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.


* * * (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

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