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

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