Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.03: The Long Walk

Hey, check it out, Mattie Do in the house!



Kevi Monahan of the Boston Underground Film Festival surprised her with a gift from one of her producers, a little something to toast the end of The Long Walk's festival run. He was clearly hoping it could have gone on a little longer to play BUFF, but the timing probably wouldn't have lined up as well, as Do mentioned she had meetings over the next week for an English-language movie which could potentially fund a few more Laotian films.

It was an emotional Q&A at times; when making the movie, she had recently lost her mother and her dog and was as such determined not to make death look nice in this film - even when it could be seen as a respite or a kindness after long suffering, it still plays hell with the living, and that she succeeds shows what a relatively delicate balance it is; one of the pivotal scenes of the film is largely built on a well-meaning bit of euthenasia that has to ride the line between the audience understanding why the person in question does this but also immediately seeing why a person taking this on is tremendously dangerous, and I don't know if it would have succeeded if she wasn't so determined to not compromise there.

(I'm sure it sounds odd to put those two deaths in the same sentence like that, but from the way she talked, I suspect that putting her dog down was a fairly direct inspiration for that scene, because it meant taking direct control over ending another's life. The ideas come where they come. And besides, I believe we established that she really loves dogs three years ago in Australia.)

Not that the Q&A was primarily maudlin; Ms. Do is an enthusiastic, funny live wire whose jokes often have genuine bite to them, like when she laughs about being a "jungle Asian" rather than a kung-fu Asian or tea-ceremony Asian and how it can as a result in mostly seeing poverty porn when outsiders make a movie about her home. A lot of what she talked about was how it was a wild shoot - parting ways with the original cinematographer early, then hiring a guy at the last minute based upon the recommendation of Synchronic filmmakers Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson. That tightened their schedule, which meant that a lot had to go right toward the end, because you don't get a lot of chances for reshoots when the last few days of shooting involve burning down the house where many earlier scenes had been shot, getting the last shots in town while the agers did their work, and then shooting the scenes you needed after the house had been overgrown with vines and the like. It is worth mentioning that apparently setting a house on fire is not quite so easy as it looks and how the part of the production design/set decoration team that makes things look older are kind of amazing; movie magic that requires a bunch of detailed work that audiences don't see up close but which can boot you right out of the picture if done poorly.

Anyway, Mattie Do is great, and I hope this movie pokes through into theaters, helping her get some of that Hollywood money to make more Laotian films.

Bor Mi Vanh Chark (The Long Walk)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

A fair amount of people might think The Long Walk takes too much time to get to the good stuff, as the really tricky genre material doesn't show up until halfway through. It's a fair critique if that's all you want from the movie, but it's a rich experience getting there.

It opens about fifty years in the future, with an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) scavenging parts from an old, wrecked motorcycle. He has a reputation for being able to see spirits, one with a basis in fact: The girl who wrecked the motorcycle (Noutnapha Soydara) has been with him since he was a small boy (Por Silatsa), as her body was never cremated. In the 2010s, she was the closest thing he had to a friend, trapped as he was between an angry father (Brandon Hashimoto) and a sickly mother (Chanthamone Inoudome); in the 2060s, he's approached by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), a young girl who had left for the city, to find out if her missing mother has died. Soon, these timelines begin to cross, and the hermit becomes tangled up in the world around him in more ways than one.

The team of director Mattie Do and her husband, writer Christopher Larsen, do something kind of interesting in how they shift the timeline on this story from past/present to present/future but do not use a technological means for having the protagonist become unstuck in time; it unburdens the story from any colonial baggage it might have picked up even accidentally, letting the filmmakers ground the film in Laotian tradition without having to write around ubiquitous westerners who will try to explain things scientifically. There are still some around, in the present, of course, installing solar panels that are of little practical use to a farming family, but Lina's modernity and uncertainty with tradition, for example, are her own, not the result of external changes. It's an odd situation, sliding the timeline forward so the audience doesn't get caught up in nostalgia or other ways of either discounting or romanticizing the past.

Do tells an intriguing story of sad, kind of selfish isolation here, one that ultimately turns inward in frightening fashion. For a large portion of the movie, it plays out in somewhat conventional if heightened fashion - a young boy with litle life outside his parents loses one and is basically abandoned by the other never learns to connect with others, instead retreating into the company of spirits nobody else can see. The filmmakers see a way for this to be potentially sinister even before the chance to encounter himself as a boy starts letting him tighten his circle, and once that kicks in, those who come to this looking for a time-travel story will marvel at how nicely the film is constructed. There's genuine horror to be found in the shifting timelines and impressive attention to detail; Do does good work in getting big impact out of small things, and subtly changing the look of the film between the present and the future so that we can traverse the gap naturally but still know where we are. This part of the story is done well enough tht some will wish it was the whole film. Underneath, it's more than a puzzle; it's an acknowledgement that loneliness can't be solved unilaterally, and that good intentions can be twisted.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, February 17, 2020

Enter the Fat Dragon '20

I'm kind of mildly surprised that it took this long for Well Go and other distributors of Chinese films in North America to fall back on the movies that opened for the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong after the Mainland films were wiped out by the coronavirus outbreak. I suspect there was a lot of "this will just last a week" and then it didn't and then the window was closed for stuff without crossover appeal like this, where folks in North America know Yen and you could probably cut a decent trailer by pulling English-language lines out of the movie. It wasn't particularly crowded on Sunday afternoon despite a theater right next to Boston's Chinatown feeling like a really good place for a Donnie Yen film to open. I've got no idea how the combination of a few weeks to get bootlegs out, the local population seeming to generally prefer Mandarin-language films, and Yen being a contentious figure among the Cantonese-speaking audience plays into that

Still, it's a fun hour and a half, and has Yen pulling a lot more from Jackie Chan's comic action playbook than usual. He's got comedic chops and playing a likable dork kind of agrees with him, so seeing him put a lot more slapstick into his fights than he has in the past worked well. It's a bummer that the first film with this name is kind of hard to find in the US right now - the DVD on Amazon has a bit of that "may be a bootleg" look to it - so hopefully we'll get a decent Region A Blu-ray of Sammo Hung's film out of this one's release.

Fei lung gwoh gong (Enter the Fat Dragon) '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

This colorful, fast-paced bit of kung fu silliness works well enough that I'm not sure why they bothered to put Donnie Yen in a fat suit. It really doesn't affect how he moves or the story at all, and there aren't even that many jokes at the expense of his character's weight. Did someone just have the remake rights to Sammo Hung's film and figure it would add 5% to the take or something?

Yen plays "Fallon" Zhu Fulong, a cop whose career has stagnated because his ability to catch the bad guys is cancelled out by the collateral damage he causes, both in terms of Hong Kong in general, within the HKPD, and with fiancée Chloe Song (Niki Chow Lai-Kei). In the aftermath of a bank robbery, he's reassigned to a property room, and not being able to exercise after an injury has his appetite way ahead of his metabolism, so six months later, he's packed on a hundred pounds before his old partner Shing Huang (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) gives him a milk run mission to extradite Japanese porn director Yuji (Hiro Hayama) to Tokyo. Except that Japanese detective Endo (Naoto Takenaka) lets Yuji escape, interpreter Maggie (Jessica Jann) seems like something of an airhead, and the help Shing refers Fallon to is his old partner Thor (Wong Jing), who has been in Japan for ten years trying to stay close to Charisma (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her nephew Tiger (Lin Qiunan). Oh, and yakuza Shimakura (Joey "Tee" Iwanaga) just happened to see Yuji on the plane to Tokyo, where he was traveling with Chloe, who is big in Japan and has been hired as a spokesperson for one of Shimakura's fronts.

That's potentially a lot going on but also not quite enough as it plays out; for all that producer Wong Jing and his co-writers set up all these threads to follow, they all get picked up and discarded in fairly haphazard fashion. Wong Jing and Teresa Mo are plenty of fun in this movie, for instance, but all the time spent with them could maybe have gone to Fallon actually tracking down Yuji and realizing he's got to do more detective work because the crazy kung fu stuff is harder carrying this weight, giving Chloe something to do while she's in Japan (or, heck, deciding just how good/popular an actress she is, as that seems to change based on what a given scene needs), or the like. This sort of martial-arts comedy has never really needed a terribly coherent plot, but it seems sloppier than usual here, and more like a missed opportunity.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.02: The Dustwalker, Synchronic, Sea Fever



I'm not going to lie - with a marquee that wide, I'm mildly disappointed that someone didn't go for the entire (original) title of Birds of Prey, but as you can see, there's just too much else going on at the Somerville to put all that up.

Like I said when writing up the first day of the fest, the opening weekend in particular was a pretty impressive schedule. When announcements started, my jaw kind of hit the floor when I saw Synchronic on the list. Dig back through my stuff, and you'll see that Moorhead & Benson are favorites, and this festival landing their newest is, let us say, a bit more than I have sometimes expected. I'll happily hit it again if it plays Fantasia in July, especially if the directors do a Q&A, because theirs are generally great. I'm a fan, and when I heard the folks behind me saying it was "pretty good for an indie film", my initial instinct was to ask them to show more respect.

Which is fun; there aren't a lot of movie-related things that get me feeling that sort of passionate fan energy these days.

I did errands between the first movie of the day and Synchronic and had been back and forth on seeing the last one, with both winding up a little closer to the DTV/VOD/streaming fare that the festival has generally featured. They're an interesting contrast, though - The Dustwalker feels like something that aimed higher than its level of resources and wound up a mess, while Sea Fever worked to its budget and more or less worked, even if it maybe doesn't have as many big swings. I'm not sure which approach is better, in general, although it's long been what we as science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts have had to choose from at the movies.

The Dustwalker

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

The distributors that pick this Australian horror movie up will likely be able to cut a good enough trailer that the people who stream it wonder why it just doesn't click afterwards, even discounting the visual effects that look a few years out of date. Watching it, I noted that it's been a while since I've seen a film struggle so much to string scenes together, leaving one always a bit out of sync. It feels a bit like someone took a prefabricated monsters-from-space movie kit and didn't read the instructions, just tossing the "extra" bits away after gluing the obvious ones together.

It starts with something crashing outside a small town in Western Australia, taking out communications with the outside world and hitting the man who comes to investigate with some sort of red dust. Everyone naturally leans on Joanne Sharp (Jolene Anderson), one of the town's two police officers, to figure out what's going on, even as she and sister Samantha (Stef Dawson), plan to pack up and move to the city. A lot of people have started acting very strange, though, and geologist Angela (Cassandra Magrath) has found some unusual material in a brand new crater.

The audience never gets a look inside that crater (or it was too quick to register with this viewer) which makes one wonder if the production budget was sometimes tighter than anticipated, like there was no money to either render something that could be the melted remains of a spaceship or even commission one from a local sculptor, at least once the visual effects budget was spent on a dust storm and some under-skin motion on the faces of the infected. It doesn't necessarily feel like something director Sandra Sciberras is shooting around, and there are no scenes later where Joanne and Angela refer to anything particularly specific about what they saw, but it's an odd thing to be missing. Add some rough CGI creature effects, and a picture quickly emerges of a movie whose budget was no match for its ambition.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Synchronic

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

The three previous feature films by the directing team of Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson have earned them a great reputation in sci-fi/horror circles and been the sort of movies that fans build a festival schedule around, but their particular combination of meticulous construction, genre awareness, and emotional tensions has seemingly conspired to keep them from playing to a larger audience. Synchronic seems like a movie that could go wider; it's smart and witty and occasionally exciting without seeming quite so clearly focused on its own intricacy.

It starts with a couple of visitors to New Orleans having a really bad trip when they try new designer drug "Synchronic", and they're not alone - EMTs Steve Denube (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Jamie Dornan) are finding themselves responding to calls that defy belief more frequently. Getting stuck with a needle at the scene of an overdose has Steve getting some tests that reveal a brain tumor, something he keeps from Dennis, who has problems of his own when his 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) seems to have been at the scene of another overdose and then vanished.

Where things are going, plot-wise, is clear enough that it's fairly easy to forgive the fair amount of shortcuts and coincidences Benson's script employs getting there, although it creates an odd sort of tension: The mechanism they built requires Steve to be empirical in how he approaches his rescue attempt and for the audience to pick up on details even as the situation is generally chaotic. It's ultimately something that the filmmakers manage to make work, and even play into the personalities of the characters: Steve is smart, but sloppy, an armchair scientist at best, so his stumbling and having to guess right without knowing the whole picture is a match for how he deals with his diagnosis and how Dennis approaches his more conventional search and the strain it puts on his marriage. People don't suddenly get super-competent when they've got a mission, and these guys are used to flying by the seat of their pants at their regular job.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Sea Fever

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Sea Fever isn't fancy, but it's a rock-solid "danger from the deep" movie which does a good job with a lot of things which aren't necessarily exciting: Working around a limited budget for actually showing the monster, getting the cast to build characters around pretty thin specs and having them work as a bit more than cardboard figures, implying all of the backstory that would explain things. It's impressive craft that nobody in the audience would notice unless filmmaker Neasa Hardiman blew it.

It opens with graduate student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) in her natural environment - a university laboratory, examining samples under strong lights, ignoring the other faculty and students celebrating something or other behind her. Ah, but a scientist needs experience in the field, so she heads to the docks and the Niamh Cinn Oir, whose married operators Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen) supplement what a fishing crew can make by renting spots to researchers. She's impressed by the filtration system designed by engineer Omid (Ardanlan Esmaili) and maybe likes the look of Johnny (Jack Hickey) a bit, though other members of the crew (Olwen Fouéré & Elie Bouakaze) are a bit superstitious about her red hair. Of course, it's hard to argue that her hair is what leads Gerard to steer the boat into restricted waterways, or calls forth the creature(s) that attach themselves to the vessel.

It's not entirely unheard-of to but a character like Siobhán at the center of a monster movie, but it's not usually the way things go; it's usually more entertaining to have her feed information or be an eccentric foil the the person of action leading the fight. Choosing to do so shakes a familiar story up in interesting ways, though; Hardiman takes a lot of beats that you expect to see in the Siobhán/Johnny romance and playing them out in how she and Omid respect each other's technical savvy, for instance. It also reframes a lot of the movie as problem-solving, rather than fighting, which requires a bit less in the way of special effects and gives the audience a little more chance to play along.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, February 14, 2020

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 February 2020 - 20 February 2020

Happy Valentine's Day! And President's Day! There are movie things associated with both!

  • The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, for instance, has been tied to the latter for decades, finishing off the "festival" portion on Friday and Saturday with films including Fantasia selection, Dead Dicks, I Am Ren from Poland, and First Nations zombie movie Blood Quantum. The twenty-four-hour Marathon starts at noon on Sunday and runs through noon on Monday. All screenings are at The Somerville Theatre, and other events at nearby restaurants.

    With the festival over, they're down a screen, so they will be showing the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, a program of outdoor adventure films, while The Boston Underground Film Festival has their monthly Dispatch from the Underground on Wednesday, with The Best of CineKink 2019 in the Micro (and speaking of BUFF, their 2020 Kickstarter preorder is ready to go).
  • For Valentine's Day, the best bet looks like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in which a young painter is hired to secretly paint the portrait of a woman reluctant to wed and unwilling to pose (in the guise of a paid companion), only for the pair to fall in love. That can be found at The Coolidge Corner Theatre (including an "Off the Couch" screening Tuesday), Kendall Square, and Boston Common.

    There's also Downhill, an American remake of Force Majeure with Will Farrell as the husband who freaks out and runs at what looks like an avalanche during a ski vacation and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his now much more apprehensive wife. That opens wide, playing the Coolidge, the Capitol, West Newton, the Kendall, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    At midnight, the Coolidge has Color Out of Space on both Friday and Saturday, with the original My Bloody Valentine on Friday night and a 35mm print of The Craft with a Haus of Oni drag show
  • At the multiplexes, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie finally comes out after redoing all the visual effects for its title character, though still with Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, the most Jim Carrey-looking part he's had in a good long while. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Causeway Street (including Wide Screen), Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including XPlus/MX4D). The other bit of IP exploitation this week is Blumhouse's Fantasy Island, a more horror-oriented take on the franchise with Michael Peña as Mr. Rourke. That plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row, and Revere (including XPlus).

    More promising, hopefully, is The Photograph, with Issa Rae as a woman still smarting from her mother's reclusive nature, and LaKeith Stanfield as the man who falls for her. This Valentine's romance is at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    ArcLight is doing an exclusive presentation of Joe Begos's bloody action thriller VFW, with 9:30pm shows at Causeway Street.

    There's a new animated film from Masaaki Yuasa playing Wednesday, with Ride Your Wave playing Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, Assembly Row, and Revere. Revere also will be showing the Harry Potter films for school vacation week, starting with Sorcerer's Stone on Sunday and with a different one at noon every day until the Deathly Hallows double feature or the 22nd.
  • Kendall Square also has The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, a documentary about Allison Reid, who literally wrote the book on giraffes back in the 1950s when solo field work was unheard of for a woman. They also have the anime Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, a film offshoot of the series which sees the title character arriving at a woman's academy to help a grieving student heal.
  • I'm mildly surprised that it took international distributors this long to fall back to Hong Kong's Lunar New Year movies what with China's not having opened yet, but they finally do, with in Enter the Fat Dragon featuring Donnie Yen in a fat suit as a cop who has eaten his feelings after a breakup but must escort a criminal to Japan anyway. It looks like he gets to fight Philip Ng, though, so that should be fun. That's at Boston Common, which also still has a couple shows of Weathering with You daily.

    For Indian films, Apple Fresh Pond picks up World Famous Lover, an anthology of four love stories in the Telugu language set around the world. For Hindi language romance, there is Love Aaj Kal, which follows two people "on a journey of love, loss and life through the phases of Reincarnation." There's also Tamil romantic comedy Oh My Kadavule, where two best friends marry and it could apparently go better (through Sunday). Malayalam drama Varane Avashyamund plays Monday and Wednesday, with Telugu romantic comedy Bheeshma opening on Thursday.

    Fresh Pond also plays Come As You Are for two shows daily, which remakes a Belgian film about three men (and their driver) taking a road trip to a brothel that specializes in serving people with disabilities. Local indie film fans may remember director Richard Wong's first film, Colma: The Musical, and find him an interesting match for the subject.
  • It's Valentine's Day, so The Brattle Theatre naturally has a 35mm print of Casablanca on Friday and Saturday (7pm shows sold out, though there may be some tickets at the door for members), with a print of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at 10pm for those looking for a different sort of love story. And since it's also President's Day on Monday, that means it's school vacation week, which means a 35mm Bugs Bunny Film Festival. Just one program this year, but it runs from Saturday to Thursday, with just a short break on Tuesday evening for Trash Night.
  • The Harvard Film Archive celebrates Valentine's weekend with "Amour Fou", a series of twisted French romances: La Chienne (7pm Friday), Betty Blue (9pm Friday), Manon (9pm Saturday), the newly-restored L'Age d'Or (4:30pm Sunday), and Jules et Jim (7pm Sunday), with all but L'Age d'Or on 35mm film. They also squeeze in the last of their Silent Hitchcock films, Easy Virtue, at 7pm on Saturday, also playing on 35mm. And finally, they bring director Matt Wolf in to present and discuss his film Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, on Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has two screenings of The Princess Bride on Valentine's Day, before spending most of the rest of the week on their Boston Festival of Films from Japan: Mr. Jimmy (Saturday/Thursday), Killing (Saturday), Erica 38 (Sunday), Blue Hour (Wednesday), and The Journalist (Thursday). There's also a Sunday-morning matinee of documentary In Search of Beethoven.
  • ArtsEmerson begins a monthly "Shared Stories" film series in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room with Love Boat: Taiwan on Friday & Saturday. It's a documentary on a cruise taken by young Taiwanese-Americans to learn more about their culture and perhaps find romance, and director Valerie Soe will be taking questions afterward. It also plays with two short films. Regular tenants Bright Lights continue their free series by showing some good timing with Oscar-winning documentary American Factory on Tuesday, followed by a panel discussion on labor in America, and also welcome Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer director Mark Landsman on Thursday.
  • the New England Aquarium is scheduled to re-open their IMAX screen on Saturday, with "Sea Lions: Life by a Whisker" joining holdovers "Australia's Great Wild North", "Turtle Odyssey", and "Oceans: Our Blue Planet" in the rotation. Nothing on the site about whether they're still showing genuine Imax film or if they've gone digital.
  • The ICA has a program of Sundance Festival Shorts from the 2019 festival showing Friday night and twice an afternoon on Saturday and Sunday.
  • The Regent Theatre appears to have sold out of a screening of the Banff Mountain show on Monday (not bad - that isn't a small room!), and as it's school vacation week, they will be doing a sing-along film, with The Wizard of Oz playin in such a fashion from Monday the 17th to Sunday the 23rd
  • The Luna Theater has Casablanca on Friday night, the Oscar animation & documentary Shorts on Saturday afternoon, Parasite on Saturday evening and Monday afternoon, a free surprise "Magical Mystery Movie" before a day of screening Monty Python and the Holy Grail on Sunday, and screenings of WBCN and the American Revolution on Monday afternoon and Tuesday evening. Plus, of course, the free "Weirdo Wednesday" show.

    Cinema Salem has Color Out of Space playing for a week.


I'll be hitting the sci-fi fest (though skipping the marathon), checking out Enter the Fat Dragon and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, maybe catching VFW, and who knows beyond that?

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Man Standing Next

Huh. I remember this story having more in the way of prostitutes and black comedy in The President's Last Bang (which is apparently not available to watch in high definition, which somehow boggles my mind). Might have to check that one out again.

Unfortunately, it's pretty much too late for folks in Boston to check this one out theatrically, as its last screening at Boston Common is right about…. now. An underappreciated consequence of every movie having night-before screenings rather than just the big events is that you can't really do last-chance Thursday nights any more, especially a bummer since I had trouble squeezing this one in. Partly my own fault - I had stuff I wanted to see at the sci-fi film festival and HFA over the weekend, and felt kind of lousy on Tuesday, but on Monday it looks like AMC cancelled the 6:45pm show in order to fit an extra screening of Parasite in after its Oscar victories, which is fair, although there's a bit of irony in those wins actually making it more difficult to see a South Korean film here!

Even with that taken into account, this seemed a little cursed - I got to the ticket kiosk and it the only printed out half a stub before crapping out, and then the snacks I'd pre-ordered just weren't ready when I got there. The guy at the concession stand was cool when he saw the mistake, giving me a LOT of corn dog bites and making sure I knew they were willing to give me some extra candy or something, but it turned out to be a very good thing for me last night that they stick twenty minutes of previews before their movies.

Namsan ui bujangdeul (The Man Standing Next)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

The Man Standing Next is a pretty fair example of a movie that takes the known facts of recent history and stitches them together in the way that most resembles a thriller. The suspense comes as much from the craft as the pieces of that history where one doesn't know the exact details, meaning the most exciting set piece is in the middle rather than the climax. There's no mystery for many watching the film in South Korea, but at least some tension.

After a brief flash-forward to 25 October 1979, the film rolls the clock back 40 days to show Park Yong-Gak, the former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency giving testimony before the United States Congress about the corruption and autocracy prevalent in their supposedly-democratic ally. He also announces plans to publish a memoir, incensing President Park (Lee Sung-Min), who dispatches current KCIA head Kim Kyu-Pyeong (Lee Byung-Hun) to get his predecessor under control. Kim returns with the manuscript and a warning, that the American CIA is tracking a figure they call "Iago" who secretly controls a large faction of the agency. Could that be Gwak Sang-Cheon (Lee Hee-Joon), the head of the President's personal security who seems far too much of a hot-head to be any kind of secret mastermind?

(Note that while the events of the film map fairly closely to actual history and real people, most of the names have been changed.)

This story ends with President Park's assassination, and whether Gwak's testimony in Washington set events in motion or was just one of many examples of how an institution that had rotted from the inside finally falls apart is treated as something of fairly minor concern. Instead, writer/director Woo Min-Ho focuses on the process of the collapse - the increasing paranoia, the machinations that grow more complex and dangerous to what seems like little purpose, and the gradual realization by Kim that what he's doing has drifted far from public service. Both the outside forces at play and the factors in Park's fall that derive from his own personality are visible mostly on the edges of the film - at a certain point, Woo suggests, both dictatorship and the forces of international politics are machines that my run slow but are are only stopped when the larger one crushes the smaller.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.01: Proxima

I'm going to try and project as many good vibes about this festival as I can this year, because while we've had issues in the past, the schedule that's been put together for the first weekend, at least, is impressive as heck and Proxima looks like the sort of movie I really like that just misses the cut to playing in Boston. Yes, it's got an actor or two you're familiar with and a filmmaker people have heard of, but we've only got so many screens and it's not like the upscale theaters that have been built here show more grown-up movies as opposed to the same thing with a better wine list. At best, it probably gets the same sort of one-week release as Aniara or Little Joe, because the Kendall is close to MIT and hopes this might get some trade from there.

Anyway, heck of a start to the festival. Here's hoping the rest lives up to it!

Proxima

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Among the many things that intrigue about Proxima is how the standard narrative of movies like this seem built to push the story, and the audience, in a specific direction. Lots of movies that didn't live up to their potential have made it as easy to joke about them being about "discovering what's really important" as "friends we made along the way" or the like. And yet that construction works, because what counters it? Proxima is at its best when it makes you wonder.

It is, from one side, the story of Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), a brilliant engineer and astronaut candidate at the European Space Agency, who has just been selected for the "Proxima" mission, a year-long stay on the International Space Station with American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Russian Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev) which will serve as a sort of dry run for a mission to Mars. The training at Space City in Russia will be intense, but that is not the hardest part: She has a daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), a bright seven-year-old (though dyslexia and dyscalculia make school more difficult), and while it's likely that her ex Thomas Akerman (Lars Eidinger) will step up more than he has, a year is a very long time at that age.

From the other, it's the story of a little girl who has seemed to get through a divorce unscathed but is now faced with not just moving to a new city in a new country, but her mother voluntarily leaving her for over a year. Though Matt Dillon is naturally going to be billed and credited second, young Zélie Boulant is clearly the film's other lead, and she does impressive work for one so young, aided by a script by director Alice Winocour and co-writer Jean-Stéphane Bron that seldom presumes to get inside a child's mind but certainly gives Boulant many opportunities to present all the nervousness and anger that seeming abandonment will cause while also demonstrating the immense, unbreakable love and awe she has for her mother. Children are often pawns or abstractions in movies about parents trying to balance family and career, but Stella is a real kid whose needs and desires are not necessarily simple. Indeed, part of what makes this so agonizing for Sarah is that she and the audience can see the very real possibility of Stella not being destroyed but growing away from her mother.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 2: The Deeper You Dig, Away, Jade's Asylum, Almost a Miracle, The Wonderland, Hit-and-Run Squad, Dreamland, Chiwawa, Porno, and Mystery of the Night

On the one hand, I'm sad that Away didn't wind up getting a theatrical release, because I really loved it and the audience was into it.

On the other, you can purchase it on Amazon Prime Video for six bucks in HD. You can also rent it for two or three, but, come on, that's an absurdly good price even to just hold

Anyway, enjoy me trying to make a case for/against movies based upon my Letterboxd entries and notes several months later!

The Deeper You Dig

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Every time I see a movie like The Deeper You Dig, I wonder how many more groups there are out there like the family that made it, tight-knit enough to do something as resource-and-time-consuming as a movie not just for no money but without the expectation that it will lead to something else. Hundreds, probably, with vanishingly few cracking the lineups of a major genre festival, mostly winding up on virtual shelves next to a hundred times as many self-published novels and indie rock MP3s online. Like most of that material, it will almost certainly not be the most accomplished or easily-recommended movies you'll see all year, but it's individual enough that it will speak almost directly to those who like it.

Ivy Allen (Toby Poser) has a good little grift going as a fortune teller, with 14-year-old daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) helping, shall we say, to set the scene. With other things to do around the house, Ivy's not able to watch Echo as she goes sledding on one of those winter days where the sun goes down quickly, and she is hit by a drunk driver. Horrified, Kurt (John Adams) starts to turn his life around, even making firends with Ivy when they meet in town and guiltily helping out where he can. Of course, it turns out that Ivy's connection to the spirit realm isn't completely imaginary, and Echo is not resting easily.

It's a bit strange to call a horror movie "cute", but that's the sort of vibe this DIY production gives off, especially once you know that the main cast are real-life parents and daughter. It's less actually scary than an earnest attempt to make a scary movie, with the basic shape of a ghost story and the bones of a good parallel between the haunted parties, though it can't help but feel more like people excited to make a horror movie than a group into the particular story they're telling. On top of that, it's a bit of a case where ghosts aren't necessarily as interesting as the guilt that they represent. That said, when the film takes an odd twist that leads to the movie trying to do two or three different things at once that don't quite mesh, it at least handles it better than a lot of films that take a big swing do. The last act may not be quite so eerie or unnerving as it is meant to, but it is also not nearly so unintentionally funny as expected.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Away

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

It's a rare feature film that is as singularly the work of one artist as Away, and of that small sample, few are this good. With nobody else credited on the film, director Gints Zilbalodis strips an adventure story down to fundamentals, makes some choices that maybe a larger team might not have, and comes through with an animated film for all ages that comes across as unique but not gimmicky.

The plot is dead-simple - a boy has survived a plane crash, starting the movie dangling from a tree by his parachute. He's in the middle of the wilderness, and the nearest city, Cloud Harbor, is some distance away. He's soon befriended by a yellow bird who seems to be about as alone as he is, and together, they journey through dangerous and surreal landscapes in hope of getting to the place that can get him home.

Away is a very simple movie in a lot of ways - Gints Zilbalodis made it on his own, and he's smart to keep from overburdening himself in ways that filmmakers telling this sort of story often do. He doesn't bother with dialogue, for instance, and makes it feel natural by not feeling the need to give the boy someone to talk to. He has, in large part, structured the film like a video game, and rendered it either with a gaming engine or some similar software, and it becomes an intriguing artistic choice on top of being very practical: It works as this boy attacking his problems in a way he understands, and why he doesn't necessarily need to be vocal. Zilbalodis doesn't make it an overt theme by being judgmental - this isn't a "kid who only knows the world through screens can't handle the real thing" movie - but going for a gaming aesthetic lets him buck filmmaking conventions and create different ways of understanding a character who doesn't have much reason to explain himself.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Jade's Asylum

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, ProRes)

I can't say I much enjoyed Jade's Asylum, but the discussion with the filmmakers included one of the more tellingly confessional moments I've seen at a festival screening: It went from mostly indoors to mostly outdoors when they got on site and saw that their monster suit didn't look good in the mansion they'd rented. It doesn't make the final product better, but it gives one an idea of how many different pieces have to come together for a movie to work and an appreciation for how often you have to try and fix things on the fly.

The mansion is somewhere in Costa Rica, to which Jade Williams (Morgan Kohan) has come with boyfriend Toby Hunter (Kjartan Hewitt), one of several guests Toby's brother Wesley (Jeff Teravaninen) has invited for a housewarming party. Most are obnoxious bro types, although Mike (Sebastian Pigott) seems pretty decent despite coming with Instagram-diva girlfriend Tanya (Deanna Jarvis). Jade's in a fragile state and ready to walk back to the city to try and get home despite not having the money to fly back to Canada and Toby unwilling to help despite not really wanting her there, and that state of mind is not going to improve with a bunch of dudes covered in mushroom coming out of the woods to attack the gringos.

There's potential to that, if you want to dig into these characters' relationships and maybe make what's got Jade reeling feel much more central, but filmmaker Alexandre Carrière never seems to find anything there, and stretches what he has thin. This movie is 83 minutes long, but includes a whole ton of outtakes and such over the end credits, along with other big chunks of runtime wasted on pointless nonlinear circling back around to various flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout the film. Take out the subplots that go nowhere and the repetition and there's maybe a half-hour of movie here, and that half-hour doesn't make a lot of sense. One suspects that it is missing a lot of pieces that could have clarified things, but Carrière instead pursues the sort of ambiguity that does a movie little good unless there's something more compelling behind "real or not?" Maybe retooling while they shot put the filmmakers in a bad position, but the result isn't good.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Machida kun no sekai (Almost a Miracle aka Machida's World)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's always the ducks. No matter what the cartoon, or movie, or what, the ducks will be the funniest part. They don't actually make themselves known until relatively late, but the teenagers in this movie give them a run for their money, making for a high-school comedy that, for all of its eccentricities, often gets at the heart of what it means to be growing up and finding oneself.

Most notable is Hajime Machida (Kanata Hosoda), who is helpful and altruistic to the point where folks really don't know what to make of him. He winds up at the infirmary at the same time as Nana Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu), and while something seems to spark, Machida immediately makes it weird. Meanwhile, Ryota NIshino (Taiga Nakano) likes Inohara but accidentally sends his letter declaring it to Machida, recently-dumped Sakura Takashima (Mitsuki Takahata) likes Machida but is liked by Yu Himuro (Takanori Iwata), and a struggling writer (Koichi Sato) thinks that there's a story in all this.

The teens are a bunch of lovable weirdos trying to figure themselves out, sometimes from odd starting points, and the compulsively altruistic Machida is intriguing for how he's such an extreme character who is such an odd type that one might find him hard to believe in, at least compared to some of the others - the cynical, gossiped-about Inohara is certainly much more immediately recognizable. It's often hard to be sure just what to make of Machida's broad-ranging generosity, especially since Kanata Hosoda's performance often makes it clear that Machida is doing what he has been told he should do, but there's not a contrasting "real Machida" behind it. It's a bit of a put-on, but also genuine. It's often easier to recognize the suspicion and confusion in Inohara's reactions; Nagisa Sekimizu plays a more conventional complex teen.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Bâsudê wandârando (The Wonderland)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

The Wonderland (aka "Birthday Wonderland") has all the surface elements of big, respectable anime - a decent coming-of-age story, absolutely beautiful animation, certain specific character types, a traditional life/environmental message - and does each of them well enough that it plays really well from minute to minute. The trouble is that the whole doesn't fit together in a way that does those pieces justice. It's kind of about moving forward but also accepting destiny and how modern life isn't good for the soul but also shopping… It's all over the place.

It has a common sort of template. Akane (voice of Mayu Matsuoka) is a moody girl turning thirteen, sent by mother Midori (voice of Kumiko Aso) on an errand to the junk shop run by Akane's weird aunt Chii (voice of Anne Watanabe), which gets stranger than things usually do around Chii: A secret passage opens and the alchemist Hippocrites (voice of Masachika Ichimura) and his apprentice Pipo (voice of Nao Toyama) emerge, seeking the "Goddess of the Green Wind" and deciding it's Akane. Soon, they're all transported back to another land, magical and of an earlier era, where Zan Gou (voice of Keiji Fujiwara) and his bat-like sidekick Doropo (voice of Akiko Yajima) are collecting metal for a nefarious purpose, and if Akane doesn't stop them with her "Momentum Anchor" necklace, she'll never get home.

I can't speak for Sachiko Kashiwaba's original novel, but the movie is scattered as heck. That doesn't make it bad, although it can start to wear; it's got the sort of quest structure that has a viewer just starting to get a feel for something before it's on to the next thing, leaving characters and settings and the like behind. For all that growing up is in many ways the process of taking all of this and figuring it out to make it part of oneself, there's not much time spent on Akane resolving these complexities or coming up with her own perspective. The film is never quite just things happening to Akane, but she finds herself along for the ride more often than leading the charge.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Bbaengban (Hit-and-Run Squad)

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

How does a movie about Seoul's car-crash investigators, on the tail of a Formula 1-driving criminal mastermind, have so little in the way of automotive action? For crying out loud, when a person buys a ticket for a movie named "Hit-and-Run Squad", they've got expectations, so get to the car chases already! This thing is 133 minutes long and really only has a couple of worthy bits of stunt driving.

That mastermind is "JC" Jung Jae-Chul (Cho Jung-Seok), who retired from the track early to get into business and has seemingly gotten as far as he has with bribery and extortion. It's being investigated by prosecutor Yoo Ji-Hyun (Yum Jung-Ah) and Lieutenant Eun Shi-Yeon (Kong Hyo-Jin), but when a sting backfires in disastrous fashion, with a star witness (Park Hyoung-Soo) attempting suicide during an interrogation and Eun reassigned to investigating car accidents. Not exactly a great career step for a rising star, and she's partnered with Seo Min-Jae (Ryoo Joon-Yeol), who can read an accident scene like a savant but isn't allowed to drive himself because of his checkered past. Then again, it's not like Eun is actually going to let this go, and Seo's skills may prove useful considering that JC still really likes his cars.

Even when you consider that JC is still invested in racing and racing-adjacent businesses, there's still a fairly substantial gulf in what goes on in those two types of stories, and the screenplay by Kim Kyung-Chan and director Han Jun-Hee doesn't do the best job in bridging it. The worst part is, all of the twisty corruption stuff which takes up the bulk of the running time not only doesn't make much sense, it's boring. The writers never seem to figure out who should be the big villain and why - the corruption seems to be fairly generic as opposed to in the service of something in particular - and it keeps stretching out and reversing until it becomes extremely hard to care about all the material that is just making the movie longer. There is so much going on that just doesn't matter, and it dilutes the bits that at least hint at something interesting in the focus on corruption.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Dreamland (aka Bruce McDonald's Dreamland)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The opening stretch of Bruce McDonald's Dreamland introduces a bunch of visually striking characters against a moody environment, has then open their mouths to begin a story, and then summarily has the all shot them in the head. The rest of the film isn't quite that nihilistic, but it is fairly pointedly eccentric and detached, the sort of thing that needs the idea that anything can happen in the audience's head lest they get frustrated with how little is happening right now. McDonald is going for a specific idea of cool here above all else, where it's more important to be stylish than tense.

It is plenty stylish, mostly taking place in the neighborhoods of a European capital where the movies that make a person want to visit Europe take place, the parts not developed into glass skyscrapers or filled with historical buildings that remain preserved in amber. There's cafes and clubs and pawnshops, and the assassin who frequents them taps into a network of cigarette-smoking urchins in suits, one of several places where the wires seem to be crossed and weird chimeras created. McDonald and his collaborators do a decent job of finding entertaining ways of mixing familiar tropes up into different arrangements so that there's often something both comfortingly familiar and bizarrely creative about them when he attempts to do so usually misses the mark.

Not everybody can fit into that sort of milieu, but frequent McDonald collaborator Steven McHattie can, and this movie fits him like a glove. He has a dual role, laying both a world-weary assassin and a decadent trumpet player, and a viewer probably wouldn't want anyone else playing either of those parts, even if the way the film winks at it is another thing that makes a viewer more aware of the games being played than a part of them. Watching him shamble around as the drug-addled musician or trying to do good while not really believing in his own humanity is a distinct pleasure even when a scene is going on too long. He's surrounded by similarly entertaining support - Henry Rollins as a gangster who seems laid-back to a fault but still carries grudges, Juliette Lewis as a maniacal Countess, Lisa Houle as a sympathetic ear in a bar - but these guys are never quite completely engaged with others, just as part of their nature.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Chiwawa-chan (aka Chiwawa)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Chiwawa is structured kind of like a murder mystery, but it's 50/50 as to whether that's the direction it's going to go at any point, and that's fine. After all, it seems like the other way they could have gone with it is faux documentary, which probably would have seemed more like middle-aged folks trying to make a movie about youth, despite actually having been made by a filmmaker relatively close to his characters in age. As someone who has never been a Japanese person in their early twenties, I can 't exactly say how well the film represents that group, but it nevertheless paints an interesting portrait.

It opens with a news report on the especially grisly murder of Yoshiko Chiwako, a twenty-year-old nursing student who, it is suggested, also found herself involved in less savory situations. It is a shock to their friends - they knew Yoshiko (Shiori Yoshida) as "Chiwawa", an effervescent party girl who parachuted into their group when Yoshida (Ryo Narita) picked her up in a bar, sticking around even as relationships changed between her, best friend Yumi (Tina Tamashiro), camera-toting Nagai (Nijiro Murakami), cynical model Miki (Mugi Kadowaki), and Yoshida's friend Katsuo (Kanichiro Sato). There are some wild times and emotional blowouts, but nothing that seems to actually explain what happened to Chiwawa-chan.

Screenwriter/director Ken Ninomiya adapts a manga by Kyoko Okazaki, and though he leads off with homicide, the actual crime is not quite so important as what it implies about the life she and her friends lead, and how it lacks the stabilizing influences and structures that their parents may have had. There's rocket fuel in certain sections of this movie, like how they find a bag with six million yen (roughly $60,000 American) and blow through it in three days of partying, and it doesn't necessarily feel like something that's pushing the plot to how things are going to end. Instead, it's a sign of the abandon with which it is possible for young people to live, while the news occasionally give them reasons to live like there's no tomorrow. People stop in the last leg of the movie to be transfixed by reports of a bombing in Singapore, and like the party, it's less a story point than illustration of the times and how little is in their direct control.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Porno

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Porno is the sort of movie that feels like someone should have thought of it and done it before, but I can't think of anything particularly similar, and I bet those with better catalogs in their brains won't think of a better "monsters in a run-down movie theater" picture (although, as this is very much my thing, I'm happy to hear what obvious example I'm blanking on ). Inspiration usually seems obvious in retrospect, and thus is inspired even before the nice cast and quality, fearless execution shows up.

It takes place in the early 1990s (Encino Man and A League of Their Own are on the two-plex's marquee), and as they do every Friday night, the teenagers who work there are going to watch a movie after the customers leave. Chastity (Jillian Mueller) has just been made assistant manager, and Ricky (Glenn Stott) has just come back from camp, though his talk of the girlfriend he met there have had no noticeable effect on Chaz's crush. Also working are Abe (Evan Daves) and Todd (Larry Saperstein), but before they can tell projectionist Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann) what they want to watch, a homeless man bursts in and uncovers a secret door, behind which they find a strange archive and a third screen in the basement. Obviously, when that happens, you watch what you just found - and, of course, it's inevitable that in addition to being more sexually explicit than anything these nice church-going kids have seen before, those reels of film are exactly the sort of thing hide and seal away in horror movies because they imprison a demon.

The last quarter-century or so of cinema construction has given us recliners, digital projection and sound, stadium seating, and, more to the point, buildings where even the first wave has more or less remained in its original configuration (even if the box offices are sometimes unnervingly unmanned). I will not argue for the superiority of the places that came before, their large screens awkwardly divided, their behind-the-scenes areas cramped and labyrinthine, and their projection booths filled with equipment bolted onto projectors that have been there since the silent era, but they undeniably have history and personality, and a large portion of the audience for this movie has probably spent enough time in those places for it to resonate. The oddity of the architecture combines with the way film holds frozen life to make the movie fantastical but also kind of right.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Misterio de la noche (Mystery of the Night)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Everybody's folklore is kind of messed up, but this movie makes it feel like a competition that the Philippines could win. It's a simple but impressively nasty combination of colonial horror and local legend, giving the audience what they've come for, albeit on a scale that may be a little too grand for what the filmmakers have to work with.

It starts with a town's mayor, Anselmo, going out to the forest to hunt, doing Father Parorozo a favor by taking a ranting, pregnant woman with his party and perhaps not being too concerned if she returns with them. A generation later, his son Domingo (Benjamin Alves) makes his own trip to the woods, where he discovers and makes love to a beautiful but feral woman who was raised by the forest spirits after her mother was killed by an angry sow. She is spellbinding but Domingo must eventually go home. "Maria" (Solenn Heussaff) follows him, but she has no more been prepared for the fact that a man who has been so attentive on his trip out of town may have a wife and child at home than she has been taught to walk on two feet. She reacts badly.

That's kind of inevitable, once you've seen Solenn Heusaff's performance leading up to that, which is a no-holds-barred take on the wild child tope that's kind of impressive in that it still has a sort of fantastic authenticity despite the fact that she's got to play things a little more broadly than one might necessarily have to do in order to stay ahead of the rest of the cast, which isn't exactly being restrained themselves. It's an enjoyable physical performance, unabashed in its sexualilty - the filmmakers tend to treat shame and denial as worse than actual sexual activity - and always a nice complement to what Benjamin Alves is doing as Domingo, whether he seems earnestly smitten or casually dismissive when he gets home and decides it can't continue. He does a nice job getting between those states, too, not making it feel like a switch has been turned or like Domingo had been dishonest before.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, February 07, 2020

Short Stuff: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Though I'll be watching the Oscars on Sunday with no small amount of interest in who receives awards, I genuinely do believe that the most important part of awards season is the period between nominations being announced and the actual ceremony; it's a decently-curated list of good films and a manageable bit of pressure to see and discuss them now. For the live-action shorts, it's even more; while the animated and documentary shorts have some outlets to get seen, if not as many as features, these films' best chances to find an audience are undeniably in the blocks that play theaters in the lead-up to the ceremonies.

It shouldn't be that way; there's often greatness in these films and a streaming service that could get people to watch one of these rather than just dipping into The Office again could do a world of good, but the algorithms are fickle and would need to be trained to serve up these small, generally independent productions. Maybe I'll try and start training Prime to offer them to me this spring by finding what I can and watching a bunch; in the meantime, this showcase is their biggest stage.

"Une Soeur" ("A Sister")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The first one included in this year's batch is "A Sister", written and directed by Delphine Girad, which opens with a nervous woman (Selma Alaoui) and an agitated man (Guillaume Duhesme) in a car, driving down a dark road. She says she needs to call her sister Lucie, who is looking after the kids, and anybody watching can see that she's choosing her words carefully to avoid upsetting the driver. After a minute, it rewinds to also show the woman on the other end of the call (Veerle Baetens), which paints a much different picture.

Girad takes these simple building blocks and creates a tight little thriller, a game of cat-and-mouse that isn't exactly low-stakes to the people involved but which is pointedly limited in space and where specific threats are not entirely laid out. In telling this story this way, she is applying genre trappings to something more urgently real, pointing out that for many women, a lot of everyday life can be as nail-biting as any suspense picture but much less fun, with Alaoui and Baetens making sure that even moments that can play as cool or collected come off as ill-conceived bravado or with frustration and resignation. These women know this bad situation, but that doesn't make handling it easier or less dangerous

Girad gets a lot out of simple environments, and the cinematography by Juliette Van Dormael is so aggressively not showy that it sometimes can seem frustrating, as there's rarely any extra light, so it's fairly dark inside the car - and darker still in flashbacks to earlier in the evening - while the lights are down back in the city as well, just dim enough to make "Lulu" seem clearly defined but anonymous. Depending on presentation, viewers may sometimes feel themselves squinting to catch what is going on, though it certainly captures how much situations like this happen outside of view.

"Brotherhood"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

We move from Belgium to Tunisia for "Brotherhood", which begins with a shepherd (Mohamed Grayaâ) and his sons putting down a goat that has been felled by a wolf, something older son Chaker (Chaker Mechergui) is having a hard time mustering the stomach to do. Chaker is, in fact, his second-oldest son, with Malek (Malek Mechergui) just returning from Syria with new wife Reem (Jasmine Lazid) in tow, hidden behind a burqa and pregnant. Though mother Salha (Salha Nasraoui) is forgiving, the circumstances of Malek's return sit as poorly with Mohamed as his reasons for leaving.

The audience learns those in time; writer/director Meryam Joobeur has a knack for letting important pieces of information reveal themselves without the film stopping for a character to shout them and then slowing down enough so that the viewer has a few moments to chew on them without much distraction. That one can feel her doing this is interesting because one can often sense that Mohamed is not reconsidering things in that way, at least not until he's finally got every last piece. Joobeur nevertheless lets the idea of how that mindset can be dangerous as well as unkind simmer, even though the very first scene highlights a decisiveness that expects a lot out of his family.

It's a nice little performance, meshing well with that of Salha Nasraoui, giving this married couple a history that hasn't soured despite the amount of wear they both display; they get how to argue passionately enough that one feels how strongly the pair disagree and a sense of the line that both know not to approach and how bad it would be to cross it. Jasmin Lazid does very nice work even when almost completely hidden behind black cloth, and while Joobeur wanting to keep some cards close limits what Malek Mechergui can do a bit, the scenes between him and what I presume (from the shared last name) are his real-life brothers are terrific, underlining the sense of familial bonds even when the older characters are speaking about something less purely emotional but more easily defined.

"The Neighbor's Window"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

"The Neighbor's Window" is a sitcom plot that someone decided to take seriously, starting with thirty-ish Alli (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Keller), parents of rambunctious twins with another baby on the way, noticing that the attractive new neighbors across the way haven't bothered to put up drapes or blinds or the like before getting it on in their new apartment. They never really get around to it, and over the next year or so, the older couple never really stops looking, even if it prompts both a little jealousy and reminders that they aren't exactly those sort of free-spirited 22-year-olds any more.

Filmmaker Marshall Curry and his cast work to elevate the story over a Friends subplot, with discussions of the meaning of why Alli and Jacob watch coming early rather than in an epilogue and a more dramatic twist coming somewhere around the midway point, but it the story doesn't quite make the jump from coming across an experiment in playing a comic trope straight to playing like the anecdote that gets simplified. The film also feels like the characters' lives are built around the times they're looking out the window with references to the rest of their existence not quite organic. Relatedly, it's also got one of those endings where the bad fortune that befalls others transparently exists solely so that the protagonists can learn from it

Still, that last scene has co-star Juliana Canfield doing her level best to turn the perspective around, even if the material just doesn't seem to be there. Keller and especially Dizzia do well with what they're given as well, making asides about their kids being a handful pull their weight in keeping things moving. And if the bulk of the film often feels by-the-numbers, the sequence where Alli is unable to look away at the moment when it would be most mortifying to have the neighbors see her watching is likely enough to get the entire short nominated on its own.

"Saria"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Bryan Buckley's "Saria" opens with a great sequence of its own, with a sizeable insect zipping across the floor, and in a way it's both the woman whose heavy footsteps it dodges - vermin that endangers the orphans under her care and also the kids, small and easily endangered even if they are sometimes quick-witted enough to skitter out of the way. Saria (Estefanía Tellez) certainly is; the pre-teen may not yet understand big sister Ximena (Gabriela Ramírez) being interested in boys, but she's brave and quick-witted, with a plan to escape this place and flee to America, even if it means walking 2,500 km from Guatemala. And when Ms. López (Imelda Castro) subjects her to horrific punishment for mouthing off in class, that only makes her more determined.

Based on a true story and performed in large part by children who were present during the events of 17 March 2017, "Saria" appropriates its namesake's bluntness, forsaking any euphemisms for how many of the children in this "safe home" are regularly being raped and otherwise abused and instead having the girls talk frankly about it and scream the fact in protest as they flee. Buckley infuses the film with hot rage from beginning to end, making sure to leave very little room for any sort of idealized innocence or ideas that this was an avoidable tragedy where people were trying their hardest. Even if it was, his insistence on maintaining Saria's point of view until moments before the end means that the audience will see very little room for forgiveness, and will have to connect their own dots of just what awaits a group of dozens of Latino kids at the American border. It's harsh, but an earned harshness, careful not to exaggerate in either direction, not sanitizing the situation or making the kids too wise.

The young cast is very good for being either non-actors or on some of their first roles, with Tellez and Ramirez especially good. Buckley handles the more active parts of the film nicely as well, making for a fine climax even if the epilogue is a bit curt.

"Nefta Football Club"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

After that heavy true story, it's fun to finish up with "Nefta Football Club", a fun shaggy-dog story where a goat wearing headphones is lost in Algeria and found by a pair of brothers across the border in Tunisia - who also find the many packages of white powder in its saddlebags, which older brother Mohamed (Eltayef Dhaoui) figures he can sell, although naive, football-loving kid brother Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari) has another idea.

Yves Piat's film is endearingly odd, the sort of thing you could easily see being the first act of a Coen Brothers-style caper that gets weirder and more twisted as it goes along, so it's actually somewhat impressive that he knows where to stop, establishing just enough to make the eccentric premise work but also limiting things to the point where it can come in for a smooth landing after 17 minutes. Piat is good at packing everything he needs into that space - set up something that will pay into the climax as local color early, make the smugglers' differing interests part of the plot, get from one thing that needs to happen to the next with snappy jokes that nevertheless don't make the kids sound like miniature adults, that sort of thing.

On top of that, the film's got two separate entertaining odd couples, with Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah having a bit of a Laurel & Hardy thing going on the one hand and Eltayef Dhaoui & Mohamed Ali Ayari having great sibling rapport on the other. Ayari is especially fun, a ball of kid-brother energy who is able to sell that Abdallah is a bright kid while also having the sort of wide-eyed innocence that can throw a major wrench into his brother's plans.

"Nefta Football Club" and "A Sister" are my favorites from the package, although I wouldn't bet against the rawness of "Saria" in terms of who actually receives the award. Mostly, I just want it to be easier to quickly find a good short or three two watch when I've got fifteen minutes or a half hour to fill.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 February 2020 - 13 February 2020

It is genuinely weird to have the Oscars get in the way of the sci-fi film festival; I know that even awards contenders cycle through theaters so fast now that they've got to keep moving up, but this feels way too early.

  • But, believe it or not, The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival kicks off Friday night in The Somerville Theatre, and for all that I've given the festival and its organizers a hard time in the past, they have (in combination with other local film organizations) put together a schedule with some pretty noteworthy entries: Opening night film Proxima, for instance, stars Eva Green and is written and directed by Alice Winocur, while Saturday night includes Synchronic, the new one from Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, who haven't done a less-than-great feature yet. Mattie Do is here from Laos to do a Q&A after The Long Walk Sunday afternoon, and… Well, I'll admit, I haven't actually been that excited with the rest. Shorts packages and conferences will be at The Rockwell through Tuesday before moving back to the Somerville's Micro-Cinema for the rest of the fest, and there will also be a special "first-person cinema" live commentary for Serenity at the The Museum of Science on Tuesday night..
  • Upstairs (mostly) in the Somerville's big room, the week's only new release, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is the week's only wide release, also playing at Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), Boston Common (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Causeway Street (including Wide Screen), Fenway, the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), the Embassy, Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including MX4D/XPlus).

    The Kendall, Boston Common, and Fenway all continue their Best Picture showcases this weekend, with the Kendall notably being the only one to include the Netflix productions. Fenway and Assembly Row will have 50th Anniversary screenings of Love Story on Sunday afternoon, with Revere joining them on Wednesday evening. Filipino (but English-language) historical drama Quezon's Game is at Boston Common on Monday, while Revere has Fatal Attraction that night. Concert film Break on Thru: A Celebration of Ray Manzarek and The Doors plays Wednesday night at the Kendall, Boston Common, Fenway, and Chestnut Hill. The latest Russian film at Fenway, Vtorzhenie ("Invasion") is a sequel to 2017's first-contact story Attraction, and I won't lie about being curious despite not being impressed with the first. There are also special preview screenings of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at Boston Common, Causeway Street, Fenway, the Kendall, and the Embassy on Wednesday, before the "regular" night-before shows on Thursday prior to its opening next weekend.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common open The Assistant, which arrives here soon after playing Sundance, with Julia Garner as an executive assistant having rather a lot asked of her. The Coolidge also begins showing some of its screenings of Parasite (doing a really impressive job of hanging around despite already being out on disc) in the new black-and-white version.

    The Coolidge also adds the documentaries to their mix of Oscar-nominated shorts, the 160 minutes broken into two (roughly) 80-minute programs. If you wish to catch the shorts before (or after!) the ceremony, the Coolidge, Cinema Salem, and Causeway Street have everything every day; Kendall Square and Boston Common have live action and animation daily; The ICA has documentaries on Saturday (in two programs) and animation & live action on Sunday, with a program of Sundance shorts starting Thursday; The Lexington Venue has animation Friday/Saturday and the documentary and live action programs Saturday/Sunday; and the Luna has everything on Saturday.

    The midnights at the Coolidge this week feature new digital restorations, with Fulci's The House by the Cemetary playing Friday and Saturday, Slumber Party Massacre II only on Friday, and a 35mm print of Trouble Every Day on Saturday. If you'd rather show up early, Sunday morning has both a show of Kids' Flicks from the New York International Children's Film Festival and a Goethe-Institut screening of The Goldfish. Monday night's Science on Screen show is a 35mm print of Panic in the Streets with microbiologist Silvia Caballero discussing new approaches to fighting disease. There's Open Screen on Tuesday and an already-sold-out Valentine's show of When Harry met Sally… on 35mm Thursday.
  • Kendall Square also picks up Citizen K, a documentary from Alex Gibney that puts the spotlight on Mikhail Khodorovsky, one of the first Russians to get extremely rich after the fall of the Soviet Union, who was later imprisoned for ten years and later exiled after speaking out against Putin.
  • Apple Fresh Pond has three new movies from India this week - Telegu-language high-school reunion romance Jaanu; Tamil action/romance Malang - Unleash the Madness, and Tamil family drama Vaanam Kottattum, with Jawaani Jaaneman and Panga also continuing their run.

    The runs for Dominican comedy Los Leones at Revere and Weathering with You at Boston Common also continue. Boston Common also opens The Man Standing Next, a political drama from South Korea featuring Lee Byung-hun as a fictionalized version of the head of the KCIA in the 1970s, in a more straight-ahead telling of the same events that inspired The President's Last Bang. I am kind of mildly surprised that this is the first Korean film to open here since Parasite; you'd think someone might have tried to see if that was a wave they could ride a bit.
  • The Brattle Theatre leads up to their Sunday night Oscar Party with 35mm screenings of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (and a special 35mm preshow) from Friday to Sunday. On Saturday it shares the screen with Boston Jewish Film's Boston Israeli Film Festival, which also has shows at The West Newton Cinema from Sunday to Tuesday and finishes at the JCC Reimler-Goldstein Theater on Wednesday and Thursday.

    After that, the Brattle has the first DocYard screening of the season on Monday, with directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside there to discuss América, their film about a family coming together to care for their deteriorating mother. There's a "Cinema in Context" screening of Carol on Tuesday, with a post-film discussion led by KJ Surkan. There's nothing on the schedule Wednesday, but Thursday starts the Valentine's programs, with 35mm prints of Casablanca and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
  • The Harvard Film Archive completes The Films and Videos of Richard Serra, with "Prisoners Dilemma" as program #3 on Friday and a pair of 16mm shorts on Sunday evening. Their Angela Schanelec program also reaches its end, with screenings of The Dreamed Path on Friday and Saturday night and Ms. Schanelec visiting in person for her latest, I Was at Home, But, on Monday evening. The Weekend Matinee on Saturday afternoon is a subtitled 35mm print of Studio Ghibli's relatively little-screened Whisper of the Heart, showing for $5 and free with a Cambridge library card. Finally, the weekend's Silent Hitchcock shows are The Ring on Saturday evening and Downhill on Sunday afternoon, both on 35mm..
  • The Museum of Fine Arts begins a run of documentary 16 Bars on Friday, with Sam Bathrick's film about the music being made inside the American prison system also playing Sunday and Wednesday. Much of the rest of the week is given to the Boston Festival of Films from Japan, including Dance with Me (Friday/Saturday), an "on the fringe" show of Spirited Away (Friday), Blue Hour (Saturday), Killing (Wednesday), Okko's Inn (Thursday), and Erica 38. There's also a second show of "The Blunderwood Portable" on Sunday.
  • Bright Lights has what I believe is the first Boston-area showing of A Vigilante on Tuesday, with producer Andrew Corkin there for discussion. Thursday's show, #Female Pleasure, has director Barbara Miller on hand. Both are free to the public in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room
  • In addition to the Oscar shorts, The Luna Theater has Parasite on Friday and Tuesday evenings, Casablanca all day Sunday, and the usual free Sunday Morning Magical Mystery Movie Club and Weirdo Wednesday surprises.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

This Week in Tickets: 27 January 2020 - 2 February 2020

I hate the reason that it happened, but I would have run myself completely ragged going to movies if the Lunar New Year Movies hadn't all been cancelled/postponed.

This Week in Tickets

It's fairly rare for me to run the table for a series at the Brattle these days, and I didn't really do it here (I skipped the previous Saturday and Sunday and left after the first movie on Thursday because I just saw Dr. Cyclops a year ago), but I did spend the first four days of last week at "Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema", catching The Man They Could Not Hang, The Boogie Man Will Get You, Just Imagine, L'Inhumaine, and Mad Love over four days. It's a crying shame that more big-budget sci-fi wasn't made during this period - I can't think of another blockbuster fantasy aside from The Wizard of Oz between Metropolis and Forbidden Planet - because the raw visual imagination was kind of stunning.

Friday night was back to Harvard Square for more Silent Hitchcock at the Archive, with The Lodger the first entry for the weekend. Hitchcock was really starting to become Hitchcock there.

On Saturday, I spent an afternoon doing Oscar-nominated shorts, starting with the Documentaries at Causeway Street - the only place playing them on the T this week - and then heading down the Green Line for Animation at Boston Common. There was just enough time to make that trip, but it was worth it. In a fun coincidence, both were showing on screen #7 in their respective buildings.

After that, back up the Red Line to Harvard, to catch the silent version of Blackmail at the Archive. I enjoyed it a great deal, and the introduction had me curious enough to come back the next night to see the talkie version. I think it might have been my first time seeing that film with sound, despite being told how rare the silent version was before each of the three or four times I have attended a screening in the past decade or so.

As always, keep up with my Letterboxd page, because I'm pretty sure I'll start falling behind soon, what with the first festival of the year starting on Friday.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm accompanied by Martin Marks)

There aren't enough characters in The Lodger to create an actual mystery around the identity of its serial killer, which means that when you see it now, there's almost a century of people playing with you, from Hitchcock to whoever is doing the accompaniment, emphasizing how obviously Ivor Novello's title character is bad news. It only makes the scenes of him and the girl that fits the killer's type sexier, especially when contrasted with the cop next door who is clearly talking their future together for granted.

I do kind of wonder how that guy would have delivered one of his last lines, "lucky I got here in time!", if this were a sound film. It's just the right amount of funny and twisted as an inter-title, but being spoken could have made it too important or silly or the like.

What I thought back in 2013, the last time the HFA did a Hitchcock retrospective

Blackmail

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm accompanied by Martin Marks)
Seen 2 February 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm sound version)

Though both are fine entertainments, I found myself liking the silent version of Blackmail more. It just feels right, especially considering how the elongated beginning of both is identical, with the missing dialogue feeling strange in the sound version, but more so because the camera feels a bit less restricted, though not always - having both Anny Ondra's heroine and Cyril Ritchard's creepy artist on-screen at once works better than the cutting in the silent version, even if it was done to show off Ritchard playing the piano and singing. It is, if nothing else, a fascinating artifact both for how the industry was scrambling to figure shooting with new, less mobile technology out and how Hitchcock immediately seemed to grasp how useful it might be to not have the music under the control of some random accompanist when he wanted chilling silence, or how he could choose what the audience heard to create subjectivity. Both of those are a huge part of why Alice's reaction to killing said artist in self-defense feels like a genuine state of shock

Alice's "dubbed" voice (provided by Joan Barry on the set but off-camera) threw me, not because I know Anny Ondra's (I don't), but for how working class it is. It seems like it wouldn't take long for those accents to become comedic as opposed to just how many Londoners talked.

What I thought in 2005, when I saw the silent version with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying


The Man They Could Not Hang
Just Imagine
L'Inhumaine et Paris Qui Dort
Mad Love
Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts
The Lodger
Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
Blackmail (silent)
Blackmail (sound)