Thursday, December 05, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 25 November 2019 - 1 December 2019

Working from home is no fun and I'm glad I'm done with it for a while, barring snow.

This Week in Tickets

It does lead to some interesting scheduling like we saw at the start of the last few weeks, where I headed to the Brattle for the very nifty The Last of Sheila and was then able to convince myself that heading out to Boston Common for Harriet wouldn't keep me out too late because it wasn't like I had to catch the bus the next morning. Similarly, even though I wound up plugging away at stuff until late on Tuesday, it was easy enough to do the 9:45pm night-before screening of Knives Out just in case people were eager to spoil the murder mystery (which it is hard not to do without just writing "it's good, go see it!" in more words).

After that it was Thanksgiving, which meant a trip up to Maine, turkey and pie at various houses, and both enjoying seeing family and being kind of glad to get back to quiet the next day. I started playing around with a non-movie-related project after that, but made it to Last Christmas that evening, since the Icon at the Seaport seemed to be having unusually low member prices all weekend. Not great, but due a bit of grudging respect.

Saturday afternoon was spent at Boston Common for the one show a day that Charlie's Angels has been quickly reduced to, before hanging around a bit for Two Tigers. Not the greatest import from China, but not the worst.

Sunday was spent writing before heading into the teeth of the first snow of the year for three at the Brattle - giving thanks for Bogie in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon in the afternoon - and idly wondering if Thanksgiving-weekend shows of the first indicate that Warner is going to yank it around Valentine's Day next year - before catching Greener Grass for the nightcap.

That gets us pretty current on my Letterboxd page, and here's hoping that the snow being predicted doesn't keep me from adding more in the next few days.

The Last of Sheila

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Hollywood Whodunits, 35mm)

Come for a delightfully nasty James Coburn, stay for "little child molester" being considered a merely embarrassing secret. Hollywood in the 1970s was apparently something else, both in terms of producing this movie and the showbiz-adjacent characters within it!

That mean-spirited nature does make this murder mystery filled with a bit of inside baseball a lot of fun. It's got the meticulous but rickety structure of a flick that's as much puzzle as story, broadly comic bits with a nasty sting, and one mystery story built on top of another. It sets something fun up then abandons it to get everyone in a room, then almost goes on too long before resolving things in enjoyably abrupt fashion, because as much as the audience will have their thoughts on this group twisted up nicely by the time they're through, simple justice would not do. It's a nifty little movie that gets to be more than nifty by the time it's done.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2019 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, 3D DCP)

Harriet often feels a bit like the trailers for faith-based movies, so built around the power of prayer and/or visions that they don't actually show their characters doing anything of consequence and making them feel less proactive when they do. Harriet Tubman did astonishing things, but this telling of her story focuses enough on her "spells" and visions that it's like her own biography doesn't give her enough credit.

As it starts, "Minty" (Cynthia Erivo) is owned by the Brodess family, though married to free man John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and looking to start a family as a free woman. Even taking when and where she lives into account, she's got an argument - provisions had been made in the will of Gideon Brodess's grandfather to free Minty's mother and her family, but slaveowners tend to ignore such agreements. Punished for talking back and threatened with sale to a faraway plantation, Minty escapes, with surprising help from Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who normally pleases the masters by emphasizing the parts of the Bible that stress obedience and good behavior. She evades capture and makes her way to Philadelphia, where William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle MonĂ¡e) welcome her and encourage her to reject her slave name, but initially try to dissuade her from attempting to rescue her husband and family.

She does, of course, despite her small stature and having just recently learned how to read, and it lays the importance of Tubman's story beyond the basic good of freeing slaves out clearly: You may first do something out of desperation to save yourself, but the true test is being willing to do it again to save others, getting smarter and more ambitious about it, even as your personal connection to those you would help decreases. That Tubman has visions which seem to occasionally steer her right doesn't invalidate her story, but director Kasi Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard could maybe interrogate it a little more. After all, part of her escape is possible because Reverend Green says God's word is one thing but secretly acts contrary to his preaching, and her making the choice to act despite not obviously being suited for it, and building herself into the woman she became, could perhaps get a little more time and the things that worked out a little less.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Knives Out

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

There are a lot of delightful things about Knives Out starting from the very beginning, but the first moment when Rian Johnson and company reveal what they are really up to here is when audiences should smile big, because sometimes there's genuine delight in being baited and switched on a grander scale than you were expecting. Murder mysteries are fun but they can often stall or require excessive amounts of twists to stretch past the length of a short story; revealing his hand early lets him have a lot of fun for the rest of the movie.

And there is a lot of fun to be had here, as Johnson and Daniel Craig make private detective Benoit Blanc a clever but not invincible sleuth, something he half-confesses to in saying that his method is to figure out where something is going and then wait for the guilty party to arrive. That gives the cast room to play on the one hand and sets up a great game of cat and mouse on the other. Parts of the script are downright joyously silly, from how one character can't lie while another is misheard in a fashion that would be groan-worthy as the only solution to the case but is worth a chuckle with everything else Johnson's got going on.

Knives Out may not be the best movie of the year - the route to its terrific last shot is ultimately kind of a side path that can't quite be as important as Johnson wants with all the crime in the foreground - but it will certainly be among my favorites, and I'm already looking forward to a second go.

Last Christmas

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2019 in ShowPlace Icon the Seaport #10 (first-run, DCP)

At the end of this movie, I was pretty sure Emma Thompson wrote it on a dare to extrapolate an entire screenplay from one line of one song, or maybe just did so to keep in practice, and somehow it was just good enough to make its way through the development and attract some talent after she accidentally forwarded it to her agent. Eventually, you get this decent-enough movie whose resolution has been staring you in the face since the start. And, honestly, I kind of respect the professionalism and craft of that. Both the idea of making a jukebox musical from George Michael's songs and the plot of the movie are silly, but she and director Paul Feig get a watchable movie out of it.

It goes down a lot easier when you've got this cast. Emilia Clarke honestly makes Kate a little too cute from the word go, keeping her from really seeming like the walking disaster she is supposed to be as opposed to just comedically unlucky. She bounces nicely off Henry Golding, who is not quite too charming to sell off being adorably dorky, and then you've got Thompson and Michelle Yeoh in parts that they can do at something like one-quarter effort, and since they're dialed up to 50%, they can steal scenes. It makes for a movie that is really almost impossibly nice to the point where you can almost feel the filmmakers giving an embarrassed grin as they stick another George Michael song in. This was the pitch, we've gotta do it, but are you going to complain about a little more of this talented, upbeat singer or cast?

It will be on video next year, ready for an exhausted family to watch after trimming the tree or doing as much baking as they'd done in the previous four months, and probably just the right thing to watch at that point. It's not made for intensity, but doesn't seem like it would be bad in a relaxed setting at all.

Charlie's Angels '19

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2019 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

I try not to think of the calculations that go on in studio executives' heads too much, because it's frightening and tends to put one at a distance from the actual merits of the films themselves, but it gets kind of interest in a movie like this. I suspect that most studios would like to have an action/adventure series along the general lines of this movie, and if you own the name "Charlie's Angels", why not make it part of that franchise? Maybe nobody is really looking for a new Charlie's Angels - fans of the first iteration are around retirement age, the second was sold on its cast, and the third bombed - but does the association help or hurt a relatively unremarkable action/adventure film at the box office?

The "Angels" work for The Townsend Agency, which was once a relatively small Los Angeles concern but has in recent years expanded to a worldwide troubleshooting network of female operatives, thanks to retiring co-founder John Bosley (Patrick Stewart), whose name has become synonymous with the agents' handlers. Their latest case comes from Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), an engineer in Hamburg alarmed that a clean-energy system which can be weaponized to create lethal electromagnetic pulses is being rushed into production. Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Jane Kano (Ella Balinska) are assigned to the case, which soon becomes more complicated than just aiding and protecting a whistleblower, even with a new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) who is the first former Angel in the job.

Along the way, there are supervisors who try to take credit for their employees' work, especially that of the women like Helena, turncoats, a tattooed assassin who is a notch more intense than the other thugs, a fabulous party to infiltrate, and the seemingly inevitable trip to Istanbul, which must have a fabulous tax-incentive-for-spy-movies program. It's fun stuff, especially since the Angels are more likely to be outfitted their whimsical James Bond tech than 007 is these days, but the film can't help but feel like a remix of familiar elements that never gets beyond the surface cool and is sometimes a bit too self-referential for its own good.

Full review at EFilmCritic


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Giving Thanks for Bogie, 35mm)

Casablanca is an odd sort of classic, in that for a certain type of viewer, myself included, it can be easier to remember the silly bits that feel like they should sink it than the ways in which it is genuinely brilliant. It hits its emotional targets so perfectly that those of us who are analytically inclined can't quite describe what's so terrific about it when the letters of transit make no sense and other bits are just as silly.

But it is great, and I think it's the central flashback that does it. In a movie which spends a lot of time explaining its characters' feelings and how they make things happen, this is when you get to see Rick and Ilsa as different from what they are now and make your own connections about how they evolved. It's just a notch better than the rest of a movie that's already witty and big-hearted despite the cynicism everyone is trying to sell, and it makes one more willing to trust the rest.

Full review at EFilmCritic

The Maltese Falcon

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Giving Thanks for Bogie, 35mm)

The Maltese Falcon gets a little more bottom-heavy for me with each viewing, as all the running around in the first half and easily dismissable material with Gladys George's Iva Archer has a bit less weight each time, weird screwball energy that doesn't quite fit with the rest, and I'm a little bit less convinced that there's any actual chemistry between Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade and Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy each time. Spade is so apparently amoral that pairing him with anyone requires a little more time than the movie's got to give, especially when there are so many characters that are colorful on their own.

Still, the style is still there and the end is among the best even if you choose to read what Sam is telling Brigid as telling her that he's effectively done with her rather than actual affection. It's maybe not the scene that Bogie will best be known for because Casablanca exists, but it's a bracing moment where a hint of idealism breaks through even though it's at times hard to separate from the cynicism around it.

Full review at EFilmCritic

The Last of Sheila
Knives Out
Last Christmas
Charlie's Angels '19
Two Tigers
Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon
Greener Grass

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