Sunday, April 21, 2019

Hellboy '19

So, with a bit of time to ruminate over it, I don't think Hellboy '19 is really a bad movie so much as it's below-average, and it could have really done with being better. It's so hard to separate it from the previous iterations, especially since the people involved with those movies had not exactly moved on.

Indeed, I suspect that I'm not the only person who came into this movie with mixed feelings that made it hard to judge it fairly. On the one hand, it's hard not to resent this one's existence considering that Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman were enthusiastic about making a third film and I do like conclusions (and I'm mildly curious to see if they would have written Selma Blair's MS into the film). On the other, it's kind of great to see Neil Marshall returning to the big screen, and the promise of a Hellboy Cinematic Universe is tempting as heck, even before you see Thomas Haden Church as Lobster Johnson.

I'm guessing that probably doesn't happen now; it's kind of a box-office dud and between the supernatural and the R rating it's not going to be rescued by the Chinese market. That just makes it a bigger bummer that we won't get del Toro's trilogy capper.

Hellboy (2019)

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2019 in AMC Assembly Row #10 (first-run, DCP)

It's kind of a shame that this relaunch of Hellboy didn't light up the box office, not because it's a particularly good movie which deserves success - it isn't - but because the chance of sequels and spin-offs was the best argument for starting fresh rather than having Guillermo del Toro direct another one to complete his trilogy. There's just enough potential here that you could see it getting refined into something better with another bite at the apple, but now it can't help but be seen as anything other than a misguided disappointment.

Hellboy (David Harbour), as you may recall from the previous films or original comics, is a demon summoned by the Nazis during the waning days of World War II, although they did not expect to conjure an infant or have the ritual interrupted by the Allies. Professor Broom (Ian McShane) raises the red-skinned boy as his son, the pair spending their whole lives since investigating and containing otherworldly threats for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Their latest case: Assisting their counterparts in the UK with a trio of resurrected giants, although this leads them to a greater danger: Resurrected 5th-Century witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich), whose attempt to spread a plague that would kill all human was only thwarted by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson) themselves.

Her new plan involves Hellboy himself, which isn't the greatest sign; Mike Mignola's BPRD and Hellboy comics tend to be strongest when he's digging into folklore or focusing on the characters' personalities; the stories built around his original mythology, like this one, tend to be the weakest. It's exacerbated by Andrew Cosby's script, which depends greatly on Hellboy's place in the world and relationship with his father, without the film doing much to establish these things, as well as a lot of talk about destiny and sudden shifts of attitude that don't necessarily follow from what the audience sees within the film. The villains want to do bad things, but the only one that actually seems to have any weight to him is pig-headed comic-relief henchman Gruagach (voice of Stephen Graham), seemingly presuming that the audience is bringing that baseline emotional investment in with them, presumably from del Toro's films or the comics.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Boston Underground Film Festival 2019.01: Hail Satan? and Clickbait

Ah, the first day of BUFF - you stand in line to get your pass, you stand in line to get your ticket, you stand in line for your movie. If you're very lucky, as with this year, it is not raining or snowing. So that's a win.

So first up…

Hail Satan? was a lot of fun, if sometimes maybe a little too chummy with its subjects and in-line with their activities to really give a thorough look at certain angles of the story, although on the other hand, it's not as objectivity is something one can truly expect. Filmmaker Penny Lane, subject Lucien Greaves, and the Festival's Kevin Monahan led an enjoyable discussion, although it was also the sort of Q&A where there's maybe not a lot of questions coming from the audience that wasn't mostly already in the movie.

(Though maybe a different audience when Greaves visits the Coolidge for their 2pm show on April 28th)

Afterward, a marching band led those who were going to the opening night party to the Hong Kong at the other end of the Square.

I didn't follow, instead stopping in Felipe's and back for the next movie, so I missed the restaurant realizing that they had a bunch of Satanists upstairs, maybe performing another black mass like the incident shown in the movie from a few years back, and kicking them out, which is probably the most appropriately underground way for the opening night of an underground film festival to end.

The underground nature was kind of in effect at the theater for the second movie, where festival regulars Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein were there with their new film, Clickbait, and I didn't take any pictures because I was honestly anticipating a more negative account of it, since I've pretty strongly disliked their two previous films that I saw at the festival and happily sleeping in for one because that seat might as well go to someone looking forward to it.

In a lot of ways, though, it's a me problem, although I suspect that a lot of us don't really know what to do with very-low-budget, homemade movies in an era where there is so much polished work at the theater and most of cinema history is readily available in one form or another. We kind of don't know what to do with movies that aren't designed to make money, even if there are more places for them now, whether on YouTube or Amazon or various other platforms. Maybe this team didn't make their movie entirely for their circle, but you have to look at some of these movies as like fanfic or local music - often kind of rough, easily exposed to ridicule when compared to people who have had more resources and ways to refine their craft, but satisfying for their audience and context.

It's tough for me to warm up to those unless they're a lot more squarely targeted at my interests (and, sure, I've got some YouTube channels I follow that are kind of objectively terrible but satisfying), but I'll at least try not to get so frustrated about them taking up my time.

Hail Satan?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The question mark in the title of Hail Satan? does not truly indicate any sort of uncertainty; it is never unclear what sort of conclusions director Penny Lane wants the audience to draw where the Satanic Temple is concerned. Instead, it serves as the same sort of rhetorical device as the Temple itself - a quick, visible way to at least attempt reorienting one's perspective on something that can easily be taken for granted because it's so entrenched. It's a successful gambit, a good initial indication of how good both the film and its subject are at getting attention and making a point.

That may not be the entire point of the Satanic Temple, but watching them poke at attempts to give Christianity a place in secular American society (or to maintain and expand that place) is certainly the part of the film that is the most immediately entertaining. Director Penny Lane opens with footage of one of the Temple's earliest bits of activism, in which an actor stood upon the steps of the Florida State House and praised the governor for his work to return prayer to school, because it would, necessarily, include all prayer. Though that demonstration is a bit of a rough draft - founder Lucien Greaves would soon decide to represent the organization personally, rather than hiring an actor in a costume,for instance - they set the tone for later confrontations involving prayers at city council meetings, and an ongoing project of hauling out a majestic statue of Baphomet whenever someone considers placing a Ten Commandments monument on public land.

These segments amuse - director Penny Lane could spin them off into entertaining short films or magazine segments - although they could become repetitive and hollow if the film were nothing but smart-asses snarkily trying to punch back at presumptive Christians (though that does tend to be a lot of fun). The trick, both for Greaves and Lane, is to make Satanism compelling as more than just an extreme satirical counter-example, and that is arguably where the pair, in their individual ways, do their strongest work: Casting Lucifer as the embodiment of rebellion against entrenched authority and listing the Temple's Seven Tenets creates just enough of the basis for a workable belief system that even skeptical viewers may find themselves nodding along, acknowledging that it makes a sort of sense.

(Or at least, it did at this particular festival; it will be interesting to see how a broader audience reacts if the film gets on their radar.)

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Hashtag Perfect Life"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

"Hashtag Perfect Life" pairs with Clickbait as a sort of complement, another movie about a woman trying to control her internet fame, in this case from having a video of her, shall we say, not at her best go viral. Maddie (Erin Lovelace) goes on some sort of low-rent cable talk show or newsmagazine to clear the air, although the rictus-like smile on the face of interviewer Todd Gacc (Todd Behrend) probably doesn't bode well.

It's an odd little short, the sort that takes about 10 minutes to build to a reversal gag, not so much in terms of the situation reversing as much as suddenly going blunt after dragging things out. Filmmaker Michael Paulucci and his team do a nice job of making the internet and social media specifically a sort of low-level buzz that permeates one's life, getting louder and more insistent when it starts focusing on us specifically. Erin Lovelace does some nice work as Maddie, capturing the way people can find themselves straddling the line between being rightly stressed or aggrieved and kind of awful. Todd Behrend maybe overdoes the creepy/predatory bit as Gacc, but he delivers the best line.

This movie kind of shrugs at times, like there's no definitive thing to say about situations like this, and while "what can you do" is not the most satisfying note to end on, but it's where the world is in some ways.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I haven't exactly warmed on Clickbait in the days between seeing it and sitting down to write about it - I certainly don't want to watch it again - but I've perhaps grown to begrudgingly accept that what came across as weaknesses may not entirely be so, especially for those whose ages and experiences are closer to those of its characters. It's got the same energy as the YouTube videos it comments on, and maybe that just can't translate to a feature-length film.

Not that YouTube is ever mentioned; college student Bailey (Amanda Colby Stewart) makes "flashes" for "Str33ker", her shy roommate Emma (Brandi Aguilar) often the one behind the camera. Pretty and irreverent, Bailey is popular online, but it can be hard to maintain that position especially after having broken up with fellow Str33ker star Brayden (Cedric Jonathan). To make matters worse, she's got a stalker, and the detective assigned to the case, Frank Dobson (Seth Chatfied), is lazy at best and a more or less complete moron, leaving Emma to figure out who's coming after her often-ungrateful friend.

There's a thing going on in the background where a product called "Toot Strudel" (radioactive Pop-Tarts in wacky, unappealing flavors) is sponsoring some sort of contest where Str33ker users compete to make the most popular testimonial, and it's as good an example as any of how Clickbait can often be authentic and satiric but not exactly good: Yes, it does a capable job of highlighting and exaggerating how willing internet celebrities are to monetize their work and how businesses are willing to offer them a pittance to do so, but these gags stop the movie dead and aren't very funny; they require the audience to stop and sort of performatively laugh at how they recognize the broad, knowing absurdity of it. It's dead-on in portraying a certain type of YouTube video, but whether mere replication is enough in this case is a fair question.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, April 19, 2019

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 April 2019 - 25 April 2019

Man, so much nothing coming out this weekend, you'd think Lionsgate would have actually given Under the Silver Lake an actual release rather than the bare minimum in NYC/LA before it hits VOD on Tuesday.

  • But, hey, it's Independent Film Festival Boston time! It kicks off Wednesday with Luce at The Somerville Theatre, expanding to a full six-screen slate on Thursday, with the five at the Somerville including Shadow, Monos, and Them That Follow while Running with Beto and The Death of Dick Long at the Brattle.

    That means the Somerville is shuffling some stuff off screens and playing down a screen at times, which they fill with a few more from their Jack Attack retrospective: Five Easy Pieces plays Friday night and a double feature of A Safe Place (on 35mm) & King of Marvin Gardens on Sunday.
  • Some stuff actually came out on Wednesday: Disney's annual Earth Day documentary for 2019 is Penguins plays at the Capitol, West Newton, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), and Revere. We've also seen the last preview for Breakthrough, now playing at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere (why the movie about having to beg a supernatural entity for the life of your child played mostly in front of family films rather than horror movies, I don't know).

    The big release for Friday, apparently, is The Curse of La Llorona, which is apparently a new spinoff of The Conjuring that pulls a Mexican folktale into that universe. That's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), and Revere (including XPlus). There's also Teen Spirit, which stars Elle Fanning as a teenager with a great singing voice looking to become a star. It plays the Capitol, the Lexington Venue, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Revere.

    This week's new Japanese animation is Okko's Inn, in which an orphaned girl comes to live with her grandmother and discovers she can see spirits; it gets a two-day run at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere, with Tuesday's shows subtitled and Monday's dubbed at Fenway and possible the Common. Revere will also show Mission of Honor (aka Hurricane), featuring Milo Gibson (who looks unnervingly like his dad) as part of a squadron of Polish pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain. And while everybody is getting early shows of Avengers: Endgame on Thursday, only Revere is booking a Marvel Marathon, which starts at 11:30am on Tuesday and runs roughly 60 hours to finish with the big climactic 22nd movie. They will be providing shower stalls, spots to nap, and the like.
  • Kendall Square turns over a fair amount, and I wonder if they're picking up a lot of female-led films to counter-program the big superhero thing next week. Aside from Teen Spirit, they get three more. Wild Nights With Emily stars Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, portraying her not as a bitter spinster but a funny, playful romantic.

    Also playing there is Little Woods, starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James as sisters whose already precarious condition in a tapped-out North Dakota town is thrown into even more chaos after their mother dies. They also have matinees of Girls of the Sun, the story of an all-female battalion in Kurdistan.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a pair of new restorations this weekend, with Icelandic fairy tale The Juniper Tree playing Friday to Sunday and Audition at 9pm Friday and Saturday, as well as a presumably-archival print Wednesday at 8pm.

    The Cambridge Science Festival has a pair of events there Sunday afternoon, and fills the time before IFFBoston settles in Thursday with a couple programs: The DocYard presenting Turkish/Kurdish film Meteor Monday night, with director Gürcan Keltek skyping in afterward, and then a Trash Night presentation of Solarbabies on Tuesday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up High Life, but also spends some time on Coolidge Award winner Julianne Moore, with a midnight 35mm screening of Hannibal on Friday, an evening show of Far From Home on Tuesday, and a special show of Gloria Bell on Thursday afternoon before the special award presentation that evening (with the other screens dark for the day),

    Regular midnights include 35mm prints of two seminal Japanese movies - Takashi Miike's Audition on Friday (possibly the same print the Brattle has), and Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge on Saturday - and Super Troopers on Saturday. There's also a special screening of Holocaust documentary Who Will Write Our History? with director Roberta Grossman on Sunday afternoon. There's also an Earth Day/Big Screen Classics screening of Princess Mononoke on Monday, including the short film "Plantae".
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens Kalank, a Bollywood drama set during the 1940s partition of India, and Telugu sports film Jersey, with Nani as a cricketer reaching the end of the line. There's also more scattered showings of two thrillers, Kavaludaari in Kannada (Friday/Saturday/Wednesday), and Malayalam film Athiran (Friday/Sunday/Monday), as well as Tamil-language horror-comedy Kanchana 3 (Saturday).

    P Storm continues at Boston Common, while Finding Julia opens in Revere; that one tells the story of a hapa acting student in New York having nightmares about the Vietnamese mother she never knew.
  • After his talk on Thursday, The Harvard Film Archive presents Amar Kanwar's film Such a Morning on Friday evening, with the director in attendance. Much of the rest of the weekend is given to Japan, with Miyazaki's breakthrough film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind playing as a $5, 35mm family matinee on Saturday and then several from The Other Japanese New Wave - The Samurai Vagabonds on Saturday, and two screenings of The End of Love, one Saturday night and one Sunday afternoon; both on 35mm. A Richard P. Rogers retrospective starts Sunday evening with a 16mm print of A Midwife's Tale, and a program of post-Bauhaus experimental films plays Monday evening.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their run of The Wild Pear Tree with screenings Friday and Sunday, as well as their New Cinema From Mexico program, presenting Roma on Friday and Our Time on Saturday. "Gender Bending Fashion on Film" also continues, with Colette (Saturday), A Simple Favor (Sunday), Black Panther (Wednesday) following a lecture by fashion designer Walé Oyéjidé, and Orlando (Thursday). They also have their annual program of short films by the students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday evening.
  • "Month of Sundays" continues at The ICA with McQueen, playing at 1pm and free with admission to the museum.
  • Belmont World Film presents Hendi and Hormoz, an Iranian film built around the custom on the island of Hormuz about arranged marriages for teenagers, at The Belmont Studio (which seems to have gotten a recent seating upgrade) on Monday.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights has Seder-Masochism, the newest by Nina Paley of Sita Sings the Blues fame, on Tuesday night, with Paley on hand for a Q&A afterward. The program of free screenings at the upstairs screening room in the Paramount Theater also includes If Beale Street Could Talk on Thursday.
  • Cinema Salem keeps The Heiresses around for a second week in their screening room, while The Luna Theater has Apollo 11 (Friday/Saturday/Tuesday), The Wiz (Saturday/Sunday), Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (Saturday), Purple Rain (Sunday), The Fountain (Monday), and Weirdo Wednesday.

There will be camping out at IFFBoston, of course, and I've got a poorly-timed Red Sox ticket the night before that (Seder-Masochism is otherwise very tempting), but I'll also try and hit Little Woods, Wild Nights with Emily, Nausicaä, and Hellboy as well.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 8 April 2019 - 14 April 2019

You know what's kind of great? Weekends where everything you do for entertainment is actually pretty darn entertaining.

This Week in Tickets

The work-week started with Dragged Across Concrete, which makes me ponder the calculus of movie-theater booking - it's got a guy who used to be a big star, but it's also coming out on VOD the same day, there's something else that doesn't need every showtime, it's 139 minutes and thus awkward to schedule… Anyway, I'm glad the Capitol picked it up, because even if it cost a bit more, it kind of benefits from being seen without distraction.

Tuesday was treated as a holiday, as it was the Red Sox' home opener, which was fun for the rings being passed out and such but later got out of hand scoring-wise and also very cold. Not ideal. Things got better on Friday, as the Red Sox won, it was moving at a good clip, and lots of fun things happened, including Jackie Bradley Junior making an amazing catch. The Sox have been bizarrely not good this year, considering how excellent almost the exact same team was last year, but baseball is fun.

After that, it was a pretty darn enjoyable weekend at the movies, because pretty much everything for the next couple of days was a solid example of its genre, and that much pretty darn good doesn't exactly require masterpieces. Saturday, for instance, started with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy finally arriving in North America, and it was filled with good screen fighters being put through their paces by Yuen Woo-Ping, and maybe it's the movie that makes Max Zhang a star rather than the guy the star fights. After that, it was time to head to Harvard Square where the Brattle had a double feature of Jackie Chan's Police Story and Police Story 2, where Jackie left no piece of glass unsmashed and pulled out a few just amazing fight scenes. There may be certain weak parts to these movies, but what he does well, he does very well indeed.

Sunday was another sort of split double-header, each half of which hit a certain part of my brain in a good way while indulging certain specific favorites. Missing Link, for instance, indulged my loves of animation (stop-motion specifically) and well-used 3D, while The Chaperone gave me Haley Lu Richardson as Louise Brooks, and that is pretty fantastic casting of one favorite as… well, maybe not quite another favorite, exactly, but an icon whose work I tend to enjoy.

That's a good run on my Letterboxd page; here's hoping for more before IFFBoston eats my life.

Dragged Across Concrete

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 April 2019 in Capitol Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

I'm not sure which scene in this movie gets across where it's coming from most clearly - the one where a television in a convenience store runs a news report about two cops being suspended for behavior that doesn't see too far out of line, relatively speaking, while a robber cruelly and systematically kills everyone there? The one where their lieutenant warns the senior partner that he's becoming too cold but doesn't quite link it to the political correctness the roll their eyes at? The scene in a car where the two partners talk about how they can't make ends meet and are backing into a life of crime? Or another random murder of a relatively minor character on the heels of careful work to build her vulnerability up, the people around her understanding and helping with her brittle nature? It's a dark set of scenes even before it gets into a methodical bank robbery and low-speed pursuit that stretches out the rest of the movie.

It's weirdly hypnotic, though - filmmaker S. Craig Zahler stretches everything out a bit longer than many would, using the almost complete lack of a score to let the audience stew a bit. People draw out sentences, speak both a little more plainly and more elaborately than necessary, and feel a bit detached even when they're basically being decent and there should be a feeling of empathy. Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi use spare compositions to isolate characters, placing them in empty spaces that make it hard to connect, the cast all seeming relatable but often just a bit off. It's like the people involved aren't quite human except for maybe the kids who have not yet been beaten down by the world, and it takes effort to push themselves in the right direction - and some have a hard time realizing it at that.

This one's never going to become a favorite and likely won't get a rewatch anytime soon, but there's something to its dissatisfaction and disconnection that plays as celebrating toughness on the surface but maybe some concern about how it can leave a person empty and going through the motions of doing right underneath. It's interesting, if nothing else, enough so to get me a little more interested in getting that copy of Bone Tomahawk off the shelf and into the disc player.

Ging chaat goo si (Police Story)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement, DCP)

I slept through bits of it at the Coolidge's midnight screening a couple months ago, and I think I might have missed different parts this time, but all together, it's clear why this is considered a sort of masterpiece; it's got some of the best action scenes ever shot, are the plot is kind of dead-simple but functional, and everybody is just chewing the appropriate amount of scenery.

Also, I couldn't help but giggle at how, in 1985, apparently a criminal enterprise was running on Atari 8-bit computers, with the big boss having a 64K 800XL on his desk (attached to a 1050 disk drive) while the witness printed out a SynCalc spreadsheet from a 48K Atari 800 attached to a model 825 dot-matrix printer. Not sure how many others in the audience would be quite so delighted, though.

It's a blast, and I'll probably hit it again when the Blu-ray arrives next week.

Liked it back in February, too

Ging chaat goo si juk jaap (Police Story 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement, DCP)

Jackie Chan kind of puts too much story and not enough action into this sequel, but that just makes it a bit of a step down from the first. It's still got a couple terrific fight scenes, a continued vendetta against any piece of glass that may find itself in Jackie's vicinity (down to the camera lens!), and a couple of the guy's best pure comedy bits.

Sometimes it feels kind of confused, like how it kind of doesn't know what to do with Ka Kui's girlfriend May, who is a lot of fun when she's giving as good as she gets but less so when she's bitter and issuing ultimatums. The finale is fantastic, as well.

And, three years later, they've upgraded to PCs!

Dragged Across Concrete
Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 7
Red Sox 6, Orioles 4
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
Police Story 1 & 2
Missing Link
The Chaperone

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Chaperone

I don't recall seeing a preview for The Chaperone before it popped up on Kendall Square's schedule, but I must have; when I looked up the film while making a "Next Week" post, I distinctly felt that whoever made the preview had buried the lede by not making it clear that Haley Lu Richardson was playing Louise Brooks. It probably doesn't really matter in terms of the actual story, but that's a combination that gets my attention.

What I'm saying here is, I would like another movie or two with Haley Lu Richardson following Brooks's career, from Hollywood to Germany to maybe rediscovering herself as a writer. Not necessarily from the Downton Abbey people, but it's such a great matching of character and part that it would be a shame to just have her as the background to someone else's fictional story.

The Chaperone

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

The Chaperone is cheerier and more effervescent than it sometimes seems like it should be; it tells the story of a woman who finds happiness and otherwise makes a less-than-ideal situation better in small, pragmatic ways in a way that's faithful to its 1922 setting despite the modern instinct to want more confrontation and a sharper edge. This movie is pleasant and accommodating even when it seems like it maybe shouldn't be, but that's hardly a mark against it - it's a modestly delightful story that makes a virtue out of finding the best way to look at difficult situations.

It starts in Wichita, Kansas, with the aptly-named Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) attending a charity event with her husband Alan (Campbell Scott). The first piece of entertainment is pianist Myra Brooks (Victoria Hill) playing while her teenage daughter Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) dances. Both are talented, with Louise accepted to study at a prestigious group in New York City, though her parents are reluctant to send her away without a chaperone - it's not hard to see that she has the potential to be more trouble than even the average 16-year-old. Norma volunteers, which seems unusually impulsive, but it turns out she's got her own reasons - she was born there, but adopted by midwestern farmers at the age of three, and is looking to track down her birth parents. The nuns at the "House for Friendless Girls" are not much help, but German handyman Joseph (Géza Röhrig) is taken with her and helps her sneak into the records room.

The filmmakers appear to take some liberties with Laura Moriarty's novel, which in turn likely takes some liberties with Louise Brooks's life; someone coming to this film on the promise of one of this decade's most interesting young actresses playing one of the silent era's should probably take note of the title. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler put enough of that in to that this part of the audience won't feel short-changed, but mostly they focus on Norma and her sort of coming-of-middle age story. Her name has been changed from "Cora" for the film, presumably to underline how she enters the film taking a lot for granted - about her home life, the good intentions of her neighbors, her own history. The story throws challenges to her orderly, proper life.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Missing Link

I suppose I should have expected the relatively low turnout after going to the same multiplex to see Master Z on Saturday and seeing a guy in a pretty nice Mister Susan Link costume, almost certainly sent out by the studio, just kind of awkwardly standing in the hallway, without any kids around to pantomime for. Like I say in the review, I kind of get why Laika's films haven't yet managed to click with audiences - they're eccentric in a way that probably captivates longtime animation fans and film critics more than the Pixar and DreamWorks films that, either through incredible instinct or careful engineering, almost-unfailingly manage broad appeal. I figured maybe Spider-Verse might have stoked a little more interest in unique animation style, but not this one.

Or maybe it's just blurring in with the other animated yeti/sasquatch movies; it's six months after Smallfoot and about that long before Abominable, so maybe it's not quite so close. But maybe people felt like they'd already seen this before, although it sure looks like it's the best of the group. It's weird to see a preview for one of these in front of the other, though; makes the whole thing feel like some sort of relay race.

The audience was small enough that it was easy enough to pick out the four- or five-year-old girl who was watching it and into the movie enough to have questions. I kind of love that; part of watching a movie with a crowd is hearing how the crowd reacts, and a kid who does this with enthusiasm is reacting just like someone laughing or screaming. A year or two older, and it's not quite the same, but that sheer enthusiasm is delightful. Her mom or dad took her out before the movie ended, unfortunately; maybe some of the other folks in the audience just figured talking was talking.

Ah, well; hopefully whoever puts Annapurna's movies out on disc will do it up with a 3D/4K bundle. I say it all the time, but it deserves both. Part of the real shame of how theaters have killed the goose that laid the golden egg with 3D is that it looks like this will only be showing in 2D after just seven days, when though it's part of a pretty impressive string of films that are very much using the third dimension with purpose rather than just doing an obligatory conversion after the fact.

Missing Link

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2019 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

There were only a handful of people in the theater for a 3D screening of Missing Link on a Sunday evening two days after it opened, and while there are potential reasons for sparse attendance in the description, I'm starting to wonder what more Laika has to do to get people to come out for their movies. Missing Link is, as is customary with this company's productions, whimsically designed, big-hearted, impeccably voiced, precisely and beautifully filmed one frame at a time, and just generally everything one might wish a movie for the whole family to be. What else do these guys have to do?

Admittedly, there are ways in which one can understand some skepticism. As much as one almost cannot help but be impressed by the sheer labor-intensive nature of shooting a stop-motion feature, the result often lacks the smooth, friendly looks of digital or hand-drawn animation (at least that made with kids in mind); these movies often have the vibe of weird nineteenth-century toys come to life. And Laika has never made it particularly easy to get past that; their design sense has often been eccentric at the very least and often unnerving: Breakout picture Coraline is unabashedly creepy at points, and while most recent film Kubo and the Two Strings is in many ways an astonishing achievement, its ambition and oddity are, perhaps, more than many in the audience were prepared for.

In many ways, this movie is a bit of a reaction to that. The story is relatively straightforward - would-be late-1800s explorer Sir Lionel Frost (voice of Hugh Jackman) aims to make his mark on the world by making great discoveries in the field of cryptozoology, but his recklessness and questionable priorities have made him a laughingstock among the circles he wishes to join. A letter he received from Washington State hinting at a chance to find a sasquatch may be his last chance. It's not what he thinks, though - the ape-man (voice of Zach Galifianakis) sent Frost the letter himself, hoping the explorer could guide him to what he presumes are his yeti cousins in the Himalayas, so he would no longer be alone. Two issues with that: First, the only map to Shangri-La is in the hands of Adelina Fortnight (voice of Zoe Saldana), a young widow still angry at Frost over past encounters, while Lord Piggot-Dunceby (voice of Stephen Fry), head of the exclusive club to which Frost is seeking admission, has hired an American gunslinger named Stenk (voice of Timothy Olyphant), to see that no evidence of this evolutionary intermediate ever comes to light.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, April 15, 2019

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

I was kind of surprised to see a trailer for Ip Man 4 already attached to Master Z; I knew Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip were working on another entry, but August is a bit earlier than I was expecting to see it. The franchise is kind of stretched at this point, to the point where it's easier to be excited about the more purely fictional spin-off. It looks like we might wind up with two with Yen at Fantasia, then, with that and Enter the Fat Dragon both coming out around then.

One thing that's a bit when watching these movies is how I'm not sure who's a big star in China/Hong Kong and who isn't. Having seen Chrissie Chau in 29+1 a couple years ago, I kind of got the impression that she's a big star/lead there, but she's in fairly secondary roles in both the films she's currently got playing here and there.

One thing to note, at least in the Boston area: Though made in Hong Kong and listed as being in Cantonese on some sites, AMC's app has it in Mandarin, and there do seem to be some slight lip-sync issues, although as someone that doesn't speak either language, it's something I only noticed on occasion.

Yip Man ngoi juen: Cheung Tin Chi (Master Z: Ip Man Legacy)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2019 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

That Master Z took a few months to cross the Pacific means that the distributor was able to attach a preview for Ip Man 4 to this spinoff from the previous film in the series, and while it might just not be a great trailer, it wouldn't be surprising if fans were more enthused about seeing this track continue than the main one. Less boxed-in by history and blessed with a top-notch cast, this "Ip Man Legacy" film doesn't have quite so much weight on it and can just be good martial-arts action.

At the end of Ip Man 3, Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-Chi (Max Zhang Jin) fought the Grandmaster behind closed doors and lost decisively, and has since quit both teaching and acting as a fist for hire, instead opening a small grocery store and ensuring to be a good father. The fire never entirely left him, though, and when he comes across two women fleeing from the gang operating an opium den, he throws himself into the fight, making an enemy of Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng Ka-Wing) in the process. A dangerous one - Kit opposes the plans of sister Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh) to take the family's crime organization straight, secretly joining forces with outwardly-charming American restaurateur Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) to introduce heroin to Bar Street. And since that's where Tin-Chi has just taken a new job waiting tables for Fu (Xing Yu), one of Miss Kwan's former men… Well, it could get all kinds of ugly.

It's a classic sort of martial-arts movie plot, simple enough not to get in the way but with enough pieces that the filmmakers can mix and match a bit in the fight scenes. It works because everything in Master Z is better than you might expect for this sort of genre spinoff. Though the Ip Man films need to have at least a toehold in the real world even when being distorted into nationalist myth-making, this one can happily embrace the sort of bright, heightened aesthetics of the comic books that the Cheung's son Fung devours, and it seems freeing for director Yuen Wo-Ping, who (along with his action team led by Yuen Shun-Yi) stages a couple examples of the fight scenes that made him internationally famous. The neon sign fight, in particular, is the sort of physics-defying but impactful wire fu where he excels, and the whole film kicks into a higher gear when the punches start flying. Or even when they're not; a highlight of the film is watching Zhang and Yeoh pass a glass of whiskey back and forth without spilling it, adding something delightfully physical and visual to a scene where they're otherwise just probing each other with words.

Full review on EFilmCriticHong

Friday, April 12, 2019

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

Tons of stuff coming out this weekend, enough that it will be easy to overlook some that are well worth looking for.

  • For instance: Laika's stop-motion animation always gets fewer butts in seats than they deserve despite being kind-hearted, technically astonishing, some of the best uses of 3D, and otherwise terrific. So don't sleep on Missing Link, in which the last North American sasquatch goes on a quest to find his Yeti cousins in Shangri-La. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), West Newton (2D only), Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row, and Revere.

    Also on offer is Little, in which a magic spell regresses executive Regina Hall's character to middle-school age, forcing her assistant (Issa Rae) to take her in. That plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. Skewing older is After, a nice-girl-falls-for-dangerous-boy story most notable for starting as erotic celebrity fanfic before having its names changed to get into print and thus adapted for film. It can be found at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    And then there's the new adaptation of Hellboy, which subs in David Harbor for Ron Perlman and Neil Marshall for Guillermo del Toro, and even though both of them are pretty good, those are big shoes to fill and early word isn't great on that count. It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture Natick (Imax), Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway (including PRX), the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax), Assembly Row (mostly Dolby Cinema), Revere (including MX4D and XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Fenway will be showing The Goonies Saturday afternoon and Monday evening. There are pre-Easter 60th Anniversary screenings of Ben-Hur at Fenway and Assembly Row on Sunday and Wednesday (with Revere also showing it on the second day), with animated Christian film The Pilgrim's Progress at Fenway and Revere on Thursday and power-of-prayer drama Breakthrough opening at Boston Common and Assembly Row Wednesday. That also lines up with Earth Day, which means Disney's Penguins documentary will be opening at Jordan's Furniture (Imax), Fenway, Assembly Row (including Imax), South Bay (Imax), and Revere on Wednesday. Note that some places may just not have put Wednesday openings on sale yet, so they may be playing wider.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of several places opening Amazing Grace this weekend - it also plays Kendall Square and Boston Common - but they're the only one bringing in gospel choirs to perform before two shows (Friday 7pm and Sunday 4pm) of this long-unfinished documentary of Aretha Franklin recording and performing one of the most popular gospel albums of all time. Those three theaters will also be opening Peterloo, Mike Leigh's expansive new dramatization of the 1819 Peterloo riot, a pro-democracy demonstration crushed in Manchester, England.

    The Wind plays a couple more midnight shows on Friday and Saturday, while there's early cyberpunk on the screen both other nights - a 35mm print of David Cronenberg's Scanners on Friday, and a new restoration of Akira (shown dubbed into English) on Saturday. Weekend mornings include a kids' show of Fantastic Mr. Fox on Saturday and a Goethe-Institut presentation of Wackersdorf (in which the Bavarian town pushes back against plans to build a nuclear reprocessing plant there) on Sunday, with director Oliver Haffner doing a Q&A afterwards. They also begin their program of tributes to Coolidge Award recipient Julianne Moore, with a 35mm print of Magnolia on Wednesday.
  • Kendall Square also gets The Chaperone, which stars Elizabeth McGovern as a rather non-free-spirited woman who volunteers to accompany an impulsive local teenager - future film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) to New York City. They (and Boston Common) also open High Life, Claire Denis's interesting tale of a death-row inmate one a spaceship. They also have a screening of Monty Python's Life of Brian on Thursday.
  • It's already out on disc in Hong Kong, but that just means that there's already been a lot of talk that Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is pretty darn good. Master Z, if you remember, was the fellow played by Max Zhang who made the big throwdown at the end of Ip Man 3 memorable, who is here joined by Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista, Chrissie Chau, and Tony Jaa with legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping directing. It's at Boston Common and South Bay. Chau, by coincidence, also plays the whistleblower whose information sends Louis Koo undercover in P Storm, hanging around Boston Common.

    Apple Fresh Pond opens Chitralahari in the Telugu language, with Majili sticking around in that language as well. Malayalam action-comedy Madhura Raja plays Saturday and Sunday, while a Malayalam comedy about confusion coming when three people with the same name enter each other's lives on Sunday. Yet another biography of an Indian politician, the Hindi-language PM Narendra Modi, plays Tuesday. A lot of these coming out with the general election, I guess.
  • The Brattle Theatre shows the new restorations of Jackie Chan's Police Story & Police Story 2 as a double feature Friday to Sunday, a boon for those of us who just couldn't stay up until 2am when they were at the Coolidge a couple months ago. Saturday afternoon also has the Hub Student Film Festival, a program of shorts made by undergrads at Boston-area colleges.

    For Patriot's Day, they've got the now-traditional Muppet Movie Marathon Monday, a mostly-35mm quadruple-feature that can either start or end with The Dark Crystal and has a sing-along version of The Muppet Movie (DCP), The Great Muppet Caper and Labyrinth either before or after. After that, they play host to Cambridge Science Festival After Dark: Global Warning, with a double feature of The Birds & The Last Winter on Tuesday, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (subtitles) on Wednesday, and The Host on Thursday, all on 35mm
  • If you didn't get enough of The Boston Underground Film Festival, at the Brattle last month, they've got a special "Best of the Rest" show in The Somerville Theatre on Wednesday, and this month they get out of the Micro-Cinema. Aside from that, they continue their "Reel Films/Fake Bands" series on Thursday with Velvet Goldmine on 35mm film
  • The Harvard Film Archive concludes their New Thai Cinema series this weekend, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady on 35mm Friday and Phuttiphong Aroonpehng's Manta Ray Saturday (note that the director's visit has been canceled). The rest of the weekend is Japan's Other New Wave, with Good-for-Nothing on 35mm Sunday afternoon, a pairing of short features The Tragedy of Bushido & Only She Knows that evening, and Blood Is Dry on 35mm Monday. There's also a free artist talk with Amar Kanwar at the Carpenter Center on Thursday, before his film Such a Morning screens the next night.
  • The monthly-ish "On the Fringe: Adventures in Cult Cinema" returns to The Museum of Fine Arts on Friday with a 35mm print of Death Becomes Her. They sort-of-kind-of extend the Turkish Festival with a run of The Wild Pear Tree, playing Friday, Wednesday, and Thursday. "Hollywood Scriptures" continues with IFFBoston alumni Three Identical Strangers (Saturday) and Generation Wealth (Sunday), and "New Cinema from Mexico" returns with Roma (Sunday). The Rembrandt "Exhibition on Screen" shows on Wednesday, and they start a "Gender Bending Fashion on Film" series on Thursday with the, uh, interesting Liquid Sky.
  • It's still "Month of Sundays" at The ICA, with Studio 54 on tap as this week's "Beautiful Trouble" documentary; it plays at 1pm and is free with admission to the museum.
  • The Regent Theatre isn't going big for sing-alongs for April Vacation, but they will have a screening of 1776 on Monday afternoon for Patriot's Day. It's a free screening, but reserving a spot is recommended.
  • Asako I & II is the week's Belmont World Film entry at The Belmont Studio on Monday, with Erika Karata as a young woman who falls in love with two identical-looking men (Masahiro Higashide).
  • Emerson's Bright Lights series of free screenings upstairs in the Paramount's screening room has a pair of documentaries this week. On Her Shoulders plays Tuesday, and follows Nadia Murad, a young refugee feeling someone overwhelmed as advocacy becomes her entire life, and then on Thursday they show The Feeling of Being Watched, in which filmmaker Assia Boundaoui investigates suspicions that her Muslim neighborhood outside Chicago was the target of blanket government surveillance.
  • Cinema Salem has The Heiresses in their screening room for most of the week, but go an entirely different direction than most everyone else in celebrating Easter by playing giant-rabbit horror flick Night of the Lepus on Thursday. The Luna Theater, meanwhile plays The Last Unicorn on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday, Singin' in the Rain on Sunday, and who knows what for Weirdo Wednesday.
  • Not strictly a movie event, but on Saturday the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge is hosting Colin Cantwell, who designed most of the spacecraft for Star Wars and built many of the models used in filming, which is just part of a career that included working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001, feeding Walter Cronkite information during the moon landing, and more. Autographed prints are $25. That's a good place to note that The Boston Pops will be performing live to Star Wars from May 10th to 14th, including a matinee on Saturday that's 50% for the kids. It's probably the Special Edition, but it's not like this shows nearly as often if it should, even if it is priced like a concert rather than a film.

So much this week! Top priorities are Master Z, Missing Link, the Police Story double feature, Asako I & II, and The Chaperone, and good luck finding room for Hellboy, Amazing Grace, and Peterloo in there.

Monday, April 08, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 1 April 2019 - 7 April 2019

Huh. That "go to movie, come home, watch west-coast baseball game" plan didn't result in me seeing a lot of film this week. Go figure.

This Week in Tickets

I was able to make it to the Brattle for High Life on Monday, feeling a little bad (but not really) about walking right past everyone who had apparently been waiting since before I got out of work to see Claire Denis, but, hey, I just re-upped my Brattle & IFFBoston memberships tonight,and that's what did it. It's worth noting, I guess, that for all that I occasionally see comments about how only seniors go to boutique theaters, that wasn't the crowd for this one.

For the next couple of days, I had food in the fridge I didn't want to go bad as I was eating concession stand food, but I also had to make a dent in my DVR, which is running 97% full these days, and I really ought to figure out what shows I'm behind on and which ones I no longer watch. I wound up being kind of caught flat-footed that P Storm got a no-kidding Thursday release, with shows all day rather than just a couple evening previews the night before. It's a fun-enough little Hong Kong thriller, the fourth in a series whose makers have already committed to "G Storm", and I've got to admit that I probably enjoyed it a little more because of my recent vacation there, but since I wanted to go in large part because I like Hong Kong movies, it comes full circle.

I planned to see more movies over the weekend, but between feeling sluggish from all those nights staying up late watching the Red Sox lose and the MBTA deciding to run buses instead of trains on three routes made that tricky - I wound up having to switch theaters when it became clear I wouldn't get to Shazam! in time for the 3D show I'd booked, and then on Sunday an hour and a half wasn't enough time to get to the Coolidge in time for The Wind. Maybe Tuesday.

If so, what I think will probably be on my Letterboxd page first, even if there is a big festival-sized hole there I need to fill in.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2019 in Regal Fenway #9 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

For the longest time, this movie seems to exist because Warner wants to crank out superhero movies at something approaching the same rate Marvel does, Billy Batson is one of their most recognizable characters, and they've been planning it so long that it's acquired a sort of inevitability. There's not really a whole lot new to say here, with a lot of things seeming to happen because the film has reached the point where those things happen, not because it seems like the inevitable next step. Despite having one of the best hooks in comics and one of the best sets of core villains, the movie is a full slog of half-developed ideas to modernize the concept, Mark Strong going through the motions as the villain who is nothing but his designed-to-be-relatable origin story, and blandly nasty-looking monsters which are vicious enough to scare kids but don't evoke the sins they're supposed to in particular and kind of indistinct (they're almost never seen well-lit).

On the other hand, it's got Zachary Levi, who injects a ton of energy into a version of the character that's all "kid in an adult body" without much of the Wisdom Of Solomon. Levi and Asher Angel, who plays the kid who can become Captain Marvel Shazam by saying the magic word, don't really evoke each other much, but they each do well at what they are going for and Jack Dylan Grazer winds up being the secret MVP in making that work; his Freddy Freeman is paired up with both and serves as the connective tissue the movie needs.

The filmmakers are also really smart to focus on the Marvel Family aspect, because the foster parents and siblings that Billy picks up are more or less instantly delightful, and the way it pays off feels like the best possible inversion of a superhero trope. Recent superhero movies and shows have often tried to move past the silliness of lying to protect one's loved ones, but don't really explode it like this one does, even though the secret identity is one of the most fun. It's a nice surprise for a movie that has spent a lot of time being stunningly casual about its comic-book world but only really clever in that last act.

(Also, I know the planned spinoff is Dwayne Johnson as the not-yet-truly-introduced Black Adam, but the one I want right now is one with Faithe Herman & Meagan Good. Heck, build some comics around them, too!)

High Life
P Storm

Sunday, April 07, 2019

This Last Week in Tickets: 25 March 2019 -31 March 2019

Never fails - festivals and vacations force me into catch-up mode and then "screw it, I'll just pick up from last week".

This Week in Tickets

I was just coming off BUFF, so while I had some plans to do something Monday night, most everything was at weird times so I just hit the grocery store and went home. Still, stuff needed to be seen, so I stuck around work for a little while so that there was no stopping at home (or elsewhere) on the way to Ash Is Purest White on Tuesday, and then pointedly didn't stay late for Climax on Wednesday. Not huge crowds either night, and with Ash, it's kind of interesting to me that this film being released in the sort of traditional foreign-film pattern didn't get quite the same audience as the Chinese films getting day-and-date releases.

After that… it was opening day of the baseball season, but the Sox opened on the West Coast, which meant a lot of staying up late and then kind of staying at work late because I was dragging from that… It's a vicious cycle, especially with only one of those games a win and really worth staying up late for.

Sunday wound up being doppelganger day, entirely by coincidence, although isn't it just a little more satisfying when movies about doubles come in twos? It should be that way, right? Anyway, first up was Us, which I'm obviously behind the rest of the world on, to the point of trying to dodge spoilers on social media where you can't exactly mute every tweet with "us" in it.

After that, I would wind up here:

Jeff Rapsis has been doing occasional shows accompanying silents at the Aeronaut Brewery for a while, which is somewhere between tempting and not - Jeff's great and silent films are fun, but bars are horrible places full of noise, too many people, and beer, which smells bad, tastes worse, and makes people loud and stupid. Still, Mystery of the Eiffel Tower is not something you see all the time, arguably for good reason (it's kind of bloated for a silent). It's at least a neat-looking and unusual environment to see a movie, although I've got to wonder about the lady next to me who was looking at her phone through the first half of the movie. On the one hand, I kind of get that I'm in a bar and can't necessarily expect the same sort of focus, but, geez, it's a silent movie! If you're not looking at the screen, why did you pay $10 to sit in that part of the bar?

That one isn't on the Letterboxd page, because it's not in their database, but otherwise I try to update that page as rough drafts for this one.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

Even more than with most horror movies, there's a lot going on just out of view in Us that would probably cause things to fall apart if they were actually explained - it almost feels like there should be another movie in the series and the feeling that this was a surprise sequel akin to Split and Unbreakable, and that movie would not make much sense. One only really notices because Jordan Peele has ambition enough for the audience to really want it to hold together as something brilliant.

It may not be that, but it is pretty darn good. Peele knows how to build this sort of movie, making it funny enough to keep the audience off their guards but not making it a joke, and how to play into the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with the world while keeping a tight focus on the heroes. It's shot extremely well - Peele and cinematographer are good at getting the picture to sink into the screen and using the red of the doppelgangers' outfits to suggest something bloodier than what is being shown on-screen - and has an escalating tension that will likely be just as impressive on a second go-round.

Plus, it's got Lupita Nyong'o in the best of the film's many double roles, an exceptional combination of steadying and on-edge as Adelaide and smoldering rage as Red. Winston Duke threatens to steal every scene he's in as the earnestly dorky dad, but completely changes his body language to feel hulking and dangerous as Abraham. The whole cast is kind of great, making every bit that might not otherwise quite work impressively tense.

Le mystère de la tour Eiffel (The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2019 at the Aeronaut Brewery (Silent Film Club, projected DVD)

The intertitles on this (on a DVD of a French film made from a Flemish print subtitled in English) suggest that it was originally meant to be broken into two or more parts, whether as a serial or a feature with an intermission, and that seems like it would be a better way to experience it. 129 minutes is a whole lot of silent film, and this one spends a lot of time going back and forth, recapping prior action, kind of ignoring what happened a fifteen minutes ago. It feels like binge-watching a series that was absolutely not designed for that.

It also sometimes feels like two movies mashed together, in one of which a man who plays one half of a set of "Siamese Twins" in a local circus steals the identity of his unrelated "brother" to inherit a twenty-billion franc fortune (no idea how that translates to modern dollars), but as a result gets caught up in a mystery involving the "Ku-Klux-Eiffel", a mysterious European crime syndicate that broadcasts directives to its people from the Eiffel Tower. It's outright bonkers, bigger and pulpier than life and sometimes kind of weirdly abstract, like the French filmmakers involved don't know specifically why the KKK are monsters rather than just people in weird robes, or what exactly these villains are going for other than vanilla villainy.

It's got a heck of a climax, though, as everybody pursues each other up the Eiffel Tower, and while it's kind of chaotic, it's also genuinely exciting. Some of the shots in this film certainly seem to clearly be shot in a manner akin to Safety Last!, carefully choosing angles to make it look as if it was shot further away from the ground than it looked, but some certainly seems to be insanely dangerous, enough to feel a little dizzy. Pair that with the over-the-top pulp and you've got a heck of a finale, and it just would have been nice if it were a bit more compact.

Ash Is Purest White
Mystery of the Eiffel Tower

Saturday, April 06, 2019

P Storm

I didn't realize just how fast these were coming out, with the prior movie just hitting screens last year. That sort of quick turnaround wasn't always unusual, but these days sequels often seem to be on a three-year cycle, with the delays increasing, whereas the team behind this one has stepped up how fast they churn them out. In doing so, they've probably simplified things a fair amount, but that seems to have worked to the films' advantage, as the last couple are actually better than the first two.

This is arguably the first "true" Hong Kong movie I've seen since returning from vacation there, which was fun. The Crossing was a Chinese film mostly set there, and tended to look at the SAR as corrupting, while in this movie, the ICAC guys seem distrustful of "2Gs" whose parents came over around the handover, and it's fun to see that sort of local color in a movie. It's still got some rah-rah text about corruption actually being very rare and kept in check by ICAC, but it's almost winking in how that's included.

Most of the action took place in areas that I did not visit, even controlling for how I was not, at any point, in prison during my stay, at least not until a helicopter was threatening to crash into this guy:

Did I have an extra-big stupid smile on my face during that sequence? Obviously. I mean, that's the sign of a good vacation, right - utter delight at seeing places you've only seen in movies/pictures/etc. in person followed by the same sort of pleasure at recognizing a place you've visited. Maybe that caused me to like this cranked-out thriller a little more than it deserves, but it is still a solid little movie.

P Feng Bao (P Storm)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2019 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)

Just as some television shows don't hit their stride until their second season, film series may take a while to properly settle in, and that's what seems to have happened here - the lackluster Z Storm had a decent follow-up, but things clicked into place for the third entry in the series last year ago, with P Storm roughly on that level. It's a solidly entertaining bit of cops-and-corruption action that may not be terribly ambitious but runs like a well-oiled machine, giving the audience what it wants with a little bit of style.

This time, Independent Commission Against Corruption chief investigator William Luk Chi-Lim (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) is inserting himself into a case directly, drawing a three-month sentence in Chek O Prison for street racing so that he can discover how Cao Yuen Yuen (Raymond Yam Fung), a sleazy "2G" developer whose men killed a retired school principal, is sending threats to the victim's granddaughter Natalie Lin (Chrissie Chau Su-Na) and somehow eligible for early parole. Luk soon finds a potential friend in repeat minor offender "Fluke" Wong Lam-Luk (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung), but also discovers that Wong Man-Bun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), the crooked cop he put away three movies ago.

The Z Storm movies are entertaining enough, although they're not exactly the sort of thrillers that make people fall in love with Hong Kong cinema. They're sleek, have a few too many characters, and the action is often the sort where folks like Louis Koo hit their marks marks but aren't whipping out amazing combos in the same take like the great screen fighters the region is known for. They could be made anywhere, but are a bit more entertaining than the ones made most other places, and P Storm is no exception - it opens with a slick bit of automobile work, dresses everybody at ICAC in matching suits, and spends much of its time in a prison that is surprisingly tidy for being both a prison and located in Hong Kong. There's plenty of action, but it's a bit second-tier - Tony Ling Chi-Wah's choreography is fine but director David Lam Tak-Luk and his team seldom use it to tell a story or communicate emotion the way the best martial-arts movies do; while the big action finale involving a helicopter, a hostage, and a flight plan that gets a little too close to the Ngong Ping "Big Buddha" for comfort is paced and executed well but shows a bit of strain on the budget, and involves a secondary hero. It's kind of an odd decision to have the star of an action movie sit out the climax.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, April 05, 2019

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 5 April 2019 - 11 April 2019

We live in a world where both Captain Marvels have big Imax/3D movies coming out within a month of each other. Crazy, huh?

  • Because of weird trademark shenanigans, comics based on the Fawcett Comics character later purchased by DC Comics can no longer call him by that name, so now he's Shazam!, with Zachary Levi playing Earth's Mightiest Mortal, with the twist that he's a kid who becomes an adult superhero when he says a magic word. It's at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D), Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 2D), the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax 2D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D), Revere (including MX4D and XPlus), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    There's also a new version of Pet Sematary, this one from the makers of Starry Eyes and demonstrating why moving from Boston to small-town Maine is the wrong direction. It's at the Somerville Theatre, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Revere, and the SuperLux.

    Aiming a bit higher is The Best of Enemies, with Taraji P. Henson as a civil rights organizer and Sam Rockwell as a Klansman as Durham, NC sees their school system integrating in 1971. That one plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, the Embassy, and Revere. Boston Common also has The Public, with director Emilio Estevez also part of an ensemble cast in a film about the homeless taking over a library as they seek shelter from the cold.

    Revere takes its turn showing Rock and Roll Circus on a premium screen at midnight Friday, with a screening in XPlus. This year's monthly Studio Ghibli series starts with Howl's Moving Castle, playing Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Revere; as is usually the case, the Monday show is subtitled and the other two are dubbed. There is also a "premiere event" for Terry Gilliam's long-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which plays Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Dedham on Wednesday ahead of an April 19th release. The Shining plays Revere on Thursday.
  • Kendall Square opens three new movies this weekend. Diane stars Mary Kay Place as a woman trying to connect with her addicted son and facing harsh memories, and is the first narrative film from writer/director Kent Jones. Sunset aims for a somewhat larger scale, following a woman who comes to Budapest in 1913, just as war is about to break out. The Brink is sadly not last year's Fantasia selection which featured Max Zhang doing underwater kung fu, but a documentary following Steve Bannon as he tries to push for his brand of right-wing extremism to become a global movement.

    There's also a special presentation of Weed the People on Monday, with director Abby Epstein and producers Ricki Lake & James Costa on hand for a moderated Q&A, along with a screening of Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams on Tuesday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has another movie getting (mostly) 9:30pm shows this week, with The Wind starring Caitlin Gerard as a settler in the old west who fears that the endless, howling wind is a portent of more supernatural evil. It also gets a midnight screening on Saturday, after the monthly "Martial Art House" show of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin on 35mm Friday. The "regular" midnights are The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (35mm) on Friday and a new restoration of The Tough Ones on Saturday.

    Saturday also features a Science on Screen Jr. show of Bee Movie in the morning, with beekeeper Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich teaching the kids about apiaries and colony collapse syndrome. There's a grown-up Science on Screen Monday, with podcaster Wade Roush discussing dystopias before the 7pm show of Blade Runner (the final cut), and a 9:55pm show that doesn't include the introduction. Tuesday has both Open Screen and a preview screening of The Biggest Little Farm followed by a discussion of local farming led by Greenbelt president Kate Bowditch. There's one more special screening on Thursday, as author Brian Coleman presents a 90-minute show of found footage in The "Buy Me, Boston" Video Loft.
  • A pretty strong month for Chinese movies kicks off at Boston Common with P Storm, the latest entry in a series featuring Louis Koo as a Hong Kong anti-corruption investigator, this time going undercover in prison to find how a scammer is running his operation only to encounter a crooked cop he put away in the series' first entry. It's surprisingly fun!

    Apple Fresh Pond opens Telugu-language drama Majili, which stars Naga Chaitanya Akkineni as a once-promising cricketer looking to pull himself together after nursing a broken heart for over a decade. Super Deluxe and Lucifer stick around, with Kannada-language romance Panchatantra playing Saturday to Sunday and Gujarati road-trip movie Chaal Jeevi Liya on Sunday.
  • The Capitol has 8:20pm shows of Dragged Across Concrete (which is what passes for late night shows in Arlington, right?), so if you want to see Mel Gibson & Vince Vaughn in Craig Zahler's movie about crooked cops looking to do more damage on suspension, that's likely the only chance. Their friends at The Somerville Theatre, meanwhile, will kick off their "Reel Films/Fake Bands" series on Thursday with a 35mm print of That Thing You Do!
  • Wicked Queer wraps this weekend with a full slate at The Brattle Theatre and the Paramount's Bright Screening Room through Sunday, as well as shows at the MFA. The Brattle also has a DocYad screening of Black Mother with director Khalik Allah on hand to discuss his exploration of Jamaica and its spiritual diversity. They also wrap The Good Works of Claire Denis with 35mm prints of Trouble Every Day (Tuesday), 35 Shots of Rum (Wednesday), and White Material later Wednesday).
  • This weekend's guest at The Harvard Film Archive is Brazilian filmmaker João Moreira Salles, who presents his documentary Santiago on Friday evening and his new film In The Intense Now at 7pm Saturday. In between, there a 35mm Saturday matinee of Summer Wars ($5 or free with a Cambridge Library card). The Lucretia Martel series ends Sunday afternoon with Zama, and there are a pair of New Thai Cinema presentations, with Nakorn-Sawan Sunday evening and The Island Funeral on Monday. There's also a free VES screening of Becoming Animal on Thursday
  • It's the last weekend of 18th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival at The Museum of Fine Arts, including The Pigeon (Friday), Butterflies (Friday), Halef (Saturday/Sunday), and Sibel (Saturday/Sunday). There's a Rembrandt "Exhibition on Screen" show on Wednesday and Thursday, with a "Hollywood Scriptures" presentation of The Children Act on Wednesday evening and animated film The Tower (presented by the Boston Palestine Film Festival) on Thursday.
  • The ICA begins a "Month of Sundays" this weekend; April's theme will be "Beautiful Trouble" and the first show is Joan Jett: Bad Reputation, which plays at 1pm and is free with admission to the museum.
  • The Regent Theatre shows locally produced film Sweeney Killing Sweeney on Sunday afternoon, including a meet & greet with stars Steve Sweeney, Tony V, and other members of the cast and crew.
  • This week's Monday Belmont World Film entry at The Belmont Studio is Jirga, in which an Australian soldier travels to Afghanistan to reckon with his actions there. Director Benjamin Gilmour will dial in for a Q&A afterward.
  • Bright Lights welcomes director Stephen Maing to the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday for a screening of his film Crime + Punishment on Tuesday, and the next day he will both give a presentation in the afternoon and host a program of student films in the evening as part of Emerson's "It's All True" documentary festival. Thursday's visit from Maxim Pozdorovkin is not exactly part of the festival, but his film The Truth About Killer Robots is also a documentary.
  • The Museum of Science adds a 4-D version of Smallfoot (which, like the 4-D version of The Martian, is cut down to about 15 minutes)
  • The Luna Theater has All About Eve on Friday and Saturday, Boy and the World Saturday/Sunday morning and Tuesday evening, The Field Guide to Evil on Saturday, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane on Sunday, and Weirdo Wednesday.

I've already caught P Town, so I'll be going for Shazam! for sure, trying for The Wind, and seeing what else I can catch up on around watching the start of the baseball season and hoping this awful start by the Red Sox is just a weirdly bad week.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Fantasia 2018 Catch-Up 04: Chained for Life, Blue My Mind, A Rough Draft, Bleach, Laughing Under the Clouds, Punk Samurai Slash Down, Terrified, Number 37, Cinderella the Cat, The Brink '18, and What a Man Wants

How do you manage to be able to keep writing reviews for films you saw at a festival that ended eight months ago and mark your progress in doing so?

Drawing that "X" is incredibly satisfying, and I've managed to do it 82 times for Fantasia. It is kind of amazing how far a few notes good enough to jog your memory and a first draft with the core of what you want to say can get you, and I'm guessing that applies to every type of writing. Being able to figure out where to place your pencil with just the reflected light from the screen and write in a relative straight line while looking up, away from the notebook, on the other hand, probably has relatively limited application.

Even with that, I'm afraid I still had to punt reviews of four movies: RokuRoku was the midnight movie on the festival's second Saturday and I slept through most of it; I saw Da Hu Fa the next Tuesday even though I had already heard the subtitles were kind of a mess (it's a knockout visually and I wish I could find a 3D Blu-ray); Tokyo Vampire Hotel (the Monday after that) was the obligatory Sion Sono selection but it didn't feel right to spend five paragraphs calling it a disjointed mess when it's the cut-down version of an Amazon Prime series which might be perfectly fine; and River's Edge on day #20, which I quite liked but which had the bad luck to be near the end of the festival while I was trying to plow through the notebook in order so that when I got to it this week, I just couldn't flesh the Letterboxd entry out. Sorry, movie, you deserved better from me.

Obviously, the fact that the team up in Montreal is able to choose such a memorable group of movies is also a huge part of why you can do this. Whether they think me taking eight months to finish off is reason for them to deny me the next time I come looking for a pass or reason to approve (I am, after all, doing my part to help boost awareness year-round!).

It's been long enough that Blue My Mind, Terrified, Number 37, and What a Man Wants are all available to stream on Amazon by now (though Terrified requires a subscription to Shudder). Go watch them, they are by and large pretty good.

Anyway, one more bonus post, potentially, since I've received a couple of other films from the festival on disc a couple weeks ago. I should get that done just before I head north this July.

Chained for Life

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

You can feel Chained for Life struggling with the legacy of Freaks and similar films throughout, not to mention the more general difficulty of physical differences, and maybe ultimately not sure what else to do but acknowledge the struggle. The filmmakers are determined not to present a simple fairy tale or something which minimizes the reality of living with an appearance that makes people stare, and as a result they wind up going around in circles a bit, making a movie about making a movie and talking about talking about disfigurement and beauty.

Within the movie, "Chained for Life" is the first American feature by a young European director (Charlie Korsmo), and Mabel (Jess Weixler) its star. They're shooting in an empty section of an old mental hospital, which in the film will be home to conjoined twins, bearded ladies, and the like, most played by people who have done this sort of work before. Mabel's co-star, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), is relatively new at this, and while his face may be distorted by neurofibromatosis, he's a charming, if shy, man; he and Mabel find themselves chatting and rehearsing together. It's a tentative sort of thing that could become friendship, depending on the circumstances.

The easiest story to tell would probably have Rosenthal a bitter man when introduced, but writer/director Aaron Schimberg instead opts to focus on his nervousness to start, letting the audience meet the guy rather than the issue, and by the same token not defining him by what "normal" people think of him. It's a tack that works in large part because Michael Pearson has a firm handle on the sort of charisma he needs to project here, a combination of natural charm and practiced confidence. Early on, one might be struck by the wit in how he tells Mabel she's got a look of pity on her face - it plays as banter - but it's also a kind of probe. The speech about why he'd like to be a waiter might also be something that's been refined over time, but Pearson doesn't make it feel rote. He's good enough to that I hope he can find some roles that aren't so much about his appearance, if that's the direction he wants to take.

Full review at EFC.

Blue My Mind

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, digital)

Blue My Mind is the sort of movie where I find myself kind of impatient, waiting for a more active story to kick in, but where I am also fully aware that someone who has actually been a 15-year-old girl might look at it and say "yes, this, exactly - this is an uncannily perfect metaphor for having your body and mind suddenly changing and not feeling like you can talk to anybody about it because you've been made to feel like a monster!" It's not for me, and that's okay.

The teenager in question is Mia (Luna Wedler), new at her school and as such somewhat reserved, kind of resenting that her parents (Georg Scharegg & Regua Grauwiller) have put her in this position now. As is often the case, the first girl to talk to her (Una Rusca), is nice enough, but she's more drawn to misbehaving queen bee Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen) and her friends Nelly (Lou Haltinner) and Vivi (Yael Meier), which leads to the usual smoking, parties, cutting class, and maybe finding a connection with Gianna's boyfriend Roberto (David Oberholzer). The other girls, however, don't appear to have to deal with the thirst for salt water, or being too freaked out to tell the doctor that the changes in her body that she's really worried about are the bits of webbing starting to form between her toes.

Does it still sometimes feel like the filmmakers have this big fantastical thing in the middle of their story that they spend an hour and a half trying to avoid? Sometimes, yes, and it can be kind of frustrating. Director Lisa Brühlmann and her co-writer Dominik Locher don't necessarily need to build up some detailed mermaid mythology, but the slow doling out of hints doesn't lead to a dramatic pulling back of the curtain, either in terms of transformation or the idea that Mia is part of some larger world in addition to the mundane teenage one she's in. There's tremendous potential in this particular transformation - from the physicality of it to how knowing herself fully will require Mia to go somewhere that her friends and loved ones cannot help her - but Brühlmann often seems satisfied with the vague idea of transforming into a mythological creature as a metaphor for becoming a woman, and as long as the audience recognizes that, there's no need to get more specific.

Full review at EFC.

Chernovik (A Rough Draft)

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's never a particularly good sign when a viewer's first reaction to a movie is "what is this 'to be continued' garbage?"; this is especially true when the film in question comes from a country that does not exactly have a great pipeline to said viewer, as in this case. After all, if Russian popcorn movies can't be expected to show up in North America, one might never see any follow-up. What's worse here is that, two hours later, the question of whether or not that second part would be of interest is still up in the air; A Rough Draft offers an interesting setting but doesn't get very far.

It starts with one of the good science fiction hooks; video-game developer Kirill (Nikita Volkov) ties one on at a company party, only to return to work the next day to find nobody remembers him, and the same goes for his ex-girlfriend Anna (Olga Borovskaya). When he returns home, there's a woman he never met by the name of Renata Ivanova (Severija Janusauskaite) in his apartment, and it appears the neighbors' memories of him are being erased in real time. It turns out that he is being drafted to serve as a sort of customs agent between alternate realities, and while he has been removed from this world, he has a talent for opening doors to others - and who knows, he may be the one who can find a path to "Arkan", which urban legend says is controlling many others, including our own.

There is certainly a lot there that sounds like a lot of fun could be a lot of fun, and maybe it was in Sergey Lukyanenko's original novel. But while the film is filled with neat ideas and fun visuals, director Sergey Mokritskiy and his team are kind of terrible at introducing them and letting them play out in a way that seems in any way natural. As good an opening hook as the film has, Lukyanenko et al use the opening act to introduce a lot of things that won't much matter (and skimp on the bits that will), before ditching it all with a big "wait, what?" moment for a new status quo. They continually jerk the viewer back and forth with things that are needlessly cryptic or just shrugged off like they should be obvious. There's some interesting details to the world-building, but not even much promise of a story that one can get involved in until the movie is almost over.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Unlike many adaptations of Japanese comics which have to guess at the ending, the release of the live-action Bleach movie roughly coincides with the conclusion of the original manga, give or take a few months - not bad timing, considering that series ran for roughly seventeen years of weekly releases. It's not hard to see what made the manga so popular; this adaptation of its "Soul Reaper Agent "arc is a satisfying bit of young-adult fantasy action which promises more without feeling like it's short-changing someone who just wants a couple hours of adventure.

Teenager Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) isn't exactly looking for adventure; though protective of little sisters Karin and Yuzu and his absent-minded father Isshin (Yosuke Eguchi) ever since the death of his mother when he was a kid, he could do without the part where he sees ghosts. It also means he can see soul-reaper Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki) as she fights a monster invisible to humans. Injured in the battle, she transfers her power to Ichigo, who has a surprising knack for it - her weapon grows bigger and more powerful in Ichigo's hands, and he is able to dispatch the "hollow" quickly. He apparently has a high spiritual pressure that prevents Rukia from reclaiming her powers, marooning her as a mortal. She has to train him so that he can dispatch more hollows and liberate enough power to recharge Rukia, as not only are there more dangerous hollows out there, but between the reapers who prize their secrecy and their sworn enemies of the Quincy tribe, there are a lot of people gunning for the pair.

Extraordinary teenagers fighting supernatural menaces while still trying to get through high school is not exactly the most original idea, especially in Bleach's original medium, but director Shinsuke Sato and his collaborators show a casual comfort with it that isn't always present. They seldom fall into the traps of fetishizing high school experiences or making everybody act like immature teenagers, or cranking up the melodrama so high that there doesn't seem to be any room for pedestrian concerns. The stakes are high but not so much that Ichigo can't keep a foot in both worlds. Stars Sota Fukushi and Hana Sugisaki are a big part of why it works - Fukushi makes Ichigo a big-hearted but reluctant hero despite his expansive personality, while Sugisaki handles Rukia's straight-faced dedication so that it's often deadpan funny but not a joke. They and the film are at their best early on, when "buddy comedy" is showing more than some of the other genres that have been put in its blender - the chemistry between its two superpowered teens is sharp but, at least for now, thankfully non-romantic.

Full review at EFC.

Donten ni warau (Laughing Under the Clouds)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Over the past decade or so of going to this festival, I've had a chance to see a lot of films based upon Japanese comics (with live action starting to displace animation over that time), and while Laughing Under the Clouds is far from the most aggressively pitched to existing fans rather than new audiences, it does very much feel like most of the intended viewers are going to know whether or not this is their thing before the movie starts. It's not a bad sort of fantasy story, but probably won't win a lot of new converts.

It takes place in a small town, where the three Kumo brothers tend a family shrine, a responsibility passed down for generations, meant to protect the world from a slumbering demon that is now the stuff of legend. Eldest brother Tenka (Sota Fukushi) has a reputation as a fighter that is just sort of legendary, but aims to help the local police more by maintaining an atmosphere of good cheer. Middle child Soramaru (Yuma Nakayama) is always looking to escape his brother's shadow, while Chutaro (Kitaro Wakayama) mostly gets into harmless mischief. The zeal of a ninja being transported to the prison in the middle of a nearby lake - and the strange new behavior of a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for years - hints that it may be time for "Orochi" to emerge. The Meiji government takes the threat seriously enough to send soldiers, who see Tenka as a lightweight amateur despite his reputation.

Given this film's English-language title, you might think that the whole "giant snake demon" thing and other bits of attendant melodrama would be played a bit more comedically, but they instead seem to be taken for granted, even when there's relatively little outside the stylized costuming to indicate what sort of heightened setting the filmmakers are playing in (at least to an outsider who knows relatively little about Japan; others may find this take on the Meiji Restoration pointed in what it emphasizes and exaggerates). It means that the film tends to get kind of muddled at times, not always entirely sure what it wants to be about or how much weight to give its supernatural and modern elements. It spends a lot of time putting light soap in the foreground for the first half of the film, enough that the shift to fantasy and action may not entirely seem like a detour, but less important despite the higher stakes.

Full review at EFC.

Panku-zamurai, kirarete sôrô (Punk Samurai Slash Down)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Well, this movie's something. Several somethings, in fact, starting out as a winking con-game movie set in samurai times and eventually becoming five kinds of absurd before a jaw-droppingly insane finale. Somewhere along the way, even the cheery parts get cynical and the biggest hucksters seem to have things right entirely by accident. Some may argue that this makes it a film perfect for modern times, and I don't know that I would disagree.

Junoshin Kake (Gou Ayano) is a samurai and would probably be considered a punk, by some, as the wandering ronin is not above pretending there is a crisis to make sure he gets a new job. In this case, that involves convincing Lord Naohito Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide) that the "belly shaker" cult is a threat to his rule rather than a small group of fairly harmless cranks. Several others, most notably chief retainer Tatewaki Naito (Etsushi Toyokawa), suspect this is malarkey and aim to undermine (or, if necessary, assassinate) Kake, but he's frustrating resilient. As are his lies - and once a disaffected populace knows about the cult, it actually starts to attract members, leading Kuroae to assign Kake to Hanro Chayama (Tadanobu Asano), one of the original founders, to see if he can actually do something about it. At least he's got a cute servant (Keiko Kitagawa), although Ron may be more than she seems.

How closely screenwriter Kankuro Kudo and director Gakuryu Ishii adapt Ko Machina's 2004 novel, I can't say, but if it's close, it speaks to universal the things being parodied are. A viewer determined to bend the film into a metaphor could probably find themselves deep down in a rabbit hole trying to make things that are just jokes fit, but the world is full of opportunists like Kake, trivial issues that take on the scale of real problems because people over-invest in them and the like. Japanese viewers may or may not be able to draw a line to specific targets, but the film works in large part by playing things big and broad enough to seem unmoored from reality, often seeming too ridiculous to have that sort of point until you're talking about it later.

Full review at EFC.

Aterrados (Terrified)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Give Terrified a lot of credit for not screwing around on the way to the good stuff. A lot of haunted house movies will do a slow build, hint at things that could have a rational explanation, or otherwise play things coy. Writer/director Demián Rugna says to hell with that, going all in on the paranormal barely ten minutes into the movie, and rather than having nowhere to go from there, he builds a contained but still grand mythology, finding ways to make things bigger while still placing them within the corners of our world.

The first haunted house belongs to Clara Blumotti (Natalia Señorales) and her husband Juan (Agustin Rittano); and his not believing her "hysteria" goes roughly about as well as can be expected in the opening of the movie. It soon turns out that their house is not the only one in the neighborhood which has had things going bump in the night - neighbors Walter (Demián Salomón) and Alicia (Julieta Vallina) have encountered strange activity - and that eventually attracts the attention of local comisario Funes (Maxi Ghione). He convinces a trio of experts on the paranormal - Jano Mario (Norberto Gonzalo), Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto), and Dr. Rosenstock (George L. Lewis) - to come to Buenos Aires to investigate. They each take a house for the night, maybe a bit too excited to see actual evidence of the supernatural.

Paranormal experts like these three show up in a lot of movies about the paranormal; the viewer often needs someone authoritative to both argue that there is such a thing as ghosts and to set rules that can either be obeyed or ignored, and three seems like overkill. The neat trick that Rugna pulls here is that there's a sense that the trio is not quite crackpots, but are folks who believe their own press and know where their bread is buttered - they know each other by reputation, and are practically winking at each other during their first meeting. Rugna spends an enjoyable amount of time playing with how, though these people may be right about there being monsters, that doesn't mean that they are not themselves crazy or cynical. Elvira Onetto, Norberto Gonzalo, and George Lewis give the group a collective vibe on first meeting and their own distinct personalities as they split up, ranging from surprise that they're seeing something so concrete to utter mania. Rugna makes the experts into the potential targets, and in doing so gives himself room for unexpected reactions and ways to defy the pressure on sensible people to get the heck out of there.

Full review at EFC.

Nommer 37 (Number 37)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Number 37 is basically an uncredited remake of Rear Window set in an unsavory Cape Town neighborhood, but that's not exactly a bad place to start if the goal is to make a decent thriller, and while the result may not be a classic, it clears that bar. Maybe this version is not as inventive as the things that inspired it, and there's really not a beat that you can't predict once the basics have been put into place, but it does find an approach to the material that makes it worth a new pass.

A few months ago, ambitious crook Randal (Irshaad Ally) and his friend Lester borrowed some money from loan shark Emmie (Danny Ross) to finance a job that, it turns out, could have gone a lot better. Now, Randal is coming home from the hospital paralyzed while Lester isn't coming home at all, but Emmie still wants his money back in a week, and how's Randal going to do that from a wheelchair in a second-floor apartment? Well, there's blackmail - Randal's girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) gave him a pair of binoculars, and Randal saw the drug dealer across the way, Lawyer (David Manuel), murder a cop. But Randal will need to recruit help to make this plan work, and that's before the cops start sniffing around.

There's a lot of Hitchcock's classic in Number 37, but it exists at less of a remove than the earlier film. Where James Stewart's Jeff was a photographer, used to placing something between himself and the world before telling its story and effectively meeting his neighbors through his lens, Randal is already part of this neighborhood and world; his being in a wheelchair is not just inconvenient and embarrassing, but directly related to the rest of the story, and more explicitly shameful. That makes the story's themes something of an inversion - where Rear Window told the tale of a voyeur who inevitably must confront danger directly rather than through those who have volunteered to help, this film is about a man used to being on the scene who must, in a way, learn to be like his foes. Not so much as a killer, but as a planner, directing others, even though the last time he made a plan was disastrous.

Full review at EFC.

Gatta Cenerentola (Cinderella the Cat)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Axis, digital)

I feel a bit ungrateful wondering how Cinderella the Cat got made when I enjoyed enough pieces to shade my "it's okay" score toward the positive, but it's a decidedly odd movie that has to stretch to do its most worthy bits and which, as an animated film based on a fairy tale, is often going to have people coming at it with the wrong idea or ignoring it for the same reason. It is, if nothing else, interestingly eccentric, which isn't always enough.

As it opens, Don Vittorio Basile (voice of Mariano Rigillo), a much-beloved tycoon, is set to open a new "Science and Memory Hub" in a future Naples, with his massive high-tech yacht, the Megaribe, as its centerpiece. He's also planning to marry Angelica (voice of Maria Pia Calzone), who has several children to Vittorio's one, but also a lover in Salvatore Lo Giusto (voice of Massimiliano Gallo), who has plans for Angelica to soon become a widow. Those plans come to pass, and ten years on, Vittorio's dreams are in ruins; Salvatore, Angelica, her daughters, and Vittorio's daughter Mia (voice of Mariacarla Norall) live aboard the declining Megaribe, the latter as little more than a prisoner, because Salvatore knows that the only way to control the Basile fortune for good is to marry Mia.

A modern/futuristic retelling of "Cinderella" may seem like a played-out concept, but its four directors and their three co-writers seem to have enough ideas between them that you can certainly see the potential from the attention-grabbing opening all the way through. The movie has a bunch of wonderfully loopy pieces to it, from a yacht seemingly designed to be a ghost ship to a tragic (yet arguably still wicked) stepmother to a transvestite stepsister to glass slippers used to smuggle cocaine to a spunky take on the title character. It's got a new treat for the audience every five minutes, to the point where it could be overwhelming. That it never really seems to go off the rails is at least partially a product of its Italian DNA: The songs are equal parts cheery and mournful, there's a casual sexiness that is only occasionally exploitative (and then knowingly), and a certain fatalism and loyalty where the characters' situations are concerned.

Full review at EFC.

Kuang shou (The Brink)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

"Max" Zhang Jin is certainly well-positioned to be the next big Hong Kong martial-arts star, fresh off a couple fight-scene-stealing turns against Donnie Yen and Wu Jing & Tony Jaa, the sort that make you want to see more of the guy playing the villain. Of course, it's worth remembering that Wu's first starring roles after similar parts weren't exactly impressive, and that's where Zhang finds himself here: Physically gifted, showing enough acting chops beyond fights to suggest star potential, but not yet getting cast in the good lead roles yet.

Instead, he's in this, playing a rule-breaking cop hunting down gold smugglers who are much more interesting to watch before one starts consolidating power and taking charge. It's not quite boring, but it feels like a script built around location availability and what needs to happen, but not really fleshed out otherwise. Zhang's "Sai Gau" Chan Har-dong is often given more intensity than personality, and a subplot about adopting his late partner's daughter but not exactly being an attentive foster father that should say more about this guy but instead feels like it's been copied from another script where it fit better. There's more meat on the story of Shing (Shawn Yue Man-lok), a smuggler disrespected by the triads who see him as only the son of a fisherman, and who intends to steal the chief's underwater cache of gold.

There's a good movie in there, but I kind of suspect that it stars Shawn Yue; there's intrigue and melodrama and a clear motivation to his desire to clean house and pull off a seemingly impossible crime. He's got a colorful, fitting villain, too - triad boss Blackie (Yasuaki Kurata) never leaves his floating casino, and that ostentatious wealth makes a more interesting contrast to Shing and his gang than Shing does to Sai Gau. It's not hard to imagine Lee Chun-fai's script reconfigured to place Shing at the center, with Sai Gau the obsessed cop chasing him, especially if you can put more of a square focus on the nobler parts of his motivations.

Full review at EFC.

Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam (What a Man Wants)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Somewhere in What a Man Wants is a really delightful farce that knows what to do with its female characters and plays with the dissatisfaction that everybody feels in a way that heightens both its screwball nature and possibilities. Instead, it bogs down for a while before getting to the really fun parts, and reduces interesting women to a way for the male characters to come around to something conventional.

It takes place in Jeju, an island town known for its strong winds (the film's Korean title, "Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam", translates to "Wind Wind Wind"), where Seok-gun (Lee Sung-min) drives a cab, though he once traveled the world designing roller coasters, in part because his wife Dam-deok (Jang Young-nam) was tired of the infidelity. They live next door to Dam-deok's brother Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun) and his wife Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo), who run a not-terribly-successful restaurant together. Seok-gun hasn't so much stopped cheating as slowed down, with his latest target Jenny (Lee El), a gorgeous new arrival to town who finds herself drawn to Bong-soo instead - and Bong-soo is stuck in enough of a rut that he's willing to be tempted. Circumstances, therefore, find Seok-geun in the strange position of trying to serve as his brother-in-law's conscience for a change, but Jenny is determined, even getting Mi-young to hire her at the restaurant to get close to her man.

"Circumstances" kind of does a lot of work in that description; screenwriters Bae Se-yeong and Jang Gyu-seong move the story from one lane to another with such a sharp turn that it smashes through the median, at which point the movie feels like it should absolutely fall apart. The plot advances in a cruel enough way as to make the viewer question director Lee Byeong-heon's ability to turn things around and get back to being funny. On top of that, the film becomes somewhat unbalanced, even with bits added that seem designed more to fill in the gaps rather than actually add to the story. Fortunately, director Lee is able to temper and use that choice to create a good feeling of melancholy rather than wallowing; the tragedy is not enough to make things mainly sad, but instead seems to spur people to more actively seek out happiness.

Full review at EFC.