Saturday, May 30, 2020

L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online #2 (24 May 2020)

I wasn't necessarily expecting L.A. 3-D SPACE to replace what had been on their calendar for Sunday with another online show just three weeks after their last when most months on the schedule just show one thing, but they did schedule an on-line show, although they wound up having some technical difficulties, both in terms of starting late and not getting the side-by-side and anaglyph streams running at once..

Still, for as much as I was kind of disappointed with the their last stream, I really liked this one. It was taken from the award-winners from their 2018 festival, and they were a really strong group, including a great doc or two, some really nifty animation, and a genuinely oddball entry or two. Even if you're not a 3-D nut like myself, they're worth checking out.

(And, even if you're not, I suspect that if you're reading this particular entry, you've probably got a pair of red-blue glasses kicking around.)

Anyway, there are links to individual shorts where I can find them throughout; as of right now the whole program is still online, with the side-by-side version first and then the red/blue anaglyph. Have fun with it, and maybe kick some cash their way, as they've still got rent and everything else to worry about.

"The Stereoscopic Society"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Kate Sullivan's "The Stereoscopic Society" is only a minute long, so it can only provide the briefest overview of London's Stereoscopic Society, which meets regularly for slideshows and to compare equipment.

Very short documentary, but by all appearances, a cool, charming place to visit and see cool 3D stuff.

"Domino, Secret of the Lost World"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This isn't quite the longest film of the presentation but it's the one that perhaps make the biggest impression, as filmmakers Richard Bouda & Marek Audy start from a somewhat strained metaphor (the dominoes of the title) and a fanciful introduction (that the tepuis being explored are where Arthur Conan Doyle set The Lost World, and then digging in to what you find when you actually reach the surface, and then you've got a documentary about an amazingly isolated ecosystem that features rugged-looking plants, sandstone caves, carnivorous plants, and unusual frogs. It's an amazing thing to build a documentary about.

Getting a 3D rig up to the top of one of those tepuis is maybe not as hard as it might have been, although they have traditionally been finicky enough that the rough handling Bouda & Audy must inevitably subject them to makes it very impressive that they got as much usable footage as they did. It may not be quite so pretty as what Werner Herzog and his crew got in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but the caves serve as a fantastic stage, extending back into the screen and showing layers of features. The camerawork is great whether examining a tiny frog or a dizzying drop.

"Domino" is the sort of short documentary I really love, made by people passionate about the subject matter going the extra mile to be sure that they can bring it to an audience in compelling fashion. It's the sort of thing that's fun no matter what, but seems to be made for 3D

"Espace, Espaces!" ("Space… Spaces!")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This one, by Marilou Deshayes and Esther Jacopin, took a bit of time to grow on me, because it's the sort of short film that doesn't seem to settle into the right groove between straight narrative and off-kilter messing around for a while. The filmmakers have access to a nifty building that looks great in 3D, but a very small cast, and large chunks of it don't seem that well thought-out, including the thread meant to tie everything together, with receptionist/cleaner Baptiste (Benjamin Romieux) seeming to have the most pure love for the Ministry of Space where he works.

And yet, by the end, it's evolved into something really nifty. There's a running gag about three exo-linguists industriously inventing new languages that won't be beholden to human standards and capabilities that feels kind of stretched until a scene where the Minister (Majida Ghomari) talks about how the entire department is often treated as a running gag, at least until the people in power need some science, and it becomes a very sincere, and sincerely frustrated, discussion of how sometimes important things run are fueled by things which the practical folks just can't grasp. That the three groups within the Ministry who keep finding themselves at loggerheads - the engineers, the diplomats, and the linguists - are played by the same three actors works as both Deshayes & Jacopin stretching their cast well (the gag didn't leap out at me until the credits) and a twist on how we're all weird specialists to someone else.

"Un Histoire D'amour" ("A Love Story")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This one apparently won the top International prize in '18, although I think the previous two are more interesting. This one's amusing enough, especially early on when it looks like filmmaker Julien Charpier might be riffing on Makoto Shinkai's "Voices of a Different Star", or more directly doing so. It's at its best when it's working along those lines, but it loses that and connection to that and goes in a more generally avant-garde direction which is interesting and sometimes striking, but seldom as interesting

It's interesting, but tries a bit hard, and doesn't find the same sort of groove between its story and deliberate oddity that "Espace, Espaces!" does.

"Go Away I Like You Too Much"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Apparently "Go Away I Like You Too Much" (2D & 3D) is going to be part of a 40-minute production that includes all ten tracks on "Smitten" by The Simple Carnival, which was apparently filmmaker Jeff Boller on various instruments. The whole project looks to be about halfway complete.

This particular leg of it is a lot of fun - it's a good pop song with animation that keeps up, tells a story, and has gets a viewer in the head of its super-abstract characters in a couple of minutes. It is very much the work of someone who is playing with 3D animation and wants to see what he can do on top of making a good music video, but that's entirely cool in this particular situation. I'll certainly be going through the rest of the videos and hoping there's a way to purchase a good SBS version when he's done.

"Cryogen Children"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Director Sadie Schiffman-Eller does something especially nifty with the animation in "Cryogen Children", as using 3D makes the separate elements in this mixed-media production feel a bit more disconnected from each other in ways that might not be as apparent when flattened. It's an apt metaphor for someone searching for her roots and knowing that, because her mother used a donor, she herself is metaphorically assembled in that way.

It's a nice bit of work, since Schiffman-Eller captures how strange the whole process seems from both ends, whether anonymously donating sperm or trying to find out where you came from. She leans into the collage aspects of the work, working double helices and other symbols into the film, and while this allows things to keep getting bizarre, Schiffman-Eller never lets it completely get away from her. It's an impressive pieces of work that uses all the bits and pieces it's made of well.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 29 May 2020 - 4 June 2020

This has always sort of been a quiet week for new releases, giving the Memorial Day openings a little extra room, so as you might imagine without theaters actually open, it's really super-dead

  • The Brattle Theatre still makes two new additions to its virtual screening room, both callbacks in a way. Joan of Arc is director Bruno Dumont's follow-up to Jeannette, and one way in which it is unusual is that he has retained the same actress who played the title character as a child in that one to play her as a teenager though Lise Leplat Prudhomme was only ten years old at the time of filming. There is also the option to RSVP for a Q&A with Dumont on Thursday afternoon.

    They also bring back IFFBoston alum Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, this time in its theatrical version - apparently it was recut after its festival run. They also hold over Lucky Grandma, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Fourteen, Vitalina Varela, and Thousand Pieces of Gold.

    No week-long series of recommendations currently, but they continue to post "Y'Know, For the Kids!" on Tuesdays and Saturdays, recently featuring The Secret of Roan Inish and the original Escape to Witch Mountain, with #BreakYourAlgorithm picks appearing Mondays and Thursdays, with the past week's selections including Soapdish.
  • There's no mere popcorn pop-up at The Capitol this weekend, as their Capitol Creamery ice cream shop is now open for phone orders and curbside pickup daily from 1pm to 8pm, including traditional popcorn and candy. They also pick up The Cordillera of Dreams to play in their virtual cinema (it previously played the Brattle's) alongside The Painter and the Thief, Heimat Is a Space in Time, Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon.

    Their friends at The Somerville Theatre would have been wrapping up the 70mm film festival this weekend, and we can only hope it's safe to open by the time David would get the projectors ready to use the big film for Tenet For now, they add Military Wives to their virtual cinema, continuing The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Alice, Pahokee, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers. Both also add Blackfish to Magnolia's "some of our favorite docs" program, with a Q&A scheduled for Wednesday and both RBG and Life Itself still available.
  • Independent Film Festival Boston continues to host The Rabbi Goes West in their virtual cinema through Thursday afternoon, and will also host a Q&A with filmmakers Amy Gellar & Gerald Peary and subjects Rabbi Chaim Bruk and Chavie Bruk on Sunday the 31st.
  • The Regent Theatre adds Reggae Boyz to their VOD offerings; the documentary follows a Jamaican soccer team attempting to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Their run of WBCN and the American Revolution also continues, with a Q&A on Tuesday evening.They have also extended Dosed and Fantastic Fungi.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre slows down a bit this week, though there's a limited edition T-shirt added to their online store. They continue to show Lucky Grandma, The Painter and the Thief, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, Driveways, Straight Up, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and The Booksellers in the virtual screening room.

    They also have three ways to enhance home viewing on the schedule. First, Akira Oni will be doing a thirty-minute live drag show on Saturday night inspired by Pan's Labyrinth, part of the "After Midnite" offerings. For post-show conversation, they will be hosting author Ben Mezrich to talk about The Social Network (adapted from his book The Accidental Billionaires) on Tuesday, while Emerson professor Andre Puca does the week's Coolidge Education introduction/Q&A, discussing Federico Fellini's - register, watch the intro, watch the movie, come back Thursday evening for the Zoom call.
  • The West Newton Cinema has not yet updated their virtual cinema page for the weekend, but they'll presumably also add Blackfish while continuing Life Itself, RBG, Military Wives, Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers.
  • Boston Jewish Film continues their online summer cinematheque program in somewhat unconventional fashion this week with a behind-the-scenes look at upcoming film Vishniac with director Laura Bialas, writer Sophia Sartain, and producers Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg. The film itself is not finished - it is expected to play the festival in 2021 - they will be there to discuss photographer Roman Vishniac and his world on Wednesday evening. Pre-register here.
  • The Showcase Cinemas drive-in show starts this weekend, not last; my bad. It's in the parking lot of their Foxboro location, kicking off with Raiders of the Lost Ark this Saturday night (future shows will be on Fridays), with proceeds going to the Foxboro Food Pantry and tickets/snacks are on sale via their smartphone app. They also continue to serve as a portal for Military Wives, The Mindfulness Movement, Fantastic Fungi, Capone, and Scoob!, although different films are listed depending on where you land on the site.

Looking like a week of catch-up (notably The Rabbi Goes West) and working through the shelf for me.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lucky Grandma

I'm not sure how much longer folks will be able to do this and Thousand Pieces of Gold as a double feature via the Brattle's virtual screening room, but I suspect they pair well, with different tones and periods but two intriguing women sometimes wrestling with the idea of being Chinese-American.

(Plus, both Rosalind Chao and Tsai Chin were in The Joy Luck Club, but I suspect that can apply to nearly every well-known Chinese-American actress from that period.)

It's a nifty one, and while it's cool that funds from rentals are going both to theaters and Chinatown-based funds, I'm once again disappointed that I'm seeing it this way, since I'd kind of love to be in an audience with a bunch of Chinese-American people just to hear which jokes land well that I don't recognize. Heck, having seen just how much of the stuff I found when doing an Amazon search for Tsai Chin was music, I now really want to know if she was ever on the soundtrack semi-ironically.

Lucky Grandma

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, KinoNow via Roku)

It's not a trick that works every time, or even the thought process that most filmmakers are using, but you'll probably get something interesting by taking a story that has been done a lot and then adding twenty years or so to the main character's age. Sure, it may seem like suicide commercially, but you'll wind up with a terrific character actor in the lead, new challenges and solutions in the story, and the chance for nifty juxtapositions. It makes for one of the more intriguing bag-of-money movies to come out in a while.

It starts with Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) getting a reading from her fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho), who says she will have a "10-year-luck pillar" on the 28th of October. One might worry that her winning a few bags of rice as a prize for being the 88th customer at her bank on an anniversary date is the extent of it, but she instead withdraws her savings - all $1,757 of it - and heads to Foxwoods, where things go well and then don't. But then, on the bus home, her seatmate with a bag full of cash has a heart attack, and since he's got a gang tattoo, nobody would really get hurt if she goes home with it. A couple days later, "Little Handsome" (Michael Tow) and "Pockmark" (Woody Fu) from the Red Dragon gang show up, so she sensibly goes to the Zhongliang gang to get get some protection, in the form of gentle-seeming giant Big Pong (Ha Hsiao-Yuan).

Growing old means being left behind and out of place in a lot of different ways, with little to do but accept it either begrudgingly or bitterly, and filmmaker Sasie Sealy saturates Lucky Grandma with this. Grandma Wong exists in cramped corners and dark rooms, defiantly unchanging but, as a result, completely out of place when she ventures into her son's bright, bilingual household, and not really able to push back when her grandson brings it to her place. She's not alone or innocent in this - the film hinges on the fact that Mr. Lin's death probably would be completely unremarkable if he hadn't been moving a bunch of mob money - but that's not a knock on the film. Indeed, it suggests that part of growing old, at least for people like Ms. Wong, is a reluctance to admit to weakness, leading to greater isolation and aggression and often having a smaller space than one might otherwise have.

It's something that could have been hard to see, behind her dark glasses and taciturn manner, but the way Tsai Chin plays all of those little moments imbues them each with meaning that may or may not be explained later on, especially when adjacent ones seem to contrast: There's an aggression that's not exactly joyless but also not exuberant as her lucky numbers come up, which pairs well with the devastated but pessimistic acceptance when this stops. Later on, her back is up as she pushes Pong away so that she can talk to an old friend, a conversation that seems to be the most relaxed she has been through the whole film, like she's protecting something precious. Chin highlights how much this is not Wong's world without ever making it seem like she doesn't know how to navigate it, and there's a great sort of quiet tension between her and Eddie Yu as her son - they love each other but come from different worlds, and aren't really sure how to deal with the other. There's a more easily enjoyable contrast between her and Ha Hsiao-Yuan's Big Pong - visually, it's a size difference usually reserved for animation, and Ha plays that softness as a notable contrast to his charge's frequent harshness, a reticence that covers what is generally a friendly attitude. Despite his size, he still can fit in a lot of places, eventually.

Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng do a nice enough job of using the bag-of-money plot to put the life of an old, immigrant widow like Grandma Wong into focus that it's actually a little jarring when that plot spreads outside of her life and forces a confrontation, though not in a bad way - she, too, maybe has to be jolted into remembering that she's part of things. On either side of that moment, though, Sealy and her collaborators do a nice job of keeping things moving, giving the audience time to look around without feeling like they're stuck somewhere, emphasizing how places from a somewhat poor neighborhood to a casino can feel both off-putting and homey. They have some fun with how a senior lady is an unconventional choice for this sort of story, with the occasional music cue that's funkier than she is or a wink at how dark glasses to protect elderly eyes and frustration can often be read as cool indifference.

It's a combination that winds up too organically intertwined for Lucky Grandma to just be a bag-of-money movie with an older-than-usual lead, but also makes for a pretty great twist on that genre. That's on top of being one of those great showcases for someone who has spent much of a long career in character roles - but, then, that's why find a way to build a movie like this around this sort of veteran.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Not really a lot to say here that I didn't include in the eFilmCritic review other than noting that the disc I ordered from Hong Kong however long ago appears to be a 3D-only disc, with no option to watch in 2D that I saw on the menu (unless it's buried in a submenu somewhere) and no second disc in the package. It's a pretty long movie to have multiple versions on the same disc, although I suppose it could just show the left-eye or right-eye stream. Still, I suppose the 2D version is there for streaming if I ever opt to show this to someone, but it doesn't look like it got a 3D release in the U.S. aside from maybe theatrical (and I am reminded that this did not play Boston even though obviously inferior Chinese movies did).

I'm mildly curious how well this did at the box office; I wouldn't be shocked if it was the most commercially-successful of Tsui Hark's big 3D action/adventures he made in the 2010s, even if I'd probably only put it ahead of Journey to the West: Demon Chapter. Many similarly rousing military-action movies have come out in its wake, not always made by people with the same sort of skill, and I hope Tsui's future plans are more the big fantasies (especially the Detective Dee time-travel story he's been kicking around) than what a lot of folks describe as "Call of Duty movies".

Zhi qu wei hu shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

The Taking of Tiger Mountain was one of the first films in China's recent wave of military action blockbusters, and it's got most of the issues of the ones that have followed, primarily that it has exactly the amount of nuance one would expect of a big-budget movie whose makers know that it must pass through a fairly strict censor board. This one's at least got Tsui Hark at the helm, and he's probably got more experience making this sort of effects-laden movie than anybody else in China, and even more making entertaining action/adventure.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1946, in Northeastern China, a year after the defeat of Japan, a time when the People's Liberation Army, Nationalist forces, and warlord bandits. The PLA unit attempting to secure the area is seriously under-supplied, although Captain Shoa Jianbo (Kenny Lin Genxin), known as "203", is being sent reinforcements - scout Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) and nurse Bai Ru (Tong Liya) to join a team including aide-de-camp Gao Bo (Chen Xiao) and locals Tank (Zha Ka) and Li Yongqi (Guo Hong-Qing). The greatest local threat appears to be Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who has holed up in an abandoned Japanese fort and may have a line on the location of an arsenal the retreating army left behind.

Tsui has spent the 2010s finally able to make the big, effects-laden movies he never had the resources for in the early, Hong Kong-based phases of his career, and in the early going he occasionally seems to be using bullet-time to stop and linger, like this is exactly what he storyboarded and wants to take a snapshot. He's similarly self-indulgent with 3D, absolutely loving to throw things directly at the audience or use slow-motion to let things hang in mid-air. For all the flashy moments, Tsui uses his budget like the old pro that he is, letting the audience learn their way around the various main settings, creating depth and keeping the movie from looking too busy, plus threading the needle between the PLA being underdogs and being desperate.

In threading that needle, though, he and his co-writers don't necessarily give a decent ensemble cast a whole lot to work with. They're mostly dutiful soldiers and desperate villagers, and while it's easy enough to like 203, Gao, and Bai, they're well-played stock characters, as is the initially-uncommunicative kid that falls in with them. The fun mostly comes from Zhang Hanyu's scout/undercover operative, who is just gruff and unpolished enough to come across as a possibly-untrustworthy rogue even though nothing in the story necessarily suggests why 203 and his unit would regard him with suspicion, at least to an outsider, though Du Yi-Heng's duplicitous henchman and Tony Leung Ka-Fai's mugging warlord. They may be caricatures, but evil caricatures can be more entertaining than simple do-gooders.

It's an issue that Tsui has to overcome as the last act explodes into action; there's never any particular doubt in the outcome, especially with the heroic sacrifices and everything else happening right on schedule. It's countered mainly by the film shifting gears, becoming less a war movie than a Saturday-serial sort of action/adventure, built around an absolutely ridiculous ski jump that leads into action that is as entertainingly staged as it is thoroughly one-sided. There may never be any real doubt about the outcome, but the scale is big, the staging solid, and all the little bits that make up the larger sequence are played with enthusiasm but not sadism. It's the sort of action that's easy to get caught up in, grinning at the sheer craft, even if there is not a lot of suspense to it.

There's also a frame on it with a man in the present stopping to meet friends in New York on the way to a lucrative job in Silicon Valley before footage of a Peking Opera show inspired by the same story leads him to return home and pay tribute to said heroes, just in case the appropriate message wasn't received. Tsui winks at that in the most over-the-top way possible in the end credits, but a last-minute acknowledgment of this sort of acknowledgment and myth-making doesn't make the two hours that came before more than slick and professional.

Also on EFilmCritic

Friday, May 22, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 22 May 2020 - 28 May 2020

A lot of overlap for this long holiday weekend, and it can't be that fewer movies are being released because they figure we'll be out doing other stuff.

  • The Brattle Theatre opens two new ones, with Lucky Grandma following a Chinatown octogenarian who winds up in the middle of a gang war, while Peter Medak's The Ghost of Peter Sellers follows how making Ghost in the Noonday Sun with a pair of comic geniuses was, in fact, not fun at all. Lucky Grandma will have a virtual premiere starting at 5:30pm EST (like, right now!), and both films will be featured as part of a Monday afternoon Zoom session with Ned & Ivy. Fourteen, Vitalina Varela, and Thousand Pieces of Gold are "held over", and there's a Sunday night stream of Shogun Assassin with RZA and Dan Halsted giving live commentary.

    The annual "Reunion Week program kicked off on Wednesday with Toy Story and Dead of Night celebrating 25 and 75 years, respectively, continuing through Tuesday with a variety of films celebrating anniversaries that are multiples of 25 years. I don't think the program has done a 100th yet, but they must be getting awful close. Among the regular recommendations, "Y'Know, For the Kids!" (Tuesdays and Saturdays) recently suggested Rango, while #BreakYourAlgorithm (Mondays and Thursdays) most recently included Cookie's Fortune and Cast a Deadly Spell.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also has Lucky Grandma and Shogun Assassin, and picks up two new documentaries: The Painter and the Thief following a Czech artist befriending the career criminal who stole her work and Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy featuring "The Julia Child of Mexico". Director Elizabeth Carroll hosts a virtual Q&A for the second Saturday night, along with some special guests, and one is planned for Painter, with the theater offering an opportunity to submit questions. Driveways, On A Magical Night, Up From the Streets, Straight Up, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and The Booksellers continue.

    Geothe-Institut presentation Free Country returns for a second weekend (playing through Monday), and the week's Coolidge Education seminar has Slate senior editor Sam Adams discussing The Long Goodbye. Register, watch the introduction, stream the movie, and then join the Zoom discussion on Thursday.
  • I was going to be living at The Somerville Theatre this weekend for the cancelled 70mm film festival, but may still stop by for the popcorn pop-up on Saturday. They also open The Ghost of Peter Sellers in virtual cinema, along with Alice, Pahokee, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers. Their friends at The Capitol add The Painter and the Thief and cinematic essay Heimat Is a Space in Time, to their virtual cinema alongside Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon.
  • The West Newton Cinema, the Somerville, and the Capitol are all participating in Magnolia's "A Few of Our Favorite Docs" series, where $5 both rents a movie and registers one for a Wednesday Q&A; this week's selection is Life Itself, with RBG still available.

    West Newton also adds Military Wives to their screening options with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Hogan in a true story of members of a military wives' choir that became a big deal in the UK for a while; it's the latest from Peter Cattaneo, who directed The Full Monty. Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers continue, as does their GoFundMe campaign, and "Local Hero" advance ticket sales.
  • Independent Film Festival Boston is still holding out hope that its 2020 edition is only postponed, but in the meantime, they've set up an online screening area for The Rabbi Goes West, from festival friends and alumni Amy Gellar & Gerald Peary, following an evangelical Hasidic rabbi as he ventures to Montana. It will be available as of 10am on Sunday (24 May 2020) and run through 4 June, with the filmmakers and subjects scheduled for a Q&A on the 31st.
  • Boston Jewish Film would normally be running a summer cinematheque program at local theaters during the summer, but with that out, they are doing it virtually. The first one scheduled is Resistance, with filmmakers Johnathan & Claudine Jakubowicz and star Jesse Eisenberg joining a Zoom conversation Sunday afternoon at 5pm. Pre-register here, watch the film on your VOD provider of choice, and enjoy the conversation!
  • The Regent Theatre has started a "Regent TV" weekly variety show, and continues its two virtual features, with Dosed including a Q&A on Tuesday at 8:30pm. WBCN and the American Revolution also continues, with a Q&A planned for 2 June.
  • Showcase Cinemas is also opening Military Wives and Fantastic Fungi, with The Mindfulness Movement, Capone, and Scoob! also continuing. And while none of their theaters are able to open, they are starting a pop-up drive-in series in the parking lot of their Foxboro location, with Raiders of the Lost Ark playing Saturday night and proceeds going to the Foxboro Food Pantry; tickets and snacks are on sale via their smartphone app.
Man… I'd normally be adding the outdoor screenings bit to this right about now, wouldn't I? Of the new stuff, I'll probably catch Lucky Grandma and The Painter and the Thief, with an eye toward things coming off the shelf.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 11 May 2020 - 17 May 2020

I think this is the first week of lockdown where I went in with the goal of actually watching a movie every night, and I think it went pretty okay.

This Week in Tickets

I started out by noting that the Brattle recommended Dave Made a Maze as their #BreakYourAlgorithm selection on Monday, and since I don't know that I'd seen it since it ran at BUFF, it seemed like a good thing to dive into. It is, as you might expect, still a bunch of fun, even if it's not quite the same when you're watching it in your living room by yourself, knowing what you're in for, versus getting hit by it with a crowd, but what is?

I actually tried to to watch a second movie Monday night but conked out, and decided that if I was going to do an "RIP Twilight Time" post, it would be with another movie, so I went with Model Shop, a Jacques Demy movie they put out which seems like it really should be in the Criterion Demy set since his early films have Marvel-style continuity, which I suspect might be a fun way to introduce today's binge-watcher to him as a filmmaker.

Wednesday night, I pulled an impulse-purchased disc off the shelf and did a double feature of Deluge & Back Page, although it was mostly about seeing the first after having seen clips posted and figuring, well, better see the whole movie. Not necessarily great stuff, but interesting since Deluge might be the first American post-apocalyptic movie, at least in terms of how we think of the genre, and I am kind of fascinated by sci-fi in the golden age of cinema. I'm going to have to dig into saturday serials sometime, since that appears to be where most of the action was.

Thursday evening I went with Knives Out, in part because I was falling behind in my blogging and figured sprinkling some stuff I'd already seen in there would slow that down. Besides, what's the point of buying these 4K discs if you don't occasionally marvel at how good this stuff looks.

The weekend wound up bringing a pretty decent slate of movies, or at least ones I wanted to see. I kicked that off with Free Country via the Coolidge and Geothe-Institut, which turned out to be a remake of a Spanish film I saw at Fantasia a few years ago. I'm guessing it's not quite so strong, but it's been long enough that I didn't immediately recognize everything. Saturday night, I started with Driveways, which is kind of terrific, and then decided to finish the double feature with On a Magical Night Turns out that the second would be a more natural double feature with Alice from the Somerville Theatre's offerings, although to be honest, Night was going to suffer in either pairing because both Driveways and Alice are really terrific.

Not nearly as much getting seen this week, but re-watches will probably show up on my Letterboxd page before here, though I'm not sure what the rest of the week looks like

Dave Made a Maze

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This was easily my favorite film from the Boston Underground Film Festival three years ago, and it's still kind of fantastic. It's impossible to get knocked flat by discovery and creativity the second time around, but some of the ideas and performances are still strong - it's a genuinely fun set of characters, from the most to least nuanced, and it's kind of a shame that Meera Rohit Kumbhani doesn't seem to have had any sort of breakout since. The craft is really great for something that was made on a fairly insane schedule.

The theme of it sits a little easier with me on a second viewing, with the inconsistency working a little more. At first, the film seemed to be wrestling a bit with not necessarily knowing how to say "some people just aren't artists, no matter how much they want to be, and that's okay". This time through, I get a bit more of a sense of the filmmakers talking about getting started - it can take a lot of false starts to find your medium, you maybe don't necessarily want to share those first attempts with others, and while it's important to finish, just so that you know you can do it, you may wind up losing or burying those first attempts. And, to repeat, that's okay

I think there's a bit of both in there, and maybe that makes for a muddled metaphor, but getting started is messy.

Full review from 2017

Knives Out

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

This 4K disc is pretty dang good-looking, the sort of thing that reminds me that what sits on my shelf is really competitive with what I saw in the theater. Just really gorgeous.

It's hopefully not too spoilery at this point to say that what filmmaker Rian Johnson does here makes it a bit more rewatchable than it might otherwise have been; he's pointed out that the plan was to put a Alfred Hitchcock movie inside of an Agatha Christie novel, so you don't get quite so caught up in either spotting where Johnson was trying to trick you or getting bored because scenes don't work if something isn't being held back. The movie is, in many ways, enjoyable the second time around in the same way it was the first.

And it's still great, full of fun characters and witty exchanges, and Johnson is really great at just knowing what he's doing. His movies aren't full of flashy camera moves or stylization, but they move quickly and feel slick and stylish without ever coming across as generic. The film may have a couple of spots where it hits a bump - although I kind of suspect that the Trump conversation will come across a bit more as a useful time capsule than an awkward attempt to be topical when we watch it ten years from now - but I really appreciate the way he knows how to use his tools well enough that he doesn't have to show it off.

What I thought last fall

Dave Made a Maze
Model Shop
Deluge & Back Page
Knives Out
Free Country
On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)
Alice (2019)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

L'infidélité française: On a Magical Night and Alice '19

I'm wondering if I would have actually put this together as a double feature if I'd realized that Alice was French, but the split probably worked well enough to keep my being more than a little disappointed in On a Magical Night from influencing my opinion of Alice too much. It would have been a lot of entitled schmucks cheating on their spouses for one night.

(My vestigial French was not much help, although I do find myself using "Chambre 212" instead of "On a Magical Night" in part because I didn't love the movie and thus kind of want to use the more neutral title, and liking that "Alice" is pronounced as "ah-lees" in French, especially because a supporting character is named "Lisa" and the names link better that way.)

They're both streaming "locally" - On a Magical Night in The Coolidge's virtual room and Alice in The Somerville's. I hope the latter gets a good boost from this sort of release; as a first feature for the director and apparently Emilie Piponnier's first starring role (though I expect her to have many more), it could easily get buried but is well worth discovering.

The only thing that really bugs me is that I feel like there's a movie I should be referencing when talking about Alice - a French New Wave classic about another young wife who works as a call girl in the afternoon - but its name is just out of reach. I'm going to feel really stupid when someone brings it up.

Chambre 212 (On a Magical Night)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

It's a rare film that's improvised or shot in sequence, and there's almost no way that On a Magical Night is one of them. Nevertheless, to watch it is to get the impression of someone having an idea, running with it, getting distracted, forgetting how all this works, and just winding up in a place that makes no damn sense whatsoever. And, sure, this isn't a movie one goes into with any sort of expectation of logical consistency, but this movie just completely loses track of what makes it work.

It initially introduces the audience to Maria Mortemart (Chiara Mastroianni), a forty-ish law school professor who beds her students casually enough that it never occurs to her that husband Richard Warrimer (Benjamin Biolay) has never done likewise, so when he gets upset at seeing texts from the amusingly-named Asdrubal Electorat (Arrison Arevalo) on her phone, she storms out in a huff, checking in at the hotel across the street. The room she's given affords her a view into their apartment, but that's not all - she finds herself visited by a younger version of Richard, from when they first met (Vincent Lacoste), Richard's first lover Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), who was also his piano teacher when he was an awkward teen, Maria's mother (Marie-Christine Adam), and the personification of her will (Stéphane Roger).

On a Magical Night (or "Chambre 212" in the original French) probably works best if one is not inclined to try and figure things out; as that sort of person, I spent a lot of time grumpy over how Maria's apparent hallucinations could know all of these things that come as a surprise to her, or apparently go on to act independently of her. Or, if this means that there is simply magic to this room, why? Does it happen to everyone who stays there, or does some sort of force aim to either fulfill the couple's fantasies (from Maria's point of view) or help them reconcile? Why?

After all, Maria is fairly awful, even if one is willing to give her extra credit for being a counter to the usual double standard where a man's cheating is minimized and a woman's is considered a betrayal. Chiara Mastroianni may manage that sort of aloof self-serving sophistication well enough to be entertaining, but she's got precious little opportunity to show that there's anything to Maria beyond it. It doesn't help any that she spends most of the movie surrounded by fantasies of people singing her praises or implying that she's not the one who hurt Richard the most - and, despite Camille Cottin giving the part far more than it deserves, the level of sympathy this film has for 40-year-old Irène taking a 14-year-old lover and grooming him does not help. And while Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Lacoste do fair work individually, they never once seem like the same person at different ages, and if that's deliberate, one would think that the film would actually do something with how Maria's vision of Richard when they first met is disconnected from the reality.

Every once in a while, the film will seemingly scold the viewer for taking it that seriously, and it's certainly not hard to want to go along with it, from the opening scene where Maria sighingly laments that she is a slave to her "anthroponymic fantasies to the increasingly absurd visitors she receives. The magical snowfall works in part because it seems like they are thoroughly unconvincing soap flakes, as is the delightfully unreal miniature shot of the street with the pair looming over it. There are plenty of moments scattered throughout when filmmaker Christophe Honoré hits on a winning combination of being drily funny, uninhibited, and poetic.

Despite that, it's almost impossible to ignore that the social elements that make that such a potent, enjoyably French sort of humor also allow toxic people like Maria to thrive, and there's an upper limit to the number of bon mots and farcical fantasies one might be willing to endure to spend time inside her head, especially as Honoré seemingly loses track of why he's in there in the first place.

Also on EFilmCritic

Alice (2019)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Vimeo via Roku)

"Alice" - whether referring to the film's title or its main character - is a lot of different things over the course of the film's running time, and what's really impressive is how well it manages to be all of them. Filmmaker Josephine Mackerras takes an idea that could be the plot of a sex comedy or a scathing critique, does a bit of both, and gets from one to the other in the smart way that acknowledges that all this stuff happens together.

Said stuff involves Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) being caught flat-footed at her family's bank account being empty, eventually discovering that husband François (Martin Swabey) spent it all on prostitutes and has now basically vanished with their apartment about to be foreclosed upon if she doesn't raise 8,000 euros in two weeks. She shows up at one of the services' recruiting days just to find out how much François paid each time, only to have proprietor Vera (Marie-laure Dougnac) decide she likes Alice's good-girl vibe and offer her work. A young veteran (Chloé Boreham) shows her the ropes, and maybe that will be enough to keep Alice and son Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras) from landing out on the street.

The opening stretch of this movie is genuinely stressful, ramping up from how, in the very first scene the pre-school-age Jules is demanding chocolate and François's arrival does not exactly make things less chaotic, even if they are all smiling. Mackerras uses moments like that to hint at cracks in the façade even as the content of such scenes are meant to scan as pleasant, but it's got the audience just enough on edge that, when the first penny drops, she's got momentum set up to make it much worse as François doesn't come home and the people at the bank are being condescending or patronizing and nobody will give her a straight answer. At a certain point, she seems to know she's laying it on a bit thick as she cuts off any other means of escape, having Alice react in disbelief as her mother suggests it's at least partly her fault, dropping "you did not just say that to me!" practically in unison with the viewer.

Said viewer will probably snort on hearing that a bit, but it shifts things just enough that, when Alice's first appointment becomes slapstick, it's okay to laugh, and actually laugh hard, because a lot of this movie is actually very funny. It's not all or even mostly risqué and physical, but one of Mackerras's great strengths here is keeping the absurd parts of Alice's situation just far enough in the foreground to make things chaotic and unpredictable without actually veering too far into farce that the less-amusing things that are bound to happen are out of place or jarring. That Alice occasionally seems to be in on the joke, making decisions in part because she knows they're ironic, actually helps out a lot at times, giving her a level of self-awareness that she didn't necessarily have at the start without this change draining any life from the movie.

Emilie Piponnier is the one that makes all of that happen on screen, the center of every scene and fantastic at showing both the stress of this strange situation and the curiosity it creates, giving the audience an Alice full of kindness but not foolishly so. She's excellent at showing the mounting stress on Alice in a way that doesn't really hit until Mackerras decides to fully pull back the curtain. She's got good support in Chloé Boreham, who makes Alice's new friend an entertaining foil, individual enough that her being named "Lisa" doesn't entirely define her as Alice's complement (it works a bit better with French pronunciation); while Martin Swabey does really nice work at depicting François as entitled and kind of pathetic without making him a cartoon even as his behavior becomes worse and Alice is able to see it more clearly.

There's a bit of shagginess that perhaps comes from being Mackerras's first feature, but the film is just as often impressively economical in its storytelling, such as how François's return resolves some issues but creates others. She and her crew do a number of little things that make the movie a little better in ways one might not necessarily notice, from the details of the business to the make-up work that on the one hand emphasizes Alice's growing maturity and on the other hand exaggerates and leverages how pale some members of this cast are. Conversations and arguments between Alice and François have bigger and more precise impacts from how one can see their faces flush, most obviously heightened by one client who initially seems aloof.

That bit is one of a number of details that makes this sometimes sparse, small film hold together exceptionally well; Mackerras and Piponnier make Alice's life harrowing and funny in a way that feels real as well as entertaining. The film is a small gem that will hopefully take advantage of the current theatrical shutdown to make it onto the virtual marquees of theaters that might not otherwise have room for it and create opportunities for both its star and director to have bright futures.

Also on EFilmCritic

Monday, May 18, 2020


The living room in which I watched Driveways is a bit of a mess, including a couple of Amazon boxes that sort of got dropped next to the armchair after I had extracted their contents and which, on occasion, make the opening of the door take a bit of effort, which is to say, I felt a bit accused as this film's characters arrived at a house and could not open the front door because it is so packed with junk. As you might imagine, I said something to myself about getting right onto dealing with it even before I started writing and saw just how well the filmmakers used the idea of tidying a place like that up as a metaphor throughout the movie.

I'm not sure how long it will stay in The Coolidge's Virtual Screening Room, as it's also available on other platforms, getting something like a simultaneous theatrical/VOD release, only without the theater, especially now that they've had their Q&A session with the filmmakers. It is, of course, worth kicking a few extra bucks their way, since this is a pretty darn great little movie that probably would have completely faded into the noise of dozens of independent films getting pushed to the on-demand platforms without a theater's curation.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

The easy way to make Driveways - or, at least, an easier way - would be to have the Korean War vet next door be angry, mean, and/or racist, but that's not what the filmmakers do, instead keeping an even keel and as such making it quite enjoyable to focus on the little details of the simple story.

That starts with single mother Kathy (Hong Chau) and her almost-nine-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) on the road to upstate New York, getting ready to clean out the house Kathy's late sister Alice lived in so that they can put it on the market. It's a daunting task - Kathy hadn't seen Alice in long enough to realize that she'd become such a hoarder that it would be impossible to even open the front door - and Cody's social anxiety has him buried in his tablet most of the time. The neighbors range from nosy Linda (Christine Ebersole) to octogenarian widower Del (Brian Dennehy), although the latter turns out to be fairly friendly, and the fact that he's not pushy about it puts Cody at ease much more than Linda's grandchildren.

Director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen don't spend very much time explaining the circumstances Kathy and Cody come from at the start, and it's not because they're saving it for some revelatory "this explains everything" moment later, but they drop little bits of information that let a viewer form a picture. There's arguably only really one "person X is like this because of reason Y" in the movie, and that's just plain useful, in some ways; it can be ridiculously easy to judge people both real and fictional, and the specific decisions that put Kathy and Cody in this seemingly itinerant spot, or left Del and some of his friends from the VFW relatively alone, could easily distract the audience from who they are now.

Instead, the audience watches Kathy methodically unpack a too-crowded house and gets some glimpses of Del doing the same, and it's interesting how this sort of thing becomes a theme. Alice died relatively young, and while there are half-hearted suggestions that this mass of things may have been a comfort to her, it's difficult not to see them as a burden, something which Kathy must dig through to eventually find something which reminds her of a happier time in her childhood, while the more emotionally sensitive Cody is at once more detached, having barely known Alice, but at some points more cognizant of what needs to be treated with a little more care and respect. Del's parallel journey is similar, but more reluctant; he's facing the inevitability of his life, and that of his late wife, being cleared out in a similar way and unconsciously trying to save the good bits - donating Vera's books to a library, or telling stories to Cody - as he sees his best friend decay. Meanwhile, off to the side, a couple kids mention that they found a big box of manga in someone's basement, and that bit of found/left-behind object may just wind up as important as anything else.

It's not a thing the characters talk about directly, which means one sometimes has to watch Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye kind of closely to see how they build Kathy and Cody. Jaye is a refreshingly average kid at the center of the film even though it's often tempting to dial up the issues written into his character up higher than he and Ahn do, so Cody's introversion feels defensive rather than pathological, and like something he's working through. Similarly, Hong Chau often gives off a sense that Kathy is still somewhere between doing what she thinks a good parent is supposed to do and having it come naturally. Brian Dennehy, meanwhile, gets to be a bit more expansive, and it's a delightfully warm part for someone who has spent much of his career playing tough guys, even if it perhaps uses those previous roles on occasion to imply that it took some work to become this better man.

That sort of work doesn't look like much at all, but it doesn't have to; Driveways doesn't stretch a moment beyond what it can support and is content to let a viewer relax and think about how it demonstrates kindness and awareness of these various sorts of burdens. It may not be dramatic in the conventional way, but there's a lot to be said for just quietly doing the work rather than trying to force a moment of revelation and change.

Also on EFilmCritic

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Free Country

Even if it's a $10 rental rather than a $5 ticket, I must admit, I kind of like having the whole weekend to see one of the German-language films that Goethe-Institut brings to the Coolidge rather than trying to get there at 11am on Sunday. The crowd would have been nice, but if the Red Line isn't running between Alewife and Harvard, it's just not happening. This may only be running on the Coolidge's site through Sunday (17 May 2020) evening, but if you're reading this Saturday night or Sunday morning, you can still catch it at its "proper" time!

I am, I must admit, a bit surprised that I didn't recognize the movie as it started, because usually with this sort of mystery thriller that gets remade across borders, I will have the moment where it starts to seem awfully familiar and then like a rewatch. I suspect that this didn't happen here because it's not really the twist or the mechanics that drives either Marshland or Free Country, but the setting of a place that has gone from dictatorship to democracy but doesn't necessarily trust it. It's a nifty dynamic that I wish Free Country exploited a little better, although, as I say in the review, maybe it does, if you're German. So often we see remakes that are either just franchising or otherwise banking on viewers not wanting subtitles, but if they're finely calibrating it to play for a given region, I find that fascinating and useful even if it tends to push me out rather than give me a chance to examine those differences.

Freies Land (Free Country)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Instiut German Film/Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

It's been a while since I saw Marshland ("La Isla Minima"), the Spanish film remade here, though I didn't recognize the connection as I watched the new version. It does, however, make sense in retrospect: Free Country plays like a story mapped and adapted to a similar situation, and does that well enough to work as a thriller but is perhaps not as incisive as the filmmakers intended it to be.

It takes place in 1992, soon after the reunification of Germany which has left the East in turmoil; it's no surprise teenage sisters Patricia and Nadine Kraft talked of leaving the town of Löwitz and going to Berlin. Their disappearance still must be investigated, with Patrick Stein (Trystan Pütter), recently reassigned from Hamburg in the West, and Markus Bach (Felix Kramer), from Görlach in the East, assigned to the case. They start by talking with parents Henner (Marius Marx) and Katharina (Nora van Waldstätten), and classmates including Nicole Liederbach (Alva Schäfer), who appears to be dating the "Handsome Charlie" (Ludwig Simon) that the older sister had been seeing. A so-called psychic provides one clue, but the investigation expands when new information comes to light.

Murder, after all, was the sort of crime committed in decadent capitalist countries, and swept under the rug in places like East Germany. Ideally, this would be the heart of the movie, with the squeaky-clean Stein having to deal with everybody in the area associating the police with the Stasi while Bach struggles with decreased authority, or directly confronting how the fall of communism and reunification has not necessarily made things better in places like Löwitz but instead given them capitalists who want to decrease their already-low wages while hiring Poles from over the border. To the extent that this is a factor, though, it seems to be one where a viewer might have to be a German of a certain age to see the nuances of it. Other than the most clearly-described instances, this tends to fade quickly into mismatched-cop territory, with a side of "city cop in a small town" - a clash of styles, but in the most familiar, generic manner.

With that the case, there's not a whole lot of room to make this more than a conventional "buried crime in the boonies" movie, and while the cast is good, it's an odd situation where trying to give them more to work with (some of it taken directly from Marshland) tends to highlight the thinness of the characters. Trystan Pütter and Felix Kramer are a good contrast as mismatched detectives, with Kramer seemingly more willing to dig into how these archetypes work better when played big, but the film too often sends them off in different directions rather than having them play off each other, and the little side-stories they get for character development feel a bit like busy-work. Most of the other characters floating around are fairly straightforward, although there's something interesting in Marc Limpach as the "journalist" who dreamed of being a reporter in a free country and now finds himself a crime-scene ghoul, even if he only rarely gets to lean into it. Some of the best work probably comes from Nora von Waldstätten as the girls' youthful mother - cowed somewhat by her husband but not timid and guilty that the desire for something more that she passed onto her girls may have gotten them killed. She tags along with Stein for little particular reason beyond having more of her in the movie at one point, and one wonders what this film might have been like had it focused on these two and how post-Cold War Germany was not what they'd hoped for.

The film is nicely put together in general, pushing through its somewhat workman-like police procedural methodically without ever getting bogged down or just doing it by the number, getting good, uneasy moments out of abandoned places while also using the spread-out nature of the area, much tied together through waterways rather than roads, to give the town character and make it feel like things can be just out of sight. Director Christian Alvart serves as his own cinematographer, and it probably helps the imagery to be a little more piercing than it might otherwise have been, serving up meticulously clean and tidy images of a hollow town.

It's quite possible that Free Country is a better remake than I can see because I am not the target audience - if Alvart and co-writer Siegfried Kammi took the original film and calibrated it precisely in such a way that it resonates with a German audience but not necessarily with an outsider like myself, then that's arguably exactly what they're supposed to do. It's still a decent thriller, even if I suspect that Marshland is the better version.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, May 15, 2020

At the slightest provocation: Deluge (and The Back Page)

Some people, when they see a cool clip of New York City being taken out by a tidal wave from a movie early in the talkie era, watch it, say "cool!", and then, like, move on to the next hundred things in their Twitter feed. I, apparently, stop it after fifteen seconds, saying I should probably see the whole thing, and see if the movie is on disc. It is - on Blu-ray, even! - so I order that and, a week and a half later, sit down and watch the movie. Then, because it was only an hour, watch the second feature that was included.

There are better ways to spend an evening, I suppose, but because these were 1930s B-movies, it only took about two and a half hours, total, and that's including the three disaster-movie previews included: Hurricane looks like some severely ugly exoticism, Avalanche made me smirk because I suspect we're supposed to cheer for Rock Hudson to get the girl rather than Robert Forster, and Meteor feels a lot like either a trailer that had to be released way before the effects were done or one that put every bit of effects work in the trailer.

As not-great as the main feature is, I still kind of love having it. As I mention here and here, and probably a lot of times before, I love and am fascinated by early-twentieth-century fantasies and science fiction, and discovering things like this always makes me wonder what could have been if more people were taking cracks at it. In this case, it seems to be one of about five films listed as "post-apocalyptic" on IMDB from 1935 or before. One was a German silent, and three were versions of the same thing, with It's Great to Be Alive the sound remake of Last Man On Earth (with an Italian remake as well), comedies about some guy who winds up isolated from the "masculitis" which killed off the rest of the male population. They are probably dire but I'd like to see them anyway.

Speaking of looking stuff up there, let me just insert this little reminder to never read the bio when you discover someone from early cinema who has a five or ten year career with prominent roles concentrated toward the beginning. You almost never want to know how that ends.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Deluge was not the first film to offer up the end of civilization as we know it on screen, but may be the first to do so in such spectacular fashion, even if the film itself was not a blockbuster or major release. It is, in fact, not far off from the end of the world tales that would appear more frequently decades later, just done in early-talkie style.

The exact cause of the disaster is not exactly specified (or may just tough to suss out with the way the first act is presented with not-great sound) - some combination of earthquakes and massive tides from an eclipse - but the result is a flood of Biblical proportions, wiping out first the west coast, then Europe, then causing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to overflow before a tidal wave finally hits New York. That's when the focus moves from frantic scientists to the likes of lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer) and his wife Helen (Lois Wilson), in a cabin upstate but thinking a move to a quarry would be safer; Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), who had been planning a record-breaking swim before the disaster; and then the likes of Jepson (Fred Kohler) and Norwood (Ralf Harolde), two toughs who find Martin's cabin later, or Tom (Matt Moore), the closest thing a small town has to a leader.

If Deluge is noteworthy for anything in 2020, it's the visual effects, but what's kind of fascinating is that it's in many ways an early primer on how to use them and where they may not convince. One may laugh at the miniatures which show the lines on which they will soon fall apart, but it's nevertheless fair work for the period, especially once a wave is in motion. The filmmakers are smart in how they deploy it, though, cutting to stock footage of actual fires and collapsing buildings and doing some strong matte work to get moving people in front of the destruction. The matte paintings and background work is solid throughout, in fact, enough to blend location and stage shoots better than other films that would follow later.

It also doesn't hurt that the film is pre-code, which not only means that Peggy Shannon can wash up on shore wearing nothing but her underwear twice, but that there can be a few bits of pretty nasty violence implied and shown. There's actually a fair balance between ruthlessness and sentimentality for a while, but eventually one has to give the film a lot of credit for what sort of novelty it must have been in 1933, because even by the standards of B-movie-makers not having a lot of practice, the script is a mess, throwing out a bunch of nasty villains and half-interesting ideas but not really having much idea of how to connect them other than happenstance, with the sort-of-interesting melodrama that the film has been building to eventually sputtering, like the writers didn't know what to do with a situation once they'd gotten there.

On top of that, this is one of those 1930s movies where the women are the first-billed stars but the filmmakers never really let them take control of the story. Peggy Shannon gets to play Claire as ambitious and brassy and is probably the best thing about the movie besides the special effects, and more than holds up her end of scenes with a baby-faced Sidney Blackmer, whose Martin is likably capable in action but bland through much of the film, especially when he needs to be feeling some sort of turmoil. Like much of the rest of the cast, he makes one appreciate how Fred Kohler makes Jepson an honest ogre.

Not bad for 1933 even if it's a novelty now, having been rediscovered after twice being thought lost. Its most impressive two minutes have been kicking around the internet recently, but the other 65 aren't exactly terrible, especially once you recognize that this came out mere months after the original King Kong and probably had less to work with.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Back Page

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Expectations were necessarily low for The Back Page - a feature film generally doesn't get relegated to the "special features" section of the Blu-ray of a film with whom it shares a cast member if it has a lot of individual merit - but I was unprepared for just how dull a bit of theater-filler this was. Even at just over an hour, it drags, and not just because I watched it as the back half of a double feature with disc-mate Deluge.

The funny thing is, it never feels like it has to be bad - the story of a reporter (Peggy Shannon) who gets fired from her big-city newspaper job and uses her ambiguous name ("Jerry Hampton") to get hired as the editor of a small-town paper and then uncovers the convoluted scheme to cheat the townsfolk out of the money they've invested in an oil well is a lot of material for a film that size, but not more than it can handle, and it only really feels sloppy when something loops around to suddenly connect the story Jerry was working on at the start to what's happening during the rest of the movie. It's absolutely one of those movies where more connects than necessary,

And yet, for having a halfway-decent script, the filmmakers don't seem to be confident in it. They spend precious time explaining situations that don't necessarily need it and, indeed, might be better if they just did the thing, like Jerry challenging her sexist boss and getting fired/blackballed for it, without a lot of pregaming. There's a whole lot of people explaining themselves rather than just showing how they feel or have changed over time, enough that it eventually feels like watching bad radio. Maybe the people who make movies for small studios like Pyramid Productions know what they've got to work with and are realistic about what they can get - and, maybe, what they can give. There's something to be said for clarity at the expense of style, but this seems to be an extreme case.

It starts to feel rough quickly, a bunch of stock characters playing off each other in uninspired fashion. Peggy Shannon hadn't necessarily felt like a star during Deluge, but she's weaker here, too desperate in her attempts to sound like a young go-getter and seldom able to find the sweet spot where we like Jerry rather than just relate to her, or think much of what she's got going with her boyfriend. The newsroom feels like types rather than personalities, a bunch of stock characters that never gel and could mostly be jettisoned. The story ends in a way that marks Jerry as clever but not the reporter who was too good and passionate for the big city.

Slogs like this are almost worse than disasters, because everybody just needs to be better, and not just a little better. Eighty years later, this is a Lifetime movie, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but even those just get the job done in a way this one doesn't quite manage.

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 15 May 2020 - 21 May 2020

It's kind of weird to read about the big companies starting to do the watch-at-home-and-give-the-theater-a-cut thing, although I guess it buys the studio some goodwill later on and, hey, if your local screen is a multiplex, you probably want them staying solvent too. We're lucky to have indie-programming indies in Boston.

  • So let's start with them and, as usual, The Coolidge Corner Theatre, which adds three new pictures to their virtual screening room. Driveways stars Hong Chau as a single mother cleaning up her late sister's house so that it can be sold, with Brian Dennehy playing the man next door in one of his last roles. Director Andrew Ahn, along with the writers and composers, will be doing a YouTube Q&A on Sunday afternoon, which can be accessed through the Coolidge's site.

    Also opening there this weekend is On A Wonderful Night, the latest from Christophe Honoré, with Chiara Mastroianni as a woman who walks out on her husband into the hotel across the street, with her room's window allowing her to see into the past. There's also documentary Up From the Streets, a documentary that recounts the history and culture of New Orleans through its music. Sticking around are Straight Up (with a filmmaker Q&A Tuesday night), What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and The Booksellers around.

    A few shows are only booked through the weekend, notably Geothe-Institut presentation Free Country, a thriller about German police investigating the disappearance of two teenage sisters in 1992, when most in the small formerly-East-German town distrust their likes even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two New York International Children's Film Festival programs of Kid Flicks (one for those 3 and up, one for 8 and up) also continue through the 17th.

    In addition to the other Q&As, the After Midnite crew has Akira Oni, who does a monthly drag-show introduction to their films, for their Saturday Night Instagram chat. The Week's Coolidge Education seminar has The Dying of the LIght filmmaker and Emerson educator Peter Flynn examining Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. Register, watch the introduction, stream the movie, and then circle back for a Zoom discussion on Thursday.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens Fourteen in their virtual screening room, which looks like an American take on SoulMate, following two young women who were best friends to start high school through the next ten years. The also keep Vitalina Varela, Thousand Pieces of Gold, Deerskin, and The Cordillera of Dreams.

    Their "Women of Sci-Fi" series/watchlist began on Wednesday with Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin and a bunch of nifty themed double features recommended through Tuesday. "Y'Know, For the Kids!" is now offering recommendations Tuesdays and Saturdays, with the most recent suggestions being Whale Rider and The Princess Bride; #BreakYourAlgorithm updates Monday and Thursday, most recently suggesting Ganja and Hess and Dave Made a Maze.
  • The Capitol has a Popcorn Pop-Up on Saturday, and will even sell you a Capitol tote bag to go with your popcorn, beverages, candy, and ice cream if you call ahead. Their virtual cinema continues to offer Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon. Over at The Somerville Theatre, the virtual cinema adds Alice, about a woman who enters the escort business after her husband's addiction to such leaves them broke, keeping Pahokee, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers around. Both are also participating in Magnolia's "A Few of Our Favorite Docs" series, where $5 both rents a movie and registers one for a Wednesday Q&A; this week's selection is RBG
  • West Newton Cinema is also part of the Magnolia docs program (with links to pre-order Life Itself for next week in addition to RBG), and has tweeted out a message about their own curbside popcorn-pickup for Saturday. Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers continue in the virtual room, as does their GoFundMe campaign, and "Local Hero" advance ticket sales.
  • The Regent Theatre has once again extended Fantastic Fungi through at least Wednesday the 20th, and has two other "virtual premieres": Dosed covers a larger range of psychedelic drug treatments, while IFFBoston alum WBCN and the American Revolution looks at the early days of the underground rock station; I'm guessing the $10.41 price refers to its original frequency. Both have filmmaker events planned for the coming weeks. They also would have been hosting the A-Town Teen Video Festival on Tuesday, but now their Facebook page will be one of the sites broadcasting/streaming the event.
  • GlobeDocs has another documentary feature tied to a Monday Zoom discussion this weekend; RSVP for Rewind, in which director Sasha Joseph Neulinger uses home movies to reconstruct a history of child abuse.
  • And, finally, back to those chains; Showcase Cinemas is kind of local (Massachusetts-based, at least), even if the closest locations to the city are a pain to reach on the MBTA, but the "Showtimes" tab on their website has links for The Mindfulness Movement, Capone, and Scoob!, if you'd like to kick a bit of cash to my employers during my college years.

This week I plan on checking out Driveways, Free Country, Alice, and maybe On a Magical Night, Up From the Streets, Fourteen, and Born in Flames and Advantageous from the Brattle's sci-fi program.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Model Shop (and adieu to Twilight Time)

Aw, heck. Everybody sort of knew that Twilight Time Movies was not long for the world - the founder passed away a few months ago, and the imprint had dipped licensed quite a few titles from 20th Century Fox, in addition to occasionally having other retail arrangements with them - and there doesn't seem to be much recovering from that. They'll be shutting down at the end of June.

In the meantime, everything is on sale, with Blu-rays running from $4 to $12, and while a lot of these things that were (generally) pressed in limited editions of 3,000 are already sold out, there are still a bunch of interesting items to be found in there. I ordered 16 discs this weekend, and while some of my past purchases have been things that I'm sure will find their way to disc again sometime in the next few years - although, truth be told, I'm not sure how things shook out that Walter Huston's Beat the Devil and Ang Lee's Sense & Sensibility fell to them to release in the first place - pretty much my entire order this time sort of fell into the category of "sure, why the hell not?" There's usually someone notable involved with these movies, but mostly these aren't major works.

(And, truth be told, not always that great - Plan A was for this entry to be Dragonwyck, but I conked out trying to watch it as my second movie on Monday night, and didn't really feel like restarting it right away!)

I wish I'd found them earlier, if only for the two or three 3D discs they did that sold out before I got my hands on them (I think I found them via Inferno but never got the chance to order The Mad Magician or Man in the Dark). And I kind of wonder what other specialty labels like this are around, flying under the radar. There seem to be a number in the UK (Powerhouse, Network, Second Sight), although you've got to pay attention to region coding in those cases.

Anyway, so long, Twilight Time. You've helped me be able to see some movies I never would have even considered otherwise on a format that makes it easy to lend if they're good. Hopefully someone picks up the ball soon!

EDIT: Apparently Screen Archives is purchasing the label, and will take over distribution and the website in July. Odds of reprinting many of these titles seem low - the licenses may have specified only 3,00 copies - but, hey, who knows?

Model Shop

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I wonder, a bit, if certain potential viewers might be more tempted to watch Jacques Demy's 1960s films (and then maybe dig deeper into his work) by having them described as forming a "Lolaverse" of sorts than by talking about the French New Wave and his particular style, just as a different way to introduce this particular slice of film history. If so, Model Shop must seem an odd end to the cycle - picking up half a world away in another language and hinting at other tales - but maybe by the time a viewer gets there, they will be more intrigued by Demy's style than rotating cast of characters.

This particular film is built around George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old who has quit his job at a Los Angeles architecture firm and shacked up with Gloria (Alexandra Hay), an aspiring actress who may come off as shallow but probably deserves better than how George treats her. As one day begins, the finance company is about to repossess his 1952 MG, but he pleads and gets the day to come up with the hundred dollars he owes. As he sets off to find someone to borrow from, his path crosses with a striking French woman (Anouk Aimée) twice, eventually following her into an establishment where one can rent a camera, room, and model to play at being a pin-up photographer, returning later after a bit of bad news.

Jacques Demy would make other English-language films in his career, but Model Shop is his only truly American film. It is, in fact, specific to the Los Angeles of 1969 from the very start, with George and Gloria living in a tiny shack with oil derricks on one side and the beach on the other, so that the world looks very different depending which window the camera is pointed at. From there, much of the action occurs in cars, with cinematographer Michel Hugo following along as Demy allows them to serve as avatars: The shiny MG that serves as George's identity on the verge of being whisked away, the white Mercury that matches Lola's dress, the fancifully-painted Volkswagen that a group of friends running a struggling alt-weekly pile into. Conversations are staged at stoplights or in parking lots.

The draft also hangs over George, an explanation at times for his impulsive, disconnected behavior; though he may later say that he never considered death before, it would make sense to suggest he had considered disruption. It's not easy to like George, and Gary Lockwood is not allowed to make him sympathetic for much of the film, highlighting the callousness and selfishness in the young man's distance. Even as he grows and gets some perspective by the end, it's uneven; he's been pointed in the direction of maturity but may have a way to go, and Lockwood's performance catches that. George doesn't change much, but Lockwood gives us just enough peek under the surface to give the viewer a sense of turmoil.

Anouk Aimée serves as a bit of a counterbalance; Lola is older and wiser enough to be wary of selfish young men but just lost enough herself to want what they can give her. She's properly magnetic but also a bit distracted; Aimée and Demy never let the audience forget that though she's further along than George, she hasn't figured that much out herself. Aimée and Alexandra Hay never share the screen, but there's an interesting comparison between their two characters, with Aimée's Lola calm and accepting even as she has little of her own and no clear direction while Hay's Gloria is intense and sometimes temperamental despite being in a better situation.

It's not material that overtly matches the fairy-tale imagery of Demy's most famous pictures, but he's certainly got a knack for how to use the environment to sort of crystallize Los Angeles for outsiders: There's information and context hanging in the air as the radio alternates between news about Vietnam, classical music, and pop by the band Spirit, who appear in the film as friends of George and thus serve as an early example of how not everyone his age is stalled-out. The plot is lightweight but never pushed as more than that, with Demy and editor Walter Thompson pulling off the neat trick of making the film feel like it takes place in real time even as it progresses from morning to night over an hour and a half. There's a nifty balance of cool and creepy to the model shop, especially as the familiar "girl walking guy down the dark passageway" shot leads to the fairly tame "bedroom set", though the focus on George hitting a button rather than composing a shot - does a nice job of showing how dehumanizing the activity is despite Lola's protestations.

Demy would not continue making films about Lola and the people in her orbit after this, returning to France and a decade of fantasies afterward. One wonders, a bit, how they would have fared, and what direction he might have gone had working with an American studio gone better (or, indeed, what direction film as a whole might have gone had he been able to cast Harrison Ford as George - would Ford have found a home in this sort of film and not wound up collaborating with a different George?). Those are intriguing questions that make Model Shop even more of an odd artifact, although one that still intrigues as his snapshot of this place and time.

Full review on EFilmCritic