Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Manhattan(*) Movie Marathon: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Fugue, All Is True, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu

I considered heading to New York a week or two earlier to see Bolden, among a couple other films, but between really needing some actual sleep after IFFBoston and discovering that that one, at least, would play somewhere you could (eventually) reach via the T, I decided to give it a pass. Still, that was only part of the plan; another, Long Day's Journey Into Night seemed to be getting to the end of its NYC run with no sign of reaching Boston - and, trust me, I was refreshing Kino Lorber's page a couple times a day to see if there was a booking.

So I decided to guarantee it would play near me the only way I knew how - by making more expensive, time-consuming plans to see it elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Metrograph in Brooklyn wasn't playing it that weekend - they had a guest, so the screen it played on during the week would be a little mini-retrospective the days I could come - which left the newly-renamed Film at Lincoln Center, and from there, I kind of built outward.

It wound up being a tight day, foolishly so. I took the Go Bus from Alewife, which meant that my Saturday started out not far from where I head out for work, only forty-five minutes earlier. It got me to New York City with plenty of time to take the subway to the IFC Center for Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, where I made a crucial mistake by not visiting the concession stand. I did not necessarily need to eat during this movie, but once the pretty spiffy documentary on one of the pioneers of cinema (and not just because she was the first woman to direct movies) was over, it was right into the subway, uptown to Lincoln Center, and then no time to grab a snack before Long Day's Journey Into Night.

It's scheduled to play the Kendall in June - and, in fact was briefly scheduled for Boston Common on the 17th, but apparently the distributor figured this was a better fit. Hopefully, Landmark remembers that they've got 3D capabilities (which I can't remember them using more recently than The Great Gatsby), because that's a big part of what makes the final scene even more amazing. Lincoln Center, interestingly, uses Dolby's 3D system, which I think is active shutter, meaning they can do it with a HFR projector but no reflective screen, if that's what they have. I didn't notice an exceptional upgrade, but it looked nice.

After that, I put the (*) in the post's title by heading out to Astoria's Museum of the Moving Image, which is a lot of fun - I went there a year and a half ago for the Jim Henson exhibition, which is pretty terrific. The screening of Fugue was after hours, part of their "European Panorama" series, and got my attention because it was the new film from Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose The Lure was a big hit at Fantasia three years ago. It was one I liked without it becoming a particular favorite, although it's worth noting that a lot of folks, especially the women in attendance, loved it. I'm trying to take a little more note when I spot that dynamic, and I wouldn't be shocked if this one plays out similarly - I bet the freedom of no longer remembering your family or having to be polite hits harder for women and mothers who have more expectations put on them. It didn't always work for me, but it was interesting.

From there, I couldn't quite make it back to Manhattan for the not-in-Boston movie I'd initially slotted in fourth (maybe JT LeRoy will show up), so I opted to go here

That's kind of awesomely old-school - what single-screen theaters are left these days usually switch up what's playing on a daily basis, so that sort of marquee is a rarity; there probably aren't many places other than New York where it's really possible to have a set-up like this. Pity it wasn't for a better movie, although I might give All Is True another shot when it opens in Boston this weekend; I was already kind of dragging and hungry (still no time to hit a concession stand or street cart).

Indeed, after that, the sensible thing would have been to find a diner still open at 11:30pm, which shouldn't have been hard in The City That Never Sleeps. But, hey, I was there to see movies, so I went to the big AMC off Broadway, selected a ticket that by itself was more than I pay for Stubs A-List a month, and sat down for Detective Pikachu. Which, sure, I could absolutely have seen back home, but the "AMC Prime" projection was pretty darn terrific, maybe the clearest 3D picture I've seen that wasn't projected at a high frame rate. Super-plush seats with crazy rumble, although thankfully not as intense during the film itself as during the pre-show.

After that, it was a short walk back to the Port Authority to catch the 2:45am back to Boston, and when I got there at about 2:15, the 12:30am had not left. Nobody knew what was going on, there were announcements that the building was going to close at 2:45 that we all ignored, and by the time I was heading home, it was 3:30am. Yet another reminder that you don't use Greyhound unless there are no other reasonable options. I didn't get a whole lot of sleep on the bus, but I wasn't kept up, so there was that. And I was able to get some peanuts from the vending machine, which filled me up without a lot of sugar to keep me up.

Not a bad day of seeing movies all-told, although, boy, do I hope that we're able to get a little bit more variety on-screen when the place by North Station opens. It's kind of crazy that we don't get some of these in the easily-accessible parts of Metro Boston, and I wonder what I miss by not doing this ridiculous sort of movie trip more often.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2019 in IFC Center #5 (first-run, DCP)

There's a montage in this movie where a bunch of filmmakers confess that they hadn't heard of Alice Guy-Blaché before (with one notable exception because of course Ava DuVernay knows who has been overlooked), and I must admit that I'd only heard her name a few times before, as one of a number of examples in a different documentary about how women's contribution to cinema was historically underrepresented. And while Be Natural would be useful even if it was just about drilling down into something known generally, it's also an intriguing look at early cinema and how we've been unable to shake issues from a century ago.

Alice Guy was a central part of the movies' formative years from the very start; born in 1873, she was the secretary to Leon Gaumont and was with him when he attended an industry presentation by the Lumiere Brothers months before the public screening in December 1895 considered the birth of cinema, and would start producing and directing movies for the Gaumont company soon after, when the were by and large 5-minute "attractions". She would meet future husband John Blaché-Bolton in 1906, and they would come to America a few years later, where they soon form the Solax studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Their marriage would start to fall apart at around the time when the industry was moving to Hollywood, and as the movies grew respectable enough to be considered man's work, her contributions would be erased.

The early days of the movies were frantic as everybody was trying to figure out what technology to use, how to get the results in front of an audience, and whether or not these moving pictures would be the sort of cash cow that transformed one's company or a flash in the pan, with the films themselves often super-compact to start and then sped up, and Pamela B. Green's film embraces that frenetic nature. The documentary starts out as energetic and fast-paced as the early films Alice Guy directed, packing tons of information about the start of cinema and her life & career into a compact package, whooshing across maps and renderings of Paris and Fort Lee and sticking in markers to note important places and events, practically having the people interviewed finish each other's sentences. It's exhilarating, and at times almost exhausting, like the filmmakers are afraid they won't get it all in and still have time for the rest of her life.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Di qiu zui hou de ye wan (Long Day's Journey into Night

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2019 in Film at Lincoln Center's Howard Gilman Theater (first-run, Dolby 3D DCP)

It's a tough competition to be seen for movies outside the mainstream these days, but Long Day's Journey into Night has certainly racked up ways to pique one's curiosity by the time it reached America: For some, just being the new film by the maker of Kaili Blues was going to be enough, although the good reviews on the festival circuit and the fact that it included a 59-minute tracking shot in non-post-converted 3D didn't hurt. Then, on New Year's Eve, it had the biggest-ever opening of an art-house movie in China - and on New Year's Day, one of the harshest popular backlashes! Even if you get beyond all that, you've got a film that is unlikely to be forgotten, generally for the best of reasons.

It follows Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a grizzled middle-aged man more than a bit haunted by a woman he knew when he was younger - as he tells his current lover, he'll dream about her just when he feels like he's about to forget. He's called back home to Kaili when his father dies, inheriting a beat-up van while his father's second wife gets the restaurant Being there makes him think of this Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) again, remembering how he met her and fell in love despite never knowing her real name ("Wan Qiwen" is some half-forgotten celebrity), finding a trail of clues that might just lead him back to her.

I can certainly see why the audiences in China that were sold a romantic New Year's Eve were furious at this movie, even sympathize a little. I like melancholy a little more than average, but this was kind of a lot, and I knew what I was in for. Someone who doesn't may grow frustrated with how director Bi Gan will occasionally let the viewer feel a bit unmoored in time as Luo gets lost in nostalgia, not doing a whole lot to flesh out the crime-story bones of the past while making his progress in the present halting and pushed forward to the extent that it is by some fairly casual detective work. He creates a powerful mood, always hinting at a gap in Luo's life that he doesn't quite understand and creating a sense of mystery without frustrating: Luo starts by finding a well-nested clue - a broken clock hides a picture whose face has been removed with a name and telephone number on the other side - and from there it's the sort of noirish quest that feeds the audience a bunch of little stories that both hint at more and add up to a larger one. Qiwen is often just out of reach, but it does feel like Luo and the audience are making progress.

And while they do, it's an absolutely gorgeous movie, though, with the first hour or so offering up striking image after striking image to keep one staring as Bi nudges the movie forward on its two parallel timelines. Qiwen's green dresses pull the eye to her, an island of elegance in the middle of what can be fairly rough settings and Bi uses broken mirrors and distortion to remind the audience of just how his hero is searching through himself as well as the rest of the world. There's a wonderfully staged murder that feels both exciting and sordid. It could probably end satisfyingly after about an hour and a half, but...

Full review on EFilmCritic

Fuga (Fugue)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2019 in the Museum of the Moving Image Celeste and Armand Bartos Screening Room (European Panorama, DCP)

It looks like the makers of Fugue are going for horror at first, both from the creepy animated titles and the initial tendency to spring hostility on the audience when most will expect something else. It'd be an exciting, against-expectations gambit if director Agnieszka Smoczynska hadn't previously made The Lure (a horror-tinged period mermaid musical that was genre-confounding in a different way), but still has exciting potential. It ends up going in a different direction, and while the sincerity it embraces is laudable, it proves to be a somewhat harder path to walk.

Two years ago, a woman staggered into a Warsaw train station via the tracks and immediately demonstrated that something within her had come undone, and wasn't repaired by the time she recently got in a fight with a police officer. Doctor Michal Nowakowski (Piotr Skiba) finds the amnesiac "Alicja" (Gabriela Muskala) is still in a fugue state, and suggests she appear on a television news broadcast to see if anyone recognizes her. Her father in Wroclaw (Zbigniew Walerys) does immediately, saying her name is Kinga Stowik, and soon she's heading home. It's not a happy reunion - husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) is still angry at her for seemingly abandoning him and their son Daniel (Iwo Rajski) at the worst possible time - and Daniel starts to act out with more than Krzystof's angry words. Alicja, for her part, feels no connection and doesn't intend to stay longer than necessary to get a usable set of identity papers.

Star Gabriela Muskala also wrote the screenplay, and there seems to be a bit of a split between what was more fun to create and what was more rewarding in both roles. In her early scenes she plays Kinga/Alicja as seemingly possessed, sneering at any attempts to help her and flashing a toothy smile as situations erupt into chaos. She's at least outwardly sinister and disruptive in situations when most would likely be frightened or confused, or maybe relieved, and there's a dark delight to the way she looks at people who think they're entitled to something from her and tells them to go to hell. That Lukasz Simlat gets to similarly break the mold as Krzysztof, purely angry at his apparently-dead wife resurfacing, is similarly unsentimental, priming the audience for fireworks.

Full review on EFilmCritic

All Is True

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2019 in the Paris Theatre (first-run, DCP)

It is unlikely that any actor or director working today is as broadly associated with the works of William Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh, and as a result it is both natural and kind of weird for him to make a movie where he plays the Bard himself - there are horror stories about obsessed fans that start this way! For better or worse, the most off-putting thing about All Is True is that, for someone who has consistently found ways to defy the popular idea that Shakespeare's plays are stodgy and archaic, it's almost shocking how dull this movie is. Neither he nor anybody else involved manages to find an angle that brings this story to life.

He and writer Ben Elton set the film in 1613, soon after the Globe Theatre has burned down and Shakespeare has returned to Stratford-on-Avon, with no intent to write another word in his retirement. Though the town has benefitted from his success, he's not entirely welcomed home with open arms: Wife Anne (Judi Dench) thinks of him as a guest, as he has spent most of their marriage in London; daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is married to John Hall (Hadley Fraser), a smug Puritan who won't mind inheriting from Will even as he disdains the theater; and daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) resents that her father immediately begins creating a memorial garden for her twin brother Hamnet, who was the sole focus of Will's attention even before he died when they were children twenty years ago.

Judith has a persistent suitor despite her low self-esteem and Susannah may be contemplating an affair, but relatively little comes of most of the things simmering in the background. Part of it is that both the particulars and general shape of 400-year-old family drama is likely to feel pretty irrelevant, but part of it is that Ben Elton's script feels like he is desperately grabbing historical details to try and create a story and never able to shape it into something satisfactory. He'll gesture at Shakespeare's puritan son and the ironies of his position but never find anything to happen where that's concerned, or see the evidence that Judith had inherited much of her father's talent only to be stymied by society having no place for female writers. A sequence in the latter half, as Shakespeare seeks to learn the true circumstance of his son's death, serves as a sort of reminder of how the data and official paperwork that survives as a historical record gives the shape of a story but not the whole thing.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2019 in AMC Empire #17 (first-run, AMC Prime RealD 3D DCP)

I bet that if I had ever played a Pokémon game in my life, I would love this. The filmmakers appear to have decided that there is no more need to explain Pokémon than there would be football, so it never pauses for very long, instead existing in a world where it can just casually roll into the next crazy thing. It does a lot better by that technique than many films trying to play to fans but not puzzle the rest of the world; I can see the fun, even if the references often fly past me.

That's the big hurdle, and the film is pretty darn okay once it gets past that. It looks great, has some amiable leads who are all doing the harder-than-it-appears job of splitting the difference between faithfully representing types from a kids' adventure cartoon and three-dimensional live-action people. It sputters a little bit toward the end, as what seem like big, consequential ideas aren't given much space to actually mean anything amid all the colorful action and the need to wrap things up, but it's been enough silly fun up to that point to get away with that.

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