Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia 2019.05: Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'

I left after doing some work this morning to have my company laptop say it had 27 updates to install when I shut it down. I hope that wasn't a complete mess with how my laptop will sometimes just decide not to see the internet via wifi every once in a while, leaving me with stuff half-messed-up when I turn it on again Wednesday.

After that, I was mildly surprised at the lack of Q&A after Bruce McDonald's Dreamland (his name isn't part of the title on-screen as it often was for Wes Craven or John Carpenter, but I suspect it will be marketed that way because there's a higher-profile film with that title on the way). I skipped it Sunday night figuring that everyone would stick around, but filmmaking is a job and sometimes McDonald and has to go back to the office on Monday rather than hang around and use that guest pass to see a few movies. Other folks came out to introduce it, but I guess they were off to the airport by the time it was done. Still, easiest way to fit something else in.



After Chiwawa, I took the tunnel from chilly DeSeve to Hall for G Affairs with director Lee Cheuk-Ban, star Hanna Chan Hon-Na, and co-star Kyle Li Yam-San, and they made a movie that is never going to get anywhere near the Mainland China market even if it isn't necessarily hostile to Mainlanders, or if Chapman To Man-Chat wasn't banned from having his work in the PRC (which I must have heard about but didn't remember). It was interesting to see the Q&A put into context how much of the film was inspired by the "Umbrella Revolution" of 2014, and it makes it even more interesting to me that Lee mentioned that they actually got funding from the Hong Kong government, with the HK Economic and Trade Office rep standing up and introducing herself before the show. That definitely frames the movie as a little more political than just dark, and not hiding it, which is interesting.



Last up was Darlin' with writer/director and co-star Pollyanna McIntosh, who had a tattoo from the film finished on-stage by tattoo artist Kelly Ramsey; McIntosh saw some of her Walking Dead fan-art on-line and invited her to the festival after seeing she was Canadian. It made for an unusual sort of Q&A but certainly underscored how thoroughly committed to this movie and grounded she is. There's not a moment she doesn't feel detached. She did sometimes seem a little defensive about how much humor there was in the movie, and I've got to admit I didn't much go for that, but I do think it's interesting that she injected that much into it. One thing that strikes me is that she said the only real note that Lucky McKee gave her was that he wanted to see more of The Woman (McIntosh's character) in the original draft, and for as much as I tend to really like McIntosh, following that advice seems like it's what sends the movie off the rails: Darlin's story is really good, but whenever The Woman shows up after the initial introduction, she takes the focus off of that and contributes little but a body count.

I was kind of surprised when I got out of G Affairs and saw such a relatively short line for passholders, not having realized that the film was already out on VOD. I had kind of expected this to be a harder one to get a seat for.

We'll see how that continues today, with Porno, Mystery of the Night, a decadently long dinner break, Idol, and We Are Little Zombies.

Dreamland (aka Bruce McDonald's Dreamland)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The opening stretch of Bruce McDonald's Dreamland introduces a bunch of visually striking characters against a moody environment, has then open their mouths to begin a story, and then summarily shoots them in the head. The rest of the film isn't quite that nihilistic, but it is fairly pointedly eccentric and detached. McDonald is going for a specific idea of cool here above all else, where it's more important to be stylish than tense.

And that's how you make the story of a disheveled assassin trying to rescue a trafficked kid from becoming a vampire's child bride kind of boring. It's an assembly of cinematic cool signifiers that slumps from one piece to the next, barely having enough emotion behind them to make the audience do more than raise their eyebrows. Steven McHattie has a dual role, which is fun because you probably wouldn't want anyone else playing either of those parts, but the way the film winks at it is another thing that makes a viewer more aware of the games being played than a part of them. Its attempts at satire feel more contemptuous than pointed, and it floats above the violence too easily to make the outrage motivating it actually work.

Chiwawa-chan (aka Chiwawa)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Chiwawa is structured kind of like a murder mystery, but it's 50/50 as to whether that's the direction it's going to go at any point, and that's fine. After all, it seems like the other way they could have gone with it is faux documentary, which probably would have seemed more like middle-aged folks trying to make a movie about youth, which is a trap it only occasionally falls into.

Instead, the filmmakers take pains to avoid letting a plot reveal itself too clearly, observing a bunch of kids in their early twenties as they live life fast and with abandon, sometimes seeming to leave relatively sensible narrator Miki a step or two behind. It allows them plenty of time to play, although sometimes the film seems to be as much about the last generation's issues as Gen Z's (which is hardly unique to it; a lot of folks seem to have trouble realizing that there can be a big gap between 20- and 30-year-olds today). Or maybe it's not; I'm too far from that.

It's got a couple of impressive ladies at the center, though, with Mugi Kadowaki as the searching Miki and Shiori Yoshida as the title character. Between them, they're not exactly an unreliable narrator but the fact that there's always a bit of envy to Miki plays out in how Yoshida often plays Chiwawa as a little too bright, like Miki resents her but also can't bring herself to speak ill of the dead. In some ways, that unacknowledged competition is the thread that connects the movie, and that Miki has won by default can sometimes turn out to be very hollow.

G Saat (G Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Well, that's kind of g-ross.

Awful g-related puns aside, there's an impressive race between outrageous events and striking style at the start of this movie that almost blunts them both, taking a while to find some sort of equilibrium. Once it does, the story kind of cruises for a while, jumping back and forth to let the environment sink in. It sometimes feels like the filmmakers came up with a fairly simple, if nasty, crime story and then worked out how they could obscure it but spent less time on how to reveal it. I'm still not sure if one character survived, even when you set the last scene aside as deliberately symbolic.

As a result, I'm not sure that this works much more as a story than as a lot of button-pushing, although in a place like Hong Kong, there's probably a lot of value in occasionally making sure you can still do that. It can certainly feel like a primal scream at times, with its teen characters feeling almost nothing between abandonment and crushing authority from those supposed to help them, which certainly seems even more relevant than it has always been today. There's even precious little relief from the other people connected to the tight father-stepmother-teacher-student chain revealed by the end, making for a resolutely dark ride.

Darlin' (2018)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Darlin' is a weird one, strange enough to make me wonder if it would play better or worse if I'd seen the previous films in this somewhat loose series. You don't actually need Offspring or The Woman to make sense of it, but even so, it's not hard to sense that something isn't quite right here, like it would be a stronger movie if it were more free to be entirely its own thing or a more direct continuation.

The title character (Lauryn Canny) starts the film almost feral, led to a hospital by a similarly naked and uncommunicative woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), where she's able to make at least a small connection with one of the nurses (Cooper Andrews). The hospital has recently been taken over by a Catholic organization, which means that Darlin' is soon transferred to St. Philomina's Group Home for Girls, where Sister Jennifer (Nara-Jane Noone) has been asked to make a special project of her by the bishop (Bryan Batt), who sees the opportunity to reform this wayward child as a way to secure publicity and funding. Everybody seems to avoid being too curious about Darlin' or her history as she swallows the nuns' indoctrination, which means that The Woman lurking in the shadows and wanting her back is just one of two surprises lurking in the corner.

This is Pollyanna McIntosh's third time playing The Woman, this time around taking over as writer and director, and she seems to recognize that the things which were horrifying and transgressive in the previous films may not still have the same kick in the second sequel - cannibalism is still objectively awful, of course, but I imagine that someone doing watching these films back-to-back will mostly be critiquing the quality of the gore effects by the time The Woman kills her first person in this one. So she's smart to switch it up and focus on a situation where the abuse takes a different, more insidious form, and her script is pretty clever about how she sets it up: An early comment by the nurse about how St. Philomina's didn't even respond to the interest he and his husband showed in adopting and the pointed hanging of a cross in the hospital's lobby turn out to be important signifiers in how people who talk a good game about righteousness can often stand in the way of doing good, and it's built so that, while viewers can use the Catholic Church's specific scandals and beliefs as a shorthand, it's the general idea of religion reasserting dominance in spaces that had previously become more secular that plays as the true danger. Darlin' is in many ways a blank slate - but just as crucially, in many ways not - which means the way in which this trend imprints on her is fascinating and sets up the last act very well.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, July 15, 2019

Fantasia 2019.04: The Wonderland, Hit-and-Run Squad, Paradise Hills, and Astronaut PLUS The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

This long day at the movies was brought to you by hunger and caffeine. The hunger comes from not having breakfast stuff in the hotel room and writing until something like five minutes before the first movie of the day started (perks of staying in a really good location), the caffeine carefully administered in Coke Zero form during film #2 and film #4. I don't recommend this long-term.



After a couple of things from Japan and South Korea that seem like they should have been much better than they wound up being - all the pieces were there but did not fit together at all - things picked up a bit with Alice Waddington (r) on hand to show off her film Paradise Hills, with Justine Smith leading the Q&A. Seeing her here has been neat because I'm reasonably sure I started following her on Twitter because of Fantasia but she hasn't been officially involved until now, and it's always fun to be able to match voices, attitudes, body language, and the like to online personae.

A lot of talk about how, while genre film was Waddington's first love, she started out in fashion photography, eventually working her way around to this after some shorts. It's an impressive jump, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people respond to it this fall.



The main event for the evening was director Shelagh McLeod and much of the cast for Astronaut, a Canadian-produced film starring Richard Dreyfuss as a widowed civil engineer who enters a contest for the first private spaceplane flight. As you might expect, everyone really liked working with him; enough that it really surprises me that we don't see him in more these days. I suppose it goes back to one of the first things I remember people saying in a Q&A at film festivals, that even if you're making a tiny independent film, you would be absolutely amazed at whose agents will call if you write a decent part for an older actor.

After that, I opted to mosey on down St. Catherine's to the Forum, where The White Storm 2 was playing. I had seen the first at the festival, and it would feel kind of dumb to let the big Asian/genre festival keep me from seeing an Asian genre film, and of the two films playing on the Concordia campus, I'd seen Shadow (heck, already own a disc) and Dreamland would be playing the nexxt afternoon. It's been a while since I've seen the "first" - this is one of those Hong Kong series more about themes than continuity - and this isn't quite as good as my review of that movie suggests it was, but it certainly has some quality action in the end. It may take Herman Yau a while to get around to it, but he doesn't screw around when he does.

Today's plans are Bruce McDonald's Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'. By the time this is posted, it's too late to recommend Away at noon.

Bâsudê wandârando (The Wonderland)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

The Wonderland has all the terrific surface elements of big, respectable anime - a decent coming-of-age story, absolutely beautiful animation, certain specific character types, a traditional life/environmental message - and does each of them well enough that it plays really well from minute to minute, but the whole doesn't really fit together. It's kind of about moving forward but also accepting destiny and how modern life isn't good for the soul but also shopping and the filmmakers sometimes can't decide which way they want to go so they do both things and make one a dream or hallucination but it really happened...

It is scattered as heck. That doesn't make it bad, although it can start to wear; the filmmakers have more ideas than they have room for, and just presenting each of them gives the audience plenty of chance to have their jaws drop. There are some times you can't blame them; there is a lot in this movie that must have looked great on the storyboard, too good to push aside or save for later. I'm sure it will cut a heck of a trailer, and it is fun to watch, which means it's hardly a failure, just a bit of a disappointment coming as the follow-up to Miss Hokusai.

Bbaengban (Hit-and-Run Squad)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

How does a movie about Seoul's automotive investigators, on the tail of a Formula 1-driving criminal mastermind, have so little in the way of automotive action? I mean, for crying out loud, get to the car chases already! This thing is 133 minutes long and really only has a couple of worthy bits of stunt driving.

The worst part is, all of the twisty corruption stuff which takes up the rest of the running time not only doesn't make much sense, it's boring. The writers never seem to figure out who should be the villain and why, and it keeps stretching out and reversing until it becomes extremely hard to care about all the material that is just making the movie longer. There is so much going on that just doesn't matter, and it dilutes the bits that at least hint at something interesting in the focus on corruption.

When the cops do start chasing down "JC", there's some genuinely fun action, and the two leads are a lot of fun, quality mismatches who don't need a romantic spark to work well off each other. Plus, Kong Hyo-Jin plays one of my favorite no-nonsense lady cops, right from the moment when she walks on screen and the usual low-angle shot that typically highlights a stiletto heel that matches her suit instead shows white sneakers. She doesn't come to play.

Paradise Hills

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Paradise Hills feels a bit like a Jaques Demy nightmare, and I kind of hope we get more of those as time goes on - lavish fantasies by/for/about women, pulled off with flair, even if it means I'm not the best person to judge them. The movie is girly as heck and works hard on making sure that its heroines don't have to take on male characteristics to fight back (or, for that matter, to be villains).

This one sometimes seems a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope - the film doesn't often surprise in what the next step is for much of the running time - although that's okay; it's seldom been told this way. It looks great, and has an appealing cast even if nobody else seems to be having as much fun as Milla Jovovich (not that they're written to have the chance). The look of it melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely.

And it sticks its landing pretty well, well enough that I would kind have liked if it had spent a bit more time on the stuff revealed in the last act (though what it goes also does one of the best jobs of adding something to the flash-forward than most do). But, then, I'm a guy, and the threat there could seemingly be more aimed at me than the rest. It does require a bit of a stretch to get where it does, but it's worth it, I think.

Astronaut (2018)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There are times when I lament modestly-scaled movies being lucky to get a blip of a release in theaters as they head to the small screen, and there are other times when the likely-small theatrical release they will receive alongside their on-demand premieres seems like a nice little bonus. Astronaut falls into the latter category, pleasantly intimate but losing little when played for a crowd.

It's the tale of Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss), a 75-year-old retired civil engineer who, between his own health issues and his late wife being taken in by a scam during her mental decline, has recently found himself moving in with daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), though that itself is a brief stop on the way to an assisted-living facility. A stargazer since his youth, he might not have let Barney encourage him to enter the lottery for a seat on the commercial space plane being developed by Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) and his company despite being well over the age-65 cutoff, but he doesn't feel that old. He is, of course, chosen as one of the twelve finalists, though what he sees on the runway leaves him distracted during the televised interview.

It's been around forty years since the last time Richard Dreyfuss got on a spaceship with the odds long that his family would ever see him again, and while that's a dumb movie joke on the one hand, it's a neat thing for director Shelagh McLeod to have hanging over the film in some ways. It's a part of the background noise of the movie and as such not something she has to return to and risk overplaying. It's an approach that benefits the film as she fills it out with other subplots; the threads about Jim being suspended at work and Marcus perhaps overlooking dangers because of his ambition fill some time and connect well with Angus's story, but don't become sort of thing that threaten to take up too much of the film's focus that they could have. It's relaxed, and with much of the story taking place during a snowy winter, ideal for watching from under a blanket.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Cineplex Forum #9 (first-run, DCP)

As much as I liked The White Storm when I saw it in 2014, I didn't know it was successful enough to become an action-movie brand, in that apparently any movie about former allies turned enemies in the drug trade could wind up released under that banner. That's what this film is - a similar outline with new characters that has to work to reach the same melodramatic highs, although there's no arguing against the action when the gloves come completely off.

Fifteen years ago, Yu Shun Tin (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and "Dizang" Fung Chun Kwok (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) were close as brothers in the Ching Hing triad, whose leader - and Tin's uncle - Yu Nam (Kent Chang Jak-Si) was staunchly against getting involved with drugs. Then it all went to hell - Tin's girlfriend (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) leaves him on the same night Tin is forced to punish Dizang for allowing drugs to be sold in Ching Hing territory. It's a wake-up call for both - Tin goes straight, proving to be an excellent stock trader and marrying lawyer Chow Man Fung (Karena Lam Ka-Yan), while Dizang dives headlong into the narcotics trade, becoming one of Hong Kong's most powerful drug lords. Circumstances cause Tin, who has always given generously to anti-drug organizations, to escalate his battle with direct action, which looks to Chief Inspector Lam Cheng Fung (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) of the HKPD's narcotics bureau - whose wife was also a cop and killed in the raid on Dizang's clubs that night - like fighting between the triads.

There is a lot going on there - there are threads about the Yus trying to conceive, Lam's daughter, and a side-trip to the Philippines - but there's also too little. Hong Kong cinema has a great tradition of these sort of close friendships ripped asunder to the point where they disintegrate into extraordinary violence, but the great ones establish these relationships more solidly. There is barely enough time to see Tin and Dizang as brothers before they're hurtling in opposite directions, and despite Lam's origin story being connected to their falling-out, he is always on the periphery of the story, a necessary official perspective but never one that drives the action. It's easy to see the shape of how all of this should work, but it never becomes visceral until the script drops the big, obvious bombs.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fantasia 2019.03: Best of Les Utopiales, Away, Jade's Asylum, Almost a Miracle, and Come to Daddy

Well, I hit the wall late, after spending most of the day in DeSeve, but I hit it nevertheless.



Still, it was a day where the highs were very high indeed, such as Away, with writer/director/everything Gints Zilbalodis (left) here from Latvia and Ruppert effusive in his praise, especially in how well seeing it with a full theatrical sound system works. The one-man-band nature of the movie's production led to some pretty interesting discussion, such as how large chunks of it were rendered straight from preview rather than at a more detailed rate, and the movie was more or less created in sequence. Do that over the course of three years, and your skill and style will change, so he actually found himself going back to re-render the first chapter.

He was also unashamed about this thing being rendered like a game and having the structure of one, even if the person who asked the question seemed reluctant to phrase it that way. I mention in the review that I'll be interested to see if that's an issue in its reception.



The makers of Jade's Asylum had an interesting story to tell about how, when they got to Costa Rica, they found that their monster costumes didn't work nearly so well in the mansion as in the jungle, so this became 90% jungle rather than 90% mansion, and I kind of wonder if that hurt their ambitions to make it ambiguous or psychological. It spins out too far to be all in Jade's head as it is, but that possibility my have worked had it been contained.

They seem like delightful people, but they made a pretty bad movie, though you've got to salute them for getting it done in what sometimes sounded like crazy conditions.



Last up was the crew from Come to Daddy, which was apparently one film too many, because I was in and out and missed a lot of the last half. The live for filmmaker Ant Timpson, a longtime part of the family for Fantasia (and fantastic film in general) was palpable, though.

I'm already running late and starting on Sunday, where the plan is The Wonderland, Hit and Rub Squad, Paradise Hills, Astronaut, and then maybe running off to catch The White Storm 2.

"RFLKTR"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

I'm not quite sure whether "RFLKTR" is an impressive job of compression or a hook that should have had a little more time to play out, though a bit of reflection leads me to think the first even if the second was closer to my first reaction. It's kind of dead-simple in conception, with Breeda Wool as the captain of a small spaceship that crashes on an unknown planet only to somehow encounter herself. It's a classic set-up, but one that can go a lot of different ways, especially when filmmaker Matt K. Turner has the chops to make it look pretty slick.

Almost by accident, it illustrates the trade-off with twists exceptionally clearly: By going for the surprise, it winds up a step away from the impact of when the thing revealed actually revealed. Not entirely, but at least a little.

"Lo Siento, Mi Amor"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Eduardo Casanova has an enjoyably goofy idea here - Jackie Kennedy (Sara Rivero) having an affair with a grey alien (Javier Botet) - that he and his crew design the heck out of, almost to the point of fetish. It's fun to look at and gets a laugh or two from the sheer outrageousness of it, along with a couple of background gags that feel like they may be clever in some way or another but don't quite land. You can laugh at the idea of it.

… and then you kind of wonder, what's the rest of the gag? Is there some sort of alternate history, something which makes a sort of perverse sort of sense as a result, or what? It feels like the only reason to use a grey is the weird visual - replace him with a human, and nothing changes except that the film is obvious slander. It's not like the late Jacqueline Onassis needs her reputation defended, but it feels like a South Park-level joke, edgy and provocative but not accomplishing much.

"Occupant"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

This particular short film mostly got noticed for the credits - companies Gunpowder & Sky and Dust feel like ones to keep an eye on, and writer/director Peter Cilella's name popped from Resolution and The Endless (Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are credited as producers) - but like a few other shorts in this block, it kind of leaves me thinking "and, next?" It sets up a very familiar situation, executes well, and then ends.

If it's a sort of feature pitch, it's not a bad one; Cilella does a nice job of quickly sketching out some characters and giving his audience room to play (Dan O'Brien is particularly good), and he and the effects crew stage the abduction in a nifty way, using a reflection. I'd see the rest of this movie.

"The Replacement" (2018)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Sean Miller's "The Replacement" feels like another short which is looking to be a feature pilot - it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, hints at parts of its world that are barely used, and generally feels like it could be expanded a little in all directions. Unlike most with those properties, it's a fairly satisfying unit on its own, even if it doesn't quite execute its late turn toward the serious as well as it could.

When it is being funny, though, it's kind of great, with Mike McNamara pretty darn good as a janitor frustrated that seemingly all of his clones have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, with one just having been elected the first clone president. He gets to have some fun playing multiple versions, although the ones where you can see the original in the personality are more fun than, say, President Abe, who looks like a generic politician and may as well be a completely different guy.

The movie flounders a bit as it reaches the end, like it wants to be two - one where Clones Are People Too, so that when you see your clones doing well you should strive to better meet your potential and embrace achievement even when it comes from those who were a sort of underclass, and another where they are a scary Other intent on violently remaking the world in their own image. Those messages are diametrically opposed, and jumping to the second after spending most of the running time on the first seems disingenuous.

"Laura un Vineta"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

You'll have to pardon me for not getting every joke here, because this Latvian short film was screened with only French subtitles and I'm actually pleasantly surprised just how much of my high-school French is still useful. It's probably funnier if you can follow every single little gag well, but it's still an enjoyably goofy little short with some really excellent visual humor

I must admit that I was rather slow on the uptake in terms of how farmer Aldis Berzhins (Leons Lescinskis), who has an alien spaceship crash in his fields while he sleeps, is not just confused and put upon but genuinely obsessed with potatoes in general, and I never quite got whether the folks he was dropped off with were friends or family or what. But there is some really delightful absurdity here, and just the right amount of Armands Bergis as an impressively ferret-like government official.

And, hey, who doesn't like potatoes? Not much better to snack on than some quality fries!

"The Meltdown" (2016)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Director Connor Kerrigan seems to have gone back and forth between animation, live-action, and animated documentary around the time he made "The Meltdown", and it's a movie that pokes a bit of fun at the appropriation of documentary tropes, setting something like The Office in a nuclear power plant, albeit one so poorly run that apparently everybody has to be in a hazmat suit all the time. It's a fun sort of compressed sitcom with every character very broad and well-established and everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

I do love how the choice to have everyone in suits means they gesticulate like crazy and have to have big personalities. There's still a kind of taking the weird for granted here, playing the absurd as normal workplace malaise, but it's visually interesting with bright colors and physical comedy rather than arch.

"Juliet" (2015)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Only intermittent French subtitles on this French short from director Marc-Henri Boulier, so I'm open to the idea that it works a lot better if you know the language.

One thing that I kind of found amusing, though I don't know whether it was intentional or not, was the idea that you can have sexbots like Juliet and it's treated as kind of tacky, but create a Romeo model and all of a sudden guys are ready to take to the streets and riot at being disrespected and treated as replaceable. It's a self-aware little detail that feels ugly but right, and which I don't think I've seen in one of these android stories.

Also amusing: The little clip of Creation of the Humanoids at the start, which suggests people would recoil at machines they had to control via conversation. As much as I'm never going to have an internet-connected microphone in my home or use that sort of assistant on my phone, it kind of hasn't worked out that way.

"Rust in Peace"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

I don't think I've ever been so sad to discover that a movie wasn't taking place in a post-apocalyptic future before. That's some serious, weapons-grade melancholy as a discarded robot tries to reconnect with his owner, not able to comprehend that he was deliberately discarded.

The robot design is great, primitive and clunky and somehow getting a lot of humanity out of its big, featureless, neck-free head. There's something beautiful and pastoral about its long walk home, even if you're under the impression that the world has ended. Once he gets there, writer/director William Welles seems to tap into something about abusive relationships and bad breakups, where one person doesn't get that it's over and the other, while able to recollect the parts they liked and maybe willing to dip into them, can see this as license to be cruel. It's worse here, because poor Exon's a robot and can't know any better, which makes what humanity he has even more tragic.

"An Eye for an Eye"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Apparently filmmaker Julia Ploch has adapted her own comic for this, and I'd be curious to see that, because for as strikingly beautiful as this film is, the story gets a bit lost at times, jumping back and forth and never having a lot to do with the young hero-worshipping frog as it seeks out Red Frog and the Great Catfish.

Still, it is amazing to look at, changing its look up as it moves back and forth in time, giving each chapter its own feel, and showing a lot of flexibility in how you can make a frog look, from the pudgy hero to the powerful legs of the legendary Red Frog. There's a small but epic-feeling air to it that frequently gets one's eyes to open wide at the creativity on display.

Away

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Away is a very simple movie in a lot of ways - Gints Zilbalodis made it on his own, structured it like a video game, and doesn't bother with dialogue - but if you're good at what it's focused on, that leaves it fewer places to trip up. And Zilbalodis doesn't trip up - the action is as clear as the symbolism, the music is big and swelling, the designs feel like they could spring from the mind of its young hero, and so on. It's got such an individual personality that it never feels generic, though, just elemental.

And it's gorgeous, each frame looking like a three-dimensional image made by laying construction paper or some other flat material in layers, but the virtual camera work makes it feel like a real place being traversed. Some scenes are tremendously striking - biking across Mirror Lake, for instance, with birds reflected in the impossibly reflective, enough to make one forget the seeming simplicity, or at least appreciate how it makes that shot possible.

I'm curious how different generations will take to it, when someone picks it up for distribution. It is, in a way, so unapologetically game-like that I suspect some will diminish or dismiss it, even if that's also a sign of how it's the hero's journey in almost perfect form.

Jade's Asylum

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, ProRes)

This movie is 83 minutes long, but includes a whole ton of outtakes and crap over the end credits, along with another ton of pointless nonlinear circling back around throughout the film. Take out the subplots that go nowhere and the repetition and there's maybe a half-hour of movie here, and that half-hour doesn't make a lot of sense. One suspects that it is missing a lot of pieces that could have clarified things in pursuit of an ambiguity that does the movie little good, with padding to get it up to something that might get it just long enough to make a festival that doesn't have room set aside for home-grown projects

It's got a reasonably good-looking mushroom monster and a winning heroine - I'd like to see Morgan Kohan in something better - and that goes further than you might think, but the story is so hacked-up and messily shot that they almost never get put in good position. Instead, it's a blur of generic white dudes getting knocked off (albeit without the effects budget to really do the gore well), and the stabs at being a more sophisticated psychological thriller just leave it in no man's land.

Machida kun no sekai (Almost a Miracle aka Machida's World)

* * *½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's always the ducks. No matter what the cartoon, or movie, or what, the ducks will be the funniest part.

The teenagers in this movie give them a run for their money, though, a bunch of lovable weirdos trying to figure themselves out, sometimes from odd starting points, with the oddest being the compulsively altruistic lead who has honest trouble figuring out how to put the girl he likes over others. It's a kooky group that often threatens to get too big to handle - and which has to occasionally get twistedly meta because of how teen dramas have warped both our expectations of teens and how they actually behave. A Yoshihiro Nakamura-style "community coming together" bit makes it work better than expected, though, even if it's kind of shoe-horned in to make the point that Hajime Machida's relentless, stubborn decency is making the world a better place.

That's a welcome response to how the film is often grappling with how such goodness can be frustrating, both in how a person needs to be able to love someone else more and that it's important to feel special as well. It's a question that we normally see in terms of burn-out and arguments over what "self-care" means, but it's framed as basic humanity here. It's a little thing that helps pull this out of just being about teenagers, and why the struggling writer doesn't wind up feeling completely out of place: Everybody feels bad about where they place the line between helping others and helping themselves.

Also helping is that it's a frequently beautiful movie, although the scenes obviously shot on film look so good that I wish the rest hadn't seemed like such a deliberately familiar Japanese high-school drama style. It's probably a bit of a weirdly film-snobby thing to gush over the briefly-seen, moody flashbacks as much as the whimsical ending, but those moments are especially fantastic.

Come to Daddy

N/A (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I hit a wall during this tonight, which is a crying shame, because what I saw, I liked quite a bit. Director Ant Timpson gets quite a bit out of a more or less perfect cast, the setting is terrific, and the action is eyebrow-raising.

I couldn't tell you much about what happened after one character exited, though, which is a real shame. Hopefully another chance to catch it will come around soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Fantasia 2019.02: The Deeper You Dig, His Bad Blood, and Vivarium

I kind of feel like I should apologize to filmmakers for days like Friday, when the way I got up early the previous day leaves me feeling worn down and I just can't make it through a couple of matinees, and a couple of independent films that could probably use it more will only get cursory write-ups.



First up was The Deeper You Dig, credited as "An Adams Family Film"; with Zelda Adams and her parents John Adams and Toby Poser representing. They're a family that just likes making movies, and why not? It's fun and you can do quite a bit with some reasonable equipment. You probably kind of have to be the sort of family where your 14-year-old cinematographer/co-star calls her parents by their given names for it to work (which isn't a bad thing, especially for this sort of project where they need to see each other as equal collaborators, just odd-sounding to me), and maybe they can't do this for much longer, but that's the deal with a lot of family projects. Zelda's 19-year-old sister used to be a bigger part of this, for instance, but is probably in college or moved on to other interests.

They didn't really make a great horror movie, but they made an interesting one that is pretty enjoyably idiosyncratic in some ways. I wouldn't necessarily spend money on it, but it doesn't have to be about that.



Next up was the crew from His Bad Blood, including director Koichiro Oyama, star/producer Yu Toyama, and co-star/producer Animoto Sakura (with the emcee & translator on the left), and they're the ones where I feel bad about not really being able to write up a full review - they made a pretty nice-looking movie for $100K, in a part of Japan where they don't make many movies, then traveled to Montreal and handed out flyers at the previous night's shows. They're indie as heck and could probably use it more than some others.

They're a very likable crew, though, and I'll probably spend some morning watching their screener to give them a second shot.

The Q&A went on long enough to spike my plans for the next movie, but I needed to run some errands and eat some real food anyway.



Last up, my first show introduced by Mitch Davis, likely the festival circuit's best hype man when he finds something he loves, introducing Vivarium and director Lorcan Finnegan. They led an enthusiastic Q&A, and I do kind of love that Finnegan didn't mind saying, yeah, that's what we were trying to get at when Mitch brought up themes and metaphors rather than entirely leaving it to the audience. It's a pretty good film that could probably have used a little tweaking, but it's kind of impressively weird, and Imogen Poots especially is kind of great in it.

Hopefully I'll be able to give more to today's movies, which are currently planned to be the "Utopiales" program, Away, Jade's Asylum, Almost A Miracle, Come to Daddy, and, well, we'll see how up I am for Porno, given that it's at midnight but does have a second showing at a more reasonable time. I've already seen Master Z: Ip Man Legacy and Extreme Job, and can recommend both.

The Deeper You Dig

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

It's a bit strange to call a horror movie "cute", but that's the sort of vibe this DIY production from a small family in upstate New York gives off, less actually scary than an earnest attempt to make a scary movie. It's got the basic shape of a ghost story and the bones of a good parallel between the haunted parties - the hit-and-run driver and the distraught mother - but can't help but feel more like people excited to make a horror movie than a group into the particular story they're telling. In part, it's a bit of a case where ghosts just aren't as interesting as guilt to me, but the film takes an odd twist that seems like a good idea, but leads to the movie trying to do two or three different things at once that don't quite mesh.

It's neat to watch, and I don't want to make too much out of how the 14-year-old co-star was also the cinematographer for much of the movie, but there are a lot of scenes that are kind of built around the neat "one light cutting through darkness" visual that she might grow out of using so much, and it gives the movie a visual personality that a lot of more professional ones might not necessarily have.

Itsukushimifukaki (His Bad Blood, aka What a Friend We Have in Jesus)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

As I say above, this deserves more attention than I was really able to give it, because there's a lot in it I like: There's a pretty fascinating dynamic in the early scenes of the whole town holding slacker Shinichi's parentage against him that seems like it may be especially keen for the way Japanese tradition and Christianity mix in that village, and it also makes one wonder a bit just how much Shinichi is the way he is because he's always felt like a curse on his family and community. Seeing his uncle be very politely cruel is a heck of a way to encapsulate this.

I kind of lost the plot once he went into exile and met his father, along with all the crime that went along with it, there's a lot of story that my sleep head just couldn't weave together. Still, I do kind of love the way that the last act wove a lot of fantasy and truth together, showing how we kind of mythologize our family and often rewrite our history into what we need it to be. It's sophisticated and ambitious but done without a lot of fanfare. The performances by Ikkei Watanabe and Yu Toyama as father and son are impressive, too, both as willing as anyone in the picture to dive into being unsympathetic while the story has them earn what sympathy they get from the audience.

I'll definitely be looking out for director Koichiro Oyama's next movie to show up at festivals or in theaters; he did an impressive amount with a little here, and if this gives him the chance to do something bigger, that would be great.

Vivarium

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The festival's second movie featuring the pairing of Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in as many nights is even stranger than The Art of Self-Defense with some of the same satirical ambitions, although that seems more of a gateway to weird things than the point of the exercise here. Weird wins almost every battle with incisive here, and there are definite pleasures in that, although that makes the movie even more not-for-everyone.

Here, they play Gemma and Tom, a young couple looking to buy their first home, but the market is crazy, with everything near the city getting snapped up by folks who make more than a grade-school teacher and a landscaper. They eventually let estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) show them a house in the "Yonder" development, whose suburban sprawl and uniformity is exactly what they're not looking for, and that's before Martin abandons them and every turn they take trying to leave lands them back in front of #9 until they run out of gas. Boxes containing supplies mysteriously appear, but soon a more sinister one shows up, containing a baby and the message "raise the child and be released".

Director Lorcan Finnegan and his crew do an impressive job of ramping up the strangeness in their movie; the endless rows of identical houses with their colorful-but-muted palette is a familiar jumping-off place, as is the too-generic design of all the supplies and instructions from the corporation or whatever running all of this, but they does a nice job of pushing it a little further, from the perfectly cloud-shaped clouds to the sun that seems to rise and set a little too fast. They do this resolutely and quickly enough that when Senan Jennings shows up as the boy after a time-jump, the audience is ready for what is one of cinema's most flagrantly creepy kids, with a voice that's not right and a deliberate combination of antagonism and a strange childish mockery of childish sincerity. It pushes every single bit of "why do kids do that?" to the limit, and it's hard not to admire to crazy abrasiveness of it.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, July 12, 2019

Fantasia 2019.01: Swallow and The Art of Self-Defense

Ah, the annual trip to Montreal, which went weirdly smoothly - I got up early, made it to South Station with plenty of time despite the Red Line being messed up in recent weeks, had no issues with Greyhound or the border, and the room I'd rented on AirBNB turned out to be a sort of self-service hotel very close to the festival. I picked up my pass and things were entirely stress-free until the rain started coming down while I grabbed a burger, but that just meant I got a little bit wet as I crossed the street.

Of course, I've been so "busy" lately (all that difficult time spent on baseball in London and the Fourth of July and visiting my family in Maine!) that I've had just about zero time to look at the Fantasia program, much less the schedule, and see how I would attack it, which is awkward when people ask what you're looking forward to over the next month when you'll see 80+ features and probably close to as many shorts. So, once I collected everything, I sat down and at least planned opening night:



This was pretty easy, even though opening night film Sadako was opened to pass-holders even though that's not always the case - I've actually never seen Ringu or any of its sequels, spin-offs, remakes, translations, or crossovers, and I'm guessing this was not exactly the time to jump in. So that left me Swallow for the first slot and a choice of either a movie that would be playing again the next day or one that I would have seen at IFFBoston except that a late train gave me reason to detour to Avengers: Endgame. Easy enough!

And both were actually really good, sharp but empathetic and often funny critiques of modern life. They're not quite the movies you expect to see when you go to a genre festival, but both were smart and maybe easy to overlook if they get to Boston cinemas at all.

Fun casts, though I admittedly thought Haley Bennett was Mia Wasikowski for a while in Swallow (it is the sort of rolle that Ms. W tends to play), while no matter what I see him in, David Rasche is somehow still Sledge Hammer, even 30-odd years later. Riley Stearns and Jesse Eisenberg sent video greetings for The Art of Self-Defense, with Eisenberg making sure we realized that "you can laugh at the movie and you will not be wrong, you will be correct."

Plus, in between, the first short that serves as a sort of teaser for the Fantastique Week-Ends of Quebec shorts, and a funny one!



Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a new notebook and it's time to go fill it up. Today's plans are The Deeper You Dig, His Bad Blood, a quick run across the street to hopefully get into Little Monsters, Eisenberg and Imogen Poots again in Vivarium, and seeing if I'm up for a DIY midnight with The Wrath or if I need my sleep to prepare for a long Saturday.

Swallow

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Swallow turns out to be just the right sort of low-key unnerving it needs to be, though it would have been exceptionally easy to overshoot the mark. It's a film about disquiet and discontent, so while it's entirely appropriate for it to occasionally make the audience cringe, it can't run away with things and make its admittedly disturbed main character seem nuts. Instead, it's impressively sympathetic even when it could be a freakshow.

Hunter (Haley Bennett) and Richie (Austin Stowell) have recently married, and it's a bit of an adjustment for her; Richie's just been made a managing director of the large family business, and while Hunter spends the suddenly vast amount of free time she has at their new house sketching - she wants to be an artist - the days do seem to stretch out for someone used to working, especially since Richie's promotion is keeping him busy. He and his parents (Elizabeth Marvel & David Rasche) are excited when she announces that she is pregnant, the mother giving her a self-help book that she found helpful when pregnant with Richie, but she takes its instructions to "do something unexpected" in an odd way, impulsively swallowing a small marble - and when that passes, she moves on to other small objects around the house.

It's an odd but believable compulsion, effective in large part because anybody watching can almost grasp the appeal right away - filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis and star Haley Bennett make sure that the audience can grasp the tactile nature of it even though that's not necessarily something film gets across well; it's a clear contrast to the open, soft environment where Hunter finds herself alone - the house is all open floorplans and a balcony whose glass walls are almost invisible. Her new in-laws are friendly enough but have a tendency to see her as an extension of their son, especially once she's pregnant. As strange as this behavior is, it's clearly asserting something inside and out.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"You Don't Know Me"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

I gather from the mostly-French introduction to this short that it was done as one of those 72-hour film challenges, so I'm a bit inclined to cut it a bit of slack if it feels a little clumsy in spots. It's a strong concept - American couple traveling through Quebec find themselves in a tricky spot and are forced to badly play along when it looks like they would otherwise be blamed - and feels like it's about 75% there most of the time. The performances are nice, the staging is capable if not necessarily inventive, and the script and editing on both ends could use a little refinement but if you only had three days to do everything, it's okay to have spent enough time on shooting that there's a bit of a crunch otherwise.

It works, though, and a short can be forgiven a fair amount if it sticks the landing as well as this one does. A dark comedy like this doesn't just have to work in the last five seconds, but the fact that those five seconds work certainly makes up for any small shortcomings that the rest may have.

The Art of Self-Defense

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

From the big desktop computers in the offices to the jokes built around answering machines rather than mobile phones, it seems likely that Riley Stearns's The Art of Self-Defense takes place too early for the phrase "toxic masculinity" to have been in common use, so he has to address that sort of issue even more plainly. The result is a delightfully weird deadpan comedy that is laser-focused on how something can be both awful and absurd, filled with laughs for those who enjoy dark, screwy humor. It's got no place for subtlety but that's far from the only way to land a good joke.

Initially, those jokes are at the expense of Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), an accountant in his mid-thirties who, though he doesn't seem to be doing anything particularly offensive, is almost reflexively insulted by everyone from his co-workers to tourists passing through the diner where he eats. One night, it's worse, as he's mugged by a group on motorcycles as he goes out to be food for his dachshund. He initially considers buying a gun, but during the mandatory waiting period he comes upon a karate dojo and is soon taken in by its masterful, poised Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). It soon becomes an obsession, and even though just a yellow belt, he is given an invitation to join the mysterious night class.

Jesse Eisenberg has a lot more range than he's usually given credit for, but it's undeniable that roles like this are where he excels: Casey is a social misfit who seemingly can't speak in any way that's not awkward, so that even when he acclimates or takes on less milquetoast qualities, it becomes a sort of twisted, dorky perversion of supposed cool. Stearns delivers the characters blunt, comically plain dialogue and Eisenberg makes it especially leaden, and the audience has to kind of enjoy the way lines will just drop to the floor and lay there as they come out of his mouth, seemingly crude and wooden but always landing just the way they are supposed to. He's so good at that sort of thing that one almost doesn't notice just how painful and heartfelt Casey's anxiety can be.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 12 July 2019 - 18 July 2019

I'm already binging crazy movies in Montreal, but it can't hurt to keep an eye on the rest of what's playing.

  • It's kind of a quiet week in between big things, so what's opening at the multiplexes is sort of like what used to be regular summer fare. Stuber, for instance, is a buddy movie with Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani as a renegade cop and the ride-share driver he has running him around tow getting into trouble - though it should be noted that there's a pretty interesting cast below the line, with Mira Sorvino, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, and Karen Gillan. That's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. Crawl, meanwhile, is your basic "alligators loose in the middle of a hurricane" thriller, with Alexandre Aja directing and Sam Raimi producing, thus making one wish he was directing (because he doesn't seem to be busy otherwise). That plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. With a few extra screens to fill, Boston Common and Revere also open Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, a documentary about the famed one-armed.

    There are 50th Anniversary screenings of Easy Rider at Fenway on Sunday and Wednesday, while Revere screens Top Gun Wednesday afternoon. Anime fans have another chance to check out Sound! Euphonium: The Movie - Our Promise: A Brand New Day on Monday, listed subbed at Fenway, subbed at Revere, and unknown presentations at the Seaport and South Bay (at least on Fandango). Fenway and Kendall Square also have a screenings of documentary Between Me and My Mind, following Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, on Wednesday evening.
  • Kendall Square and West Newton open Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, which tells the story of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, his lifelong friend and muse, with director Nick Broomfield able to draw on footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker as well as his own. The Kendall also opens The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, in which a Palenstinian and an Israeli trying to cover their affair make authorities believe that something more sinister is afoot.
  • The Brattle Theatre gives most of the week's screen time to Too Late to Die Young (which should not be confused with Nicholas Winding Refn's new Amazon miniseries). It comes from Chilean filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor, a semi-autobiographical tale of teens and pre-teens growing up in the early 1990s. They also have Trash Night on Tuesday and their annual Trailer Treats party on Thursday night, with a few music videos added to the 35mm mix.
  • Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway both open Super 30, a biography of mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar, with Hrithik Roshan in the leading role. Fresh Pond also has Oh Baby…, a Telugu-language remake of Miss Granny with Samantha Ruth Prabhu as the suddenly-youthful grandmother. Article 15 is either back or still around.

    Those looking for action from the other side of Asia get The White Storm 2: Drug Lords out of Hong Kong. I gather that it's a sequel in name only - only Louis Koo returns from the original, and he's playing a new character - but it's directed by workaholic Herman Yau and may be Andy Lau's first time in front of the camera since his 2017 injury
  • The Regent Theatre has something close to a regular run this week with Firecrackers - a Canadian drama about two would-be teen runaways - playing from Friday through Thursday. It's in the main theater Friday, Tuesday, and Thursday and the Underground Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, with Sunday & Monday only having matinees.
  • West Newton is the only place opening Shelter, a German/Israeli thriller with Neta Riskin as a Mossad agent protecting a Lebanese informant recovering from plastic surgery.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Embassy pick up Wild Rose in its second week of release. The Coolidge also continues "They're Coming to Get You" midnights with Night of the Creeps on Friday and a new digital restoration of Evil Dead 2 on Saturday night.They also have a Cinema Jukebox screening of The Man Who Fell to Earth on Thursday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a full schedule but still has a few extra slots with which to run film, with Pink Floyd: The Wall Saturday's Midnight Special, The Bad and the Beautiful & The Big Knife Wednesday's "Play it Cool" double feature, and The Two Jakes the Jack Attack on Thursday. They also have a The Boston Underground Film Festival "Dispatches from the Underground" on Wednesday, with a "Melody & Mayhem" selection of music videos playing in the Micro on Wednesday night.
  • The Harvard Film Archive still has more of The Complete Howard Hawks to go! This week's shows are The Criminal Code (Friday/Sunday), Land of the Pharaohs (Friday), The Thing from Another World (Saturday), The Dawn Patrol (Saturday), Air Force (Sunday), and a silent double feature of The Cradle Snatchers & Paid to Love, with musical accompaniment by Robert Humphreville, on Monday. All shows this week are on 35mm film.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their annual French Film Festival with The Competition (Friday/Saturday), Amanda (Friday), Climax (Friday), Sink or Swim (Saturday), The Trouble with You (Saturday), An Impossible Love (Sunday), One Nation, One King (Sunday), Invisibles (Sunday), The Freshman (Thursday), Wild (Thursday), and Sophia Antipolis (Thursday).
  • Boston Jewish Film continues their Summer Cinematheque series on Wednesday with Skin in the Bright Screening Room at Emerson's Paramount Theater.

  • Cinema Salem picks up the pretty great The Last Black Man in San Francisco and puts hybrid documentary Framing John DeLorean on their mini-screen this weekend. The Luna Theater has Bill Wyman documentary The Quiet One on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday, with Echo in the Canyon and Funan on Saturday afternoon. The "Magical Mystery Movie Club" has been cut back to just Sunday mornings for July (at least), while this Sunday's main feature is The People Under the Stairs, while Wednesday has a free weird surprise. AMC's Liberty Tree Mall location splits a screen between indies Miss Arizona and Desolate.
  • Joe's Free Films continues to fill out the outdoor movie schedule, with the most notable being the Coolidge bringing Bullitt on 35mm to the Greenway on Tuesday.


I think there might be time to slip into The White Storm 2 on Tuesday morning, but otherwise it's all Fantasia, all the time (and, truth be told, the follow-up to a movie I saw in Montreal practically.counts as Fantasia itself),

Thursday, July 11, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.01: Luce

A bit weird to talk about opening night of IFFBoston after I've already tackled the end, but it's the movies. Think of it as one of those times when the movie opens with a flash-forward to the climax, and try to forget all the times I've said that this device is basically awful.

Anyway, let's get to the reason we all get excited about opening night of IFFBoston and want to relive it months later: Seeing what Jon wore while playing the theremin as everybody took their seats!


Bold. Not quite as perfect as the spaceman outfit from two years ago, but I'm not sure that will ever be topped.


The guest for the night was Luce director Julius Onah (right), with film critic Jason Gorber handling the interrogation duties. That Jason clearly liked the film much more than this one, but to be fair to it, Luce hits a couple of things that drive me more nuts than they ought to in terms of how "bad" they are as storytelling devices, and I talked to a lot of people who really liked it but aren't bothered by the high-school debate reasoning and "I'm going to say something's important but make sure not to show it for a while". And I am kind of intrigued by seeing it as a play, as I get the feeling that a lot of those devices might work better on the stage.

Onah joked about directing a Cloverfield movie without knowing he had, but made what was pretty likely a good choice not to go into much detail on how that all happened. The Cloverfield Paradox was a huge mess, but no need to burn bridges there.

Odds are long that I'll get more of these done while at Fantasia, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

Luce

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (IFFBoston Opening Night, DCP)

Luce is a clever film that often leans a bit too hard on its cleverness, especially in the first half. The filmmakers seemingly love to show a small facet of something and make it very clear that there's more to be seen and maybe they'll get to it later, or to lay out facts and perspectives in debate-team style, pointing out that it's working with semantics rather than being straightforward or even playing at being straightforward.

The comparison is natural because title character Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the star of his school's debate team and a generally impressive speaker all-around; his accomplishments make the whole community and especially the parents who adopted him as a refugee from Eritrea proud. But as he gives his latest speech, his History of Government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) looks suspicious, and she's soon calling Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts & Tim Roth) in for a conference. Luce, it seems, recently wrote a paper in the voice of revolutionary Franco Fannon when most of the other students chose someone less incendiary, and when Harriet searched his locker, she found something which suggests he might not just be interested in that as rhetoric. Luce has an explanation, but once the idea is in a person's head, it can be hard to get it out.

The trouble is getting more than just an idea out of it, and filmmaker Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee (who also wrote the original play) don't have as much in the way of story as the movie really needs. Especially early on, they will tend to tease that Luce or Harriet has something to say or show to people, but then not actually do so for flimsy reasons, and that's a tactic that needs to be executed with care - even on the first try, it will often make the audience feel like the filmmakers are just screwing with them, and even when that's fun, repeating it tends to make a viewer more resentful each time. Once that happens, the payoff at the other end has got to be a nearly-perfect case of something one doesn't see coming despite it making perfect sense in retrospect, although ultimately being kind of loopy the way this movie does is not necessarily a terrible alternative - it's at least not underwhelming.

Full review on EFilmCritic

This Week in Tickets: 17 June 2019 - 7 July 2019

So, about a year ago, Major League Baseball announced the Red Sox and Yankees would play a series in London, I registered to buy tickets as a season ticket-holder, got a chance to buy them in December, and then set my vacation time up. I didn't exactly go to London to see baseball, but it made for a good excuse.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

I wouldn't leave until Friday, and meant to catch a bunch of movies beforehand, but there was work to do to get ahead and preparations to make, so the only film I got to see was Late Night, which has Emma Thompson and is thus better than a lot of movies.

After that, I had a Red Sox ticket for Friday night, but booked by flight for 10pm, so that went to StubHub and I got on a plane. The sleeping aid don't work quite so well as I might have hoped, so I was kind of dragging through most of Saturday, but I was still alert enough to climb 300-odd stairs to snap pictures like this:



That's a view from the top of The Monument, not far from my hotel, something I stumbled upon when I visited back in 2012, and breezy enough that I'm glad I didn't climb it in December. I followed it up by my first dinner of fish and chips at a pub, which is honestly something I wish I could do more often at home, but there's actually not as many good chippies in the Boston area as you'd think.



Didn't have me straying far, revisiting the Tower of London, which is a really delightful place to walk around, a blast for being full of a thousand years of history but also right in the middle of the city, with skyscrapers and bridges and the like all around.



Monday was the all-but-inevitable trip to 221B Baker Street, because I am who I am and cannot resist. It's kind of a silly thing to do - fifteen pounds for something like twenty minutes - but fun and more than any other tourist thing in London, you're in there with people who love the same thing you do rather than people who think it's a classy, "good-for-you" thing, and they're from America, Britain, Korea, Russia, all over the place. Folks love Sherlock Holmes.



On Tuesday, I actually got on a tour bus and headed out to Stonehenge, going for the tour that was led by an archaeologist, who promised to kick anyone mentioning aliens off the bus, pointed out that this place had nothing to do with the Druids (despite neo-druidic types making stone circles part of their thing), and was basically very informative and on top of the latest research, which seems to be rapidly changing the impression of what early Britain was like.

I'd initially been somewhat disappointed that I was unable to book a tour that allowed us inside the stone circle, but you actually get much closer than I'd thought. Maybe next time I'll just be generally more prepared.



Part of the tour was Bath, and while the Roman Baths themselves are kind of an approximation above ground level, it's a nifty little city that does a nice job of blending the modern with its mostly-Georgian design.



Wednesday was the day that I'd carved out to see some theater, attending The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare's Globe, which is if nothing else a unique experience - a reminder of how plays were staged in Shakespeare's day, before artificial lighting and completely enclosed spaces. I did the tour the last time I was in London, but couldn't see a play because it was cold out.

Merry Wives is a great example of how these plays come alive when performed but can be hard to love when read - this particular staging was filled with slapstick, big performances that put emotion into words that otherwise might just sit on the page, etc. The staging seemed to transplant the story to 1920s Louisiana, which just gave it more personality.



I didn't actually take many pictures at the Edvard Munch exhibit at the British Museum on Thursday, but enjoy it, as well as the manga exhibition (where I saw this 1880 theater curtain) and everything else. The manga exhibit amused me in part because the nearby Cartoon Museum was closed and it kind of seemed like this one was picking up the slack. Great stuff in there, including some Osamu Tezuka original art, along with more modern stuff, though it excluded some of my favorites (although that would be rectified later).

The British Museum is one of those monster places that eats a whole day even if you've been there before and figure you can just hit the highlights because there is so dang much that it can come across as warehousing rather than exhibiting at times. It would likely be that way even if you sent everything back that had arrived in ways that would currently be frowned upon where it belonged, and my legs were kind of worn out by the end.



Friday was spent in Greenwich, seeing the Cutty Sark, Maritime Museum, and Observatory, with the Maritime Museum having an exhibit on recent astrophotography, and, yes, I am a complete sucker for a spot that combines boats and space and a nice park where a person could just sit down and read for a while. This part of London is a bunch of my favorite things and that the easiest way to get there was on a river line was pretty great too. That made me wonder why Boston doesn't have one, to be honest - for all that it was more expensive and a bit slower than taking the subway, there have certainly been days lately when I would absolutely choose it over the Red Line.



Saturday… Well, let me tell you a bit about how I vacation. I don't really like package tours and buses and cruises all that much, preferring to get a transit card and a guidebook, leaving room for what I find out about on the ground. I joked with a friend that riding the subway is an essential part of traveling, not just because it gives you a feel for the city but because that's where you see ads for museums, plays, and other things that are just too ephemeral to get written up where a tourist knows to look. It's how I found out about the Da Vinci exhibition at Buckingham Palace, and then saw that there was a Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum. Sadly, that required timed tickets that I was too late to find, but getting off the tube there also showed me that Japan House had an exhibit of the works of manga-ka Naoki Urasawa, one of my favorites who had been absent from the one at the British Museum. Total chance discovery but a very happy one.

After that, I had a little more time to kill than expected before the baseball, so I went to Kensington Palace, which is an awfully pretty building and has neat gardens, including this winding hedge "maze" that gets you to the tea-house that was a bit too classy for my t-shirt-and-cargo-shorts clad self. As much as I'm glad we tossed out the British royalty in America, visiting European capitals always reminds me that it's nice to have had a royal family, even if they seem like an anachronistic waste in the present.



And then, finally, it was time for the baseball that had served as my impetus to come. The games were unfortunate thrasings by the Yankees - a 17-13 loss on Saturday and a 12-8 game which strangely never felt as winnable on Sunday - but it was a lot of fun. They were crazy, anything-can-happen games, the European fans were into it, there were a bunch of food trucks to supplant the regular stadium fare around the concourse, and the folks who traveled like me clearly had a blast. I probably won't go back for Cubs-Cards next year, but it's tempting.

I just wish someone had told me that the 80m-high sculpture next to the stadium had an observation deck that you could descend from via lift, steps, or slide. I would definitely have bought the necessary timed tickets ahead of time, but, alas, that is something else to write down for the next trip, whenever that may be.

After that, it was back home, which took most of Monday, but I got to ease back into work, what with being let out early on Wednesday for a holiday on Thursday. I took advantage of that, catching an earlier-than-usual show of Midsommar on Wednesday. I liked it more than the director's previous film but it's still kind of a lot, especially when it's time to go full-on nuts.

I headed out early on Thursday because that was the only time to easily catch the reissue of Do the Right Thing, especially since I wanted to catch the 35mm print that the Coolidge got their hands on. It's a pretty terrific movie that I probably should have seen much earlier, but when I was young, I kind of suffered under the delusion that Spike Lee's movies weren't really for me, kind of reinforced by how, when I worked in a Worcester theater while in college, the extra security and Wednesday openings tended to reinforce the idea that films by/for/about African Americans were a niche thing to be accomodated rather than great on their own. I've got a fair amount of catching up to do.

Preferred format considerations played into me heading to Boston Common after to see Spider-Man: Far From Home in Imax 3D during the one time a day it played in that format. I don't think I'm getting Marvel fatigue yet - I enjoyed it a lot - but, boy, am I coming to take the fact that there will be well-cast, slickly-made, and generally pretty enjoyable takes on these characters every few months for granted.

With a bit of a time crunch to see things, I did a Kendall Square double-feature of The Spy Behind Home Plate and The Third Wife on Friday. I liked the second more than the first, but both are well worth seeing.

Saturday was spent up in Maine, where the whole family was together to meet my brother's future in-laws. I had the option to stay over, but didn't, though saying "I need Sunday free to go to the laundromat so that I can wear the clothes from the vacation I just returned from on the one I'm about to take" makes me sound like a couple types of jerk. On the other hand, if I'd stayed over, I probably would have wound up getting a ride back to Boston with my other brother, who got stuck in nasty traffic, missed his 7pm flight back to Chicago, and couldn't actually make it home until a 5:50am flight on Tuesday. I, meanwhile, got my laundry done, watched some baseball on TV, and then hit a 3D screening of Toy Story 4. That may be technically one film too many in the series, it still works awfully well.

And now, I'm on another bus, for the yearly three-week stat at summer movie camp that is the Fantasia Festival. I'll be doing my best to post daily updates, and to get the reaction to one movie onto my Letterboxd page while waiting in line for the next

Midsommar

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

Like Ari Aster's previous film Hereditary, Midsommar is perhaps best appreciated in pieces: It is impeccably designed and photographed, the performance by Florence Pugh is as terrific (as we should more or less expect by now), and the basic engine driving it - a woman who has lost everything so desperate to belong that she soon accepts a community that offers it even though the warning signs should be impossible to ignore - is kind of great. Add a strong supporting cast and a pitch-black sense of humor and you should have something really special.

There's something a little too certain about it, though. It starts with the showy placement of mirrors in a bunch of early scenes, where the isolation of having people not seeming to look at each other as they talk or being positioned in a sort of cut-out is undercut by knowing cameras were digitally erased, or other trick shots, and goes on with a cult that has supposedly been going on for decades but always seems like weird bits stuck together rather than something which grew organically, though I suppose cults are generally weird bits put together in real life. The low-key distortion as folks get high on mushrooms in various ways calls distracting attention to itself, and character exits feel less unnerving and dangerous than like Aster couldn't be bothered with them any more, something of a side effect to how everything but the main story is meant to be sort of deliberately trivial in comparison to what Pugh's character. Plus, the thing is 145 minutes long, which is insanely indulgent, feeling like one of those indies where every painstaking thing the crew created gets left in no matter how pacing and storytelling suffers.

Midsommar is better than Hereditary - it doesn't squander a good human story for supernatural idiocy the way that one did - but all its good minutes don't add up the way they should.

Do the Right Thing

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2019 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (reissue, 35mm)

This was My first time seeing this, and I'd always been under the impression that the explosion came earlier, with a bigger chunk of the movie the resulting chaos, but that it doesn't is a sign of what makes Spike Lee brilliant. By the time the trash can goes through the window, he's managed to spend the previous two hours getting the audience to feel the heat and tension in an air-conditioned theater without resorting to people being overtly sweaty or some sort of visual distortion. He isn't subtle about highlighting all the ways people mistrust or push at each other, but it doesn't seem like an obvious powder keg in any one scene. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is powerful, setting things up so that when it does blow up, one nods along, not approving but certainly having some idea of just how it gets to this point.

It's an impressively empathic bit of filmmaking in how it gets someone (like me) whose background is pretty far from the very specific environment that Lee channels to feel like I'm right there with his characters. Do the Right Thing is tricky but impressive as heck - as cacophonous as anything Lee would make later, but also a less-confrontational indie that can make the different seem familiar and the familiar seem new. I'm glad this got a chance to play theaters again to remind us that Lee has been one of the great directors right from the start.

Spider-Man: Far from Home

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

As much as the casting on this newest run of Spider-Movies has been top-notch and they look great, they do kind of demonstrate the downside of a shared universe, in that Spidey never feels like quite the big deal he was in the Raimi movies. You look at those, and even the "Amazing" flicks, and you see a guy figuring things out, wisecracking as a way of finally responding to those who have kept him down, and measuring himself against his own high expectations, as opposed to trying to be the next Iron Man. It's sometimes a small difference in terms of what actually happens, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man is never just a kid from Queens up against problems bigger than he thought he would ever face, but someone who has people ready to catch him when he falls.

This time around, he's up against Mysterio - who, like the Vulture before him, has been given an origin that relates to Tony Stark - and it's a weird script; I suspect that even the people who don't know him from the comics are going to be expecting a heel turn from the start. Fortunately, when that comes, it unleashes Jake Gyllenhaal to do the sort of mania he does best, and gives the filmmakers a chance to do some Ditko-style mania that is eye-popping even if it doesn't necessarily make complete sense given how his equipment is shown to work. Tom Holland is still a delightfully earnest Peter Parker, and even if I occasionally find myself shrugging off a lot of the high-school comedy material (it is just not a thing that gets me going), I loved the kids acting it out. I like that the "button" at the end was not just a vague tease this time, but a huge cliffhanger that hit with an extra wallop because it seemed like the unexpected cameo was going to be the payoff.

When it really gets going - which is often! - Far From Home is energetic and a lot of fun, and I suspect that it came out a little further from Endgame or Enter the Spider-Verse, both of which pushed the boundaries of what a superhero movie could be and had great Spidey material, I'd react with much less reservation. Marvel's just set the bar so high.

Toy Story 4

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2019 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

I have to admit, I had this kind of dismissed ahead of time, because the series seemed pretty conclusively done after #3, despite the enjoyable specials done for TV. Well, now it's even more done, if not nearly so nearly, but there are some great parts to be found in this probable for-real finale.

I don't want to say too much, just because noting how it's not quite so well-constructed as its predecessors might take away from noting all the clever things it does have to say about subjects stretching from parenthood to retirement - and how it's more than a bit impressive that Pixar has made the toys go from feeling like kids to feeling like parents, and there's so much of that here in so many different forms, and not just Woody being challenged by "newborn" Forky. Gabby Gabby is arguably the series's most fascinating antagonist, motivated out of a complex sort of envy in how she wants to raise a child but never had the chance, trying to remedy that "medically" and going through a nerve-wracking (and often heartbreaking) adoption process to do so. I was surprised how invested I found myself in Woody and Bo Peep by the end, too; she had always seemed like the part of the movies that didn't really fit, the sort of girlfriend character jammed in so that the movie wouldn't be all boys, and I wonder if the filmmakers realized that, and made her story about making herself become more here as a bit of a comment on that. The themes of moving on are kind of interesting, too, considering that several of the people who had been with Pixar since early on left (voluntarily or not) during its production.

It's got some problems that the unambiguously brilliant forebears don't, though. There's not enough Mister Pricklepants, obviously - aside from "Timothy Dalton makes everything better", one can't help but notice that the toys that Bonnie brings on the road trip are mostly Andy's rather than her own, mostly because those are the ones the audience knows. There's something kind of off about how much the toys are able to affect the human world, too; it feels like it should be harder. And while I love Randy Newman - "You've Got a Friend in Me" has re-lodged itself in my head since seeing this one - the new song he contributes here seems awfully literal, even by the standards of the series.

The movie is impressive in a lot of ways - it's clever, gorgeous (check it out in 3D if you can), and big-hearted. It's also a fourth entry in a series, where the world starts to feel stretched and the filmmakers can't quite simultaneously push into new territory and deliver what the audience loves about the series with quite the same apparent ease at this point. Hopefully Disney and Pixar will heed their own message and find new horizons.


Late Night
The Monument
Tower of London



Baker Street
Bath
Stonehenge
Shakespeare's Globe
The British Museum
Greenwich
Yakees 18, Red Sox 13
Yankees 12, Red Sox 8



Midsommar
Do the Right Thing
Spider-Man: Far from Home
The Spy Behind Home Plate
The Third Wife
Toy Story 4