Thursday, February 28, 2019

Boston Sci-Fi Film Marathon 2019: Innerspace, Dr. Cyclops, Rollerball '75, Woman in the Moon, "Live", Star Trek VI, Annihilation, Source Code, Sunshine, and Escape from New York

Continuing my plans not to get worked up too much about this event from the festival half, I didn't buy a ticket until a fair chunk of the lineup had been announced (and announced as playing on film), and on top of that, the cold I was nursing for the previous days worked into it. I'd pondered just eating the ticket the night before, and when I walked to the theater, I was basically thinking that if I fell asleep at any point, it didn't matter. If the worst parts of the audience started acting like they were the entertainment, I'd try not to stress.

Mostly, though, people were a lot better this year about not trying to improve genuinely good movies by yelling out "door!" or "Mark!" or whatever other silly thing popped into their heads or served as a ritual. I do wonder how much the programmers took it into account this year (I must admit, I'd run a potential movie through IMDB and just not include it if any character was named "Mark").

Anyway, I think this was the first time I've actually put the atomic fireball handed out at the start into my mouth in a long time (the cinnamon helped my sinuses), felt no shame about sleeping through what needed sleeping through, and then didn't do a darn thing when I got home despite the errands I had intended to run.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

I'm not sure that Innerspace is the most 1980s movie ever made, but it is simultaneously a Joe Dante pulp adventure, a Martin Short comedy, and a Meg Ryan/Dennis Quaid vehicle, all of which were things in the 1980s and into the 1990s but which have rather faded away since, despite never really having had a memorable bomb. It's surprisingly good at all of them, and that's actually kind of a crazy sort of synthesis: Short's band of goofy physical comedy was kind of unmistakable, and it's a bit odd to see it showing up in the middle of this other sort of movie.

Dante and the writers make it work together (it doesn't escape my attention that one is Jeffrey Boam, who would later co-create The Adventures of Brisco County Junior). Even for something with a strange high concept, it's kind of elevated, with genuinely weird villains where it could have gotten away with standard thugs, and deadpan peculiar supporting characters. It's funny in a way that's kid-friendly and eccentric, in some ways a lot more willing to be openly comic-book-y than a lot of the comics that came later.

I also like the way the design and effects teams play with biology without things getting gross or having a rubbery, too-polished look that would come with later CGI technology. ILM does a really neat job on what is billed as "Martin Short's Interiors" even before getting to the funny, surprisingly believable half-sized goofiness in the last act.

Dr. Cyclops

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

I suspect I liked this a little more than the last time I saw it at a genre marathon in the Somerville Theatre. It's utterly earnest and straight-faced, never really trying to be as clever in how it plays with its shrinking technology or character motivations as, say, Innerspace, but it doesn't have to be. As a 77-minute B movie, it doesn't need twists or to do a whole lot more than what it says it will. The cast might be kind of flat at times, but they're effective, and the special effects (mostly scaled-up set decoration and decent matte work) certainly get the job done.

What I thought back in 2013

Rollerball (1975)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Rollerball was far too ambitious for its own good, although maybe it just seems that way from forty-odd years later. Its strongly felt anti-corporate message feels kind of half-baked when we have actual capitalist dystopias to which it can be compared, and the screenwriters can't really do much with it for all that they talk about this being dangerous and dehumanizing. Points for wanting to have a strong humanist message, but the filmmakers too often make the subtext text but without a lot to say.

It doesn't help that James Caan is James Caan, a mumbler where the dialogue is concerned and just not charismatic enough to seem like this sort of threat to the world order. Caan may be a nice enough guy, but he's always been at his best when there's a layer of slime on him, and his rollerball star doesn't stand out for his general decency or feel like he's the cunning sort of celebrity that can beat the system at its own game. He could still pursue a lost love while being cunning, but what killer instinct he's got is limited to the rink here.

That said, the actual sport of rollerball is presented fairly well here; the movie doesn't have the budget to make it seem like a global obsession of the future (CGI crowds often look fake, but they make a point), but the harsh action and the design that you can see is supposed to preclude long-running superstars makes a kind of cynical sense, and Jewison shoots the film in a way that lets the audience get caught up while occasionally slapping them with how awful it actually is. It sometimes seems like the folks involved have the right idea, but haven't really thought out how sports and capitalism collide in a way that makes the cynicism feel earned, especially from today's perspective.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

One of the award-winning short films from the festival part of the festivities, "Live" is kind of on-the-nose about the topics it's addressing, the kind, and that they're the sort of things that are specifically of more interest to a young actress than her audience. It's very much got a "write/direct/act in what you know" vibe to it, although filmmaker Taryn O'Neill never winds up so far into inside baseball for it to be a problem.

Mostly, she makes a confident movie that knows of what it speaks in terms of the pressure to maintain a persona and constantly produce content, the more lurid the better. The whole thing is quick and idea-focused - it doesn't particularly have a twist or an arc to play out - but it's by and large a good use of that idea, and a fair calling card for an actress not looking to get caught in the future it imagines.

Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond is a trailblazer in science fiction, not just for the things it anticipates - it is credited with introducing the countdown to the world, among other things - but because it is perhaps the first time that a major milestone in science and discovery is, as far as the writers and directors are concerned, second fiddle to the individual struggles of the human heart, in this case a girl figuring out which boy she likes better, or at least the one that is willing to sacrifice for her.

Not that this Friede is not worth sacrificing for; Gerda Maurus plays her as whip-smart and always carrying herself with the casual assurance of a woman is confident despite knowing what pressures are on her compared to the guys. She's almost certainly worth more than either Wolf (Willy Fritsch), who would run away from the whole planet out of self-pity, or his friend Hans (Gustav von Wangenheim), who is more than a smidge self-centered, although the three have enjoyable chemistry together. Meanwhile, Fritz Rasp is giving the kind of enjoyably slimy performance where one can hear the sneering superiority despite it being a silent.

In some ways, it's kind of a shame that Rasp's character is kind of unnecessary; he's the lingering remnant of how at least the restored version of this film certainly does take its time getting started, with a ton of conspiracy material that ultimately doesn't matter - although, I suppose, this sort of shadowy cabal is another sort of science-fiction trope that the movie anticipates. When Fritz Lang does get to the big set pieces, though, it's impressive as heck, anticipating more of the realities of space travel than one might expect and inventing a lot of the language of event-movie cinema. Frau im Mond is more exciting and modern than one would expect from a 90-year-old movie, even one which could certainly be expected to age badly.

It certainly doesn't hurt that this presentation was accompanied by organist Jeff Rapsis, who always adds something to a silent film but who was clearly working from a place of special excitement here, never flagging despite this movie being nearly three hours long without an intermission. It was an energetic score that kept things moving during the long opening and kicked it up a notch or two when things got igger.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 70mm)

Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek VI came out at the height of the franchise being willing to pat itself on the back for being the cerebral science-fiction franchise, and truth be told it could probably use a lot less trying to show how smart it is by quoting classics, and a lot more by way of avoiding the dumb plotting that often has heroes and villains alike looking like fools. He's a strong enough director to get away with it, especially the first time through - he has a knack for mixing the familiar and the exotic to best effect, stages nifty action and shoots around a tight budget without drawing attention to the fact, and juggles the large cast well. He and that cast know what all of these characters mean to the audience, and do a fine job playing on that.

And even with the pretentiousness and flaws more evident than when I first saw this in the theater (and when I cringed seeing the dumb material added for home video), it's probably the sharpest of the films in the series and the one that most directly serves as the heir to the show that had Vietnam War stories in the middle of its big sci-fi adventures. For all that it was timely in 1991 for how it was clearly using the collapse of the Klingon Empire as a metaphor for the end of the Cold War, it doesn't feel handcuffed by the metaphor - it still feels current and I suspect it always will for as long as there will be people who have trouble with history moving on past the conflict that defined their lives.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17-18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

The middle of the night is a pretty good time to see Annihilation - not only is your brain starting to accept strangeness even as it registers shock, but the parts of the marathon audience that might be tempted to be a pain in the ass are starting to sleep a bit. I don't know if it's quite so thoroughly unsettling the second time around - the bear mess me up the way it did when I first saw it - but it's still pretty darn brain-melting when you get to the end. Alex Garland is looking to make the audience feel the absolutely unmoored nature these characters feel as they confront the unknowable, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie do that better.

Maybe 2001, but that's a different sort of unknowable.

What I thought the first time

The Andromeda Strain

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Remember what I said about not being ashamed of when I nodded off because I was fighting a pretty strong cold and didn't have anything to prove? This is where it starts coming into play. I don't know when I'll ever get another chance to see this methodical thriller on 35mm film, which is a darn shame; I liked the businesslike-but-intense start and remember once being genuinely freaked out when I caught a bit of it on TV and saw someone not bleeding from a cut, and wanted to see what it all added up to.

Another time.

Destination Moon

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

Same here - I was tired and full of snot, I'd gotten about as far as caffeine was going to take me, and it was something like three in the morning. Older-movie pacing and the clipped delivery of serious mid-twentieth-century men wasn't going to do it.

Not helping the impression was that this was a situation where there were two of a few things in this marathon, and a second "first trip to the moon that features drawing matchsticks to see who stays behind" was one more than I needed, especially since this wasn't as good a movie as Frau im Mond. But, they wanted to program something to go with the Chesley Bonestell documentary, and this fit that the best.

Source Code

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Speaking of doubling up, the festival had a print of Duncan Jones's Moon earlier in the week, and I kind of wish I'd made time for it; Source Code is a reminder that he's closer to the top tier of science fiction/fantasy filmmakers than you might recall. He's able to dig into a strange situation and make the audience feel at home as well as anybody, even if it's meant to be unnerving, on the way to a pretty darn good thriller.

Also: Michelle Monaghan needs to be in more things. Maybe she is and they're just winding up on streaming services, but it kind of boggles my mind that she never became a big star after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. There's a certain amount of missed-star potential to Jake Gyllenhaal as well, but this movie kind of shows him as maybe being too naturally eccentric to really be a leading man.

What I thought back in '11


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

This may have been my first time seeing this since its theatrical release, which is weird, because I loved it more the first time through than I had loved another movie for a while, and given how I got a similar vibe off Annihilation last year, it might have been due for a revisit.

On a second viewing, yeah, I absolutely find the slasher ending a bit messy, especially when compared to how arty Boyle makes the execution at spots. Much like Annihilation, I think that's at least part of the point - coming this close to the sun, all too well aware of their mission's impossible stakes, the filmmakers are trying to show the audience that all sorts of madness are not just likely but inevitable here, but a guy just going nuts and killing people seems almost prosaic next to the overwhelming power of the sun.

Still, heck of a cast, memorable sights, and a genuine feeling of desperation to the all-life-on-Earth stakes. That last bit doesn't come across as well as it could sometimes - it's just too big and the monomania Chris Evans's Mace displays of monomania are usually reserved for smaller things, so it's almost surprising that they actually work at an appropriate scale.

My 2007 review at EFilmCritic

Escape From New York

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

I must admit, there's a level on which I like this movie's sequel more than the original; Escape from L.A. is up front about its satirical intent, and if this one is playing the same sort of game, it's bone-dry parody that can easily be mistaken for the real thing. Escape From New York feels serious despite playing on thin stereotypes, not quite getting the vibe where the lawless prison of Manhattan is vibrant and free compared to the outside. Heck, Snake Plissken is a stereotype himself, a bad-ass action caricature that we'd snicker at a filmmaker trying to present as a worthy protagonist otherwise. Even when you can see them playing it broad, it doesn't feel like jokes.

On the other hand, this group is just so darn good; John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Nick Castle, and Kurt Russell have made plenty of great movies in various combinations, and they've got a good cast with them. This film may not completely deserve its reputation as a classic - or maybe it's just more a relic of its time than it initially appeared to be - but it's still a solid B movie: A clever idea that combines capable execution with moments when it at least touches what it's capable of.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Between this and Alita: Battle Angel, it's been a week for seeing movies with punctuation in the title and being kind of sad that nobody is making 3D/4K Blu-ray packages anymore, because they are both gorgeous and clearly made with that third dimension in mind. I don't know to what extent Jeff Katzenberg is still pushing 3D at Dreamworks now that at least the animation studio is part of Comcast/Universal, but this has always been the franchise there that really gets the most out of it.

One thing that I wonder, watching this, is the extent to which the series's audience has grown with it or been refreshed with each new release. Five years ago, I found it kind of odd that the characters had aged in real time between the first and second movies, while now I find it equally interesting that they haven't. How has someone who was eight or nine when the first of these movies came out in 2010 had their relationship with them change, and to what extent are kids streaming the originals before the new one comes out.

Another thing I'm glad I've had called to my attention about this series lately is just how good John Powell's score is. It hasn't exactly burned itself into my head the way the big Williams ones have, but it really enhances the films in the moment. It certainly winds up a big part of why this series has proven itself a bit above a lot of the other animated films coming out of Hollywood, even if the two sequels have been more "very good" than the top-tier work the first one was.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2019 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Give DreamWorks credit for knowing when they're done with something, even when the temptation to keep a successful series going must be strong, as when the Madagascar series stumbled upon its end and didn't fight it. They probably could have stretched How to Train Your Dragon out a while longer, but there's not a whole lot more to say, to the point where they kind of have trouble building a new story. Fortunately, the series still has just enough of what makes it work to glide in for a satisfying landing.

As the film opens, it's been about a year since the events of the last movie, with Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) the new chief of the Vikings on the isle of Berk, not just living in harmony with their dragons but rescuing others held in captivity. It's becoming difficult - not only are they running out of room, but they're making enemies of those less inclined to see dragons as friends. The latest is Grimmel (voice of F. Murray Abraham), a hunter with a special obsession for killing Night Furies like Hiccup's dragon Toothless. Hiccup suggests they find the legendary homeland and relocate there, and in the meantime, Toothless has become infatuated with a newly-appeared female Night Fury, not aware the Grimmel is using her as bait.

The Hidden World can feel kind of familiar at times - another dragon hunter, another fleet aiming to use dragons as weapons for conquest, Hiccup once again looking to the horizon and uncertain about his ability to lead despite the strong support of girlfriend Astrid (voice of America Ferrera). There are more supporting characters running around the island than writer/director Dean DeBlois has a place for, including a couple that were pointedly added to the cast last time around. Credit is due DeBlois for choosing to plug ahead doggedly, not rolling anything from the previous movies back or having anybody act out of character, but a lot of the story is a bit perfunctory, including the climactic final battle. It's what he needs to get to the moments he wants to put on screen without betraying the relationship the audience has built with these characters over the past decade, but not a lot more.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2019: Axcellerator, Ikarie XB-01, King Kong '33, Last Sunrise, and Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I knew, going into the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival this year, that I would be seeing less - several years of underwhelming selections, frustrations with technical gaffes (and weather-related cancellations), and the increasing number of worthy other options to see in mid-February made it seem like I was committing more than I should. In recent years I've run myself ragged trying not just to attend the festival I want to be great more than any other, but trying to see the Oscar-nominated short programs, watching the big Lunar New Year blockbusters from China, and the increasingly strong movies released during February by the usual suspects was too much. But I didn't think I'd cut it own this much.

Part of it was also work taking my time, but part of it was just going to the site, watching trailers, and thinking "I have seen something awful close to this movie before and with more put into it" or "the fans of such-and-such will enjoy that documentary". Maybe there were some hidden gems in there, but when your trailer makes me think "so, it's basically Jumper without the star power of Hayden Christenson"... Well, that's not a great sales pitch.

Anyway - guests!

Left to right, from Axcellerator that's actors David Johnson, Sam J. Jones, and John James; writer-director David Giancola, cinematographer Georgia Pantazopoulos, and David Porter, whose post-production house handled much of the sound work. That place is local, much of the film as shot in Vermont, and Jones was there because a documentary about him and the rest of the cast of Flash Gordon played the night before.

Anyway, they talked about wanting to make a real 1980s-style movie, and I guess this was that. Giancola would return during the marathon to accept an award, and go on about how this festival respects genre film, and… I dunno, like I say every year, there's lots of really good genre festivals, and I guess it's nice that this one gives folks a chance to feel appreciated, but I have a hard time downshifting for it.

As an aside - you can't really see it well in this picture, but I think this was my first time in one of the downstairs theaters since they renovated them last October, and it's nice. Seats are a little bigger, though not the full recliner the screen is a full Panavision aspect ratio (I think they moved a wall), and it just looks spiffy and well-lit before and after the shows. We've lost the owls, but, gosh, Q&As are going to be nice during IFFBoston.

My last film of the week wound up being Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, with producer Christopher Darryn, writer/director Douglass M. Stewart Jr., interviewee Douglas Trumbull, and editor Kristina Hays on hand. One of the things that came up was that Bonestell had done a mural for the Museum of Science which was later found not to be a terribly accurate depiction of the lunar surface, and was as such taken down, though the artist would create another work. The original mural is being restored at the Smithsonian, as it still have value as art even if it's not accurate.

It was one of those Q&As of pretty specific interest, whether intended or not. Some folks arrived less to learn about Bonestell than to have their fandom stroked a bit, which is fine, and other times what I suspect was a more general question kind of got into the weeds with Trumbull and Hays talking about specific post-production software and such. But, hey, someone just starting out having a legend like Trumbull chatting with her as an equal has to find that pretty cool.

I was originally intending to stay for more that evening - I feel bad about collecting a button from some of the filmmakers who would have the 7pm show - but you get back to the whole "hey, these kind of look like generic alien visitation/found-footage-time-loop trailers" situation, and my cold started walloping me enough that I figured I"d be no fun for the people sitting next to me and I could use some sleep before the marathon the next day.

Hopefully things work out that I'm feeling more like seeing a bunch of movies at the festival next year, but I must admit that I tend to treat a pass as something of an obligation (either a festival gives me one as media and reviews are the way you repay them or I find myself insistent on getting value for money), and even if I may have paid more going a la carte this year, it didn't have me resenting the bad ones nearly as much.


* * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Axcellerator is one of those movies that straddles the border of irreverence and parody, to the extent that its makers would probably, upon being asked which it was, ask what you wanted it to be. There are worse offenses a movie can commit than landing in that grey area, especially since it's got the energy and most of the charm it needs to pull either option off, but every once in a while it does something dumb enough that you can't help but wonder what it could have been if some of its ambition and enthusiasm had made its way into the script.

Said script has Dane (Ryan Wesen), the son of a car thief who was apparently legendary in small-time-crook circles, stealing the car that his father had targeted when he had the fatal heart attack, only to have a mad scientist try and do so at the same time - one who was seemingly being tailed by every domestic security agency the United States has. One chase and explosion later, Dane is magically back home in New York, because the invention everyone was after is a brainwave-reading teleportation device. They're still after it, even though it's somewhat wonky, with the head of one faction (John James) springing psychopathic tracker Brink (Sam J. Jones) from prison against the wishes of the other (Maxwell Caulfield), and a double-agent (Sean Young) playing both sides. Said wonkiness has saddled Dane with traveling companion Kate (Laura James), so they decide to head back to her home in Arizona the old-fashioned way. Good thing Dane's father taught him a trick or two.

Why? Well, she's got a dog at the vet, and though I can't recall anybody in the film actually say that this is why they're going back to Arizona, it's the closest thing to a sensible reason for someone doing anything in the movie. The script is actually kind of impressive in how it covers the whole range of dumb, but eventually the filmmakers seem to just run out of even bad explanations and handwaving, appealing to a higher power and treating that like it's supposed to be satisfying. It's frustrating to watch, because there's no moment where details feel like they're fleshing out characters and themes, as opposed to being nuisances.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Ikarie XB 1

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

This was a Janus release, so I'm figuring that there will eventually be a Criterion Blu-ray or it will get a couple of playdates at the Brattle or somewhere like that, and maybe then I won't be zonked from it being my fourth movie of the day and apparently nod off during the only moments of the movie where anything of consequence actually happens.

Jindrich Polák's film is certainly interesting for being a fairly elaborate piece of science fiction for Czechoslovakia in 1963, well-designed with the sort of dusky monochrome photography that can make otherwise garish designs look cool, but it's also the sort that doesn't do a whole lot to distinguish its mass of crew-cut guys in uniform, personality-wise - even the one who goes mad more or less does so because of outside stimulus rather than a particularly interesting storyline - and apparently lands on "sleep through it" as the best possible way to deal with the interstellar perils.

I'll give it another chance, should the opportunity come around; its Eastern European roots often lead to fantastic visuals, and there's a genuine excitement for exploration and discovery that the militaristic analogs in Hollywood often lack. There could be an idea or two buried in there that I just wasn't able to see that day.

King Kong (1933)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, 35mm)

It's been a few years since I last saw King Kong and I think that's sort of the ideal way to handle things - wait a couple years, see it on film with an audience, and be reminded all over again that it's actually a no-screwing-around monster movie, surprisingly ruthless in its violence and often sexier than you might remember as well. It's surprisingly intense and the stop-motion effects enhance this fact in surprising ways, in that the artists were pretty good at switching from a live actor to a doll without the audience noticing, so that the action which was a little removed is suddenly dangerous.

The bits without the ape straddle a line between charming and hokey (and not always a charming hokiness), and I must admit, I find it kind of amusing that the same folks who were making loud points of running down how Peter Jackson's remake before the movie started were also the ones laughing the loudest at all the unnatural-sounding material that Jackson and company took great pains to patch up. It's enjoyably pulpy material regardless, and you can't help but admire how the filmmakers walk a fine line between pushing off the good stuff and keeping things moving.

Full review from back in 2013

Last Sunrise

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Do they know something in China about how the Sun is about to screw humanity over in some incredibly catastrophic way, or is it just a coincidence that two films which take that as a starting point have come from that part of the world in relatively rapid succession? It's probably nothing, but you wonder. Last Sunrise is a far less bombastic take on the idea than The Wandering Earth, the small indie version that has more to say about two people at the end of the world than the event itself.

The first to get wind that something is up is Sun Yang (Zhang Jue), a freelance astronomer who has noticed small fluctuations in our local star's luminosity that remind him of another star that somehow disappeared, although his emails to Wang Yun (Wang Dahong) - the solar-power entrepreneur whose open-source astronomical data shows the anomalies - get shut out. When the sun starts to flicker before outright vanishing, though, Wang sends Sun an address at which to meet - but to get there, he'll have to split a ride with neighbor Chen Ma (Zhang "Ran" Yue), who has a car but has never actually been close to the reclusive Sun Yang.

The nuts-and-bolts science fiction of the story isn't necessarily important in that writer/director Ren Wen isn't going to have Sun Yang and Chen Ma spend the movie chasing details down, but there's something reassuring about how how Ren doesn't take it for granted or completely brush it away. The cataclysm itself is striking without being a big visual-effects demo, and the explanation that Wang Yun offers is satisfying in that it doesn't minimize this huge event despite putting any chance of doing anything about it well out of reach (like Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem, it reminds me a bit of Asimov's The Gods Themselves, which is not a bad influence to have). There's enough future tech sprinkled around the first act to establish the film's world as a bit ahead of our own but not so much that Ren can't make it familiar.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Sometimes, watching a movie like Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, I wonder what the line is between "documentaries" and "educational films", or if one is a subset of the other. The film Douglass M. Stewart Jr. has made serves its purpose in describing Bonestell's career to people who may not know about this particular artist well enough, and if it comes off as more equivalent to a chapter in a middle-school textbook more than the sort of non-fiction that people read for pleasure, that's fine. It would be nice if the film created the sort of rapt fascination that Bonestell's work did, but it gets the job done.

Bonestell, born in 1888, did many related jobs over the course of his life, from architecture to creating matte paintings for the movies - he worked on designs for the Golden Gate Bridge and created matte paintings for Citizen Kane - but where he had the biggest impact was on space art. His illustrations for both pulp covers and glossy mainstream magazines were praised for both their striking layout and their exceptional eye scientific accuracy. His presentation of the solar system would inspire later artists, scientists, and engineers alike.

These are no small accomplishments, and there doesn't necessarily need to be a great story to go with it, though Bonestell may have one of those as well. You can see bits of it, but Stewart tends to present it as a pile of facts that don't necessarily build to a narrative, especially as the film covers his early years, which include a lot of moving around and a series of marriages that include two to the same woman. There's a lot going on, but the film is focused on his art and as such does not delve deeply into his life as its own story, but also spends relatively little time on how that side of his history informs his art, but aside from a few comments about how his being in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake had an effect on some of his more apocalyptic works, there aren't many lines to be drawn.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Monday, February 25, 2019

Extreme Job

I'm kind of curious about the roll-out for this one - IMDB has it opening in the USA two days after it opened in South Korea last month, but I'm wondering if that might have been just a screen or two in NY/LA/other places with large Korean-American populations, because otherwise it suddenly opening on the same day at two separate locations in Boston seems a bit surprising. Maybe someone at CJ figured their best chance for screens in most places would come after the Chinese New Year stuff had died down a little.

I also wonder what its relationship to Lobster Cop is; nothing on various movie sites or in at least the subtitled parts of the credits mentions that this is a remake, but parts of the plot are awful close, down to the cops claiming to be a family to the point of claiming that two are married. On the other hand, this would have been filming before that one came out, making me wonder if some producer at CJ saw a preview or festival screening and knew it was remake-ready or if both can trace their lineage back to some earlier movie. Maybe this is just getting franchised all over the world like Perfect Strangers and these are the two versions that have shown up in the U.S. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind an American remake at all if that's the way places are going with this; it certainly seems like it could work with barbecue or something.

Sadly, this also reminds me that I am way the heck behind on actually finishing my Fantasia reviews; right now, I'm desperately hoping that I'll maybe get to director Lee Byeong-heon's previous film, What a Man Wants, at some point while I'm on a plane later this week. No problem, it's only from last July!

Geukhanjikeob (Extreme Job)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2019 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

There's something almost delightfully random about what becomes a big hit in South Korea, especially based on what tends to export well to the various audiences in North America. This flick, for instance, is a slight action-comedy that seems like it would be a dime a dozen, the sort of movie that has a good opening and then moves aside for the next one. Why has this one hung around? Probably because it gets the basics right and then kicks into gear right at the moments it feels like it should fall apart.

It opens with a five-person narcotics squad led by Captain Ko (Ryoo Seung-ryong) stumbling through a small-time bust, the latest mess that has the superintendent (Kim Eui-sung) ready to disband them. An old classmate gives Ko a tip about a couple of gangsters who have recently returned - Lee Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun) from overseas and Hong Sang-pil (Yang Hyun-min) from jail - to get Ko's team to do surveillance before the bust. The best vantage point happens to be from a run-down fried chicken place that's just about to go out of business, so Ko and his team scrape together enough to buy it. What they don't foresee is that Detective Ma Bong-pal (Jin Seon-kyu) makes a marinade so good that the place becomes a sensation, keeping Ko, Ma, Jang (Lee Ha-nee) and rookie Jae-hoon (Gong-myung) so busy that only Young-ho (Lee Dong-hwi) has much free time for police work.

For a while, it's a funny concept that hits some of the easy gags but hits them squarely and solidly as these misfit cops find themselves both rebelling against playing the part of a family business and also quickly falling into it. Director Lee Byeong-heon and co-writer Bae Se-young know how this part goes, and know the audience knows, so they mostly play things in snappy fashion. Lee and Bae are careful not to overload it too much - they know they need just enough story for the back half to have some momentum, but not so much that other things become important enough to push the jokes aside, or for any supporting character to have that much going on.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

Are you all right, Academy voters? I know that it's been a rough year for some, and it's got to feel like general misery is the prevailing situation in the world today even before you start considering that depicting pain is often seen as more difficult and righteous than depicting pleasure, but I think you may be taking it a bit far here. Yes, the five short films that are nominated for this year's award are all well-made, but watching them all in one sitting is a pretty rough experience, and I've got to wonder if maybe, just maybe, you're giving some of these movies a little extra credit for making you feel bad.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Take Rodrigo Sorogoyen's "Madre", for example. There's the germ of an interesting thriller here, as a woman (Marta Nieto) and her mother (Blanca Apilánez) exchange a few customary bits of back-and-forth as they make plans to get a meal while Marta's son Iván (Álvaro Balas) is on vacation with his father - at least, until Iván calls to say he's alone on the beach, not even sure whether they've crossed the border into France, father nowhere to be found. It's got a nifty performance by Marta Nieto, made especially interesting because Sorogoyen has her play this woman as too panicked to handle the situation even as she tries to help her son over the phone; it may be her first immediate crisis as a parent and she's not even capable of taking the advice of her own mother, whom Apilánez gives urgency but a cool head.

It works well enough, but Sorogoyen doesn't do a lot other than show Marta panicking. On top of the simple anxiety, it seems like there's a story to be told about the two women who have different ideas about parenting and maybe more than a little bit of friction, but there just isn't a lot of room here, and he doesn't get much out of the contrast between mother and grandmother. He opts to crank up the the tension by presenting the bulk of the film as one seemingly-unbroken shot inside Marta's apartment, and while that does emphasize just how quickly fear can set in and how quickly the actual situation can go bad, there's not a lot of personality to it - it could use some corners to be trapped in or a scale that establishes either privilege or struggle. It also kind of separates Iván's isolation on the empty beach with the initial view of it, and the showy last camera movement feels like urgency but doesn't actually say much.

A lot of short films feel like the filmmaker has started with a feature and tried to get to the heart of it, and that isn't a bad plan; you can certainly feel the fear that Sorogoyen is going for here. Sometimes, though, that heart needs arteries and a body through which to circulate that emotion, and that is often the case here.

"Late Afternoon"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Context can be funny like that. I first saw Jérémy Comte's "Fauve" back in July, as the short attached to the front of Summer of '84 at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and kind of despised it Seventeen minutes, this short is, of two young boys being obnoxious enough that I couldn't really feel upset when they started sinking into quicksand. I guess there's something there about them playing at making up rules and seeing how far they can push things until they find themselves in a situation that is truly implacable and in the control of forces utterly unconcerned with the rules they make up on the fly, but it's a tough sit to get to that. Mostly, I just thought of it as keeping me from seeing the feature I was actually looking forward to.

Show it as part of an anthology meant to highlight five of the best films of the year, and I maybe still don't actually like the thing, but but I'm maybe more alert for what got it put in such esteemed company. One does have to admire the work of young actor Felix Grenier, for instance, going from bratty to frightened to shell-shocked, or the way Comte radically changes the environment a couple of times without it feeling like a break. It's a nightmarish sense of the world shifting without warning that doesn't actually feel like it can be dismissed for being unreal. Not a fun watch, but quality filmmaking.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Marianne Farley's "Marguerite" also comes from Quebec, with the title character an elderly woman (Béatrice Picard) who needs some help getting by, mostly in the form of caretaker Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). It's a friendly enough relationship, although when Rachel receives a call and corrects Marguerite's assumption that the person on the other end is a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend, the older woman finds herself shaken - though not necessarily for the reasons one might assume.

Farley does some nice bits of apparent misdirection as she builds her movie, starting from how the film seems like it will initially be about the indignities of aging as much as anything else, emphasizing that aspect in early shots and then presenting an initial reaction that looks like horror, in part because it comes while Rachel is helping Marguerite put on a crucifix necklace. Soon, though, Farley and Béatrice Picard are showing this as just the first step in Marguerite's rapid re-evaluation of her own life and attitudes, and it is exquisitely sad, as she not only has to confront what may have been a missed opportunity decades ago but the fact that she in many ways lacks the vocabulary to express it.

By the end, it's clear that what seemed to be a distraction for a bit wasn't; Marguerite's age and frailty is important because it means that she's not going to have the opportunity to at least live the end of her life out as her true self in any meaningful way. That she will at least have Rachel's empathy is important, though, and it's also important to see that Marguerite's story isn't just a way to highlight how Rachel is fortunate. It's an impressive balance.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

"Detainment" makes a bit of noise about how it is based upon actual transcripts for this true crime story, and that may be its biggest flaw - text at the end mentions that some material was not used in court, so therefore kept out of the film, and that decision can lead one to question the filmmakers' motives: Are they trying to dig into this crime, somehow understand what makes these two kids do something horrible or are they standing aloof, playing games in how they initially show one as more sympathetic only to reveal that, wait, maybe that's not the case?

It does that well enough; the two kids who kidnapped a younger boy left alone at a shopping center are played by two impressive young actors in Ely Solan and Leon Hughes, while filmmaker Vincent Lambe does an impressive job of calling to mind how interrogation scenes usually work in film and television to show just how children in the process upsets it, both by highlighting the power imbalances and also showing just how unprepared the system is for kids who do wrong. The anguish of the parents who simply cannot wrap their head around the situation is well-shown, especially as it's just as much resignation as rage.

Still, while watching this, I couldn't help but remember watching a Polish film called Playground a couple years back; if it wasn't based upon the same incident, it drew upon something awfully similar, but pulled in closer rather than accepting the distance. Even if that film didn't necessarily come up with satisfactory motivation, it wrestled with the question in a way that "Detainment" pushes to the corner.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Co-writer and director Guy Nattiv gets more directly at where monstrous kids come from in "Skin", which spends its first half following a kid whose dad (Jonathan Tucker) has a big ol' Nazi tattoo on his chest as they hang out with other write-trash friends, taking a turn when the boy (Jackson Robert Scott) finds his eye catching an action figure in a black man's hand at the supermarket, and the father takes this as a provocation.

Nattiv goes in for a couple different forms of horror here, the slow burn of real-life racism and a more creative bit of revenge, and it's perhaps a bit much for a twenty-minute movie. The opening half is played straight enough to work as no-nonsense commentary, but the back end asks a lot, to the point where it may be for the best that it goes for a fast ironic resolution once what's going on is clear. It's a kind of silly, wild idea that probably wouldn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny, but even so, it's also wild enough that one might want to see how the filmmakers played with it for more than a few seconds. Instead, they rush out, making sure that the maximum amount of cruelty and irony have been served.

This sort of cruelty, especially involving children, is enough of a theme to this year's nominees to become wearying, and make even those reluctant to call out the Emperor's New Clothes to wonder if the people who made these films the nominees are just trying to prove their sophistication - the darkness and cynicism goes from seeming sophisticated to bandwagon-jumping after the third or fourth endangered kid. It's perhaps fitting that the best of the films (and perhaps most likely to win), "Marguerite", has not only its own themes but some small kernel of optimism to it. It's not necessarily a bright film, but it practically shines like a beacon amid this repetitive darkness.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Every year, a package is put together with all the animated short films nominated for an Academy Award, plus a few to pad out the running time, and it's generally one of the most enjoyable cinema samplers to come out over the year, with a bunch of different styles and themes packed into an hour and a half. This year's certainly offers up a lot of interesting visual treats, but it's hard not to notice that most are trying to do roughly the same thing. It's hard to fault the filmmakers involved - it's a thing that audiences respond to and which animation arguably does better than live action - but this group of movies could maybe use a bit more anarchy to go with the earnest sentimentality.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

In a way, it feels like many are chasing "Bao", this year's Pixar short that everybody knew was almost a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as soon as it appeared in front of Incredibles 2, and not just because it was the one that the most people would see. It is, as per usual, clever and visually impressive, though I suspect that it raised a lot of eyebrows about three quarters of the way through as viewers watch it and think something along the lines of that not really fitting in with what the short seemed to be going for up until that point. Writer/director Domee Shi has made a short that packs a lot of feeling into a few minutes, visualizing the sort of love you can put into food, how it can be a substitute for what's missing otherwise, with plenty of visual comedy as it goes awry.

And then something happens which works a lot better if you're assuming that the fifty-ish lady making the bao is an empty-nester but not so much if (like me) you thought she'd never had kids, and even if you had... Well, I didn't know about it the first time through, but a nice thing about shorts is that they're pretty easy to give a second look after it's been made clear that this sort of extreme reluctance to let go can often be quite pronounced in Chinese households. There's plenty to love on top of that - the animation style is beautiful, especially as it leans into the bulk of the cast of characters being ethnically Chinese in a way that could look like bad caricature but never does.

"Late Afternoon"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Push the characters a couple decades later (and drop them into Ireland) and you may wind up with something like "Late Afternoon", in which elderly Emily (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) is having her life boxed up around her, perhaps on the way to a home where she can receive more dedicated care - her mind is not what it was - only to have her memory sparked by having a biscuit break off in her tea. It's a rather familiar situation, but its universality is no bad thing.

Writer/director Louise Bagnall knows how animation can help tell a story such as this, especially the traditional-styled work presented here. She defines Emily and the other characters with simple shapes, enough to let the audience track her as she ages in her flashbacks while still having room for different hairstyles and statures, with equally simple environments allowing her to jump back and forth without fancy transitions, so that the past and the present seem to be happening simultaneously for Emily and the audience. She gives the youthful Emily delightful energy and quietly lets it become nervousness in the present.

This short has probably been made a lot, and oftentimes in gaudier, more exhilarating fashion. The laid-back charm of this one is quite nice, though.

"Animal Behaviour"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

At this point, audiences may be ready to do something other than smile with well-earned sentiment, and "Animal Behaviour" offers a nice break. It offers a group of animals in a support group to deal with their compulsions, from pig Todd's constant eating (and "truffaholism") to Lorraine the leech's clinginess to the issues that would make it hard for Cheryl the mantis to keep a man even without the thousand maggots. Their joined by a reluctant new member, Victor the ape, who doesn't really think his temper warrants this.

Filmmakers Alison Snowden & David Fine build the short as kid jokes with edge, gags based on obvious animal habits but with enough phrases like "sexual cannibalism" to mark this as pitched just a bit above eight-year-olds. The jokes may be easy but the well never runs dry, and the willingness to switch things up never hurts. The voice work is solid if not necessarily flashy, with Taz Van Rassel's Victor enjoyably incredulous and Leah Juel's Lorraine most delightfully unhinged. Visually, it's cartoony but solid.

"Animal Behavior" has got jokes more than anything else, and with the rest of the nominees working much harder at pulling on heartstrings, it's a nice change.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

It's back to family relationships over time with "Weekends", in which a young boy splits time between a recently-divorced parents, the seasons changing in the background as each settles into new lives. There's a pattern to it that likely crops up in a lot of such families - the modest home of the custodial parent, the exciting and cool trappings of the other but time eventually showing that this sort of affectation isn't necessarily the same as actual involvement.

Director Trevor Jimenez fills his movie with nice little details, from the way the boy is pushed from the front seat of his father's car to the back once he's got a new girlfriend to how his mother seems to be in some sort of neck brace, her new boyfriend literally square compared to the father. The film suffers a bit for not having any dialogue; as much as Jimenez visually establishes bits of personality for this family, there are times when the metaphor he's going for seems just out of reach, of the story becomes specific enough to deserve voices instead of just broad symbols.

"One Small Step"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

When I initially saw "One Small Step" as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival's animation program, I noted that the beautifully designed dialogue-free short, built to efficiently grab at the audience's heartstrings and pull, was the sort of thing that someone watching it without logos would almost certainly presume that it's this year's Pixar short film. That's not what every filmmaker aspires to, but when you hit that goal as well as Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas do, you're doing something right.

Admittedly, this hits a lot of my sweet spots, with a kid who absolutely adores space; an immigrant dad working hard to support her dreams, both making her adorable moon boots as a kid and to send her to college; bright, colorful visuals that emphasize the excitement of the goal; and sharp design that can feel a bit mocking when she is falling short. The falling short isn't necessarily a sweet spot in and of itself, but it's the unexpected thing that makes the story work - there's a moment when it genuinely feels like this may become a movie about learning to still love something after it's clear you won't be part of it in the way you'd dreamed.

And it may be that story, eventually; it ends with hope but no guarantees. Still, it's interesting how seeing shorts in a different program can change the perspective; at Fantasia this was a charmer, and a delightfully sweet moment in the middle of an often-bloody program; in the Oscar program, it can seem a bit too polished, especially as the third or fourth targeting a specific take on this parent-child relationship.

"Wishing Box"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The first of two "Highly Commended" shorts, "Wishing Box" has a fun gag - a treasure chest is empty for a pirate, but his monkey can pull whatever he wants from it, with the irony being that a monkey's tastes are simple and not so materialistic as his human master's. At one point toward the end, the little guy just trying to make the pirate happy pulls out a frog, and more or less locks down that it's basically a variant on Chuck Jones's "One Froggy Evening", where a man's greed won't let him enjoy something magical and amazing if he can't profit by it.

Zhang Wenli's film isn't built quite so well as that classic, though admittedly few are. Of all the shorts in the program, this one seems to target kids most directly, and could maybe use the visual volume turned down a little: It's animated with the sort of CGI style that can seem rather weightless, without a great deal of nuance in the expressions. It's good enough for the short's purposes, but that frog can't help but remind one just how well this particular bit can be done.

"Chik-Chirik" ("Tweet-tweet")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The second "Highly Commended" piece is "Tweet-tweet", which feels like filmmaker Zhanna Bekmambetova had a nifty idea to animate but not necessarily a story. It starts with a bird flitting around a clothesline, soon joined by the feet of a little girl walking it like a tightrope. As time passes, the clothesline takes on other forms, the girl grows up, and eventually the rope reaches its end. It's a great way to depict a life, although Bekmambetova seems to run out of steam after a while, as the rope turns into clock hands when she needs to move forward without having a lot specific happen.

As pretty and clever as the animation is, it in some ways turns out to not be ideal for telling a story - Bekmambetova puts as much personality as she can into those feet and how they move along the rope, but it's hard not to feel like more is being hidden than shown, another attempt to be blandly universal rather than strongly individual. And for as much fun as the bird is to watch doing bits of slapstick and the like, what's it meant to be in relation to the tightrope watcher - guardian angel? pet? spirit? It adds some life and laughs, but doesn't quite serve a purpose in a short that is otherwise a visual metaphor.

Maybe that's why it didn't make the cut. Of the ones that did, it's hard to bet against the Pixar taking the award, but I must admit that it's kind of alarming that so many of the animated shorts considered worthy of being in contention are so clearly along the same lines. "One Small Step" in many ways remains my favorite, and while it, "Bao", "Late Afternoon", and "Weekends" all tell different stories and are quite worthy, I can't help but hope that there's a little more variety in next year's group.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 February 2019 - 28 February 2019

It's Oscar weekend, so theaters are prepared for a lot of weekend cramming and maybe hoping for people coming in to catch the winners during the week, making me wonder how much flexibility they've built into their schedules for Monday through Thursday. But there's new stuff too.

  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may not get all the biggest 3D screens - Alita still has many claimed - but will get a fair amount as the finale to what is arguably DreamWorks Animation's best series deserves. By now, the kids from the first one are grown up, but word of their dragons has started to spread, with hunters coming calling. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway (including RPX), the Seaport (2D only), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Revere (including XPlus), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    There's also Fighting with My Family, which stars Florence Pugh as a young British wrestling fan who dreams of joining WWE with her brother - with it awkward when she is the only one signed. Aside from the always-kind-of-great Pugh, the cast includes Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, and Dwayne Johnson, with Stephen Merchant directing. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, the Embassy, and Revere.

    The Oscars pre-empt the "one-off" shows at the multiplexes this weekend, with Fenway continuing to show the best picture nominees (other than Roma) in rotation and Boston Common having the second half of their Best Picture Showcase with an all day marathon of Vice, Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Green Book on Saturday. Things start up again afterward, with Fenway, South Bay, and Revere playing Gone with the Wind on Thursday.
  • Kendall Square certainly isn't mixing things up much before the awards, although they do open The Invisibles. That one is a story of four Jewish twenty-somethings in 1943 Berlin, hiding in plain sight, sometimes using their very visibility as a disguise itself.
  • The Wandering Earth keeps playing a bunch of showtimes at Boston Common and Fenway (with Pegasus still getting some play at Boston Common), and now both places are opening the biggest Korean hit of the winter, with Extreme Job, a comedy about a group of undercover cops who set up shop in a run-down restaurant, only to make it a success because their fried chicken recipe is so good. I don't know if it's a remake of last year's Chinese comedy Lobster Cop or not, but it sure sounds awful close. Boston Common also picks up Alone/Together, an opposites-attract romantic comedy from the Philippines.

    Fenway and Apple Fresh Pond both continue Gully Boy, with Apple also keeping Uri: The Surgical Strike, with the big Bollywood opening being Total Dhamaal, the third movie in a series about con-artist slackers getting in ove their heads; it features Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor, and Madhuri Dixit. They also open Malayalam comedy Kumbalangi Nights, and NTR: Mahanayakudu, the second half of a two-part biography of Nandamuri Taraka Ramarao.
  • The Brattle Theatre sort of cobbles its schedule together this week, starting with how Friday and Saturday feature a 35mm Looney Tunes Revue for matinees, a new restoration of The Bostonians at 4:30pm and 7pm, and then the last couple late shows of Lords of Chaos at 9:30pm (the latter also plays The Somerville Theatre and Cinema Salem for a week starting Friday).

    After that, it's special events - the Oscar Party on Sunday, special DocYard presentation The Competition - with director Claire Simon in person and in conversation with Ross McElwee - on Monday evening, a free "Elements of Cinema" presentation of Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker on Tuesday, and Wings of Desire in tribute to the late Bruno Ganz on Thursday. They're closed to the public on Wednesday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre shuffles things a bit but mostly keeps the same lineup. They bring out the big guns for Women in Horror this weekend, with Aliens on 35mm at 11:30pm Friday night and Annihilation at midnight on Saturday. There's a GlobeDocs screening of Life Without Basketball on Tuesday, with filmmakers Tim O'Donnell and Jon Mercer on-hand. Another doc plays Thursday night, when they host a special screening of Soul Witness, with the filmmaker present. It has screened as a work-in-progress several times, but this is it in its final, official form.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts finishes their February calendar much as it started, with more of the Boston Festival of Films from Japan including Tremble All You Want (Friday); Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (Friday); We Make Antiques! (Saturday); Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (Saturday/Thursday); Kusama: Infinity (Sunday); The Third Murder (Sunday); and Hanagatami (Thursday). There are also final screenings of Young Picasso (Sunday/Wednesday), and one last Poverty Row preservation from UCLA, with False Faces playing Wednesday with a 1932 newsreel and Dave Fleischer's "Snow White".
  • Dominga Sotomayor will visit The Harvard Film Archive this weekend - not early enough to introduce "Mar" & "Los Barcos" on Friday, but in person for Thursday Till Sunday on Sunday (playing on 16mm film) and Too Late to Die Young on Monday. In between, they finish up the Mariano Llinás retrospective with an encore of Balnearios at 9pm Friday, a special matinee of acclaimed 1969 children's TV-movie J.T. on Saturday afternoon, and a 35mm presentation of Tous let Matins du Monde that evening (in conjunction with a Sunday concert by its musicians).
  • ArtsEmerson doesn't use the Bright Screening Room at their Paramount Theater that much themselves (a shame; they had a fun program when it first opened), but they will this weekend, with writer/producer/star Rafael Casal hosting Blindspotting on Friday night, with more screenings on offer Saturday and Sunday. After that, the room is once again the setting for the free Bright Lights series, with Let the Corpses Tan on Tuesday and You Were Never Really Here on Thursday.
  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington finishes school vacation week with a Grease sing-along on Friday evening and three programs from the New York International Children's Film Festival on Saturday. They also have encores of Joni 75 on Sunday.
  • Where to see the Oscar-Nominated Shorts? The Documentaries are at the Somerville (Friday) and the Luna (Saturday); the Animation is at the Coolidge, the Kendall, the Somerville (Friday), The ICA (Friday/Sunday), and the Luna (Saturday); the Live Action at the Coolidge, the Kendall, the Somerville (Friday), the ICA (Sunday), and the Luna (Friday/Saturday/Tuesday). The ICA also shows animated feature nominee Mirai as part of their Saturday "Play Date".
  • The Luna Theater also has Annie (Saturday/Sunday), The Princess Bride (Sunday), Dirty Dancing (Monday), and "Weirdo Wednesday".

My plans include trying to cram Alita, How to Train Your Dragon, Extreme Job, and Cold Pursuit in around not just the Oscars, but a day trip to New York for the second annual Hong-Kong-a-Thon on Saturday and then the first half of a flight to the real thing on Thursday (I am, as you may expect, very excited).

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Everybody Knows

I have not, historically, been one to complain about film runtimes - what am I going to do with another fifteen minutes that's better than watching a movie?, right - but this thing is 132 minutes long, and even if it handles that length pretty well, that's kind of a heck of a thing to be confronted with at the theater when you arrive just too late to make the 7pm show. Heck, last show of the day is at 10:15 - tack on twenty minutes of previews, and I can't help but wonder, is this really something worth staying up for until after the MBTA stops running? I honestly almost course-corrected to Isn't It Romantic, which is 88 minutes long.

Nevertheless, it was probably the right movie to see last night; I wasn't really in the mood for silly. It's kind of a pre-fab art house movie - foreign stars the audience nevertheless recognizes, rustic European locations, murkiness that makes one feel like they're seeing something more sophisticated than mainstream fare but seldom steps all the way into real darkness. I mock movies like that on occasion, especially when they seem like all there is on offer outside the blockbusters at the expense of something really interesting and new, but they can be done well. This isn't a bad movie at all, just not actually better than a pulpier take on the same material could have been.

Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2019 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

Right about halfway through Everybody Knows, I had a horrible thought - what if this is one of those art-house thrillers where we just tread water for a couple hours, nothing is resolved, and the audience is expected to nod appreciatively at the truth of how nobody can ever really know anything for sure? Those films may not be bad by definition, but they can be rote and deflating unless there's something more interesting than the crime itself exposed. This film is not quite that sort of thing, but it's not far off.

It starts out enjoyably enough, with Laura (Penélope Cruz) returning to her hometown in Spain for the first time in a few years for the wedding of her sister Ana (Inma Cuesta), bringing teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and adorable moppet Diego (Iván Chavero) while husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) is stuck in Argentina on something work-related. It's a big, fun event, including not just family but Paco (Javier Bardem), her best friend since childhood and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie). It's eventful enough that nobody thinks much of it when the boisterous Irene starts to drag relatively early, but when Laura goes to check on her kids later, Irene is missing and clippings from newspaper articles about an abduction a few years back on on her bed. Texts warning not to call the police soon follow, and by the next morning, everybody is well on their way to looking with suspicion at the troublemaking teens in Bea's class, the migrant workers at Paco's winery, the way Laura's father has made enemies all over town, and how Alejandro is maybe not quite so successful as folks in town think.

Looking at this film's running time, one might think that it's got a somewhat leisurely pace for a thriller, but a lot of that comes from a first act of getting to know everybody that is actually quite charming; writer/director Asghar Farhadi captures the feeling of going to a wedding and not really knowing a fair chunk of people there, quickly catching up with others around the actual purpose, cousins falling in together despite not seeing each other in years, etc. It's a fine introduction to Irene as well, establishing her as reckless but sweet and enough of a wild card to make the minutes after her disappearance feel like they could go in a lot of directions Farhadi hints at the fractures that will show up later but gets the audience to enjoy it, getting through a lot of prep with a smile on its collective face.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Friday, February 15, 2019

Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

The theaters in my area that pick up the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts almost always break them up into two packages, and it's usually a smart idea: With every entry pushing the definition of the "shorts" category to its limit, that's a chunk of time where a narrative feature would probably be given an intermission anyway. This year's program, on the other hand, clocks in at a relatively lean 139 minutes, or roughly the length of a Marvel movie, an hour less than its theoretical maximum length. Many places are still breaking it up, which is reasonable enough, as it's the sort of presentation where it certainly doesn't hurt to spend a little time resetting and reflecting.

That several of the entries are more compact is a blessing, but also indicative of something else: This year's group feels like a larger entry in what a documentary can be, whether short or feature-length. It's hardly the first time that a mix of styles has been featured in this category, and it's entirely possible that the five films chosen next year will once again be a set of films that all push the 40-minute barrier as filmmakers try to edit the year they spent shadowing a group of interesting people into something that pays like a feature but shorter, but the Oscar voters have an interesting set of choices this year.

"Black Sheep"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Consider "Black Sheep", the first entry being shown in theaters, which some purists may argue is not a documentary at all. A fair amount is Cornelius Walker recounting the story of his youth, when the murder of a ten-year-old Nigerian boy led his mother to pack the family up and move them from London to small-town Essex, only for Cornelius to discover the first time he left the house that the racism was much more overt there, perhaps more likely to lead to violence, with perhaps his best hope of getting through it to be to assimilate into the racist culture despite his own black skin. Though Walker's voice is a constant, what's on-screen is often recreations, with Perkins seldom using photographs or video of the younger Walker.

This sort of recreation may not pass a purity test, and it's often not necessarily more dynamic than stretching whatever footage or other images that can be found out; Perkins repeats the same images a few times, and sometimes a shot will be empty or abstracted in a way that marks it as not real, while the shots of Walker narrating in unwavering, head-on close up can feel just as artificial. It's effective, though, in how it bridges the gap between Walker's mouth the viewer's visual cortex; there's just enough space for one to get the impression he or she has witnessed events while still knowing otherwise. It allows one to make an honest memory.

It's got a fine subject in Walker, too; the young man can spin a story without making it a tall tale or exaggerating for too much dramatic effect, getting across the disbelief he feels for how he acted when younger while still understanding. He and Perkins make sure he doesn't waste words, letting the viewer fill certain gaps in more with experiences than prejudices, and they're smart enough to draw the line in an unexpected but logical place: This is just the story of how he got into a bad place; the story of how he got out or faced the consequences of these actions would be another short film entirely, and one I wouldn't mind seeing.

"A Night at the Garden"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Where "Black Sheep" is at one end of the documentary spectrum, "A Night at the Garden" is perhaps all the way at the other - it is entirely archive footage of a February 1939 "Pro-American Rally" at New York's Madison Square Garden assembled by filmmaker Marshall Curry, to the extent that when he is credited as having "produced, directed, and edited" this film, one may have a moment of wondering if a work like this is "directed", in terms of actually directing other people to do something to capture what one sees on screen. It's a terrifically effective bit of assembly, and certainly reflects his craftsmanship, but that's not how many people understand the term.

No matter, in terms of how well the film works. It's a tightly-constructed seven minutes that demonstrates just how overt the racism and anti-semitism of that time could be, with Nazis and their supporters filling the Garden and rapidly dropping the euphemisms like "Pro-American". It has room to show that there was resistance, and that entering this snake's nest to protest marked one as pretty brave. The music by James Baxter is not subtle in underlying the fascist intentions, and it's not hard to tie what one sees on-screen to current events, a sharp reminder that it absolutely can, as they say, happen here.

Curry is not subtle about this, even if he doesn't do a lot in the way of title cards or any cross-cutting with the present to drive his point home. It's interesting what he chooses to include and exclude and what that means, though - he includes speaker Fritz Kuhn saying that the audience knows who he is but does not actually identify him, whether to avoid giving Kuhn a raised profile decades later or to highlight that he has generally been left behind. Though there are multiple shots of the Nazi salute, the most striking one is a POV shot, reminding the audience that this isn't professional footage, but home movies, meant to be shown with pride later. And the way police handle protester Isadore Greenbaum becomes an interesting sort of Rorschach test - whether Curry meant it to or not.

"End Game"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Between the two comes "End Game", directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and it's in many ways more typical - it splits time between the University of California San Francisco hospital and the nearby Zen Hospice Project, following a half-dozen or so patients who have weeks or months to live, though not all have given up hope. They do a lot of makes a documentary about such issues work, maintaining a careful distance to show how the process works without inflating drama, but using interviews with their well-chosen subjects to keep everyone from seeming like mere data points. They never lose track of how, by the time audiences see this, the patients will be dead, but leavening that with positive attitudes and a few moments that acknowledge the presence of the camera and how it may change things. They capture people defining and discussing end-of-life care in a straightforward manner without it feeling staged, either as interview footage or a scene that feels inauthentic.

And in a certain way, all of this works because they have found a number of people who stand out even among people in extraordinarily difficult situations. At the hospice, Dr. Miller catches the eye immediately as a triple amputee, and he acknowledges that knowing his reduced limits informs the work he does there. Eventually, his passionate advocacy and true belief in the work they do becomes his most important feature, and while he (and his institution) can strike a viewer as almost impossibly sunny and well-adjusted, the film presents him as an attempt to counter one's skepticism without forcing it. At the hospital, cancer patient Mitra is striking as an example of how, though the disease and treatment haven't sapped all of her strength and ability to act, these decisions cannot be entirely her own, with husband Hamid and mother Vaji both forced to take more active roles than they could wish. The interplay between Hamid's desperate hope for a miracle and retired nurse Vaji's heartbroken pragmatism is what gets to the core of the family's choices.

The film's biggest issue is that these two cannot give the full picture that Epstein & Friedman wish to present, but at the short film scale, they quickly run out of room for more than quick glimpses. Those glimpses are affecting, but can feel like they're either diluting the things that the filmmakers are able to flesh out or like there's a feature-length version in their footage that covers everything they want to show better. It's still a fine film, just one where the industry's definitions may keep it from being its best possible version.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Skye Fitzgerald's "Lifeboat" is cut from similar cloth, only she embedded herself and her crew on a Sea Watch ocean vessel, Sea Watch being a German non-profit organization that patrols the waters north of Lybia, looking for boats of migrants trying to make their way to Europe. By the time their boats have reached international waters, most are in dire straits, as is the case in the operation shown here, where three boats crowded to bursting all need rescue.

Bookends on the shore give a clear picture of how the stakes are life and death and then some - death in this case is often anonymous and devoid of dignity - but for the bulk of the short, Fitzgerald and the crew (cinematographer Kenny Allen and editor Dan Sadowsky) do a fair job of just putting the audience on the water, letting the obvious lack of space for enough fresh water and supplies to cross the Mediterranean tell its own tale, letting the audience keenly feel the rescuers' desire to help and the simple practical difficulty of it between the language barriers, limited resources of their own, and panic and desperation. The filmmakers are quite good at making the film feel immersive when there's actually a fair amount of interview footage and captioning explaining situations and giving stories. Perhaps this is because almost all seems to be taken while on the ship, keeping everything in the same urgent timeframe rather than giving the impression of details filled in later, at their leisure.

Keeping the focus on the present does leave a few gaps that occasionally make it feel a bit over-bounded - there's a whole system on either end of this process that a viewer might want explained, from the Libyan prison camp many are escaping to the challenges those rescued may face attempting to obtain refugee status in Europe. For better or worse, that is not this film's immediate concern, and a short like this is arguably designed to show one link in a chain rather than the whole thing. That it can be seen as a shortcoming is, perhaps, testimony to Fitzgerald's skill and how compelling what both the ship's crew and new passengers are; it's hard not to be interested in the rest of their stories.

"Period. End of Sentence."

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The last film included in the package, Rayka Zehtabchi's "Period. End of Sentence.", is in some ways marked as a bit different by the captions at the end, which mention that the film and the project it covers were partly funded by Kickstarter and partly by high school students in Oakland California. It's not that crowdfunding is uncommon for short films or particularly hidden in the credits, rather that the clear but playful way the filmmakers make a note of this serves to connect the process of making the film to what it shows - people getting things done for themselves and young women leading the way. It's a last way to emphasize the themes of the film and maybe stoke ambitions beyond the subject.

Which, itself, benefits from the film having a somewhat less formal style than the other nominees. It drops the audience into a village about 60 km outside of Delhi, where a group of women has acquired a machine to allow for low-cost, people-powered manufacture of sanitary pads, no small boon in area where not only is the use of such things rather low, but where men and women alike can often be quite uneducated about the menstrual cycle. Zehtabchi and her main subjects poke at this with good humor, acknowledging the embarrassment of bringing the topic up but defusing it with laughter even as they also point out that the general ignorance and lack of accessible hygiene measures is a real problem. There are multiple scenes where women are seen going from being unable to talk about their periods to joking about it.

That doesn't disguise the genuine frustration and need for change that exists both above and below the surface, at how being unable to acknowledge biological reality is what leads to pads being treated as a luxury item and women as a result having fewer options. Zehtabchi pointedly doesn't offer up any convenient male villains - there seem to be some terrible husbands who aren't around at the moment - but instead highlights the passive acceptance that keeps bad structures in place. Dealing with one man isn't going o make a dent, but the film shows women building what they need more or less on their own.

Were I to have a vote, "Period. End of Sentence." would probably have it; it's quality moviemaking and clear communication that feels just right at its length. If I were a betting man, I'm not sure I'd want to bet against "Lifeboat", with "A Night at the Garden" the dark-horse favorite as the one that speaks most directly to the mostly-American Oscar voters' current concerns.