Saturday, November 23, 2019

These Weeks in Tickets: 28 October 2019 - 17 November 2019

A couple busy weeks and I fall behind like crazy. But they're fun, crazy weeks.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

Halloween week was a fun one because I got to bounce around a bunch of different venues for unusual shows. Monday (the 28th), for instance, Emerson's Films from the Margin club teamed up with the 3-D Film Archive folks to show The Mask, which is not a good movie, but the 3D sequences are pretty amazing. The talk about how they preserve and restore these movies was just as interesting, notably how many of these films probably look better in their current 3D Blu-ray/DCP incarnations than they did on their initial release. I'm happily buying all those discs that I can, because the window when they'll be available is closing quickly.

The next night brought a trip to the Regent Theatre in Arlington for Farming, which got four-walled there because, apparently, the place that usually does such things is full up for Diwali. It's not the greatest movie - it probably wouldn't be getting a day-and-date release on VOD if it were - but it's got one of the best performances I've seen from Kate Beckinsale, which is something. Then on Thursday, it was back to Arlington but a different spot on Mass Avenue for a Halloween show of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the first time I've seen it in polarized 3D, as even the times it played the Coolidge in the middle of a 3D festival, Universal would send anaglyph prints.

I didn't get tickets for the first night of IFFBoston's Fall Focus opening night ahead of time, which freed me up to check out Terminator: Dark Fate opening night, which… well, wasn't great (though on the plus side, the movie I missed opens in 35mm this week, so it's not a big loss). I did hit the Brattle for the Fall Focus presentations of The Wild Goose Lake & The Truth, really liking the first one and eventually growing fonder of the second. There were longish breaks and a movie I figured I would see in its regular release in between, so I went to Best Buy to use an expiring coupon and then to the Somerville Theatre for The Lighthouse in between. Sunday, it was back to the Brattle for the IFFBoston presentation of The Kingmaker, which was apparently shrewd, because Lauren Greenfield dialed in for a Q&A and it looks like her movie isn't getting any theatrical play here otherwise.

I stayed in the next few nights, but the two 3D movies from the previous week had reminded me to get a replacement Blu-ray from Universal for my Creature box set (they'd originally encoded the two sequels at 720p rather than 1080p), so I watched Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us off those. Not a great series, all told, but I'd be kind of curious how the themes that emerged were deliberate or just sort of natural with the story they chose to tell.

Friday night, I headed in to the Harvard Film Archive to catch some movies from their B-movie program, a single feature of The Face Behind the Mask a seven and then a pairing of Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin. Solid stuff, especially the last one, whose remake is a favorite.

Saturday I did a sort of odd split-doubleheader for Chinese movies, seeing My Dear Liar at Boston Common and then heading into the Seaport to see Better Days because that one is a big hit in China and the Boston Common shows got swarmed and sold out early. It's the better movie, so the one other person in the first screening versus sold-out shows is about what you'd expect.

After that, it was another B-movie at the Archive with the not-great Dr. Broadway. After that sort of triple-header, it only makes sense to head home and sleep in late the next day, and then Doctor Sleep the next day. Didn't do great, even in New England which you'd think would be Stephen King country.

A lot of the next week was spent late at work trying to make up for all the time we were spending packing up the office and basically swiping things because otherwise they'd just be sent to a warehouse never to emerge again. Still, it meant heading into Harvard Square for this year's edition of the International Pancake Film Festival was a special treat. There were some new levels added to the video game, a lot of folks who had made their odd little movies on hand with friends, and while none of them will necessarily make my list of favorite short films for the year, everyone was having fun and it's kind of amazing how much more polished the 2019 films are than the ones from the first ones I went to. We've got crazy filmmaking technology in our pockets these days.

It was back to the Brattle the next afternoon for Bullitt on 35mm, an odd one-off inclusion on the schedule which was revealed as a birthday party that filled half the theater. I last saw it on HD-DVD (and, yes, I can still play the disc), but the print looked great and the movie is awful good. After that, I headed to Boston Common for the back half of a "driving fast" double feature, with Ford v Ferrari, which may not be a great movie but which is aggressively decent, and that's not a bad thing.

That's a lot, with plenty more coming next weekend. Watch my Letterboxd page and follow me there if you want

The Mask

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2019 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Films from the Margin, anaglyph DCP)

The Mask is three amazingly mounted 3D scenes surrounded by one very weak hour of B-movie crud, but it's a case where this may accidentally be the best thing for it. If the bits in the real world were witty and clever and competent rather than quite incredibly stupid, would the alternate-world horrors that come when someone puts on the mask have seemed like they might be seductive? So often you have these visions of Hell that obsess people but don't seem like they should. Instead, they're intense and fascinating in contrast to the nice-enough mundane world and, as such, something a viewer hopes the filmmakers will do more of, which they can transfer to the characters..

Not that this was likely the result of any sort of plan - no, it seems like everyone involved did their best and they just had much more affinity for abstract madness than traditional crime-movie procedures. And those 3D sequences are pretty great, shot with care and fantastic composition, bringing in mime Rudi Linschoten to serve as the avatar for the doctor being driven mad. He knows how to work with space better than actors who just recite their lines well enough, and the filmmakers give him a stage to do so. Because the actual story is outside, in the real world, they only have to hint at various nightmares rather than pull it all into a coherent mythology, so those scenes are built to let imaginations run wild.

The other half of the movie which should probably at least be trying to get all the details right, but can't escape the story's basic thinness or the blandly basic characters the cast is saddled with. Everybody just does exactly what the story needs without it ever seeming like it comes from them, and it's boring as heck. The most fun it gets is when the booming voice in Doctor Barnes's head implores him to "put on the mask!", which is kind of clever in how it breaks the fourth wall.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2019 in Capitol Theatre #1 (Throwback Thursdays, RealD 3D DCP)

It's kind of amazing the difference good presentation can make; I've only ever seen this one in red-blue 3D with prints that probably had been through the projector a few times, and the Capitol showing it in polarized fashion helps make things pop a little more, show just how crisp the photography is and how well depth is used. It's a nifty-looking movie, even if the Creature's dead eyes sometimes can't help but remind you that it's a suit. Being a great suit makes up for it somewhat.

It's also a film that gets more comfortable and enjoyable the more times you see it - its shortcomings seem earnest rather than hacky, and the filmmakers are, at their best, able to balance the humans' horror at their potential murder with the scorched-earth techniques that they are using the capture/kill the creature. The dumping of chemicals into the lagoon is a thing that a lot of 1950s horror/sci-fi would do pretty much without second thoughts, and truth be told, that seems to be the case here - but it's not quite so gung-ho as similar scenes are in other movies, and having a little sympathy for the "villain" is often what makes these old Universal Monster films stick with a person.

eFilmCritic review from 2015

The Lighthouse

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 November 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

The Lighthouse is beautifully photographed. It's got a pair excellent performances from Robert Pattinson and Willen Dafoe. And for those for whom "two people in isolation drive each other insane" is more than enough story, it probably won't wear out its welcome. I think I passed the point where that was still interesting with about twenty or thirty minutes to go, though. It's absolutely the sort of thing where I reach a point of "I get it" and each new piece just becomes more, and the escalation only serves to make things more confusing rather than revealing.

I'll probably give it another chance when it shows up on a Brattle schedule or something; it's well-enough put together and regarded that I'm curious what I missed by seeing it when I was feeling a little worn out and from close enough that I had to look up and miss things when I rested my neck for a half-second. I suspect that I was under the expectation that it would eventually become something more like Cold Skin, rather than something as determinedly abstract as this film.

Revenge Of The Creature

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Creature features, 3D Blu-ray)

The sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon feels kind of lazy despite the nicely tweaked suit and the still-impressive underwater photography and 3D work. The water-park setting is dull, the new characters mostly feel generic, and the direction mostly makes the Creature look slow and unwieldy. There is clearly some cost-cutting going on although they haven't completely cheaped out yet - it surprises me a bit that this was the high point of pretty & charming Lori Nelson's career, for instance, and the work that the 3-D Film Archive has done for this Blu-ray shows that Universal was still putting some effort into the series. The inspiration and balanced outlook of the first is diminished, though.

I'm not sure whether to applaud or snicker at the pure predatory horniness the filmmakers get out of the Creature despite his expressionless face. It sometimes seems like an accident, as if the filmmakers are trying to keep their monster from being too sympathetic as he struggles against chains and gasps like he's suffocating outside the water and he just comes off as trying to run with an erection. It's not really a bad idea, although with it being 1955, they don't really talk about him being the last of his kind and probably having the urge to reproduce frankly enough to just spell out that it wants to mate with Nelson's young, optimist scientist. It mostly comes off as an example of how you kind of have to make these monsters brutes at some point to counter their tragic nature, and this movie doesn't quite find the point at which there's a good balance.

The Creature Walks Among Us

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Creature features, Blu-ray)

The third Creature movie is another step down from the first; aside from no longer being in 3D, it looks cheaper, substituting obvious rear-projection for location shooting or even elaborate sets, and the film is awful dull, with a bunch of male characters who run together and a monster who is incapacitated for most of the movie. It's a bad movie even before you get to how the one notable woman in the movie changes personality wholesale from scene to scene, which is a damn shame, because she often seems the most potential as both a heroine who can save herself an a tragic parallel for the Creature. You can almost see the seeds for The Shape of Water planted here more clearly than they are in the earlier, better films.

And yet... It's interesting. Underneath that mess of inconsistent characterization for Leigh Snowden's Marcia and the disappointing change in the creature outfit, there's something about the parallel between the two, the idea of being made into something else, that you can see the filmmakers playing with but not quite making work. If you look at the whole series just right, you can see a sort of cynical progression through the trilogy: The Creature goes from being an indigenous person driven to extinction, to a curiosity for his destroyers to gawk at, to being subsumed by the conquerors. It's not a perfect match, perhaps, but there's something there, and while the series peters out as good horror even as its adding depth, at least it wound itself down early enough to avoid diluting itself too much.

The Face Behind the Mask

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

You wouldn't necessarily know this was a B-movie if not for its short length and attempts to avoid showing its disfigured main character's face because the budget just isn't there - although their canny use of make-up and black-and-white photography makes it look like Janos Szabo is wearing a mask even if his face is too expressive for that to be the case. It's got a great performance by Peter Lorre in the center and absolutely no fat on it, a story pared down to its essentials and cranked out with competent professionalism.

Impressively, though the story revolves around crime and criminals, it never needs to show the audience a heist, somehow convincing the viewer just well enough that these guys can manage what the film says they can without doing that tricky stuff. It's just enough to let the background shift so that the audience can watch Lorre cycle through optimism, despair, and cool rage, tracing a path of tragedy that never seems too much or exaggerated, no matter how much the film piles on. It's one of Lorre's best roles, and one of the most believable portraits of a man driven to become a master criminal that doesn't make it seem like he's completely turning on a dime.

Armored Car Robbery

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

For a short, relatively simple crime flick, this is a surprising snooze . It spends its opening introducing us to the robbers but doesn't give us the quality of heist we're expecting, nor does it do much with a potentially fun, backstabbing triangle. Instead, we get a manhunt executed nicely enough on film - everybody involved is a pro - but which never rises above being the sort of B movie that just pads out a program. It disappears from one's mind nearly as soon as it's over, especially in this case, when it's followed up by a superior film.

The Narrow Margin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

This movie, on the other hand, is a tight-as-hell, occasionally mean little thriller that (along with its remake) is probably responsible for my belief that setting one of these movies on a train makes it something like 20% better. It's 70 minutes that don't really ever let up and probably does a better job of balancing a hero's idealism with cynicism than almost any other noir. Charles McGraw's detective is gruff and unimpressed with most of the people he encounters, but he genuinely feels incorruptible. He's paired against two actresses in Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White who both give clear and effective performances.

Mostly, though, it's great to watch director Richard Fleisher crank through the story without any waste, always getting something out of his red herrings and comic relief. The revelations never slow the movie down for long enough to feel like the filmmakers are showing how clever they are, and the violence is both too quick and brutal to be cool and allowed to linger in the characters' psyches. It's never just a plot machine even if it's cut so close to the bone that it doesn't seem to have room for more.

Also, if you've seen the remake first as I have (and it's a nifty little movie itself), the changes it makes allow each movie to serve as misdirection for the other without either feeling inferior or wrong. That's a nifty trick, even if it's more a property of another movie than this one.

Dr. Broadway

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

Ten years later, this is probably the pilot for a not-well-remembered TV series rather than something released in theaters, although Paramount probably would have liked to crank out a couple "Dr. Broadway and the..." movies every year in the 1940s. Alas, this movie is a silly thing, full of bits that imply other important things going on but which never connect to anything else, a sadly affirmative answer to the question of whether it's possible for a movie to be too snappy, as the title character is always too ready with an answer to feel threatened and pulp tropes get treated as so self-evident that the movie never feels less than manufactured.

I do wonder what the leads could do with better material. Macdonald Carey, for instance, seems pleasant enough, a handsome and charming leading man, but too smooth, and you wonder what he could have done if the script had ever had his character stumble or be unsure every once in a while. Jean Phillips gets to be pretty and sassy, but the character she plays is all over the place, going from streetwise and fearless to moon-eyed love interest too easily.

As much as I usually like 68 minute B movies that don't mess around, that doesn't work for everything, and this one stumbles hard trying to fit all it wants to do into too small a package.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (special presentation, 35mm)

The first time I saw this, I'd heard about the famous car chase and was maybe not prepared for such a methodical crime film. I've grown more fond of that sort of movie since, and more familiar with both Steve McQueen's particular sort of cool and Peter Yates's steady hand, and dig it a lot more as a result. It's the sort of procedural that's got room to examine its sleuth through his actions, rather than have him bare all in some confessional monologues.

Part of what impresses, though, is just well aware it is of its own methodical nature. Robert Vaughn's ambitious district attorney and Jacqueline Bisset's girlfriend both react to the title character's even keel in ways that make things interesting even as the movie plugs along, eventually solving the crime in a way that works despite not being a fair play mystery. Yates keeps the same tone to the end and makes that satisfying even if the audience has started to have mixed feelings about how it's all going.

And then there's the big chase (plus a less famous but still great one at the climax), just a clinic in keeping everything lined up and clear even as it takes time to get the camera inside the cars and show that neither Bullitt nor his foes are total robots despite being pros. It takes advantage of San Francisco's insane terrain and makes one feel how banged around the cars get without a whole lot of cosmetic damage. The chase feels like something difficult and unusual even for these guys, a perfect balance to how the rest of the film goes, and that also makes one think just how difficult shooting it must have been without reducing it to a straight technical thing.

It makes me realize just how underappreciated Peter Yates can sometimes be - during his prime, he had a bunch of strong work, but didn't quite have the sort of signature that made people sit up and say just how good he was. He's what they call "Hall of Very Good" in baseball; maybe not the top echelon, but certainly someone whose work is going to be the favorite of more than a few people.

Ford v Ferrari

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

Ford v Ferrari is movie that does what the trailer promises and does it pretty darn well. There are some things to worry about - you might initially brace yourself at the 2.5 hour running time, for instance, but never actually feel much drag. It's no small thing to get a movie to always feel the right pace in the moment, even when it's got the sort of story that you know before seeing the movie even if you don't know the real-life events. The racing action is crisp and clear, and kudos to director James Mangold for recognizing that cars going 200mph don't need a whole lot of digital flourishes or slow motion.

Still, it sometimes not only feels like Christian Bale is the one truly having fun, but even if he is, he's making everyone else raise their games when they work with him. It's far from the hardest role he's ever had, but he knows just how big to go without making the film a cartoon despite the broad performance being part of the appeal.

On the other hand, Matt Damon should probably never wear a cowboy hat again unless in an actual western, as it only emphasizes that his range, accent-wise, runs basically from Cambridge to Southie. He's perfectly fine otherwise, professionally keeping things moving while Bale chews the scenery and Logan's team keeps the internal politics and gearhead stuff just interesting enough to string a viewer along until he has to compress a 24-hour race into half an hour or so without making it feel entirely like a highlight reel.

The Mask (1961)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Terminator: Dark Fate
The Lighthouse
The Wild Goose Lake
The Truth
The Kingmaker

Revenge of the Creature
The Creature Walks Among Us
The Face Behind the Mask
Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin
My Dear Liar
Better Days
Dr. Broadway
Doctor Sleep

The International Pancake Film Festival
Ford v Ferrari

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