Monday, December 31, 2018

Welcome to Marwen

I haven't found myself fretting over Robert Zemeckis's remaking great documentaries very much, not so much because I hold them less sacred than some fans, but because I can at least see what he's been trying to do with them in terms of taking a couple of stories that had this really emotional element to them that the docs couldn't quite address and putting that on screen. The different trade-offs The Walk and Welcome to Marwen made were kind of interesting. The Walk gets dinged big-time for Josh Gordon-Levitt not being able to capture the whimsy of Philippe Petit (who proved a raconteur as well as a daredevil), but made up for it by putting the audience on the high-wire with him in a way that Man on Wire couldn't; Welcome to Marwen does a better job of getting the audience inside Mark Hogancamp's head, but one of the funny things about Marwencol is that part of what I remember liking about it is that it acknowledged that most of us couldn't get in there, that what had happened to him was almost literally unimaginable, and he probably wouldn't ever be normal again. Welcome to Marwen has a more conventional, reassuring ending, and while it's not necessarily less honest or less affecting, it trades a lot of what made the documentary feel special in order to get inside his head.

As much as I don't really love this movie, and really wish he would do something that harkened back to that great Romancing the Stone-to-Death Becomes Her run, I do have to respect that Zemeckis is always trying to impress with his movies. Those motion-capture films aren't very good, but he was dedicated to finding a way to combine the absolute freedom of animation with the way actors connect with audiences, the Cast Away/What Lies Beneath combination was interesting scheduling, and other movies have showstopping effects sequences. Even when he fails, there's often something about his movies that is interesting or unique. He's much like James Cameron in that he's often as fascinated by technical challenges as pure storytelling, and that's not really how we see filmmakers or other artists these days: They're supposed to have a vision which the hired hands who do effects work will then execute to the artist's specifications, invisibly, while sometimes Zemeckis seems to grab onto scripts that will let him try to do something technical. I half-suspect that this is because nobody really falls into filmmaking or film writing any more; it's been their goal since childhood and they've gone to school for it and been taught the technical end as necessary skills.

This movie, on the other hand, kind of makes you wonder if Zemeckis saw the chance to do something neat with motion-capture in the story and built the film that way. It's not invalid, and I'm kind of amazed by some of what he does here, shifting scales like it's nothing and blending live-action with animation with utterly incredible smoothness (the dolls freezing up as the audience re-enters the real world is absurdly seamless).

On the other hand… My jaw kind of dropped at how close this movie comes to directly referencing Back to the Future. It's genuinely weird and kind of off-putting to see Zemeckis putting something he made into a film about another artist. Maybe Hogancamp was influenced by BTTF and it's just one of those things you kind of have to shrug off the full-circle nature or be amused by it, but it kind of felt like the same sort of pop-culture oroborus as Steven Spielberg playing around with The Shining after having had Kubrick hand him his own legacy with A.I.

It's weird. But it's an interesting sort of weird, one I likely won't forget as easily as Flight or Allied, and if one of my favorite filmmakers won't make the exact films I want any more, at least he's doing stuff worth talking about.

Welcome to Marwen

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2018 in Regal Fenway #2 (first-run, DCP)

I swear, this movie is Robert Zemeckis trolling every one of us who has grumbled about the latter portion of his career and how we wish he'd do more of the sort of comedic fantasy that made him his name. Instead, Welcome to Marwen not only seems to be a compilation of every questionable choice he's made since Contact, but the climax practically taunts you with the reminder that, back in the 1980s, he made a damn near perfect movie. This doesn't get close to that high-water mark, but it may also be the most memorable thing Zemeckis has done in a good long time.

Inspired by the documentary Marwencol and the true story behind it, the film focuses on a month or so just a couple of years after Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was beaten nearly to death for talking about his penchant for wearing high-heeled shoes while drunk. The attack not only left him with almost no memory of his old life, but destroyed the illustrator's ability to draw, though a new project - a 1:6 scale circa-WWII Belgian village in his backyard, populated by army and fashion dolls - serves as both a creative outlet and a sort of art therapy. An exhibition of his photographs of this setting is about to open, but first his case's prosecutor (Conrad Coates) would like him to read a victim impact statement at the sentencing of his attackers. On top of that, a new neighbor has just moved in, and he feels an immediate spark when he meets Nicol (Leslie Mann).

Marwencol is not the first acclaimed documentary that Zemeckis has adapted into a dramatic feature, and as with The Walk, the idea seems to be to get the audience to directly experience something that the documentary by its nature finds just out of reach, with the gamble being that the audience's awareness of the artifice, compared to the documentary subjects' lack of such. It's risky but has potential - those who saw The Walk in Imax 3D wound up getting more than a less-charming Man on Wire - but his means for getting into Hogancamp's head is animating the dolls with the motion-captured CGI which had many associating his work in the Aughts with dead-eyed homunculi. Pair these uncertain choices with a script (by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson) that almost immediately gets off on the wrong foot and makes more odd leaps than can really be explained by being from Mark's wobbly perspective, with dialogue that seems anachronistic or patronizing, and that's before the obvious music selections. The material with "Dejah Thoris" (voice of Diane Kruger), the witch doll which seems to sneak into his photos unbidden never quite gets to the point where it makes sense.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Kill Mobile

Well, give this movie a perverse sort of credit: By being not very good and changing things up in order to (presumably) make the Chinese censors happy, it threw a monkey wrench into my plans to self-plagiarize for my reviews of the various versions of Perfect Strangers, and I had to do more than a rewrite to talk about just how this film was weaker.

The kind of ironic thing is that, while this particular version was bowlderized to satisfy Chinese content standards, the easiest path to watching the original is a region A Blu-ray from… Hong Kong. A reminder that things are apparently different in the SAR, I guess, and how weird the situation with this movie is. Also maybe not ironic but odd is that this Chinese version has the same distributor as the Korean version (with Chinese subtitles) that just played North American in November.

Ah, well. Two weeks until the Mexican version hits.

Shoujikuang xiang (Kill Mobile)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

Kill Mobile arrives in theaters roughly a month and a half after Intimate Strangers, the Korean remake of the Italian film Perfect Strangers, and about one month before the Mexican version, with at least half a dozen other adaptations of this highly-franchisble story either already completed and released or in production around the world. I suspect, when all of them are lined up next to each other, this Chinese version will be among the lesser entries; between censorship and general timidity, it lacks what made at least the Korean version a piercing black comedy.

Wen Bo (Tian Yu) and Dai Dai (Dai Lele) are hosting a nice little dinner party with some longtime friends: Married couple Wu Xioajiang (Qiao Shan) and his wife Li Nan (Huo Siyan), who are leaving their kids at home with Xiaojiang's mother; screenwriter Jia Di (Tong Dawei) and pretty young fiancee Bai Xuejiao (Xi Mengyao); and the currently single Han Xiao (Ma Li), who seemed alarmingly ready to skip the dinner and the rest of her life before getting a reminder on her mobile phone. Addiction to those devices comes up as a topic of conversation, and psychologist Dai Dai suggests an experiment - they leave their phones on the table so that everyone can see all the messages and notifications, and calls get answered on speaker.

It's easy to see why the makers of the original film hae been able to so successfully franchise it over the past year and a half; it opens up the "friendly gathering going right to hell because something throws the equilibrium off or someone unexpected shows up" to new possibilities that don't bog things down: A text message or call can pop up, wreak some havoc, and then not hang around, unnecessarily stealing the spotlight from the characters who we're going to spend some time with. And even if you've seen another version and know some of what's coming, the execution of the jokes is often pretty good.

Friday, December 28, 2018


And… There. Review written and posted exactly one day after it closes in the Boston area and most of North America. That's useful!

I did have a little more fun at this one than you might guess from the review, in part because I came in knowing next to nothing about it and thinking it might be a bit more of a low-key fantasy comedy rather than one that went as big as it did. It doesn't always go big in a way that's exciting or makes sense, but it's at least sometimes surprising, and that was fun in the moment even if it leads to a "wait, that's stupid" reaction later.

Tian qi yu bao (Airpocalypse)

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

There's a dog that shows up a couple times toward the beginning of Airpocalypse, with what seems like a kind of important job story-wise, and he just kind of wanders off when he's done without actually seeming like he's made a difference. That's kind of how the whole movie feels, except the dog is more entertaining than a lot of what actually sticks around in this fantasy full of random ideas that never really stick together.

Beijing's infamous haze is worse than usual as it starts, which is not great for many, although Ma Le (Xiao Yang) is doing good business in suicide intervention with a sort of extreme psychotherapy. A call from Bai Xuejing (Xiao Shenyang), who has become the richest man in northern China on the back of a popular brand of air-filtration system, is particularly bizarre, as he claims to be the God of Thunder, who has been marooned on Earth for five thousand years but will be able to pick up his hammer again when the haze gets so thick that the elder gods cannot see him do it, then ruling/destroying the world. Ma Le figures he's nuts but potentially lucrative, at least until the God of the South Pole and Longevity (Wang Xiaoli) falls on top of him. The god's mojo is somehow transferred, and thus it is apparently up to Ma Le to reunite the other banished gods - God of Wind Chang Xiayang (Yi Yunhee), God of Rain Huang He (Chong Yuan), and Mother of Lightening Cai Ming (Du Juan), whose current incarnation is the motorcycle cop who wrote Ma Le up for stopping to rescue a dog on the way back from Bai Xuejing's estate.

(See? That dog was crucial yet entirely disposable after its second appearance, despite being fantastic running joke material.)

There is at least an entertaining anarchy to the movie at the start, which occasionally reappears when the special effects stuff starts to get bigger and crazier sery the end. Perhaps this is partly a matter of me not knowing just how much director & star Xiao Yang and his co-writers cobbled together their own bizarre mythology and how much will be familiar to a Chinese audience, but Xiao is initially throwing random slapstick and irreverence at the screen, trying to top how hard he got the audience to laugh a couple minutes earlier or how bizarre (and occasionally clever) the giant-scale action at the end is. A lot of gags are dead on arrival or are thrown against the wall to never be seen again, but for a while, it's the sort of good chaos that works.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 December 2018 - 3 January 2019

New year, new movies, right? Nah, not really. Most places are continuing what they had for Christmas, and the multiplexes aren't even doing any one-and-two-off presentations.

  • The main openings this week are both foreign-language movies, with China's Kill Mobile playing Boston Common. A remake of Italian dark comedy Perfect Strangers, it takes place at a dinner party where the seven attendees promise to share every call and message that comes through their phones, which is obviously a terrible idea. If it sounds familiar, Korean version Intimate Strangers just played in October, and a Mexican remake opens next month.

    From India, Simmba opens at Apple Fresh Pond; this Hindi-language action comedy is apparently both a spin-off of the popular Singham series and a remake of the Telugu film Tempest, featuring Ranveer Singh as a corrupt cop forced to go straight. They also continue Bollywood comedy Zero.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues their Keaton-esque series with the film that was likely its most immediate inspiration - Peter Bogdanovich's The Great Buster - on Friday afternoon and evening, before a late show of Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness on 35mm. Saturday offers a 35mm double feature from Jackie Chan, one those most influenced by Keaton, with Rumble in the Bronx & Project A 2 (no indication yet whether these are dubbed or subtitled prints), while Sunday has an afternoon pairing of two of Keaton's last appearances in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (on 35mm) & It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World before an 8pm show of Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which has Tom Cruise following in Keaton's footsteps doing his own stunts. The series wraps up on Monday with two from Wes Anderson, Rushmore (on 35mm) & The Grand Budapest Hotel.

    Tuesday is New Year's Day, which they ring in as usual with a 35mm Mark Brothers Marathon, with this year's quadruple feature including Duck Soup, Room Service, Monkey Business, and A Night at the Opera, looping back around to Duck Soup if you came in late. After that, they start a series of new restorations with a late celebration of Ida Lupino's 100th birthday, with The Hitch-Hiker paired with Not Wanted on Wednesday and with The Bigamist on Thursday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts concludes the December calendar with the rest of their Color Tells a Story screenings - Fantastic Mr. Fox for orange (Friday/Saturday), Edward Scissorhands (Friday with "A Trip to the Moon") for blue, Vertigo (Saturday) for green, Eyes Wide Shut for violet (Sunday), and Black Narcissus for red - and one last "Exhibition on Screen" presentation of Degas: Passion for Perfection on Friday.

    After New Year's, they start the January calendar, which includes runs of Border (Wednesday) and Life and Nothing More (Thursday). They also start an "Ida Lupino at 100" series with screenings of The Bigamist on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The Regent Theatre continues their vacation-week sing-alongs, with White Christmas on Friday and Frozen Friday and Saturday.
  • The Lexington Venue has a free screening of locally-produced short film "The Art Collector" on Saturday afternoon, with young director Saoirse Loftus-Reid on hand for a Q&A
  • Cinema Salem continues Wildlife, in their small screen.

So, yeah, I'm in for Kill Mobile, If Beale Street Could Talk, Army of Darkness, a couple by Jackie Chan and Ida Lupino, and I'll probably go or Welcome to Marwen and even Holmes & Watson if I've got time.Nex


Before we get to the review, allow me to take a moment to get one bit of stupid nit-picking off my chest.


Why on Earth would Shatter and Dropkick be speaking English where a human could hear them and discover their planned betrayal? Wouldn't they speak Cybertronian or Decepticonese or just communicate with radio or something?

Thank you.

It is, of course, kind of ridiculous to care about this, as this is a movie about humanoid robots from another planet that has collapsed under the weight of its own backstory before, and I'm pretty sure that nobody in the proper target audience of ten-year-olds would actually care. But, then, that's the basic issue that these movies kind of have at their core anyway: They are based upon something very silly whose best-known and fondest-remembered incarnation (the TV show that came on the air in 1984) is, when seen again with older eyes, not very good, but which burrowed its way into enough childhoods that young fans demanded it keep growing with them. Which it did; the tie-in comics from Marvel, Devil's Due, and IDW became sprawling sci-fi epics with a devoted-enough fanbase that the same writer was retained across those three companies even when there were long gaps in publication, and hiring Michael Bay for the films certainly meant Paramount was targeting the part of the audience that had grown up to like less improbably-bloodless entertainment.

By the time Bay's run was done, though, it had perhaps swung too far in the other direction; there was a lot of talk about just how many people must have died in one of those movies and how Optimus Prime had become too grimdark and the like; it was certainly ripe for a soft reset, and I admittedly would have liked it if they'd gone for a harder one, with particular attention on going back to G1 designs, but I can't necessarily fault the producers for sticking with what had recently done fairly well for them.

I do kind of wonder what effect this will have on Hasbro's and Paramount's efforts to make this a Marvel-style or Star Wars-type ultra-franchise. You don't have to squint much to look at Bumblebee and see something like the Rogue One and Solo "Star Wars Stories", and I suspect that this went into production when Rogue One was a huge hit only to come out when Solo... wasn't. Meanwhile, DC is having unpredictable results, and is trying to merge this with a rebooted G.I. Joe and MASK really going to do that well?

I dunno. As much as this thing isn't perfect, it does have moments where it absolutely hits its target. I certainly hope that any more movies in the series have more in common with it than the Michael Bay one I've seen


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #9 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Having bailed on the live-action Transformers movies after the first because it was just not my thing despite my 1980s fandom a few neat sequences, I can't describe Bumblebee as the best of the lot with particular authority, but I wouldn't be surprised: It scores more direct hits on its nostalgia targets while just being generally less of a mess and friendlier than Michael Bay's work, and it probably doesn't hurt to step back and do something simpler rather than trying to go bigger every few years. It's maybe not the best possible movie you could get from a studio trying to squeeze a little more out of a series based upon a 30-odd-year-old line of toys, but it's impressively competent and charming, which is not a bad way for a franchise with impressive box office but a bad reputation looking for a new direction to go.

It kicks off with a giant battle between sentient robots on their home planet of Cybertron; with the planet about to fall completely to the cruel Decepticons, heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) dispatches his troops to new planets to search for a hiding place where they can regroup, with small but brave B-127 (voice of Dylan O'Brien) sent to "Earth". Things go wrong right away as he is targeted by both a Decepticon assassin and a group of U.S. special forces, and escapes with his memory damaged, camouflaged as a Volkswagen Beetle. That's how Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds him at a scrapyard on her eighteenth birthday, and when he revives in front of her they - and Charlie's neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) form a bond. "Bumblebee" awakening alerts a pair of Decepticons on one of Saturn's moons, though, and soon Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux) have arrived on Earth and convinced a "Section 7" scientist (John Ortiz) that the Autobot is a dangerous fugitive, though his colleague Burns (John Cena) is less likely to take them at their word.

This is all going down in 1987, and the opening sequence on Cybertron is pure pandering to the adults in the audience who were watching the Transformers TV show and reading the comics at the time. As one of those people, I am not going to pretend that I don't appreciate the heck out of it; director Travis Knight and the visual-effects crew pull out the "Generation One" designs and polish them up nice, but it's also worth noting that Knight's stop-motion animation background is a big help during this all-CGI sequence: There's a lot happening on-screen but it's always just short of visual overload, with the FX/stereo guys crew doing a good job of creating a bit more depth when the film is seen in 3D, which is especially helpful in a movie like this where the relative sizes of various things flying through the air may not be obvious. It's solid, clear action staging that continues when Bumblebee and his pursuers reach Earth and less of the movie is being rendered on a computer.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots

People talk about how they don't like when movies manipulate them, but what they usually mean is that they don't like seeing the strings with which they're being manipulated, and I wonder what they'll think of Mary Queen of Scots, because its strings are right out in the open but it's probably useful to see them. As with any movie trying to compress years of real-life events into two hours, Mary takes a few liberties to simplify storytelling and make the lessons of history more directly relevant to the present day, and the ways in which it is obvious prevent the film from seeming disingenuous. Yeah, it's not exactly how that happened, but once you've accepted this, you can examine what the filmmakers are choosing to focus on and why - and then you've got a movie that has a fair amount to say about the present rather than mooring its issue in the past.

I'm somewhat curious about how much representing certain characters as people of color in the film is done to ground it for modern audiences and how much is historically accurate, in particular. I think it's effective in terms of making sure a viewer doesn't see what's happening in the film as just "rich/powerful white person problems", and I've seen a lot of interesting pushback online lately about how the lily-white versions of European history we've been fed by film and television are not true representations - travelers and traders would settle down in far-off places, and the Roman Empire made a point of deploying soldiers in distant parts of the empire so that their loyalties wouldn't be divided (so, yes, Africans would wind up in Britain). It's a bit jarring at times, and I did sometimes wonder if the English ambassador to Scotland being black was meant as a slight or not. Ultimately, though, I mostly just liked Adrian Lester's and Gemma Chan's performances.

It's a tricky thing, though - the recent Robin Hood and King Arthur movies tried to do this and it sometimes came off as neither authentic nor useful. This is, however, a much better film than those in a whole lot of ways, so it's not surprising that it handles the challenges of trying to connect with a broader audience despite the history of that audience's country not always having a place for them (whether "history" is treated as actual events or the way we study it).

Mary Queen of Scots

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2018 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

There's an interesting sort of irony at the center of Mary Queen of Scots that the filmmakers appear to have a difficult resolving - that the monarch of the title is in many ways brought low by her own ambition, but it is sometimes difficult to fully grasp that because there is a great deal of focus on how such ambition would not have been nearly so dangerous for a man in a similar position. Of course, I'm saying that as a man; a woman is more likely to clearly see those facets as linked than countering each other. That paradox is in many ways the strength of the film; it makes Mary a complex human being rather than just a morality tale, and an intriguing historical figure for how these factors interact.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had already had an eventful life by the time she returned to her native Scotland at the age of 18 - sent to live in France as a girl for fear that she would be endangered as a Catholic in a Scotland that was becoming increasingly Protestant, married to the heir to France's throne at 15 and widowed three years later - and assumed her position as Queen, her half-brother James (James McArdle) having served as regent. Mary also has a claim to the throne of England held by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who attempts to counter by sending her paramour Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to court her. Mary spurns him and marries Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), believing that producing an heir will strengthen her claim to the English throne, especially since Elizabeth has chosen not to marry and have a child of her own. This may have been the best course, as it seems every man in Mary's life, whether brother, husband, or adviser, fancies himself as the one who should truly be in charge.

Saoirse Ronan is at that age where the people casting a movie can convince themselves that she's believable as a teenager on-screen, but if her casting is meant to accentuate Mary's youth, it doesn't quite work that way. Her Mary is so ferocious in her dealings with the older men who surround her and authoritative in general that the moments meant to emphasize just how little practical experience she has in certain areas work best in retrospect, when the audience is replaying the film in their heads and realizing that her confidence in those scenes is not truly earned. It's insidiously clever work by Ronan and director Josie Rourke to bury the ingenue material despite the fact that the film is, on the whole, very sympathetic to Mary; she comes off as a combination of abrasive, charming, enlightened and entitled that not only gives her personality those human contradictions but allows her to have a foot in both modern times and her own present.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 December 2018 - 27 December 2018

Christmas is coming, which means two waves of new movies this week - one on Friday, one on Christmas Day. Three, if you count Mary Poppins Returns having opened on Wednesday.

  • Most of the stuff opening for the weekend is big, mainstream entertainment. The 3D, giant-screen ones are the first entries in new legs of existing franchises, starting with Aquaman, which brings Jason Momoa back from Justice League in the story of how the Atlantean king raised on land returns home to claim his throne. It's at The Somerville Theatre (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), the Seaport (including Icon-X 2D/3D), South Bay (including Imax 2D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Revere (including XPlus & MX4D), and the SuperLux (2D only). Slightly smaller screens for Bumblebee, which is either a prequel or reboot of the Transformers series, with Hailee Stanfield finding a robot that disguises as a VW Beetle in the 1980s, with slick designs more reminiscent of the original toys and cartoons and the director of Kubo and the Two Strings in charge. That one's at Fresh Pond (2D only), the Embassy (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux (2D only).

    The new film from Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen, sees him once again doing a feature version of an excellent documentary, with the idea that some visuals will help give the audience a different perspective (in this case, showing what is actually going on inside the head of Steve Carell's Hoagie by animating the photographs he made with dolls), hopefully making something of similar quality to Marwencol in a different way. It's at the Somerville, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also Second Act, with Jennifer Lopez playing a capable manager of a retail store who uses a falsified c.v. to get an executive position. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    The most mainstream opening Christmas is Holmes & Watson, with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilley in the title roles, which, let's face it, is just going to make me angry. It plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. Ferrell is also the star of Fenway's last holiday special, with Elf at noon Saturday.

    There are encore showings of They Shall Not Grow Old on Thursday at Boston Common (3D), Fenway (2D), South Bay (3D), Revere (2D).
  • Christmas brings the new film from Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk to The Coolidge Corner Theatre, The West Newton Cinema, Kendall Square, and Boston Common. Based upon a novel by James Baldwin, it stars Kiki Layne as a woman whose fiance is jailed by a racist system just as she learns she is pregnant. Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, and Brian Tyree Henry also star.

    Before that, the Coolidge wraps up its "bad presents" midnights this weekend with cult TV-movie Trilogy of Terror on Friday and the months last screening of Gremlins on Saturday (and the monthly screening of The Room on Friday as well). There's also a kids' show of The Muppet Christmas Carol on Saturday
  • Kendall Square gets all its new movies on Christmas Day, apparently the first folks to play On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the case about sex discrimination that made her name. Another true-life story opening that day is Adam McKay's new semi-comedic look at how our world went to crap, Vice. It stars Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, who as Vice President would be the power behind the throne of President George W. Bush; it plays the Somerville, the Kendall, the Embassy, The Lexington Venue, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, and Revere.
  • The Brattle Theatre's has a weekend run of Searching for Ingmar Bergman, Margarethe von Trotta's documentary about the legendary director, including interviews with many of his collaborators. It runs Friday to Sunday, with one of the director's best-known films, Fanny and Alexander, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. They also play the remake of Suspiria from Friday to Sunday evenings.

    After a day off on Christmas Eve, they return on the 25th with Keaton-esque, celebrating Buster Keaton and those he inspired. It kicks off Christmas afternoon with a triple-feature of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Seven Chances, and Sherlock Jr., before featuring another sort of stunt-based action with John Wick: Chapter 2 at 9pm. Wednesday is a double-feature of Nickelodeon & Silent Movie (the latter on 35mm film); Thursday pairs Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle with another whimsical French comedy, The Fairy.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan as an angry short fellow (presumably accomplished with CGI and forced perspective) who presumably learns about himself as he romances Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma. They also open Telugu romance Padi Padi Leche Manasu and Telugu sci-fi thriller Antariksham 9000 kmph (opening Saturday).

    Boston Common, meanwhile, opens Airpocalypse, with writer/director Xiao Yang playing a psychologist who is somehow given the powers of the God of Longevity; Du Juan and Xiao Shenyang co-star in this comedy/fantasy.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps up their monthly "On the Fringe" series with something that isn't exactly "Indie Film in the 90s" with a 35mm print of Batman Returns on Friday night. They also continue Color Tells a Story with Red Desert for white (35mm Friday/Sunday), Edward Scissorhands (Sunday) for blue, The Umbrella of Cherbourg (Saturday) for pink, Vertigo (Sunday) for green, Night of the Hunter (35mm Wednesday/Thursday) for black, and 3 Women (Thursday) for yellow. They also have "Exhibition on Screen" shows of Degas: Passion for Perfection on Saturday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
  • It's a vacation week, and The Regent Theatre has not one, but two sing-alongs, with Frozen playing afternoons and White Christmas evenings starting on Christmas and extending into the next weekend.
  • Cinema Salem opens Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wildlife, in their small screen.

I'm down for Bumblebee, Aquaman, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Queen of Scots, Airpocalypse, Welcome to Marwen, and, damn it, I'll probably do Holmes & Watson too, because I can't help myself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old

How you see a movie can have a huge effect on your opinion of it. This one, for instance, started twenty minutes late, and it took about three tries for the theater to get the right lens and formatting on so that it was actually projecting in proper 3D. It was tremendously frustrating, especially for the first bits, where you're thinking that maybe the restoration not being perfect is part of the gag, that it will snap into focus at some point - which arguably happened, with the film going from black-and-white to color as the narrative reached Europe. They eventually got it right and gave us readmission tickets, but that's potentially a good third of the movie that I did not enjoy as much as I should have, and not much opportunity to give it another shot: There is one more screening date (the 27th), and given that the apparently-region-free Blu-ray from the UK does not appear to include a 3D version, so… Hope for one from Hong Kong or South Korea?

Some of the behind the scenes/introduction material is interesting, though, especially when you see how Jackson mentioned that the Imperial War Museum called him to collaborate on a project, but it had to use this footage in a unique and original way, which left him at something of a loss; there are only so many ways to make a documentary, and I don't know that I love this one the way Jackson does. It is, however, enjoyable to watch him talk about it; he's almost nonchalant about the process of restoring the film, talking about how when you find the right right speed for a piece of silent film, it suddenly just clicks. Then he goes on, talking about how they would match regimental seals to the part of Britain where they came from so that they could get the right accent when they did a bit of ADR. Then you see them starting to do Foley work, up to getting out a piece of WWI artillery that Jackson owns to make sure it's the right sound. There's a little twinkle as he acknowledges that, yeah, this is kind of odd.

Jackson supposedly had a World War I feature in development at some point, but it doesn't look to be active now. I hope he gets to make one, because the earnest love for the material is wonderful, and the ease with which he puts together a good team and does amazing technical things. It's kind of interesting that both this and Mortal Engines arrived the same weekend - neither really brilliant, but I admire the heck out of how Jackson and his companies sweat a lot of details without making it look like a chore.

They Shall Not Grow Old

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (Fathom Events, RealD 3D DCP)

It won't be the case for all who watch They Shall Not Grow Old, but for many viewers, some of the most interesting material will not be in the documentary itself, but the half-hour "making-of" package that is being shown afterward as part of it's two-date American release (and which will likely be included on the eventual disc). The assembly of World War I footage is itself impressive and informative, but it's the way director Peter Jackson puts it together, transforming it into a color three-dimensional film, that sets it apart.

The film is built out of footage from the the United Kingdom's Imperial War Museum (roughly 100 hours shot between 1914 and 1918) and interviews with veterans mostly done around the half-centenary for the BBC. Jackson has whittled that down to 90 minutes that focuses on the typical experience for a soldier during the war, from how many who enlisted were younger than the supposed minimum age of 19, to the six weeks of training, to serving on the front lines in dirty, dangerous trenches while much of the action was actually determined by the use of artillery. There is, at least in retrospect, little animosity toward the German soldiers and a sense of being drained after the war ended.

Jackson limits the film to the men on the ground rather than spreading his attention out to include planes, leadership, or the homefront, so he certainly hasn't made the definitive WWI doc (I am curious as to whether the Imperial War Museum and BBC have the footage necessary for this to be the first in a series), but that's generally okay. The steady stream of narration that bridges bits of footage leaves him and the audience with little time to have their attention stray. Though there is a bit of repetition at times, he generally avoids the feeling that his focus is too narrow, and the combination of grandfatherly voices and unglamorous visuals gets the experience across without putting the soldiers on too much of a pedestal. The nature of cobbling the film together from footage taken over the course of the war and a hundred relatively anonymous voices does mean that the film is never able to get across the grueling length of it - it feels like something which lasted months rather than years - which seems like something Jackson and company might have wanted to include; piecing together the story of an average soldier can leave one a bit disconnected to any of them in particular

Full review at EFC.

Monday, December 17, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 10 December 2018 - 16 December 2018

A three-day workweek here, but you'd never tell. This is why I take full weeks and run off to some other continent; knowing you won't be back to a city for years if ever is good motivation for not just being a bump on a log.

This Week in Tickets

Seriously, what the heck did I do on Monday? I have no idea! I had it off, but the apartment isn't cleaner, there's no ticket, no entry on Letterboxd, no noticeable dent made in the to-read piles. Maybe I cleaned out the DVR some? I guess. I didn't dig into the pile of Blu-rays for The Sleep Curse until the day after I'd gone back to work.

I had ambitions for the weekend, though, getting things started with Mortal Engines in IMAX 3D on Thursday night. It's the sort of thing that you kind of credit to the special effects crew as much as the filmmakers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, the thing I'd wanted to see in that format but missed because work kept me wound up with weird showtimes, so I had to "settle for" Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in RealD. But, since that one is legitimately great, I don't exactly mind.

Saturday wound up being another bump-on-a-log day, although I made some progress on the Twilight Time pile with The Hot Rock, which is, in fact, as good as promised by all the people who brought it up after William Goldman's death.

Sunday wound up being busy with me hitting a bunch of craft-fair type things and really only winding up with some mildly amusing gifts for my brother and his wife in Chicago, and while I'd planned certain things for after, my legs were tired and then it started to rain. We're kind of at the point where "I don't want to stand around outside the theater" starts driving decisions, so I went for a double feature at home of The Flying Machine, a genuine 3D oddity, and Allied, the latter in the hopes of catching up with Robert Zemeckis before his new one this weekend in order to feel better about that. Not the greatest results there, I fear.

Still, you'll probably see Welcome to Marwen on my Letterboxd page at some point over the next week anyway - I can be pretty loyal to people who have made one good movie, after all, and Zemeckis has done far more than that.

Shi Mian (The Sleep Curse)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's something weirdly admirable in this gross little horror movie coming out one month after big action movie Shock Wave and one before romance 77 Heartbreaks, with Hong Kong workhorse Herman Yau directing (and Erica Li Man writing) all of them. Add that to the sheer scale of star Anthony Wong's credits, and that is some crazy studio system guys making movies like it's a clock-punching job in a way that you don't often see anywhere else.

That may not be the best way to make every movie worthwhile, obviously, and this one shambles forward in kind of dull fashion. Wong plays a dual role - a sleep researcher in 1990 and his grandfather during World War II - but there's seldom the sense that the two are connected, and when insomnia turns to mania for both, it doesn't really feel like either has cracked, just that the story's reached a place where there's violence. In the later time period, the story struggles to connect Wong's and Jojo Goh's characters, which is shame they've got some chemistry and having them clearly know and care about and defy their ancestors' connection would make it more dramatic.

The filmmakers know what some folks come to a Category III horror movie for, though, and don't mess around in the last act, which is bloody and ruthless and gets the job done if you've come for blood, guts, and revenge. It's more than you might expect to see on-screen in a movie from people who don't necessarily need to go to the grindhouse, although it's not quite fun. It's random and awful enough to not really be great storytelling, but that does make it genuinely horrific rather than something to make gorehounds smile, and if you value the latter more than the former in this sort of movie, you won't come away disappointed.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #4 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

It seems like only a few months ago that people were roundly mocking Sony/Columbia continuing the try and make Spider-Man-related movies despite Marvel having pulled the main character into the Avengers franchise, where conventional wisdom said he belonged. Then Venom came out and was a surprising hit, and then Into the Spider-Verse, which seemed like it would be an interesting but niche production due to it being animated and full of relatively obscure pieces of Spidey lore, instead turns out to be a fantastic Christmas present for audiences who might not have thought 2018's sixth movie with a Marvel logo could offer something new.

But it turns out terrific, in large part because they knowingly embrace what wound up being the theme of Brian Michael Bendis's and Dan Slott's recent long runs on the Spider-Man comics: That Spidey is for and about everyone, and all the repetitions and variations on the classic origin reinforce this while also playing like great recurring jokes also filled with nifty Easter Eggs for comic book fans. The whole movie is like that, simultaneously exciting, sincere, and funny, making a virtue of familiarity but also of coming at super-hero action and angst from what seems like new directions.

Plus, it's incredibly gorgeous, a 3D animated movie that looks like almost nothing else that came before it even before branching out into a new animation style every time a new Spider-person and universe is introduced. It's got the realistic movement of motion capture without the stiffness, and the whole thing becomes lighter-than-air in a way that lets the larger-than-life action of the last act be impossible but also perfect. It embraces comic book visuals not out of camp but out of love, a knowledge that these characters and that medium were made for each other, and that live-action versions often have to take the long way around to get to what comics do naturally.

Plus, some of the voices are terrific. Nicolas Cage is perfect as Spider-Man Noir, enough to make me want more despite knowing the movie only needed this much ("I like egg creams..."), Lily Tomlin is the Alfred-esque Aunt May I never knew we needed ("oh, great, it's Liv"), and Shameik Moore is especially great as Miles, giving him a kid's confidence and shame even when the animators are emphasizing the other half of the character.

The movie does darn near everything right, maybe getting a small ding for being perhaps just a bit too long (or maybe that was just the soda I had earlier). Still, I hope Sony is diving into a sequel right away, because there are a lot of other Spider-guys I want to see mix it up with Miles, Gwen, the Peters, and company.

The Hot Rock

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, Blu-ray)

Maybe it's not quite a fortuitous coincidence that this was mentioned in many places as a highlight of screenwriter William Goldman's career at roughly the same time that Twilight Time was having a sale that included it, but sometimes it takes two prompts rather than just one to actually get you to go for something specific. There's just too many movies out there!

You can see where this gets its good reputation early; Goldman is adapting Donald Westlake, and the banter is as good as you'd expect from that combination. They give director Peter Yates a heist story that is seemingly small to start with but is able to just keep going, getting kind of out of hand and destructive without ever making a quantum leap to the scale where it's too big an action/adventure. The actual final go at it seems like a bit of a cheat - if they can do that, it seems like they should have had an easier time before - but also kind of nervy in the execution, a fun choice to go small after the rest of the movie had more explosions than one might have expected..

There's also a really fun cast, starting off with Robert Redford and George Segal as friends, brothers-in-law, and reluctant partners; they have neat chemistry as a pair who like each other despite sometimes finding the other irritating (side note: I'm kind of surprised Topo Swope would wind up finding more luck as an agent than actress; she's cute and appealing as the "Sis" connecting those two). It keeps going, though - Paul Sand and Ron Leibman are just what this heist needs as the rest of the gang, minor but still important and entertaining, with Zero Mostel a good late addition. Still, it's Moses Gunn as the diplomat alternately frustrated and kind of tickled to be dealing with these lowlifes that walks off with every scene he's in - which is a pretty good result, if you think of it, considering that it's a movie full of thieves.

The Flying Machine

* * ¼ (out of four) as a whole
* * * ¼ (out of four) for "The Magic Piano"
Seen 16 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, 3D Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I am not sure that I have ever seen an actor more apparently confused by their own presence in a movie than Heather Graham in The Flying Machine, but I can't exactly blame her; it is basically 47 minutes wrapped around a truly fantastic 30-minute short film, not quite the bare minimum necessary to get "The Magic Piano" booked in theaters capable of showing it in 3D, but certainly not far from it, and her parts are basically the padding. I kind of admire the ingenuity there, and there's some effort to make the framing bit look nifty, but I did wish they'd made a story worth watching out of that.

"The Magic Piano", you see, is pretty great - fantastic stop motion animation with Lang Lang playing the works of Chopin as the score, shot and rendered in 3D in a way that pops especially well after the feature's opening shots are a bit underwhelming, cinematographically-speaking. It's a sweet, charming little story, too, effortlessly following Chopin's life but also working as the tale of a girl who misses her father who has had to go work abroad. I genuinely envied the audience of the feature that got to see it on its own, with Lang playing live. It's a fine piece that maybe wouldn't have been award-worthy, but would have impressed on the festival circuit, and I can't fault the producers for trying to figure out a way to get it in front of audiences.

It's a shame that the movie they built around it is dull, retracing the short's steps, building a very familiar story around a workaholic mother barely paying attention to her kids as she tirelessly works to provide for them (but has more in common with her daughter than the younger girl might realize). Even for something meant to be daydream-like, what's going on doesn't make sense from one scene to the next, is educational in the most blandly fact-reciting way, and has visual effects that, while rendered nicely in 3D and drawing upon John Constable paintings as backgrounds, can't help but compare poorly to what was in "The Magic Piano" (although an animated sequence by Loving Vincent's Dorota Kobiela is charming in its own way). Graham kind of manages to claw her way to something okay when the producers give her something worth doing, but can't elevate weaker material - kind of her whole career, I guess - while Lang Lang seems like he'd come off as kind of impish and eccentric even without Benedict Wong dubbing his voice.

It's a wrapper that brings the average score of the movie down, and from what I can tell, this never played theaters in the US anyway. But the good news is that the Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray looks pretty good, and I'm under no obligation to watch the rest of the feature should I want to see/show "The Flying Piano" again.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Allied is beautifully mounted but ultimately kind of boring. The film takes an hour to get to the main story, but in that first half, the filmmakers don't do enough to establish this as a great romance or a thriller that could have multiple layers to it. It leaves the rest feeling like Brat Pitt's character is running around out of some obligation to the script, not because he has to figure it out what is going on or go mad and to hell with the folks who might get hurt in between.

We know how this will play out, of course - it's too slick and prestigious a thriller for an adult audience to go any other way but the one which will have Brad Pitt slowly tying himself in knots and Marion Cotillard having a great Acting moment or two after being just kind of there for the past forty-five minutes. It's the curse of the hard split between mainstream entertainment and award-quality pictures that exists today; the latter has become as predictable and rote as genre films are expected to be, even though their audience can presumably see the patterns just as well or better.

It's glossy as heck - the big action scene that caps the first half is terrific, and the air raid during a party is an incredible demonstration of how life in wartime goes on and is incredibly warped. There really aren't many people out there better at getting something from his head to the screen than Robert Zemeckis; he just didn't have much interesting to show this time around.

The Sleep Curse
Mortal Engines
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The Hot Rock
The Flying Machine

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mortal Engines

I can't really blame the theaters that cut down on how much they were going to show Mortal Engines on their top premium screens when Sony opted to release Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on those screens. I love Spider-Verse - it's one of the most visually exciting movies of the year, and I was actually trying to see it in 3D on the Assembly Row Imax screen Thursday night, only to have a hard time getting out of work in time to get there. Not that RealD the next day was bad at all...

Anyway, I'm not much for box-office stuff, but it doesn't take a lot of prognostication to tell that Mortal Engines is probably going to come and go pretty quickly, and there probably won't be a lot of room for it on the bigger/3D screens for very long with all that's coming out in the next few weeks. I can't really recommend this one strongly, but on the other hand - if it does sound like your sort of thing, see it now, when you can sit toward the front, edges of the screen roughly aligned with the edges of your vision, and let it be your whole world for a couple of hours. I regularly joke about people who go to the Imax screen and then sit back a ways, and am probably more generous to movies which splash crazy imagery up on screen that many, and I kind of wonder if those two impulses are related in both directions. I know I sit up front because I like movies with cool visuals, but do I wind up liking this sort of movie more because of how I watch it, compared to folks who sit back in what theaters tend to designate as the sweet spot or who watch screeners?

Mortal Engines

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Though the work of everyone else involved in the movie, from writers to cast, should not be diminished, the best reason Mortal Engines exists is that WETA Workshop got to build a bunch of crazy steampunk material, whether on set, as miniatures, or digitally. Traditionally, critics are supposed to say that this sort of thing is supposed to be in service to the rest of the story, but WETA is arguably better at this sort of thing than anybody else in the world, so why not build a movie as a showcase for what they do really well? It's an approach that leads to terrific, larger-than-life images on screen, even if the rest of the movie often doesn't serve the effects team as well as they could.

Without a doubt, the greatest creation is London, which in the 32nd Century is a "Predator City", mounted on treads and voyaging across a ruined world, ingesting other cities and breaking them down to consume their resources. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) has been waiting for an opportunity like this, eager for the opportunity for revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed her archaeologist mother when Hester was eight years old. Unfortunately for her, young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) spots her dagger while trying to salvage pre-apocalyptic technology from the Bavarian mining city she arrived in, and both wind up falling off the city, watching it crawl away across the wasteland. That's not a great situation even without Thaddeus setting cyborg monster Shrike (Stephen Lang) after them and with a new ally in Anna Fang (Jihae Kim); back in London, Valentine's daughter Katherine (Leila George) starts to suspect that her father is hiding something about Tom's disappearance and the mysterious project going on in St. Paul's Cathedral.

This story is ridiculous, of course, but there are different types of preposterous that are more or less forgivable. For example, yes, the predator cities are absurd, but so what? They look delightful and more realistic versions might not be worth a $20 movie ticket. And while they may be impossible bits of engineering, there is something fiercely clever about London belching black smoke and crawling across the world, trying to take the resources of India and China (which are a little bit more prepared this time). What doesn't work is how the film is by and large stitched together by coincidence rather than Hester, Tom, and the rest actually doing much of anything until the end, with characters appearing and vanishing completely as needed, and things moving fast enough that it's easy to miss how a character's destruction comes about via a Rube Goldberg series of events that he starts, burying the hubris of it.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 December 2018 - 20 December 2018

And, just like that, the studios seem to remember that they actually need to refresh what's playing in theaters. Huzzah! And with me having to take a couple days off work, too!

  • Funny thing; up until a couple weeks ago, it looked like Mortal Engines was going to be the big opener on the premium 3D screens, and why not - it's great-looking and as built for the giant-screen experience as anything, if sort of in the Sky Captain/Gods of Egypt "feast your eyes but don't think too hard" way. It doesn't have the same sort of buzz other things coming out now have, though it's still playing at Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Natick (Imax 2D/3D), Boston Common (including Imax 2D/3D), Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax 2D/3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D and Dolby Cinema), and Revere.

    Meanwhile, the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which features Spider-Men and -Women from different realities all coming together, wound up being something people really got excited about, from style to story to casting. It gets a fair chunk of the premium screens now, playing at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Reading (Imax 2D/3D), Boston Common, Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), the Seaport (including 2D/3D Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D/3D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D and Dolby CInema), Revere (including XPlus and MX4D), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood's latest as producer/director/star, The Mule, in which he plays an unlikely drug smuggler trying to make ends meet (with Feds played by Bradley Cooper and Forest Whitaker closing in), shows up hoping to attract an older audience. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also Vox Lux, featuring Natalie Portman as a pop star who emerged out of tragedy as a teenager (at least, in the second half of the movie); that one's at the Somerville, Boston Common, and Revere.

    Anna and the Apocalypse hangs on for a couple shows a day at Boston Common, through at least Tuesday, so get on that. Once Upon a Deadpool, a PG-13 version of the R-rated Deadpool 2, opened Wednesday and is playing Boston Common, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. Mary Poppins Returns opens Wednesday at .

    There are Saturday preview screenings of Aquaman at Fenway, the Seaport, and Revere. The coming week also features holiday presentations of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Saturday at Fenway), "Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" & "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" (Sunday at Fenway), and Love Actually (Sunday at Revere). Peter Jackson's World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, plays on Monday at Boston Common (3D), Fenway (2D/3D), South Bay (3D), Revere, and the SuperLux. Fenway and Revere have Hayao Miyazaki documentary Never-Ending Man on Tuesday.
  • Saoirse Ronan is Mary Queen of Scots (with Margot Robbie as cousin and rival Elizabeth I) at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common. That is a heck of a terrific cast right there.

    The dangerous gifts for the Coolidge's weekend midnights this weekend including Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich on Friday and, as has become customary, Gremlins on Saturday. Coolidge Award winner Michael Douglas continues to be saluted on Monday as The Game plays on 35mm.
  • Kendall Square and Boston Common also get Ben Is Back, with Julia Roberts as a mother whose troubled son (Lucas Hedges) reappears without warning on Christmas Eve. Hedges's characters are having a pretty rough fall.
  • Baseball documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel opens at The West Newton Cinema, with a special screening on Sunday afternoon presented by Boston Jewish Film

    West Newton is one of three new theaters opening Roma this weekend, with runs at The Somerville Theatre and The Lexington Venue joining Kendall Square. Sadly, Netflix is being demanding in return for access to 70mm prints, and with the Somerville still having the Slutcracker going on, they aren't getting one.
  • The Brattle Theatre's has their annual 35mm screenings of It's a Wonderful Life this weekend (note: many are already sold out, so buy in advance), which means that their usually more fun "Holiday-Adjacent" series is also playing with a late shows of the new restoration of Deep Red (Friday), a 35mm print of Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Saturday), and Tangerine (Sunday), along with a Wednesday double feature of The Apartment & Blast of Silence (the latter on 35mm), finishing up with Eyes Wide Shut on Thursday.

    On Monday night, Karina Longworth of the podcast You Must Remember This and new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood will be on hand to introduce a 35mm print of Bombshell and sign books afterward. Things go downhill the next day, as Tuesday is Trash Night, with public mocking of Cyborg Cop II
  • 2.0 seems to be down to 3D Tamil screenings, with Kedarnath also having limited shows. Malayalam film Odiyan (apparently about the last of a clan of shapeshifting thieves plays Friday, Sunday, and Monday; Marathi comedy Mumbai Pune Mumbai 3 on Sunday & Monday, with Tamil drama Seethakathi opening Wednesday evening.
  • The Harvard Film Archive closes their December schedule with more from the Rediscovering Jacques Becker series, including Casque d'or (35mm Friday & Monday), Rendezvous in July, It Happened at the Inn (35mm Saturday & Sunday), Antoine and Antoinette (Saturday), and Edourd and Caroline (Sunday). The weekend also features two family-friendly matinees: The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales… on Saturday and their annual free 16mm/35mm Vintage Holiday Show on Sunday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues to pay tribute to Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy with Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (Friday), Varda's Happiness (Saturday), Demy's Lola (Saturday). The Color Tells a Story series continues with Fantastic Mr. Fox (Friday) representing orange and 3 Women (Saturday/Thursday) representing yellow, Vertigo (Sunday) for green, Edward Scissorhands (Sunday) for blue, and Eyes Wide Shut for violet. There are also "Exhibition on Screen" shows of Degas: Passion for Perfection on Wednesday & Thursday.
  • The Regent Theatre has an encore of Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story on Monday with musician Al Kooper as a special guest.
  • The good folks at The Boston Underground Film Festival have their monthly "Dispatches from the Underground" series at the Somerville Theatre with Dial Code Santa Claus (aka Deadly Games), in which a kid must defend his grandfather from a murderous burglar in a Santa suit on Christmas Eve; this is very much the BUFF version of Home Alone despite coming from France in 1989.
  • Cinema Salem has Lars Trier's The House That Jack Built listed as playing in the small room, although I seem to recall that it's release was pushed back.

I've already seen Mortal Engines - it's fun! - and will probably try and get to Spider-Verse, Mary Queen of Scots, and most likely The Mule this weekend. I hate that I have to choose between Bombshell and The Game after They Shall Not Grow Old on Monday, and should probably grab another theatrical screening of Roma while I can.

Monday, December 10, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 3 December 2018 - 9 December 2018

I had use-it-or-lose it vacation time, so I took Friday off, but you'd never be able to tell.

This Week in Tickets

The Brattle and Harvard archaeology departments don't necessarily show Raiders of the Lost Ark absolutely every fall, but it can seem like they do, and why not? I'm actually kind of mildly surprised it was just the one show; it was a packed house and I know people got turned away on Friday because Fandango had it listed then for some unknown reason. Anyway, they show it often enough that I'm not quite sure why I have it on disc, aside from it being in a box set.

I came down with something right around then, so I didn't really feel up to getting out to Kendall for the last local screenings of A Private War (that I know of; I'm kind of hoping it may pop up in Lexington or as part of next year's Bright Lights or something). Had me not really wanting to leave the house beyond doing laundry on Friday, so I drilled down the DVR a while before starting to work on the latest batch of Blu-rays, this one from Twilight Time, starting in on the pile with Don't Bother to Knock, a weird Marilyn Monroe thriller from before when she really became Marilyn Monroe, if you get my meaning.

Same kind of went for the next day, though I opted for the 3D disc in the package, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, which being just 5 years old is an odd choice for that distributor, but hey, it's only 2D and apparently dubbed on Amazon Prime Video. Not great. I went with my other unwatched Twilight Time 3D disc, Gun Fury after that. A better movie, although the dialogue being in English made the fact that 3D Blu-rays are especially prone to getting the audio sync messed up particularly annoying; I kept trying to adjust but never quite getting it. I'm wondering if maybe having one wire going to the TV and one to the receiver is the issue, and maybe a new receiver would do it. Don't really feel the need to upgrade, though.

Sunday, I got out, trying to do some Christmas shopping, and, folks, the holiday craft fair scene seems really slow this year. Also, I'm beginning to suspect that one of the holes in my comic collection (Spider-Gwen #34) never actually came out. Got me to the Coolidge in plenty of time for The Favourite, which I'd hoped would be more fun than it turned out to be. Left me kind of disappointed, enough that instead of going straight home, I stopped at Boston Common for Anna and the Apocalypse, which I think I might have liked even more than when I saw it at Fantasia - or at least, it didn't suffer for being seen with a different, smaller audience.

Anyway, follow the Letterboxd page if you want; that's where most of this page's entries came from..

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (special presentation, 35mm)

Usually I don't have a lot new to say about this movie, but I'll confess something that makes me feel pretty stupid: I hadn't realized that Belloq was taking the position of the rabbi in the climactic sequence, which is kind of ridiculous on my part, but now I'm wondering just exactly which shade of twisted Spielberg/Lucas/Kasdan were going for: Is Belloq Jewish and so obsessed he's willing to work with Nazis or just so megalomaniacal and certain of how he deserves the contents of the Ark? Either way, even better villain that I thought, and I've thought he was a great villain for a long time.

Nice print, at least, although it kind of looks like it's from a restoration that's been inside of a computer.

Full review at EFC from 2013

Don't Bother to Knock

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, Blu-ray)

I'm not sure whether Don't Bother to Knock uses Marilyn Monroe's breathy, seductive innocence poorly or if it's just odd to see her in something like a dramatic role, but it's kind of rough going at times; she was a better actress than she appeared but even someone genuinely great might have trouble navigating the space between lurid and sympathetic that this reluctant babysitter requires. She's okay and maybe a bit better, but caught in the middle of a movie that requires something genuinely great or something totally deranged. The latter would be a terrible movie, but a more memorable one.

This actual movie is kind of a well-cast B-movie; besides Monroe, it's got Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, and Elisha Cook Jr., all turning in solid-enough performances (although Bancroft's singing being dubbed drove me nuts as my BD player can have lip-sync issues at the best of times), at the very least good enough to provoke reactions. Though broad and simple, Cook's well-meaning obliviousness to his niece's issues, Widmark's growing conscience, and Bancroft's genuine reactions to the man he is at the start and end of the movie all click. Smaller parts are iffier, but mostly need to be functional anyway.

It's the plot that lets things down a bit; it plays like someone intended to make a pulpy thriller about a crazy woman and then found themselves sympathetic to what Monroe's Nell had gone through. It makes the whole thing feel muted but not exactly serious, trapping the film somewhere between thriller and drama.

Kyaputen Hârokku (Space Pirate Captain Harlock)

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, 3D Blu-ray)

So this is what it looks like when manga adaptations go full CGI - a world filled with characters that don't have the expressiveness either freehand drawing or live action can bring except in the most deliberate, mannered way, and the original manga-ka's style gets lost in a mess of photorealism and rigid scaling, everything just a little bit off from pacing to design. It's a high price to pay for some admittedly spiffy 3D space battles and action.

Maybe if I were a fan of some previous version, this would work better; it's the sort of adaptation that throws a whole lot of exposition at the audience and has room for multiple Biggest Weapons Ever that the manga would have spent months building to. Still, it also spends a lot of time telling the audience that Captain Harlock is amazing but spending a lot more time with other characters until the end, when it finally gives Harlock some backstory. The movie never really develops a rhythm, getting bigger and bigger until the sheer size is meaningless, scaling up another piece of melodrama to match but making it look foolish as a result.

The movie admittedly often looks great - the skull-festooned everything may be more kewl than cool, but there's something about the way Harlock's ship Arcadia just bashes its way through things that almost gives it some personality. The action is creatively conceived and lovingly rendered in 3D, although the relative realism of the rendering makes the violence a bit harder to swallow. It's the sort of space opera that can feel pretty nihilistic as the sheer scale of the carnage sinks in, and the lack of a hero who actually abhors the violence itself doesn't give the audience an outlet.

I still kind of wish I'd had a chance to see this in 3D on a big screen; I bet it looked amazing. It still wouldn't have been an actual good movie, but a Fantasia or other otaku crowd getting into it sure would have made the experience more fun than watching it at home.

Gun Fury

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2018 in Jay's Living Room (recent acquisitions, 3D Blu-ray)

3D westerns from the 1950s are a ton of fun to watch; there's a ViewMaster-like look to the lay of the land with bits of scrub popping out randomly, and foregrounded bits that seem like they must have been composited in, except it's 1953 and doing that in 3D would have been a nightmare, so, yeah, they just shot to have extreme foregrounding happen. Directors have fun breaking the pane of the screen with guns, throwing things at the camera, or placing the audience right behind a team of horses going over uneven ground. It's simultaneously very traditional and very showy.

The glee in shooting a movie like this is most of what makes Gun Fury kind of nifty now that it's old enough to collect social security checks; it's otherwise kind of a basic revenge story about a bland rancher (Rock Hudson) trying to rescue his pleasant-enough fiancee (Donna Reed) from an "unreconstructed Confederate" bandit (Phil Carey). The film refers to the Civil War in various platitudes that tend toward the noble lost cause, which is too bad - both in and of itself and because there's something in the hollow gentility that Carey gives his villain that seems like it could get more interesting as their paths cross with Mexicans and Indians (including Thurman Lee Haas aka Pat Hogan, who is uncredited despite having a pretty important role). America wasn't really confronting that part of its history in popcorn films at the time, so what could have made Slayton one of the great villains just makes him generic.

The script tends to unravel as the film goes along; the writers have a knack for finding interesting situations but not milking them before getting to the next bit of action or obvious hammering on the theme. It is kind of fun to see Lee Marvin show up in a minor role - he's not a star yet, but you can sort of see the fully-formed persona even in a bit role that will let him become one.

The Favourite

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2018 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

I'm not sure whether this is better than expected because I generally wind up disliking Yorgos Lanthimos on balance or worse than expected because the trailers were entertaining and they suggested a more entertaining movie. It looks like the guys editing the previews condensed all of the enjoyable black comedy into three minutes and the rest was less fun.

And, sure, maybe "fun" is the wrong thing to expect from a Lanthimos movie about these particular figures, but someone is amplifying the absurdity, but it often seems like Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara are less trying for laughs than smirks, and that leaves everything too abstract. There's a good story in here about Emma Stone's Abigail shedding a skin of innocence and kindness (whether real or performed) to get to where she feels safe and powerful, and one about a queen who is probably a good person beneath the royal isolation, privilege, and ill health (I don't remember if the British royal family was inbred to Hapsburgian levels at this period, but the aristocracy is often shown as freaky-enough-looking to suggest it), and maybe even one for Rachel Weisz's Sarah, but she's the key to what makes this movie kind of pointlessly cruel: Nobody believes in anything for any particular reason beyond power, and while there's intrigue in watching these women maneuver and some illicit delight in bad behavior where one might expect propriety, it's eventually hollow.

The Favourite winds up feeling like someone went in mistaking cruelty for depth, sarcasm for subversion, and fisheye lenses for being visually interesting. It's the sort of movie that feels clever because we often confuse being cynical for being perceptive (as can all too often be the case), but is blandly assuming the worst and showing it with flagrant detachment a useful way to talk about things? I'm not sure what point it makes other than that the person doing so considers themselves above something.

(As a personally annoying aside, consider the end credits. Yes, they look very much like how something would have been printed in the seventeenth century, but they're hard to read, a case of filmmakers prioritizing showing off over actual communication. I was kind of afraid I wouldn't see whether the harpsicord version of "Skyline Pigeon" was Elton John or a cover amid the excessive style, and what's the point of that?)

Anna and the Apocalypse

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2018 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

After The Favourite, which was less engaging than it seemed like it should be, I felt like this would make a good chaser, because it seems to be the opposite: Something that could have been cynical and self-aware in an obnoxious way but which instead manages to be sincere and earnestly entertaining. I think I may have liked it a bit better the second time around, outside the festival environment. It's an odd thing - sometimes seeing something like this with a bunch of other genre fans and a young, self-deprecating director geeking out while he does the Q&A can make you think of it as a small film that gets a lot out of a little, but seeing it in your local multiplex with a more conventional crowd can highlight that, hey, this is also pretty slick and professionally done.

It's a genuinely good movie, and I kind of hope it finds an audience. It probably got all the release it could expect, but I think folks would go for it if it was a bit higher profile.

Full review at EFC from Fantasia

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Don't Bother to Knock
Space Pirate Captain Harlock
Gun Fury
The Favourite
Anna and the Apocalypse

Friday, December 07, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 December 2018 - 13 December 2018

I know Thanksgiving seemed to come relatively early this year, but studios more or less doing nothing for two weeks after seems like rather a missed opportunity. Hopefully it inspires folks around here to check out a couple of fun things from this summer's Fantasia Festival.

  • Better to see Anna and the Apocalypse now anyway - it is a Scottish teenage zombie Christmas musical, after all! Charming as heck, but apparently only playing Boston Common. They also bring back The Wife, which everyone seemed to look at as "Glenn Close going for an Oscar" back in August. They're also the only ones listing Once Upon a Deadpool - a PG-13 cut of the very R-rated Deadpool 2 - as opening Wednesday.

    The biggest opening, in fact, seems to be a 25th Anniversary re-release of Schindler's List, which plays West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (Dolby Cinema), and Revere. A Star Is Born never actually left, but it gets the Imax screens at Jordan's Furniture, Boston Common, Assembly Row and South Bay for the week, with Jordan's also playing The Polar Express in Imax 3D after school. A Star Is Born also opens at the Belmont Studio Cinema.

    There are also an unusual amount of preview screenings - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row (Imax), and Revere on Friday evening & Saturday afternoon; Bumblebee Saturday night at Boston Common, Fenway (RPX), Assembly Row, and Revere (XPlus); and Second Act at Boston Common on Tuesday. Fenway continues Regal's holiday classics series with A Christmas Story at noon on Saturday, or some inspirational-looking thing called Buttons that has pulled in a pretty nice cast; Boston Common & Fenway also have the last (English-dubbed) screenings of Mirai Saturday afternoon. More holiday specials include a TCM presentation of White Christmas at Fenway & Assembly Row on Sunday and Wednesday, a Jim Henson double-feature of "Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" & "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" at Fenway on Monday, and Love Actually at Revere on Thursday. Fenway also has Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki on Thursday, so titled because it doesn't seem so long ago there was another documentary about his retirement (which didn't stick).
  • The Brattle Theatre's first Fantasia alum is Five Fingers for Marseilles, a pretty nifty modern Western from South Africa, although it only plays 9pm shows from Friday to Sunday, although they will also be showing documentary People's Republic of Desire with filmmaker Hao Wu there on Tuesday evening. Most of the schedule goes to Bathtubs Over Broadway, a documentary in which a late-night comedy writer discovers "industrial musicals" - trade show presentations produced and performed by legitimate Broadway talent - and the cult fans that trade recordings. There's also a DocYard screening of Island of the Hungry Ghosts with director Gabrielle Brady skyping in to talk about her film following a counselor on the island where Australia keeps asylum-seekers. They also have the second part of this year's Grrl Haus Cinema shows, with part three in Dorchester Friday the 14th.
  • Kendall Square is the Landmark Cinema opening a Netflix film this week, and it's one of the year's best movies in Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's gorgeous B&W story of an indigenous maid and the family for whom she works in the 1970s. It's very much a big-screen movie and who knows how many future opportunities anybody will have to see it on one. They also have Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, about the man who shaped conservative media for the past several decades.
  • Apple Fresh Pond keeps 2.0 going, but also gets Kedarnath, a Hindu-Muslim love story. The Caleidoscope Indian Film Festival also plays through the weekend, with Evening Shadows at the Pao Arts Center on Friday, two films at Rhode Island College on Saturday, and The Song of Scorpions and C/O Kancharapalem back at Fresh Pond on Sunday.
  • A couple films that had played elsewhere expand to The Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend in Shoplifters (also at Kendall Square) and Maria by Callas (also at Kendall Square and West Newton). They also have a special screening of Eternity's Gate (also playing the Capitol, Kendall Square, West Newton, Boston Common) on Sunday, with MFA curator Katie Hanson discussing the work of Van Gogh and his contemporaries.

    Midnights during the Christmas season will be featuring dangerous presents, with a 35mm print of Child's Play on Friday and the weekly screening of Gremlins on Saturday. There's a Goethe-Institut screening of Back for Good, in which a reality TV star returns home to bond with her epileptic sister, on Sunday. The Big-Screen Classic on Monday is a 35mm print of The Shop Around the Corner, with an add-on seminar before and after. There's Open Screen on Tuesday, a 35mm print of Wall Street as part of their Michael Douglas tribute, and a Rewind! presentation of Elf on Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive concludes their Jiří Trnka, Puppet Master series with a set of short films on Friday evening, with the Early West German Cinema program having an encore of The Birth of Light at 9pm that night. Saturday afternoon's $5 family matinee is Meet Me In St. Louis, and then that night they begin a series Rediscovering Jacques Becker Antoine and Antoinette (Saturday 7pm), Édouard and Caroline (Saturday 9pm), The Trump Card (35mm Sunday 4:30pm), and Rendezvous in July (35mm Sunday 7pm). They wrap their weekend with Street Scene on Monday, tying in with an exhibition at the Houghton Library, with a tour beforehand.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts spends some time with Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy, with Varda's Lions Love (...and Lies) (Friday/Saturday/Thursday), Varda's Cleo From 5 to 7 (Friday/Wednesday), Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Saturday/Sunday), Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (Wednesday), and Varda's Happiness (Thursday). There's also a Jump Cut preview of their "Color Tells a Story" series on Sunday with Black Narcissus, preceded by "A Trip to the Moon" on 35mm with live accompaniment.
  • Border pops back up at Cinema Salem for a week in the small room.
A fair amount of time off this weekend and I guess I can catch up on The Favourite and maybe some of the other stuff I'm behind on.