Thursday, January 31, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 21 January 2019 - 27 January 2019

I didn't exactly think I'd go all year without overlapping tickets thanks to this new, larger calendar/scrapbook, but I thought it would last until I got to Icon for the first time.

This Week in Tickets

Once again, I would like to praise short features, as the 35mm double feature of Werewolf of London and the classic Universal Monsters The Wolf Man started at seven o'clock and was done in time to get to the comic shop before it was supposed to close at ten (Tony tends to keep the Million Year Picnic open late on Wednesdays, but I figure it would be rude to count on that). That's in part because they were establishing the mythology that every werewolf story in every medium would start from and didn't need to embellish beyond that, but in part they're just efficient.

The next night of the Brattle's "Dead of Winter" kind of got into the embellishing, starting with Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves and, in a separate feature, Ginger Snaps. The latter was a "Strictly Brohibited Presents" show with the screenwriter doing a Skype chat afterward, but SB lets guys into their shows at the Brattle, although the non-men in the audience get first dibs on asking questions, and it's worth noting that the one guy who did raise his hand toward the end "had more of a comment", so this is a good move on the presenters' part. There was a fair amount of telling the people in the audience that, yes, the thing they noticed was on purpose, the result of a decision while writing, but those questions often led to interesting tangents, like talking about how, when making this sort of horror movie, people do start thinking of sequels and prequels fairly early on, and it's tricky to leave a good hook without undercutting the story you're telling. The main thrust of the talk was about how she saw the film as being about breakout out of an abusive relationship with a sibling, which is the sort of thing that is clear in retrospect but not a direction I'm necessarily inclined to look.

Is that enough wolves? It is not enough wolves! So, Friday, I headed to the Brattle for Wolf Guy, and came to the conclusion that legal weed has the potential to ruin cult movie screenings in Massachusetts. I mean, sure, it could have just been beer, or people who spent too much time watching the parasites on MST3K (or Trash Night at the theater), but there was a lot of chatter, exaggerated guffaws at anything sort of campy, and, yes, the guy who makes sure to stand up at the end so that he can be seen to be ironically applauding the mess he just watched. Don't compete with the movie, folks - just be the audience.

It was kind of heartening to hear some other folks saying the same thing on the 66 bus to Coolidge Corner for a midnight show of Eastern Condors, if only something along those lines on the 66 to Coolidge Corner, so I'm not completely suffering from early-onset curmudgeon syndrome. Given that attitude, I'm guessing they were upstairs with me seeing Eastern Condors rather than The Room downstairs. Being younger, I'm guessing they were able to get through without drifting off, but that's not be now, I guess. So I got lucky catching the last bus back to Harvard and then walked home, and when I woke up, I decided to try and do the thing where I watch it again and hope it blends into one viewing, even if one was dubbed and one was subtitled. Didn't quite work that way, but seeing that kind of great action twice isn't something to complain about.

After that, I headed out for The Kid Who Could Be King, although I screwed up and got on the wrong bus initially, winding up at Lechmere rather than Assembly Row. Ah, well, easy enough to get to Boston Common from there, especially for a movie that looks like that much fun. I'd be back the next night for Serenity, which is something. I'm kind of hoping that the rest of 2019 continues this trend of movies like Glass and Serenity looking like normal genre movies but actually being deeply weird. It's not likely - there aren't a lot of M. Night Shyamalans out there, and between the January release date and the studio I don't think I've ever heard of releasing a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, Serenity is kind of an outlier.way outside the mainstream.

Still hoping for more like that, though, with first reports on the Letterboxd page.

Werewolf of London

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter: Tales of the Beast, 35mm)

Werewolf of London may not be first werewolf movie, but early enough that the film being far from refined is more than forgivable. It's basic stuff - even in 1935, it's hardly the first monster movie that has an obsessed scientist, a significant other that is going to serve as a target, and no memory of the previous night's serial killing - that has a certain amount of Bride of Frankenstein to it in its second mad scientists and its side jaunts into moon lamps and carnivorous plants. It could probably do without Warner Oland playing a Japanese character, but at least he's less a stereotype than the people he meets.

The makeup is also not that impressive, but the film benefits quite a bit from Henry Hull's beady-eyed creepiness. There's something off-putting about him before he starts transforming, and his sunken, unexpressive eyes do much more to sell his monstrous nature than the extreme widow's peak that often seems like the most prominent part of his transformation midway through. Hull's Dr. Glendon is a weird one, with the film never really sure whether he should be tragic or maniacal, which means the swings between the devotion of his pretty wife (an amusingly chameleonic Valerie Hobson) and her attraction to an old flame can get strange.

The Wolf Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter: Tales of the Beast, 35mm)

You have to love those early Universal Monster movies that, not having to embellish or expand, just get things done in a little more than an hour. The Wolf Man is simple as heck, but it's efficient, has some nice work by Lon Chaney underneath a classic makeup job, and a better-than-average supporting cast. Heck, Chaney does good work without makeup, even though by all rights he shouldn't fit into this setting at all as the American-accented returning son of a wealthy British family, but that winds up working in the movie's favor: His pairings with both Claude Rains as an intellectual father and Evelyn Ankers as a proper English girl work better for the contrast.

It's the wolf people know the movie for, of course, and there's a reason why this, rather than something like Werewolf of London became the template people remember. Jack Pierce's makeup is canine and fierce, but leaves Chaney room to act, and reminds the audience that the film is a tragedy about a good man trapped inside a monster rather than his darker impulses surfacing. There's something simultaneously goofy about the wolf man running around fully clothed three quarters of a century later - we've grown used to them splitting to let the beast out - but also more iconic. The wolf is a character, not just a force.

The simplicity doesn't always work in the film's favor - it could use a little more twisting and irony in the home stretch, for sure - but overall, it plays like a B movie doing better than expected rather than just a rough draft that others would build on. Simple pleasures, but everyone seems committed and up to the job rather than just picking a clock or looking to move on to the next, better thing.

The Company of Wolves

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter: Tales of the Beast, 35mm)

No matter what else I've seen by him before or will later, I suspect that this will be the film I think of when someone mentions Neil Jordan's name, sensual and supernatural and digging into something mythological underneath reality. Plus, it is so utterly eccentric that it's clearly undiluted.

He wasn't the only person making movies like this at the time; it seemed to be a thing for a year or two (despite the more adult content, it reminds me of something Jim Henson might have done, not that far from The Storyteller in spirit). But this might be among the best, a fairy-tale world clearly constructed on a soundstage which nevertheless feels more real than the world above or below from which it is being dreamed, enough that it's a jolt whenever he cuts back to the modern-day framing story the film started with. Jordan only does half a wink when others would do more, and Angela Lansbury grounds things just enough with her tart Granny, whose stories let Jordan and co-writer Angela Carter adapt more than just her take on Red Riding Hood. It makes for a fairy tale that plays for adults without losing the properly adolescent feeling of discovery as Sarah Patterson gives a quietly nifty performance as a meek kid sister.growing into a perceptive young woman. It's earnestly sexual and properly gory withouand t seeming exploitative, and Jordan has been trying to capture that frank, spooky, sexy magic his entire career.

Ginger Snaps

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter: Tales of the Beast, 35mm)

Ginger Snaps was the right movie at the right time for a lot of people around the turn of the millennium, and the fact that it never got a proper U.S. theatrical release probably helped its cult-movie cachet a little - folks had to find this thing and discover that it spoke to them, which only helps one love it more. Fortunately, it's genuinely delightful, clever enough to see the changes in one's body-menstrual cycle-lunar cycle-werewolf circle but also smart enough to not get trapped there.

It starts out as one of the few horror movies that works with a cast almost entirely composed of sarcastic teenagers, in large part because Ginger and Brigitte aren't generic wiseasses; they've got specific interests and attitudes and often seem like they need the armor considering how lousy some of the people around them can be. It's not an entirely healthy sort of sisterhood, but even when Ginger is taking advantage of her brainy kid sister (or otherwise being awful), it's easy to see why Brigitte's instincts always circle back to that relationship, even as she's gained a new friend and Ginger is becoming increasingly dangerous.

The ongoing transformation and mayhem is a bunch of fun - aside from being great make-up effects and impressive blood & guts, the filmmakers and actress Katharine Isabelle manage to have it bring confidence and shame, even as it adds up rather than reverses the way werewolf movies often do. The last act gets a little drawn out - even once mayhem and death has brought the story back to a tight focus on the sisters, it spins its wheels a bit - but it still earns a last scene that drives home that this particular monster movie was about more than just prosthetic makeup and nasty kills.

Urufu gai: Moero ├┤kami-otoko (Wolf Guy)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter: Tales of the Beast, DCP)

There are five or six points in this movie when Shinichi Chiba seems downright puzzled by how he wound up there, and you can hardly blame him. Wolf Guy is enthusiastic trash that wants to be a werewolf story but seemingly can't actually afford any makeup at all and can't decide what it actually wants its story to be, cramming what seems like three manga story arcs into an hour and a half one after another rather than making them work together. It's a bloody mess, to the point where you sort of get the folks who came to whoop and show their ironic appreciation.

But, even when he doesn't seem to know what's going on any better than the audience, Chiba is a tremendously charismatic guy who dives into the action scenes with ferocity while playing other scenes stoic enough to make me wonder if he's ever played Golgo 13; he has that look. The film is often cheap-looking, but it's got visual style, with shots that seem pulled straight from a quality manga without seeming too showy, and surreal moments like Miki, a drug-addled singer who burnt out young, seemingly cradled by a wall-sized photo of herself. Chiba is wonderfully ferocious when it comes time to bust out the karate, especially as his "wolf clan" survivor grows more powerful with the phases of the moon.

It's goofy as heck and an artifact of its time and place - just the way the music will go from zero to blaring and back again without warning it kind of nuts - but it's plenty better than a thing you watch to mock. There's just enough done well to make the cut corners stand out.

Dung fong tuk ying(Eastern Condors)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24-25 January 2019 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (After Midnite: East Meets West, dubbed 35mm)
Seen 25 January 2019 in Jay's Living Room (After Midnite: East Meets West, DVD)

I don't know if I've seen very many movies like this where Sammo Hung was just an action star - when paired with Jackie Chan, filmmakers were often playing on his size, and now that he's been around a while and action fans know his accomplishments behind the camera, he's often treated him like an elder statesman, a mentor or villain or other character where the audience's knowledge that he's a living legend is kind of assumed. Even My Beloved Bodyguard, the last thing I saw where Sammo was the actual star, plays into that. Maybe it's just a matter of what has and has not been exported to the US, and there's a trove of great action waiting to be discovered.

He's great, of course, as is the whole cast of this 80s action romp. It feels enough like a machine-gun-toting American action movie of its time period for long stretches, only to suddenly have Hung or Yuen Biao do something amazingly acrobatic and crazy, turning it up a notch or three in the last act when Yuen Wah shows up and gives them a truly worthy adversary. It's doing some of the same "heroic bloodshed" melodrama that John Woo was perfecting at the same time (writer Barry Wong would arguably hit the apex of the genre with Hard Boiled), and maybe has a bit too much of it, in that there are too many characters for every one lost to actually make an impact, but it winds up working surprisingly well for all that the early, pre-action scenes feel like a movie that's not going to do much beyond the action.

(Note: I watched a dubbed 35mm print at the Coolidge and then a subtitled DVD from 2003 the next day to fill in the blanks from dozing off during a midnight screening, and, boy, were those experiences rough in different ways!)

Serenity

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2019 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

At the start of this bizarre, over-caffeinated movie, I wouldn't have bet against it being about a man seeking revenge on the tuna that killed his son, but it's actually far weirder than that. Unfortunately, filmmaker Steven Knight never actually seems to figure out to do with his screwy idea, and you can see the characters in the film just stall out trying to wrestle with it. Then the end comes, and Knight just has no clever way to connect them at all.

Fortunately, Matthew McConaughey is cool with weird; he tunes right into the film's wavelength, and if he doesn't make it work, he certainly creates a bridge between his character's frustration and that of the audience. Nobody else quite manages it - they seem like they signed on to a script with a great idea that they were sure would be developed further by the time the movie actually started shooting, with Anne Hathaway the closest to recognizing that she's a femme fatale who knows what femme fatales are and nice performances out of Diane Lane and Djimon Hounsou breathing life into intentionally limited characters. There is an odd feeling of satisfaction that every detail that seemed sloppy in the first act kind of has an explanation, but that's not actually a whole lot of satisfaction to get out of this sort of movie.


Werewolf of London & The Wolf Man
The Company of Wolves
Ginger Snaps
Wolf Guy
Eastern Condors
The Kid Who Would Be King
Serenity

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