's close to exactly what you would expect from that particular fusion.

There are, admittedly, times when it could probably do to move it along; once the returning heroes arrive in town, they seem to spend a lot of time waiting for an opportunity to get colonial monster Van Trach to present itself rather than really doing anything. There's a mean, cutthroat period before the final big action sequence that seems to be killing time rather than moving the story along.

Still, it leads up to a pretty darn great finale, where its two leads take on much greater numbers with big guns, small guns, knives, their bare hands, and anything else that may be of use. It's delightfully grandiose, a really cathartic bit of anti-colonialist fantasy that's also just amazingly choreographed and stitched-together action for a first-time director.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Seventeen minutes, this short is, of two young boys being obnoxious enough that I couldn't really feel upset when they started sinking into quicksand. I guess there's something there about them playing at making up rules and seeing how far they can push things until they find themselves in a situation where they see true implacable and unthinking destruction, but it's a tough sit to get to that.

Summer of '84

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Give the Roadkill Superstar guys their due: This is the second time in a row where I've gone into one of their video-store-inspired movies skeptical but had them win me over. The initially clumsy nostalgia and self-seriousness builds to a genuinely suspenseful back half.

I think what impressed me the most, though, is the way that the filmmakers peek at the fragile environments where the kids live around the whole serial-killer plot. The moments where these kids seem to have much more universal concerns are little gems amid their attempt to root out a serial killer in their neighborhood, contributing to its idea that pretty suburban tranquility may hide something less perfect with sadness as much as fear.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fantasia 2018.02: Last Child, Microhabitat, and Five Fingers of Death

Friday the 13th and no horror for me. Heck, all Korean directors, which is no mean feat give that the third film of the day was Hong Kong action.

Sorry it's short, but there were no guests and the first movie today is early. My plans for Day 2 include Hanagatami, Unity of Heroes, True Fiction, Buffalo Boys, and Summer of '84, if I can get into that last one..

Salanameun Ayi (Last Child)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Last Child is an impressive, understated film about dealing with loss and heartbreak, tied up with a parent's needs and duties. It has a hard time avoiding some issues in the end as the new bonds that have been formed must be tested, but that's not necessarily a negative; these things should be awkward and not quite fit easily.

As it opens, it has been some months since teenager Jin Eunchan drowned, and his parents are not grieving in the same way: Mother Misook (Kim Yeo-jin) is cleaning his room and offering things to his friend Joonyoung, as well as considering the possibility of another child; father Sungcheol (Choi Moo-seong) is handling the paperwork and establishing a scholarship fund to commemorate that his son died saving a classmate's life. He asks about that other boy, Kihyun (Seong Yu-bn), and discovers he hasn't been to school in months. He checks in, offers to help, and soon has a new apprentice in his wallpapering business.

There is a special sort of joy to films where the story is told through learning a trade, even if the audience doesn't really learn along with Kihyun. The symbolism of the job is fun to play with - director Shin Dong-seok spends more time on Sungcheol and Kihyun applying base layers than the final layer, which makes it a fine metaphor of how a parent's job is to prepare a child to survive on his own, leaving room to think about how kids like this are rootless and unprepared. There are other moments, naturally, where the focus is more on covering up mistakes and stains, something that will show its head later.

Full review on EFC

So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Microhabitat threatens to become a cutesy story of a woman who may not have the things society says she needs but is a free spirit, but then, maybe that's the game - get you liking someone who has decided cigarettes and whiskey are more important than shelter, see how capitalism and conformity are strangling her friends in other ways, and then set you up for a gut punch.

The lady in question is Miso (Esom), which means "smile" in Korean, a name that seems to fit her fairly well: Though she dropped out of college and cleans houses for little money, she's got a boyfriend she loves in Hansol (Ahn Jae-hong), though his webtoon hasn't taken off and he lives in male-only dormitory housing, does her job well, and budgets her money well enough to afford medicine, cigarettes, and a good whiskey every couple days. At least until 2014 becomes 2015 and not only does her landlord bump her rent, but the tax on tobacco skyrockets. She looks at her budget and decides that it's rent that is the thing she can sacrifice, hoping to stay with friends until she can find a cheaper place. She sets out to find her five best friends from school - Mun-yeong (Kang Jin-ah), who has taken to replacing a meal with a glucose drip; Jung Hyun-jun (Kim Gook-hee), a stressed-out housewife; Han Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook-i), whose recent marriage has already collapsed; Kim Roki (Choi Deok-moon), whose parents are delighted at the idea of a young woman moving in; and Choi Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa), who has married well even if she's feeling kind of ambivalent about motherhood - but there's always something.

It's expensive to be poor, and not just in relative terms, and that can sometimes go double for South Korea, where monthly rents can be fairly low but where even the less-than-appealing places Miso investigates require a fairly hefty deposit, which really does a number on mobility. Folks like Miso who have limited fallback options tend to be hurt the most, especially when the squeeze starts to get put on the things that give them some small pleasure like cigarettes. Filmmaker Jeon Go-woon isn't giving an obvious lecture on this state of affairs, but she does well to illustrate it in small ways, always mentioning the cost of things (with the subtitles translating it into American dollar values) so viewers can see proportions and do the math along with Miso.

Full review on EFC

Tian xia di yi quan (Five Fingers of Death aka King Boxer)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, 35mm)

I don't think I've ever heard folks articulate the character overload Shaw Brothers films tend to have before hearing it while walking home last night, but it's true You could probably make this movie with about half as many people involved. Sure, it lets them mix the fights up in impressive fashion, but when you're dragging at 11pm, it's a lot.

Still, if you're going to give this one credit for starting kung fu fever in the United States (it came out before Enter the Dragon), it's certainly good enough to do it. The fighting scenes are thrilling, better than many which would appear later, and the cast, while sometimes falling into the generic space that a bunch of random martial artists from different schools but no broader characterization tend to find, they're at least a charismatic bunch. And the musical sting that kicks the movie off and reappears whenever someone uses the master's special technique is a good enough hook that you can understand why Tarantino lifted it for Kill Bill.

Great looking print, too. I was unfortunately run down while it unspooled, but it's certainly on my list to see again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fantasia 2018.01: Tremble All You Want and Nightmare Cinema

It's mid-July and getting a little too hot in Boston, so…

Yes, it's time for another three weeks (and one day) at Montreal's massive Fantasia International Film Festival, taking place as usual on the campus of Concordia University, which has a spiffy new statue on the left but whose two main theaters feel like a second home by now. I actually felt grateful to have my first screening be in DeSève, because walking into that cozy room just concentrates the feeling of returning to a good place.

(Even if the meowing has spread there and goes right into the company logos now.)

I started there because the main opening night movie was right out - the press screening was during the afternoon, during which time I was on a bus that left Boston a half hour late (after I made it to South Station 45 minutes early!), got held up at the border and in traffic, and therefore had me keeping the nice folks renting me my apartment waiting an hour and a half. No tickets left for that one. But that's okay! Tremble All You Want is a pretty great romantic comedy, and I kind of love its star Mayu Matsuoka now. It's a weird thing to connect it with, but last weekend I was on a bus to my nieces' birthday party, and The Intern was the movie. I wasn't watching it and had no sound, but every once in a while I'd look up, and Anne Hathaway was being really delightfully expressive without overacting, enough to get my attention for a minute or three. That's the sort of vibe Matsuoka gives off, and why I say I could enjoy it without sound or subtitles.

I did make it back across the street for the back half of the opening night festivities and this:

That's Joe Dante! Receiving a great-looking lifetime achievement award from Tony Timpone! Like everyone who gets that trophy, Dante seems a little worried that people are giving it to him now like he doesn't have more good work in him, but he certainly comes across as exactly the guy you imagine him to be - down-to-earth, friendly, quietly knowing what he's talking about and in love with his medium.

It's unfortunate that I really don't think much of this latest project, but…

… Good lord, I didn't expect that Alejandro Brugués and Ryuhei Kitamura would be around to support Mick Garris and Dante too! That's cool, and supposedly the only reason David Slade wasn't there was because he was shooting a Black Mirror in London.

It's a shame, because I like the original genesis of the project - after Masters of Horror, Garris wanted to make a new series that was more international in nature, with the irony being that while this movie features Cuban, Japanese, British, and American directors, it all wound up shooting in Los Angeles. He answered the Inevitable Sequel Question interestingly, though, saying that he hopes this can be a springboard to either a new TV series or a series of short features, with more anthologies like this sort of in third position. I hope he gets a chance at that, because even if Slade's segment was the only one that didn't have me running to the thesaurus to find different ways of saying "familiar", I really like the idea of the world tour.

So, that's Day 1. My plans for Day 2 include Last Child, Microhabitat, and King Boxer, basically bypassing the horror on Friday the 13th.

Katte ni furuetero (Tremble All You Want)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There are a lot of things that impressed me in Tremble All You Want, well worth breaking down and pointing out, but since it's a movie centering on one character who is in almost every scene, she had better be good. Fortunately, I get the feeling that I could watch this movie with no sound or subtitles and still get a real kick out of watching star Mayu Matsuoka work. She's terrific and a huge part of how Akiko Ohku's movie is not just better than most romantic comedies, but also better at deconstructing the genre and putting it back together than most going that direction.

Matsuoka plays Yoshika Eto, who has a tiny apartment, a job in a toy company's accounting department, and a tendency to stay up late reading Wikipedia articles on extinct animals. She's been nursing a crush on a boy from middle school, Ichi (Takumi Kitamura), for ten years, and is a bit surprised when another employee (Daichi Watanabe) - whom she calls "Ni" for how he scribbles the number two - is smitten and asks her out. She doesn't say no, but she also dives head-first into arranging a reunion with her old classmates to reconnect with Ichi.

There's some wordplay to the names that gets a bit tripped up in the subtitling - Ichi is a fairly common nickname in Japan and also the Japanese word for the number one. Ohku taps into the idea that Yoshika thinks he's "the one" and establishes in the very first scene that Ni is very clearly Yoshika's second choice, but there are moments when the characters seem well-aware that her habit of giving people nicknames is an affectation that doesn't quite fit. It often needs to carry a little more metaphorical heft than it should as a way for her to distance herself and feel like she knows people when she doesn't. It extends into an alias and some social-media considerations, so it's useful, and plays with some interesting ideas, but can be a little much.

Full review on EFC

Nightmare Cinema

* * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The very conceit of Nightmare Cinema is maybe a little too close to the hearts of all involved to truly bring forth the thrills it promises Five directors with obvious affection for horror movies making horror stories that play out inside a cursed theater is too on the nose, too much inside their comfort zone to actually lead to something truly scary and unsettling. In fact the one that seems most like a nightmare is the one that seems to fit the anthology least.

The first part, "The Thing in the Woods" by Alejandro Brugués, fits it best - after an introduction where Samantha Smith (Sarah Elizabeth Withers) stumbling upon a theater with her name on the marquee and entering to watch it, it picks up in the final act of a slasher movie, where she's running from an insane welder (Eric Nelsen), covered in blood as final girls are wont to be, eventually running into boyfriend Jason (Kevin Fonteyne) and learning just what caused this lunatic to pick up a blowtorch.

Brugués is as aware of how this genre of movies works as you might expect, and while his fondness for it isn't quite a hinderance, it keeps the movie from ever actually being scary, as even the jump scares are familiar and played with a sort of ironic exaggeration, playing to bros who think knowing the formula and laughing because they're ahead of it is the best way to experience a horror movie. He does do some interesting things in the telling - watch how Jason changes as a different character flashes back - and Withers fits the role like a glove, but the twist is ridiculous enough to overwhelm how it's fun, leaving the segment an energetic but predictable parody.

Joe Dante directs the next segment, in which a couple making out in the balcony sees themselves talking, with David (Mark Grossman) mentioning that his mother has offered to pay for Anna (Zarah Mahler) to have the scar on her cheek removed in "Mirari". Doctor Mirari (Richard Chamberlain) upsells a little, and when a bandaged Anna wakes up afterward, something seems amiss even beyond Mirari saying that they will need to operate again to clear some nasal obstructions.

"Mirari" is a punchline short, as they say, and the punchline itself is okay, although there's not a whole lot to this story aside from some impressive make-up work by KNB. Excessive cosmetic surgery is kind of dark-comedy fish in a barrel by now, and there's really not a whole lot in this short that suggests a new angle or satire sharp enough to be familiar. It's kind of fun to see the still-spry Chamberlain ham in up in the most charming way possible, even if the rest of the cast can't quite keep up.

Full review on EFC

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 July 2018 - 19 July 2018

Used to be you could be certain of some sort of horror movie on Friday the 13th; now you get cartoons with Adam Sandler doing the voice of Dracula. We can do better than this, world.

  • I kid, but I kind of enjoyed the first Hotel Transylvania - it is a Genndy Tartakofsky film as much a Sandler one, after all. The third one in the 3D-animated series (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation) looks like more of the same, this time on a cruise ship, and you can probably do worse than that. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), West Newton (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere (including MX4D), and the SuperLux.

    The other big 3D opening is Skyscraper, which has Dwayne Johnson as a security Department with a prosthetic leg trying to rescue his family (and, incidentally, everyone else in a massive Chinese supertall) from a combination of fire and terrorists who are probably actually just looking to rob the place, like in Die Hard. That family does include Neve Campbell as his wife, though, and we don't see her on-screen as much as we should. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row, and Revere (including XPlus).

    The most interesting things opening at the multiplexes is probably the genuinely weird-looking Sorry to Bother You, featuring Lakeith Stanfield as a guy who takes a telemarketing job and winds up moving up the ladder when he learns the art of sounding white on the phone, with Tessa Thompson as his militant girlfriend and apparently things getting screwier as it goes on. That plays at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Revere.

    There are also expansions for IFFBoston alums Three Identical Strangers (adding Fenway to the Somerville, the Coolidge, West Newton, Kendall Square, and Boston Common) and Leave No Trace (adding the Somerville, West Newton, and the Seaport to the Coolidge, Kendall Square, and Boston Common), with The Cakemaker adding The West Newton Cinema and continuing at the Kendall). Big has 30th anniversary screenings at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday. No obvious reason for the Seaport to be showing Patriot's Day on Monday, but they are, with Forgetting Sarah Marshall at Revere on Thursday seeming similarly random.
  • Kendall Square has The King this week, which features director Eugene Jarecki getting Elvis Presley's car out of storage and driving across America with musicians, celebrities, and others to get a look at the country. Jarecki will visit the theater on Sunday (probably in his own car) to do a Q&A after the 7:05pm show. There's also a special Tuesday night screening of Deconstructing the Birth of the Beatles, the latest in a series of filmed lectures by composer Scott Freiman, this time looking at the band's early ears rather than a particular album.
  • Yellow Submarine is popping up as a one-off in a bunch of places for its 50th anniversary, but The Somerville Theatre has it for the whole week, with Beatleness author Candy Leonard on Friday and Beatles trivia on Saturday.

    Their 35mm repertory programming for the week starts on Friday, as the Slaughterhouse Movie Club returns with a one-night-only "Bill & Ted's Sexellent Adventure" show featuring live burlesque followed by Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That night and Saturday both feature Jaws as the weekend's 35mm Midnight Special, featuring trivia (Friday) & cosplay (Saturday) contests with prizes from Narragansett Beer. The weekly His & Hers Play It Cool double feature on Wednesday pairs Gilda with Robin and the Seven Hoods. The Somerville Film Festival also sets up shop there for two nights of free short films in the Micro-Cinema on Friday and Saturday.
  • The Brattle Theatre shows Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors Trilogy on 35mm this weekend, with Blue Friday evening and the entire series including White and Red on Saturday and Sunday, looping around from a different starting point each day.

    Those skip the late-ish shows, though, so that they can show the new restoration of Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song at 9:30pm from Friday to Sunday. Then it's a different program each night during the week: The Lady from Shanghai on 35mm for the Rita Hayworth Centennial on Monday, Trash Night on Tuesday, a 35mm double feature of Wonder Woman & Girlfight for "Heroic: Women Who Inspire" on Wednesday, and the annual Trailer Treats party on Thursday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps the same schedule as last week, but also has the After Midnite crew make one of their Friday-the-13th trips to the Rocky Woods Reservation so that people can see two of those slasher flicks outdoors at a campsite. This time, the 9pm double feature includes Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning & Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, the latter on 35mm. They head back home and continue their serial-killer series on Saturday, showing a 16mm print of the Helter Skelter miniseries at 11:30pm. Monday's Big Screen Classic is The Lion King and Thursday's Cinema Jukebox show is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (on 35mm), and in between, they serve as this week's host for The Boston Jewish Film Festival's Summer Cinematheque, showing Memoir of War.
  • Sanju keeps going at Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway, with Fresh Pond also having two movies in Tamil: action-comedy Kadaikutty Singam and parody Thamizh Padam 2. They also give two shows a day to Jim Gaffigan: Noble Ape, a stand-up concert that gets to hit theaters before TV.
  • The Harvard Film Archive wraps their Luchino Visconti retrospective - and, apparently, their summer programming - this weekend, with Death in Venice on Friday, Conversation Piece on Saturday, and Ludwig on Sunday, all on 35mm film.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has what is arguably their signature film event, the Boston French Film Festival, featuring 12 Days (Friday/Saturday), Double Lover (Friday/Saturday), Back to Burgundy (Friday/Saturday), Faces Places (Saturday), Ismael's Ghosts (Sunday), Jealous (Sunday), A Paris Education (Sunday), The Royal Exchange (Thursday), Speak Up (Thursday), and Ava (Thursday).
  • Joe's Free Films shows a fair number of outdoor screenings this week, although fair warning, a couple of them are The Emoji Movie.

I'll see none of it, since I am writing this on a bus with iffy WiFi on the way to Montreal to marinate in sci-fi, horror, and martial-arts movies at the Fantasia International Film Festival for three weeks and one day. Crossing my fingers that Sorry to Bother You is still hanging around when I get back!

Sunday, July 08, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 2 July 2018 - 8 July 2018

Would have seen more, but it is really difficult to convince myself I was in the mood for certain movies. I mean, Hereditary is a 127-minute horror movie, and it is difficult to get up for that.

This Week in Tickets

On top of that, it was a week of trying to get ahead of stuff at work and not really finding myself leaving at a time that aligns with seeing a movie. Heck, I wound up staying a couple hours late on Thursday to make it easier to get to a 9pm show of Ant-Man and the Wasp so that I could fit it in around other things. It was pretty darn good, despite me being a dumbass jerk about getting the right 3D glasses. Also, according to Google Maps, it is often shorter for me to just walk home from Assembly Row than take transit, especially late at night, when the first bus is just late enough to make the transfer if Medford go awry.

Friday, I went to Boston Common for Brother of the Year, a so-so comedy notable for being the first Thai movie I can remember having this sort of quick release in North America. I would not mind if some of their horror movies, action, and things like Bad Genius followed in its footsteps.

Then it was time for a trip to Maine to exchange presents for cake with a couple of nieces. Amusingly, a couple of people there were surprised that they made comic books for kids, which suggests that someone in that industry has messed up big-time. They also got Paddington and its sequel, Early Man, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., because someone needs to introduce kids to the great silent comedians.

That was also something that ran at the Somerville's "Silents, Please" series a couple of months ago, and this Sunday also featured the latest installment of that series, Docks of New York, an fair drama that was impressively mounted, as you might expect coming from the end of the silent age.

No more of these for another month, since I'll be in Montreal for the Fantasia International Film Festival, trying to post daily updates but almost certainly falling behind. I'll be trying to get something onto my Letterboxd account in as close to real-time as possible, though.

Docks of New York

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm)

This kind of goes on for a 76-minute movie, although I suspect that what plays as kind of circular and indecisive 90 years later felt more like a familiar pattern to a working-class audience in 1928. It's a thin, simple story that probably plays a little better if you already know the general rhythm.

Even if that's the case, it's still gorgeous; there's not a shot in the film that doesn't look like a great still from the period, and some of the moving images are just as incredible, complex, dynamic stuff - there's an amazing shot from a scene that seemed to settle into two characters chatting but becomes a stunning look at the busy bar they're in. And there's little denying that when von Sternberg wants to hit you in the gut, he's good at it, more so because, even when he's going to show a light at the end of the tunnel, he never makes it feel like crass manipulation.

Plus, there are a couple of really nifty performances from Betty Compson as a suicidal woman finding cautious hope in the man who rescued her and Olga Baclanova as a harder-edged woman seeing her sailor husband for the first time in three years and rather ambivalent about it. They're a darn sight more entertaining than George Bancroft and Clyde Cook as their opposite numbers - they handle their roles well enough, but aren't given quite the multifaceted characterization needed to drive the movie, though Bancroft finds an interesting gear later on that makes a lot more click into place.

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Brother of the Year
Docks of New York

These Those Weeks In Tickets: 23 April 2018 - 6 May 2018

Four days until Fantasia starts (in July), so it's time to put the final bow on my blogging about Independent Film Festival Boston (back in April and May).

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

Might as well get right to it, then, without making the dumb mistake I did when writing it on the calendar page above:

The wise thing would be to take a break from movies for a few days, but Avengers: Infinity War had opened during the festival, and by then, folks on social media were already not spoiling but hinting enough at stuff so that you can see the shape of what they were working around, so no sense waiting any longer! Happily, it's pretty nifty, enough to make me feel pretty good about this insanely ambitious 22-film cycle ending with a bang next year.

With that film being an 800-pound gorilla, there was room for two Chinese movies the next weekend: The Trough turned out to be a pretty darn nifty Hong Kong crime story, while A or B was an interesting thriller that doesn't quite work. The sort that's good enough to make one interested in a remake, I guess.

After that,it was easier to get back into the habit of doing these weekly again, while also updating my Letterboxd page as well as the blog.

Avengers: Infinity War

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2018 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Infinity War probably won't be the crowning achievement of Marvel's massive experiment in moviemaking, even if the second half turns out to be terrific when it comes out next year. But that's kind of okay; as the first Avengers replicated the feel of a great team-up comic, this one represents the "event" where the scale is much of the point, where the creators are connecting not just threads but genres, with the spies, wizards, superheroes, and spacemen all having to figure out how to play by each other's rules.

So there's not really a great story, and the villain winds up too big to be really interesting (although it could be worse; Marvel's going to get to Kang eventually). Maybe they'll eventually find something that resonates in the center about how Thanos's philosophy and zero-sum outlook is that of a man who lacks imagination and the ability to create, even with all the power in the universe literally in the palm of his hand, the opposite of Tony Stark building new solutions, but it's not there yet. Still, you've got to admire the heck out of a movie that finds a teenage vigilante and his super-scientist mentor stowing away on a spaceship to rescue a wizard from aliens. For as much as Marvel has spent the last few years crossing things over in nifty ways, that's a great job of putting all the things you love together.

Is that kind of a lot for a while, with almost too much action? Yeah, but there's also no denying that these filmmaker are really good at it. The last act is enormous, an action set-piece that spans three solar systems, but it's paced, choreographed and rendered fantastically, and the action throughout isn't too shabby.

The film ends on a combined callback and tease, and given how much Marvel has done well over the past ten years, I wouldn't bet against them taking a movie mostly spent building up a villain who needed it and serving up a satisfying denouement with part two next year. They've done the like before.

Eighth Grade
Crime + Punishment / Shorts Allston
Leave No Trace / Rodents of Unusual Size
Tre Maison Dasan / The New Fire / Never Goin' Back / Don't Leave Home
Nothing Is Truer than Truth / We the Animals / The Third Murder / Beast

The World Before Your Feet / Under the Tree
Disobedience / Damsel
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Avengers: Infinity War
The Trough
A or B

This That Week In Tickets: 16 April 2018 - 22 April 2018

I think this was a kind of busy work week, although not necessarily in the way such weeks usually work out.

This Week in Tickets

It was a week of Agile project-planning stuff at work, which often means a lot of time stuck in meetings and unwanted after-work activities, but somehow I got left out of all of that and just got to work, which often got me on a roll so that I wound up working late those days. There's a valuable lesson there.

Still managed to find an evening to catch Beirut, which is pretty decent, although I do kind of wish Brad Anderson had somehow managed to wind up a little north of where he is, continually producing stuff that's right on the border of theatrical and VOD material.

With a quiet weekend release-wise, I opted to hit The Museum of Science, because it had been a while and some of the stuff on tap looked kind of neat. You can't go wrong with indoor lightening and dinosaur bones, but I've got to admit, having been to other cities' natural history museums in recent years and seeing that the MOS evolved from something similar, I wouldn't mind if we had something that sort of overwhelming in our city along with the earnestly educational, kid-friendly place we have. Of course, while there, I checked out what was in the two movie screens: a condensed version of The Martian in the 4D room and "Dream Big" in the Omnimax dome.

And then it was IFFBoston week, although most of those movies were only on my Letterboxd page before reaching the blog.

The Martian (condensed)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2018 in the Museum of Science 4D Theater (4D, digital 3D with motion)

The Martian is not a short movie in its original form, and there's apparently an extended version on home video because, well, Ridley Scott is a tinkerer by nature. I doubt that he was directly involved in this edition, which drops two full hours from the original running time to get down to about fifteen minutes, but adds in some rumble, sprays of mist, and something that pokes you in the small of the back. It's a small, somewhat cozy room, not the sort of thing that threatens to overwhelm the kids or immerse you in the same way that the OMNIMAX screen does.

It's kind of fun to see it this way, but I can't imagine what it's like for the kids in the room who haven't seen the whole feature. You get the story, and some of the jokes, but it's so compressed that it's hard to feel tension, or that one event was connected to another. It's one thing following the last, occasionally reminding us that this movie has a crazy good cast, and that's what this show is: Remembering what a neat movie The Martian is, but not quite re-experiencing it again.

"Dream Big"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2018 in the Museum of Science Mugar Omni Theater (first-run, OMNIMAX)

"Dream Big" is kind of a perfect science-museum movie, whether for its utter sincerity in its love of engineering, for the somewhat heavy-handed corporate (and organizational) sponsorship, or the fact that, when you put that behind you, it shows some pretty darn amazing things right up close, using the sheer size of the dome-shaped screen to overwhelm the visitor. You'll learn something about bridges, buildings, and solar vehicles, and likely be fascinated, even if they may otherwise seem like dry subjects and if narrator Jeff Bridges sometimes seems to be trying too hard.

To be fair, he seems to be trying too hard to me, a 44-year-old guy who has always been interested in this material, and it's important to remember that this movie isn't really for me, no matter how much I love larger-than-life presentations and technical minutiae. It's for the kids who visit the museum, who maybe haven't thought of this stuff, or maybe haven't thought that it relates to them. That's likely part of why the filmmakers choose engineers to follow with different accents, and why the majority of them are women. A similar Imax film shown during my elementary-school trips to the science-museum might not have been so diverse, balanced, or international.

I see this is coming out on video this month, and I'm sure schools will purchase it for when you sometimes need to fill a period in science class, but I don't know how effective it is without a huge screen putting you in places that desperately need bridges. It's a neat part of a museum of science visit, and that's all it needs to be.

Boston Museum of Science
The Martian 4D
Dream Big

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Brother of the Year

What a peculiar release this is: a Thai film that played its native land back in May and appears to have been picked up by an Australian distributor (though it does not appear on their website) that also booked it in some North American theaters with Chinese subtitles. Based upon what I saw at the 6:50pm show on Friday, it's not a great strategy, as the audience was just me until three or four other people came in as previews were starting to run. Considering that this is the first Thai movie I've seen get this sort of quick release, I wonder if there's not a real audience for Thai movies or if it just takes a few of these things being released for word to get out that these movies occasionally play for the Thai community to come out.

It's a bit odd to see something so utterly mainstream from Thailand, though - most of what we get in the U.S. is art-house stuff from Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Wisit Sasanatieng (though his stuff hasn't made it across that Pacific much in the last decade and holy crap they both have parts in an anthology film this year), maybe some martial arts, and always looking great, with even the likes of Bad Genius having slick cinematography. Admittedly, it's a big example of how movies used to get filtered through festivals and art-house distributors so that most of us didn't necessarily get a chance to see what folks in other countries were actually watching.

I do kind of wonder how this particular movie winds up getting this distribution and booking, though - it's not Bad Genius in terms of quality, so I wonder if it's a matter of a couple of the cast members being pop stars. It's awfully innocuous otherwise, but I gather something has to be first. Hopefully it won't be the last.

Nong Pee Teerak (Brother of the Year)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2018 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

The back end of Brother of the Year introduces a ton of new background characters we haven't seen before as it moves from Bangkok to the countryside, and it's kind of strange that I often felt like I knew where they were coming from more than the main characters, who actually go and explain themselves early in the movie. That's not to say that the main cast is bad at all, but that they are not as well-served by the story as they deserve, and it makes for a movie that's good enough to watch but not quite up to its potential.

It first introduces the audience to Chut (Sunny Suwanmethanont), a Bangkok advertising executive in his mid-twenties who has been happily living a player's life while his younger sister Jane (Urassaya Sperbund) has been attending college in Japan for the past four years. When she returns to the house their mother (Anchuleeon Buagaew) arranged for them to share a bit early, they're immediately reminded why they drive each other insane: To Jane, Chut is a gross, irresponsible jerk who only acts like a big brother when it comes to intimidating her boyfriends; Chut sees Jane as an obnoxious know-it-all who can never do wrong and got him saddled with a terrible nickname back in school. So, naturally, she immediately gets a job at one of his company's clients and starts dating her co-worker and his contact Moji (Nichkhun), thus bringing their sibling rivalry into a new arena.

That's not a terrible situation, especially since director Vithaya Thongyuyong and his three co-writers are willing to let Jane be a little harsh at times, but there's almost always something about the situation that doesn't quite seem right: Every push to get Jane and Moji together feels a bit too heavy-handed, without nearly enough passion on display to make it work, while the first scene with Jane and Chut in the same conference room seems to jump to the siblings cruelly lashing out a little too quickly. Some of the most interesting moments come toward the end, when Jane is having misgivings about the path she's choosing, but the film hasn't done much to set up her comments about how living in Japan as a foreigner is stressful, for example. It's an utterly believable thing for her to be concerned about, but the film has only given the audience momentary glimpses that she would be.

Full review on EFC

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Might have to see this one again, both because it's good and because, when I wasn't given a pair of glasses when my ticket was ripped, I picked one out of the bin beside the theater, and though they felt like the Imax glasses, they must have been RealD or something (why they were in that bin, I've got no idea), so the 3D just wasn't working for me in the first few scenes. Kudos to the manager at Assembly Row who figured out what was going on when I was probably being kind of a jackass who didn't even thank him properly afterward. It looked like the 3D was getting some of its best workout in those opening scenes, so I really should see it that way again, especially since I'll likely buy the 4K disc rather than the 3D one this fall.

It's a fun movie overall, though, and one of the easiest Marvels to recommend to folks with even younger kids, though I might advise my brothers to get their girls who haven't seen Infinity War out before the mid-credits scene that catches up with it. It can play as a fun cliffhanger, but I suspect it's gotta be a bit of a punch in the gut if this is your first and this kind of undercuts the feeling of victory.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax 3D)

Ant-Man and the Wasp is delightfully uncomplicated, as superhero movies go - its characters have missions to do what they see needs to be done, and the thing that drives them forward is by and large desperation and a ticking clock rather than malice. It brings in some basic villains to push things forward a little, but the filmmakers are by and large clever enough to recognize that those guys aren't really important. It's the cheerful opposite of conventional blockbuster wisdom, finding whimsy in small stakes rather than trying to be serious enough to match its apocalyptic possibilities.

It does start with the sort of big action these things usually end on, fleshing out the previous Ant-movie's flashback about the last mission of original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the winsome Wasp - the one from which she never returned, having had to shrink down to quantum scale to short out a missile's guidance computer. She's still alive, though, able to send a telepathic message to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who had previously done the same but come back. Problem #1: Lang is under house arrest for his previous actions as an unlicensed super-hero, and forbidden from contacting Hank and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Problem #2 is The Ghost (Hanna John-Kamen), an assassin who can walk through walls and is also looking for the tech Hank needs to get retrieve Janet - which brings them to Problem #3, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a black-market dealer who doesn't want to sell unless he can get a piece of whatever Hank is building.

There are five credited writers on this sequel, and whichever one came up with the idea of twist the heist formula so that Lang and his teams are trying to break into various items to steal a building (Hank's miniaturized lab) rather than the other way around deserves some sort of bonus. It's the sort of playful inversion that brings a smile to the audience's face every time they play with it - Hope not only has a miniaturized getaway car for every situation, but stores them in a Hot Wheels carrying case, while the inside of Hank's lab feels like a giant circuitry set with man-sized ants doing the work - challenging the audience to figure out just how a scene can play out and not needing an excuse for why the characters do it like this beyond someone thinking it would be fun.

Full review on EFC

Friday, July 06, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 6 July 2018 -12 July 2018

I'm not sure what is the bigger surprise on an otherwise Marvel-dominated week - that an entry that kind of seemed tucked off to the side at IFFBoston is getting a decent-sized release, or that this week's mainstream Asian import comes from Thailand.

  • That film getting the unexpectedly decent release is Three Identical Strangers, a documentary about identical triplets separated at birth that apparently gets more surprising with every twist, playing not just The Coolidge Corner Theatre but the Somerville, Kendall Square, West Newton, and Boston Common. It's not quite so big an opening as another documentary opening this week, but Whitney is telling the story of a beloved musician who died young, with exceptional access to Whitney Houston's family and friends to tell the story; that one's at the Coolidge, Kendall Square, the Embassy, Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere.

    Another IFFBoston selection, Leave No Trace, expands this weekend, adding the Coolidge and Boston Common to Kendall Square, with the Coolidge having producer Linda Reisman on hand for a Q&A at 7pm Friday. July also has the Coolidge switching up their midnight program to "Truly Killer", with Summer of Sam playing on 35mm Friday night and My Friend Dahmer on Saturday. Monday's Big Screen Classic is Apocalypse Now.
  • The First Purge opened Wednesday at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere; it serves as the origin story for the series. The big release 3D/deluxe is Ant-Man and the Wasp, a fun sequel where nobody is trying to rule or destroy the world and that lets a pretty great cast (Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, and Walton Goggins) get dropped into a lot of size-changing, ant-summoning adventure. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), The Studio Cinema (2D only), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including 2D/3D RPX), the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D & Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Revere (including XPlus & MX4D), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Fenway has the last of three screening of Fireworks on Saturday, this one dubbed into English. Those who like their anime in more bite-sized morsels can catch the Attack on Titan Season 3 Premiere at Boston Common, Fenway, and Assembly Row on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • There's also a fair-sized opening for Boundaries, with Vera Farmiga as a frazzled single mother who winds up road-tripping with her irascible father (Christopher Plummer) after he is kicked out of his nursing home, only to find him arranging detours to unload a bunch of marijuana It's at the Somerville, Kendall Square, and West Newton. The Kendall also has a one-week booking of The Cakemaker, in which a German pastry chef goes to Israel to visit the grave of his lover, only to strike up a relationship with the man's widow.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens Zama, a festival favorite directed by Lucretia Martel that follows Daniel Giménez Cacho as a colonial bureaucrat hoping for a transfer, presumably out of the New World, but mostly finding troubles of his own making. That plays Friday to Thursday (except for Wednesday), although the 9:30pm slot is given to a new restoration of horror classic The Changeling from Friday to Wednesday. Thursday serves as a preview of the summer's "Heroic!: Women Who Inspire Series", as Caitlin Moran sticks around after her author event earlier in the evening to introduce Juno.
  • Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway both continue Bollywood bio Sanju, with Fenway also showing Kannada-language film Amma I Love You on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

    Over at Boston Common, the Thai comedy Brother of the Year opens, courtesy of an Australian distributor, and from the preview, with Chinese subtitles. It's a cute-looking thing, about a young woman about to be married to a nice-enough guy, except that the adult brother who has been relying on her is apparently not ready to let her go and live on his own.
  • The Somerville Theatre continues their Midnight Specials series, with 35mm prints of Good Burger on Friday (with giveaways from Tasty Burger) and Summer Camp Nightmare on Saturday. On Sunday, they've got a "Silents, Please!" 35mm screening of Docks of New York, a less-screened but well-respected drama by Josef von Sternberg, with Jeff Rapsis accompanying. Then on Wednesday, they start their "Play It Cool II" series, with this year's gimmick that half of each double feature is chosen by the Somerville's Ian Judge, and half by guest programmer Julia Marchese. To kick things off, Ian goes with Steve McQueen in Bullitt, while Julia picks Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Roger Ebert's best-known screenplay).
  • The Harvard Film Archive is nearing the end of their Luchino Visconti retrospective, but they'll work their projectionist hard on Friday with the 4-hour Ludwig before showing Conversation Piece on Saturday and Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (also the month's "Cinema of Resistance" selection) on Sunday.
  • It's a very quiet week for The Museum of Fine Arts's film program: First Friday of a new month means an On The Fringe show, in this case a 35mm print of Welcome to the Dollhouse, but then they don't program anything until Thursday, when they open their French Film Festival with a "Sunset Cinema" screening of Faces Places by Agnès Varda & JR.
  • The Regent Theatre will welcome Mickey Dolenz on Friday for a meet-and-greet and on-stage interview before screening Head, which is still a heck of a thing fifty years on. After that, they pick finish up their Independence Day screenings of 1776, with matinees and evening shows on Saturday & Sunday.
  • After accompanying Docks of New York at the Somerville on Sunday, Jeff Rapsis will head across town for a silent-Western double feature at the Aeronaut Brewery: William S. Hart in romance Hell's Hinges & Buster Keaton in the comic Go West.
  • The Boston Jewish Film Festival begins their "Summer Cinematheque" series with Longing at the The West Newton Cinema on Wednesday. It is listed as sold out with no indication of a rush line, so it may be worth checking to see if others in the series are of interest a few weeks in advance.
  • In addition to Faces Places Joe's Free Films shows a full schedule of outdoor screenings this week, from Scott Pilgrim at Bloc Somerville to multiple places to see The Lion King and The Pacifier (of all things).

Busy week of non-movie events for me (part of why I hit the early Ant-Man and the Wasp yesterday), and I'm not exactly sure how to fit the stuff I'd like to catch (or catch up on) in before heading to Montreal & Fantasia on Thursday, but it's worth a shot.