Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Cool Fish

A surprisingly packed house for this one, making me wonder if anyone in it is a big star in China that I just don't know about. A little poking around indicates that Ma Yinyin may me some sort of singer, but maybe not. Heck if I know. Part of the fun of going to these Chinese movies (and other foreign films that get quick American releases) is that I'm kind of disconnected from the hype machine or much sense of how one character must be important because he's being played by a big star or whether someone is playing against type and can just enjoy it (or not) for what I see without baggage, but I do also wonder what the hook is to get people in.

Anyway, this one seems kind of unlucky in its timing, coming out five days before the Thanksgiving releases and not actually having anything on the ticketing websites past Monday. It's worth a look if you like this sort of movie, but act quick.

Huang Qiang Zou Ban (A Cool Fish)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

A Cool Fish is a genuinely screwy movie by the time the credits roll, and I'm curious as to whether the script was never quite finished or if the film got screwed with at some point, whether by the studio or some other entity. It feels like it was going to be a slickly made crime movie where everything was either on a collision course tied together, but the filmmakers never actually get everything in sync beyond random coincidence, and while it could have worked as fate, that gets undone by someone demanding things wrap up neatly.

It starts out as a real mess - two would-be crooks with the nicknames of "Big Head" (Pan Binlong) and "Bra" (Zhang Yu) have just about everything possible go wrong in as bizarre a way possible, right down to when they break into an apartment to hide out only to find it occupied by quadriplegic Jiaqi (Ren Suxi), who manages to have a number of laughs at their expense and seems to be counting on the fact that the can't let someone who has seen their faces live. Across town, Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) is being humiliated as he works on a building site as a security guard, with shady investor Lin Wu (Deng Gang) holding mock funerals for absentee developer Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), who seems to be hiding from his debts/eloping with mistress Liu Wenhong (Cheng Yi). Ma's attention is drawn to the robbery in part because he suspects the gun used is the one that was dug up on the site, and solving this case might get him back into the police department as an auxiliary officer. He could use that - daughter Yiyi (Deng Enxi) has tuition coming due, even if she does appear to be dating Gao's son Xiang (Ning Huanyu). All those folks and more running around and the "masseuse" that the police were interviewing in the flash-forward, "Zhenzhen" Zhao Hongxia (Ma Yinyin) hasn't even been brought up.

In retrospect, the film maybe isn't as built on unnecessary coincidence and connection as may seem the case at the time, with several plot threads actually less intertwined than one might assume (it doesn't help that most descriptions of the film note that two characters are siblings which gives that connection undue importance in the viewer's head). Director Rao Xiaozhi and co-writer Lei Zhilong still have trouble meshing them, though, and have enough going on that by the time they've cut the film down to something appropriately fast-paced, the chaotic last act is turning on two extremely minor characters having a close connection that was just recently revealed but which still doesn't feel particularly important.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 November 2018 - 20 November 2018

Thanksgiving next Thursday, so it's a short movie weekend, but a potentially busy one, even with the snow.

  • But it's one where Widows opens, with Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Williams among those playing the title characters who must complete their husbands' heist after things go south. It's getting great reviews as Steve "Not That One, Obviously" McQueen's best yet, playing at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    There's also Instant Family, with Marky Mark and Rose Byrne as a couple who, planning to adopt who wind up taking in three siblings rather than the one tween they expected. It plays Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The big 3D blockbuster this weekend is probably Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second entry in this Harry Potter prequel series which asks the audience to make the difficult choice between rooting for a secretive cabal that intent on maintaining a segregated society where power comes from their bloodline and Johnny Depp, a true no-win situation despite the first one being kind of fun. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including 2D/3D RPX), the Seaport (including 2D/3D Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Revere (including XPlus and MX4D), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Boston Common, with a bunch of screens to fill, gets a jump on Oscar season with a couple of limited openings: Green Book stars Mahershala Ali as musician Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as the driver and bodyguard hired to assist him as he tours the Jim Crow South, while The Front Runner stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, whose extramarital affair famously sunk his Presidential campaign in 1988. A couple others expand Boy Erased adds the Capitol and the Embassy to the Coolidge, the Kendall, and Boston Common; A Private War opens in Revere while already at the Kendall and the Common. Fenway has matinees of The Last Race, centered around a stock car track in a small town.

    November's Ghibli Fest picture is Castle in the Sky at Fenway and Revere, dubbed Sunday and Tuesday, subtitled on Monday; Revere has Slap Shot on Sunday afternoon. Several places have special screenings of the new Robin Hood on Monday, a day before the usual Tuesday previews and Wednesday opening day.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up one of the best and oddest from the IFFBoston Fall Focus, Border, which starts from a Swedish customs officer who can smell guilt on smugglers and gets stranger from there, but also smarter and more fascinating; it's from the director of Shelley and the writer of Let the Right One In, and bounces around between screens. They also have limited matinee screenings of Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, mostly in the Goldscreen but with Sunday's show a special "Wide Lens" presentation with directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner on hand to discuss their documentary about a suspicious prison death made as the situation unfolded.

    The Midnight Meltings wrap up this weekend with a 35mm print of Larry Cohen's The Stuff on Friday and one of Street Trash on Saturday. Monday's Big Screen Classic is The Battle of Algiers.
  • Speaking of the Fall Focus, Kendall Square picks up Korean film Burning, with Yoo Ah-in as an isolated young man whose life takes a turn when a wealthy, potentially dangerous American (Steven Yuen) enters. They also have Argentina's Oscar submission, El Angel, about a young, innocent-looking thief.

    Apparently letting Netflix rent a screen for Outlaw King worked out well enough to keep it around for a couple shows a day while also opening The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and oddball anthology Western from the Coen Brothers featuring Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, and more in a project built to be both a feature and a series on the streaming service. So that looks like two trips out on the 70 line in as many weeks.
  • Thugs of Hindostan continues at Apple Fresh Pond, which also picks up Telugu films Amar Akbar Anthony and Taxiwaala.

    Last Letter sticks around for a couple shows a day at Boston Common, which adds A Cool FIsh to its Chinese film slate; that one looks like some sort of frantic crime movie about a security guard looking for his sister's kidnappers.
  • The Brattle Theatre finishes up their Recent Raves series before the holiday, with a double feature of Madeline's Madeline & Skate Kitchen on Friday, Hal playing with subject Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (the latter on 35mm) Saturday afternoon, Let the Corpses Tan Sunday night, and Blindspotting on Monday. There's a free 35mm "Elements of Cinema" showing of Near Dark on Monday, and Trash Night on Tuesday.
  • The Boston Jewish Film Festival comes to a close this weekend, with screenings at the Brattle (Saturday/Sunday), the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater (Saturday), the MFA (Saturday/Sunday), the Somerville (Saturday/Monday), West Newton (Sunday), and the Center for the Arts in Natick (Monday). The closing night show is Redpemption at the Somerville on Monday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues their Tony Conrad series with a selection of his video creations on Friday evening, with an Early West German Film selection, The Glass Tower, later that night, with an encore of The Day the Rains Came (preceded by 35mm featurette "Asylrecht") on Sunday afternoon. They take a slight detour from that to welcome German filmmaker Valeria Grisebach for the rest of the weekend, with her presenting Western on Saturday, Longing (on 35mm) Sunday, and Be My Star (also on 35mm) Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts is mostly hosting the Jewish Film Festival, but as they're off on Friday evening, they have screenings of Milford Graves Full Mantis and John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.
  • The Museum of Science adds (or is it returns?) "Rocky Mountain Express" to their Omnimax film rotation as of Saturday, part of the new "All Aboard! Trains at Science Park" exhibit that also includes a 4D Thomas the Tank Engine film.
  • The Regent Theatre has Boys From Nowhere, a documentary about Boston garage punk bands in the 1970s, on Friday night, with filmmakers introducing it and one of the bands in question, Nervous Eaters, playing a set afterward.
  • Cinema Salem has Danish one-man show The Guilty in their 18-seater.


Down for Widows, Burning, and Buster Scruggs, even if that's a hike. Maybe A Cool Fish, too.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 5 November 2018 - 11 November 2018

Hey, I made some progress on recent Blu-ray orders, in part because scheduling got weird with other stuff.

This Week in Tickets

First up: I suppose there were more pressing gaps than The Great Buster: A Celebration on Tuesday, especially since I know it's going to be part of the Brattle's "Keaton-esque" series Christmas week, but I was kind of looking for complete escapism on Election Night after a bit of hubris a couple years ago, when I went to Mad Max: Fury Road (Black and Chrome) with some comments about celebrating strong women destroying bloated would-be dictators and crowed about it on social media. No chicken-counting this year, though things went better on that count.

Thursday's Plan A got pushed off because the MBTA was just uncooperative enough to make getting to Fenway in time for Suspiria to start, so I detoured at Park Street for a night-before show of Overlord, which turned out to be a pretty good time - not exactly elevated horror, but quality pulp that knows what it's going for. Regular opening night was given to Shunji Iwai's Last Letter, a pretty spiffy little movie that marks his first work in China and apparently serves as a sort of "premake" to a Japanese version coming next year, though this one felt more like a Japanese movie than a Chinese one.

Saturday, I made good on Thursday's plans to check out Suspiria, and that didn't go great at all - the Red Line was running shuttle buses so I got to the theater just in time for the start with no time for getting snacks or soda, and it just wasn't happening for me. Not sure why, because a 1pm movie doesn't knock you out on its own, but this one had me out of it a lot. On top of that, the AMC Stubs app apparently thought I was trying to buy overlapping tickets when I got out and wanted one for a movie starting at 4pm (it was a tight fit), and by the time I figured it wasn't going to happen, the movie had already started. So I headed home and decided to put on one of the discs I'd recently ordered from Hong Kong, but it was in 3D and my glasses weren't charged. So plan B again, An Inspector Calls. That Chinese New Year's movie from a few years back was fun to look at and kind of goofy but sputtered badly toward the end.

The next day, it was off to Waltham because that would likely be the only chance to see Outlaw King (or, as it's shown onscreen, "Outlaw/King") in a theater, because when Netflix says their movies are playing in "Select Theaters", they mean the ones that might let them buy out a screen for a week even if it might be empty and not selling popcorn because you can see the movie at home. As it turned out, the movie itself was okay, but maybe not worth the trip out there. The kicker is that there was a preview for another Netflix movie opening there the next weekend, so I'll probably be there again.

Getting to the Embassy and back meant nothing was more convenient to see than what I had at home (and it's starting to get too cold to just kill time), but by now my 3D glasses were charged and I could watch The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet that way, which was good, because the 3D effects were kind of the best part of it.

And that's another week. Here's the obligatory link to my Letterboxd page, for those that like first drafts and not running at the mouth about how I saw a movie.

Suspiria (2018)

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

I had high hopes for this when the confirmation number for my ticket ended in "666" - I have to think that's a good horror movie omen - and finding what i figured would be a room with a few people mostly full, but it really did nothing for me. Had me dozing off during a 1pm show, actually.

I could see bits of a good movie in there, with great design, an eagerness to connect to something more concrete than the original, and some genuinely and literally twisted bits. But 2.5 hours is a lot to spend with characters who are more or less blanks in the service of an ending that doesn't mean much and is just stylish enough in most spots that some weak CGI gore can bring snickers. It also doesn't help much at all that so much of the finale wound up focusing on the wrong Tilda Swinton character, using the Holocaust to sell a kind of silly stunt

If this thing was an hour shorter, I'd be open to giving it another chance - it's a rare movie that's actually dull enough to make you drowsy ten minutes in, and this one's got the ambition to not really be boring - but at this length? Not likely.

Fau wa yin (An Inspector Calls)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I was attracted to this one by a fun cast and kind of had a good time for the first little while as a bunch of colorful settings and equally colorful characters came in, only to be really confused at the abrupt, nonsensical finale. Apparently this is par for the course for Hong Kong Chinese New Year movies; that the thing was adapted from a play not originally written as a comedy makes it goofier and more bizarre.

Kind of a shame that the filmmakers never really figure out where they want to go; the film starts with what seems like a really nifty combination of garish color and dark comedy and some delightfully crazed performances by Louis Koo and Eric Tsang, though it's tremendously frustrating how determined they are to waste Chrissie Chau. I guess you can see the original work underneath it and where a comic adaptation could have been great if they'd gone for sharper satire underneath the farce, though it's entirely possible (even likely) that a Hong Kong native sees what is being skewered and pronounces it vicious. The impulse seems to be there all the way through the film, but winds up feeling undirected in a potentially paranoid last sequence that instead becomes an orgy of cameos.

Not that I can truly hate a movie where one (or four) of those cameos is a doo-wop band featuring a digitally-multiplied Donnie Yen, no matter how dumb and pointless a joke that may be. The over-the-top nonsense is kind of the point for these things.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

If this turns out to be the only chance Jean-Pierre Jeunet has to work with 3D cameras in his career - he hasn't directed a feature film since and it wasn't used quite so much when he made Micmacs six years earlier - that will be a bit of a shame. When he's pointing a camera at the landscape, creating pop-up books to set the scene, or otherwise placing the cameras just far enough off the normal spot to both get down to his young hero's level and highlight the depth of field, he makes a beautiful film.

Unfortunately, he also makes what is likely the most insufferable film of his career, which is an impressive feat, because he is Jean-Pierre Jeunet and made Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. Its protagonist is a ten-year-old boy genius who lies constantly and may be completely insane, no decision anybody makes ever makes any sense, and the finale plays like it's supposed to be some sort of play on exploitation and media feeding frenzies, but it's so accelerated and cartoonish as to be ridiculous; I honestly couldn't figure what Judy Davis's character was trying to do in the movie's homestretch. It's trying to be satirical but seems to have no understanding of its targets at all.

And it's boring. Young T.S. Spivet somehow manages to cross three quarters of the country without ever having anything that feels like an adventure. For much of the movie, nobody is doing anything or even having anything happen to them, meaning Spivet has to go off on asides seemingly to fill time. It's a waste of a good cast - there's got to be an interesting movie about how Helena Bonham Carter's distracted entomologist and Callum Keith Rennie met and fell in love for instance, and I'm a bit surprised that Niamh Wilson, the actress playing T.S.'s older sister, hasn't done more than Canadian TV since; her character is a broadly-written teenage drama queen, but one I believed in.

Apparently this barely got a U.S. release two years after it first hit the festival circuit, with the Weinstein Company cutting a few f-bombs out and probably not releasing it in 3D theatrically, much less on video, meaning it lost its strongest element. The import Hong Kong Blu-ray was the original cut and included 3D, at least looking nice, but that's the best you can say about it. That Jeunet hasn't done a feature since isn't completely surprising - his projects always take a few years to come together, the price of doing elaborate films outside Hollywood - but I wonder if this may have basically ended his career, making producers too skittish to pay for the type of movie he's best at.


The Great Buster
Overlord
Last Letter
Suspiria '18
Outlaw King
An Inspector Calls
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thugs of Hindostan

Silly thought I had upon seeing the ads for this - isn't "thug" a word that we're supposed to kind of move away from, especially when talking about South Asian people, as not quite a slur but for having arisen from a sensationalist racist stereotype? I thought I'd read that somewhere. A shame if so, because it's a nicely harsh four-letter word can't help but come out with contempt; it's also how I remember a former co-worker's Irish accent, in that the word almost sounded like "tug" when he said it.

Oddly, when people use it in this movie, it's very much in the modern generically-violent-robber sense, to the point where I think Firangi calls other people "thugs" even though he's the one who joins a caravan with the express purpose of selling them out, although I didn't take the best notes there. Interesting that this was actually a part of the movie, as the Thuggee cult got fairly distorted from those supposed origins as Brits and Americans needed exotic villains. Despite what some places seem to be claiming, it doesn't seem to be any sort of adaptation of Confessions of a Thug.

In completely unrelated discussion, I wish Apple Cinemas would become a place with a kitchen or just the means to heat up a pizza or something. Three hour movies starting at 6:30 mean no real supper options means making a meal of nachos.

Thugs of Hindostan

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2018 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge/Fresh Pond #1 (first-run, DCP)

It's about ten minutes into Thugs of Hindostan before someone is swinging on a rope for the first time, and let me level with you People swinging through the air on a rope to escape danger or enter a fray is a large part of what I want from a swashbuckling adventure, along with swordfights, cannons, and sneering villains. This movie has all that along with a few musical numbers and actual mustache twirling, and while it sometimes strains under the pressure of including all of that, it's still a pretty good time.

In 1795, almost the entire Indian subcontinent had fallen under the control of the British East India Tea Company, represented by John Clive (Lloyd Owen), and he had his eyes on the last remaining free kingdom. King Mirza Sikander Baig (Ronit Roy) prepared to fight back, but Clive gets the drop on him, with only pre-teen Princess Zafira escaping with legendary warrior Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan). Eleven years later, Clive has total control, though Khudabaksh (aka "Azaad") and Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh) lead a persistent rebellion. Clive recruits informat Firangi (Aamir Khan) to find his hidden base after Firangi crashes a whites-only performance of the dancer Suraiyya (Katrina Kaif), and with the help of his old friend - hard-drinking mystic Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), Firangi soon manages to find himself on a merchant ship that Azaad attacks. Can he become a hero like Azaad and Zafira, or will his mercenary nature prevail?

As much as people generally like the idea of pirate stories as swashbuckling period adventures, audiences have often been apt to look at them as cheesy or embarrassing when it comes time to buy a ticket, so filmmakers feel the need to cram all they can in to what they probably figure is the only one they'll ever get to make. Writer/director Vijay Krishna Acharya, who previously made the hit Dhoom 3, is guilty of that - not only is there so much swinging on ropes, but characters are forced to walk the plank and the post-intermission half of the movie is working overtime to cram every possible permutation of the basic story in. The budget doesn't quite stretch - though the production built some nice sets on land including the ships, they don't appear to be seaworthy, and animating water and boats in daylight is harder than it looks, before you even get to the fire.

Full review at EFC.

Intimate Strangers

I've beat the drum about how foreign film distribution has changed a ton over the last decade a lot, but the path of this one is just genuinely weird in ways that kind of makes me dizzy. At first, I noted that this was the sort of film which a few years ago might have done well in the boutique houses, but instead of having a run in its home country, it gets snapped up immediately, and before it's been out in its native South Korea for much more than a week, it's playing American theaters courtesy of an Australian distributor that is also subtitling it in Chinese for its North American release. There's a lot to unpack there - would it eventually get broader play in the U.S. if it had had time to go through the old-school distributors, winding up with Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, or Samuel Goldwyn, and playing places that specialize in good-for-you foreign films rather than multiplexes that play Asian movies that have been rushed to play in front of expatriate/immigrant audiences before they can get it pirated? Or would it just have played in front of whiter audiences that way? Is this just an example of how the old system of foreign film distribution is breaking down?

Well, it's not just that, because the end credits reveal that this is a remake of a 2016 Italian film, which played Tribeca that year and got pretty good reviews internationally. You would think that Perfetti Sconoscuiuti ("Perfect Strangers") might have gotten U.S. distribution, although, given the speed of the old system, it's entirely possible that it could still be working its way through the pipeline, with the labels mentioned above trying to strike a bargain. Even more than the Korean remake, that seems like something the art-house guys would go for.

(Fun trivia: Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" seemed like an odd song to be a ringtone which becomes part of the soundtrack in the Korean movie, but it apparently traces back to the Italian one, and I wonder how it works there.)

So here's the thing - while I'm writing the review for this one, I get an email from a publicist stating that a Mexican version ("Perfectos Desconocidos") will be released by Lionsgate/Pantelion on January 11th. The Italian version is barely mentioned, as an afterthought at the end of the email, and although a part of me thinks that this is kind of insanely close for two versions of the same movie to come out in the U.S., part of me is also thinking that the overlap for these two movies is basically guys like me who are going to use the heck out of their AMC Stubs A-List even if they're the only person in the theater who needs the subtitles. Pantelion and Tangren may be releasing what is effectively the same movie two months apart, but they're targeting two different audiences.

But are we done? No! Those two remakes are apparently the sixth and seventh takes on this material - it has already been remade in Greece, Spain, Turkey, and France. The Mexican one, in fact, is opening there about a year after the Spanish one opened in its home country (heck, it played Mexico in December of 2017). And here's the kicker - at least a couple of these movies have a lot of talent behind them. The Spanish one is directed by Álex de la Iglesia and the French one by Fred Cavayé, and while I guess de la Iglesia doesn't have quite the fandom in North America that he used to and Cavayé is basically a guy who made one movie that got some attention here (Point Blank) even though Mea Culpa also made it over… It's not unreasonable to expect those versions to have gotten some North American attention. Heck, it turns out I was pretty impressed with The Fatal Encounter from the Korean director, so it's not like he's a no-one.

What to make of this? I honestly don't know. Maybe this is just a good idea for a movie that plays better when localized, and the Italian studio was smart enough to realize this and started to franchise it immediately, and in America that led to someone like The Weinstein Company getting both remake and distribution rights and deciding to sit on the original. It's happened before. Maybe that's what's happening now, and it's not just a matter of the pipeline from Europe to the United States being a dated anachronism while the one from Asia (minus Japan) is fast for the hits but invisible to those who have traditionally watched foreign films… But I think that may be more the case than not, and when the original Perfetti Sconoscuiuti and its more notable variations do arrive in the U.S., they'll just quietly be on VOD or some streaming service with zero fanfare. This doesn't seem ideal.

Ah, well. In unrelated but amusing news, the director of this movie, Lee Jae-kyu, has chosen a Western name ("J.Q.") that both tickles me and makes me feel very silly when I include both at once.

Wanbyeokhan Tain (Intimate Strangers)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

Intimate Strangers is in its second week atop the South Korean box office and I readily admit that it's hard to imagine a remake doing the same here (or a threemake, considering this is an adaptation of the Italian Perfect Strangers); it's the sort of relationship-oriented movie for adults that has a hard time finding a place these days. It's a pretty good one, though, and I can't fault it for using kind of a cheap trick to keep people talking afterward. It works, after all.

Doctors Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo) - him in cosmetic surgery, her in psychiatry - have just moved into a fancy new place, and as such are having a housewarming party with the guys Seok-ho has been friends with since meeting in kindergarten 40 years ago and their partners: Cranky lawyer Tae-so (Yu Hae-jin) and his wife Soo-hyun (Yun Jung-ah), who has been engrossed in a poetry class of late; serial entrepreneur Joon-mo (Lee Seo-jin) and younger wife Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), whose family helped finance his new restaurant; and Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho), a genial fellow despite being recently divorced and out of work, whose girlfriend can't make it because she's sick. There was a fifth member of the group, but he recently got caught in an affair with a girl half his age, and when the guys comment that he was foolish to leave his phone unlocked, Ye-jin suggests a game - they leave their phones on the table so that everyone can see all the messages and notifications, and calls get answered on speakerphone.

Even if this wasn't a direct remake of another film, there's a long and storied history of friendly gatherings going right to hell because something throws the equilibrium off or someone unexpected shows up. Here, the "game" with the phones is certainly more than a bit artificial - it is the sort of thing that people might talk about but easily find an excuse to bow out of in real life - but it turns out to be a nifty way of maintaining focus: A text message or call can pop up, wreak some havoc, and then not hang around, unnecessarily stealing the spotlight from the characters whose everyday hypocrisy is supposed to be the focal point, or be awkwardly shuffled off-stage. There are certainly downsides to this sort of upper-middle-class melodrama only briefly stepping outside of its comfort zone, but it certainly allows a piece with a potentially unwieldy ensemble to do good work without getting pulled in other directions.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Outlaw/King

I joke often about feeling a weird sort of victory when I manage to see a Netflix film despite not having Netflix, but I've got to admit, hauling my butt out to Waltham to see something as so-so as Outlaw/King doesn't really feel like an accomplishment. Indeed, it doesn't even seem peculiar anymore, even though I used to pass near the Landmark Embassy every day on my way to work. Taking the 70 bus now has me curious about the changes along the way rather than feeling strong opinions on them - I notice there is no longer signage for an upcoming movie theater at the Arsenal Mall, although it may just be that they're starting construction on it.

Still, this bit's a bummer:



The Construction Zone and The Rail Yard were cool connected toy stores (with the Aisle 9 section kind of neat too) that closed down way before I could really shop for my Lego-loving nieces there, and the oldest of those girls is now 12; she's probably got some blocks I got there. Which is to say, it's been closed a long time, and I always get kind of mad when I pass places I liked that clearly haven't been replaced years later, wondering how many times the place just went under and how many times they were forced out/under by landlords who thought they were easily replaceable. It looks like this building is finally going to be torn down and replaced by mixed-use development in the near future, and maybe it'll include a neat toy store. Still, it seems like there's something wrong with a system that leads to this.

I must admit that I was a little surprised that the Embassy hadn't been renovated into a place with recliners and a bar like its sister cinema in Kendall Square; it's been a while since I've been there and sometimes I just assume that these upgrades are going on everywhere. Instead it still reminds me of the theaters I went to as a teenager and young adult: Six screens packed into a fairly small footprint, the freezer with the frozen treats an undisguised extension of the concession stand, just enough space in the lobby for people to move through but not sit around. There's oversized European posters of great art-house films on the wall, even though this place transitioned from boutique films to more mainstream bookings when the Circle Cinema shut down and it became the closest theater to a bunch of people.

And, now, the occasional Netflix movie, so that they can tell directors that their film opened in the major markets even though Waltham is, at best, "Boston Area". About ten of us took in the first matinee of the day, and at least three of us used MoviePass for it, burning one of our three tickets for something that we could already see at home. I noticed right away that the film had a 'scope aspect ration (about 2.39:1), and since it was projected on a common-height screen, it wound up kind of being the same sort of experience that you'd get at home. I'm not sure why Netflix is making movies shaped like this (I don't think Outlaw/King is an acquisition) - most every screen these movies will be shown on is 1.78:1, and you're wasting precious pixels this way, especially since there are a few scenes that could really use the height. This looks more respectable, though, and that seems to be the push for them right now, so long as they can do it without a lot of effort on their part.

Ah, well. At least I got a chance to see this one, which isn't always the case, before poking around an enjoyably overstuffed comic shop and seeing these signs in the window of the local art center:



Remind me to check that place out the next time "only way to see a Netflix movie on the big screen" pulls me out to Waltham.

Outlaw/King

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2018 in Landmark Embassy #6 (first-run, DCP)

A local theater has a 70mm/widescreen festival that includes a lot of epics of the sort that Outlaw/King is looking to be, and though Charlton Heston seems like ridiculous casting for 75% of the ones he's in, I wonder what a Robert the Bruce picture with him in the lead would have been like, or at least one made to dazzle on a huge Cinemascope screen rather than one shot knowing that it will get 99.9% if its audience on Netflix. Maybe it had the same problems, but maybe it stands a chance of overpowering them with sheer theatricality and spectacle.

It opens in 1304; Scotland's recent rebellion has been quelled, but with no clear heir to the Scottish throne, King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane) has moved in to take control, insisting the Scottish lords pay tribute. Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) is one of them, and also soon betrothed to Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) in hopes of forging a tighter alliance. England squeezes Scotland for more than it can give, leading Robert to start to contemplate rebellion. In the way is John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), whose claim to the Scottish throne is roughly equal to Robert's own, and might improve if he betrays Robert to the king - and Robert kills him before that can happen. Even without that turn of events, Scotland is weary of war and his forces will face a much larger army led by the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a onetime friend of Robert's who has grown sadistic and merciless, flying the dragon flag to indicate that the rules of chivalry no longer apply.

Outlaw/King has all the pieces of a classic epic, with castles and tyrants and battles and reluctant but passionate romance, even if the weirdly-punctuated title sounds more self-consciously modern. Director and co-writer David Mackenzie makes a go of it here, and there are a few impressive pieces, most notable a nighttime sneak attack by English forces where the flaming arrows pop on screen and you get a sense of scale and clear purpose not always present in the others. It's Mackenzie's best action direction in a movie where the battles seem as obligatory as the moment early on where King Edwards launching a bomb at a castle because they spent three months building the trebuchet - you need clashes at certain points, but with the story being told (where the Scottish forces burn their own occupied castles to deny them to the English), it's hard to feel any sort of momentum and result from all those blobs of tarnished chainmail slashing at each other, especially when a large part of the finale is "kill the horses" (it's fortunate that there's been nice work on CGI and animatronic horses recently).

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Last Letter '18

Boy, can checking up on what's coming out in a given week supply you with interesting surprises. I was kind of ready to pass on this week's Chinese opening - it sure looked like the kind of sentimental thing I often pass up - until I noticed the name on it, recalled being pretty fond of some of his Japanese stuff (although I suspect I haven't seen as much as I feel like I've seen), and said, fine, first priority this weekend.

And it was crowded, even more than the big Chinese movies usually are. I suspect part of that is that Boston Common hasn't had a lot of new Chinese material since Chinese Memorial Day a month or so ago, with Project Gutenberg doing a good job of hanging around for those who hadn't seen it already. Folks were ready for something to show up, and this came with a pretty good reputation not just for Iwai but for co-stars Zhou Xun and Zhang Zifeng being nominated for the Golden Horse Awards.

Still, there were clearly some there for Iwai; a fellow asked if I was a fan as we were filing out, and I honestly said that I don't know if I could count myself as a fan, but I like what he's done that I've seen (which may just be The Case of Hana and Alice and A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, though I seem to recall watching the first Hana and Alice at some point). He was definitely a fan, and was thrilled to be able to able to see one of Iwai's films on the big screen, saying it was such a big mood that way. He's definitely looking forward to the Japanese version next year, and we talked about how this felt more like a Japanese film than a Chinese one, despite apparently being an entirely Chinese production. Almost like a remake of the one he hasn't finished yet (a "pre-make"?).

It is another reminder of how weird and distorted foreign film distribution has always been and has become in the last few years, though. There was a time, not so long ago, when Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou was able to get some art-house play here, DVDs were made, it was more or less a given that Hana & Alice would make it here as his next film… Now, it's kind of a crapshoot. Maybe those of us who are stupidly dedicated will get to see things because we travel to film festivals; maybe a movie from an internationally acclaimed director will show up on a streaming service that we're subscribed to a few months after we've stopped anticipating it. We get a pretty steady stream of movies in theaters from China because some people have built a pipeline direct from there to expatriates - it is worth noting that the website for this movie's American distributor, China Lion Film, is primarily in Chinese; although you no longer have to select English, foreign film fans are a decidedly secondary concern to them in that they will take our money if we show up but won't seek us out - but Japanese film has all but dried up despite Japan once being a big pop culture influence. There should be a spot for the new Iwai film not just at AMC Boston Common, which happens to be near Chinatown, but at Landmark Kendall Square, but they often feel like they're programming a steady stream of artist docs and old-lady indies (sometimes, as with Tea with the Dames, both at once).

It's also kind of nice to see that this fellow was legitimately affected by seeing the film on the big screen. Love Letter is not obviously a film that must be seen big and loud, but there's power in it being enveloping - it's worth noting that we were in the front section rather than the stadium seating area - that is tough to describe to people who have mostly given up on or de-prioritized the theatrical experience for whatever reasons. It does make a difference for these movies to go to the edge of your vision, although I'll be darned if I can figure out a way to show it other than anecdotally.

To get to the point, though - Last Letter is very good. It's in theaters, even if it's not necessarily the theaters where this kind of movie used to be found, and I hope my friends who liked Iwai's previous films are able to find it.

Ni Hao, Zhi Hua (Last Letter '18)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

It is entirely possible that by this time next year, we'll be looking at this Last Letter as one half of a phenomenon fairly unique in film history, as director Shunji Iwai is already shooting a remake of this Mandarin-language movie in his native Japan - it usually goes in the other order, and seldom in such rapid succession. Those strange circumstances make this film an oddity, but nevertheless still in line with Iwai's previous films, an earnest and emotional work that's also quite sweet and funny.

It opens with a funeral for Yuan Zhinan, who died on 7 January 2018 at the age of 45, leaving behind two children, Mumu and Chenchen, a sister, and her parents. Son Chenchen isn't ready to go back home after the funeral, so his aunt Yuan Zhihua (Zhou Xun) and uncle Zhou Wentao (Du Jiang) take him in for the rest of winter break; their daughter Saran (Wendy Zhang Zifeng) offers to stay with Mumu (Deng Enxi) at their grandparents. Zhihua also goes to Zhinan's 30-year middle-school reunion to share the bad news, but is mistaken for her sister and, flustered, leaves without clearing it up, not even to Yin Chuan (Qin Hao), who rushes out to talk to "Zhihan" before returning to Shanghai. They exchange phone numbers, and while Zhihua is in the shower, Chuan sends a text - "I have loved you for 30 years" - that Wentao naturally sees first.

He smashes her phone in a fit of pique, which leads to Zhihua writing letters to Yin Chuan under Zhinan's name to vent, and there is something sneakily clever about how things play out after that: Much of the film has the sort of plot that seems like it would have been right at home in a movie from 30 years ago but supposedly wouldn't work now because of mobile phones, even though the whole thing is kicked off by a mobile phone-based misunderstanding, even highlighting it with a replacement phone joke that is cute on its own but gets better without veering into the dismissive "kids these days" territory that it could have done. It's a small thing, but it's a path to Iwai indulging a broad love of written communication that spans generations, and isn't necessarily about writing as everyday artistry. He loves the elderly learning to write in a new language, even if it has no practical purpose. He loves that these missives can be sealed in an envelope and sit there until someone is ready. He loves that they can be sent out into the world generally, whether in a book or tied to a bird's leg, in the vague hope that the right person will see them. He loves that they can be misdirected or intercepted. Written words are little bits of information and emotion but also physical things that require human facilitation and active engagement, and while Iwai has no nostalgic disdain for the ethereal messages that buzz for the recipient's attention, he builds this story on pen and paper and then includes more besides.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Overlord

Not quite Plan A last night, but the bus out of Burlington was just late enough that it looked like it would be 50/50 to make it to Fenway in time for Suspiria, and definitely not in time to get some much-needed nachos (or anything, really). And, truth be told, a two-and-a-half-hour horror movie was starting to feel like a lot to ask of me by then. That's arguably twice the optimal length of one of those things.

So, instead, quick detour out to the Common and then into this. It was, perhaps, a bit closer to the type of horror I was looking for anyway - not really disturbing or challenging, but more going for the gross-out and action/adventure. I probably spent a little more time than necessary wondering if it could pull the genre switch off if someone came in just looking for a WWII action flick, which is kind of a holdover from seeing Rampant less than a week earlier. It's kind of amusing to me that, at a moment when unabashed horror-movie stuff is doing pretty well, we're also getting some fair fusions.

Overlord

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

Even without the horror stuff plastered all over the advertising, I don't think you could take someone to see Overlord as a wartime action film and have them be caught flat-footed by things going into a decidedly less realistic direction. It gives the game away fairly early and doesn't build quite enough to feel like more than the basics before doing so, but the jump to mad scientists and monsters works pretty well.

It opens like a war movie, with Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) fresh out of basic training and about to jump out of a plane on a mission to destroy a radar jammer which the Nazis have placed atop a church in occupied France. The actual charges, Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine) explains, will be placed by Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), recently in Italy and just transferred to the unit; also on the plane are the equally green Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), smart-aleck sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), would-be writer Dawson (Jacob Anderson), and war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker) - not that all will necessarily make it to the ground, and they wouldn't have much of a base of operations in the village if they didn't luckily meet Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). She's captured the eye of Lieutenant Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), one of the nastier pieces of work stationed there, although it soon becomes clear that there's something much worse than radio jamming going on at the church.

Director Julius Avery and his crew never make Overlord as simplistic as wartime B-movies tended to be, but they certainly evoke that - the characters are gung-ho, the mission is fairly straightforward, and tensions within the unit mostly come from Boyce being considered too soft-hearted by the others. In fact, they cast a bit anachronistically so a modern audience might more easily get into the same mindset (there were not integrated units with black sergeants in 1944). Still, the opening of the film is an absolute meat-grinder in its own way, with horrible death and terrible decisions never far from Boyce and Avery stages it impressively enough that the movie never actually needs to have more. The atmosphere just horrific enough that this sort of evil they will soon encounter seems possible, but it's also just pulpy enough to feel like a tall tale rather than something that disrespects those who actually fought.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 9 November 2018 - 15 November 2018

Yes, I just bought tickets to something before posting it to make sure whoever reads this doesn't sell it out before I could. You can probably guess which one.

  • It's not Overlord, which I caught Thursday night and rather liked - it's pretty basic WWII pulp horror, but fun, and at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax), and Revere. The week's other big thriller is The Girl in the Spider's Web, which has Claire Foy taking on the role of Lisbeth Salander as Sony (and director Fede Alvarez) jump past the original trilogy for one of the books written by someone else to continue the series. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Also being adapted - The Grinch, this time in 3D-animated feature form, with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the title character who sounds a little more sympathetic in the previews than normal. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), West Newton (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway (including 2D RPX), the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Revere (including MX4D), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    There's more Christmas cheer on hand with 30th Anniversary (really?) screenings of Die Hard at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Sunday and Wednesday. It's 25 years for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which plays those places on Monday, and no particular milestone for Slap Shot at Revere on Thursday. Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, and Revere also go early with a special "Fandom Event" premiere of Fantastic Beasts 2 on Tuesday.
  • Boy Erased plays at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common, offering up Lucas Hedges as a gay teenager sent to "conversion therapy", with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman playing his parents. Joel Edgerton directs and appears, and that's a lot of Australians making this movie set in America.

    The Coolidge's Midnight Meltdown continues with 35mm prints of two masters showing a movie can be both smart and gory (and remakes at that): David Cronenberg's The Fly on Friday night and John Carpenter's The Thing on Saturday. They also break out film for The Royal Tenenbaums, a Thursday "Rewind" show.
  • Kendall Square and Boston Common are the first to get A Private War, featuring Rosamund Pike as war correspondent Marie Colvin. They also have biography in documentary form with Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco.

    Over in Waltham, their sister cinema in Embassy Square continues to help Netflix technically release their films in major markets by playing Outlaw King, featuring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce reuniting him with his Hell and High Water director, David Mackenzie.
  • The big Diwali movie this year looks to be Thugs of Hindostan, playing both Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway, which has the director of Dhoom 3 reuniting with some of that movie's cast for a big high-seas adventure that, so far as I know, it's more about pays than the mostly-fictional Thugee cult. Fresh Pond also holds over Tamil drama Sarkar and screens Marathi film Ani… Dr. Kashinath Ghanekar, about a dentist who became a popular stage actor, on Saturday and Sunday mornings and Monday evening. They also have American documentary Surviving Home, about four generations of Veterans who had trouble re-assimilating to civilian life.

    The new film from Japanese director Shunji Iwai, Last Letter, is set in Shanghai and features a woman attending a high school reunion in place of her late older sister and meeting the man she had a crush on as a kid. Intriguingly, Iwai is already shooting a Japanese version, both inverting and accelerating the usual foreign remake cycle in a way that makes me wonder if this isn't some other sort of experiment. The Chinese version plays Boston Common this week, and if be surprised if the other makes it over here. Boston Common also opens Korean comedy Intimate Strangers, on which two couples who haven't seen each other in some time exchange cell phones and have secrets revealed as party of a game.
  • The Brattle Theatre and the Goethe-Institut finish their "And the Winners Are…" series on Friday with In The Aisles (director Thomas Stuber in person) and Manifesto. They follow that up with the start of the latest "Recent Raves" series, including Science Fair (Sunday), Sorry to Bother You (Tuesday) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Wednesday). There's also a DocYard screening of Blowin' Up with director Stephanie Wang-Breal discussing her film about how prostitution cases are handled by the law, and a special screening of short film "Jahar" with filmmakers present; it dramatizes the reactions of the Cambridge teenagers who knew the 2013 Marathon bomber.
  • Saturday and Thursday at the Brattle are taken by the Boston Jewish Film's Annual Festival, which continues all week, spread out over the metro Boston area. Films also screen at the Coolidge (Friday/Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday), the JAC Riemer-Goldstein Theater (Saturday/Sunday), MFA (Saturday/Wednesday), ICA (Sunday), Newbridge on the Charles (Sunday), West Newton (Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday), Patriot Place (Monday), the Center for the Arts in Natick (Monday), the Capitol (Monday/Thursday), Maynard Fine Arts (Tuesday), the Somerville (Tuesday)
  • The Harvard Film Archive receives a visit from Chinese documentarian Wang Bing to present two of his most recent works at drastically different scales - Mrs. Fang, on Friday, is an 86-minute look at the family of a woman in an open-eyed coma; Saturday's Dead Souls is an eight-hour compilation of the stories of those sent to a state re-education camp.

    The focus then shifts to Germany, with a special family screening of Mountain Miracle - An Unexpected Friendship on Sunday afternoon, and then continuing their Early West German Film program with Avant-garde shorts (Sunday 5pm on 16mm/35mm), The Eighth Day of the Week (Sunday 7pm), and Redhead (Monday 7pm on 35mm).
  • In addition to their Jewish Film Festival programming, The Museum of Fine Arts continues The Boston Turkish Festival's Documentary & Short FIlm Competition with programming on Friday and Saturday. Friday is also the first night for Milford Graves Full Mantis, a documentary about a percussionist who, in addition to being at the top of that field, had a martial-arts dojo in his backyard and a lab in his basement. A different matter of hours field is profiled in John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which screens as a "Jump Cut" preview on Sunday. The new Frederick Wiseman documentary Monrovia, Indiana, continues with screenings Sunday and Wednesday.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights program has director Amy Adrion in on Tuesday for her documentary Half the Picture, which focuses on how under-represented women are as directors in the movie industry. Thursday's presentation is A Fantastic Woman, with faculty discussion. As always, free and open to the public in the Bright Screening Room.
  • The Somerville Theatre had to cut its "Silents, Please" series short for renovations this year, and though those are not yet done, they've still got room to show The Big Parade, with Jeff Rapsis providing the score for the 35mm Armistice Day presentation. There's a "Reel Rock" group of short films on Wednesday, which includes the guy from Free Solo as well as other climbers. And on Thursday, they team with IMAGINE for a special premiere of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, which was shot in Massachusetts and is a ton of fun. The $75 VIP tickets get you in a 6:30pm reception, but the guests (writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski, FX guys Doublas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, and composer Joe Kraemer) will be there for a Q&A after the 8pm screening which only runs $15.
  • The Regent Theatre has documentary Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story on Thursday evening, and I don't know if these really count as movies, but one of those "Deconstructing the Beatles" things (this one for The White Album) on Wednesday..


I am down for Last Letter, Thugs of Hindostan, Outlaw King, and A Private War, and will probably try to fit some catch-up in there too, although some of that is hard to schedule around given length and location on some of 'em. Oh, and I absolutely look forward to catching The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot again from someplace that is not the absolute last seat in the house.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

This These Weeks in Tickets: 15 October 2018 - 4 November 2018

All that blue takes a while to write up, but it was a pretty fair Fall focus weekend.

This Week in Tickets

First up, All About Nina, which I'd anticipated based upon the cast of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common, but wound up not really liking much, getting me more pushback than usual on Twitter in part for acknowledging that there's not really a good way to write about how a movie which deals with surviving sexual assault and similarly touchy issues but isn't really well-put-together. You feel awful writing it, you acknowledge feeling awful writing it, and you get told you're awful. But what can you say?

The next day… My employers sent me on a trip to Frisco, TX. On a plane at 8am, at work at noon central, dinner after work, fly back Wednesday night. Really only needed to be on a conference call for an hour or so between the two days. Not even time for a movie, really, although I was able to stream The Cloverfield Paradox to my tablet on the plane home. It was bad and that's no way to watch a movie, but I find it weirdly satisfying to watch a Netflix exclusive without subscribing to Netflix.

After that, it was Fall Focus weekend - Wildlife and Border on Friday; Cold War, Rafiki, Shoplifters, and Vox Luxon Saturday; and Roma on Sunday. There was actually a full day of screenings, but I opted to head a few stops down the Red Line for the original Halloween at Fresh Pond, so that I could see that before the sequel. I was the only person there, I think, until a couple chatty folks arrived late. Probably not great business for the theater, but I appreciate the idea of a theater giving the original film a screening a day when showing a 40-years-later sequel.

This Week in Tickets

The Red Sox were in the World Series the next week, and I was unable to get any tickets. I'd had tickets for Game 7 of the ALCS, but the team was just too good to have to play it - so that was a few days in front of the TV. But first, there was a brief window to see Bad Times at the El Royale, which was okay, but long.

Long enough, it turned out, that when I got home and found my keys were not in my pocket, there was no way to get back on the T and head back to the office in case I'd left them there. And it was cold. I tried hunkering down for a while, but ultimately moving around seemed like the best bet - I did some late-night grocery shopping, wound up in the Harvard Square IHOP at 3am, did some late-night grocery shopping (mostly energy drinks to get through the day at work), found out you could get into the Porter Square station at around 4:15am but the early train on the schedule didn't necessarily come, and wound up on the 6:20am bus to work, where I'm reasonably sure I was the only one going to sit in an office. I got there and found my keys on my desk, so hurrah! Before all that, though, I tried to find an open hotel room nearby (the last time I locked myself out I lived pretty close to a few that were expensive but prevented me from damaging my lock or calling a far-away landlord), and no dice. Which means that, for all the insanity that went on in the movie, I came away thinking that the most unlikely part was the whole idea of being able to just find a room to rent on short notice.

Anyway, it took me all week to get back on a sane sleep schedule, and then the Sox played a game that lasted until 3:30am ET on Friday night, meaning I actually had to set my alarm to be able to catch First Man on its last Imax weekend Saturday. I liked it quite a bit, but for all that they hyped shooting the lunar sequences in IMAX, and they looked great, there sure wasn't a lot of them. Sunday was for checking out that new Halloween while it was still on the Dolby screen at Assembly Row - which seemed to have some projection issues. A shame, as that screen usually looks great.

This Week in Tickets

As I mentioned at the time, the week above would be a heck of a score if I was still trying to make movie-ticket Yahtzee a thing - three screen 5s and a screen 15! It was enough for a theme post, as I saw The Sisters Brothers and Free Solo on two different #5s on consecutive nights. Later in the week, I got a package of movies from Hong Kong, and having missed the movie I'd been planning on seeing that night, I sat down and watched Drunken Master II, which has only been released dubbed and cut in the U.S. It is kind of dumb, but the martial-arts action is amazing.

Saturday started off as planned - Korean medieval zombie flick Rampant (the #15), which was okay, though not quite what it could have been. Then back to Harvard Square for what I'd planned to see the night before: Mexican heist drama Museo, followed by Nicolas Cage in Mandy, which kind of feels like it's trying too hard to be a cult movie.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, on the other hand, isn't really trying, but it's got Keira Knightley being kind of bonkers.

As usual, more on my Letterboxd page, especially now that the baseball season is over.

The Cloverfield Paradox

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2018 on my tablet on an airplane (streaming, HD-ish)

There's a certain thrill of victory when you get to see a Netflix exclusive somewhere, else even if it's streamed to my tablet on a plane. I bet it would have looked nice in an actual theater, but that's about as far as I can go saying nice things about this movie. It wastes a heck of a cast and budget on the way to streaming obscurity.

It doesn't help that it's the sort of horror movie that annoys me more than any other kind, where a bunch of hopefully-scary things are thrown together but don't really feel like they connect. Sure, it makes sure to give itself an opening by which anything can happen, but there should still be some sort of emotional or resonant thread connecting them, and while you can have known terrors appear for ineffable reasons, there needs to be some sort of logic to how people react and fight back, or where information comes from, that is just not here.

It's dumb all around, and really doesn't deserve Gugu Mbatha-Raw doing her best to make it work. She's great no matter what part of a cast most movies would kill for she's playing against, or if just being privately anguished or stressed. Unfortunately, none of it really makes sense, and that leaves her and the rest adrift.

Halloween (1978)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2018 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge/Fresh Pond #6 (catch-up, DCP)

It's an odd thing to watch anything for the first time because a 40-years-later sequel just came out, but this one was an especially strange experience. Not just because you can't help but know who the final girl is, but because so much of this movie has been used as the template for decades of later slashers that it feels reheated even where it's innovative.

Still, it's easy to see why this became the standard rather than others. The match of Dean Cundey's first-person photography with killer Michael Myers's inhuman gait is uncanny, for instance, and John Carpenter's simple, minimalist score is deservedly iconic. The script is frequently quite dumb (and even the clever bits can feel dumb), but when Carpenter concentrates on atmosphere, he gets a lot out of it. There's an odd feeling of little pockets of potential danger right in the middle of a busy suburbia, and what should be irrational paranoia that is in fact quite justified and convincing.

40 years of sequels and references means most will know who survives and whose odds aren't so good, and the two notable performances are the ones you'd expect. Donald Pleasance gives a peculiar one as Dr. Sam Loomis, but it's also oddly convincing for a character who shouldn't be. Then there's Jamie Lee Curtis, who doesn't really come into her own until the last act, but nails the frightened/traumatized/capable horror heroine that other actresses have been trying for since.

So, sure, I enjoyed it enough to catch the new one, even if I'm not feeling any need to watch anything on the other forks of continuity. I can't really love this the way someone seeing it for the first time should, but I can see its importance.

Bad Times at the El Royale

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2018 in Arlington Capitol #5 (first-run, DCP)

The first couple scenes of this, if nothing else, guarantee that one will remember that it's made by the same guy who did Cabin in the Woods; it has the same focus on an iconic sort of genre location, careful attention to spatial detail (including hidden rooms), and a short of self-referential plotting that encourages the audience to look at the movie as a puzzle to be solved than a story to be told. It's a fun game, and sometimes games make a movie more re-watchable than anything else.

On the other hand, is hard for me to imagine coming back as the film takes not just a nasty turn at the end, but one that seems so uninspired at times. Filmmaker Drew Goddard doesn't just give Chris Hemsworth a generic villain to play, he has a character actually comment on how, willingness to do violence aside, he's just not that interesting in a way that a lot of bad guys aren't that interesting. The whole script is full of things that often seem more useful than interesting, and while it doesn't necessarily leave any important loose ends when everything is done, the loose end is more or less how it works as a thriller: It gets the audience to a cliffhanger, shifts perspective, rewinds, and lets the audience wonder how things are going to come together. It keeps your attention until a finale that cranks the violence up to uncomfortable levels, but it's kind of like the Motown soundtrack - lots of good songs that don't really develop into a theme.

It's got Jeff Bridges, though, and his thief/priest confronting a lonely end as his mind starts to go is pretty terrific, and Cynthia Erivo makes a very nice complement as a singer never able to convert her raw talent into stardom. I suspect Lewis Pullman will be revealed as sneaky good on a second time through; it's not like we can't see where his character is coming from throughout, but he's given a haunting flashback and makes it better with his present-day material around it.

First Man

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2018 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, Imax 4K laser)

First Man is very much my sort of thing, a movie that is very much about people doing things which are themselves interesting and revealing their characters by how they do it. That this difficult thing is going to the moon only makes it more thrilling.

That said, it being my thing in many ways it won't be everyone's thing. It's not a chatty movie, and it often requires the audience to wrestle with Neil Armstrong's personality, not giving viewers an easy patriotic hook or having him vow that friends won't die for nothing even when that seems the obvious way to go (and often is when telling the story about going to space). Ryan Gosling plays him as an engineer who gets swallowed by problems and possibilities, and there's not much attempt to make him more conventional underneath. He's the man for this job and that necessarily makes him singular.

It's also sometimes harsh in how it depicts the dangers and difficulties of 1960s space exploration - director Damien Chazelle uses the widescreen framing not for vast expanses but to restrict what the audience sees, shaking the camera and creating confusing reflections that remind the viewer that this is difficult and requires more concentration than they may be capable of. The lighting is often harsh and blinding, bright unforgiving whites that are both institutional and burning. It's aggressively discombobulating, especially if you sit close enough to let the big screen overwhelm you.

Things change when Armstrong actually reaches the moon, and though the IMAX-shot lunar scenes are actually fairly short for their prominence in the advertising, it's definitely worth the trip to the best IMAX screen available (Jordan's Furniture Reading for me, since I couldn't find a place showing film). It's awe-inspiring and magnificent, and in many ways the experience reminded me of 2001: A straightforward, professional path to something grander than could be imagined.

It's a bit of a shame that this section contains what to me feels like the film's biggest misstep as it focuses too closely on something personal to Armstrong, calling back to early scenes to do it. It's what the rules of screenwriting say you're supposed to do, but it comes awful close to not just making the movie about him, but the mission about his feelings, which is poetic but also kind of sad, implying a lack of grand imagination on the filmmakers' parts. There's a fine line between showing what an event brings out in a person and building the movie so that the whole Mercury and Apollo programs feel like their there for a man to learn to mourn properly, and sometimes Chazelle is on the wrong side.

Halloween (2018)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #2 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

There's something accidentally honest about giving the new Halloween the same title as the film it follows up; there's not a lot of progress, reinvention, or revelation here, just the same thing again. There's some nods to 40 years having passed and continuity, but at its heart, this movie is basically more.

Which isn't really bad; when director and co-writer David Gordon Green gets down to slasher business, he's impressively capable, even making the scenes where you expect to be rooting for killer Michael Myers to slice up some obnoxious people who are kind of asking for it the right sort of awful (he's kind of slumming, but it's not like everyone who does thoughtful dramas can stage a thrilling murder). There's a tendency toward being kind of pointlessly clever at times, like when he recreates scenes from the original with other characters in Myers's place or has comments get kind of meta, but the last act is solid.

Just as with the original, Jamie Lee Curtis is better than the material deserves, adding life to Laurie's 40 years of PTSD and making her just the right level of unhinged. She gives the sort of performance everyone else in the cast can reflect - Andi Matichak as what Laurie was, updated (the smart girl gets to be cool in 2018); Judy Greer as the daughter determined to be her opposite; Will Patton as a less-obsessed parallel - and is just as confident or not as she needs to be in any scene.

Though I haven't seen any of the other sequels or remakes, I suspect they all hit the same issue: Michael Myers is basically a catchy theme (which original director/composer John Carpenter rearranges and reuses here), and excellent execution. Green probably does a better job than most in trying to emulate Carpenter and get good work from his cast, but Myers only rarely hits the same overlapping point between a monstrous person and something almost demonic, although he's clearly trying. He can't help but produce something that feels like an imitation that sabotages whatever he and his co-writers might have to say about trauma.

Jui kuen II (Drunken Master II)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2018 in Jay's Living Room (newly arrived goodies, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The fact that I'm referencing a lot of pages titled "The Legend of Drunken Master" whie writing thisshows how tough it's been to see Drunken Master II uncut/undubbed in the last twenty years, but there is a new Blu-ray out in Hong Kong that plays in any Region A player. It's a happily different experience to see it this way - though it's been too long for me to really notice what a few scenes' difference means (aside from the outtakes under the ending credits), it's a treat to see it in Cantonese; the English dub took what was a silly movie and made to ridiculous.

And make no mistake, DM2 is incredibly silly, marrying a plot that feels like low-rent farce to some of Jackie Chan's most incredibly funny martial-arts work. The comedy portions, before the action really kicks in, work in large part because Anita Mui was downright perfect for this sort of role, mugging and bantering and not quite winking at the age difference between her and her stepson but giving the character life. She was kind of brilliant and I fear that she's being too quickly forgotten because of the changes in the world (entertainment and otherwise) since hear early death.

Still, you have a copy of this sent halfway around the world for the astounding Jackie Chan action, and when that kicks in, it reminds you why this one was considered something special. It's not just that Jackie Chan spent about four months lighting himself on fire for a five-minute fight (though he did and you had better appreciate that), but the way his "drunken boxing" has him doing amazing silent-comedy movement even when he's not actually punching and kicking, although it blends into a good fight seamlessly, precision in every move that looks stumbling and lucky. It's the high-water mark for this sort of action, making one amazed at its artistry but also looking effortless and natural. That's something great art manages, even if that's not usually a term connected with movies where a martial-arts legend gets blotto and somehow fights even better.

Mandy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2018 at the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

This certainly raises the bar for "things trying incredibly hard to be a cult film", if it does nothing else. As much as I was digging what it was throwing down, it was hard to put the sort of concentrated push this got trying hard to make this an officially approved unusual thing.

That it's seemingly built for cult fandom and given a strong push in that direction doesn't make it insincere, though; I've got no doubt that Mandy is exactly the film Panos Cosmatos was looking to make and he does so in striking, memorable fashion, with gorgeously composed shots lit incredibly well, gloriously insane villains, and the sort of gore and imagery that belongs on a Heavy Metal cover (or the side of a van) in every frame. It's a little too much mayhem and often knowingly nonsense, but it's sincere.

Plus, it's a near-perfect fit for Nicolas Cage, who never mails it in but only finds someone who wants the full Nic Cage experience about half the time. Cage goes all out here, whether in unusually well-mounted action or sobbing, lost grief, and it's kind of beautiful even if the audience coming to see the weird movie doesn't know how to react with anything but laughter. The over-the-top violence works in large part because Cage is utterly sincere in Red's devastation, dragging us into his hell even before things get red and distorted.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

At least to start, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels like Disney is doing a live-action remake of one of their animated films without actually having an original version to work from. The whole thing feels vaguely familiar and kind of predictable, but made with some sort of genuine affection for the material.

It outgrows that, a bit, even if it mostly just settles into being an effects-filled family adventure much like any other. It's got a likable heroine in Mackenzie Foy's Clara, an enjoyably daft performance from Keira Knightley, and a few solidly anchored ones to go along with them. Sidekicks in funny costumes and others in motion-captured CGI. It does them all well enough.

And it mostly looks nice. The opening effects sequence is rough enough to reveal it's not exactly Disney's highest priority of the year (as do the things that are supposed to be cool clockwork but look too digital), but it's also one of the few that looks like the 3D work is something other than a studio-mandated inconvenience. There's something fun about the ballet bit also showing that there is ballet behind the scenes, some of the design is enjoyably weird, and the action is rousing without feeling too violent.

It's no classic, but, look, I can't exactly NOT like a movie with a girl who finds her way out of trouble with engineering and a finale built around a giant magic microscope. Sure, I'm not the target audience for this, but I've got to think people who are will like those things too.

All About Nina The Cloverfield Paradox Wildlife Border Cold War Rafiki Shoplifters Vox Lux Roma Halloween '78


Bad Times at the El Royale First Man Halloween '18

The Sisters Brothers Free Solo Drunken Master II Rampant Museo Mandy The Nutcracker and the Four Realms