Tuesday, November 26, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 18 November 2019 - 24 November 2019

I'm not going to lie, I'm disappointed in myself for how my moviegoing plans didn't match with my achievements this week

This Week in Tickets

This was the first of a couple weeks working from home because my massive employer didn't arrange things so that we'd be able to go straight from one office to another, and it messed up my rhythms in some ways - a lot more screwing around in the morning and then working late to make up for it because it's not like I have to worry about catching a bus. On the other hand, it meant I could actually not cut out early but still make it to a 6pm show of Warrior Queen of Jhansi on Wednesday. Not necessarily a great decision, but sometimes you go to what looks like a bad movie because you're really curious to compare it to another, in this case the Indian Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Devika Bhise not being quite so accomplished as Kananga Ranaut is just the start of that movie's issues.

It also lets you get to a 6:30pm screening of Frozen II and be mildly surprised it's not crawling with kids. I guess folks really don't like 3D that much here, which is a bit of a shame; the stereo work is nice and while the film isn't as great as the first one, it's got some challenging themes and is pretty darn decent.

I wanted to get to that early because I planned to hit the repertory theaters hard over the weekend, and made a decent start with Friday's double feature of Daughter of Shanghai & Phantom of Chinatown at the Harvard Film Archive, but whiffed on the Hollywood Whodunits at the Brattle. Early errands bit into the first parts of double/triple features, and it was rainy enough that I really didn't feel like walking to the T.

At least, not until a little refreshing pages in Chrome led me to see that the new Arclight on Causeway Street - long-said to be opening in late November but not showing signs of life as the month wound down - actually had showtimes. Obviously, I had to check it out, and while the complex is not quite 100% done, 21 Bridges was actually better than I'd be led to expect, if not all it could be.

I whiled away some of the weekend by watching the two features on the 3-D Film Archives "3-D Nudie Cuties" collection, Adam and Six Eves and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, which, despite the work of a young Francis Ford Coppola on the second, are quite bad indeed. On top of that, I didn't realize that most of the second was a dubbed version of a German film, so I was screwing around with the AV Sync to try to get that to line up.

I wrapped that just in time to get to the local theater for The Irishman, paying, what, two-thirds of the price of a Netflix monthly subscription to see one of their movies. It's pretty good, although mob stuff was never really my thing and I found it kind of hard to separate the actors from the parts in a lot of cases, and I kind of wonder how those two things interact.

Anyway, bookmark my Letterboxd page and if you're a member, consider paying the $19 for Pro. The ability to filter out "Person A liked Person B's review of Movie C" has made it so much easier to pick out the amount I can actually digest.

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2019 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

I wasn't a particularly big fan of the year's first film about Rani Lakshmibai, but its faults that needed to be remedied didn't include "British characters who were too unsympathetic". Badly acted, yes, but it's not like this story felt incomplete without Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) very concerned about the excesses of the British East India Tea Company, a sympathetic soldier who was the Rani's childhood friend, and so on. And even with some more recognizable names here, the bad acting is still a problem. I seem to vaguely recall Rupert Everett once being a guy I looked forward to seeing in a movie, but he's impressively awful here, and most of the rest aren't much better.

The performance of Devika Bhise at the center isn't bad - she also worked on the script and produced, with her mother directing - and she is youthful enough to capture that this is a woman who was married at 15 and is as such both in a bit over her head and impressively defiant. She is mostly isolated, though, with this script switching characters for her rani to interact with in and out that it's hard to measure her against them in a meaningful way, and there's just so much of her life packed into the film that large bits have to be covered as part of narration in the first five minutes and others sketched out quickly.

Like that other film, this one falters mostly in trying to assert its queen's greatness rather than demonstrating it, and it's hampered by a budget that doesn't give the filmmakers much room for spectacle or even well-choreographed action at a smaller scale. The film feels small when it needs grandeur, spending a lot of time on details not shown to matter and historical footnotes.

One thing that's interesting about seeing both this and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is how, between them, they've got an interesting bit of symbolism, with Manikarnika opening with a shot that implies the rani was born from the waters of India while Warrior Queen finishes by having her vanish into them rather than definitively dying on the battlefield. It's an odd symmetry, one which you'd expect to see in the same move rather than spread across two.

Frozen II

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2019 in AMC Assembly Row #9 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Though there's ultimately only one name on the screenplay, this movie reminds me of how the stories for animated Disney films used to come about from absolutely everyone in the company tossing in an idea or a bit of concept art or storyboarding or what have you, the whole thing being synthesized into something that works exceptionally well. Here, that's not quite the case - the competing themes never quite gelled, resulting in something that's kind of The Fifth Element for kids with a side of war crimes, except that, being a sequel, it's got to toss in a whole bunch of explanations that the first movie did quite well without.

(Also, I find myself darkly amused that, having already killed off Anna and Elsa's parents in the first film, the filmmakers had to go back to kill their grandfather to create a motivating tragedy, although the whole thing becomes something different eventually.)

It's still fairly entertaining - Disney can throw a whole lot of manpower at an animated movie to make it pretty, if nothing else, and this movie is gorgeous, even if the new models for Anna and Else seem a bit odd in how they don't seem to feel quite so mimic the classic animated Disney Princess look quite so much. There may be too many bits of story to this, and some weird inconsistencies in tone, like how the power-ballad spoof is good, but maybe not quite a fit for an otherwise sincere movie. Still, that's a case of how it never really becomes a mess, since even when it gets close to the point where it's too self-aware, it never quite crosses a bad line.

I don't figure my nieces will love it as much as the first, although maybe they'll get that Anna is the hero of these movies (even if Elsa has the superpowers) by the end, and be just as eager to cosplay her as the other.

Daughter of Shanghai

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

A couple of scenes toward the start of this movie show to just what extent it's not messing around, and that sort of pulp cruelty helps it push through moments when it might otherwise get a bit sloppy. Fortunately, at an hour long it doesn't really have time to go off on tangents that lead nowhere or really get mired in the stupider bits of its plot, and director Robert Florey shows a nifty touch toward the end, making the last act an unusual combination of light wisecracks and urgent action that doesn't work nearly so often as people have tried it - even now, when it can often seem like the default.

It's also got a pretty appealing pair of Asian-American leads in Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn, who have a nifty chemistry that doesn't feel particularly romantic despite a tossed-in final scene; their characters are just smart, determined people who respect each other. It's the sort of B movie that benefits from having folks who would on occasion break through to bigger and better things in the cast - Cecil Cunningham is great switching from open-minded friend to ruthless villain, and she's got Buster Crabbe and Anthony Quinn as henchmen - as well as some special effects work that admittedly looks dated but not slapdash.

It's also a bit weird to look at from a modern perspective, with a story built on protecting borders but mostly-immigrant heroes and little attempt to reconcile this; it builds up roles for its Asian-American characters but plays to pretty broad stereotypes for black and Irish people. It's a strange sensation of people almost realizing that their fondness for individuals and generally racist attitudes are in opposition, but maybe not quite getting there.

Phantom of Chinatown

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2019 in the Harvard Film Archive (The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959, 35mm)

A rare - perhaps singular - Asian-detective movie which actually featured an Asian-American star, this isn't nearly as good as the film the HFA paired it with (Daughter of Shanghai), but it makes up for a lot of that by being kind of delightfully self-aware, making jokes about the predictable structures of mystery movies or occasionally undercutting expectations where Asian characters were concerned with glee, though it's never actually breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience. Keye Luke and Lotus Long are both kind of delightful even if most of the Caucasian cast is not, like their downright thrilled to have leading roles even if their co-stars feel like they're slumming.

Still, there's an awful thin line between being clever about the tropes your subverting and hoping that hanging a lantern on them will convince the audience to let them slide, and Phantom spends a lot of time on the wrong side of it. It's never a terribly compelling or coherent mystery, it still trades in a bunch of tacky stereotypes, and it eventually runs out of charm, with the "I'm just a simple American detective" character especially grating.

Adam and Six Eves

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2019 in Jay's Living Room (3-D nudie cuties features, Blu-ray)

You buy the disc that has the girlie movie where Francis Ford Coppola directed some scenes, you also get this, shot in 3D but not released that way until this new disc. It's gorgeously preserved/restored/presented, quite possibly looking the best it ever has, seeing as those shots composed for 3D to make sure that it feels like a lady's nipple could stab you in the eye must have looked really awkward flat even before you take into consideration that this probably did not play in the theaters with the best projectionists in a given town.

On the other hand, it's more or less a five page fumetti stretched out to an hour of live-action, the whole of it dubbed over with narration from a donkey, which is, admittedly, actually peppered with good one-liners. Complaining about the story for this film is kind of pointless - it exists to give topless girls a reason to walk around and pose, with a few giggles on the soundtrack, although the fact that it's dubbed over people talking makes one wonder if there was an attempt at a plot and it was just too bad for even this sort of thing. Like, even for a bit of pure exploitation, it looks cheap and lazy.

I kind of wonder what happened to some of these girls; IMDB doesn't show them credited for anything else, for the most part, and one especially looks really uncomfortable with the whole thing at times. Does something like this get treated as a funny story or a dirty secret?

The Bellboy and the Playgirls

* (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2019 in Jay's Living Room (3-D nudie cuties features, Blu-ray)

Well, that's not good. That's not good at all. That was so bad that I was spending large swathes of it fiddling with my phone and whatnot, waiting to get to the 3D scenes, when I wasn't fiddling with the settings because I didn't realize that the black-and-white segments were dubbed into English from German.

Give Francis Ford Coppola credit, though - for a thankless job done quickly and cheaply, he does decent work in making it look like the original German footage and the new American stuff actually belongs as part of the same movie. He can compose a shot pretty well in this first feature, and gets decent-enough work out of Playboy model June Wilkinson that it's too bad there wasn't really a good way to actually make her the lead character or just make a farce about her lingerie designer and her goofy models getting into wacky hijinks in the hotel.

The 3-D content was pretty lousy, though - nice depth, but just girls walking in and out of frame and sitting down to talk.

The Irishman

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

It's kind of funny that Martin Scorsese has gotten himself caught up in an apparent beef with superhero-movie fans, because aside from it being kind of canny publicity - it's reminded people that he's got a movie in theaters when a lot of the usual theatrical promotion hasn't been done because Netflix produced this movie - it's also bigger than life and meant to draw in people for their favorites all appearing together in a grander tale than their usual. Sound like anything familiar?

To a certain extent, it's using these iconic figures that makes the film a bit distancing for me; it is hard not to see Robert De Niro or Al Pacino rather than Frank Sheeran or Jimmy Hoffa, often reducing what could be fascinating looks inside these two real-life figures' heads and histories to examples of De Niro being working-class fussy and Pacino being larger and louder than life, things that they are exceptionally good at but also examples of playing the hits. It makes Joe Pesci's playing against type more noteworthy and fascinating - even in de-aged flashbacks, he's allowed to carry his age, look worn down, making Russell Bufalino be thoroughly conquered by his own corruption. He's not quite seductively reasonable, instead feeling like someone with a sort of moral cancer; it won't get you right away, but eventually there's nothing else left.

Scorsese and writer Steven Zallian are still awfully good at telling this sort of story. There's an early scene where Scorsese shows that moving through different time periods effortlessly doesn't mean doing it invisibly, letting the characters tell the audience that there's going to be some nostalgia and sentimentality to the next segment so that we can interact with it more certainty and understanding of what all these characters are feeling both as they experience and recall events. The lengthy film doesn't feel drawn out until the end, when it's supposed to, when you realize that the reward for surviving in and around the mob for this long is to be isolated because either your close friends in that life are dead or their deaths have taught you that their loyalty is conditional and the inherent violence is eventually going to drive everyone else away. It drags a bit, but not enough for it to reflect the experience of watching the movie as opposed to what the movie is trying to show.

That's pretty good. Not quite masterpiece-level, and I wonder what it would have been like with other people. I also wonder how many people will take this 210-minute movie as it comes, letting the weight of it settle so that last portion works, rather than breaking it up or pausing it for a bathroom break and thus resetting the clock, since it will be mostly be seen in living rooms rather than theaters.

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
Frozen II
Daughter of Shanghai & Phantom of Chinatown
21 Bridges
Adam and Six Eves
The Bellboy and the Playgirls
The Irishman

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