Monday, July 06, 2020

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Kind of a bummer that this wasn't as good as the television series that preceded it, but sometimes that happens, and it's maybe a bit more likely when the shippers get into the driver's seat and the romance pushes ahead of everything else aside and suddenly all the things that make Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries run smoothly - being able to plug Bert and Cec in to poke around the places Phryne doesn't fit, Dot & Hugh subplots to give the mystery time to marinate, a low-key continuing story that doesn't overwhelm the murder but adds something to the byplay between Phryne and Jack - aren't there, and the filmmakers have to either build them on the fly or figure out how to do without. There might be some material to get out of Phryne and Jack being out of their elements, or Jack getting an idea of what she was like before she returned to Melbourne, but the film never really goes there.

It's probably more of a bummer for longtime fans than me, presuming that they were as frustrated with how it turned out as I was, since it was the first new entry in a couple years, whereas it was basically a two-parter at the end of a binge for me. It did make me wish Mystery! was still a thing, but the recommendations Amazon is throwing up are the next best thing.

Looking forward to Modern Mysteries, or the next movie in this series. Heck, I might contribute if they go the crowd-funding route again, because despite this finale being less than what came before.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

One thing that good television shows do - like, say, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - is to build a basic structure that allows everyone involved to do the repetitive-but-necessary steps of telling the same kind of story every week quickly and let them focus on the parts that entertain. Ideally, that framework is invisible, or works so well that it has its own appeal. Take it for granted, and the result is often something like Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a theatrical spin-off that delivers a fair amount of what the show's fans love but which doesn't have a replacement for the skeleton that held it together.

As it opens in 1929, lady detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) has seen her latest case take her from Melbourne to Palestine, where she is to rescue Shirin Abbas (Izabella Yena), a young lady who claims that it was more than a sandstorm that erased her village ten years before. Phryne appears to perish in the attempt, but reappears during her memorial service in London, attended by Sirin, her uncle Sheikh Kahlil Abbas (Kai Naga), Phryne's Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes), Lord Lofthouse (Daniel Lapaine), his wife Eleanor (Jacqueline McKenzie) and brother Jonathon (Rupert Penry-Jones), and Phryne's usual partner in crime-solving, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). A message from the mysterious figure that rescued Sirin at the time leads to a body, a mysterious gemstone, and a conspiracy - the sort of puzzle Phryne and Jack are used to solving together, though it's more tense than usual, as Jack is still upset about the circumstances under which Phryne left Australia.

The rest of the main cast from the series gets one scene before being pointedly ignored, and while there's a side of that which makes sense - don't spend too much time on the characters who aren't in your movie compared to the ones that are - but writer Deb Cox and director Tony Tilse are occasionally clumsy enough in how they do so in order to call attention to those absences. That Phryne was missing and presumed dead for six weeks is the sort of thing that makes a certain amount of sense in terms of storytelling convenience - it would take a while for Jack to get from Melbourne to London by ship in 1929 - but what she was up to during that period never becomes part of the story. That she apparently never contacted Sirin after the girl thought she saw Phryne die or takes a moment to ponder that the rest of her Australian friends might be worried sick could be an interesting way of digging into how there's a dark side to just how fierce Phryne's independence is, but the filmmakers are far too invested in her being exceptional to dig into this very much.

There's a potentially fun adventure/mystery story in there, although the sewing together of the "adventure" and "mystery" could use a bit of work. The murder mystery at the core is a good one, and if the split between English estates and Near-East deserts is not a deliberate homage to the life and work of Agatha Christie, but it functions as such, and even if the story doesn't always pivot easily between genres, the filmmakers embrace the pulpier half of the story with gusto (Phryne Fisher always has been a woman of action). The action isn't blockbuster-scale, but the period-swashbuckler style fits the film's retro sensibility. It's a little wobblier when a certain amount of mysticism enters the plot; even those for whom Crypt of Tears is their first encounter with Phryne & Jack will likely sense that this is not their usual thing, mostly introduced to give the last act a ticking clock.

Despite all that, there's no denying that the filmmakers deliver what's on the box reasonably well - at least, presuming one's favorite part of the series is the chemistry between Phryne and Jack rather than, say, watching shy and traditional companion Dot blossom over the course of the show. Essie Davis pours enough vivacity and charisma into Phryne that it's hard not to be drawn to her, especially when she's getting the absolute most out of Margot Wilson's costumes. Nathan Page is a reliable partner, almost always finding the right balance of wounded pride, reluctant fascination, and stoic capability. And even if this particular entry is set back in London, the filmmakers still know how to inject just the right amount of modern attitude and Australian energy into a form built in part on English formality to keep it familiar without being stodgy.

Truth be told, some of the things that make this film wobbly are present in the show and it's just better built to get the audience past them in ways that Crypt of Tears just isn't able to exploit. The good news is that it's far from a total loss - newcomers will certainly see the franchise's appeal, and even the fans who find it falls short of expectations will likely find themselves intrigued by the sequel teased during the credits. It's a letdown, but not one that actively negates the goodwill those involved have earned.

Also on EFilmCritic

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Two from Laurence Lau: City Without Baseball and Dealer/Healer

This is not, perhaps, the most clever double feature I've come up with as I pulled stuff down off the shelf, but it's one that felt that way at the time, as I noted that two of the movies I'd ordered from Hong Kong as relative cheapies to bulk up an order had Laurence Lau listed as director, so why not pair them? I'd purchased them both out of curiosity - City Without Baseball intrigued me as a fan of the sport while Dealer/Healer was one I recalled seeing in a festival lineup on top of starring Lau Ching-Wan - so why not.

Well, it turns out that Lau is not exactly the director you make a themed night of (and if I wanted to, I have three other discs with things he directed on it, one of which is a horror anthology and two of which are direct-to-video sequels to a Johnnie To film). He's a journeyman, a guy who's done some programmers and, for City Without Baseball, appears to have been brought in to be a steady hand for a movie with a first-time filmmaker and a mostly-amateur cast who all probably needed to be shown the ropes. That's not to say that the films have nothing in common - they're both based on real-life figures and examine unseen bits of Hong Kong - but it's not exactly an auteur double feature.

On the other hand, having done this double feature Tuesday, I can say I slipped City Without Baseball in under the wire before baseball got restarted, which is maybe worth 1 clever point on a 100-point scale.

Mou ye chi sing (City Without Baseball)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's a part of me that wishes the posters, packaging, and other art for City Without Baseball played up the sports angle, entirely so that some of the people who watch it on that basis get a genuine shock over just how much it is something else, even if it's not necessarily quite so queer as it appears from the other angle. It's a genuinely odd film in a number of ways and one which often highlights its own eccentricity so that it can have an easier time noodling around the edges of various stories.

Hong Kong is not, as the title may imply, entirely lacking in baseball, but there's no professional league, and the national team, such as it is, is a group of amateurs, led by starting pitcher Chung (Leung Yu-Chung), catcher Jason (Jason Tsang Kin-Chung), and captain Jose (Jose Au Wing-Leung); 19-year-old Ron (Ron Heung Tze-Chun) has just recently joined. The team has recently hired Taiwanese coach John Tai (John Tai Yu-Ching) to help them prepare for the Asian Baseball Cup. Tai is lucky enough to meet a nice girl (Yan Wei-Suo) at a seaside bar, and while Ron has recently broken up with his girlfriend, he's met someone new in Meizi (Lin Yuan). Like a lot of girls, she soon develops a crush on Chung, although he's drawn to a suicidal girl (Monie Tung Man-Lee) whose phone he discovers when he nearly hits her while driving drunk.

The film opens with "they are not actors... they are ballplayers" with the usual disclaimer at the end of the credits is reconfigured to say that the characters in the film "are not necessarily fictional", and while one would not mistake City Without Baseball for a documentary, writer/producer/co-director "Scud" Cheng Wan-Cheung does have the 2004 Hong Kong baseball team playing themselves in a film based on stories they told him. There's a certain shagginess to the film that might not work if Scud and co-director Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong weren't so brashly up-front about the way the film was made - the footage from the ABC is clearly a repurposed sportscast and the scenes around it are a mess, continuity-wise, and there's an early joke about someone making a movie about the team that winks at the audience so hard it might cause actual eye damage. The subplots are cliched as heck and mashed together in fairly haphazard manner.

And yet, the very simplicity and messiness of it may explain why so much of it rings true; it plays like a collection of jumbled remembrances that are not shaped too perfectly around any specific theme. The cast of (mostly) non-actors similarly seldom seem to be trying to steer a scene but just doing a fairly good job of getting across genuine personalities, if not overly-complex ones, rather than forcing out lines or looking like they're the only dozen people in the city who can fake baseball convincingly. It's especially useful as Ron has his story move toward the film's center; a student and would-be musician on top of being a ballplayer, and the film often reflects his combination of big dreams (that likely outstrip his talent) and slightly-panicked uncertainty over everything. Knowing how the film was made means that the real-life Ron Heung is laying all that out there in the same way the fictionalized version is - as is Leung Yu-Chung, to a lesser extent - and between their openness and natural charisma, it's not hard to feel that connection.

It's one that is inevitably of its time and place, as well, with Scud and Lau often noting that the musical acts on the soundtrack, folks like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, had recently passed on, while the songs Ron writes are in English and his roommate is on the ethnically ambiguous side. It's a set of circumstances and signals that notes how the old Hong Kong is disappearing and that moving forward that the things these kids have been devoted to are not necessarily going to be useful, or that they are chasing something that is ultimately small potatoes. By the same token, though, there's something beautiful in the very smallness of their ambitions once one reaches the tournament; Scud and Lau don't do much to sell the audience on the game, or present the footage in a way that tells a story even for fans. It is all about the delight Chung, ron, Jose, and the rest take in playing even though there are no fans in the stands.

In the years following City Without Baseball, Scud would go on to write and direct a number of films that were more overtly LGBT-themed, almost as if in making this broadly-themed film would have him discover where his storytelling passions lie, even if they're of niche appeal. For a film so invested in its meta-appeal, what could be a better result?

Duk gai (Dealer/Healer)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's a compelling, worthy story lurking somewhere inside Dealer/Healer, albeit the sort of generically inspiring one that can often have a film derisively tagged as "awards bait". You can still get something out of that sort of movie; an earnest passion if nothing else, even if it's miscalculated and the result of filmmakers wanting to be seen as more than they have been. This just feels like the work of journeymen whose skills aren't a match for the material - functional, but little more.

It's the story of Chen "Cheater" Hua, who started out as a teen hoodlum in the Tsz Wan Shan Estates back in 1964 before rising to middle-management in the gang that controlled the drugs in the Kowloon Walled City's "Canteen". During that time, he's developed a nasty drug habit of his own, eventually pushing girlfriend Carol to work as a taxi dancer to support them. He winds up in jail, naturally, and gets clean, working tirelessly for drug rehabilitation when he gets out, awarded recognition as an "outstanding young person" and speaking out about his mission throughout Asia, though he's never able to do all he wants or get back all he's lost.

The filmmakers hang a bit of a lantern on his award early on - the film takes place in three separate time periods from 1964 to 1987, which means Hua is forty-ish when awarded, and Lau Ching-Wan never looks "young" when playing him in 1974 or 1987 (both he and co-star Louis Koo Tin-Lok are well-preserved, which isn't quite the same as youthful). It's the sort of gesture that can't help but highlight the artifice in how the film is put together, as the filmmakers often shoot the movie like a sleek period traid thriller, with set and costume design that seems more intent on evoking nostalgia rather than creating a world that feels coherent, and it's sometimes almost comical, like when a door in the small but homey apartment Cheater and Carol share opens into a bathroom that looks like it belongs in a shooting gallery, two familiar movie sets awkwardly fused together.

That's potentially fine - nothing wrong with using heightened or familiar imagery as a shortcut, especially since director Laurence Lau Kwok-Cheong and his team do it consistently - but somewhere between the screenplay by Chan Man-Keung and Sana Lam Wai-Kuk and the end product, there's never any serious attempt to get into Cheater's head or that of anyone else in his orbit. The narration tosses out facts and describes other characters as close friends or inspirations, but aside from a brief moment of Hua in withdrawal, Lau seldom shows Hua as being particularly pushed in one direction or another by things or otherwise affected. Things happen, and Hua does what a hoodlum, junkie, or humble-and-reformed man would do in reaction. It's a sort of bland earnestness - addiction is bad and helping others is good - that could use a little more of Hua being caught in between.

There's a bit about Hua meeting up with Carol again in 1987 that's not exactly framed like he might be able to win her back but still gives the impression that her potentially forgiving him is more important than the ways he hurt her in the first place, which feels kind of misguided. There are slick and clever moments that work on their own but sometimes make one wonder whether this sort of movie should be slick and clever, like when a confrontation suddenly turns into a nicely staged action scene (action director Paco Yick Tin-Hung has been one of Johnnie To's go-tos for such material recently, and attacks those sequences with gusto). There's a couple nifty bits of effects work that shows Kowloon Walled City closing in and opening up at either end of the film, and one can admire its clear meaning even if wondering if it's right for this particular movie.

A lot of Dealer/Healer is like that, a movie made by people who are by and large very good at what they do but none of whom really do this. It never exactly feels misguided or like the filmmakers are out of their depth, but just like a bad match between subject and personnel.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 3 July 2020 - 9 July 2020

Some mixed messages on theater openings locally - indies making plans, chains saying they'll be shut down through the end of the month because all the major studios are pushing things at least that far.

No fireworks and no big-screen Jaws this weekend, and no blockbusters. It's a strange Fourth-of-July holiday.

  • It's worth noting that the Coming Soon" page for The Coolidge Corner Theatre and its virtual screening room doesn't have as much lined up for the future as it had in recent weeks - maybe they're planning on opening physically? In the meantime, they have two new films opening virtually this weekend. John Lewis: Good Trouble is a documentary on the life of the civil right activist and congressman, whose stature has only grown over the past half-century. The other is Beats, which flashes back to 1994 when a pair of friends sneak out to attend an illegal rave together. It's paired with a pre-recorded festival discussion They also continue to feature Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, The Last Tree, The Audition, Rififi, Miss Juneteenth, Sometimes Always Never, Shirley, and Picture a Scientist.
  • The Brattle Theatre also has Beats, as well as a 25th Anniversary restoration of Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, which features Gong Li as a nightclub singer mixed up with gangs in the 1930s from the point of view of a teenage girl hired to be her servant. Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, The Killing Floor, the Pioneers of Queer cinema group (Mädchen in Uniform, Michael, and Victor and Victoria), Shirley, and Joan of Arc (the last in itsfinal week) also continue.

    The "36 Cinema" group re-shows two of their previous kung fu shows with commentary by RZA, The Mystery of Chessboxing & Shaolin vs Wu Tang at 9pm on Friday. They have also picked their recommendation series: "You Know, for the Kids" has offered up Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Daughters of the Dust in its first week back, while #BreakYourAlgorithm suggests The Watermelon Man.
  • The Somerville Theatre also brings John Lewis: Good Trouble to its virtual cinema, alongside Shirley, Alice, and Pahokee. No new "openings" for The Capitol, but they can now allow a few indoor seats alongside curbside pickup (from 2pm to 9pm) and walk-up orders for ice cream and cinema snacks to accompany the virtual offerings of shorts package "One Small Step", The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time. Both virtual rooms include "Quarantine Cat Film Fest", and (through Monday) the trio of I Am Not Your Negro, Whose Streets, and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
  • The Regent Theatre continues to stream What Doesn't Kill Us, Parkland Rising, Reggae Boyz, and WBCN and the American Revolution, while also running a GoFundMe campaign and streaming a summer concert series during at least the first two Sundays in July.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues their GoFundMe campaign, and ticket pre-purchase program.
  • The Lexington Venue is still planning on re-opening with Once Were Brothers and Emma on 10 July, with a screening of short subject "25: Tony Conigliaro - The Documentary" on the schedule for the 18th. We'll see They too have a GoFundMe campaign.

Looking forward to Good Trouble, Shanghai Triad, and a couple of others, while working my way through other things on disc.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 22 June 2020 - 28 June 2020

Ah, summer, so it looks nice out the window.

This Week in Tickets

Kind of a quiet week, writing up previous reviews, watching season 2 of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, doing a bunch of crosswords, the usual. Eventually, I was able to get a couple things off the shelf, with Taza, Son of Cochise the latest restoration from the 3-D Film Archive to see release. It's… Well, we haven't gotten entirely beyond this sort of cross-ethnic casting, but it seldom looks as bad as this. The next night was from the "unwatched Hong Kong Blus" shelf, grabbing The Moon Warriors off there and realizing that I'd seen it before. But, it's been over fifteen years, and it's an example of how you can wind up viewing something with new eyes.

Saturday night, I rented something from the Coolidge, and then when I tried to hook it to the TV… nothing. Just a dark-ish blue no matter what input I selected. The middle of a shelter-in-place situation is no time to find oneself without that working! Especially when there's no more 3D models on sale in North America, which would mean looking at a projector, which I'm not opposed to, but, well, then you're talking on a screen and trying to convince the landlord to let you bolt stuff to the walls, and let's just say I was glad that unplugging and then plugging things in a couple of times did the trick.

So all is good, and Sunday night I can watch Sometimes Always Never and The Audition via the Coolidge's virtual screening room, and it was a pretty darn good pairing. The Audition is the better movie, but the other one being an attempt to stretch a scene-stealing Bill Nighy character's story out to the length of a feature with a lot of Wes Anderson to it isn't wholly a bad thing.

Holiday weekend coming up! Would love to be able to put something on my Letterboxd page from some sort of outdoor thing, but it doesn't look likely.

Taza, Son of Cochise

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

(Quickly checks IMDB to avoid getting "actually..."-ed)

Oof, but this is some awkward, obvious "white people playing Apache" material, and I'm not sure I understand the point of it being so obvious, other than the straightforward "audiences wanted stories about Native Americans but wouldn't go to a movie without stars, none of whom were Native". The dissonance of it just is bizarre to see 65 years on, though, one of the tackier "products of its time" you'll see. It's never convincing and makes every strange line-reading an awkward coin-flip between "deliberately racist" and "trying their best but somehow even worse".

Put that aside, somehow, and you've got the movie, which is just decently-enough mounted to be frustratingly bad. Maybe there's some actual history in there, though I doubt it, and the script made of it is ridiculous, with characters displaying an amazing ability to jump from one idea to its opposite mid-conversation. The film is lucky to have Douglas Sirk in the director's chair, about to rattle off a string of classics but still grinding out genre product at the moment, and able to squeeze a decent pace and some nice visuals out of the script. Russell Metty's Technicolor cinematography doesn't do any favors for the make-up jobs on Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush (still with us at 93!), but he works with the scenic locations well, and the 3D disc shows he gave audiences who paid a bit extra for that back in '54 their money's worth without making it look like a tacky gimmick.

The restoration by the 3D Film Archive looks nice, but there's no avoiding that sometimes buying these discs because you like 3D can get you some stinkers.

Tin san chuen suet (The Moon Warriors)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Been long enough that I didn't realize I'd seen this one before until I saw the orca, but even among batshit crazy Hong Kong films that might otherwise run together, some details make a movie stand out.

And this movie is... Well, it's something. It's such a familiar sort of thing that director Sammo Hung and writer Alex Law can basically start at least a few scenes later than many movies do, just cutting out rote setup completely, and have the audience not feel like it is too far behind. They never let it get boring, with a few genuinely odd bits of action and enough impressive ways of setting the scene to make the film genuinely striking at times. Characters are introduced fleeing a flaming castle, implying that the whole idea of government/royal stability is gone (ultimately only existing as a tomb), while the fishing village is open but also built to pull a viewer in, centered on the big communal cooking space that emphasizes the locals being so tight-knit. The film looks lovely even when it makes little sense or is depicting something horrible.

I suspect I had less patience for romance in my kung fu when I first saw this in 2004 (looking at the old review, I was also just learning that Andy Lau was kind of a big deal), but it's a huge part of what makes this particular movie work, even though many of the axes it turns on are kind of clunky. The thing I wind up liking about that is that, sure, the attraction between Lau's fisherman and Anita Mui's princess happens awful fast, but so does the sudden bond between the fisherman and the prince said princess is betrothed to. It's maybe not quite queer but it's intense enough for jealousy, and as such it heightens the melodrama deliciously, even as it feels like something few American movies of the era would manage in quite so sincere a fashion. And even if they did, they certainly wouldn't handle the melodrama that it leads to nearly as well.

What I thought back in 2004

Taza, Son of Cochise
The Moon Warriors
Sometimes Always Never & The Audition

Two favorite actors: Sometimes Always Never and The Audition

Right now, the virtual screening room at The Coolidge has a couple of features that could pretty easily get lost among some more high-profile offerings, though they each feature cast members I'm always glad to see turn up, though Nina Hoss is more likely to be at the center of a good film than Bill Nighy, who as I mention in the review of Sometimes Always Never is a good match for a certain sort of scene-stealing character, though that sort of character doesn't necessarily work quite so well stretched out to appearing in nearly every scene.

It's a double-feature that works better than I necessarily expected, too - both have contentious relationships between parents and children, bits of jealousy, scenes highlighting craftsmanship. Not exactly an obvious pairing, but the sort that feels good afterward because the ideas from both cross-pollinate rather nicely.

Sometimes Always Never

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

I love Bill Nighy even when he's in an awful movie, in large part because his screen persona is one seemingly built to steal scenes. It leads him to the sort of part that a good actor can give nuance in those brief moments, but there sometimes seems to be a limit to how far those parts can be stretched when placed at a movie's center. Sometimes Always Never is the result of stretching that sort of appeal just far enough to not break; it could do more and hit harder, but it seldom makes a genuinely wrong step.

Nighy plays Alan Mellor, a tailor who, as the film opens, is making a road trip with son Peter (Sam Riley) to see if a body that has recently been recovered is Peter's long-missing brother Michael. It is not, but any relief Alan finds from this is short-lived, and when his evening walk lands him on Peter's doorstep, he winds up staying the night, and many more after, sharing a bunkbed with grandson Jack (Louis Healy) and obsessively playing Scrabble online, coming to believe that his regular opponent is Michael and hoping to arrange a meeting.

Nighy being who he is on-screen - lean, stylish, and on a much better coolness curve than many of his contemporaries - is baked into the part in a way that's often interesting: One looks at him and his retro-cool roadster and impeccable attire, while Peter is never nearly so fancy, and combines it with Peter's talk of how he often had to settle for off-brands growing up ("Scrobble" with cardboard tiles), and it seems to say something about their relationship and Alan's priorities, especially when tied in with stories of the Prodigal Son, or how another couple that has lost their son (Tim McInnerny & Jenny Agutter) also has something about presenting a face at odds with what's behind the scenes in their backstory. It's somewhat standard material about families or people that present a good front maybe having something else behind it, but it's interesting to pick at, especially once the filmmakers get to peel back Alan's wit and carefully nurtured self-composure and show how this is eating at him.

The trouble is that the filmmakers often seem to be doing the same thing. Director Carl Hunter and his crew often seem to be doing the same sort of thing as Alan, covering their film in a stylish veneer that has a tendency to draw attention to the surface rather than bringing out what's underneath. The film is slathered in bold primary colors, meticulous compositions, and widescreen shots where one can't exactly miss the distortions introduced by the lenses Hunter and cinematographer Richard Stoddard choose. It's striking and usually deployed to clear purpose - emphasizing the weak connection between father and son as they talk in the car by cutting between shots of them at the opposite ends of the mostly-empty screen, heightening the sense of unreality as they venture outside their home territory looking for answers, that sort of thing - but it often comes across as trying to tell the story with production design and cinematography rather than letting those things amplify what's happening.

Much of the time, the cast just doesn't have enough to do. Nighy is enjoyably cool and sells the torment behind that equanimity well when given the chance, although it's often kept too much in reserve. Sam Riley is a fine balance as the son more likely to wear the heart on his sleeve, with Alice Lowe and Louis Hely rounding the group out nicely. The trouble is that there's always a sense that they could be doing more than they are, whether it's actually following Alan down his Scrabble-related rabbit hole or focusing on how all of this has affected Peter's relationship with his son. Most of the more-comedic diversions seem wedged in and out of place.

It is, seemingly inevitably, something of a match for the stylish grandfather at the center through much of it, nice to look at and able to be amusing or affecting for a bit, but maybe not working quite so well when the scenes he steals have to all fit together. The film doesn't fall apart, but it does wind up stretched quite thin at points.

Also on EFilmCritic

Das Vorspiel (The Audition)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

The makers of The Audition don't exactly hide what's really going on at any point, but it is nevertheless fascinating because it is not, by and large, the teacher/student story that it initially appears to be. That is there but it's just one facet of what's going on, and the one which often seems least important, giving the filmmakers a lot of room to explore the other things which tend to be going on around this type of story

The teacher is Anna Bronsky (Nina Hoss), who sees potential in a student who has applied to the conservatory where she's an instructor despite the others on the selection committee looking for someone more immediately polished. Perhaps she sees something in Alexander (Ilja Monti) and his awkwardness that reminds her of her own social anxiety; she has not played publicly or even rehearsed with others in years, despite her colleague and one-time lover Christian (Jens Albinus) trying to recruit her into a quintet. Husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) is the one who sees her at her most uncertain, and probably the only one who clearly sees how Anna's efforts to get pre-teen son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) to follow in her footsteps as a violinist despite his being much more interested in hockey and the like is putting a strain on their relationship.

From early on, it's clear that Anna, rather than Alexander, will be the focus of the film, and filmmaker Ina Weisse gives star Nina Hoss the sort of character who must be great fun for an actor to dig into. There are some big, chewy bits that seem built to announce that Hoss is playing someone who has some anxiety issues, but they come early and can be read as her on an unusually tricky day, instead giving the viewer the chance to see how those bits are hidden under all the moments when she is decisive and indeed sometimes brilliant. Hoss plays Anna as someone who has been aware of her issues and dealing with them for some time, and the combination of things sometimes getting away from her despite her clear agency makes Anna fascinating to watch, with both her missteps and her better moments easily relatable, even as the film invests in how particular her situation can be.

It's how Weisse and co-writer focus on those details that often makes The Audition demand one's attention more than other films might. The very first scene has a group of musicians critiquing Alexander's performance in specific ways, and while mastery of a musical instrument can often be a part of what moves things forward in a movie like this, Weisse and company put a lot of effort into making sure that the audience can tell what the difference between good and very good is, or will wince at Alexander making an error quickly enough that Anna's subsequent shift in attitude does not seem random. One feels how difficult sustained playing is even if the viewer has never played an instrument with any sort of skill whatsoever, or reads how the other members of the quintet seem to have music flowing through them while Anna pushes it out. It's specialized material that she makes accessible in impressive fashion, without appearing to also give the audience remedial lessons.

Weisse does a lot of other things that work as compact but telling storytelling as well - the way Anna always has her violin with her at all times even when she's not actually playing shows how central it is to her identity, and as the film goes on, more of Philippe's scenes take place in his workshop, a retreat one can feel even if it's not completely signaled. There's some very nice work done with the young actors, as well - Ilja Monti hits a very specific spot in terms of just how dedicated Alexander is and how his confidence and fear evolve over the course of the film, while Serafin Mishiev makes Jonas a kid who seems to be genuinely cracking under his mother's expectations and dedication to her new student.

There are times when Weisse et al go a bit further than is really good for the movie, opening a couple cans of worms in the homestretch that there isn't enough time to deal with, along with a moment or two odd enough to make one wonder where that particular detail came from. This doesn't leave the movie feeling unfinished or unbelievable, instead underscoring that these people are both complicated and, sometimes, dangerously straightforward. It's more than the familiar material it starts with, and interesting for that.

Also on EFilmCritic

Friday, June 26, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 26 June 2020 - 2 July 2020

Halfway through the year already? Time flies and yet seems to go on forever!

  • The Brattle Theatre has one new film opening in the virtual screening room, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, a documentary on the jazz icon. In addition to the film itself, they are also offering a live conversation with an expert panel at 7pm Sunday. They also continue their runs ofIn My Blood It Rusn, The Killing Floor, the Pioneers of Queer cinema group (Mädchen in Uniform, Michael, and Victor and Victoria), Shirley, Joan of Arc, and Lucky Grandma (final week).

    The "36 Cinema" switches from kung fu to blaxploitation for their latest film-with-commentary, Petey Wheatstraw, which streams at 9:15pm tonight (Friday) with commentary from Donnell Rawlings and Mike Sargent.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also opens Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, along with a couple others: The Last Tree is a semi-autobiographical story of an English boy who spends his first years with a foster family in the country who moves to London as a teenager to live with his Nigerian mother, while The Audition stars Nina Hoss as a violin teacher who stakes her family and professional reputation on a student she thinks has great potential. They also continue Rififi, Miss Juneteenth, My Darling Vivian, Sometimes Always Never, Shirley, Picture a Scientist, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, I Am Not Your Negro, and Whose Streets?.

    There are also two live events this week, with IFFBoston director Brian Tamm hosting a Q&A with Shirley director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins on Tuesday and, in a true sign that it's summer in New England, a seminar on Jaws with archivist John Campopiano and extra David Bigelow on Thursday. There's a spiffy new 4K disc out to watch between the introduction and Thursday night's Q&A, too, although actually watching my copy of it will be strange, since it usually plays often enough on 35mm that I don't need that. Curbside Concessions returns for a second weekend of timed pickups on Friday and Saturday, and you can also order a curated triple-feature from the theater's programmers here.
  • The Capitol continues curbside pickup (from 2pm to 9pm) and walk-up orders for ice cream and cinema snacks, as well as adding shorts package "One Small Step" to their virtual options (no new entries at The Somerville Theatre). Both virtual rooms include "Quarantine Cat Film Fest", I Am Not Your Negro, Whose Streets, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Hail Satan?, Blackfish, RBG and Life Itself, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers. The Capitol's site also features The Surrogate, The Cordillera of Dreams, The Painter and the Thief, Heimat Is a Space in Time, Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, and Slay the Dragon, while the Somerville's virtual cinema features Shirley, Military Wives, Alice, and Pahokee.
  • The Regent Theatre has a live Doors cover band show streaming tonight, as well as streaming movie options of What Doesn't Kill Us, Parkland Rising, Reggae Boyz, and WBCN and the American Revolution, as well as a continuing GoFundMe campaign.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues their GoFundMe campaign, ticket pre-purchase program, and links to Blackfish, Life Itself, RBG, Military Wives, Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers.
  • The Lexington Venue has pushed their anticipated re-opening with Once Were Brothers and Emma to 10 July, with a screening of short subject "25: Tony Conigliaro - The Documentary" on the schedule for the 18th. We'll see They too have a GoFundMe campaign.
  • I could swear Showcase Cinemas had another drive-in show planned, but apparently not. I'm mildly curious to see if their new Showcase Now site gets folded into whatever rebranded form CBS All Access takes after all this is over and all the Viacom companies are sorted out.

I'll probably see at least The Audition this weekend, although I'm also looking forward to getting stuff off my shelves.

These Weeks in (Virtual) Tickets: 1 June 2020 - 21 June 2020

Not many movies over the past few weeks, but sometimes you just feel good about accomplishing something.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

In my case, it's finally finishing up the last of my Fantasia Festival reviews from last year, with nearly a whole month to spare before the 2020 edition would have begun! It stretched out a bit because this batch included things I could watch on disc or Prime, thus refreshing my memory and maybe going out strong with better reviews. The batch included a re-watch of Promare (and the related shorts on the disc); G Affairs (from a Hong Kong import); Miss & Mrs. Cops; Why Don't You Just Die! (and the shorts by the director included on the disc); The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (which I couldn't fit into my 2019 schedule); and Lifechanger (which I couldn't fit into my 2018 schedule). A mixed bag, but it's weirdly nice to be done and not be behind on some other festival thing. It won't last, even with other festivals in delay/cancellation mode, but for now, I'm going to relish not feeling behind.

What's filled the time since? Season 2 of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which has been exactly the comfort food I've wanted while waiting things out, as it's very much in the same style of the imports PBS used to regularly show Thursdays at 9pm as part of the Mystery! anthology (which has now been reabsorbed into Masterpiece) and a genuine delight. I kind of love how the title character could be thirty-ish or forty-ish, which could have been a major difference but isn't, and how sidekick Dot has matured in believable but not flashy ways over the course of the series (I think I've seen Ashleigh Cummings in several un-Dot-like roles in Aussie horror movies, but not so that I can recognize her in one from the other). One more run to get through before the movie arrives on disc (amusingly, I think that I was in Oceania when it played its brief special show in Boston). I've also happily allowed the contents of the daily crossword links newsletter to eat a bunch of time, with the newspapers in the morning and the indies in the evening.

I did finish this last week off with a few movies, though - Tokyo Godfathers was a recent re-watch on disc, thanks to a new Blu-ray; L.A. 3-D S.P.A.C.E. has another streaming fest; and I got Stand-In off the shelf. The last one arrived as part of a Twilight Time/ClassicFlix sale and was an interesting curiosity, picked up because of Bogart in a supporting role as he was just about to become a leading man at the time. One of the things that I found myself scratching my head over, though, was the trailers - they look like genuine 1930s/1940s previews except that the text is clearly digital, and I genuinely wonder whether ClassicFlix was trying to recreate the original trailers with their restored footage or just something like them.

With festival stuff in the rear-view, time to really start working on my shelf, even if much of it will hit my Letterboxd page after EFC or the blog.

Tokyo Godfathers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Wow, I've been doing this so long that I've got a review up from when I saw it back in 2004! The really funny bit about it is that, looking at that, I wasn't exactly all-in on filmmaker Satoshi Kon, but apparently would be by the time his next (and final) film came out, enough to be gutted by his early death and frustrated that nobody has stepped up to finish the one that was in (pre) production when the cancer took him.

Rewatching this one, I'm kind of impressed by just how willing he is to make every character off-putting and not pretty, even though he could have found a spot or two to do so. It's something that really grounds the characters in their milieu and doesn't let him use appearance as a way to signal goodness, even ironically. The most memorable moment when he could - when Miyuki is shedding the layers one needs to survive on the streets and revealing that, underneath, she's still someone who can return to the life she fled - doesn't go for that. It's a thing that might have hurt the film commercially on its first release but sticks out as honest and committed now.

I suspect that I like it more now than I did then in part because of this; in the middle of a run of films that often included flights of imagination or fantasy, this modest one sticks out for how it seemingly refuses to do so even if the broader story is one of outright fantasy as everything clicks into place via fate and happenstance. It's a really fascinating case of being a film that doesn't seem to fit with the rest but actually works just fine

Full review from 2004


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

This isn't a great movie, but it's good enough that I found myself wondering various things while watching it. For instance, what was Humphrey Bogart's level of fame in 1937? Clearly not a star yet, but well-enough known and respected to be given first below-the-title billing with a slightly larger font size than everyone else (folks who watch old movies recognize this hierarchy). Sure, maybe it's just looking back from eighty-odd years later where we expect Bogie to be great but only half-remember everyone billed before him here, but there's little question that he's one of the most dynamic parts of the movie, enough so as to make one wonder why there's not more of him in it.

Other parts land in interesting ways, too - for instance, a villain intending to buy and dismantle a troubled but not necessarily failing film studio, for instance, although in the 1930s Americans were less reflexively anti-socialist, enough that a film could involve the workers seizing the means of production in response to a play that looks an awful lot like modern private equity. Leslie Howard's accountant sent in to save the studio plays as someone on the autism spectrum today, although that term might not have been around then, but it's interesting that he's not treated like a caricature or a monster, and it feels weirdly progressive that he can be like this and not need to be explained or justified.

It's a shame that the rest of the movie seldom lives up to its most interesting bits. There's not a lot for Joan Blondell to do as the stand-in teaching Howard's accountant about the movie business, even when they contrive to find more, though she's obviously charming enough that you can see why she was a star at the time. The bits with the grifters who are killing Colossal Studio all land with a thunk, and the revelation that things are as bad as they are because Bogie's producer is an (apparently high-functioning) alcoholic don't really fit at all. They come out of nowhere.

It's a mess, probably lucky to have gotten a Blu-ray release because it's got a pre-superstar Bogart in it, but it is at least frequently funny and its attitudes age better than is often the case

G Affairs

Miss & Mrs. Cops
Why Don't You Just Die!
Kirill Sokolov Shorts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

Tokyo Godfathers
L.A. 3-D SPACE Fest #3

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online #3 (21 June 2020)

Time flies, sort of - I saw L.A. 3-D SPACE had events which could become online events scheduled for roughly the third Sunday of every month, but this still caught me by surprise when I navigated to YouTube for something else earlier in the weekend and found this on the schedule.

As with their last one, it's a fairly strong hour of impressive 3D filmmaking pulled from a previous festival's award-winners, with the filmmakers on hand for a live chat. That seems a little too much for me - I don't want to be taking glasses on or off or looking at non-3D screens with them on - but it sounded like they were all there.

Anyway, as of right now, the fest program is still on YouTube, with about 15 minutes of padding on each end: Side-by-side and red/blue (technically red/cyan, although they're basically the same). Next thing on the calendar is 19 July. Maybe theaters in L.A. are open again and they don't stream, but if that's not the case, I'm looking forward to it seeing what they show.

"Deadline"/"The Magician"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Music videos are odd sorts of short films, often telling a story that is close to the song in spirit but doesn't exactly adapt it, and often requires a bit of a leap at the climax. "The Magician" is like that, telling a nifty little story of a magician whose ballerina assistant vanishes without reappearing before an ending that is nifty but doesn't make a lot of sense. The song, "Deadline" by January, is okay, I guess.

It's a nicely-shot video, though, with good make-up work to age the title character and some interesting bits of visual style that don't entirely fit together but never seem way out of line, with the 3D steady and seldom flashy. It's at least partly a calling card to show what filmmaker Andi Wenzel can do, and he certainly seems like a solid filmmaker:

2D version / 3D side-by-side version / 3D anaglyph version

"The City Quakes: 1906/1989"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

"The City Quakes" has apparently been used as a museum installation and that's certainly where it seems like it would be most at home, spending a half hour running down the history of the two major earthquakes that hit San Francisco in the Twentieth Century. Much of the time is spent on the famous quake of 1906, which is, no matter how many times I hear or read about it, more stunning in its devastation and in how the city pulled together to recover from it. Marilyn Freund's narration may occasionally be a bit flat, but the material doesn't need a hard sell

One of the most interesting points made, somewhere around midway through, is how the 1906 quake was the first disaster documented in large part by amateurs, although it is also worth pointing out that a large part of the documentation used in this film comes from stereo card companies, which was big business at the turn of that century. Other entertainingly noteworthy facts were that the post office survived that quake unscathed and was vital for keeping the community together and informed (and informing loved ones elsewhere that people were all right), a reminder that the U.S. Postal Service is just vital and awesome; and that the loss of life in 1989 could have been much worse, but a bridge that was usually packed at rush hour had a relatively light load, with people home watching the World Series. Baseball saves lives!

I'm curious as to which images in the film were 3D conversions, as is listed in the credits; for a film made in 2006 by folks who might be called semi-pro, it looks pretty well done (for reference, the Clash of the Titans conversion generally found to be disappointing was done in 2010). Generally, it's nicely shot by 3D enthusiast Robert Bloomberg, the sort of neat documentary which shows how effective the format can be.

Various ways to watch it and other short films can be found on Bloomberg's site

"Stereo - A Love Song to 3D"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This short, also from director Robert Bloomberg, is not on his site at the moment, which is a bit surprising; it's a novelty, sure, but one that may be particularly appealing to the people visiting that site. Maybe there are rights issues with all the films that he used as sources for the imagery and lyrics that don't come into play for a festival engagement (or as promotion for the 3D drive-in series that it was created for), but would if it were permanently hosted.

It's cute, with some fair cut-out animation and groan-worthy lyrics but enough basic competence in terms of writing a song that one can get to the end of without cringing too much (as mentioned above, Bloomberg is semi-pro, even if his only IMDB entry is for something he did in 1974). I doubt I'll ever watch it again, but it's an amusing four minutes once.

"Gentle Storm"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Ikuo Nakamura's film starts with a dry screen or two of information about a 25 September 2017 coronal mass ejection that he was able to film the next day, which is either good fortune or incredible planning. I presume he used the same sort of rig as he did with his 2015 "Aurora Borealis 3D" short, placing his cameras miles apart so that when their images are combined, it's like the aurora is a phenomenon happening close up and something you can hold.

It's impressively eerie, nicely complemented by music from regular collaborator Hayes Greenfield. Nakamura is the sort of artist who is talented enough that even what seems to be in large part a technical exercise is worth checking out.

"Antiya" ("Impermanence")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This short is a less thoroughly pragmatic documentary, more of an art piece with Nakamura taking his camera to various places and shooting, initially staying in one area but eventually branching out and creating a sort of collage of quiet rural scenes. In some ways, the title of "Impermanence" seems ironic, because some of the sacred spaces he visits seem quite well-preserved even when that seems improbable, although the transient nature of the people passing through them is noteworthy.

Many of these images are striking, using time-lapse photography or slowly revealing that a cross-shaped monument is bigger than the last shot made it appear before reversing the angle and letting it show in full. A spire seemingly built into a rock balanced on the edge of a cliff is given scant time to amaze the viewer before Nakamura tightens his focus to how people interact with it.

And maybe it's what I as a viewer bring, combined with Hayes Greenfield's music, but there are bits that seem intriguingly less distant and archaeological, a slight discomfort at aiming his fancy camera at a poor village while passing on the river or a quick dip back into a large city where peopling wink and half-perform for the camera. It's a few seconds out of fourteen minutes, but it makes one a little more connected as an outsider looking in for most of the movie.

Nakamura has a Vimeo and a website, though each was last updated months ago, which makes sense as they appear meant to support bookings rather than substitute.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 6: Promare (and its shorts); G Affairs; Miss & Mrs. Cops; Why Don't You Just Die? (and its shorts); The Gangster, The Cop, and The Devil; and Lifechanger

Voici! Just a few weeks short of when I would have been heading to Montreal for Fantasia's 2020 edition, my last reviews of movies that played the festival in 2019 (and, in one case, 2018). To be fair, these at least were deliberately pushed off once I saw that they were going to be available to re-watch so I could refresh my memory. Most of them you can find via JustWatch or order a disc, although my copy of G Affairs came from Hong Kong (and, hoo boy, am I gonna get a big package when they start shipping to North America again). That the most recent one, Why Don't You Just Die!, arrived at the end of April and there are still a whole bunch from the 2019 festival that have yet to find legitimate North American homes perhaps demonstrates that there's no need to rush if your goal is letting people know that something available is worth it, although if the goal is to help create buzz that gets a film a deal, that's different.

So… Now what? I suspect it's been years since I've actually been caught up on reviewing festival films, between BUFF, IFFBoston, Fantasia, their side projects, and the occasional trips out of town, and it only took a worldwide pandemic to manage it! I'll likely be applying for media credentials for Fantasia's virtual festival, presuming that such things are even on offer for folks outside of Canada (they probably will, but some films will still likely be geo-locked), and I won't be terribly shocked if, sometime this fall, everybody reschedules all at once, giving me a new crazy backlog.

Of course, I also won't be shocked if Fantasia 2021 is the next film festival I attend. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to putting discs in the player (and streaming things) without worry that it's taking up time that could go to some film that needs the exposure or a festival that gave me a press pass. It's a screwy way to feel if you're not making film writing your actual job, and I am looking forward to at least temporarily being free of it.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It may not necessarily be rare for something like Promare to do well when stepping down from the packed Fantasia house to a decent crowd at a multiplex to me in my living room where I'm trying not to disturb the upstairs neighbors - at some point, a good movie is just a good movie - but it wouldn't have been the first movie where I fell in love with the energy and confused that with the film being great. And while the smaller quarters does make the rest of the movie smaller, it doesn't diminish the film. It's still a great, fast-paced adventure.

In fact, seeing it that way at this moment makes it come across even better, because the actual plot which initially came across as anime clichés stitched together exceptionally well shows a bit of a smarter shape: The opening which plays as rage boiling up, the tendency to clamp back down hard, and attack it rather than deal with it, the elites who think they can escape but whose plan doesn't work without the exploitation of the underclass, the raging fire at the center of the world which will destroy everything unless we let it out… It's not perfectly insightful - the fact that movies need to end is going to hobble any metaphor - but it does reveal Promare as a movie that has more on its mind than may initially appear to be the case because it is so entertaining.

What I said last year

"Promare: Galo-hen" ("Side: Galo")

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

"Side: Galo" is an odd little home-video extra, apparently released alongside Promare's theatrical run in Japan and playing so close to being a straight tease of the opening action sequence as to almost feel redundant, but also sneaking in a moment or two of filling in the plot that is only really interesting afterward. At least, it seems that way because that's the order in which I saw it, although someone seeing this might not see such heavy-handed foreshadowing.

It also doesn't get nearly the sort of budget per frame that the feature did. It's not cheap enough to look shabby, but also not as impeccably polished as the film it's meant to supplement, with the filmmakers less able to make the digital-but-not-photorealistic look feel like a style rather than a compromise. It's also hurt a bit by the non-linear storytelling, which keeps it from being as propulsive as the feature, which is kind of unusual; this sort of ten-minute dip into a film's mythology is usually tight.

On the plus side, it's as close as we're going to get to the full anime with a fun ensemble cast to which the film would, in a perfect world, be the budget-busing finale. The feature is done so well that you don't need it, but also done so well that you certainly want it.

"Promare: Lio-hen" ("Side: Lio")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This one feels less like a proof-of-concept than its companion short and more of a dive into the film's backstory, but is rather unsatisfying on that count; while Lio's "Mad Burnish" organization feels like it could have used a few minutes making his lieutenants into more than just anonymous henchmen, the filmmakers never manage that, nor get much from the woman who just discovered she was Burnish in the previous short and what it's like to suddenly become that sort of outcast. The story is kind of a mess, and the presentation, again, isn't as strong as in the feature.

Title character Lio Fotia doesn't show up until it's almost over and the whole thing seems misguided, as this pacifist basically shows up and immediately changes the philosophy behind Mad Burnish by being the most powerful, and it seems thin even without him being the sort of pretty manga antagonist he is. There's something intriguing about how the short sets him up as more a Messiah figure than the guerilla he comes across as being in the feature, but it's not anything that either is set up to do much with.

One thing that jumps into sharp focus here, with so much of the action focused on the Burnish, is that it's very rare that any of the fire in this movie uses a traditional red/yellow color scheme. For as much as the filmmakers say fire and want something that acts like fire, they never really seem to want our brains to react to it on that sort of visceral level. It's not a bad decision, but definitely a calculated, interesting one.

G Saat (G Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 7 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

My first thought upon seeing this was "well, that's kind of g-ross", but awful g-related puns aside, there's an impressive race between outrageous events and striking style at the start of this movie that almost blunts them both, taking a while to find some sort of equilibrium. Once it does, the story kind of cruises for a while, jumping back and forth to let the environment sink in. The filmmakers never settle things down once that's happened, but that's generally enough to cover for any weaknesses in the plot.

It's initially narrated by Yu-Ting (Hana Chan Hon-Na), a student at a top Hong Kong private school who has been saddled with the unflattering nickname of "G", and who has had a rough go of it lately: Her mother (Griselda Yeung Cheuk-Na) has recently died of gastric cancer, and father "Master Lung" (Chapman To Man-Chat) is a dirty cop whose bullying behavior has gone viral online, with Lung recently appointing his mistress Li Xiaomei (Huang Lu) - a prostitute from the mainland who goes by "Mei" - as Yu-Ting's guardian. Lung has also set up shop for his secret meetings in the apartment of Yu-Tin's classmate Tai (Lam Sen), a cello-obsessed loner whose parents have separately gone abroad, which happens to be across from Xioamei's. Yu-Ting's only confidents are Markus (Luk Chun-Kwong), the physics teacher she gives blowjobs, and Don (Kyle Li Yam-San), a tech savant with Asperger's Syndrome everyone else at school assumes is gay.

And then there's the whole matter of the prostitute who is decapitated while Lung has a tryst in front of Tai.

It sometimes feels like the filmmakers came up with a fairly simple, if nasty, crime story and then worked out how they could maintain the initial thrill of the shocking murder but spent less time on how to play it out. Writer Kurt Chiang Chung-Yu and director Lee Cheuk-Pan aren't really making a thriller or a murder mystery here so much as appropriating the structure so that they can bounce around the timeline a little and keep viewers from getting fidgety or wondering what the point of all this is, and it's sometimes more than a bit transparent as Tai reflexively pushes back against telling the detectives what he must have seen and the final bits of explanation are less a culmination of what's come before than a wrap-up after they've said what they want to say.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Miss & Mrs. Cops (aka Girl Cops)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 10 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (refresh, YouTube via Roku)

This movie opens with an entertaining bit of action and then, immediately, informs the audience that it's not going to be getting any more of that for a while, and I'm not going to lie, that's pretty disappointing. It's also got a different sense of where the line between hostile and abrasive is than American buddy-cop movies, and while it should - it is South Korean, after all - It's got trouble maintaining a tone that works in other ways. The mean streak you often find in even Korean crime comedies doesn't serve this one very well, especially when it's trying to be very silly and very solemn at the same time.

That first bit of action takes place back in 2002, when Park Mi-Young (Ram Mi-Ran) was a rising star in a Special Women's Task Force, catching a drug dealer and making an impression on a pair of bystanders - would-be prosecutor Cho Ji-Chul (Yoon Sang-Hyun) and his younger sister Ji-Hye, who had not realized women could be cops. Fifteen years or so later, Ji-Hye (Lee Sung-Kyung) is a detective but mostly gets assigned to serving as bait to catch minor creeps, while her brother never passed the bar and Mi-Young left the force to work as a civilian in the complaints department after giving birth. An incident lands Ji-Hye on the same desk as Mi-Young and computer whiz Yang Jang-Mi (Choi Sooyoung) when a college student comes in to report a case of sexual extortion, and with no chance of the computer crime division solving it by the end of a 24-hour deadline.

You can see everything set up so well - a pair of sisters-in-law becoming reluctant partners to solve a case that the men on the force don't necessarily see as a big deal, backed up by a hacker who, between the sexism the film is targeting and cop movie-cliches, is actually extremely overqualified for the job she has - and the three top actresses are all a lot of fun to watch. Ram Mi-Ran is pugnacious as Mi-Young but not so far into that she's out of place at this sort of desk, while Lee Sung-Kyung does a nice job of making Ji-Hye a woman who is obviously similar - an early scene shows them as mirror images despite one being opposite physical types - while still having her own personality. Sooyoung plays off them well as the cheerful geek who complements their sour, intense dispositions.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Papa, sdokhni (Why Don't You Just Die!)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 11 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (refresh, Blu-ray)

This pitch-black comedy may be the most action-packed film of the festival, a bloody mess of a movie that maintains a breakneck pace for much longer than one might expect and manages the neat trick of having several of its characters doing corrupt, violent things while still maintaining some level of sympathy, which is kind of the only way this sort of free-for-all works. Why Don't You Just Die! is as darkly comic and violent as you'd expect from the title, but occasionally shows that it knows where the line is between that sort of darkness and outright nihilism.

It starts with a heck of a hook, as Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) nervously stands outside the apartment of his girlfriend's father Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev), nervously fiddling with the hammer he's planning to use to cave the man's head in. But someone passes by at the wrong time, so Matvei makes an excuse, Andrei reluctantly invites him in, but now his wife Natasha (Elena Shevchenko) is there and Andrei seems to be especially wary once Matvei doesn't have a great excuse for the hammer...

Writer/director/editor Kirill Sokolov doesn't wait very long to start paying that set-up off, immediately throwing his characters through the wringer, drenching the set with red as he quick-cuts to build up speed but tends to follow a smashing blow through, dropping down to slow motion to let viewers "savor" the impact. There are two or three top-shelf action bits in this movie, and a lot of them are set up by making the audience hyper-aware of just where exactly everything is and then sent careening in new directions by weird, violent slapstick. It feels even more absurd (most) confined to one fairly small apartment, and Sokolov manages to heighten things well past when most people would be dead while still having the blood loss take a believable toll (although I gather that this is somewhat realistic, in that it's surprisingly difficult to knock someone unconscious even though adrenaline doesn't actually make one superhuman)..

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Byvaet i khuzhe" ("Could Be Worse")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

I don't want to even think of dinging any of the short films included on the Why Don't You Just Die! Blu-ray too much, because they are by and large things the director was doing with friends and student films and as such are really amateurish because selling action is really difficult. You can see the roots of where Kirill Sokolov will wind up, though, in his sad-sack hero stumbling from one punishment to another, finally encountering something that puts it into perspective.

And he's got a good eye for making do with what he has. I like how he uses the backdrop of light-rail stations for the opening and closing scenes, not just so that he can come full-circle at the end, but because they represent change and movement, and it lets his main character seem alone and rootless where a more conventional setting like a cafe wouldn't. There's one really good performance and he wrings all he can from it before some very well-targeted effects work.

It's sloppy enough in spots that you can see he's working on raw instinct in the places where it does work, but better to have that than not.

"The Outcome"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

Of the four shorts on the disc, this is the one that feels most like the cliché of a Russian art-house film, all grubby and cynical and aiming squarely for where the absurdist and the satirical intersect. It's processed to look a little film-ier, maybe reminding one of Tartakovsky and the like. That's not my thing, generally, but it's kind of heartening to see it still there, influencing and getting pulled out of young filmmakers when a lot of Russian cinema is going for big, slick productions.

There's basically just one joke here, though - when a cleaner leaves a chair on the bed after placing it there to clean the floor, the in-worse-shape-than-their-charges staff of this mental hospital treats it like it's the patient while the actual sick human being in the other bed is ignored. It works whether you see the inmates running the asylum or an incompetant staff going through the motions without realizing how absurd it is (or something in between), but even in a ten minute film, there's not a lot to do with it.

Slick nightmare sequence, though, and the one joke is in fact good enough to be told two or three times in rapid succession.

"Ogon" ("The Flame")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

Huh, I did not recognize that the lead actress in "The Flame" had played a smaller role in Kirill Sokolov's previous short film. She's striking to look at and Sokolov gets plenty from her, capturing how her character Olya is cool but fresh-faced, so that the raw, sometimes insane emotion erupts from underneath something without it being a particular surprise. The story is messy and sometimes random, but Viktoriya Korotkova and Sokolov have enough sense of this girl to keep the audience grounded.

It's also a great thing to look at, from the opening where a toilet stall becomes an art-house dystopia to a nasty fight that shows how far he's come from "Could Be Worse" on the way to Why Don't You Just Die in that it's believably staged and impressively reflects the emotional stakes of the action. It's good enough that the film almost doesn't have any place to go afterward, although there's something to Olya wandering a bit after a moment that feels like it should resolve something doesn't. It's a bit of oddity that gives Korotkova some good moments but which makes for a fuzzy second act, but one that makes some sense even when it feels like it's a bit off.

"Sizif schastliv" ("Sisyphus Is Happy")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

IMDB has this listed as the first of Kirill Sokolov's shorts, but it's fairly elaborate for that. Maybe he figured he overdid things and then scaled back?

It's a fun sort of dark comedy of errors - a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time attempts to flee police, but while his family are making a hash of escaping the back of their apartment, the cops are having a hell of a time getting into the front. It's a neat set-up, but one where only something like ten or twenty percent of the jokes land well and both ends fizzle out.

The jokes that do work are solid enough to make this an interesting-enough bonus item, though the film on its own is very much the sort of thing an enthusiastic amateur does before going to film school. Nothing to be ashamed of as that, but very much something to grow from.

Akinjeon (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Sylvester Stallone has optioned The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil for an American remake intended to return Ma Dong-Seok to the title role, even though it's the sort of part that he would be smart to snag for himself. On the other hand, it's also a sign that he's smart enough to see what made a movie work and not mess with it: The high concept in this movie isn't bad, but the star is the best reason to see it.

A serial killer is stalking the area around Cheonan, rear-ending drivers and then killing them when they stop to exchange information, but so far the police haven't caught onto the pattern with the exception of Jung Tae-Seok (Kim Moo-Yul), the sort of honest cop that the rest of the force often figures is trying a little too hard, especially since Captain Cha Soo-Jin (Kim Gyu-Ri) has a cozy arrangement with the local bosses. That's before Kang runs across Jang Dong-Su (Ma), who is not only the sort of guy who's burly enough that it would take a lot of stabbing to put him down for the count, but he's the city's big boss. He doesn't go to the police, of course, but Tae-Sook figures out why Dong-Su laying low, and they strike an alliance - Tae-Sook can't catch the killer without what Dong-Su has seen, and Dong-Su can't let word that some random person almost killed him get out. After all, lesser boss Heo Sang-Do (Yoo Jae-Myung) is already looking to move up.

Ma Dong-Seok - credited in English as "Don Lee" - is a big guy who was a personal trainer before he got into acting, but he's proven to have more range and charisma than that may imply in recent years, and while Dong-Su may not be the role he's ultimately remembered for, it's still one that shows what he can bring. He smashes his way through a few scenes, but there's a bit of put-upon weasel to him as well, something that makes him a bit more than the blunt object you may take him for but doesn't exactly make him admirable and impressive. He's a little funny even when being kind of repulsive, and of all the people involved, he often seems to be the one with the best idea of just how far over-the-top he should be going.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* * (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Telling a horror story or thriller from the point of view of the monster is often an intriguing idea, but one that requires a little more care than writer/director Justin McConnell takes with Lifechanger, although that's not its only issue. The exciting high concepts of its shape-shifting plot and the practical limitations of the production keep running into each other, and it's easy to lose patience by the time it gets to the clever bit.

It starts with a woman (Elitsa Bako) waking up next to a desiccated corpse, though she's got a male voice-over (Bill Oberst Jr.); that's because when "Drew" drains the vitality from somebody, he takes on their physical form, usually healing as he does so, although he still seems to have a wound from where the original Emily tried to defend herself this time around. Changing like this is a matter of survival, but bodies used to last longer, sometimes years, before he used to feel himself about to break down and begin the process again. He's reached the point where he knows which chemicals can change long he has, and has a regular disposal routine; he also has a girl he's fond of, Julia (Lora Burke), and finds a reason to hang around her favorite bar no matter what form he takes (Steve Kasan, Sam James White, Rachel VanDuzer, Jack Foley).

Sometime, around the point where Drew mentions that he lost track of Julia's home address the last time she moved, it clicks into place that, above and beyond the regular murder and path of destruction he cuts through innocent people's lives, he's also a stalker, and that's the moment when the film is most clearly pulled in two directions. It is, after all, an interesting and worthy subject, and a pretty clever way of talking about how a person can hide behind various shifting identities in the Twenty-First Century without the film becoming all shots of computer screens and people typing with overlaid text. It also makes Drew a thoroughly miserable person for the audience to be spending time with, but not necessarily evil or self-deluding in a way that the audience either feels an uncomfortable sympathy or a disgust that can completely override interest in the fantasy situation. It's uncomfortable, but not quite in a way that compels one to keep watching.

Full review on EFilmCritic