Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fagara

I think Fagara is one of the bigger local releases in Hong Kong this year; it was getting prominent placement on the Hong Kong film times app that is still hanging around on my phone when I checked it for other reasons a month ago, and maybe more. It's got Sammi Cheng, who is a big deal there, although it reminds me that not enough folks have seen her and Andy Lau in Blind Detective here. There's good folks involved, with director Heiward Mak an up-and-comer who has worked on a number of varied projects, from co-writing Men Suddenly in Black 2 when just out of college, to working with Pang Ho-Cheung on Love in a Puff, to last year's crazy action movie The Golden Job, to this, produced by Ann Hui. That's a bit of everything with everyone.

It's a good movie, and one built to play well throughout the Chinas, even if that means having the Hong Kong-based characters speaking Mandarin. I am mildly curious about a thing or two that could have had it skirting China's censorship issues, most notably that middle daughter Branch seems like she might be gay - she's in a career where that's not unusual, her obsessed fan is female, and her family half-talks about finding a partner but also lets it go. It seems to be part of Megan Lai's performance even if they can't say it.

Hua jiao zhi wei (Fagara)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2019 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

Fagara is the sort of small family drama whose story has been told more than a few times - who hasn't discovered their father had a secret life after he passed away - but is just better enough at it on most counts that it actually winds up fairly impressive. It's so well put together that director Heiward Mak Hei-Yan can dispense with much of what other movies would use to prop it up.

In this case, the daughter is Acacia Ha (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man), who is not quite estranged from her father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) but doesn't cross Hong Kong's harbor very often to see him, either, at least not until one of the employees at his restaurant calls urgently from the hospital; by the time she gets there, he's passed on. When going through the contacts on his phone, she discovers that two of them also call him "Dad" - Branch Au Yeung (Megan Lai Ya-Yan), a professional billiards player in Taiwan, and Cherry Ha (Li Xiaofeng), a fashion blogger in Chongqing. She gives them the news and invites them to the funeral, and though wary, they soon bond over their father's famous fagara hot pot. Unfortunately, that hot pot is a secret recipe, and the restaurant has a year to go on a lease Acacia can't afford to break.

Mak does a neat thing in one of the early scenes, when Acacia is working as a travel agent and has to book a trip that a businessman is taking with his secretary; a sequence of disapproving acquiescence that establishes this sort of adultery as normalized. It makes it a little easier to come out of the hurt and shock of Acacia finding out she has two half-sisters without needing to spend much time judging or explaining their father. It's there, in the way people ask questions at the funeral, but mostly it plays as an important factor in who the women are now. It's worth noting that what might be romantic subplots in other films are held a bit at arm's length, the audience not quite sure what to make of Acacia's two potential suitors or Cherry's seemingly complete disinterest in having one; if Leung and the women he abandoned did damage them, it's not something that will be cathartically remedied after his death.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, September 13, 2019

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 September 2019 - 19 September 2019

Does the Toronto International Film Festival run another weekend, or did it end on Thursday? In the former, a couple of its bigger entries are hitting theaters even before it's finished.

  • The one people seem to be excited about is Hustlers, with Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as part of a team of strippers with a scheme to rip off the Wall Street types who come to their clubs. It's been described as both a thriller and an operatic drama, which sounds ambitious. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The reviews aren't quite so good for The Goldfinch, featuring Oakes Fegley and later Ansel Elgort as a boy taken in by a wealthy family after his mother is killed in a terrorist attack. Word is Nicole Kidman and the cinematography by Roger Deakins are good, but that the film is bloated at two and a half hours. That's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Boston Common also opens Fantasia Festival selection Freaks, which I suggest seeing knowing as little going in as possible. Official Secrets picks up screens at the Capitol, West Newton, Fenway, and Revere after having opened at the Coolidge, Kendall Square, and Boston Common last week.

    This week's "Dream Big, Princess" selection at AMC Boston Common and Assembly Row is the classic animated Beauty and the Beast. Anniversary screenings this week include El Norte and Fenway & Assembly Row on Sunday and Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Sunday & Wednesday at Fenway, the Seaport (Sunday only), South Bay, Revere, and the SuperLux. Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row and Revere play Game Changers on Monday, with the documentary featuring Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Jackie Chan, and other athletes being confronted with the idea that everything they've learned about protein and muscle-building may be incorrect. Rob Zombie's 3 From Hell has a (fittingly) three-day run from Monday to Wednesday at Fenway, South Bay, and Revere. There are also two Japanese imports that played Fantasia hitting theaters this week: The pretty-decent live-action Tokyo Ghoul S plays Boston Common, Fenway, the Kendall, and Revere on Monday and Wednesday, while the downright fantastic animated Promare plays Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere on Tuesday and Thursday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre,Somerville, and Kendall Square open Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a documentary about the phenomenally popular, category defying singer.

    Friday is the 13th, which means Jason Vorhees comes to town, although the town in questioni is Medfield, where the Coolidge has a double feature of the original Friday the 13th and the 2009 remake at the Rocky Woods reservation. Back in Brookline, the Coolidge's midnights are David Lynch classics on 35mm, with Eraserhead on Friday and Blue Velvet on Saturday. Monday's Big Screen Classic is Cleo from 5 to 7, with an optional seminar for those who would like to dig in deeper. Tuesday's "Cine Almodovar" presentation is a 35mm print of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with Legally Blonde the "Rewind!" show on Thursday. On Wednesday, they have a special Anniversary Celebration, marking 30 years since the theater was rescued from demolition, re-emerging as a non-profit boutique cinema.
  • Kendall Square brings out Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, a documentary on the famed Texas newspaper columnist whose wit was only matched by her dedication to taking on corruption. They also have A Faithful Man, in which director Louis Garrel sets up a situation where both a former girlfriend played by Laetitia Casta and the beautiful kid sister of the man she left him for (Lily-Rose Depp) decide to re-enter his character's life after that friend dies. Not self-indulgent at all.
  • The Brattle Theatre plays Ray & Liz from Friday to Monday, with photographer Richard Billingham making the jump to the big screen to tell a story about life in working-class Birmingham during the 1980s. Those days also feature a 35mm print of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street at 9:30pm.

    There's also a Sunday-morning showing of a local crowd-sourced documentary, Motherload with discussion afterward (RSVP required). One Tuesday, they have a one-night-only screening of One Cut of the Dead, which is the ideal way to see it because when you're backed in a crowd like that, you can't bolt or turn it off during the very rough first third that you need for the absolutely brilliant finale to work. Wednesday is National Art House Cinema Day, which the Brattle celebrates with screenings of My Twentieth Century and Putney Swope, while writer Tom Sturges visits on Thursday to talk about his father Preston, the book he has written about the man, and introduce one of his greatest films, Sullivan's Travels, on 35mm.
  • It must be some sort of big Indian holiday season, because Apple Fresh Pond has another big batch of new movies this week. This week, that includes Bollywood romantic comedy Dream Girl, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Nushrat Bharucha; legal thriller Section 375; Gang Leader, in which Nani plays a man helping five women in a revenge plot; and Pailwaan, with Sudeep as a fighter who becomes a folk hero and political figure on top of being an athlete. The first two are in Hindi; the language for the latter two aren't clear. Chhichhoreand Mission Mangal are still playing, too.

    Boston Common picks up Fagara the same time it hits Hong Kong; it's the new one from rising-star director Heiward Mak and features Sammi Cheng as a Hong Kong woman who discovers that her father had two other daughters, one in Taiwan and one in the Mainland, all under various sorts of family pressure, who must work together to pay off their father's debt. Ann Hui produces and Andy Lau has a cameo. Nezha is still going strong at Boston Common, also opening at the Seaport and Revere.
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins a series honoring The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959 this weekend. Friday and Sunday offer a 35mm double feature of the new restoration of Detour (restored on Friday and an archival print on Sunday) & Five Came Back, with 16mm print of Donovan's Brain playing later on Friday. Saturday's early twin bill is Crime Wave (16mm) & Plunder Road (35mm), with Peter Lorre in Island of Doomed Men (on 35mm) later. They also welcome Sofia Bohdanowicz, perhaps not quite in time for Sunday afternoon's screening of Maison du Bonheur, but she will be there to introduce short film "Veslemøy’s Song" (on 16mm) and feature MS Slavic 7 on Monday.
  • It's mostly "Festival Buzz" at The Museum of Fine Arts this week, with A Long Day's Journey into Night (2D Friday), The Beach Bum (Friday/Sunday), The Souvenir (Sunday), The Farewell (Wednesday), and The Nightingale (Wednesday). They will also show Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace on Saturday, preceded by a discussion with Dr. Emmett Price III of Gordon Conwell Theological School and Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham.
  • There is an India International Film Festival of Boston this weekend, with Friday's fancy opening night at the JFK library featuring Chef Vikas Khanna on hand to introduce the adaptation of his novel The Last Color, two free screenings at the Cambridge Public Library on Saturday, and a number of other shows at the Wheelock Family Theater at Boston University on Saturday and Sunday
  • School is back in session, which mean Bright Lights is back in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room. That's two free movies a week (if you show up early enough) and discussion afterward. This fall's series opens with Booksmart on Tuesday and Wild Nights with Emily on Thursday, both followed by faculty guests.
  • The Somerville Theatre has been running in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood via DCP for the past week or so, but will be breaking the film back out again on the big screen this weekend. On Wednesday, The Boston Underground Film Festival hosts their monthly screening, with "A September to Dismember" offering literal mayhem - and if I read the schedule right, they're not necessarily in the Micro-Cinema this month (although it might be wise to buy tickets early just in case).
  • The Boston Film Festival is still a thing, and has moved on to the Seaport for its entire length this year. Opening night on Thursday actually looks kind of good, with Columbine High School documentary American Tragedy at 7pm (with plentiful guests) and what's apparently the U.S. premiere of Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit at 9pm (with no guests). The festival runs until Sunday the 22nd.
  • Cinema Salem has documentary Fiddlin' in their small room this week, and also has a preview screening of Jirga on Thursday, with post-film discussion of the film about an Australian soldier submitting himself to village justice in Afghanistan led by veteran Tom Laaser and educator Mitch Manning.

    The Luna Theater has The Farewell on Friday and Saturday evenings, Honeyland and The Nightingale Saturday afternoon, Brazil three times on Sunday, and documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts on Tuesday evening. There are also the usual weekly free shows, with Saturday Morning Cartoons, Sunday's "Magic Mystery Movie Club", and Weirdo Wednesday.
  • There's a chill in the air, but Joe's Free Films shows three outdoor films Friday night, including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Rocky, and Le Brio.


I'll check out Fagara and Hustlers, hit Fenway Park for both baseball and a concert, and hopefully fit in some B-movies and/or Promare.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Rezo

I have a couple of Russian co-workers, and I should probably ask them how popular and well-remembered Revan "Rezo" Gabriadze and his films still are. Probably not well-known as a filmmaker - or maybe writers get remembered more in Russia - so I'd probably ask about Kin-Dza-Dza! and hope I'm not annoying them. I've never really heard of the guy, just coming across this film as one of the Russian flicks that occasionally gets booked at Fenway (very occasionally - something like one show three times a year), seeing "animated autobiographical documentary", and figuring, sure, why not? Given that it didn't really seem to be part of any sort of series with branding on it, I actually wasn't sure whether or not it would have English subtitles, crossing my fingers.

It did, thankfully, as did the animated short that helped pad the 62-minute running time out a little. I suspect I would have gotten the gist without it, but that would have been a truly unusual night at the movies.

It's kind of notable how not-quite-incestuous this program was: Both short and feature were produced by Timur Bekmambetov, I believe the "Zhanna Bekmambetova" who directed this short is his daughter, and the feature is directed by Rezo's son Levan - who also directed the Bekmambetov-produced Unfriended. Makes it easy to get everyone to agree to play together, I guess.

"Chik-Chirk" ("Tweet-tweet")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2019 in Regal Fenway #6 (special engagement, DCP)

I saw and enjoyed this back when it played as one of the runners-up during this year's Oscar, and though it was only seven months ago, I could swear at certain points that this was some sort of extended cut. I didn't remember there being as much about the future husband the first time through, and I'm still not sure what the bird represents.

Still a very pretty movie, at the very least, and with a lot of charming, well-animated moments. Well worth twelve minutes and nice to see again.

What I wrote back in February

Rezo

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2019 in Regal Fenway #6 (special engagement, DCP)

I'm not sure I've ever before seen a biographical documentary where at the end, I wasn't entirely sure what the subject was famous for. But that's where Rezo leaves me, as Revan Gabriadze spends almost no time discussing his life's work, nor the personal life that happened alongside it. The film, directed by his son Levan, has him telling stories of the father's youth and a philosophical moment or two as he returns home an old man, apparently presuming that anyone watching this film knows the rest or will look it up. It's an odd but not unpleasant sensation.

Revaz was born in what is now the country of Georgia, at the time part of the Soviet Union, in 1936; his uncle was a pilot who died during the war. He grew up in the city of Kutaisi, something of a mommy's boy, teased and bullied by everyone in town from kids to pallbearers, his best friend a rat in the library with whom he shared books (as Revaz devoured the contents, "Ippoli" chewed the leather covers). An illness led to him spending the summer in the country with his grandparents, next door to a camp full of German POWs. One was assigned to help around their plot of land, becoming a source of friction between the grandparents. By the end of two summers, he's grown more confident, enough to take chances on himself as a writer and artist, eventually making movies in Moscow and opening a marionette theater.

Animation and cartooning are not mentioned during the film; maybe they don't need to be. Gabriadze the elder is credited as the art director, so the animation is presumably based upon Rezo's own drawings. Those images are simple and appealing, brought to life in what appears to be classic cel-based style with fluid movement, though it sometimes skips showy, complex motions (for instance, when Rezo's grandmother washes her hair, the audience doesn't see any water). Every character is full of personality that emerges right away, and crude jokes share space with sometimes foreboding atmospheres. His flights of fantasy as a young boy are bounded, built around the portraits of authority figures judging him, intimidating in a way that a creative child can either miss or twist to his own amusement. Kutaisi itself is crowded and overwhelming when he is there as a child, though a bit less so when he revisits as an adult.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, September 09, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 2 September 2019 - 8 September 2019

You may see a lot of empty white space on these pages; I see the weekend that I finally reached the bottom of the stack of comics that's been growing since I went to London for vacation.

This Week in Tickets

(And, good gravy, is DC a disaster right now. It seems like they always are, but "Year of the Villain" is currently in the "re-reading the same beats in every series" stage, seemingly every idea Brian Bendis has for Superman is wrong-headed, the whole thing with Bane and Flashpoint Batman in Batman is awful. Who looked at these pitches and said "this will be fun and worth $4/issue"?)

It was, at least, a good week for baseball, or at least the two games I had tickets to. Wednesday was the result of me ordering in a kind of dumb manner - I didn't reallize that the ticket I got in a four-pack was also the Peanuts bobblehead game, so I bought a separate ticket for that, and then couldn't unload my original. A bummer, but I had a really nice seat for a game in which Mookie Betts hit the first two pitches he saw over the Monster (which also got me to the line-free King's Hawaiian barbecue concession stand during the game and out at the end with little fuss). Friday had me nervous - bullpen game against the seemingly-unstoppable-no-matter-who-gets-hurt Yankees - but they wound up winning 6-1.

But I digress from the entry on my movie blog that lists the movies I've seen in a given week. Those were seen on Sunday's excursion to Brookline, where I spent most of the day at the Coolidge. It started with Balloon, a German film that played Canadian theaters while I was in Montreal for Fantasia but which I didn't have time for. I'd sort of pegged it as a family movie at the time - it was rated G in Quebec - but it's not exactly that. There was apparently an earlier version (Night Crossing) made by Disney, but it wasn't well-remembered, and the makers of this one had to spend years negotiating with that company to get the rights to the story back (I'm guessing what the prominent thanks to Roland Emmerich in the credits refer to). After that, there was still a lot of convincing necessary, especially since the director was from Bavaria rather than the former East German and more known for comedy than thrillers. The film doesn't quite get to how, after reunification, some of the escapees were able to get their old house back and move back in, but that's neat.

(Aside: Thomas Krestschmann has played so many Nazis in international films despite being a tremendously charismatic guy that it's almost funny that he goes home and gets cast as Stasi.)

It wasn't a long wait after that for Official Secrets, which is pretty decent but not something I particularly regret missing at IFFBoston, even if there were some guests. It feels a bit like the filmmakers finding a story that makes a number of important points and seems dramatic enough but which only makes for a pretty-good movie rather than the great one you figure they'd gone for.

Hopefully a busier week for here and my Letterboxd page coming up, if only because there's a werid no-baseball Friday.

Ballon (Balloon)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2019 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Geothe-Institut German Film, DCP)

When I first saw the description of Balloon, I pegged it as a light family adventure, likely because the idea of fleeing a repressive society in a homemade hot-air balloon sounds fanciful, and the film didn't have enough red-flag content for the local ratings board to give it anything but the least restrictive rating. Of course, evading the Stasi while attempting to escape East Germany was no small matter, and that makes this movie a serious, no-nonsense thriller even if it doesn't have any harsh language or graphic violence. It's something of a throwback in that way, but that works for it.

It opens in 1979 on the day of the "Youth Dedication Ceremony" in the city of Possneck. Frank Strelzyk (Jonas Holdenrieder) is one of the graduating eighth-graders being honored as father Peter (Friedrich Mücke) mocks the presiding official to wife Doris (Karoline Schuch), despite the fact that they'll be giving neighbors Erik & Beate Baumann (Ronald Kukulies & Elisabeth Wasserscheid) a ride home, and Erik is a sort of mid-level bureaucrat with the Stasi. They don't intend to face the consequences, though, as the Strelzyks and their friends Günter & Petra Wetzel (David Kross & Alicia von Rittberg) have been working years on a hot-air balloon that will take them south, over the border to Bavaria, and the wind is right, even if the Wetzels have cold feet. The Strelzyks almost make it, but "almost" is a dangerous situation - it leaves enough clues behind for Lt. Col Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann) to pick up the scent, meaning they have to try again, except with weeks rather than months and the Stasi looking for them specifically.

Director and co-writer Michael Bully Herbig gets to that point, where the real meat of the film begins, fairly quickly, dispensing with a lot of what might be treated as important establishment of motivation. You don't really need to be told why anybody might want to flee East Germany, let alone why it's important for this specific group, so Herbig throws that in as details at the point where characters might actually mention it. Similarly, since this story involves the families doing a lot of things twice, it makes a lot of sense to just skip over the first time as much as possible rather than later feel like the filmmakers are spinning wheels or diminishing something's importance by doing a montage or not showing it later. It's a smart approach to this specific story and also just good storytelling in general - there's never a sense of anything important being left out or a filmmaker obviously trying to shape a story.

Full review at eFIlmCritic

Official Secrets

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2019 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

Gavin Hood hasn't dedicated his entire directorial career to making films about the crimes and compromises behind the twenty-first century's Middle Eastern wars, but at three and counting, he's probably done more dramatic features on the subject than all but a few. If they ever become history people look back on rather than things that are still going on, those films will at the very least be an interesting set of commentary on the times as a group, even if some (like Official Secrets) are better as commentary than thrilling narrative.

The Official Secrets Act is the United Kingdom's primary law meant to protect national security, and in February 2004, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) went on trial for the events of nearly a year earlier, when as a translator of signals intelligence, she was forwarded a memo asking that any information that could be used to leverage United Nations delegates into supporting action in Iraq on rather flimsy pretexts. She gave a copy to a friend in the anti-war movement, via whom it eventually made its way to reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of the Observer, a paper that had until that point been editorializing in favor of the war. Bright, Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), and Washington correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) must be careful running the information down - it's hard to prove the sender even exists - and when the story breaks and Katharine is discovered, her Kurdish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) becomes a target and lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) is hamstrung in what he can do to defend her.

There are times when Official Secrets seems almost too reserved and British for its own good, avoiding direct confrontation, short-circuiting a suspenseful stretch by having Katharine spontaneously confess, and making a lot of effort to repeat the details of what seems a convoluted legal strategy. But that's sort of the point; the film is about how institutions can smother people attempting to do right and how those in power arrange those institutions to make it more difficult. One of the most telling lines is almost tossed off, referencing how the law Katharine Gun has run afoul of was specifically amended when someone had successfully opposed corruption before. It's about crimes whose effects are devastating but diffuse, almost impossible to witness and report by design.

Full review at eFIlmCritic


Red Sox 6, Twins 2
Red Sox 6, Yankees 1
Balloon
Official Secrets

Saturday, September 07, 2019

These Weeks in Tickets: 19 August 2019 - 1 September 2019

The end of summer comes to the movies with a whimper every year, but I kind of don't mind this year. I was kind of movied-out and the profile of these last two weeks shows it.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

Both weeks started out with film noir double features at the Brattle. On the 19th, front half The Woman in the Window was clearly the better of the two - even if it's not the best work they could do together, it's still Fritz Land and Edward G. Robinson. I kind of wonder who today's Robinson would be - not leading-man handsome, perhaps at his best as a villain, but able to slip into an everyman lead when given the chance. The back half, The Mask of Dimitrios, wasn't quite so strong; it's got Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet but is no Casablanca or Maltese Falcon.

On Thursday, I did my first bit of Fantasia catch-up with Ready or Not, which I gather was a security-lockdown nuthouse at the festival. It's one of those that is fun enough to watch at the time, with a candy coating that goes down really well, but which kind of reveals itself as not having a whole lot to it as you write and talk about it. Not a bad night out at the theater, but definitely not worth putting on the shelf.

I figured to see more over the weekend, but I kind of got sucked into marathoning the last eight or nine episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which is still probably not going to please a lot of Trek traditionalists, but which I found myself digging more and more. It's done the same job of quietly building up the background characters into supporting cast that the original series did as opposed to having nine people who needed something to do every week, and it's got what seems like a crazy budget for this show, which means we get a look at what Vulcan looks like as an advanced culture whose planet has many different types of climates because they had more than twenty bucks to spend, with a probe that becomes a crazy tentacle monster in the same episode. In the big two-part finale, they've got one of the franchise's best space battles, noteworthy in part because they seemed to be extrapolating from now, with drones and UAVs and the like rather than just sub-inspired warfare.

It's got some issues - too much of Michelle Yeoh jobbing to get people over, and moments in those finale when they on the one hand have characters saying "yes, I will join you in next year's new status quo" and the long awaited "...and this is why we must never speak of Spock's sister, her ship, or its weird and super-useful spore drive ever again" in awful close proximity. But, heck, it's pretty great modern Trek, and the Picard teaser looks like fun.

So, anyway, the only movie I saw that weekend was 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, which was pretty bad, though that was to be expected in that the first one was also pretty bad and had a better cast than this. Oh well.

The next week, we started again with more noir-ish stuff, and once again the front half - The Uninvited was the stronger movie. Not great, but a solid-as-heck variation on spooky-house movies that can't much be scolded for coloring in the lines. The second half, Curse of the Cat People, was at least fairly short, but boring as heck.

After that, I plugged away at getting Killjoys and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. off my DVR, at least until it was time for NeZha on Thursday. That one was a monster hit in China, which means the circumstances had to be just right to get it the sort of theatrical run it's getting in the USA, where I'm one of the only guys in a high-capacity theater's audience who needs the subtitles. I've got no idea how American kids would go for it, but I was able to talk myself into it being pretty good.

Then on Friday, I was back in the same building for Killerman, which I was pleasantly surprised to see booked here because I skipped it at Fantasia and things don't always line up that conveniently. I wanted to write it up sooner, but my brother got married over the weekend, which means I was in Maine and kind of too drained to write even when I got some moments to myself after my great big terrific family was done for the day.

We'll see how my Letterboxd page (and moviegoing in general) rebounds now that all of that is finished up.

The Woman in the Window

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2019 in The Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

The pairing of Edward G. Robinson and director Fritz Lang feels like it should result in a film noir classic but instead produces a film that's a little bit too self-aware. Every moment where Robinson's Professor Richard Wanley puts his foot in the wrong place becomes a winking joke rather than a moment to twist the screws a little more. It's definitely making Wanley nervous, sure, but it's a goof for the audience, and neither Lang nor screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (working from a novel by J.H. Wallis) seems to realize that by showing more of the perspective of Joan Bennett's Alice Reed - the other person on-hand when her paramour was accidentally shot - they could heighten the tension that way.

Instead, you kind of have to wait for Dan Duryea to show up as the dead man's bodyguard, who may not have done his job very well but is cunning enough to figure out what's going on and put the squeeze on. The whole movie shifts once he shows up - what was an expression of foolish shame before becomes genuinely dangerous - and Duryea is such a thoroughly enjoyable sleaze that he feels like exactly what the film full of good-intentioned but short-sighted people was missing. Robinson and Bennett were enjoyable, with his bookish charm playing nicely against her sexy confidence, but they get twisted up once Duryea's around.

Like the previous week's Ministry of Fear, Lang's movie ends on a joke that undercuts the mood of it even more than it tends to backtrack events, and it's kind of curious. Was Lang trying to please American producers, or too lacking in clout to point out that this sort of thing can make a movie fizzle? The movie had its issues before its epilogue, and was going to have a clear moral anyway, but I don't see why one would rob its climax of the power it has.

The Mask of Dimitrios

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

There haven't been many actors like Peter Lorre, guys who have such a distinctive, exaggerated style that it seems like they would only be useful for comic relief, but who can sneak edge or pathos into that role. He doesn't really do that here, but it's kind of a ball to watch him ooze around the screen as a Norwegian mystery writer, kind of lazily amoral but claiming to be fascinated by the assassin who turned up dead while he was at a party. There are large chunks of the movie that don't really need him at all, but any other way of relating Dimitrios's story doesn't have Peter Lorre in it, so you put up with it.

The obvious twist seems to be that Lorre's Cornelius Leyden is actually Dimitrios, but at a certain point it becomes clear that this would take too much work and I'm not sure how often filmmakers were willing to lie that completely to the audience, so instead we get a lurking Sydney Greenstreet who eventually steps forward, apparently wanting something from Leyden although, honestly, he probably could just do this himself. Greenstreet is, as usual, just a delightful rock to build a movie around, lending gravitas to even the silliest scenes and imbue the ending with far more weight and tragedy than it deserves. The work by Zachary Scott as Dimitrios is neat, too - there's a baseline, but also a bit of an adjustment to whoever is telling the story at a given time.

For all that the filmmakers tell a story about Leyden searching Europe for information about Dimitrios, there's something about the scale that never quite adds up. Dimitrios never seems brilliant enough to make the jump from pickpocket to international fugitive, not quite so interesting that you could try to build Citizen Kane around him. Maybe there's something just off about Lorre's performance or the script he's given, so that the audience mostly told he's fascinated by this figure but not convincingly enough that we are too.

Ready or Not

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2019 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

Ready or Not is such a tremendously polished version of a decent idea that it can take a little effort to realize that, really, there's not much here. It's not completely hollow - for example, I believe the demon-worshippers of this movie about five times as much as, say, the cult in Hereditary, especially when they seem absolutely miserable about the deal that their ancestor made, and that's a huge deal. It makes the whole thing real in a way that this sort of thing often doesn't, even if it's otherwise a wiseass horror-comedy. It's the sort of nice detail that makes one impressed at the detail work, but making the villains sympathetic undercuts the way it talks big about how the rich are a scourge, testing one's worthiness to join them/sacrificing others for their wealth, or how people are seduced by this lifestyle

It's good enough to skate on other things, like how it mostly lets the audience assume that Grace is a Good Person rather than showing much indication that she's more than fun - Samara Weaving is a firecracker who is always game for this sort of role, but one may get more sense of who she is and what she's going through from how her wedding dress gets soiled and shredded over the course of the film. It's also worth noting that, for a film built around a chase and meant to thrill, it doesn't have any memorable action at all; even the impressively bloody finale seems to happen without anyone actually doing anything..

It still earns a lot of credit for what it does well, though, from the members of the family that kind of hate the pact they're in to some decent pitch-black comedy and a neat score by Brien Tyler. It's good enough to make good on some of its ambitions, but the filmmakers don't always nail the fundamentals of a good B movie and it becomes fairly hollow once one makes it to the subway and starts thinking about it.

The Uninvited (1944)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

The Uninvited is a bit of a by-the-numbers ghost story, but one that has a fairly charming cast, including Alan Napier as a silver-fox doctor to bring the best out of Ruth Hussey playing what could be a boring spinster sister. They never quite steal the film from Ray Milland (as her brother) and Gail Russell (as the daughter of the man who sold them the haunted house), but they make a fun group. Their chemistry lets the movie start playful but introduce real malice as things go on, with a final resolution that must have seemed somewhat scandalous during the years of the Hays Code.

Even in 1944, it must have fallen into a fairly familiar pattern, but it's got a few impressively creepy moments that counter how so much seems to come out of spoken exposition, and uses its big empty spaces well. It does exactly what you'd expect a 75-year-old ghost story to do, but does it with some casual assurance.

Curse of the Cat People

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, digital)

70 minutes can be an awful long movie when you're waiting for something resembling anything to happen, and that's how it is with Curse of the Cat People. It's apparently very personal for producer Val Lewton, and getting the ship righted after production problems was Robert Wise's first job as a credited director, so it's got an interesting place in film history. But it's also a bunch of stories that don't connect very well, having the germs of interesting ideas but not giving the characters much interesting to do.

There's also something to be said for how one's most frequent company during this movie is not anybody from the original film, but Ann Carter, a child actress who had the right sweet but ethereal air didn't quite have the natural charisma or the right direction to make a character out of it. She's got a great far-away look in her eyes and sounds like a very polite little girl, but it doesn't add up to a personality for her Amy Reed; she never feels even naturally weird. Perhaps that can be put down to changing standards - a kid like Amy would have been seen as more peculiar in 1944 than today - but everyone seems oddly muted, with the parents seemingly outsourcing care of their daughter to the help despite often working from home but the film not being about how this girl lacks an anchor in reality.


The Woman in the Window & The Mask of Dimitrios
Ready or Not
47 Meters Down: Uncaged



The Uninvited & Curse of the Cat People
NeZha
Killerman

Friday, September 06, 2019

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 6 September 2019 - 12 September 2019

Really just one movie opening this weekend. That's… It.

  • It Chapter Two to be precise, with the cast of the first returning plus Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, and more as the adult versions of the kids from the pretty-decent first. It's all over the place: Somerville, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (in Imax), Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), the Embassy, Revere (including MX4D & XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    AMC Theaters return to what seems like an annual thing with their "Dream Big Princess" shows of four Disney animated films, each for a week apiece. First up is The Little Mermaid, playing a couple shows a day at Boston Commonand Assembly Row. Why they can do this but theaters will soon not be able to book the Fox catalog they've purchased, I dunno.

    Iris: A Space Opera by Justice plays Revere on Tuesday, looking like one of the more elaborate concert films you'll see. Fenway plays Russian animated autobiographical documentary Rezo on Tuesday evening, with Georgian animator Rezo Gabriadze's son Leo directing from his father's script. Another documentary, You Are Here: A Come From Away Story, plays Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere on Wednesday, telling the story of the people on the 38 airliners that landed in Gardner, Newfoundland after being diverted following the 9/11 attacks and the town that welcomed them. Another 2001-based documentary, Blink of an Eye, focuses on that year's Daytona 500, where top racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. was killed; it plays Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Revere has the first of a couple special screenings of The Breakfast Club on Thursday. There is also a special "fan event" week-early preview screening of the Downton Abbey movie on Thursday, at the Coolidge, the Somerville, West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.
  • The opening which spans The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common this week is Official Secrets, an IFFBoston centerpiece selection starring Keira Knightley as an intelligence officer who leaks documents showing that the rush to war with Iraq is happening under false pretenses; Ralph Fiennes and Matt Smith also star in the movie by Gavin Hood, who has made a couple other films about related events (Rendition and Eye in the Sky).

    Midnights at the Coolidge this weekend feature John Waters "classics", with Pink Flamingos on Friday and Polyester on Saturday, both on 35mm film. Sunday morning's Goethe-Institut German film is Balloon, in which two East German families plot to escape to the west via homemade hot-air balloon - it's one I was tempted by when it played Canada this summer, although I was too busy to get to it. Monday's Science on Screen show has Harvard professor Avi Loeb talking about interstellar travel and SETI before Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. Tuesday features both Open Screen and a Stage & Screen presentation of Shakespeare in Love with guests from the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
  • Kendall Square opens up two others, with Vita & Virginia is the one-week "calendar" booking, featuring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki as authors Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, whose affair inspired the novel Orlando. They also get festival favorite Honeyland, a Macedonian film about a lonely beekeeper whose new neighbors want to make honey but often ignore her traditional knowledge. They also have a special presentation of the "New York Cat Film Festival" on Tuesday.
  • The major Bollywood film opening at Apple Fresh Pond this week is Chhichhore, which follows a group of college friends into middle age. In more limited showtimes, Tamil crime films Magamuni and Sivappu Manjal Pachai and Malayalam action-comedy Brother's Day also open (the latter through Sunday). Malayalam martial-arts comedy Ittymaani: Made in China plays matinees on Saturday and Sunday, while Sunday also features what looks to be film festival of sorts, with Marathi romance Sir, Marathi odd-couple road movie Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence, and Nepali romance A Mero Hajur 3. Tamil thriller Enai Noki Paayum Thota opens Wednesday. Saaho and Mission Mangal hang around with reduced showtimes.

    Chinese hit Nezha is no longer playing in Imax 3D at Boston Common, but continues in 2D and also opens at Fenway. Mexico's Tad@s Caen continues in Revere.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues their run of Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes throughout the week, with separate-but-related "Accompaniment" screenings of Inside Man (35mm Friday with a soundtrack by Terence Blanchard), Blow-Up (35mm Saturday with a score by Herbie Hancock), and Miles Ahead (Sunday with Don Cheadle as Miles Davis).

    Monday also features their first DocYard presentation of the year, with Midnight Traveler following Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili as he flees the Taliban. Fazili will not be present, but producer/writer/editor Emelie Mahdavian will Skype in to answer questions. There's also a free, but first-come-first-serve, preview screening of The Goldfinch on Tuesday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has a flashy new website to go with their fall schedule, with this week featuring the films of Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, with Hyenas playing Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, with Touki Bouki, the film to which it is considered a "spiritual sequel", on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon also features a $5 matinee of two 45-minute featurettes, "Le Franc", and "The Girl Who Sold the Sun", part of what would have been a "Tales of Little People" trilogy if not for Mambéty's death.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their runs of A Bigger Splash (Friday/Sunday/Wednesday) and Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (Sunday/Wednesday), but also has some repertory programs this week: The monthly "On the Fringe: Adventures in Cult Cinema" show is Paris Is Burning, playing Friday night. They also start a "Festival Buzz" series, with The Souvenir (Saturday/Sunday), Her Smell (Saturday), and The Farewell (Wednesday). There's also an outdoor "Sunset Cinema" screening of Us on Thursday, complete with paper-doll making.
  • I swear the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival was not on the schedule at The Regent Theatre this time last week, but it started Thursday, and will be there through Sunday, booked incredibly tight to get as many films as they can in. Somehow I screwed up and listed documentary Shattered: The Story of Kevin Stevens for last week, when it has its U.S. premiere relatively early in the evening on Tuesday with its hockey-player subject on hand to introduce the film about his recovering from a horrific 1993 injury. VIP tickets get you into a reception afterward, and all proceeds go to benefit the "Power Forward" drug prevention program.
  • Cinema Salem opens oddball romantic comedy Ode To Joy in their small room, with Martin Freeman as a cataplexic librarian who cannot feel too many emotional highs and lows less he pass out, but how do you reconcile that with a lady played by Monica Baccarin enters your life and seems to like you? They also get otherwise-VOD-exclusive Satanic Panic, which I had a blast with at Fantasia.

    The Luna Theater has The Farewell on Friday and Saturday evenings, Honeyland Saturday afternoon, and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on Saturday and Tuesday evenings. Sunday's feature is They Live, and they reconfigure their free shows again with Saturday Morning Cartoons displacing "Magic Mystery Movie Club" (which is now only on Sundays), and Weirdo Wednesday (I think) starting a bit later at 7:35pm.

    The AMC at the Liberty Tree Mall splits a screen between Strange But True, in which a woman tells her five-years-dead boyfriend's family that she is pregnant with his child, and Next Level, about kids in a summer performing arts program.
  • Joe's Free Films has most outdoor series ending this year, but one at the Charleston Naval Yard is just starting with There's Something About Mary on Friday night, while Glory plays on the Boston Common Parade Ground on Monday, with remarks from Byron Rushing; Emerson College will show it again on Wednesday evening, still for free, but inside the Bright Screening Room, with more guests and Q&A.


I suppose I'll see It, but I'm also curious about Official Secrets, Balloon, Rezo, Vita & Virginia, and Honeyland, so things could get busy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.03: Pizza: A Love Story and Not for Resale

Both Thursday and Friday wound up being loosely-themed double features for me, though Nancy and the rest of the Festival team don't necessarily plan it that way (I did have to get on the T between Them That Follow and The Death of Dick Long for my "Danger Down South" pairing on Thursday). These two are in the same room, though, and might draw locals and fans the way the music docs historically have.



First up we have Pizza: A Love Story director Gorman Bechard and producer Dean Falcone, who both hail from New Haven and have strong opinions on pizza in ways that only people from New Haven can have. They've tended to work on music documentaries together - you can tell from the rolodex of people they're able to call on to be talking heads, winking as they hint that they plan stops on their tours in New Haven for the express purpose of having good pizza afterward. Bechard and Falcone were animated, from how they are a bit wary of Netflix as independent filmmakers ("Netflix tells you how to finish") to anybody in the audience who implied that they liked inferior toppings on their pizza.

They probably did not approve of my going to Dragon Pizza, but would probably prefer that to Oath or whatever the other options are in Davis Square. Around that time, Pepe's opened a location at the Burlington Mall, but we haven't gone there for work yet.



Next was cinematographer Thomas Chalifour-Drahman and director Kevin J. James of Not for Resale. One of the video game shops they focused on is in Salem, so it's owner and some of its loyal patrons were on hand, and from some of the questions, college kids who shop at other featured spots when they're home on break. It's also worth noting that when they were talking about Pokemon Go, they location people were poking around was Davis Square, which isn't quite like seeing The Third Man in Vienna, but is still fun.

Just a generally fun talk, which goes along with how the film itself is upbeat and sees a great deal of potential in how digital distribution has changed gaming but wants to talk about how it's maybe not all great.

Pizza: A Love Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (IFFBoston, DCP)

Gorman Bechard's film about the famous "apizza" restaurants of New Haven, Connecticut could have taken the path of following how pizza came to America, took its first steps of evolution into its most ubiquitous forms in that city, and then spread from there, but instead it stays hyper-local and specialized. It's the kind of movie that, from a commercial perspective, initially seems like it won't travel at all and is kind of an act of madness. Those movies are kinds of great, though, a drill-down that maybe doesn't increase general knowledge but feels like half specific insight and half gleefully useless (but delightful) trivia.

That trivia starts coming early with the very words New Havenites use for this dish: Pizza is "apizza", pronounced "a-beatz", a plain pie does not necessarily include cheese - that is labeled "mozz" on the menu and pronounced "moots". It came to America via the Italian immigrants who came to find a job at Sargent Hardware and, having found one, wrote to their family and friends, initially a sort of sideline for bakeries just making simple bread. In 1925, Frank la Pepe opened what is today Pepe's, though it was a small concern until 1935, with Sally's and Tony's opening in 1938, with the latter rebranding itself as "Modern Apizza" in 1944. The original locations still have the original ovens from that time, monsters that take hours to get up to 600-700 degrees Fahrenheit, giving the crust a distinctive char. Locals will tell you that the continuous use of those ovens for eighty-odd years imbues rich smoky flavor that even the most well-intentioned imitators will never match.

Naturally, the film is not entirely about pizza; one can watch it and see Bechard laying out the history of his city, a cycle of immigration, assimilation, and gentrification that extends well beyond New Haven. It's not the deepest possible dive into the topics by a long shot, but tying it into the story of the city's pizza likely gets it a bit more attention even within the city. Bechard never loses his focus, but he does well to establish that the Italian-American neighborhoods where these apizza shops opened and remain despite their no longer necessarily being Italian-American neighborhoods have their own arc that's tied in with the restaurants themselves, and that one shouldn't necessarily ignore that as the price of getting to eat delicious pizza.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Not for Resale

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (IFFBoston, DCP)

There's been a lot of recent talk online about the potential death of physical media for movies as I begin to flesh the capsule I wrote the night I watched this out, but that's not much of a coincidence; that talk started the moment Netflix announced the "Watch Instantly" option and hasn't slowed down since. Not for Resale covers how that same dynamic is at play in the world of games, from the point of view of the proprietors of video game shops, but it's worth a look even for those of us whose most recent game system purchase is a Sega Dreamcast; this medium is different from others in many ways, but in others it's just a few steps ahead.

It starts by introducing Neil Crockett, who has owned and operated GameZone in Salem, Massachusetts for over 25 years, long enough to see his business go from retail-priced new releases to buying and selling used copies to stocking "retro" games from the days when he first opened for the collectors' market. Other people operating such stores across the country are similar, although some are younger, not necessarily having been alive to play the Atari 2600s in the back when they were new. Despite the video game industry growing to massive size, this sort of retail long been a business for people aiming to make a little money off their hobby rather than a lot, and times are getting tighter - new games often don't get physical releases at all, and as older gamers leave the hobby, there aren't as many new collectors looking to buy what they're selling off.

There's a recipe for despair in that, and I suspect that director Kevin J. James probably wound up talking to some people whose shops closed by the time post-production was done, and who could have provided some bitter interview footage. He doesn't show much of that, to the point where one of the things that struck me early on about Not for Resale, compared to other documentaries about industries in transition, is how positive many of its video game retailers were about the shift to digital marketplaces; they're too much in love with the medium to look past that potential. It's an attitude that manifests in the film, which is able to look at its subjects in whole without framing them as quixotic.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, September 02, 2019

Fantasia 2019.51: Killerman

No, Fantasia has not actually been going on for seven weeks plus, but if it did, I suspect there are folks in Montreal who would be down for it. It would probably be too much for me to stretch my vacation time going up there, though. Still, when a Fantasia movie gets its release, and the poster even has the Fantasia logo toward the center, it's hard not to feel that if we keep Fantasia in our hearts, it can be Fantasia every day.

I didn't catch this one there, as it turned out; at the last minute I decided to stick with friends who were seeing 8, especially since that one was looking like it would be hard to catch for its second show. Turned out to be a good decision, as I liked 8 a lot and it turned out that this one got a theatrical release. That caught me by surprise - it's got a tiny distributor and I was afraid it would be bumped by NeZha - but I actually was able to guess that it was the new one from the Cash Only people by the trailer even before the title came up, and made sure I carved out a little time to see it before heading north for a big old family thing this weekend.

It's probably got just six and a half days - you know this will be one of the things that has its Thursday cut short for the early shows of It 2, especially when there were just a couple people in the theater with me opening night - and I can't say it's a great movie, but it's an honestly grimy bit of crime that doesn't necessarily crack the lineup at Boston Common at all most weeks.

Killerman

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2019 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Killerman opens with a nifty quote about money laundering (that the illegal drug business generates a hundred billion in revenues, and the difficulty of pushing 26 million pounds of cash through a teller's window), and a fun sequence of a money launderer transforming a banker's box full of c-notes into cashier's checks difficult to trace back to a criminal enterprise, before starting to do other things, then goes in another direction again for the finale. It's not a bait-and-switch, exactly, but maybe filmmaker Malik Bader could have spent more time with half of his intriguing set-ups and saved the others for another movie.

The money launderer we follow during that time is the aptly named Moe Diamond (Liam Hemsworth), a jeweler in New York's Bowery who knows the sorts of people who can make large cash transactions look legitimate while also being buddies with Bobby (Emory Cohen), also known as "Skunk", a small-timer who has helped him land a big job: His uncle needs $2 million a day cleaned for ten days, part of a plan to buy a building in Manhattan and go legit, to the point of having a Congressman renting space from him. Perico (Zlatko Buric) sees something off right away, which leaves Moe and Bobby with cash on hand, which Bobby suggests they use in a drug deal that offers a huge profit overnight. Trouble is, it's a trap, with corrupt cops Duffo (Nickola Shreli) and Martinez (Bader) showing up to shake them down. They're prepared enough to escape the scene, but a crash leaves Moe badly concussed - and that's the optimistic diagnosis - unable to remember his own name. Not a great condition to be in when surviving the next day means outwitting and outrunning everyone who feels they have something that does not belong to them.

As a plot device, amnesia has got to be one of the sharpest double-edged swords that a writer can draw. It's real and so cannot be completely dismissed, but uncommon enough that it almost cannot help but feel too convenient whenever it shows up in a story; the real-world randomness of brain injuries isn't quite compatible with how actions in films are assumed to have meaning. The problem here is not so much that Bader gives Moe a recovery that tracks too well with what the story needs - to the extent that anything like that happens, it's well-camouflaged - but that he cuts interesting avenues off too often. He spends the first act teaching the audience about money-laundering but then has Moe cut off from those skills and contacts, and aside from the occasional pained look, there's not much of the movie's center that would seemingly change if he had his memory. That Moe is potentially suggestible and less assertive than usual doesn't come up much until late, nor is there much time spent on just where the skills and ruthlessness he does display are coming from.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, August 30, 2019

NeZha

It's been a weird summer at the Chinese box office, as the new certification board has proven much more strict and capricious, with release dates yanked at the last moment and all sorts of other chaos. Still, $630M in ticket sales doesn't happen just because other options disappeared, especially when you consider that one of the things yanked was an animated film whose producers felt couldn't compete with ten others out there. This thing is a legitimate hit, although that means it might do $100K in the United States, mostly from audiences like the one last night where I was probably the only person who needed subtitles in a fairly packed house.

But that's the audience Well Go seemed to be settling for; the announcement that they had acquired and would release the film came just a week or two ago, not enough time to launch a marketing campaign to English-speaking families if they wanted to get it on Imax screens during the window when theaters will consider something a bit unusual, if only because it beats cheap "greatest hits" shows.

I'm a little more curious than usual to see what actual kids and parents make of this movie for them, and from the other side I'd like to know whether ADHD and autism spectrum diagnoses are given enough credence in China for the metaphor I see for that to be more than me just looking too hard. While I've got no doubt that most of its box office comes from it being a funny fantasy adventure with production values not far enough from the A-list American movies to feel like a huge step down, there may be a dozen of those every year now in China, but this one speaks to audiences in a different way without making a big show of it.

Nezha zhi motong jiangshi (NeZha)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 August 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

If I were a ten-year-old Chinese kid, there's a good chance I'd be absolutely nuts for this movie, as seems to have happened back in its native land, where it was the biggest home-grown movie of the summer. It's got a lot of the ingredients to transcend many cultural barriers - big action, monsters, and wacky comedy - and is within shouting distance of top-tier animation, something imports from China haven't always achieved. It's busy and frantic, but kids often go for that.

Will they go for the convoluted backstory that starts this movie if they don't find it until after its theatrical run? That tells the story of a group of Immortals dealing with a Chaos Crystal which has absorbed the power of the sun and moon and even a demon. It is captured and separated into a "Spirit Crystal" and a "Demon Pill", with rotund wizard Taiyi Zhenren (voice of Zhang Jiaming) told to let the Spirit Crystal incarnate in the child of Chentang Pass Chamberlain Li Jing (voice of Chen Hao) and Lady Yin Furen (voice of Lü Qi). His envious peer Sheng Gongbao (voice of Yang Wei) switches the Spirit Crystal and Demon Pill at the last minute, bringing the Crystal to the Dragon King to infuse into an egg while Li and Yin find themselves with an immensely powerful son possessed not of noble spirit but a tendency toward destructive mischief - and a Heavenly curse will cause a lightning bolt will strike and destroy the Demon Pill in three years.

That's a ton of stuff happening before Nezha (voice of Lü Yanting) is even born, and it's probably best not to concern oneself too much with the whole deal where Nezha and Ao Bing (voice of Han Mo), the dragon's human-looking son, mature to tween-dom more or less instantaneously (I wouldn't be shocked if the eventual English dub increased it to ten years despite three being part of the legend), with Sheng and the dragons mostly preparing Ao Bing for his part in their master plan off screen while Taiyi and Nezha's parents both beg the immortals for a reprieve and try to teach the boy magic and demon-hunting for discipline and so that the town will see him as useful rather than evil. The great strength of this main section is the approach writer/director "Jiaozi" Yang Yu takes with Nezha and his parents - there's never any reluctance to love or tendency toward a "switched-at-birth" angle, just a kid whose body chemistry makes self-control extremely difficult and parents who don't have the right knowledge to deal with it. It's easy to sympathize with both Nezha and his family simultaneously, in large part due to strong melding of character design and voice work: For all that Nezha's face distorts and Lü Yanting's voice work gets broad, he never seems quite malevolent, while Lü Qi and Lady Yin's animators always get across her need to do something to help the situation at every moment, while Chen Hao injects hints of paternal worry into a father who is often outwardly stoic.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 August 2019 - 5 September 2019

Apparently Labor Day weekend is a terrible time to open hits, but a great one to open weird stuff.

  • Or foreign films, as the biggest hit of the summer in China makes its way to the US, with Nezha playing in Imax 3D at Boston Common through Wednesday, before returning in regular 2D soon after. It's a fun animated fantasy adventure that looks pretty terrific, full of action and broad comedy.

    Over at Apple Fresh Pond and Revere, they open Telugu-language globetrotting action/adventure Saaho, starring Prabhas in his first major role since the Baahubali movies, which you may have seen clips of on social media. Fresh Pond will also be playing it in Hindi and Telugu, with Mission Mangal and Batla House still playing in Hindi.

    Over at Revere, Tad@s Caen comes from Mexico, with Omar Chaparro and Martha Higareda as a pair who each have a knack for seduction and therefore find each other their most interesting targets.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common get Brittany Runs a Marathon, starring Jillian Bell as a woman who needs to get healthy and winds up joining her neighbor in training for the New York City Marathon. The Coolidge also has their last 35mm screenings of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at 2:30pm and 6pm through Sunday.

    The Coolidge uses film for their animals-attack midnights, with Anaconda (plus The Room) on Friday and Deep Blue Sea on Saturday. This continues into Monday, when they have the annual Labor Day 35mm Big Screen Classic screening of Jaws. A fall "Cinema Almodóvar" program starts on Tuesday with Law of Desire on 35mm, while "Summer of '69" wraps with Sweet Charity, also on film.
  • Kendall Square and West Newton open BJFF favorite Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, which covers the origin story of Fiddler on the Roof. Kendall Square also picks up This Is Not Berlin, a coming-of-age story set against the rock & roll clubs of Mexico City in 1986.

    They and their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, also open Aquarela, a documentary power of water in all its forms. Looks amazing from the trailers, although it's kind of a shame that neither place is likely equipped for high-frame-rate projection.
  • That leaves Don't Let Go as the sole new release, with David Oyelowo as a cop who is tracking the killers of his beloved niece and her parents when said niece somehow manages to call him across time. That's at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. Boston Common and Revere also get Bennet's War, featuring Michael Roark as an injured vet who trains to be a motocross racer. Boston Common also gets Fantasia Festival selection Killerman, with Liam Hemsworth as an amnesiac money launderer in the new film from the makers of Cash Only.

    Rather than put out something new, two movies get re-released with added footage: Spider-Man: Far From Home gets 4 new minutes (basically one scene) and plays at Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (in Imax 2D), Assembly Row (in Imax 2D), and Revere; Midsommar adds 24 minutes of gore and extended scenes and mostly plays late shows at Somerville, the Coolidge, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, and Revere.

    Meanwhile, the places with deluxe screens need to fill them with something, so aside from Nezha at Boston Common, the Dolby Cinema screens at South Bay and Assembly Row get The Matrix, while the Fenway moves Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (back) to the RPX screen for a couple shows a day while also bringing in Pulp Fiction and both parts of Kill Bill, with tickets for the classic Tarantinos at $6 a pop - at least through Tuesday, with the first part of It assuming the slot (and low price) on Wednesday, before the sequel opens next weekend.

    Fenway and Assembly Row have a TCM presentation of Lawrence of Arabia on Sunday, with Revere joining them in showing it on Wednesday. Boston Common has three screens showing K-12: A Film by Melanie Martinez on Thursday, which is apparently a horror fantasy built around her new concept album (available the next day).
  • The Brattle Theatre has a special engagement of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita running on 35mm from Friday to Monday. On Wednesday, they open documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, which runs through the next Thursday, while the Tuesday in between has the first "Blue Note Accompaniment" that goes with this series - a 35mm print of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, with a score by Blue Note artist Herbie Hancock.
  • The Harvard Film Archive finally reaches the end of The Complete Howard Hawks on Friday, with Monkey Business at 7pm and His Girl Friday on 35mm at 9pm. Saturday night is when the traditional Labor Day Weekend overnighter happens, with $12 getting you in for a night of danger on the high seas in Dark Waters, featuring The African Queen, Purple Noon, Alone on the Pacific, Knife in the Water, Fitzcarraldo, and The Poseidon Adventure, all but the last on 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts finishes the August schedule with final screenings of Walking on Water (Friday) and An Elephant Sitting Still (Saturday). "A Splinter in Your Mind: Films from '99" wraps on Friday with a 35mm print of Fight Club, while the last "Space Exploration on Film" show is Moon on Saturday.

    Sunday, the Calendar flips, and they start the September schedule, which opens with two artist documentaries. Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank was filmed by Gerald Fox in 2004, but the subject (a Swiss-American filmmaker and photographer) long considered it too personal, only recently giving his blessing to it for actual release. It plays Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, as does A Bigger Splash, a 1974 film about famed artist David Hockney.
  • Documentary Shattered: The Story of Kevin Stevens has its U.S. premiere relatively early in the evening on Tuesday at The Regent Theatre, with its hockey-player subject on hand to introduce the film about his recovering from a horrific 1993 injury. VIP tickets get you into a reception afterward, and all proceeds go to benefit the "Power Forward" drug prevention program.
  • The Luna Theater shows the Midsommar director's cut on Friday and Saturday, probably earlier in the evening than most. Mike Wallace Is Here has two shows, late Saturday afternoon and Tuesday Evening. The Sunday feature is Phantasm, while the holiday on Monday means that not only do they extend the "Magic Mystery Movie Club" to three days this weekend, but they also have a full day of screening Plan 9 From Outer Space. And, of course, Weirdo Wednesday.

    In addition to Ne Zha, The Matrix, and many of the other bigger openings, the AMC at the Liberty Tree Mall gives half screens to thrillers Angel of Mine (starring Noomi Rapace, Luke Evans, and Yvonne Strahovski, who all seem like they could do a bit better) and The Fanatic (with John Travolta and Devon Sawa, who probably do belong in a movie by Fred Durst).
  • Outdoor films tail off like crazy with the unofficial end of summer, with Joe's Free Films just listing Captain America: The First Avenger at the Harbor Hotel on Friday, the new Dumbo at the Prudential Center on Saturday, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse at Tufts on Sunday.


Already seen Nezha and will likely try and check out Killerman, Saaho, and The Matrix around traveling to Maine for a brother's wedding this weekend.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.05: One Child Nation, The Pollinators, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and For the BIrds

Sunday at IFFBoston wasn't quite planned as a documentary day but wound up that way once the overlapping showtimes, need to get back and forth on the subway (though I think this was the first year in a long time when the MBTA didn't have the Red Line shut down north of Harvard for the festival's weekend), and Sunday schedule which has the last shows of the day during the 8pm hour rather than after 9pm, etc., finished asserting themselves. I basically started wanting to see One Child Nation - that Amazon had already purchased it and it would run for a while in August and September seemed unlikely for what seemed like a niche film - it was easier to stick around the Brattle for The Pollinators. That had a long-enough Q&A to make Cold Case Hammarskjöld the best option after returning to Davis, and then a quick turnaround to get into For the Birds seemed more interesting to me than Gutterbug.



First guests of the day were for Pollinators, including editor/producer Michael Reuter, producer Sally Roy, and director Peter Nelson, with the Q&A being hosted by Barbara Moran of WBUR. Nelson is at least kind of local, as were many of the subjects, so there were a lot of people in the audience that knew either him or beekeeping (or both), which can stretch this sort of thing out but, fortunately, didn't let it devolve into minutiae. One of the interesting things that came up in the Q&A was how it can be easy to misrepresent the nature and extent of someone's expertise. David Hackenberg, for instance, absolutely looks the part of an old farmer who has certain practical knowledge but which can be either misguided or the common sense everyone needs to hear, but he's apparently also a skilled researcher who is often at the center of discovering what is actually going on when the bee community is facing a crisis. You can see the respect for him in the film, but not the totality of his influence



Last movie of the day was For the Birds, with the fest's Joe Arino (l) hosting a Q&A with director Richard Miron and producer Jeffrey Starr. I have apparently reached the age when someone like Miron looks about twelve to me, but it seems like he didn't quite stumble into a good movie but certainly was able to recognize one when it presented itself, as he was volunteering at the farm animal sanctuary featured in the film when all of this started. It was kind of a touchy matter getting the buy-in of everyone involved, and there was some stuff around the edges which was kind of surprising (sanctuary employee Sheila Hyslop returned home to the UK and died soon after her part of the film was over; the stress of this experience being part of the former though likely not the latter).

I did find myself scratching my head a bit when then talked about the story the film tells, because the story of Kathy getting free of her compulsions doesn't really happen on-screen, but seemingly between the last full chapter and the epilogue. The film mostly shows her static intransigence, with the growth and change they talked about less shown than alluded to. Which is fine; though we're often taught that stories are about change, stubbornness is real too, and sometimes what a person gets from a movie is more important than what its makers feel they've put out there.

One Child Nation (aka Born in China)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston, DCP)

China's "One Child Per Family" policy was launched in 1979, made an official part of their constitution in 1987, and officially ended in 2015, and the rest of the world often took it for granted, looking at the country's ten-figure population and figuring that yes, this is draconian, but something needed to change. As filmmaker Wang Nanfu points out, this message took hold with even more force in China itself, except that ignoring the implications of it there was an active (but seemingly necessary) choice. This film's close-up view leaves some questions unasked and unanswered, but also makes it impossible to simply view it as an abstraction.

Wang grew up in China, in Diangxi Province's Wang village, and her family was unusual in that she had a younger brother. Her family wasn't breaking the law in this - there was a process by which one could petition for the right to have a second child - but growing up at the height of the country's propaganda push for the policy, it was a black mark on her family. She would later go to college in the United States and marry there, returning home to visit after the birth of her first child, and finding the idea of the government involving itself so closely in her family newly chilling, she starts asking questions.

The thing about China's one child per family policy that has fascinated me in recent years is how it leads to a society not just without siblings, but without aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I always wondered to what extent if eliminating extended family as a support system outside the state was the goal. This is not a particular focus for this film's makers; the actual why of it is not particularly important, and only a little more time is spent on why the practice was ended. Nor should it be, considering the more immediate and personal interests that the filmmakers have. That focus guides the film, sometimes constraining it, but also constantly emphasizing the human reaction as opposed to just the theoretical. Wang and co-director Lynn Zhang Jialing seldom take a broad view, but focus closely on individual stories, often to the point of discomfort.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The Pollinators

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston, DCP)

Mention bees and farming to most people, and certain images leap to mind, along with the specific ways that human beings have messed up the natural order of things. These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete, sometimes in surprising ways. The Pollinators comes from deep enough inside this industry that one must sometimes account for a skewed perspective, but it presents a picture of modern agriculture from a point of view few think about, and does so in a way that is properly alarming but not necessarily alarmist.

Director Peter Nelson, a beekeeper himself, spends most of the film with others doing the same work, starting with old hand David Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries. His company's business is not primarily honey or mead or wax candles, but the bees themselves: Though it is common knowledge that bees are vital for pollination, there simply aren't enough wild bees to go around; colony collapse disorder is not the issue that it was from 2005 to 2008, but between pesticide use and the way American industrial agriculture often tends to vast fields of one type of crop, native pollinators are stretched thin and in some cases threatened. The solution is folks like Hackenberg putting hives on pallets, and pallets onto trucks, and going where they're needed. It's possible because pollination seasons for different crops are staggered, but supply isn't far from demand and California's almond crop requires almost every bee-for-hire in America

One wonders, watching this, just how many systems like mobile apiaries their food supply relies on, and just what sort of state they're in. That these businesses are already stretched thin enough that things like a breed of mite which attacks queen bees or the adoption of new pesticides can create a genuine crisis gives the film a bit of urgency and something like a story, but in a lot of ways it serves to illustrate the way that this business seems genuinely odd to outsiders, with these living, autonomous things treated as equipment. It's an odd feeling to go from close-up photography of bees seemingly behaving like they're in the wild to a clearing full of dead ones because a neighboring farmer sprayed their crops without warning. Queens are replaced and rotated like engine parts.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (IFFBoston, DCP)

In Cold Case Hammarskjöld, satirical documentarian Mads Brügger does a convincing imitation of a dog who has finally caught the tail he's been chasing and realizes he's got no idea of what comes next. It doesn't quite become a repudiation of Brügger's life's work, and that of the thriving industry that uses comedy to help people process what is often an insane world, but it runs hard into the limits of that approach. I half-suspect that the film still has the form it does both because reshaping it would have felt less honest and because hitting those limits wound up fascinating him.

The film offers a refresher on Dag Hammarskjöld - or primer, if your education was like mine and gave him just a cursory mention - that he was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953, and more activist in the role than many anticipated, until he did in a plane crash on the way to attempt mediation in the Congo in 1961. Many suspected foul play than and for decades later, but nothing was proven. Swedish private detective and aid worker Göran Björkdahl has what he believes is new evidence, and teams with Brügger to document the investigation. They are particularly focused on Jan Van Risseghem, a Belgian pilot and alleged soldier of fortune who cuts the figure of a James Bond villain in the one photograph they have, and may have been the one to shoot the plane down.

That image is so striking that Brügger appropriates the trademark white suit and the like to narrate the film, renting hotel rooms and having a pair of African women serve as secretaries transcribing it. Why two? As he himself mentions, it's an idea he had early on, maybe something that could be worked into the film as a commentary about details not lining up, or him disposing of lackeys as he grows more drawn into the character and obsessed. After all, as he admits, this investigation isn't going to go anywhere, but it may serve as a good jumping-off point for a movie about seeing conspiracies in every corner or how our knowledge of even recent history is incomplete or white dilettantes in Africa. And there is still a lot of that plan visible: Those interstitials in the hotel rooms are still in the movie and as off-kilter as one would hope, and there's a sort of archness to the scenes of Brügger and Björkdahl conducting their initial investigation. The earnest Björkdahl recedes a bit in order to play up Brügger not treating it as a joke but knowing that he's making something of a meta-movie.

Full review on EFilmCritic

For the Birds

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #4 (IFFBoston, DCP)

Sometimes the filmmakers won't let a documentary be over until it's all the way over, and that's the case with For the Birds, whose epilogue isn't exactly long but is very much something else after the main thread is tied up. It goes on and can't help but feel like it's drifting too far from the movie you came to see. Of course, the main body of the film can be drawn out and uncomfortable itself, but it's not like you'd want a story of hoarding and self-destructive behavior to go down easy.

It starts innocently enough, with VHS footage of upstate New York resident Kathy Murphy befriending a duck she names Innes Peep. Fast forward a few years to 2020, though, and there are dozens of ducks, turkeys, and chickens in and around the small house she shares with husband Gary, and it's obviously a bad situation. The place is impossible to keep clean, many of the birds are growing sickly, Kathy almost never goes out, and though it may not be the main reason their daughter is estranged, it's not helping. A call to the local Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary brings employee Sheila Hyslop to visit, and she convinces Kathy to let her bring some of the birds away with her, though Kathy is not necessarily aware that they won't be coming back (even if one of her beloved turkeys wasn't so sick it didn't survive very long).

Hoarding is not necessarily an activity one associates with living things, so it's interesting to see Hyslop both casually identify Kathy's behavior as such and also be alarmed by the extent of it. What's a bit surprising is that there is never much indication as to whether any of the birds return some of Kathy's affection or seem out of sorts when rescued and placed in a new environment. It could cause a bit of a disconnect, as the movie on the one hand points out that the animal abuse is what makes this a bit worse than garden-variety hoarding but leaves that abuse a bit abstract, but never quite does. Instead, it highlights just how carelessly one-sided this situation is, and gives a fair window into the neediness that seems to be driving her. There are comments dropped that sometimes offer the beginnings of an explanation, but filmmaker Richard Miron is more interested in looking at the facts of her situation rather than trying to figure it out.

Full review on EFilmCritic