Sunday, December 29, 2019

Spies in Disguise

It's taken a while, but Will Smith seems to be getting back to using the fact that he is Will Smith and people like that with a vengeance. I swear, that aside from Men in Black 3 in 2012, Hitch in 2005 was the last time he made a movie that really turned on him being a movie star rather than an actor, and while being an actor is generally thought to be more important, there's value in a persona that needs no ramp-up for movies like this. What's crazy is that after 14 years of Smith not doing this sort of thing, he's got Aladdin, Gemini Man, Spies in Disguise, and Bad Boys for Life back-to-back, all of which rely on him being the guy you know to some extent or other. Is it just timing, or has he seen his career languish and need that boost?

The movie itself has been pushed around a lot as Disney tinkered with the schedules of their various imprints after the Fox acquisition, and for a while the trailer that was showing just had the Blue Sky Studios logo, not Twentieth Century Fox. I wonder what this means for the future of the studio; I certainly haven't paid much attention to it for a while, especially since there doesn't seem to be a second Peanuts movie in the offing, and kind of wonder if Disney needs a third animation banner. If my experience with this sort of acquisition is any guide, they'll probably just starve Blue Sky, letting current projects finish and maybe moving people over to Pixar or WD Feature Animation, although I suppose you could carve a different niche out with it - outside properties, driven more by voice talent than the prestige labels, something closer to DreamWorks. I'm not sure what I think of that option - if they ramp production up, they could really choke out the rest of the industry.

One more thing that came to me while watching is trailers: It's a bit of a bummer to me that there wasn't a trailer for Weathering with You in front of this, because I want the new Shinkai exposed to every possible portion of its prospective audience, and some of the other kid-movie trailers are not great. Exclude the January crud, and there's the also-long-delayed Artemis Fowl, which has me hoping that Kenneth Branagh can consolidate all the studio goodwill he's accrued at Disney, Fox, and Marvel to do some big-budget Imax version of The Tempest because that sure doesn't look good, as well as Scoob!, which looks 90% nifty except that Scooby Doo talks too much and too clearly (he should be a dog that talks a bit, not a dog-shaped person).

The Spies in Disguise

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2019 in AMC Assembly Row #4 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

A Christmas Day release doesn't normally feel like something being dumped, but Disney buying Fox leads to some weird situations, like what to do with this movie - heck, what to do with the entire division that made it. It's a bit too good to be buried but also not the sort of thing that's a priority for the combined company. It's big, loud, and slick, but the sort of thing that falls in between being a movie for kids and one for adults rather than encompassing both.

It starts by introducing what's already an odd mismatch - Lance Sterling (voice of Will Smith) is a James Bond-esque super-spy with a tendency to treat every situation like the chance for an action set-piece, while Walter Beckett (voice of Tom Holland) is an Agency science prodigy barely out of his teens developing more humane gadgets for the likes of Sterling to use. Not that Sterling wants anything to do with that until he's framed by a former enemy (voice of Ben Mendelsohn) who has face-changing tech in addition to a robot arm, at which point he wants Walter's next-generation camouflage invention to help him chase down the villain while staying ahead of an internal affairs team (voices of Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan, and DJ Khaled). When it turns him into a pigeon, he wants it even less, especially because that means Walter has to tag along to synthesize an antidote.

Lots of family-targeted movies have an odd combination of grown-up material and kid-friendly whimsy, and while there are further stretches than the sort of spy-movie action that leaves a substantial body count and turning people into pigeons, it's sort of a weird combo: Have the kids seen the movies that Spies in Disguise is spoofing, and are the people who do like that sort of thing going to go for a genuinely goofy take? Is either group going to laugh that hard at jokes about Korean dramas or punning off the name "50 Shades of Gray" with anything more than "I recognize that"? Part of the joy of cartooning is the ability to indulge in pure randomness, but that scattershot approach sometimes means that you've got to have a fairly broad range of pop-culture fandom to laugh continually, and also tends to make the moments when the filmmakers are a little more serious dramatic bits on the same level as the comic ones, rather than a story that can hold the movie together.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, December 27, 2019

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 1: Kingdom, Satanic Panic, Blood on Her Name, Daniel Isn't Real, Human Lost, Paradise Hills, White Snake, Knives and Skin

The second pass on Fantasia reviews will probably begin in earnest on the ride home from work today, but for now, here are the movies that got a theatrical release between my initial write-up at the festival and, well, now. Some of them just had a couple of days of Fathom shows, others came and went from relatively few theaters quickly because they hit VOD at the same time, Blood on Her Name actually hasn't been released but it played a local-to-Boston festival, and at least one is out on disc already.

So, if you want, click the links and watch them. It's probably a better way to have an enjoyable Fantasia experience in winter than riding a bus eight hours to Montreal to see a movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I wonder how often non-fans encountering manga, anime, and their adaptations find themselves tripped up over how the protagonists will have earnest enthusiasm, loyalty, and commitment as their best qualities, valuable traits to be sure but not as important in American stories as figuring things out. The main character of Kingdom, for instance, is a guy who kind of blows past having wound up ignorant through no fault of is own by having grown up a slave to being kind of dumb generally, but he's the one we're supposed to identify with and root for.

That would be Li Xin, who in 255 BC is a child slave being taken to the estate of his new master when their cart passes an army led by Wang Qi (Takao Ohsawa), China's greatest general. He soon becomes fast friends with another slave boy, Piao, and they vow to train with each other and eventually escape bondage as soldiers who become great generals. Ten years later, they have honed their skills via constant sparring, and Chancellor Chang Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima) buys Piao's freedom to serve the king. Some time after that, Piao returns, mortally wounded, saying Prince Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo) has deposed young King Yin Zheng, and entrusts Xin (Kento Yamazaki) with a document to bring to the king in hiding. When he arrives he's in for a shock - Yin Zheng is a dead ringer for Piao, though the ambitious aristocrat's personality is no match. Retaking the throne may prove incredibly difficult - that more royal blood flows through Cheng Jiao's veins has him commanding the world's fiercest army, while Zheng has only a handful of loyalists including Xin and young brigand He Liao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), and an alliance with the hill people and their leader Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa) will still leave them badly outnumbered.

I doubt that Yasuhisa Hara's manga is a particularly accurate take on China's Warring Kingdoms period, and the script by Tsutomu Kuroiwa and director Shinsuke Sato likely diverges even further, but this version makes for a streamlined movie that gives the audience a taste of palace intrigue without getting too bogged down in the details, colorful armies to do battle, and a spot at the center for a guy like Xin whose energetic nature will make it easy for younger viewers to identify with him. Like many recent big action/adventure movies, it's made in large part for middle-school boys, but perhaps more squarely and honestly than some others; Sato and company don't obviously load the movie with innuendo on the one hand or give any signs of cutting what they really want to do down to please the television networks that are paying for it.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Satanic Panic

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Satanic Panic is horror comedy for people who know the genre and can poke fun without being entirely flip about it - it has a loopy premise on which the filmmakers hang a lot of jokes, but the people involved know this doesn't work if everybody involved is taking it for granted. It manages to avoid being cynical despite that being the default mode for both horror and this kind of satire.

After an opening bit where parents chase their daughter through their McMansion because they're even more upset than usual that their little princess and her boyfriend had sex, the film shifts to Samantha Craft (Hayley Griffith), a sweet 22-year-old on the first night of her first job, delivering pizzas. A lot of people try and take advantage of her good nature one way or another, but things don't get truly weird until she makes a big delivery out to posh Mill Basin and not only doesn't get a tip, but runs out of gas. She sneaks into the house to try and get some gas money, and it's kind of weird in there, with everyone in red robes and Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn) leading they in some sort of weird role-play. Eventually, they figure out that this girl no-one recognizes is a virgin, and what luck that is, because, if you remember, the teenager they had planned to sacrifice to the Dark Lord kind of fell through.

It's a fun set-up and gives director Chelsea Stardust and screenwriter Grady Hendrix the chance to throw Sam into a bunch of weird situations as she proves to have better survival instincts than one might expect, aided by how devil-worshipers by their nature have difficulty working as a team. Things really click into place when Sam runs across original sacrifice Judi (Ruby Modine); that's when the movie becomes a sort of buddy comedy pairing an innocent who is nevertheless not a fool and a girl who (having been raised in this Satanist household) knows the score but is, maybe, not as corrupt as she thinks. Seeing it evolve into that is probably the movie's best surprise: Genuine friendship isn't exactly what movies like this are usually made of, as they are usually too busy skewering the rich who will do anything to get ahead, but it happens almost before the viewer is aware of what's going on and without the filmmakers obviously building it up as the force that can counter the evil - it would not, after all, work if this were a calculated action.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Blood on Her Name

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Film noir has always tended to take place in the cities, whether because it makes for better shadows or because people have some revisionist image in their head where small towns are the "real America" compared to the places where individual acts of corruption can be large enough to be visible, but there's plenty of opportunity to be found elsewhere.

You don't need to explain this to Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind), who is already taking her 14-year-old son Ryan (Jared Ivers) to appointments with a probation officer and struggling to keep the family's garage afloat despite how her no-good husband made ends meet by running a chop shop after hours. Some folks apparently think it's still going on, as a late visit from one of her ex's partner in crime Daryl Cobb (Tim Hughes) leaves her with a body to dispose of, and while the smart move would be to just dump him in the lake, Leigh feels guilt about Cobb's girlfriend Dani (Elisabeth Röhm) not know what happened to him. But Cobb hadn't pulled his job alone, and somewhere along the line, Leigh lost a pretty distinctive necklace.

Bethany Anne Lind is in every scene of this movie, and her performance gives the movie a tremendously solid spine to build on. The story is driven by her attempts to do right, whether by her son, her employee Rey (Jimmy Gonzales), herself, or even a total stranger, despite the fact that she doesn't have a lot of room to make sacrifices and everyone in her life from her husband to her cop father (Will Patton) has seldom shown the same inclination, and her face always reflects that it's difficult. Lind shows Leigh's struggle to be a decent person without making her seem too idealistic and also builds the sort of not-entirely-formed shell that Leigh would have developed at this point in her life. There's never a crack when the audience learns something new about her or her backstory.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Daniel Isn't Real

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The trouble with using supernatural horror as a way to examine real-world issues is that while the metaphor may be pretty good, inevitably, someone has to bring up the thing you're trying to talk about on its own, usually before committing to one direction or the other, and for some in the audience, that makes the direction you go a disappointment. Like, dealing with schizophrenia can be scary, and demonic possession is just silly made-up stuff in comparison. I suppose it can go the other way, too.

There's not a whole lot of doubt where things are for Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson); she's got some pretty severe mental health issues to start. Her young son Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) seems healthy until witnesses the aftermath of a shooting and meets his new friend Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). Daniel Daniel is the sort of imaginary friend who seems pretty harmless until he encourages Luke to help his mother overdose on her meds, and a horrified Luke locks Daniel up after that. At least until seven or eight years later, when another incident with his mother has college-aged Luke (Miles Robbins) more stressed than usual and Daniel (Patrick Schwarzeneggar) reappears. Luke knows Daniel is imaginary, but he kind of needs a voice telling him to be more outgoing and follow his heart - both in his studies and when he meets Cassie (Sasha Lane) - and Daniel has grown smart enough to bide his time and not ask too much of Luke too soon.

Eventually, Daniel is persistent and demanding enough that Luke starts reading about demons and researching the shooter from the day Daniel first appeared, and that's where Daniel Isn't Real starts to develop real problems: Every indication that the title might not be the case makes the film seem a little less consequential, a story about arbitrary mythology rather than a troubled kid trying to deal with more than he's able to handle. Sure, it may be a case of Luke being a highly unreliable narrator, but that's maybe worse; it makes the movie a guessing game with what really happened an exercise left to the audience, and that's a tough needle to thread. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer (adapting a novel by Brian DeLeeuw into a screenplay with the author) seems too enamored of the horror imagery to fully commit to undercutting it, giving the audience an imaginative other world and Exorcist references more often than signs that he's being seduced by his own fantasies.

Full review on EFilmCritic

HUMAN LOST Ningen Shikkaku

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Human Lost is one of those anime productions that are something like 60% world-building, 30% action, and 10% trying to find a story in all that. The fact that it has no shortage of interesting ideas which keeps it moving at an impressive clip, and it certainly hooks the audience with a great centerpiece action scene early on. It's fun to watch and explore, enough that anticipation of it all coming together can carry the viewer to the end.

The premise is that in 2036, illness and even permanent injury have been all but eliminated in Japan thanks to a combination of gene therapy, vaccines, and nanotechnology, but that hasn't quite made it a utopia - the elites are worried about admitting new members to their ranks and upward economic mobility is stalled, to the point where the city center is walled off from the hoi polloi, who live in polluted slums. Oh, and sometimes the self-healing nanotechnology goes out of control, making people into rampaging monsters - the "Lost". Depressed artist Yozo Oba (voice of Mamoru Miyano) is brought to a protest by his friend Takeichi (voice of Jun Fukuyama), where things quickly get out of control between the riot police and a sudden mutation - one which Yozo somehow reverses. That grabs the attention of both Human Intelligence Laboratory administrator Shibuta (voice of Kenichirou Matsuda), who sends "Applicant" Yoshiko HIragi (voice of Kana Hanazawa) to offer him a place inside the wall, and Masao Horiki (voice of Takahiro Sakurai), a rogue bioengineer working among the common people.

When Human Lost is focused on the basic science fiction of its posited future, it can be terrific; there's a cynical but frighteningly believable logic to how something that is seemingly a blessing can have devastating effects on society, pointing out how this new technology could freeze everything in place with retirement pushed into the indefinite future and a pollution-free environment being considered a luxury if people's bodies can just process all the toxins. Director Fuminori Kizaki and screenwriter Tow Ubukata leave most of that day-to-day material for the audience to puzzle out, instead focusing on how this can amplify the intensity of other areas, like how reckless and violent protest can become when everybody has all-but-magical health technology, even if using it can be a frustrating customer-service call.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Paradise Hills

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Paradise Hills feels a bit like a Jaques Demy nightmare, and I kind of hope we get more of those as time goes on - lavish fantasies by/for/about women, pulled off with flair, even if it means I'm not the best person to judge them. The movie is girly as heck and works hard on making sure that its heroines don't have to take on male characteristics to fight back - or, for that matter, to be villains, while still being fun (if somewhat familiar) science fiction.

It starts with a wedding and then a flashback to two months earlier, when Uma (Emma Roberts) was clearly not nearly so excited about marrying Son (Arnaud Valois) and as such was sent to Paradise Hills, which looks like an island spa except that there is not only no leaving until one has pleased The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) and become the sort of woman who understands her place in society. Uma is assigned a room with plus-sized southern girl Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and abrasive, headphone-wearing heiress Yu (Awkwafina), and also makes friends with rehabbing pop star Amarna (Eiza González). The man she truly loves, Markus (Jeremy Irvine), sneaks onto the island to rescue her, but even with his help, escape will be difficult, especially since the ladies are taken to a mysterious chamber after being drugged at night.

It's a good thing that Paradise Hills has style to burn, because it often hews more than a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope. As much as the opening flash-forward is actually in the top 5% of such things (it establishes the world outside of Paradise Hills a bit, and there are still surprises on tap as the movie gets there), it also gives off a Stepford Wives vibe that earns some early groans and may turn people off before it starts getting interesting. The film doesn't often surprise in what the next step is for much of the running time, although that's okay; it's seldom been told so entitling from the point of view of the women being "reprogrammed". It looks great, but more importantly, it doesn't look entirely like a male fantasy of submissive women. It's more insidious in how it attempts to twist a more modern femininity into something that is not obviously subservient but definitely secondary. The look of it also melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely, and the explicit emphasis on class serves as a reminder that Uma and her new friends are starting from a privileged position and their point of view isn't universal.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Baishe: Yuanqi (White Snake)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

The White Snake story hasn't been as frequently retold as that of The Monkey King on-screen, although I can't help but feel there's been more in recent years than the one that came out in 2011 with Jet Li, Eva Huang, and Charlene Choi. It's a natural fit for animation, and though I'm a bit surprised to see this often fun (though weird) get a release on this side of the Pacific, it's at the very least a nifty change of pace for Western audiences whose kids could use a new animated adventure in their rotation.

As the story starts, green snake demon Xiao Qing (voice of Tang Xiaoxi) - "Blanca" in the subtitles - has tried to reach enlightenment for 500 years but, failing, is sent to the mortal realm for a mission against a general (voice of Zhang Boheng) who is gathering snakes to increase his occult powers with their life-force. She is only partially successful, losing her memory and knowledge of her snake form, and is rescued by A Xuan (voice of Yang Tianxiang), a resident of a village of snake-hunters who would prefer to become a doctor. With Xiao Qing missing, her closest friend Xiao Bai (voice of Zhang Zhe), aka "Verta", is sent to complete the mission, and though she loves Xiao Qing like a sister, it certainly looks like Xiao Qing has betrayed them and put their people in danger.

It's an enjoyable enough fantasy, framed the lesson that one is unlikely to reach enlightenment by separating oneself from the world even with centuries of meditation, but might become a better person by living among humans, having adventures that confront one with practical realities, and falling in love. There are times when it sometimes feels a bit like screenwriter Damao and directors Huang Jiakang & Zhao Ji are perhaps trying to reinterpret the myth for a more modern audience in a way that can make the plotting feel arbitrary, but for the most part the simple story has plenty of room for action, romance, and fun with talking-animal sidekicks who are kind of alarmed to find themselves talking.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Knives and Skin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)
Seen 8 December 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

There are brief moments when Knives and Skin seems to be pushing itself to become a little more mysterious and fantastical than it is, lest it seem too simple, but writer/director Jennifer Reeder has a good handle on how to use that surrealism to perk up audience interest and make the quirk go down a little easier without having it be the movie's whole thing. It's a tricky bit of alchemy, but one she manages.

It opens with a hook-up gone wrong, as Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) leads Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) to a secluded spot only to have a change of heart, angering Andy. That's the last time anyone sees her alive, although her body doesn't exactly stay in one place. Carolyn's mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), also the school's chorus teacher, immediately becomes a wreck, although her band-mates think it's kind of par for the course, while several students assumed to be Carolyn's friends say they haven't been close in a while. Meanwhile, preparations start for homecoming, a substitute teacher catches the fancy of Andy's sister Joanna (Grace Smith), and the kids' parents are generally not in great shape themselves.

Carolyn's disappearance is where the audience first starts watching these people, but it's not exactly the focus of the movie; though the various families have connections to it, this is mainly a way for Reeder to tie a number of small, but compelling storylines together without having too many of them become overwrought and off-putting. One never forgets Carolyn, but there's a moment early on where the cute substitute teacher mentions that a girl disappeared in high school, but can't remember her name when pressed. The Kitzmillers and Darlingtons have their own drama going on, her bandmate Colleen (Emma Ladji) is more concerned with the football player who likes her even though she's very much, in her mind, not someone who dates jocks and so on. That secrets come out now is somewhat incidental.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ip Man 4

Big crowd for this one - enough for me to be in the front section and have people directly to all four cardinal directions. It wasn't all Chinese and Chinese-American people, either, and I wonder to what extent these movies are broadly popular among action movie fans and to what extent Donnie Yen once having been a resident of nearby Chinatown brought out the neighbors. They were into it, though, whooping and applauding more than I can remember at any recent movie, right up there with Endgame. An excited audience is a ton of fun.

It's still kind of weird to get to the end and realize that you've seen a movie that is basically saying Chinese people should not come to America to make their fortune, but stay and help China... with a bunch of people who came to America to make their fortune. I suppose you can overdo it with parsing Yen's recent films for propagandist messages, but that message is kind of the most interesting thing about the movie. It also plays into how this series becoming propaganda is fundamentally kind of strange - Yip Man was an officer in the Nationalist Army during the Chinese Civil War and fled to Hong Kong afterward, so it's kind of strange to see him used to prop up the country he left, to the point where folks in Hong Kong are protesting the movie and its stars, though apparently mostly via posting spoilers online.

Yip Man 4 (Ip Man 4: The Finale)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Say what you will about the politics of this film series and its stars, but it is immensely satisfying to watch Donnie Yen punch a racist in the face fifty times in a row in the space of something like twenty seconds. Ip Man 4 also had the best use of Bruce Lee as a character this year, even if it's clearly not the best movie to use him as a character. As for the rest of it, well, enjoy the parts with racists getting punched in the face.

This one posits Ip Man (Yen) making a trip to San Francisco in 1964, the ticket paid for by former student Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan), who would like to have his teacher watch him compete in a local karate tournament, although he does not actually resolve to go until son Jin (Ye He) is expelled from school for fighting, with the headmaster recommending Man follow the example of many Hong Kongers who have sent their children to study abroad to not just learn academic and language skills, but self-reliance. He goes to look at schools, but will need a letter of recommendation from Wan Zhong Hua (Wu Yue), chairman of the Chinese Benevolent Association, who in exchange would like Man to convince his former student to stop teaching Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese, something he is not inclined to do. Meanwhile, one of Lee's students, Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu Chien-Hao), a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marines, would like to introduce Chinese martial arts, but faces resistance from superior officer Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) - who is both racist and a partisan of karate, taught by Colin Frater (Chris Collins), while Wan's daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf), a student at the school Man is checking out, has earned the ire of a classmate for making the cheer squad, and Becky's father Andrew (Andrew Lane) has a position at the Immigration and Naturalization Service that can make things very difficult for the people in Chinatown.

Fans of today's not-exactly-blockbuster tier of action movies will notice a lot of impressive names in the cast, and with action director Yuen Wo-Ping returning to handle the fight scenes, that half of the movie can be taken as handled. It's the pieces connecting the fights that have often been what separate the best entries this series (and the numerous other films about this grandmaster that have come out in the past decade or so) from the rest, in no small part because Yen's respectful portrayal can make Master Ip something of a sphinx rather than a man with a distinctive personality. This time out, it plays less as reserve and more as using him as a blank slate on which to project certain virtues. He's got a nice moment or two as he wrestles with a cancer diagnosis or with how his strict parenting runs counter to the instincts he feels when watching the Wans argue, but the film is not particularly built to make that the central story, and as such both Yen the actor and Ip the character seem to be hanging back, reacting in a somewhat detached way.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Fantasia 2019.22: Judy & Punch, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, Promare, and The Divine Fury

How long does the process of getting reviews written through the rest of the festival take when I finally go "screw it, I can't keep up with all these shorts"? Well, in a strictly numeric sense, roughly four months and three weeks. In a more general, landmark-based sense, the last movie of the festival, a preview of a soon-to-be-released Korean film, has had its theatrical and home video releases. The second to last has not quite had that happen, but it has had Fathom Events shows, stuck around Boston Common for a surprisingly decent run, and then come back for encores.

That night, though, it was the closing night film which meant I had to buy a ticket and get in line, which is good for the soul lest you get too used to cutting to the front.

There were guests for the short film that played before Promare, "Totsukuni no Shoujo" (or "The Girl from the Other Side" in English, and my notes stink, but I think it's directors Yutaro Kubo and Satomi Maiya, along with producer Jouji Wada of Wit Studio. No Q&A, because they introduced rather than followed, but they made a nifty film.

Anyway, that's a wrap, four and a half months later. Which means, just another seven months until the next one and some 30-odd movies to review on the second pass. This festival is a monster and I wouldn't spend my summer any other way.

Judy & Punch

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Punch & Judy shows weren't a big thing in the United States when I was a kid, and I'm not sure how much longer they remain something that people in the British Isles or Australia still grow up with. They've disappeared, in part, because enough people eventually became uncomfortable with the violence behind their broad knockabout humor, and perhaps they've been shuffled far enough back in our cultural memory that Judy & Punch can manage to pull people in with the promise of entertaining puppetry and wry humor before making them think about domestic violence.

Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) was once a famous touring puppeteer - a popular form of entertainment in the 1600s - with whom Judy (Mia Wasikowska) fell in love, eventually marrying and having a child. They now live in the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near the sea), operating a theater of their own. Punch's name is on it, of course, even though Judy is now the more talented marionette builder and operator, and she must often cover for his drunkenness. One day, Punch does far worse than his usual dalliances with the barmaid at McDrinky's, and when Judy confronts him in horror, he responds with violence, leaving her for dead. Fortunately, she's found by Scotty (Daisy Axon), a little girl who would sneak into town from a camp of outcasts to see the show, and nursed back to health. She wants justice, but is that even possible for one as wronged as her?

It's an unfortunate state of affairs that one can't honestly add "in that time and place" to the last sentence, and the familiarity of Judy's story is what gives the film such genuine depths of despair. Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes uses the period setting to make Punch's crimes and the community's complicity all the more horrific, but making the language contemporary enough that the audience can't quite dissociate. Audiences will look at the worst of what Punch does and how the mob enables him and hopefully find themselves leaning toward wondering if society is better enough today rather than just dismissing the question out of hand. There's even purpose to the things which seem designed to be anachronistic, like the more progressive attitudes of newly-appointed Constable Derrick (Benedict Hale) - Foulkes is able to make a joke out of how out-of-place they seem but also make the audience maybe think a little about how often people live up to them today.

Full review at EFilmCritic

To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Eels, apparently, can migrate surprisingly far distances, from the Mediterranean to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. I know this because filmmaker Syllas Tzoumerkas makes sure that the audience sees a clip from a documentary on the subject, so you'd better believe that there's a metaphor to be found here. That, after all, is what raises a film from being dark misanthropic genre material that goes nowhere to being a praiseworthy drama: Not just having the crime story stand for something else, but making sure that the audience knows it does.

The eels here are not caught so much as farmed, though, and like them, there are at least two women who would rather be migrating from small-town Meologi. Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) is the oft-hungover chief of police who is only there because it was easier for the people in Athens who found her inconvenient to promote her to a backwater than fire her when they needed her out of the way, while Rita (Youla Boudali) works in the processing plant but has a ticket to Miami in her wallet, mostly staying behind for family reasons. She soon has a bit less family, with disreputable younger brother Manolis (Hristos Passalis) found dead of an apparent suicide. It's the sort of thing that might not be investigated much closer, except that some out-of-town students are also missing, nobody from Rita to the Albanian drug dealers seems to be reacting quite the way you'd expect, and Elisabeth is a good cop when given the chance to be.

It's never particularly hard to see why these women are looking to get away; there are towns like Meologi all over the world, and they all have the same sort of look to them, at least in the movies - houses that look like slightly-overgrown sheds with trash in the front yards, the one nightclub that just barely avoids looking depressing with the lights down low, beaches where the sand, sea, and sky all verge on being the same gray color. Of course it has a fish-processing plant, because what else can make a seaside, agrarian community feel quite so miserable? Tzoumerkas doesn't lean on these tropes quite to the point of parody, fortunately, but they are familiar in their deployment, mostly interesting in how he occasionally shakes them up: The ten-years-earlier opening in Athens, for instance, is staged like something from a much bigger action movie and gets across why Elisabeth might miss the excitement of the city even if it also shows the inherent dangers and hints that it's probably not good for police to enjoy their work too much. There's another jaw-dropping moment with Rita that briefly takes things into more surreal territory, even if the film doesn't stay there long.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Totsukuni no Shoujo" ("The Girl from the Other Side")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

I did not realize, before writing this review, that there was a manga for "The Girl from the Other Side" that was much larger than this ten-minute short, and I therefore have no idea if this is meant as a sort of pilot or if it adapts some specific chapter. I may try to learn more about this series later, but I may not, as I am fond of the animated short as it is.

It gets its point across in impressive form, after all, wordlessly suggesting a girl out of place but (mostly) unafraid, due to a doting creature whose genteel manner contrasts with his inhuman face and shadowy air, and glimpses of how certain things seem to decay in his presence. There is, in all this, a story implied that is elemental, and the way directors Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya use this visual format to play a little tug-of-war between the generic and specific gives it even more feeling of a fairy tale. The understated score plays its part well, too - it is simple and gentle, for the most part, doling notes out like a music box in innocent fashion, but racing just a bit when there's a little menace to be found, or when the little girl's dreams briefly reminds her that something is not right.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS/Closing Night, digital)

There are some films that lean into their genres' tropes so hard that they verge on self-parody, and then there's Promare, which punches clear out the other side. The filmmakers are well aware of every single form of excess that this sort of anime sci-fi adventure is prone to, but they're also aware that those things are what make said movies and shows awesome, and are fully committed to making their movie that sort of thrillingly crazy as well.

Sometime in the future, people just suddenly start catching on fire when their emotions flare, leading to the Great World Blaze. Thirty years later, these "Burnish" are no longer completely out of control, in large part due to an elite firefighting force armed with the latest technology and heroic specialists, none more fearless and dedicated than Galo Thymos (voice of Ken'ichi Matsuyama), a frequently shirtless lunatic dedicated to squelching flames with his burning soul. This latest fire seems to be the work of "Mad Burnish" Lio Fotia (voice of Taichi Saotome), who sees himself as a freedom fighter. And, while Galo hates to admit it, something does seem screwy about the whole situation He consults his mentor Kray Foresight (voice of Masato Sakai) and investigates on his own, discovering an incredible secret about the source of the Burnish's power.

Consume enough comics/manga, anime, and other superhero adventure, and you can start getting blasé about set-ups like this; I spent a fair chunk of another review of a film that played this festival trying not to call it folks reinventing the X-Men again. Promare obviously takes most of its inspiration from the Japanese equivalents and their tropes - the elaborate vehicles piloted by apparent teenagers, the over-the-top explosions and property damage, the angular character designs and the bellowed declamations - but it does so with the brakes completely disengaged, using apocalyptic disaster as a starting point, pausing the action to splash character names on screen, and frequently not just turning on a dime but having that turn take the characters into such an enormous new region that you wonder how anybody in this world could have missed it before. Director Hiroyuki Imaishi and writer Kazuki Nakashima clearly love this stuff and while they can make jokes at the excesses, they are not going to treat it as a joke.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Saja (The Divine Fury)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The hook for The Divine Fury is such a simple and obvious genre mash-up - the martial artist whose hands have been blessed/cursed in such a way that he can exorcise demons by punching them in the face - that it's kind of surprising that such a film doesn't hit theaters every other week. The reason, I suspect, is likely why this movie is only half as cool as it could be: Shooting fight scenes is complex and time-consuming compared to talking about demons, so the movie inevitably doesn't do as much of the good stuff as one might hope.

Things start out twenty years ago, when policeman Park Ji-Won (Lee Seung-Joon) is killed during a traffic stop by a driver who is something other than human. Park had been a devout Catholic, but his son Yong-Hu lashes out against the church. Twenty years later, he's a Mixed Martial Arts champion, but a voice in his head is making him more aggressive and he's starting to wake up covered in unexplained blood. A shaman sees that he's got a demon attached to him and refers him to Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-Ki), who recognizes stigmata on Yong-Hu's palms and enlists him to help fight the Black Bishop (Woo Do-Hwan), though Yong-Hu (Park Seo-Ju) just wants those things off his hands so he can live a normal life.

Exorcism stories don't have a lot of room for half measures in terms of ambition, to the point where it's sometimes better to be a shallow, pulpy work the doesn't make a whole lot of sense but delivers a lot of blood and spectacle than to grasp at more serious themes without fully connecting. That's an issue that filmmaker Kim Joo-Hwan never quite solves: There's a story here about Yong-Hu rediscovering his beliefs, but that's a different thing in a world where there are actual demons than one where you truly must take the supernatural on faith, and there's not a whole lot more that resonates, at least for Yong-Hu (Father Ahn is feeling kind of worn down). The Bishop and his brethren are fairly generic villains, as well.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 December 2019 - 2 January 2020

Merry Christmas, everybody. The presents from the studios look pretty decent

  • A couple of big prestige shows open this week, with Uncut Gems apparently continuing the Safdie Brothers' plan of getting something great out of much-maligned actors via tremendous tension, this time apparently getting a career-best performance out of Adam Sandler. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, The Somerville Theatre, The West Newton Cinema, The Lexington Venue, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, the Embassy.

    Down the hall, director Greta Gerwig reunites with Saoirse Ronan and brings in a terrific cast including Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep for Little Women. The Coolidge and The Somerville are getting 35mm prints, while Fresh Pond, West Newton, the Lexington Venue, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux, so far as I can see, only have DCP files.
  • The multiplexes got the big release back on Friday, but do open Spies in Disguise for the kids on vacation, an animated adventure with Tom Holland voicing a boy genius working for an intelligence agency whose new camouflage technology changes a spy voiced by Will Smith into a pigeon. It's from the Blue Sky crew, who did the Ice Age movies, among other things, and plays Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common (including 3D), Causeway Street (2D only), Fenway (including 3D), South Bay (including 3D), Assembly Row (including 3D), and Revere (2D only).
  • Ip Man 4 - The Finale is at least the second time this series starring Boston's Own Donnie Yen has declared itself over, but it seems to be stretching a bit more this time, apparently inventing a trip to America to visit him most famous student, but it means Yen will get to throw down with Scott Adkins with Yuen Woo-Ping choreographing. They also continue to play Only Cloud Knows and Sheep Without a Shepherd with the two splitting a screen.
  • The Brattle Theatre offers Films for Kids of All Ages series for families on vacation, starting with a double feature of The Red Shoes & The Wizard of Oz (the latter on 35mm) on Christmas and Boxing Day, followed by The Boy with Green Hair (35mm) on Friday, Pan's Labyrinth (35mm) Friday and Saturday, a double feature of Song of the Sea & Howl's Moving Castle (dubbed 35mm) Saturday, a 35mm pairing of the original King Kong & Cocteau Beauty and the Beast Sunday, and single shows of a 35mm print of Airport and Eighth Grade (digital) on Monday.

    For New Year's Eve, they've got a rare 35mm print of Tom Waits concert film Big Time, which has not been legitimately released in the USA since it came out on VHS. On New Year's Day, they've expanded the traditional Marx Brothers Marathon to five features - The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, with the first two serving as a more manageable double feature on the 2nd.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps the December Calendar with the rest of their Coen Brothers program, including Burn After Reading (Friday/Sunday); A Serious Man (Friday/Sunday); Hail, Caesar! (Saturday/Sunday); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Saturday); and The Big Lebowski (Saturday). I think they've hit everything but Paris, je t'aime and Buster Scruggs, which makes me worry a bit about these Netflix productions showing up in programs like this.
  • The Regent Theatre is only doing one sing-along night for Christmas vacation, with White Christmas playing with the lyrics on screen on the evening of the 26th.
  • The Luna Theater will have free surprise Magical Mystery movies throughout vacation, with 11am shows every day from Thursday the 26th to Tuesday the 31st, although Saturday's is Saturday Morning Cartoons. They also have The Lighthouse (Thursday afternoon/Friday evening), Waves (Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Monday), WBCN and the American Revolution (Friday/Saturday/Monday afternoons), Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace (Saturday afternoon), the original Ocean's 11 (Sunday), and Terror Train (Monday/Tuesday)

    The screening room at Cinema Salem continues Give Me Liberty through the 26th, with The Disappearance of My Mother taking over on Friday and continuing through the 2nd.
Already set for Ip Man 4, Little Women, and Uncut Gems, and will probably go for some of the Brattle's goodies as well as giving The Rise of Skywalker another look to see just where I stand on it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 16 December 2019 - 22 December 2019

All that blank space? Totally going out to get presents for others, not just making my way through the new season of The Expanse at all.

This Week in Tickets

Still, The Expanse is pretty great, isn't it? I"ve been trying to make it last by just watching one every night or two, and I smile in genuine joy every time they remember some physics thing or some group of Martian punks forgets that Bobbi learned to fight in Earth gravity. My only small complaint is that we're now far enough from when it was on SyFy and they couldn't swear that they're comfortable just having Shoreh Aghdashloo let loose; it was maybe a bit more fun when she saved the f-bombs for special occasions.

I paired it with Too Old to Die Young most nights, finally getting through the end of that, and… Yikes. It's like they pitched it to Amazon with the part of the story starring Miles Teller, came up with almost nothing at all there, decided it would be more interesting to use that as an entry point for the stories of Jesus and Yaritza, and only came up with a bit more there, but still decided to make 9 episodes running about 75 minutes each and a half-hour epilogue that kind of goes nowhere. Much as I've loved Ed Brubaker's comics and a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn's movies, this really became a self-indulgent mess.

It was long enough to leave me looking for something with a relatively short running time Tuesday night, which is how I pulled Ghosts of the Abyss out of the pile of recent disc purchases just as something an hour long that isn't part of something bigger. As I was in the middle of playing with 3D stuff, it was pretty nifty to see all of that used well.

By the end of the week, I was the only person going into the office and probably could have ducked out early to see Star Wars or something, but instead wound up staying a bit late on Friday because I had some time to get to Only Cloud Knows, the new film from director Feng Xiaogang, which is kind of an odd one: Very pretty to look at, some nice bits, but really no story, because everything is happening to the characters as opposed to them doing anything. On the other hand, it's based on the writer's actual life, and sometimes it happens that way.

Saturday was the date for which I'd bought my ticket to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker a couple of months ago, betting that the theater would have finished their upgrade to Imax Laser by then, but apparently not. I'm probably going to have to see it again to give it a full and proper review, but from a technical standpoint, it's really a shame Disney has more or less completely given up on releasing discs in 3D format and audiences have turned away from 3D in theaters, because the conversion jobs for the sequel trilogy have looked amazing, and if I didn't know better, I'd guess that the trailer for Black Widow that played before it was shot that way rather than converted.

The next day was spent going from one craft fair to another, because that's the most certain way to get unique and interesting gifts for people you don't see every day. Almost worn down enough at the end to skip my plan of going back to Boston Common for Sheep Without a Shepherd, which I'd kind of feared was having its showtimes sacrificed for bigger movies in the same was as Integrity earlier this year, but, no, it's actually really good.

Also worth noting: The two Chinese movies had trailers for Mokoto Shinkai's Weathering with You, which I just realized was the first time I'd actually seen a preview before seeing one of his movies, and it makes me a little sad, because there's a shot or two in there I'd have liked to be gobsmacked with without warning. Between them, there were also previews for that Portrait of a Lady on Fire movie that everybody's been talking up - and, yes, it looks pretty darn great - as well as Wendy, which I just heard of now but which looks amazing.

Next few days will be quiet on my Letterboxd page, since I'm writing this on a train to see my family for Christmas, but there's plenty I want to see after.

Ghosts of the Abyss

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2019 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, 3D Blu-ray)

Plucked from the pile of recent before-they're-gone 3D disc purchases because it's short, this nevertheless proved an excellent way to wind down for the evening, with cool science and nifty visuals and just the right amount of reverence to give potentially bland material a little oomph and just enough going wrong for a minor climax at the end. The late Bill Paxton makes excellent company as a regular guy who, by dint of being James Cameron's friend and frequent collaborator, is fortunate enough to have the chance to see something amazing; he sometimes struggles to find the words to really convey his awe in the same way most of us would, and doesn't take what he gets to be a part of for granted.

That awe is earned, though, as the footage they came back with is amazing, and James Cameron knows how to stitch an expedition that is not designed to have a plot into a movie. He's aware of the irony of bringing all of this cutting-edge technology (which remains cool 15 years later) to bear to explore something that became a cautionary tale, but isn't deterred. He's good with using visual effects and unusual editing to expand on what his submersibles can see of the sunken Titanic without diminishing it as the main show, which applies to showing off and explaining the tech itself.

Sometimes I wish he'd make more movies, especially as the second half of his career looks to be consumed by the Avatar series which, let's face it, has an uncertain pop-cultural footprint. On the other hand, this adventure is part of the reason why I'm very anxious to see what he comes up with there - that way that he will build a way to follow his passions in film and science is a level of commitment that few others in the industry can match, and always results in something that will make the viewer gasp at some point.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

It's probably going to take me a second viewing to decide whether this movie is genuinely bad, with most of what I enjoyed being a Pavlovian reaction to John Williams's score, or just a decent movie that is nevertheless a massive letdown because it follows (and in some ways undermines) the series's best entry in 40 years, but I guess it says something that I'm willing to consider that second viewing It's Star Wars, and even the messiest and most flawed movies in the franchise have had something to impress.

This one's tough, though, because in a lot of ways, The Last Jedi felt like it was ending Star Wars as we knew it and starting something new, with a less dynastic center and some challenges to how things had always been done, whereas Abrams was charged with wrapping up a series that was built around the dynasty, and he has some interesting ideas for that. It's still often a big mess in the execution, though, covered up by the absolutely fantastic production values that Disney/Lucasfilm can throw at something with "Star Wars" in the title.

Like I said, it's gonna need a second viewing. Fortunately, I kind of want to check out the big screen at Causeway Street anyway.

Ghosts of the Abyss
Only Cloud Knows
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Sheep Without a Shepherd

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sheep Without a Shepherd

I'm not sure exactly how much of a surprise hit Sheep Without a Shepherd is in China - the end credits had Imax and Dolby Atmos logos, and I doubt that films are prepared for premium theaters there just as a matter of course. Yes, there are enough of those screens being built for a high enough population that you may want one or two coming out every weekend, but this film seems so relatively small-scale and non-blockbuster-ish - and, heck, skeptical enough about the police to incur the censor board's resistance even if it is Thai police rather than Chinese - that I wouldn't necessarily expect it to open wide in China.

And yet, there it is, at the top of the box office charts, well ahead of The Rise of Skywalker (the first Star Wars film to get a day-and-date release in China) and apparently Only Cloud Knows and Ip Man 4, which are getting fairly sizable American releases. Meanwhile, its release here seems like a genuine afterthought, basically given two screenings a day rather than four - well, three, but one is at 9am or so and, guys, I can tell you from experience that nobody goes to the early-riser screenings they put on for other movies just because they can pack a house with blockbuster fans - and a lot of those were marked "Sold Out" on Friday and Saturday. That's the sort of "sold out" that means "we're going to run Star Wars on another screen", though, so AMC was probably just thinking of this as maybe something that could sell a few tickets on the margins. I'm not sure how much the good turnout at the 7:10 show on Sunday is a weekend's worth of tickets compacted into one show or what would have happened anyway, but I'm gathering that some folks in Chinatown were genuinely excited to see that thing that was doing well back in China.

One thing that made me smile more than the "this character likes movies a lot" stuff usually does came when it was time to show the actual movies Weijie was watching, and the police groaned at the fact that he had apparently watched 860 of them while waiting around at work in the past year; it's just the right sort of "that's insane but props to him" feel. Plus, at least one of the movies referenced as specifically being useful in cracking his head is a pretty nifty choice - sure, Se7en is a masterpiece (and I'm amused by the movie nerd that put the "7" in the subtitles even when some other things seemed kind of dicey), but Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt is an inspired choice, considering how much of this movie also hangs on someone five or six years old selling her performance. Korean film Montage is the one it openly admits to cribbing a lot from, and while I haven't seen that, it sounds familiar enough that after hearing the description I'm kind of surprised that I haven't seen it at Fantasia or NYAFF or something. Kind of why I stuck a link over there to the right, to remind me to give it a look.

Anyway, surprisingly nifty movie, and I've got no idea if it will still be around come Wednesday. Maybe not the usual Christmas Eve [Eve] viewing, but worth a look.

Wu Sha (Sheep Without a Shepherd)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Sheep Without a Shepherd is the sort of thriller that elicits happily complicit snickers from the audience because they are extremely invested in someone getting away with murder. Well, maybe not quite murder, but you get the point. The filmmakers know exactly what's going to get the audience rooting against the police and manage to make it work even when what they are doing is pretty obvious.

It starts with a jailbreak that's actually a story being told by Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a Chinese man living in the Thai village of Chanban who watches a lot of movies between calls at his network service business. He's a bit tight with money - he, wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo), and daughters Pingping (Audrey Hui) & An-An (Zhang Ziran), have a fair-sized house because a lot next to the cemetery is a bargain - but he relents when 16-year-old Pingping needs 6000 baht (about $200) for a special weekend camp for high achievers. It goes badly, and things get worse when a fellow attendee, Suchat (Beety) shows up with cell phone video to blackmail her into another "date" while Weijie is away on business in nearby Lua Pathom. Ayu interrupts and Pingping fights back, accidentally connecting with Suchat's skull rather than his phone. The next morning, Weijie must call on everything he's learned about avoiding arrest from watching movies to keep what they've done from being discovered, especially tricky because not only are Suchat's parents chief of police Laoorn (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man), but Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai), a corrupt cop who has long had it in for Weijie, actually caught a glimpse of him getting into the victim's car the next morning.

Six screenwriters are credited with adapting the Malayalam-language film Drishyam (the sixth remake, following four in other parts of India and one in Sri Lanka), something which often seems like a recipe for turning a pointed story into mush, but that is not the case here. It's a really impressively constructed machine of a film which lays out where it's going but still makes the audience enjoy the process of getting there, turns dark comedy into something that really stings, and finds plenty of room to bring emotions to a boil even as it's being methodical. The writers and Malaysian director Sam Quah Boon-Lip are able to wear their influences on their sleeves and even find a way to use a mid-credits scene to wring something out of the Chinese "content guidelines" that the film had mostly been mostly able to skirt by being set in Thailand. Quah and company manage to walk an impressive tightrope between the different ways that crime is difficult in the movies and in real life, keeping the audience aware of it but never becoming a movie about movies.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Only Cloud Knows

Okay, fine. I'll visit New Zealand. I never expected that it would be a Chinese film that convinces me to do so, but director Feng Xiaogang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding really shoot the heck out of it, and I've got vacation time that had to be used in months when I'd rather be in the southern hemisphere anyway. It looks really delightful and apparently isn't constantly on fire the way Australia is.

Zhi You Yun Zhi Dao (Only Cloud Knows)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #1 (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Only Cloud Knows is a nice collection of anecdotes taken fairly directly from the life of screenwriter Zhang Ling, albeit with the time frame moved forward and the activity transplanted from Canada to New Zealand, and it says something about how our lives are not necessarily like the movies in that it is almost all about things that happened to him and his wife rather than things they did. That is not, in any sense, negative, but it's something you can't help but notice as the film goes on and the filmmakers try to arrange the film into a story rather than just things that happened.

Zhang's stand-in here is "Simon" Sui Songfeng (Huang Xuan), who grew up in Beijing but has been living in New Zealand for twenty years or so. His wife "Jennifer" Luo Yun (Yang Caiyu) has recently passed away, and his first stop with her ashes is a town on the South Island by the name of Clyde, where he'll meet up with Melinda (Lydia Peckham), the first employee at the restaurant that the couple ran for over a decade and one of their best friends in the country, while reminiscing about their life in that place and the path led there.

It's not a complicated path; Melinda shows up and talks herself into a job, and it's not long before a boy walks up to the restaurant with a very good dog that he can't keep because his mother is allergic. These things happen sometimes, of course, and it's likely as not that they happened to Zhang in this way, but at a certain point you can't help but notice that relatively little of what Songfeng and Yun do seems to be primarily of their own initiative, and it's sort of odd when you stop and think about it. There's no time spent on the big decision to move from Beijing to Auckland, and their marriage and move to take over a restaurant in Clyde is down to a game of chance. Yun talks occasionally about wishing they could live life like Melinda, whose stints as a waitress come between international volunteer excursions, and by the time the film finishes, one sort of wonders why they never do, given what the audience is eventually told.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 December 2019 - 24 December 2019

As much as I love the idea of Star Wars Every Christmas, I've got a bad feeling a--

Ugh, hacky.

  • Rian Johnson's brilliant The Last Jedi is a tough act to follow and early word is that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not nearly as bold as that one, though J.J. Abrams handled his previous go-round competently. As you might imagine, this movie is all over the place, with multiple screens at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (including 3D), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), the Belmont Studio (2D only), Boston Common (including 3D/Imax 2D/Imax 3D), Causeway Street (2D only including Wide Screen), Fenway (including 3D/RPX 2D/RPX 3D), the Seaport (including 3D/Icon-X), South Bay (including 3D/Imax 2D/Imax 3D/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including 3D/Imax 2D/Imax 3D/Dolby Cinema), the Embassy (2D only), Revere (including 3D/XPlus/MX4D), and the SuperLux (including 3D).

    The other major studio release is Cats, which folks have been trying to adapt forever, and, well, from the previews, be careful what you wish for. It's generally not getting the biggest screens, but it's playing the Somerville, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The last of Regal's Christmas shows at Fenway is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, playing Saturday afternoon.
  • It being so close to the end of the year, some of the big awards contenders are coming out, with Bombshell aiming to cross over with a cast of Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, and John Lilthgow re-enacting the recent sexual harassment scandals at Fox News. That's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, The West Newton Cinema, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, the Embassy, and Revere. A somewhat more limited release goes to A Hidden Life, a three-hour production from Terrence Malick, telling the story of an Austrian man whose religious convictions will not allow him to fight for the Nazis in World War II. That plays the Coolidge, the Kendall, and Boston Common.

    The Coolidge also celebrates Christmas in different ways depending on the hour, with the original 1974 Black Christmas at midnight on Friday and Die Hard playing the late show on Saturday. If y ou're more the getting up early type, The Muppet Christmas Carol plays Saturday and Sunday mornings.
  • Over at Apple Fresh Pond, Salman Khan returns to one of his most popular roles for Hindi-language action flick Dabangg 3. They also have late shows of Tamil-language thriller Thambi Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday nights with superhero flick Hero in that slot Saturday and Monday.

    Though the season's big Chinese release is scheduled for Christmas Day, Boston Common has a couple others, with Only Cloud Knows the latest from director Feng Xiaogang, featuring Huang Xuan as a Chinese expatriate in New Zealand discovering that his late wife had secrets, with the trailer almost exaggeratedly art-house and still. They also have Sheep Without a Shepherd, a thriller featuring Xiao Yang, Tan Zhuo, and Joan Chen, although it's only got a half-screen and that has a number of times marked "sold out", though I suspect that's more "we could use a couple more slots for Star Wars" than great demand.
  • The Brattle Theatre offers audiences the chance to take nice, long breaks from Christmas shopping this weekend with The Godfather (Friday through Monday) and The Godfather: Part II (Saturday through Monday), both on 35mm, and playing as double features if you've got about seven hours to spare. They won't be running movies on Christmas Eve, but are usually open for a bit in the afternoon if you want to buy gift cards or merchandise.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has two from the Coen Brothers on Friday with The Man Who Wasn't There and No Country for Old Men. On Friday and Saturday, they offer bang for your movie-going buck, with the regular price getting one into Bela Tarr's Satantango, a 7.5-hour beast (plus two fifteen-minute intermissions) from Bela Tarr, considered to be a masterpiece.
  • The Lexington Venue will be splitting its two screens between five movies, with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Midway, Dark Waters, and 63 Up each getting one or two shows a day and Promare playing matinees on the weekend.
  • The Regent Theatre has animated Russian Christmas film Три Кота: С Новым Годом! on Tuesday night, and it looks as though there are no subtitles.
  • The Luna Theater has Waves Friday evening, and then it's all Christmas material, with It's a Wonderful Life Saturday and Sunday, Elf Monday, and Home Alone on Tuesday. Of the free surprises, only the Magical Mystery movie plays this week, at 11:05am Sunday.

    Cinema Salem has Kirill Mikhanovsky's comedy Give Me Liberty in their screening room back.

Got my tickets for Star Wars on Saturday, and I'll probably catch Bombshell and Only Cloud Knows while frantically trying to finish Christmas shopping and heading up to Maine to see my folks, maybe writing up another one of these for all the stuff coming out Christmas Day. I should probably try and do The Godfather again, but I'm starting to feel a bit under the weather, and that was not a great way to do that pairing last time.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Fantasia 2019.21: The Fable and The Lodge

The penultimate day of the festival, and a short one, because I'd seen most of what came earlier on previous days (and in the case of Extreme Job, when it played theatrically in Boston). The evening shows started kind of early at 6:35, which means I may have been able to get into bed at a reasonable time. It left me with plenty of time to spend the afternoon at the archeological museum, which had exhibits on cuisine and a cabinet-of-curiosity-inspired room of randomness. So, from the last one, here are some pigs and swords from what I imagine were two separate collections:

Za faburu (The Fable)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

I suspect that in real life, hitmen are seldom eccentric or preternaturally skilled or possessed of any sort of code; they're just boringly anonymous people who are okay with murdering people for money and haven't gotten caught yet. Those guys don't make for particularly entertaining movies, of course; you want the weirdos, hired by and targeting flamboyant gangsters. They are, at least in this movie, a lot more fun.

Take "The Fable" (Jun'ichi Okada), introduced putting bullets through the heads of a whole lot of yakuza while being fed information by a partner (Fumino Kimura) who has the good looks, charm, and capacity to drink any man under the table to extract a lot of intel from some poor schmuck at a bar. After this sort of carnage, it's time to lie low, so they are given the identities of siblings Akira and Yoko Sato and packed off to Osaka, where underboss Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) is responsible for putting them up. They're told no killing, but "Akira" isn't really good at much else. Plus, one of those old-school guys who don't like how corporate gangs have gotten (Yuya Yagira) just got out on parole and is looking to start trouble, and a couple of guys looking to make a name for themselves have a lead on where The Fable has gone after his last massacre. And the there Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto), a sweet girl whose path keeps crossing Akira's, and whose harassers could really benefit from a few bullets to the head.

This whole movie rests upon Jun'ichi Okada's comic performance, with screenwriter Watanabe Yusuke and director Kan Eguchi canny in how they initially deploy it, starting off with a nifty action scene and then revealing that the apparent stoic cool that the assassin shows is more about being socially stunted rather than above the petty concerns of normal people. What makes it funny is that he's not just stupid or numb - there is a personality there, and it explains why he can be cool under pressure but incapable of dealing with people, although he laughs uproariously at what is, even for Japan, an incredibly basic vaudvillian and reacts in comic agony when even the most slightly warned soup panicks his heightened senses. Okada's deadpan ability to pivot or lurch between those facets is roughly five times as funny as it seems like it should be for what he appears to be doing.

Full review at EFilmCritic

The Lodge

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It may seem like a narrow niche to explore, but filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz could probably make a few more movies about a couple of kids and their guardian circling each other warily but with increasing paranoia before it starts to become repetitive. After all, while The Lodge superficially has a lot of similarities to Goodnight Mommy, it's dealing with different sorts of trauma, albeit in a way that is no less nastily compelling.

As it begins, a family is falling apart, with mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) crumbling even faster. It's no surprise, then, that when we rejoin children Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia McHugh) a few months later, they're spending Christmas at the vacation home on a frozen lake with their father Richard (Richard Armitage) and his new fiancée Grace (Riley Keough). It's a kind of questionable relationship; not only is she younger, but they met because she was the sole survivor of a cult Richard had been studying. He's called away for an emergency just before a snowstorm isolates the lodge, and when they wake up the next morning, things are even worse: The power's out, their phones are dead, and the entire contents of the house have vanished - food, warm clothes, and the eyebrow-raising variety of pills Grace takes for various mental health issues.

The actual opening shot of the film involves a creepy little dollhouse that will naturally figure into the film later, which is a bit of a signal. Dollhouses are imperfect replicas of the real world, simplified and seldom under the control of those inside in any meaningful way. As the parts of the lodge that actually function vanish, it becomes more of a dollhouse itself, a sort of purgatory that the characters are certain they don't deserve, one that eventually includes figures that could themselves be dolls, for their inanimate nature and hint that they have been placed by an unseen hand.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 9 December 2019 - 15 December 2019

Enjoy my week of seeing movies and losing things!

This Week in Tickets

Like, start with the stub to Little Joe. Just not in my pocket when I got home, and I don't know that I was pulling things in and out of that pocket enough on the way home that it could have slipped out. Ah, well, I'll buy it on Blu-ray when it becomes available and have a more permanent souvenir because it's a really nifty little independent science fiction film with a bunch of people I like and an often-creepy feel despite also making its setting feel like a place where real people work as scientists.

On Tuesday, I did some playing with pictures from my 3D camera and also received a couple shipments of discs from various end-of-year sales, although the one I put on was from an earlier Amazon order where I bought 3D things before they went out of print and, well, that "The Secret Life of Cars" disc is kind of a rip-off. Not the low point of the week, though, which came when I somehow lost my Fargo toque at the comic shop the next night. It is too cold and snowy in Boston right now to go without a hat.

On Thursday, I extended my feature-films-directed-by-women streak to five with Black Christmas, which feels like it could have had a better build-up/mayhem balance, but I'm seeing a lot of posts online from women saying "yes, this!", so maybe I'm just missing something. The streak came to an end the next evening with a 3D screening of Jumanji: The Next Level, which isn't great, but I liked it better that the last one, which is something. Though it looks like I lost my state ID card between getting it out to show the ticket-taker and trying to get everything put away while handling my snacks. Honestly, AMC, why are you doing this? Do you really care if two people are sharing an A-List membership so long as they don't try to both use it at once and buy popcorn with each visit?

Avoiding the Red Line for the weekend took me to the new Arclight on Causeway street for Pain and Glory, which I really should have seen by now, but somehow hadn't. I probably won't do a full review of the place until I've seen something on its "Wide Screen", but they make a decent pretzel and the projection is decent. I didn't realize until going into the theater that there wasn't assigned seating for this show, which is unusual for a new, fancy theater.

That evening, I decided to make a bit more of an effort to watch my unwatched discs, and put on Manhunt. Not John Woo's best, but, like I say in the review, there's no gunfight like a John Woo gunfight. Sunday night, after an afternoon non finding as much as I'd like for Christmas gifts in the craft fairs, I went back to the shelf for The Invincible Dragon, and geez, someone get Max Zhang (or John Zhang, when he likes to be closer to his name of Zhang Jin) a good movie of his own. He's been a great opponent for the likes of Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa, but his best leading role was a spin-off of the Ip Man movies.

Maybe not so much on my Letterboxd page, as the new season of The Expanse has dropped and I'm trying to stretch it to Christmas with an episode per day and maybe trying to finish off Too Old to Die Young while my Roku is "tuned" to Prime.

"The Secret Life of Cars"

* * (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2019 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, 3D Blu-ray)

I paid $25 for this not quite realizing that the short itself is two minutes long. Sure, you could pay $20 for the 2D version, although with maybe 10 minutes of content on the disc, including an ad for the word processing software that the people involved make that runs before the menu, I'm not sure why they had to make two separate releases with this one a two disc set. Even for those of us who like 3D and are trying to pick up as many discs as possible before they go out of print, that's not great value.

The short film itself? The animation is neat, I suppose, and I kind of dig the idea of making models out of graph paper so that it looks like a physical version of the wire-frame renders used for CGI pictures' first drafts (so to speak), but even accounting for how this is two minutes of stop-motion, nothing actually happens and none of the cars show any personality. It's a reasonably clever way to show off what you can do with your 3D camera but not much else.

Black Christmas '19

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

As great as it is to see Sophia Takal making a movie that gets a big wide mainstream release, and one which has its politics and heart in the right places, I got kind of fidgety at points during this version of Black Christmas. It it somewhat methodical in getting started, doing all it can to establish where its characters are coming from but giving exposition a fair berth, which means there's a lot of "what happened to you" and taking time to establish things that would be easier to just say. That would leave it a little more time to really dig into the swerve it goes for later on in really convincing fashion, because I think one of the most clever things that the script sort of buries is that, while it's clearly and obviously about the dangers women face, its big twist is about how men are indoctrinated and radicalized by the system. The ideas are good but the details don't quite fit.

At times, the whole movie can feel like the silly accent Cary Elwes goes with as Professor Gelson, which has a point - he's playing the exact sort of conservative bully who makes a show of erudition but drops the facade once he figures he's got women in his power - but it feels silly and affected in a way that the film as a whole hasn't quite tipped its hand to yet, so that buying into can be more effort than a viewer is going to put into watching a slasher movie.

There's a fun slasher underneath, though. Imogen Poots feels like a bit of a ringer in the cast (on top of the deal where it's weird to see her playing college age when I recognize her from "grown up and starting a family" roles), but she's got a great team of girls too cool to just be potential victims to lead, with Aleyse Shannon putting more life into Kris than "the group's activist" usually gets. Takal and co-writer April Wolfe know this material and make each horror scene play out as a bit better than rote. They're good enough that my biggest complaint may be that they show us potentially fun things that don't get enough space, like when a group of young women show up with improvised weapons and one's got a sled. As much as I appreciate the rest of what they're doing, I could go with more of that nameless character taking someone out with its runners and all the other lunacy that shot implies.

Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2019 in ArcLight Boston #1 (first-run, DCP)

Pedro Almodóvar may have reached a point where he's been immersed in filmmaking and art for so long as to have trouble relating to much else, but he at least seems to sense that here There's a general melancholy and a sort of understanding of the absurdity of it, as he makes a semi-autobiographical film about a filmmaker (played by his most famous collaborator) making a semi-autobiographical work starring his most famous collaborator, before finally having the snake swallow its own tail. He doesn't quite wink until then, but he doesn't do much to hide what he's up to, either. Fortunately, it's a pretty gentle work.

That may also be the best way to describe Antonio Banderes's performance here, just a really beautiful demonstration of pain and insecurity filtered through the knowledge of his good fortune. He's seldom on the brink of tears - a lifetime of physical ailments has taught his character how to keep those in check, although a lot of little things that go from putting a pillow under his knee every time he needs to kneel to slightly stiff body language reinforce that there's believable chronic pain there beyond the early exposition. Banderas gets a chance or two to let an ego out, but he mostly comes off as kind and uncertain, extremely enjoyable to spend a couple hours with.

The film's also visually beautiful in small ways. The solid colors and memorable spaces that aren't quite as brash as those seen in the comedies of Almodovar's early career, but of a piece with them, like the frantic characters of those movies have aged and mellowed but still kind of have the same taste. The "cave" where the young Salvador lives seems like it inhabits the same place in Almodóvar's psyche as the silent-movie section of Talk to Her, while the machines in the hospital are frightening but reassuring. It's a movie that looks aging squarely in the eye and accepts it but doesn't allow it to overwhelm the people involved.

Little Joe
The Secret Life of Cars
Black Christmas '19
Jumanji: The Next Level
Pain and Glory
The Invincible Dragon