Thursday, April 30, 2020

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Last day for this in the Brattle's virtual screening room, although I wouldn't be surprised if West Newton or someone else picked it up, even if nobody still has Bacurau to let you do a Sonia Braga double-feature. I'm not sure how the negotiations for regional exclusivity and the like work in this weird new situation. We'll see! Maybe it will be on regular Film Movement Plus come Friday, and they'll probably be happy to sell you a disc of some sort later this year.

Not yet, though. Still, one of the first things that popped up doing an Amazon search for a link is Kim Ki-Duk's 3-Iron, and… huh. I kind of see that, but I am also kind of terrified of what sort of AI algorithm is going on for Amazon to make the recommendation. Is it something as relatively simple as "seeing" that the posters for both have a woman in bed between two men, or is there a lot more data being correlated?

It's also nice to see that the new restoration still has a distinctive film-like look to it, giving the movie a warm but rough appearance that digital restorations, or even digital presentations of older films, don't necessarily have. It wasn't quite like actually being at the Brattle and seeing film projected, but it certainly looks more like it than a lot of the other movies of similar vintage that I've watched on Blu-ray in recent months. It's a pleasant surprise if you didn't realize that was an itch you wanted to scratch.

Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Film Movement Plus via Roku)

The recently restored and re-released Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is billed as a sex comedy, but it really doesn't get into that material until fairly late in its second half, and the forty-odd years since its original release have not been kind to its first half. It's just good enough and interesting enough that viewers will spend time figuring out how to make it work for them, maybe coming to a different conclusion in the twenty-first century than they would have at the time.

It kicks off with Valdomiro "Vadinho" Santos Guimarães (José Wilker), the first of the two husbands, dropping dead of some sort of heart attack or stroke during Carnival in 1943, right in the middle of getting in the face of some lady dancing her way down the streets of Bahia. They've been married for seven years, and Vadinho was ducking out to the casinos and the brothels right on their wedding night, and during which time he's not contributed much aside from good sex. Afterward, a friend sets Flor (Sonia Braga) up with sweet middle-aged pharmacist Dr. Teodoro Madureira (Mauro Mendonça), and he's nice, but when Vadinho's naked ghost returns, it's clear that she's been missing something.

That's awful close to the whole movie, and while getting to the midway point before introducing Teodoro may be how Jorge Amado's original novel is structured for all I know, it is an awful lot of Vadinho being just an unrepentant piece of garbage to get through before the audience gets to see Flor weighing him against Teodoro. It's not time that is completely wasted; director Bruno Barreto uses it to establish Flor as a sensible and respectable young woman who likes the sex enough to stick with Vadinho despite his less admirable qualities, even if a good middle-class woman can't just say that, and it probably doesn't hurt to take some time to establish Vadinho as pretty gifted in that area. The amount of it is aggravating, though, perhaps more so 43 years after its initial release, when the line between which men are lovable ne'er-do-wells and which ones are abusive parasites has likely shifted somewhat. One may not necessarily judge Flor too harshly for her choices, but Barreto may be presenting Vadinho as more entertaining than he now appears.

So what to make of his return? Oddly, that part works well enough that one might like to trade a bit of the living Vadniho for more time with his ghost. There are entire movies to be made around Flor struggling with the fact that she still wants her old husband in bed even as her new one is a better man and closer to what society says she is supposed to want, both reflective and farcical, but Barreto seems to short-change the film here, with detours into the ghost helping his friend in the casino and Teodoro seldom doing more than passing through scenes with Flor and Vadinho. Those moments are funny, and Sonia Braga does nice work in letting the guilt Flor feels for still wanting Vadinho pass across her face, but a film with this premise isn't necessarily the time to be subtle about Flor deciding what to retain and what to jettison from her first marriage.

Braga is generally quite impressive enough in the movie that served as her international breakthrough; it's easy to initially read Flor as a "good girl" with a secret, shameful sexuality, but she never actually seems to be switching faces: The way she doesn't shrink from what she gets out of her relationship lines right up with how she calmly talks about making good food. She's sensual and even if she doesn't flaunt it or giggle about it like the other women in the film, she knows herself. José Wilker gives what's often a genuinely funny performance as Vadinho, a confidence that is just larger enough than his present circumstances to make for a good gag. He's got a genuinely nasty vibe in Vadinho's worst moments, too, bringing just enough of that out in the last act when he knows that even if he can't actually hit Flor, she's all but powerless to do anything about his unwanted presence.

And for all the film's faults, it's still kind of remarkable to see that Barreto was something like twenty-one when he made it. It may be wrong-headedly confident in certain ways, but it does have the nice quality of looking better on a closer examination even if it originally rubs one the wrong way. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is an interesting thing to rediscover with its new restoration, undoubtedly a bit dated but still worth chewing on a bit.

Also on EFilmCritic

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 20 April 2020 - 26 April 2020

Spent a little time catching up on Fantasia reviews from last year, and I try not to write and watch at the same time, so...

This Week in Tickets

Anyway, really short movie-watching week - nothing until Masquerade Hotel on Wednesday, although that one is quite a bit of fun. It is, naturally, not readily available in the United States, which is a shame, because I think that people would dig it right now. But, alas, even translations of the original author's books are spotty here.

No more movies until Saturday, when I planned to do a double feature out of the Somerville's virtual cinema but just watched The Roads Not Taken, which feels like it could get a whole lot more out of a nifty idea and a good cast. Nice final shot, and it wouldn't land the same way without what came before, but it feels like there should have been more here.

Sunday, I turned on the TV to get stuff off the DVR while writing and, since the last thing I watched live was a Red Sox spring training game, the cable box was still tuned to NESN, which was showing a bunch of compressed-to-two-hours games from the Clemens years. Some interesting take-aways:

  • Roger Clemens was really good at throwing a baseball.
  • That outfield with Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, and Dwight Evans? Also really good, and I kind of wonder if the Red Sox killer-B outfield of the last few years - Benitendi, Bradley, and Betts - was so easy for me to get attached to in part because it reminds me of my first few years as a serious fan.
  • Jerry Remy was the color commentator all the way back in the games from 1988, and he sounds very different. To what extent it's aging and to what extent it's cigarettes, I don't know.
  • It's kind of fascinating how NESN (and the various UHF stations broadcasting Red Sox games back when that was more of a thing) tended to give us the illusion of stability in terms of play-by-play voices: Ned Martin and Sean McDonough kind of sound alike. Don Orsillo kind of sounds like McDonogh. Dave O'Brien kind of sounds like Orsillo. O'Brien doesn't really sound like Martin, but that change has happened very slowly, and while many have been displeased with various changes in the PBP voices when they happened, those who haven't paid quite so much attention have had something that feels kind of like stability, and that's probably good for a baseball team as an institution.
  • All of these were pre-HDTV, even though NESN was one of the first local sports networks to go high-definition. Between the algorithms at the network and in my TV, shots of a player at bat or about to throw from the waist up looked pretty good, but zoom out a bit, and it gets less impressive really fast. I have no idea if NESN is trying to do this in real-time or if they're paying a post-production house to upscale, but it's interesting to see just where you get to "enough pixels to work with".

More coming on my Letterboxd page and regular posts before the next one of these..

Masquerade Hotel
The Roads Not Taken

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Normally I'd do an "IFFBoston 2019.370"-ish title, but it's a bit too much of a bummer to see the festival in limbo right now even as it's good to see one of last year's titles getting a release. This wasn't particularly high on my priorities last year, but I'm glad to buy a virtual ticket and help support the Somerville via their virtual cinema.

I actually rented it Saturday night but didn't actually get around to watching it until Monday, having kind of planned it as part of a double feature with The Roads Not Taken only to find it was 112 minutes rather than the 90-ish I'd anticipated, and I pretty much knew that I wasn't going to make it to the end that night. I've got to start doing this earlier in the evening!


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Vimeo)

There's a lot of high-school football in the middle of Pahokee, enough to make one wonder if that was sort of the plan or if it just sort of evolved that way because that's what this sort of small town is like. It doesn't truly feel like a plan, but this isn't the sort of documentary you necessarily make with a plan. You take what you get and put it together as well as this.

It follows four seniors in Pahokee High School, with Pahokee being a rural town in Florida's Palm Beach County. Curvy and confident Na'Kerria is focused on the "Miss PHS" contest tied to the upcoming Homecoming ceremonies, starting to campaign as soon as she's technically allowed. Jocabed frets over college essays while working in her parents' taco stand, while B.J. is aiming for a football scholarship while also making sure the schools he applies to have good sports medicine programs. Junior's focus is a bit more immediate; he's in the drum corps, but also focused on his year-old baby girl.

Plug "Pahokee" into a search engine (or even look for the film on IMDB), and you will soon see that the town is at or near the bottom of certain lists, and it would not be surprising for directors Patrick Bresnan & Ivete Lucas were to point that out at some point, especially early on, but they opt not to. They don't hide this, but instead play up how this place feels normal for someone who grew up there, and how those kids aren't necessarily missing any part of growing up in America, just getting the most bare-bones version of it. There's a comment about not having the budget for the much decoration early and a confessional bit about "getting out of this town" toward the end, but in between, the audience just has to absorb how many large families they're seeing in small houses, or how there's not many cuts to anything but the fields. It's a small world.

So, when all the football starts, it's initially easy to just look at it and say that this is more of that one thing than one signed up for as a viewer, but as they play in the homecoming "Muck Bowl" game against a local rival and the playoffs, the viewer gets an idea of just how concentrated the town's identity is concentrated in the team and where they sometimes stand as the opposing teams get whiter, the fields get nicer, and the physical toll on the players, notably B.J., makes one a bit more worried. The aftermath is one of the film's most striking sections, as so much plays out in audio recordings that indicate just how much things are out of the locals' hands, and while the scenes of the fields undergoing controlled burns that play out behind it aren't necessarily indications of bad things themselves, it is nifty filmmaking, getting across the feeling of the world sometimes just won't let people have something.

The focus on that does mean that Jocabed kind of disappears for that stretch - the others are on the team, in the band, or on the cheer squad - but she feels less missing than one might expect since the other threads don't cross much during those pieces, and she'll get more time later when football moves to the past. It's a small town, and everybody's experience is similar, but Bresnan and Lucas (the latter of whom edited the film) make each teen's story their own. They're a likable group, and the filmmakers do a very nice job of capturing where they are at that moment in time, with one foot in childhood even as they're starting to make decisions that are going to affect the rest of their lives.

It makes for a somewhat odd movie, never finding the moment of high drama or sudden change that people tend to remember from this genre of documentary, and never particularly angling for the audience's pity. That's its value - it sees these kids as kids rather than victims or potential saviors, letting the audience become fond of them while still offering a clear view of their lives.

Also on EFilmCritic

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Roads Not Taken

Even just limiting things to movies, there's more pressing things to gripe about than how studios are making films available, but, really, folks, why are you using rather than straight Vimeo, which owns them? Vimeo has an app on Roku, so we don't have to dink around with casting or putting the laptop somewhere that the HDMI cable can reach, let alone having to create a new account for every single movie we rent this way. This could have been easy, but instead I'm getting frustrated, which probably doesn't put me in the most receptive of moods for the movie.

Also kind of petty, but also kind of funny: This film starts with titles over a blank screen and someone buzzing at the door and a phone ringing, putting the viewer in a weird "is the movie starting or should I be checking the door or something. I wonder, idly, to what extent the fact that movies like this are mostly going to be seen in living rooms rather than theaters plays into making choices like that. I suppose it could be something that director Sally Potter just didn't consider at all, although maybe it could be a gambit to make the viewer feel more part of what's going on.

The Roads Not Taken

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

For a movie about a (presumably) talented writer imagining the different ways his life could have gone, The Roads Not Taken shows an almost stunning lack of creativity. Everyone seems to be doing their job well enough that one can get through its 85 minutes easy enough, but it eventually feels like a whole lot of set-up for an ending that feels like the film's first truly clever moment, but not enough.

The writer in question is Leo (Javier Bardem) who may have been great once but who is in severe and early cognitive decline for a man in his 50s, though still living on his own in a New York apartment and reliant on nurse Xenia (Branka Katic). When he doesn't answer his door or the phone in the morning, his daughter (Elle Fanning) rushes to see if he's okay before a planned day of appointments at the dentist and optometrist. His mind is seemingly even further afield than usual, drifting not so much to his past but to alternate histories - one in which he married first love Delores (Salma Hayek), and another where he went off to Greece to write and never returned.

Or, perhaps, Leo was not actually great, and he's keenly aware of this, which is why even the version of his life where he is a successful writer has him spending all day at a picturesque seaside bar, blocked, unable to think of an ending, and chasing after a girl young enough to be his daughter. That's the best reason for him to imagine himself not just a cliché but a miserable one, while his other alternate history is also defined by tragedy and failure. There are moments when one can see the various threads informing each other, with the various Leos seemingly grappling with the issues of the other timelines and how to apply them to the present circumstances, but it's difficult to get invested; Leo is so completely a blank slate that it's hard to give much thought on his history diverging, especially into such stock scenarios.

Those situations don't ask much of the cast. Elle Fanning gets the most time to do decent work - her daughter is able to exist independently of Leo in a way other characters can't - and there's never a moment when she's not believable even if she's also sometimes apparently trying to compensate for how simple her story is by being very emphatic. Laura Linney shows up as an ex-wife who is on the bad side of the line of being a caricature, with Salma Hayek just on the other side. Milena Tscharntke sometimes seems to play into how Anni is half a conversation Leo is having with himself a bit, which is interesting, and Waleed Akhtar has a nice scene or two toward the end. Nobody slacks off, but nobody has much to work with, either.

As for Javier Bardem, he spends much of the movie giving the sort of performance that looks good because one knows he's a charismatic, intelligent person and countering that seems like it should be such an effort, but it may just be doing the same tics and generally holding one's face slack so that it seems heroic to get a few words out late. He's good enough in the other timelines, but they're probably characters he could do in his sleep, and there's never really a sense of the Leos being the same guy in different circumstances. It's capable work, but deliberately non-engrossing at some points and too-familiar at others.

It's not bad to look at, at least - director Sally Potter and cinematographer Robbie Ryan do a nice job of contrasting the open, warm vistas in Spain and Greece with the cramped and unwelcoming locations in New York City, with a sequence inside a warehouse store framed to emphasize the horror of being pulled through a world that one is no longer equipped to process, with a sequence of Leo lost in the city at night seeming different - still confused, but less frightened. Potter is also one of the film's editors, and they do a fair job of jumping between timelines in a way that makes the film move smoothly. They tend to only put the most basic building blocks of the story out there for both father and daughter, but it leads to a final scene that hints at much more potential and heft, enough that one wonders if Potter came up with it and built backwards.

A good finish means that The Roads Not Taken is not a waste of time; there's too much talent there for it to completely flame out. There is just not much that can be done when a film has an interesting idea but no interesting details, and this is just bland as can be in that regard.

Also on EFilmCritic

Friday, April 24, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 24 April 2020 - 30 April 2020

We're supposed to be knee-deep in IFFBoston right now (not a bad time to join/renew your membership so that they can put on a great festival when theaters reopen), and probably picking up the Brattle's Late Spring calendar while we're there. As I was saying on social media the other day, the good thing about the absolute chilly dreary sameness of the days running together is that at least each event missed or indefinitely postponed doesn't feel like an individual attack.

But, given that we should be seeing all that good independent film content, maybe it's an especially good week to hit the venues' virtual screening rooms as often as possible.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is having a busy week in that regard, virtually opening three new films - Polish Oscar nominee Corpus Christi, documentary Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and a return for Beanpole, which was at the Kendall before, well, everything. They hold over The Booksellers, Balloon, The Times of Bill Cunningham, and Fantastic Fungi. They also announced a series of documentaries by director Lee Grant, but the links for that do not seem to have gone live yet

    The After Midnight Crew has another instagram Q&A tonight (Friday) at 9pm, this time with Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, and their friends from Haus of Oni aren't letting a lockdown prevent them from doing a drag-show introduction to a cult movie, streaming a Hellraiser-inspired performance at 9pm Saturday (you're on your own afterward). The week's Coolidge Education seminar focuses on Powell & Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going! - register, get sent a link to a pre-show lecture by The Boston Globe's Ty Burr, watch the film, and then come back Thursday for an online Q&A session.
  • The Brattle Theatre has two new restorations in a virtual screening room, with Luchino Visconti's L'Innocente and Brazilian sex comedy Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands both available to rent and support the Brattle through Thursday. Their partners at The DocYard will also be running a virtual screening room for selection Crestone through Monday, with director Marnie Ellen Hertzler answering questions on her documentary about a hip-hop commune via Zoom on Monday evening.

    On top of that, they're keeping up the streaming/rental recommendations, with this week's program devoted to Screwball Comedy, with a list of outright classics to choose from whether you want to follow along or graze. That includes The Hudsucker Proxy, the movie that gave their "Y'Know, For the Kids!" its name. Those recommendations come (roughly) on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, with the most recent A Hard Day's Night. They also attempt #BreakYourAlgorithm on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, most recently highlighting Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way and Shelly Duvall in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair".
  • The Somerville Theatre would be IFFBoston central if the fest were on, and their virtual cinema adds an option to rent documentary Pahokee, which played the festival last year, to a selection that includes The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and The Roads Not Taken. They've also got another Popcorn Pop-Up on Saturday, so maybe call in and stop by for snacks to complete the experience. The folks at The Capitol have a virtual cinema of their own and add documentary Dying for Gold, telling the tale of South African miners who bring the country's largest class-action suit against their employers, to a lineup that already includes The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon.
  • The Regent Theatre has also set up a virtual screening room, with Fantastic Fungi running at least through Tuesday the 28th and The Mindfulness Movement playing through 5 May.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights at Home makes the jump from Netflix to Hulu for this week's selections, with director Alla Kovgan and faculty discussing dance documentary Cunningham on Tuesday while director Janice Engel, her producers, and faculty talk Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins on Thursday. That's the last of the programs they've got listed, right around when the term would be ending; hopefully they'll be back in the Bright come fall.

    (I've got no idea if Hulu streams in 3D, or how many have the capacity to watch it that way, but it's the best way to see Cunningham if you can.)
  • In addition to their virtual screening room programs - Earth, The Roads Not Taken, Best of CatVideoFest, Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers - and their GoFundMe campaign, West Newton Cinema is also offering a program where you can buy an advance ticket for when they open and they'll match it with one going to staff at the Newton Wellesley Hospital.
  • This weekend's GlobeDocs short documentary is "After Migration"; RSVP at their site and they will send you links to the film on Vimeo and a Zoom meeting at noon on Monday.
As much as I've let some of these things pass because it's hard to transition from work to after-work when your commute is just the other side of the house, I figure we might as well try and do something as festival-like as we can this week, so I'm planning to at least queue up The Roads Not Taken, Pahokee, Corpus Christi, Beanpole, and Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, in addition to getting more discs moved between the "not seen" and "seen" shelves.

Masquerade Hotel

This is another movie that was either playing in Hong Kong when I visited last year or was being advertised, so I included it in a DDDHouse order when it came out there and kind of left it there on the shelf until I had a night where it slotted in well. It is, it turns out, a pretty nice quarantine movie - orderly and light, giving you a couple of hours in a luxury hotel without actually making you feel bitter that you can't go there for real.

I'm mildly surprised to see that it is based on a novel by the same author as The Devotion of Suspect X. Both, in their way, are mysteries that avoid the typical whodunit structure, although perhaps in opposite ways, with Devotion putting the solution right up front while Masquerade pushes the actual crime off as far as possible. Keigo Higashino appears to be hugely popular in his native Japan and much of the rest of East Asia - there are Chinese and Korean adaptations of Suspect X - but his work has only made it to the U.S. in piecemeal fashion. He's not limited to mysteries, either; I kind of suspect that I was able to get a copy of a recent Takashi Miike film that played Fantasia but didn't land here otherwise because it was based on a sci-fi/fantasy novel of his, Higashino is popular in Hong Kong, and therefore they made a Blu-ray of Laplace's Witch which just happens to be Region A and have English subtitles. Same with this one, which doesn't seem to have any American distribution either.

It's fun, though, especially for those that enjoy the sort of mystery which steps back from the life-and-death stakes a bit. It's worth noting that the Blu-ray on DDDHouse is roughly the same price as the DVD on Amazon, with shipping the major difference (and the fact that DDDHouse may not yet be shipping to the USA again, what with Covid-19 making international trade tricky). I advise buying a lot movies so that you've got plenty on your shelf to work through while you stay at home and so that the shipping cost per disc isn't too extreme.

Masukarêdo hoteru (Masquerade Hotel)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Masquerade Hotel is not, technically speaking, a murder mystery so cozy that there's no actual murder, but it's not far off. It's a whodunit built around a posh location, sleuths so focused on the business at hand that they are really only almost flirting, and a healthy dose of clues, codes, and red herrings, one which is all-in on the way mysteries can be puzzles and not terribly concerned with them being thrillers. It's not a route many films go these days, and it makes Masquerade Hotel a light, entertaining treat.

In it, a serial killer has been at work in Japan, their method varied and victims unconnected except for the cards featuring encoded coordinates for where the next killing will take place, with the fourth pointing at the Hotel Cortesia Tokyo. The police contact management and manage to place a number of officers undercover, most prominently Kosuke Nitta (Takuya Kimura), whose language skills and observational acumen place him at the front desk with concierge Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa). Her instincts to accommodate customers immediately clash with his suspicious nature, and there are a lot of people coming in and out of the hotel who could be either the next victim or the killer: Demanding guests Takahiko Ayabe (Gaku Hamada), Ono (Takashi Sasano), Kurihara (Katsuhara Namase); red-flagged potential thief Furuhachi (Masahiro Takashima); blind Yoko Katagiri (Takako Matsu); bride-to-be Keiko Takayama (Atsuko Maeda); and Eriko Anno (Nanao), who may be fleeing a stalker. And then there's Nohse (Fumiyo Kohinata), Nitta's former partner who may not officially be part of the investigation but is going to check in anyway.

There are more people checking into and out of the hotel, and as a result in and out of the story, and given how screenwriter Michitaka Okuda and director Masayuki Suzuki take pains to keep the focus on the hotel rather than the previous three murders, there are times when those who approach a mystery by trying to solve a puzzle might get frustrated. It is the job of those telling a mystery story to keep which bits are important and which are not obscure, of course, but the set-up here almost looks a little too random, like the storytellers don't intend to use sleight-of-hand to keep the audience focused on the wrong thing but by giving viewers no reason to think anything specific could be particularly important. Eventually, they do manage to push things forward in ways that are more fair than not - a clever shift in perspective makes the larger mystery less random while still keeping the focus on the hotel, and bits of unrelated stories reflect each other in ways that work beyond putting an idea into one's head, since they kind of get at the idea of why people come to hotels at odd moments.

That's a fair direction of attack, in large part because Masquerade Hotel is as much a demonstration of there being value in work and business that can seem entirely commercial as it is a mystery. It is not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon to have this sort of pride in one's job that even guests' services at a fancy hotel can come across as a calling, but from this side of the Pacific it's a level of earnestness that can easily tip over into mockery. It's impressive just how well Masami Nagasawa plays Yamagishi as genuinely devoted to making sure that guests have a peaceful stay and that the hotel runs smoothly; she is never just her job but she and the filmmakers are very careful that her moments of being funny or incisive or frustrated with Nitta never run counter to that attitude. She's in a technically-subservient position but never seems to put herself below anybody.

It means Takuya Kimura can't be too abrasive in serving as a complement; his (initially) opposing attitude shouldn't often be seen as mean. He handles the opposing bits of the character well - Nitta is the kind of smart that's both well-rounded and susceptible to blind spots, and as a result Kimura has to swing back and forth between being pushily confident and caught flat-footed without becoming a joke. He and Yamagishi have fun chemistry that is not pushed to be romantic when it doesn't need to be, and they've got a nice ensemble behind them, from Fumiyo Kohinata grinning just enough to make the audience wonder what he's really up to as Nohse to Nanao's believable tension as Anno.

Some are a little broader than ideal, and it's not just the performances; Suzuki has a tendency to let things sprawl. There are a lot of characters, and more than a few scenes that maybe go on a bit too long, right down to an epilogue that feels both unnecessary and obligatory, including a sequence that feels like it could be a title sequence but isn't quite stylized enough, and it adds up to a movie that's a bit flabby. It's a great-looking movie - the lobby set is a multi-level beauty and a neat contrast to the behind-the-scenes, areas, right down to the police setting up card tables and folding chairs in the basement. There's a tendency to lovingly examine a room which, when paired with Naoki Sato's chamber-music score, doesn't feel tacky, but maybe a little obvious, the very first thing that came to mind when someone in the production described the Cortesia as "classy".

That's not exactly a fault in this sort of film, of course; part of the appeal of this sort of mystery is that there is an order to things and that said order is good. It's an appealing, comfortable mystery to sink into for a couple of hours, and I certainly would not mind seeing the Higashino's second "Masquerade" novel adapted by this group as well.

Also on EFilmCritic

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 13 April 2020 - 19 April 2020

Another "honestly, what have I actually been doing?" week.

This Week in Tickets

It hasn't been as completely quiet as it might look from that sparse page - I've been clearing some stuff off the DVR and catching up on finishing some reviews from the middle of last year's Fantasia Festival - here's a link!

The weird thing is that I've been starting stupidly late on the nights when I do watch movie - on Thursday, for instance, I started the double feature of Frankenstein Created Woman & The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires at around 9pm, which is only really smart if they're both something like 85 minutes apiece. I also waited until pretty late for The Booksellers on Saturday night.

Sunday, I actually started earlier with A Lifetime Treasure & A Beautiful Moment, but that still ran late enough that I decided to save Westworld and Killing Eve for the next night. It's weird; big stuff is happening on Westworld but it still seems like they've used up a lot of a very short season reintroducing characters and building a mystery around something I kind of took for granted at the end of last season while Killing Eve is so far very much in "new showrunners trying to do their thing but last year's writers left a messy freaking cliffhanger that you can't do much with" mode.

Part of it's what I said last week about just spending too much time scrolling at the end of the day, but there's also the fact that there's kind of a glare on my TV until the sun sets, and I kind of don't want to close all of my blinds, like that is the line between me being a weird recluse and a healthily socialized human being.

Anyway, this will probably get weirder before lockdown is over. Follow my Letterboxd page if you want the movie stuff without the looks inside where my head's at.

Frankenstein Created Woman & The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
The Booksellers
A Lifetime Treasure & A Beautiful Moment

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 4: Dance with Me, Ode to Nothing, Fly Me to the Saitama, L'Intervention, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, Black Magic for White Boys, The Father's Shadow, and Door Lock

Yeah, I'm looking at the dates I saw these movies and the dates I've posted full reviews on eFilmCritic and just kind of sighing. Insert the usual comments about how I need to commit to cranking through things faster, not working my day job during the festival, cutting down my caffeine intake to a point where I'm focused and alert but not jittery.

(Or we could talk about how I apparently take great notes and do good first drafts in the middle of a five-movie-a-day festival!)

I am kind of shocked that of the eight movies in this update, only one has actually become available to watch in the United States over the intervening nine months, at least from my searching on Prime Video and JustWatch (which seems like it could include some more services but I probably the best index of availability we have). It doesn't seem like too long ago that turnaround on what I saw at Fantasia was incredibly fast, and not just because some selections were effectively word-of-mouth screenings before the imminent DVD release! There were a lot more labels that could get material onto store shelves if not theaters, and I wonder to what extent VOD and streaming has changed the game in unexpected ways. When IFC Midnight buys the US distribution rights to something from Spain or Brazil, and instead of manufacturing a disc they can sell for $20 starts looking at rentals… Well, when I pay $7 to rent something on Amazon, what's left between what Amazon takes and what they send back to Canal+ or whoever? It feels like the margins on importing films are really thin these days, unless you're Amazon or Netflix, and then I wouldn't be shocked if foreign studios are uncomfortable locking themselves into that sort of exclusivity with no per-purchase money. And since the theaters with those big comfy chairs and almost an hour between screenings to include 20 minutes of trailers, 20 minute advertising package, and 10 minutes for cleaning just have fewer seat-times for everything, crowding smaller stuff out, and now things don't have the legitimacy of a theatrical release. The exception is Chinese and Indian films, but they're day-and-date so the festival circuit doesn't mean much.

What genre labels we do have these days seem more focused on getting older material out, which is great - Arrow, Shout!, Kino, Vinegar Syndrome, and the like are doing fantastic, necessary work. It just feels genuinely odd to me that some of the movies I saw last July which seem pretty appealing to people unafraid of subtitles (and were released in their home countries earlier), like Dance with Me and Door Lock, are probably going to hang around in limbo for a little longer and then maybe appear after you've scrolled down a search for a while with little fanfare because what festival hype they got is two years disconnected from a scattered release. Even now, when we've got all the time in the world to catch up on stuff, it's hard to know what to catch up on.


Anyway, you can (as of this writing) watch L'Intervention (though you may need to search for "15 Minutes of War"), and A Good Woman Is Hard to Find was scheduled for a May theatrical release, and who knows, maybe the distributor will make it available for indie theaters' virtual screening rooms. And it's looking even more vital to get to film festivals more when we've got film festivals again, because that seems to be the only way some of these movies will have a chance to snap their fingers in front of our faces and tell us they exist.

Dance With Me

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

Movie and stage musicals are grandly and gloriously unreal in a way that little else in popular culture manages to be, and people can't handle it; almost every one made these days builds in some excuse for the songs rather than giving the audience credit for understanding that they are not what's literally happening. Dance With Me is no exception, but it does that well enough to make one want to see what filmmaker Shinobu Yaguchi and star Ayaka Miyohsi could do without making excuses, since they've clearly got the right screwball instincts and the film is ultimately about loving this sort of material whether it's realistic or not.

Miyoshi plays Shizuka Suzuki, a sensible office worker who does her sister a favor by looking after niece Nana while she's in the city for a day, agreeing just a little too hard when Nana disparages having to do a song for the school talent show. They stumble upon once-famous hypnotist Martin Ueda (Akira Takarada) at an amusement park, and the hokum he does to get Nana over her stage fright instead lodges in Shizuka's head, so that the next day, any music she hears, from her workout mix to a co-worker's ringtone, has her singing and dancing along like a character in a musical. Ueda has already skipped town, but the out-of-work actress who had been working as his assistant (Yuu Yashiro), decides to help her track him down - not only was she a part of this, but Ueda didn't pay her. Or the yakuza. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiking street musician (Chay) and hire a cheap private detective, but the odds that they find Ueda before Shizuka has to be back to work on Monday are looking slim.

The thing that mostly makes Dance With Me work is the thing that basically gives the game away; there are large chunks that the audience will not believe unless, at some point, the movie's heroine learned how to do all the singing and dancing, even if the trail of destruction she leaves as the result of her compulsion to make any song she hears into a musical number suggests that maybe she didn't, and once you've put that in her backstory, there's little doubt what she has to confront. Like a lot of meta-musicals, it's often conveying how characters bursting into song is great for conveying big emotions rather than just doing that, but Shizuka's story is eventually her own. How this will end is never in doubt, and is just a matter of making the path leading there crooked.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Oda sa wala (Ode to Nothing)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Films like Ode to Nothing aren't quite a genre unto themselves, but after a while one can be a bit jaded: It's sad, with a fanciful but eccentrically morbid premise, the sort of thing that's a bit transgressive and daring, but which is clearly meant to be taken seriously. They get made on a regular basis because there's something to it, and when someone has as keen an eye for where she's going with the idea as Dwein Baltazar does with this one.

She begins by introducing the audience to Sonya (Marietta "Pokwang" Subong), who runs a small funeral home, presumably passed down from her father Rudy (Joonee Gamboa), who mostly sits in the apartment above in silence, waiting for Sonya to prepare dinner, while she deals with people who want to haggle past the last minute. They're behind in rent and loan-shark landlord Theodor (Dido de la Paz) when a Jane Doe is dropped on their doorstep, and as time drags on, she starts to find the corpse more friendly company that her father, though she has her eye on handsome street vendor Elmer (Anthony Falcon).

It's kind of hard to grasp the level of loneliness on display in Ode to Nothing at first. It's right out front from the start, and it is fairly clear that this is what the film will be about from the start, but Sonya must sink deep into a genuinely frightening desperation before the full extent of how it's eating at her becomes completely clear, and that's when the filmmakers know that they can push the film somewhere else. They often choose not to, sinking further into despair, but the possibility was there. The audience still knows that a line has been crossed, that the characters have reached the next crossroads, but the fact that things clearly could change at these points but don't every time just emphasizes how difficult it can be to get out of such a hole.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tonde Saitama (Fly Me to the Saitama)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

This may not be the most shojo movie possible, assuming I'm not being my manga categories mixed up, but even if I am, it's right up there in terms of just being absurdly, specifically Japanese, and regionally so at that. It shouldn't travel at all, even to a festival audience of people who love Japanese pop culture, and yet it got the biggest laughs of any film there, because for all that the jokes are specific, the spirit is not, and the way they're told is something anyone can laugh at.

The Saitama is a Tokyo suburb, described as the bits that were left over when Tokyo and Yokohama separated, and apparently not well-regarded by its neighbors. Teenage Manami Sugawara (Haruka Shimazaki) is embarrassed to be from there, something of great consternation to father Yoshiumi (Brother Tom) and mother Maki (Kumiko Aso) as they take a road trip. Frustrated, Yoshiumi turns on a radio drama, set in a heightened Tokyo where Class President Momomi Hakuhodo (Fumi Nikaido), a stiletto-heeled monster from the very best family, rules her high school with an iron fist with the Saitamese basically servants living in hovels, though she is as immediately smitten with new transfer student Rei Asami (Gackt) as anyone - "you can still smell the America on him!" What she doesn't know is that before he went abroad, he lived in the Saitama, and has been sent to infiltrate high society and destroy it from within.

Though I can't recall ever seeing any of the manga Mineo Maya specifically, original series Tonde Saitama was published in a girls' manga magazine and director Hideki Takeuchi is clearly channeling the general style, with its elaborate hair and fashion, lean and androgynously handsome men, and generally exaggerated visuals represented and amplified on-screen. It's a somewhat garish style that often works better on the page than screen, but this is a story that lets the filmmakers lean into it; between the contrast with the modern simplicity of the car and the satirical intent, it's no leap for the style to be self-parodying. After a while, becoming more ridiculous is a big part of how Takeuchi and screenwriter Yuichi Tokunaga keep it light rather than mean.

Full review on EFilmCritic

L'Intervention (15 Minutes of War)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

From the subtitles, the English title for this film is "15 Minutes of War", which naturally leads to the question of what's going to happen for the other 80. The answer is a lot of simple competence, making for a very French take on the sort of military action film that, in American hands, often seems to be more likely to overflow with testosterone even when trying to be modest and self-deprecating. The differences are sometimes subtle and the end result is about the same, but it's still a good result.

It takes place in 1976; at the time, Djibouti was France's last colony, not necessarily a status that the people there and in neighboring nations were too fond of. In February, three terrorists - Barkhard (Kevin Layne), Morad (Andre Pierre), and Ilyans (Adbeladim Mazouzi) - hijack a bus containing 31 students and teacher Jane Andersen (Olga Kurylenko) and drive it to the Somali border. They wind up in a no-man's-land between the two, and while France dispatches a team of elite soldiers led by André Gerval (Alban Lenoir), the terrain is built for a stalemate and a move in the wrong direction could cause an even bigger international incident.

If you know the genre, you know the drill, but it's pretty pleasant, at least as military action movies go. This film is procedural, spending a fair amount of time on working out tactics, with the GIGN unit arguing with other groups on the scene and command back home in Paris, just in a somewhat less shouty manner. Meanwhile, having a teacher in the middle of the hostage situation gives the filmmakers plenty of chances to check in and make sure that the audience knows what the stakes are, and Olga Kurylenko slides into that role nicely, catching the way a character taking a job in this place necessarily has an adventurous side without being fearless and playing off everybody from the child actors to Kevin Layne's domineering mission leader well. Alban Lenoir, Michaël Abiteboul, Ben Cura, and that crew know the level of mission-focused confidence that stops short of cruelty that one wants the soldiers to show.

Full review on EFilmCritic

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starts as one sort of crime movie and evolves into another, and truth be told, it's the first half that seems to have the greater potential at first. Of course, a lot of the best genre movies are built around hidden potential both in the characters and story, and that's what makes this one sing - the right casting and some willingness to crank up the pressure can do wonders for even the most threadbare thriller plots, and this one's got some really good work from top to bottom.

The potential good woman in question is Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger), recently widowed without much of a safety net; after a flash-forward, she's introduced carefully doing math in a Belfast supermarket as she shops for herself and her two children. Ben (Rudy Doherty) is six years old and hasn't spoken since his father was killed, and Lucy (Macie McCauley) is four. As if they haven't had enough trauma, their car is stolen and the guy who did so, Tito (Andrew Simpson), eventually decides to lay low at Sarah's house, since the very randomness of choosing their car means local crime boss Leo Miller (Edward Hogg) won't be know where to find the guy who stole his drugs. It is, naturally, a terrible plan for all involved.

The nifty casting turns out to be Sarah Bolger, who invests this young working-class widow with plenty of nerve when appropriate, a hard-earned variety that's convincing enough that the film has no need to open with or flash back to the events that put the family in its current position - the audience can see exactly how much she loved her late husband even if he wasn't perfect in the way she tenses up in every scene with her mother and in how she seems defiant in her survival. The script seldom makes her overconfident or timid, and she's got the right mix of courage and fear at all times, someone who knows her capability but recognizes real danger. Bolger always seems to recognize that she's in a crime movie even when being placed in relatively ordinary situations, always looking over her shoulder or otherwise paying extra attention.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Black Magic for White Boys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

I'm not particularly curious to see the previous iteration(s) of Black Magic for White Boys, which got a fairly thorough retooling between its initial screening at Tribeca and when it played Fantasia two years later, including a time when it was retooled as a mini-series. I'm not sure whether or not to be surprised that this work still left it with obvious gaps and issues; it's a messy process but one that could have filled in all the gaps. It's still frequently funny in a charmingly homemade way; its seemingly effect-less effects and unrefined characters have the nice effect of Onur Tukel's film just laying what it wants out there.

It revolves around a small theater in Brooklyn, where "Larry the Magnificent" (Ronald Guttman) puts on an unimpressive magic show with the aid of assistants Lucy (Eva Dorrepaal) and Dean (Colin Buckingham), with a new intern in Alina (Deni Juhos) just brought in. Landlord Jamie (Jamie Block) is about to put them out of business with a 30% rent increase, but Larry has an ace in the hole - a line on real magic, the ability to make things disappear, although things apparently went wrong when he used it last - though, apparently, in a different way than his "freelance work" for Jamie. Meanwhile, Jamie's friend Oscar (Onur Tukel), who has been cheerfully living off a trust fund, is freaking out that girlfriend Chase (Charlie LaRose) is pregnant, while "pharmacist" Fred (Franck Raharinosy) is dispensing pills with nigh-magical effects to many members of the group.

This is the sort of quirky New York-based indie that can seem insular whether one is inside its particular bubble or not, since even such cockeyed enough versions of the fringe theater and arriviste worlds can still seem like a movie-length private joke, and writer/director/co-star Onur Tukel has been relatively prolific even if his films have been relatively small blips outside the festival circuit. Making that sort of movie puts a filmmaker in touch with a potentially pretty decent cast, even if Ronald Guttman is probably the only one whom most viewers will immediately think they've seen somewhere before. They are, by and large, playing people who are not quite so odd as to be interesting if one met them randomly but who can can drop a line that's selfish or oblivious or some combination of both so that it lands the right way as to give one a sense of who they are and have it not be completely awful, even when they have more or less accepted that they are kind of awful.

Full review on EFilmCritic

A Sombra do Pai (The Father's Shadow)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The Father's Shadow is the second film from Gabriela Amaral as writer/director and it's more or less what one would hope for in a second feature: It's got the style and intensity that makes it a piece with Friendly Beast but a story that is not any sort of repetition and the confidence to try something more emotionally ambitious. That "has she made anything else/oh I liked that/and this is even better" hit is one of the best parts of going to festivals or immersing oneself in less-heralded films long-term.

It's the story of Dalva (Nina Medeiros), a quiet ten-year-old girl in a small town whose mother has recently passed away and whose father Jorge (Julio Machado) is crumbling. Aunt Cristina (Luciana Paes) has been attempting to fill the gap, but her fiancé Elton (Rafael Raposo) is moving to the city and wants her to come along. Before leaving, she teaches Dalva some traditional magic, but it's not always of practical use as she tries to raise herself and look after her father.

It's immediately obvious that this film is going to live and die by how well the audience can connect with Dalva. That's no slight on the work Julio Macado and Luciana Paes do as the rest of her family - they impress - but it's clear right away that their jobs are to establish the child's environment as much as tell their own story. Happily, the young actress in this movie, Nina Medeiros, is genuinely amazing, and even if it's just a matter of casting the girl who could best give the movie what it needs most of the time - a skinny body seemingly about to collapse under the weight on the family stress put upon her hiding eyes that indicate almost frightening intensity - getting the right amount and focus in any given scene is no small thing. She's great and delivers exactly what the movie needs at every moment even when silent. It's a tense little performance that convinces the audience that anything is possible for Dalva, from collapse to genuine sorcery.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Door Lock

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

It seems as though nifty movie ideas get passed around the world and redone for local audiences more than they used to, well beyond how folks used to complain that it was mainly Americans who didn't want to deal with subtitles. I think that I have seen the movie which inspired this film (Sleep Tight), but it's not like the case of another Korean remake of a Spanish thriller a couple years ago when I realized that I knew what's going to happen next about ten minutes in. It certainly feels like its own movie, and a thriller that doesn't mess around much to boot.

Door Lock opens with a bit of CCTV footage from outside an apartment very much like the one occupied by Jo Gyeung-min (Kong Hyo-Jin), a loan officer who is very on-edge about her personal safety - aside from seeming dizzy and dull in the morning, she notes her electronic lock behaving erratically, and eyes fellow passengers on the subway and a package delivered to bank where she works with suspicion. She's got reason to be worried, but only co-worker Oh Hyo-Ju (Kim Ye-Won) believes her without reservation, and in this sort of situation, it's not necessarily any easier to trust Detective Lee (Kim Sung-Oh) or okay-seeming supervisor Kim Sung-Ho (Lee Chun-Hee) than combative customer Kim Ki-Jung (Jo Bok-Rae) or custodian Han Dong-Hoon (Lee Ga-Sub).

Full review on EFilmCritic

Yeah, I had that shipped to me: A Lifetime Treasure and A Beautiful Moment

Remember back at the end of January, when all of the new release films for Lunar New Year were postponed and the theaters in an entire country of over a billion people were closed, based on what had sounded like an epidemic in one city? Yeah, we should have realized it was bigger and was only going to get bigger then.

It caught people flat-footed enough that it took a few weeks for one of the Hong Kong Lunar New Year films to show up here, and I gather Enter the Fat Dragon was kind of retrofitted into LNY release, with clips of the cast wishing everyone a happy new year tacked onto the end. The only "true" Hong Kong LNY comedy I remember getting here is Missbehavior last year, and that was also the new Pang Ho-Cheung; I gather the usual for those movies is to be zany and almost sketch comedy right up until the credits roll with the cast offering holiday wishes.

(Aside: How weird would it be if big movies scheduled for Christmas release in the West did that? Or would it be charming?)

These two are somewhat closer to that tradition, although I think that they, too, are more along the lines of "comedies released near the New Year". A Lifetime Treasure was still kicking around at the end of its run when I visited Hong Kong last year, and is one of a number of films that wound up on my shelf because I wound up with less time to see movies at the end of the day than I thought I would have but was curious about the films I missed. I apparently ordered A Beautiful Moment soon after getting home, and I'm kind of amazed to see that there was a full fourteen months between its HK theatrical release and Blu-ray release (presuming the dates on DDDHouse are the same as general availability). That seems kind of crazy to me, used to studios just habitually penciling the home release for the first Tuesday after the 90-day window.

The movies themselves… Well, neither of them are winners. I'm finding myself a little frustrated in that a lot of the films I'm watching over the past week or so seem to spend an hour screwing around before getting to the part where you can see why they even bothered. A Lifetime Treasure isn't quite so bad in this regard, but how the people involved with A Beautiful Moment didn't realize that Carina Lau and Simon Yam was the whole movie from the start…

Ah, well. The double feature helped me push the "general unwatched Hong Kong" section down to one shelf-section, so that's kind of a quarantine accomplishment.

Ru zhu ru bao de ren sheng (A Lifetime Treasure)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's probably a listicle or three out there counting down the best "a bunch of movie stars have gotten old" films, hopefully not to grim in terms of how many great actors passed away soon after doing a movie that cracked wise about how they used to be sex symbols and are now the butt of jokes about peeing every ten minutes. Unless they're exhaustive, A Lifetime Treasure will probably not show up on many of those lists, and not just because it's relatively recent or because many overlook films not made in Hollywood; it's just not very good and a few of the folks involved have done it much better.

It takes place around the Oh Hoi Nursing Home, the only elder-care facility on one of Hong Kong's smaller islands, technically run by superintendent Yuen Luk Cheung (Andrew Lam Man-Chung) although he's addled enough that nurse Ching-Ching (Ivana Wong Yuen-Chi) is effectively in charge of the five elders there: "Uncle Dragon" (Bruce Leung Siu-Lung), a mute tinkerer who claims to have once been a secret agent; Richard Leung (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon), a former swimmer living on borrowed time; Jane (Tien Niu), who like to tell people she was once a nightclub diva; Ben Chow Tai-Bun (Teddy Robin Kwan), a diminutive former pickpocket; and "Uncle Crab" (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a wheelchair-bound ex-detective still obsessed with an unsolved case from 30 years ago. Elsewhere, Rainy Cloud Hung (Lam Suet), who dominates the Hong Kong nursing home business, is looking to purchase the site, and dispatches flunkies Chun (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) and Lok (Bob Lam Shing-Pun) to sabotage the place.

They don't get very far with that - Lok is too smitten with Ching-Ching despite her eyes for hunky handyman Fai (Terry Zou Wen-Zheng) to keep his eye on the prize, and their attempts at disruption make for forgettable episodes. The most elaborate involves bringing the elders to the set of a zombie movie to work as extras in hopes of out-of-context photos causing a scandal only for them to (briefly) become celebrity heroes and is mostly enlivened by Siu Yam-Yam (aka Susan "Yum-Yum" Shaw) cameoing as a thoroughly disinterested film director, which is at once the most predictable thing in the movie - Siu has, by now, made nearly as much of a career out of playing the feisty granny as she did playing the sexpot in the 1970s and 1980s that informs those parts - and the funniest. Like many of the other episodic bits that make up this film's first half hour, it seems to start from nothing and lead to nothing, with many of the jokes nearly incomprehensible to my western head. This is, to be fair, not necessarily the fault of the filmmakers; between Cantonese being a language that allows for a lot of wordplay in both spoken and written forms and Hong Kong being compact enough that there's a really good chance that everyone in the audience gets a pop-culture reference that is completely opaque to an American 12 time zones away (on the other hand, characters getting teased for uniforms that look to be straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation may not play once you get 50 miles into the Chinese mainland). One can see evidence of such jokes, even as they fly way the heck over a western viewer's head.

It's probably not great that a lot of that running around doesn't wind up really mattering, as Rainy Cloud eventually just bursts in, forces the Chief to press his finger to a contract, and walks off, forcing the orderlies and elders to break into the headquarters Mission: Impossible-style, straight down to the harness in the elevator shaft. It's a pretty straightforward parody, but having these veteran performers play their characters as folks with something to do rather than just wandering in a fog lets them be funnier and easier to connect with. Richard Ng, especially, turns out to be a real treat, and Ivana Wong does a nice job as Ching-Ching, it's kind of hard for me to imagine an American film letting her character be weird and abrasive rather than sweet but she pulls it off.

Those noting Sammo Hung's name in the cast should maybe temper their expectations a little; the action-movie legend's Uncle Crab is in a wheelchair and doesn't get out of it for very long. There's still a bit of action or two toward the end that impresses a bit (and some physical comedy that uses the same sort of skills), but it's mostly in the hands of Bruce Leung Siu-Lung and Teddy Robin, and they're a couple of fairly capable hands, giving the film the chance to end on fast-paced, exciting note.

The thing is, Leung and Robbin and even Siu have done this before, almost ten years earlier, in a film called Gallants, which is pretty terrific and close enough to the general idea of this movie that the filmmakers got a shout-out in the credits. As much as it's great to see old favorites getting work into their later years, there's no reason to watch this one when Gallants is not that much more difficult to find.

Also on EFilmCritic

A Beautiful Moment (aka "My Rival is Son-in-law, My Lover is Son-in-law")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong kong Blu-ray)

The neat idea that sells A Beautiful Moment is not close to being a wholly original idea - I feel like I've got the names of two or three other movies that play with the lead actor in romantic comedies often being old enough to have dated their opposite numbers' mothers on the tip of my tongue - but it's a fun one and potentially clever, especially with this cast. That's why it's so bizarre and frustrating that filmmaker Patrick Kong Pak-Leung spends so much time on doing other things.

It introduces Doctor Bo (Carina Lau Ka-Ling) using a mah-jongg game to treat three other women of a certain age, before shifting perspective to Simon Leung (Simon Yam Tat-Wah), a billionaire developer who berates his employees and carries petty grudges against rival Philip Lau Hak-Heung (Philip Keung Hiu-Man) to extremes. Bo has two daughters - Michelle (Michelle Wai Si-Nga), who she is pushing toward the other end of a breakup, and Kiki (Ivana Wong Yuen-Chi), a struggling actress who hasn't spoken to her mother in years. Chance has Simon and Michelle meet on Valentine's Day and they decide to start seeing each other, but little do they know that they've got more reason than usual to be nervous when Michelle brings her boyfriend to meet her mother.

For something like fifteen or twenty minutes in the middle, A Beautiful Moment lives up to its name; Bo and Simon spot each other at lunch and do all they can to verbally spar around Michelle. They eventually meet up and without her and while Kong initially seems to get too cute with how that goes, ham-fistedly having a parallel conversation with a younger couple going on at the next table, watching these characters smile because they know better and only have to sketch out part of their own conversations s terrific even if it is very much not the verbal jousting that one likely expected from the first encounters with the pair. Carina Lau and Simon Yam handle this downshift so well that it's difficult to understand why this isn't the entire movie.

It's not, though, and the process of getting there is kind of maddening. This main triangle is introduced in pretty specific terms: Simon is a bully; Bo is a gifted therapist but that same skill set also allows her to be tremendously manipulative; and Michelle seems to be the person she is trying to control most, the sort of behavior which drove Kiki away. There's something there, potentially, with Michelle being pushed into her mother's unhealthy patterns or Simon seeing a second chance, but Kong and co-writer Ja Poon Hang-Kei never really dig into it; Simon just seems to get nicer without being pushed with Michelle more or less flatly saying that she's decided to date him because he's wealthy and powerful. At the other side of the film, things just get shoved into different directions and arrangements out of the blue, so that even when it reaches the conclusion the audience wants, it's hard to feel anything as a result of something just happening off-screen.

And that doesn't even get to how the movie treats Ivana Wong's Kiki, who is eventually relegated to interrupting the rest of her family's thing with non-sequiturs despite the fact that the front half of the movie leans hard on the "acting" jobs she and her boyfriend take to make ends meet for its better comic pieces. Most of the comic set-ups in the movie are fairly mean-spirited, which is fair enough - it's about initially-selfish people - but some of them go on much too long at high volume, with the bits where Bo is trying to help Philip with his gambling addiction especially obnoxious.

As much as the movie can be frustrating, the cast does their best by it - I'd love to see Simon Yam and Carina Lau in a romantic comedy that delivers on the promise of their scenes together all the way through, Michelle Wai and Ivana Wong are both very funny when given the room, and as director, Kong is able to get everyone in the supporting and cameo-ing cast to squeeze the most out of the clumsy gags he gives them as the writer. It's a mess, but at least it's one with occasional high points.

Also on EFilmCritic

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Booksellers

I made a comment the other day about how the Coolidge, whether by dint of starting ahead of other local theaters or seeming like a slightly larger organization or something else, seemed to have a bit more of a handle on the whole "running a VOD service" thing than other places, and for The Booksellers they've gotten to the point where they've actually got the film embedded in their own site rather than going to some other place. It's not perfect yet - I couldn't figure out how to get the navigation controls to disappear from my screen as I watched - but it at least seems like the start of a pretty decent system.

I wonder, a bit, if my attitude upon viewing this movie was a bit influenced by finally finishing up a specific Fantasia review immediately beforehand. Black Magic for White Boys is a different sort of movie but also one that can be kind of New York-insular, and there's a lot about The Booksellers that indicate it's not really considering the world outside its own bubble that much. I'm a happy big-city person with access to my hobbies now, but I hope that I won't ever forget what it was like to not have them in reach, and a lot of these people seem to be born into good fortune or at least able to be in orbit around the sort of money these hobbies require and seem to spend a lot of time talking about how this specific application of that privilege seems to be vanishing, with little time spent on how the younger booksellers seem excited about growing their audience compared to the older ones raging against change.

It is, now that I think of it, something of an interesting contrast with last year's IFFBoston selection Not for Resale, which featured video game retailers who, despite the way the industry's evolution was bad for their businesses, still seemed excited enough about the medium and interested in how to share it broadly rather than shuffling it from person to person with the price going up. I find myself rooting for the game-store people a lot more; they seem self-aware and more committed to grappling with the evolution going on around them rather than just stopping it.

It is probably also important to consider that I've come to be less enamored with collecting as I've grown older. I still accumulate like crazy and have trouble getting rid of stuff that's not actually unusable, but I'm bumping up against practical limits of where to keep it all and the difficulty of actually getting it from point A to point B even if I should find a bigger place once I run out of room, and I'm a little less interested in filling in the gaps in a collection than I used to be. I hear folks at the comics shop talk about grading issues or spending money to fill in the gaps or even upgrade the copies they have and kind of wonder what the point is; it's just not the way I interact with those things any more, if it ever was.

So, maybe I'm even less the audience for this movie than I thought, which is fine. I do kind of wonder if it started out talking more about used books and people discovering new authors they love at places that are more geared to readers than collectors but had its focus shift to the proprietors and customers of antiquarian shops because they were bigger and more colorful, since you can certainly see bits which focus more on readers than collectors at certain points, even if that's not the thrust of the final film.

The Booksellers

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

Movies like The Booksellers don't exactly backfire when, halfway through, certain viewers find that this film meant to celebrate a rare and vanishing breed of person is instead providing examples of just how that breed rubs them the wrong way. A documentary doesn't necessarily need to be convincing to be worthy, but at times there is enough self-satisfaction evident in this one to visibly crowd out the more dynamic stories that filmmaker D.W. Young could be telling.

You almost have to start from the back to see those stories. For example, while Heather O'Donnell and Rebecca Romney have been relatively visible throughout the movie, young women amid a sea of faces that are older and/or male and tweedy, they only get their own focus toward the end, with one saying how she's full of ideas and enthusiasm when the old men in the business talk about the end of an era, and, with ten minutes left in the movie, there's not going to be much time to talk about how people like them are transforming the used and antiquarian book trade. It's not long after Syreeta Gates appears as part of a segment named for the bookseller and archivist she's working with, not even named on screen, but arguably giving the film the biggest jolt of energy it has yet had by talking about how her collection of hip-hop magazines and other writing started by necessity and grew into a resource. It's an immediate demonstration of the value of collecting that has been abstract through much of the film.

There's something like an hour and fifteen minutes before that, though, in which Young takes us to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, introduces a number of people operating antiquarian bookstores, and spends time talking about the decline in the sheer numbers of bookstores in the city, from how the famous Strand used to be one of many shops on "Book Row" to how younger people idly refer to "the old chain stores". As with many films of this type, it's able to coast on how full of colorful characters it is, from the sisters running the Argosy Book Store talking about how their father took care not to force them into the family business to a man who has an Escher-inspired private library. Young's interviews do a nice job of introducing people, sketching their history, and giving a sense of the obsessive, passionate nature that leads people to this sort of work, and some of the books and other artifacts they are able to display are astounding.

It's often just the very most surface impression of the community, more likely to divert into self-deprecating comments and trivia than any sort of substantive history or examination of the changing book market ecosystem. It name-checks A.S.W. Rosenbach as someone who "reigned supreme" in the rare-book world during the first part of the Twentieth Century but doesn't say more about what that means and how his influence affected the business in the decades since, and a quick digression to talk about Martin Stone, a guitarist who was nearly part of the Rolling Stones and became known as a "book scout" for his ability to find rare materials while on the road, feels like little more than a tease, both for the story of an interesting life or more examination of what an unconventional avocation that is.

Of course, the business doesn't need as many book scouts because Amazon and Ebay and the like have made rare or unusual books from around the world more visible in a way that has made things more difficult for used booksellers, and the lack of any opposition to this perspective is sometimes frustrating for those who don't live in a city that counts only having 79 used bookstores as a sign of decimation; the idea that perceived scarcity is gone and people can build a collection without a lot of effort is only looked at as bad for business rather than good in opening the pleasures of bibliophilia to more than just rich people who can easily travel to Manhattan. Moreover, aside from occasional cuts to authors Fran Lebowitz and Susan Orlean - like Gates, neither is named on-screen, with only Orlean given enough context to show why this passionate person's words carry weight - it's a long stretch before one gets any indication that anybody involved really enjoys reading. Instead, there are cheery profiles of people who talk about the thrill of the pursuit which winds up with them paying large amounts of money for something rare and then placing it in their literal warehouses, never to be seen again until they die.

It's not hard to imagine that these people would be disparaged as hoarders if they were a little less well-off and their collections a little more plebeian, at least until there was academic interest in a topic, as with one subject's L. Frank Baum collection. That seeming paradoxes of how that hoarding can become a valuable academic resource, or how less exclusivity can destroy an industry (or at least force it to change into something new) would be interesting ways to tie this material together, and it's somewhat frustrating that Young doesn't opt to do that so much as highlight personalities and show rooms full of beautiful but seldom-read books. The film is a testament to how such displays have an appeal, and there's nothing wrong with that sort of survey, but it's not a film that will do much for one who doesn't already look upon this group fondly.

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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Hammer Time: Frankenstein Created Woman and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

I'm not a big Hammer guy in part because I'm just not a big horror guy. I've grown to like horror movies well enough, and appreciate what you can say with them, but I've never quite gotten into horror for the sake of horror. I will watch your zombie movie if it helps me fill every slot at Fantasia, or if it looks like you've got style or a new twist or point of view, but I don't need endless sequels or mythologies or the like. I'm full up there with Marvel, Star Trek, etc.

As a result, I've never really done any sort of deep dive into Hammer, just sort of checked them out when individual films were part of other things that interested me, which is how these two particular discs wound up on my (somewhat) recent arrivals shelf: A Hammer/Shaw Brothers crossover is the right combination of logical and bonkers to be interesting, and I have loved gender-bending stuff since I discovered Ranma ½ in college, even if I do recognize that most of it kind of problematic at best (including and maybe especially the well-intentioned material). I will, by the time we are once again able to see movies in theaters like nature intended, spend a week going through various movies along those lines, but we are not there yet.

At any rate, I wonder if these oddball Hammer films do better for Shout Factory than the regular ones, because they attract niches that the other six Hammer Frankensteins don't.

Frankenstein Created Woman

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It is roughly an hour into this 86-minute movie before Frankenstein creates woman, and it's not like that first hour is doing something terribly new on the way to that moment. The horror genre has certainly seen more wasteful slow burns than this, of course, and it's entirely possible that someone who had seen the previous Hammer Frankenstein movies would be more engrossed. Still, it's an odd thing to save the movie's central idea until the point where you can't do that much with it.

Having been caught up on the series might explain why Baron Fraknenstein (Peter Cushing) starts the film in some small Swiss village, hands damaged to the point where he must depend on local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters) and assistant Hans (Robert Morris) to actually execute his experiments in cryonics and force fields and all manner of other things. Hans loves Christina (Susan Denberg dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl), the scarred and handicapped daughter of the local tavern owner, though she is the target of ridicule from three cruel toffs (Peter Blyte, Barry Warren, Derek Fowlds). Suspicion for the murder of Christina's father falls on Hans, due to his firey temper and executed father, and though Frankenstein's testimony at the trial hurts more than it helps, his latest experiments in capturing the soul may save Hans… in a way.

Given the title of the movie, you can see where the filmmakers are going with this, and while there's certainly a desire to move it along to the good stuff, there's also a certain perverse comfort on how writer Anthony Hinds (using the pseudonym "John Elder') and director Terence Fisher put everything in place. There's not a character that the audience doesn't recognize as horror stock right away, played broadly but generally a step or two back from actual ham, performed on sets that are cramped and garish rather than ornate, and maybe feel a little grounded and believable for that. It's meticulous in going through all the steps that must happen before Hans is in a new body and seeking revenge, and mostly does okay with that, with the admittedly large exceptions of Hertz seeming like the most empty-headed physician since Nigel Bruce played John Watson, the better for Frankenstein to explain things to him in a step-by-step manner that consists almost entirely of unfounded assumptions.

If the first hour is standard but capable, the last act is rushed but interesting. Sure, it's where all the exploitation raw meat is, the bloody murders and the costuming designed to remind you that, despite how Christina was presented earlier, Susan Denberg is very attractive indeed. It's also where Frankenstein's utter lack of human perspective as he tampers with the very stuff of life and death is presented at its sharpest - where, despite the monster being beautiful, this finally feels like a Frankenstein story. The filmmakers almost completely sidestep playing with the idea of a man's soul in a woman's body, which is probably for the best - a lot of more high-minded movies with fifty years' more perspective make a mess of this - often instead presenting the new Christina as a blank slate haunted and sometimes possessed by Hans's ghost. An interesting idea of itself, but not the film has much time to play with. Mostly, it lets the audience get a bit of a thrill out of how the men who actually killed Christna's father are now lusting over a woman with her body and the soul of a man they despised like cartoon wolves.

That's good stuff with a nasty, twisted kick to it, and the cast to its credit all seem to get what makes this a nifty cross between the traditional Frankenstein story and a revenge flick, but they could use more time to dig into it: Frankenstein's monsters, at their best, are intelligent enough to recognize and rail over how they don't fit into the world, and Christina doesn't get that sort of introspection. On the other side, the three targets of her rage are a dull, interchangeable bunch, her vengeance suitably bloody but not quite thrilling. It doesn't quite become a rote slasher movie, but it seldom lives up to what it could be.

Less interesting things have been done with both Frankenstein and avenging-angel flicks separately, and the folks at Hammer didn't really mess up the combination. You can see the good ideas and Hammer being a factory of sorts works in the movie's favor. They don't mess up lurid horror, even if they aren't exactly the guys to make it into something greater.

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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was the only product of a mid-1970s team-up between Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers Studio, but ill-fated action flick Shatter (coincidentally due for a home video release in about a week) likely doesn't have quite the same sense of being a crossover that this does. It's recognizable as both the sort of horror movies Hammer and Shaw Brothers made, with a healthy dose of the latter's martial-arts action, more for better than worse.

It opens 1804, with Kah (Chan Shen) arriving in Transylvania from China to beseech Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) for his aid in helping his village of Ping Kwei's seven golden vampires once again spread terror through the countryside, which the Count accepts, in his own way. A hundred years later, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is giving a lecture on vampirism in Chungking, hoping to learn of China's undead only to be dismissed by all but Hsi Ching (David Chiang Da-Wei), who has come from Ping Kwei to seek Van Helsing's assistance in destroying the vampires that still plague his village. It's an expensive expedition, but Scandinavian widow and adventuress Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) is intrigued, and with a party including Van Helsing's son Leyland (Robin Stewart) as well as Ching's six brothers and sister Mei Kwei (Shih Szu), they set out, pursued by gangsters and heading toward monsters.

Christopher Lee opted not to return as Dracula for what is little more than a cameo rule (though John Forbes-Robertson as dubbed by David de Keyser is a fair substitute for a couple of scenes), and truth be told, this film would probably work better without him. Aside from how the story would seem to make no sense in established Hammer continuity, there's something downright charming about it as a sort of spin-off, with Van Helsing touring the globe and learning about the various legends of the undead that can be found outside of his central-European expertise. Those initial scenes play Van Helsing as an eccentric academic, with costumes and attitude that remind one as much of Peter Cushing's short-lived stint as Dr. Who as the hard-bitten vampire hunter of the early Hammer Draculas, with an enjoyable (if unfortunately noteworthy) respect for the Chinese setting, from how Cushing's first scene flips the script on the familiar trope of the European scientist lecturing superstitious locals to his genuine curiosity discussing vampires with Hsi Ching and the party later.

And he should be humble, because he is definitely in Shaw Brothers territory as much as Hammer turf. The seven vampires and their undead army are covered in an almost absurd amount of prosthetic makeup so that they come across as bizarre, uncanny monsters, with garish bat medallions just to make sure the audience gets it. On top of that, the Hsi family leaps into action like this was any other kung fu flick, and the fights are the real deal: Legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh may be uncredited, but he oversaw much of the martial-arts scenes, with Tang Chia and Liu Chia-Liang (who would later go on to direct his brother in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and its sequels) choreographing the action. These battles are big and sprawling, with a great many fists, feet, and silvery weapons flying without it ever being too much. The violence in Hammer horror movies is always enthusiastic, but this movie drops big fast-paced battles in without missing a beat. They even do a nice job of making sure that Robin Stewart, presumably brought in as a younger Van Helsing to minimize the amount of strenuous work for Cushing, comes across as not skilled in the same way as the Hong Kong cast without looking like a fool.

For all that the Shaw Brothers action can be dropped into a Hammer horror movie without seeming out of place, neither studio tended to see these movies as a whole lot more than vehicles for sex and violence, which this one delivers, if often with as much glee as style. Peter Cushing and David Chiang Da-Wei are good enough in their parts to make scenes move smoothly, but the need to have a cast big enough that some can fall in battle means there's not really enough material for anyone to be terribly interesting individually, from the frequently anonymous brothers to how Julie Ege is mostly filling costumes until literally her last scene. Neither John Forbes-Robertson nor Chan Shen gets much chance to do much as a villain between the very start and very end of the film.

But if you're going to mash Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers together, you can't exactly expect that which neither prioritized to suddenly be great. Instead, you just hope that each part brings something that they do well, and if 7 Golden Vampires winds up being just a good example of each label's product, that's a sort of success a lot of other crossovers don't manage.

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