Friday, July 31, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 31 July 2020 - 6 August 2020

Lots of places sending out links to Save Your Cinema right now, because things are starting to get tricky - because the state(s) can clear theaters to open, it's harder for them to tell their landlords, mortgage-holders, and the like that they can't bring money in, but both the restrictions they'ren under and people sensibly not wanting to go out, they're unlikely to make enough. So go to that site, let your Congresspeople know this is important, and hopefully there will be some assistance down the road as places try to figure out what comes next.

  • Meanwhile, The Coolidge Corner Theatre continues to rotate movies in and out of their virtual screening room, with this week welcoming three documentaries. The Fight is the first film to be granted wide access to the workings of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose workload has seemingly grown exponentially after the election of Donald Trump as president. In addition to regular rentals, distributor Magnolia Pictures is also presenting a live Q&A on Sunday evening with both the filmmakers and the subjects. They also open two "Cinema Jukebox" entries, with Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind and Marley profiling two very different musicians. They also continue the runs of Yes, God, Yes, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, six Sundance Film Festival Short Films, and John Lewis: Good Trouble.

    There's also a second weekend of Goethe-Institut selection Relativity, with the German film running through Sunday. The Coolidge Education seminar for this week has Emerson professor Yu-Jin Chang discussing Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite on Thursday evening (rent/watch the film and sign up for both the introduction and Zoom discussion).
  • The Brattle Theatre has recently been sharing pictures of the upgrades they're working on to be able to open safely, which will be tricky - the box office/concession area doesn't exactly have room for people to stand six feet apart. In the meantime, they're having a pop-up concession sale this weekend - order ahead at this page and they'll have popcorn, snacks, soda, beer, etc., ready for you during a specific half-hour window between 3pm and 6:30pm on Saturday. This should hopefully pair well with a Virtual Screening Room such as Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, and The Killing Floor, with 36Cinema's latest film-with-commentary, The Man From Hong Kong playing Saturday night.
  • Wicked Queer, the Boston LGBT film festival, has been going on for a week and continues through Sunday evening, and it looks like they've pivoted from having films playing specific days to most being available for the rest of the festival period.
  • The Somerville Theatre also brings The Fight to their virtual screening room, which also offers Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice. Their friends at The Capitol, in addition to having the ice cream shop open for snacks, have the "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their virtual theater.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open with $5 matinees that (if I'm reading this right) include popcorn and a soda. No new releases, but 2001: A Space Odyssey joins Casablanca,Motherless Brooklyn, Dolphin Tale, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz; buying tickets ahead of time is recommended with moviegoers required to wear a mask and keep distance between groups.

    The Lexington Venue remains closed with the website indicating a planned August 7th re-opening.
  • The Regent Theatre brings What Doesn't Kill Us back to their virtual offerings, along with Reggae Boyz and WBCN and the American Revolution. This week's Kalliope Reed Quintet concert streams on Friday night, with Bearly Dead streaming from their stage on Wednesday.
  • New York's Japan Cuts continues to stream through the 30th, while the Korean Cultural Center's Korean Movie Night continue through the 26th.

This week's plan is mostly to not let the discs from the annual Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection sale sit on my shelf for too long and maybe get a head start on the screener streams from Fantasia, although my plan is mostly to try and follow the schedule being released Thursday when I can.

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (aka Relativity)

I've been doing a ton of crosswords over the past couple months or so and yet I did not notice the wordplay going on and I feel a bit ashamed even if it was in German.

I probably should have connected viewing this to Amulet a little more explicitly; give or take 20 hours, they were seen back-to-back and are both women making their feature debuts with stories that use multiple timelines. What's kind of interesting is how they take the opposite approach; Romola Garai is so intent on making a thriller that she holds back to the point where it's hard to be interested in the situation while she's revealing it, while Minoguchi is happily willing to let the audience see the shape of the whole thing right away, even if it means there's not that much suspense even when people are pointing guns at each other. It's not often that such pairings present themselves in quite that sort of contrast.

LIke a lot of the Geothe-Institut films that have played The Coolidge's virtual screening room since the shutdown started, this was originally booked for three days but did well enough to come back for a second weekend, and while my initial thoughts on Sunday were a kind of weak recommendation, it's grown on me over the week, and worth checking out (and incidentally kicking some cash the theater's way) over the next couple of days.

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (Relativity)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

One of the first scenes in Relativity has doctoral candidate Aron (Julius Feldmeier) defending his thesis on how time's arrow is bidirectional, the future and the past part of larger patterns that can be extrapolated in either direction, which is somewhat fatalistic if you take it as meaning that the universe is a mechanism that has no room for free will. In a way, it serves more as instructions for watching the movie - though I'm not sure whether it means to treat Relativity as a puzzle to be solved or to not do that. It may just mean to look at the events as a sort of four-dimensional pattern, with only certain facets visible at once.

Aron is part of an exceptionally cute couple - his girlfriend Nora (Saskia Rosendahl) is not just similarly attractive but their areas of confidence and senses of humor line up nicely. His parents are warm and like her a lot; her mother is somewhat more prickly, not able to understand how Nora gave up the ice-skating she had spent so much effort on and now works in a supermarket. A mix-up with Aron's debit card has them in a bank just as it's being robbed, and when they try to call the police, chances of a long and happy life together go out the window. Elsewhere in the city, security guard Natan (Edin Hasanovic) has just received the news that his daughter Ava has an aggressive form of leukemia, the sort that requires an experimental treatment only available with private insurance, only to lose his job over a trivial matter soon after.

Attentive viewers will see how everything snaps together fairly quickly, and arguably too easily: Despite what I just said above about the film should probably not be approached as a puzzle box, writer/director Mariko Minoguchi isn't exactly laying everything out early and she's still structuring the movie around the audience realizing that this flashback involving Nora hooks into that bit with Natan. She pointedly has Aron advance the idea that déja vu is remembering the future early on but it's not something that anybody seems to personally experience. Having spent time moving up and down the chronology at will, bringing the movie to a climax is somewhat awkward, and she ends on a note that can sit wrong, that this is all just fate and intent is never as important as happenstance.

If that is the case, at least Minoguchi does interesting things illustrating it, especially early on, suggesting Irreversible as she starts to work backwards but makes sure that she doesn't limit herself to that early on, while consciously making sure that some bits of how the timelines connect remain a bit murky. It doesn't matter what Natan is doing during Nora's scenes and vice versa; their stories being intertwined is a much looser thing. She also uses that flexibility to show how one can get lost in time when grieving, deliberately stringing scenes together so that a jump backward could initially look like the next thing going forward, even as Nora hears Aron's voice. Looping back around seldom reveals new information - what the audience saw before was true, not just a limited perspective - but instead serves as a reminder, making it easier to piece things together without having to jump back.

Minoguchi is also impressive in how she builds out her characters' worlds without overwhelming or distracting the audience but also making it clear that, even if these moments are going to be turning points in their lives, there are large chunks of their experience which are not directly connected. Nora, Aron, and Natan are all carrying significant baggage, but loose ends are plenty acceptable here, and even the spots where Minoguchi opts to tie things up closely are more interesting coincidences than portentous, right down to using the film's original German title as its final line.

The cast is strong as well, with perhaps the most impressive thing being how well Saskia Rosendahl and Julius Feldmeier establish their pairing as more than just the adorable young lovers seen in the first couple of scenes - Minoguchi gives them the chance to show how they shore each other up and challenge each other, and it's an intriguing contrast for when Rosendahl has to play scenes along or against Edin Hasanovic's Natan; she's got the room to not entirely be one half of a whole. Hasanovic finds a good line to walk as Natan, making him the same guy in both his best and worst moments, not just someone whom circumstances pushed into being someone else.

They're good enough to make Relativity better than it seemed when I first realized that it wasn't going to do that much new with its story and conventionally-unconventional narrative tricks (much more so than the previous night's movie which did some of the same things but not as well). There's a fair amount of pleasure to be found in seeing Minoguchi and Rosendahl get most of the details right, especially once one decides to treat the film as one would a painting, turning your gaze to this part and that and enjoying those pieces even though you can easily step back and see the whole thing, rather than a puzzle where each part only makes sense when you slide the other bits into position.

Thursday, July 30, 2020


You know, I don't think I've seen I Capture the Castle since it first came out, and I can't say that I've seen or been enthused about much else that Romola Garai has done as an actress since (a lot of which just really hasn't grabbed a lot of theatrical or basic-cable real-estate on this side of the Atlantic), but I see that she's written and directed her first feature and my eyebrows go up.

I did not much care for it, unfortunately, and tapped out after about thirty seconds of the post-film discussion included when you rent it via the Somerville Theatre's virtual cinema (it was also late after my second movie of the night). But, like I mention, there's enough done well here that I'm interested to see what Garai does, especially if her next project is in a different genre and she doesn't feel quite so much need to save things for later. The hold-back and reveal is a tricky thing, and not everybody gets it on the first try.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre virtual screening room, Eventive via Roku)

It's always worth asking what particular thought is the one which drove the creation of a movie. Is it a metaphor, a twist on familiar tropes, a particular image, or scene, or potential performance? Or are people just making movies because it's their job and this keeps them employed? Amulet never fully seems to be that, but seldom offers much more than just people doing their jobs in capable but not exactly inspiring fashion.

It centers on Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a veteran of a Central-European conflict currently living rough and doing day labor in England. An injury has him in hospital where he's visited by Sister Clare (Imelda Staunton). She introduces him to Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman living alone but for her sick mother and a bit overwhelmed caring for her. He needs a place to stay, she has an extra room and could use some help with the large and ramshackle old house, so it's a good match. Except, of course, that most people caring for an ailing parent don't have them locked in the attic.

There's some potentially interesting things to dig into here - Magda, as a dutiful daughter who is sacrificing any semblance of a life of her own to take up the burden of her mother's care; Tomaz, who is haunted by events during his service that have some parallels with his current situation - but writer/director Romola Garai often keeps the material that could resonate at arm's length. She's making a thriller and has no problem pointing out that something strange is going on, but by keeping things mysterious, she's often not giving the audience enough interesting nuggets to be drawn in and feel like there's something resonant just out of reach, rather than just details the audience is not being told. It feels like she's biding time and when it finally comes time to pull back the curtain, what's behind doesn't mean a whole lot. There are secrets and lies but they are arbitrary, not close enough to the situation Tomaz thinks he's in to make it clever.

It's striking to look at, although that imagery has some of the same issues as the script: There's ambition behind it and it pops out as mysterious and not-quite right, but it winds up more recognizable as scary than actually frightening. Garai and her team (notably cinematographer Laura Bellingham and editor Alastair Reid) spend a lot of time in the early going making a feature that feels like a short film, with shots held in ominous quiet for a moment two longer than they might be, sacrificing some sharpness and letting the color fade a bit to signal an oppressive atmosphere and a working-class simplicity that should help the audience get in their corner. The more overt material is well-executed too, with some quality grotesquerie and a trippy sequence or two.

The cast, at least, is doing good work. Alec Secareanu finds ways to make the broken, nervous Tomaz appealing and form a strong connection between how the man appears as both a young soldier and the veteran who has seen more. He doesn't have a lot of lines but manages to be just twitchy enough to make it work without screaming "acting!" Carla Juri is good as well, finding the right mix of guilt and resistance to keep her alone in this house. Imelda Satunton's Sister Claire is obviously there to be more than just get Tomaz into Magda's house, but doesn't insist on being more early on and clearly has fun when she gets the chance.

They're good enough and there's enough going on that I'm sure that this movie will click with some people, or the icky stuff will catch them just right. It didn't for me, and the determination to keep things mysterious had me bored enough that things getting weird toward the end wasn't enough to bet me back into it. There's enough pieces of a good movie here that Amulet is hard to actively dislike, but it would be a lot better if Garai didn't hold so much back for so long rather than just banking on how it looks like a smart horror movie.

Also available on eFilmCritic

Friday, July 24, 2020

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

Anybody else out there plotting out how to go to a movie in the next few weeks without compromising principles too much? I'm doing some heavy rationalization involving how not a whole lot of people are as into the movie I'm targeting, that I like sitting much closer to the screen than everyone else, and that I will absolutely suck M&M Minis through a straw rather than take my mask off. It's probably not smart, and I'll probably reconsider when the time comes, sticking to what I can see at home for a little while more.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has a fairly hefty amount of turnover on that count, having ended several runs but opening a few more. Yes, God, Yes stars Natalia Dyer as a teenager coming of age with a whole bunch of Catholic guilt about the process, and the theater will livestream a Q&A with writer/director Karen Maine about it on Tuesday evening. They also open Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, the latest documentary about an iconic fashion photographer to hit screens. They also get a collection of six Sundance Film Festival Short Films, with the mix of narrative/documentary/domestic/international pieces running 80 minutes total. Also sticking around are Runner, the Alex Cox Double Feature of Highway Patrolman & Straight to Hell, John Lewis: Good Trouble, and Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things.

    They also partner with Goethe-Institut to host Relativity, where love at first sight is cut short only to have a strange sequel, from Friday to Sunday. The week's Coolidge Education seminar spotlights Clueless, with Simmons professor Audrey Golden offering both introduction and Thursday night discussion for those who register.
  • The Somerville Theatre adds horror movie Amulet (including a post-film discussion with writer/director Romola Garai) to its virtual cinema, joining John Lewis: Good Trouble, Shirley, Alice, Pahokee, and the Quarantine Cat Film Fest. Sister cinema The Capitol stands pat with shorts package "One Small Step", the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their the virtual cinema and ice cream shop/concession stand open.
  • The Brattle Theatre and Massachusetts Historical Society are ingfinish their "Boston on Film" virtual series with a bonus third "half" that focuses on independent and genre films including Next Stop Wonderland, Funny Ha Ha, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Children of Invention, Session 9, and The House by the Cemetery, with a final double feature being announced Saturday morning. The Virtual Screening Room stays its course with Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, and The Killing Floor.
  • The Brattle would normally be one of the main venues for Wicked Queer, the Boston LGBT film festival, which has instead pivoted to an online model for 2020. Note that films are only available to stream within a 24-hour period, with the cutoff for purchase three hours before the end.
  • The West Newton Cinema is also open again this weekend, and likely into the week even if showtimes are not yet listed. They add Casablanca and Motherless Brooklyn to a slate featuring John Lewis: Good Trouble, Dolphin Tale, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz, with the latter three (at least) offering $5 tickets as part of a family fun day on Saturday, with curbside popcorn pickup if you order by 10am. Their GoFundMe campaign also continues.

    The Lexington Venue does not seem to be open this weekend based on their website, with the next scheduled opening August 7th.
  • The Regent Theatre still has Reggae Boyz and WBCN and the American Revolution for virtual movie offerings, the Kalliope Reed Quintet concert streaming Sunday night, and a GoFundMe campaign.
  • New York's Japan Cuts continues to stream through the 30th, while the Korean Cultural Center's Korean Movie Night continue through the 26th.

There's baseball to watch and the "Boswords" crossword puzzle tournament, but I'll likely try and catch Relativity, Amulet, and maybe some of Japan Cuts around that and the shelves full of Blu-rays that dominate my living room.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Looks like this is one week and out in the Coolidge's virtual room, so if you're reading this on 22/23 July 2020, watch it now, if you feel like it might be your thing. Like I say in the review, I don't know how much new material I actually learned from it - I didn't know much about Denise Ho, but I'd known some of the basics of the Hong Kong protests - but it does a nice job of sorting it out and putting it in place, which is valuable.

One thing I found kind of amusing is that the film more or less skips over the fact that, like her mentor and idol Anita Mui, Denise Ho has been an actor as well as a pop star, something not exactly unusual in Hong Kong, and after following some links through her IMDB entry and my own reviews, I saw that I'd liked her in Life Without Principle. I suspect that, like the rest of her entertainment career, she wound up shut out from even Hong Kong productions via companies' self-censorship. I absolutely see why you don't include that part of her career in an 85-minute movie, but I was amused, because I was just having an online conversation about how the line between "pop star" and "movie star" is much more porous in Asia than it is in the English-speaking world.

I probably give this a bit of extra credit because not only do I love Hong Kong and regret how, if I ever get to go back, it won't be the same, but apparently she spent her teen years in Montreal, where I should be right now. This is just a frustrating part of the 21st Century all around.

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Kino Marquee via Roku)

Those looking for an easy entry into just what's going on in Hong Kong right now could do a lot worse than starting with Denise Ho: Becoming the Song, in large part because filmmaker Sue Williams presents it as something inextricably intertwined with her subject, not just necessary background or something on which an ignorant audience must be educated.

Williams starts with news stories about Denise Ho Wan-Si (also known as "HOCC" to her fans) being banned in mainland China due to her support of the "umbrella movement" and the later protests against a broad extradition law in Hong Kong before both showing how she arrived in that position and how she works as both an activist and entertainer. It is, in large part, told from Ho's point of view - not only is she an active participant in the film, giving Williams a great deal of access, but very few of the other people interviewed talk much about her life, with even her brother mostly talking about their musical collaborations. Most of the other people interviewed discuss the greater forces around her.

It is a story that spans the globe while also being grounded in this area that is but a dot on a world map, and in that way makes her representative of Hong Kong itself. Williams uses that to push back into the 1980s, when Anita Mui Yim-Fong was becoming the region's biggest star by fusing Western-style pop and Cantonese lyrics into "canto-pop" right around the same time that Great Britain and China were codifying their plans to return Hong Kong. Ho's parents, teachers, were among the many that obtained foreign passports and emigrated (to Montreal), though she would return in search of a music career and mentorship from Mui. As her "disciple", Ho would spend a great deal of time after in Mui's early death following in her footsteps before carving out a persona more explicitly her own and building a Mandarin-language career in the mainland until her outspokenness destroyed that and self-censorship by Hong Kong and international businesses did the rest. It's a fine line between presenting Ho's experience as a typical parallel for what's going on in Hong Kong as a whole while still acknowledging that she's a rock star and her version of it is larger than life.

That said, a large part of what makes the film enjoyable is how pleasant a personality Ho is on-screen. Both her work protesting and managing a music career - whether in terms of creating or managing the nuts and bolts of a tour without a record-label support system - display a humility that doesn't seem performative or unnatural. She never pretends to be confused about why someone would make a movie about her and has clearly put some thought into everything she says and does, without seeming calculated. It's often a fine line to walk between being artistic and pragmatic, and it makes the film go down easy. Most of the other people interviewed, from fellow entertainer Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming to former government officials and academics, have a similar sense, very affable and passionate but firm rather than fiery.

Williams puts it together well, tending to show something for long enough for the audience to get the idea and then clarifying and filling in details rather than building up to a revelation or explaining something that was vague enough to leave the audience confused, making the information dumps entertaining but serious, accommodating those who are just learning about all of this while acknowledging that most watching probably have some sort of existing interest in the subject. She chooses good performance footage to get the emotion across to viewers who only speak English. What the subtitling crew does can seem a little cutesy - text made to look handwritten that appears in different areas of the screen - but it's readable and keeps one's eyes from settling at the bottom of the screen.

I don't expect Becoming the Song will be the sort of documentary that has a huge impact on many viewers; it's the sort of thing where one has to have some sort of prior interest to find it in the first place and it's built more to fill in gaps rather than shift perspectives. It's well put-together and goes down easy, with just enough meat to it that most watching it will come away knowing a little bit more, a bit better able to research further and understand what's going on as the situation keeps evolving.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, July 17, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 17 July 2020 - 23 July 2020

No movies here in Somerville until at least August, they say. Still very little for those willing to get on a train/bus/taxi, but because other places are less cautious, a bit of a slowdown in the virtual releases.

  • They're not that much slower in sheer numbers at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has three new offerings, two of them documentaries. Runner tells the story of Guor Mading Maker, a refugee from Sudan who fought to be able to participate in the Olympics under the new flag of South Sudan, not yet recognized by the IOC. There are perhaps parallels to be found in Denise Ho: Becoming the Song, whose subject is an uncloseted Cantopop star who, like many in Hong Kong, has turned to activism as the Special Administrative Region's autonomy and identity has become increasingly threatened.

    Or is it four films opening there, as one of the new additions is an Alex Cox Double Feature or Highway Patrolman & Straight to Hell, a collection of two of the cult director's lesser-known works followed by a 20-minute Q&A. Aside from those, We Are LIttle Zombies, Never Too Late, No Small Matter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, and Miss Juneteenth also continue. The week's Coolidge Education selection is The 25th Hour, with pre-show lecture and Thursday evening seminar led by Time's Stephanie Zacharek.
  • The Brattle Theatre and Massachusetts Historical Society are continuing their "Boston on Film" virtual series, with the second half will featuring stories from the academic and upper-class side of the city. They'll be revealing new entries every morning at 10:30am through Tuesday - you can catch up with Love Story, The Paper Chase, Legally Blonde, and Now, Voyager - with a panel discussion set for Thursday evening.

    This week's show in collaboration with Movie Night is It's a Disaster, with the dark comedy about a group of friends who find their city attacked during their normally snarky brunch streams at 8pm on Friday, followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew (The Luna Theater is also an option, if you live in/near Lowell and would like to support that theater). The Virtual Screening Room also continues to host Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, and The Killing Floor.
  • Based upon their showtimes, it looks like The Lexington Venue is only open Friday through Sunday for the time being, with Irresistible on one screen and Once Were Brothers and Emma on the other. Their special premiere of "25: Tony Conigliaro - The Documentary" has been bumped up from one show on Saturday to three on both Saturday and Sunday, which is in total probably as many people could pack one house under normal circumstances. They'll also be showing anime feature My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising at 12:30pm on both days
  • The West Newton Cinema is also opening for the weekend, with shows on four of six screens with 25 people each: John Lewis: Good Trouble, Dolphin Tale, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz. They are also offering "drive-in concessions"; have phone orders in by Sunday afternoon for pick-up on Monday. Their GoFundMe campaign also contiues.
  • No changes at The Somerville Theatre, with John Lewis: Good Trouble, Shirley, Alice, Pahokee, and the Quarantine Cat Film Fest in their virtual cinema; same for sister cinema The Capitol with shorts package "One Small Step", the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their the virtual cinema but the ice cream shop and concession stand open.
  • The Regent Theatre is down to Reggae Boyz and WBCN and the American Revolution for virtual movie offerings to go along with another Kalliope Reed Quintet concert Sunday night and a GoFundMe campaign.
  • For those who (like me) are missing the festival experience, New York's Japan Cuts - which has often partnered with the New York Asian Film Festival for the back half of their Japan program - is virtual this year, and while it doesn't quite have the sort of genre slate that NYAFF featured, it does have some notable entries: Yoji Yamada returning to the series that defined his career (to the point where Twilight Samurai seemed like a metaphor for not doing it) for Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, the 50th and final entry; Labyrinth of Cinema, the final film from the late Nobuhiko Obayahi, best known for House; Special Actors from One Cut of the Dead director Shinichiro Ueda, which is apparently just as meta and multi-layered; along with 7 other features, plus shorts and documentaries. The Korean Cultural Center there also has two fun Korean Movie Night programs through the 26th, one featuring ten recent hits and another featuring three baseball-themed movies. On the other side of the country, L.A. 3-D SPACE has another block of 3D short films on their calendar for Sunday, but as yet no placeholder on their YouTube channel.

I can't quite justify the bus rides out to Lexington or Newton quite yet, but I'll probably catch Denise Ho and Runner while seeing what I can get off my shelf and DVR.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 6 July 2020 - 12 July 2020

Love not feeling great at this particular point in history!

This Week in Tickets

I mean, I knew I wasn't sick in any sort of dangerous way - something on the pizza I made one night had probably been in the fridge too long after being opened (a thing that happens when you live alone and try not to hit the grocery store every other day), so it had me feeling lousy after eating it and watching Shanghai Triad, I slept lousy, thought I was doing okay the next day but had to lay down for a while, then had to make those hours back up at work later in the week. Totally knew that was what it was, but you can't help but get a little more tense about such things right now.

The movie? Good! After all, even lesser Zhang Yimou is pretty good, and this was him in his early Gong Li-starring run, with a sting you don't notice until you've had a bit of time to sit with it. I'm more than a bit curious how Zhang's films will get rolled out once China gets serious about re-opening theaters - some things have had whole year delays, others have gone to VOD, and who knows how getting released in China will translate to coming to North America, as Zhang's last, Shadow, skipped its National Day day-and-date and got a more mainstream release.

The only other movie-watching I did over the weekend was to drop Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse into the player for the first time. Surprise, it is still pretty great.

Sunday, I got the PUZ files of the last three years of the Boswords crossword tournament, and I have no idea how well I did on solving them. I got mostly scores in the 3000 range, according to Across Lite, but have no idea if that's "OK for someone who hasn't been solving much in the past few years", "respectable", or "contender". Guess I'll find out in a week and a half!

Got something a bit more ambitious planned for the next couple of weeks, so there will be stuff on my Letterboxd page, even if it's mostly just logging. Wish I could be in Montreal!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I think that this is the first time I've seen the movie flat, as both times I saw it in theaters were in 3D, and it's a thing that I couldn't help thinking about while watching it, because the animation style is very much designed so that you will notice where things are in terms of distance even without the glasses. On the 4K disc, the sharpness and bold color accentuates that, giving a feeling of depth. It also just highlights how gorgeous a movie it is: Detailed while still being cartoony, packed with creativity and detail despite never being too overwhelming, able to make deliberately different styles work together.

Some of the details show a little more wear on multiple viewings, although far less so than one may expect from this sort of fantasy - you can more often see the elegance of how Miles having a supervillain uncle is not just an ironic coincidence. I like the material with Peter B or Miles making fools of themselves with women less and less each time, but that's the sort of cringe-y stuff that I never really go for, and it's a part that gives the movie something for everyone.

It's telling, I think, that while ordering other stuff on Amazon that day, I stumbled on a decently-priced copy of the 3D disc from the UK and ordered that. As much as I know 3D has become a complete niche item in the USA (for no good reason! 4K sets have the high frame rate and Bluetooth needed to manage 3D!), it's still annoying that I have to double-dip across continents to get both the hi-res and 3D versions of a movie, although this is definitely one where it's worth the extra money and shelf space.

What I thought the first time and the second

Shanghai Triad
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Not all my rentals from the Brattle's virtual cinema have been about Chinese people, but this is the third, with two others also foreign-language, which is kind of peculiar. Small samples do weird things, especially when you're someone who already tends to watch a fair amount of Chinese cinema.

It's interesting, though, because seeing Zhang Yimou's Hero at the Brattle with some post-film chat is one of the first times I recall thinking that it is worth a little effort to try and parse what's going on in Chinese movies a little more closely as it dawned on the group that Zhang, after years of doing the sort of pointed satire that sometimes gets past his country's censors and sometimes becomes a fight, had made something more than a bit nationalistic. It's been an interesting ride for Zhang since then, as part of the reason he's got a backlog right now is that he's apparently still capable of getting the film censors upset, even if he was recently the guy the country chose to stage their Olympic ceremonies. That board is fickle.

I wonder what their predecessors made of this, which is set safely pre-revolution and thus can easily play as the decadent criminals who collaborated with western invaders pre-revolution, but it's also not hard to see the Tangs as the establishment that just can't be questioned, ready to grind everyone down. Not that Zhang can exactly say that now, but it's the sort of thing that makes a movie both interestingly universal and pointed, even if deniably so.

Yao a yao, yao dao wai po qiao (Shanghai Triad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Film Movement Plus via Roku)

Director Zhang Yimou had one of the first high-profile films delayed by the pandemic when Wuhan torpedoed the Lunar New Year releases, and between being in the middle of a fairly productive run on the one hand and some issues with his country's bureaucracy on the other, he may have three lined up and ready to go by the end of 2020 while the closest thing his films get to a release this year is this film's 25th-anniversary restoration and re-issue playing independent theaters' virtual screening rooms. That is, admittedly, decent compensation under the circumstances, much better than people are getting otherwise.

It opens with 14-year-old Tang Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) arriving in 1930s Shanghai via boat, to be met by his uncle Liu (Li Xuejian), who himself arrived this way years ago because the city's biggest crime boss (Li Baotian) is a Tang and finds seeding the organization with extended family is good for security. He does have two unrelated lieutenants - Mr. Song (Sun Chun) and Mr. Zheng (Fu Biao) - and a beautiful lover in the headliner at the city's most popular club, "Bijou" (Gong Li) - or "Miss", as Shuisheng is instructed to call her when he's assigned to be her servant. It's not a job he particularly welcomes, but it will get thrown for a loop soon enough, as somebody gets a little too violent in his ambitions.

Very soon, as the days over which the film takes place are literally numbered on-screen. Those numbers are, of course, relative to his own arrival, as it's clear from the gangland hit that he witnesses before even being told what his job is going to be that the various threads of this story stretch well back in time and are set enough that they can go on indefinitely, regardless of what viewers may know of later events. The count just signals the steady, relentless nature of Tang's business world, such that even when the situation is violent and chaotic, things are preordained and part of a known pattern.

Some crime stories will find comfort and warmth in that, but Shanghai Triad is not that type of movie. Shuisheng picks up on Liu's contempt for Bijou early and soon acts on it, while she is well-aware that her status is extremely transactional, down to the songs she is allowed to perform on stage. She's got her own disdain for those who haven't acclimated to city life as enthusiastically as she has, while the gangsters… They're gangsters - amoral by nature, looking for an angle. Zhang and screenwriter Bi Feiyu calmly but ruthlessly gut and invert the found-family narrative present in many crime movies, with the family ties upon which Tang has built his empire proving either meaningless or a crassly exploited tool, and nothing else there to supplement them.

It's an infection, really, one which Shuisheng sees most clearly when circumstances force a retreat to an isolated island and the gang's malign influence slinks nearer to widow Cuihua (Jiang Baoying) and her daughter Ahjiao (Yang Qianquan), normally the only inhabitants. As the film goes on, Bijou becomes more central and at least a little more superficially sympathetic as she starts to consider who she is and has been, dressing up as the country girl she once was but can no longer pass as. She puts on a show for a living but neither she nor Shuisheng exactly notices how the posturing and misdirection in Tang's business is its own kind of performance.

Bringing Bijou toward the forefront is inevitable in some ways - star Gong Li had been at the center of all Zhang's films to that point, although they would not re-unite for another ten years after this one, by which time Zhang's focus had shifted to gaudier spectacles. It's an intriguing role to herald that sort of split, one where she can no longer play the ingenue but where she is able to add new layers to the character as the film demands without ever losing track of where she started out. The filmmakers are not particularly subtle in positioning Yang Qianquan's Ahjiao as a possible reflection of who she was as a girl or Wang Xiaoxiao's Shuisheng as her complement - the innocent wants little other than to earn enough money to return home and start a modest business - although the young actors do that well enough that it needn't be underlined to the extent that it is. Li Baotian's Tang may be the third member of the film's leading "triad" along with Bijou and Shuisheng (if the title is meant to have a double meaning), though he spends much of the film passing in and out of scenes, but the actor sure does create an impressive picture of nasty rot when the time comes. So does Li Xuejian as Liu, though his toadying and resentment is of a different sort.

The film wraps in a way that is decisive but quiet, not the spectacle Zhang would later go in for, but if that's disappointing, remember the numbering of the days: Tang's organization and his machinations to stay on top are a machine that grinds remorselessly along, grinding down the obstacles in its way, and how could it do otherwise. That indifference to the melodrama and heartbreak it leaves behind is what makes it a frightening thing, even if it's not as obviously exciting as some other films.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, July 10, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 10 July 2020 - 16 July 2020

Some cities are allowed to open theaters now, but from what I can tell, most are playing it safe, either because it's impossible to make a profit given the restrictions or to keep idiots like me from being lemmings. Which means that the virtual releases are hitting actual theaters in less-conscientious areas.

  • One of those is We Are LIttle Zombies, an eccentric story of four Japanese tweens who meet at the crematorium after being orphaned, run away, and become a pop sensation; it played Fantasia just about a year ago and while it's rough in spots it's generally memorable in a good way. That's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has a couple more: Never Too Late stars James Cromwell as a man who once escaped a POW camp but is now trapped in a retirement home, while No Small Matter focuses on the other end of a person's life story, focusing on the impact of early childhood education. The latter film will be the subject of a panel discussion on Tuesday evening, while John Lewis: Good Trouble gets one on Wednesday. Other films still offered in the screening room are Beats, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, The Last Tree, and Miss Juneteenth. The weekly Coolidge Education program will cover Daughters of the Dust, with academic Kyéra Sterling offering an introduction and leading a post-viewing seminar on Thursday.
  • The Brattle Theatre and Massachusetts Historical Society kicked off a "Boston on Film" virtual series on Wednesday, with this first half focusing on the city as a setting for working-class/crime stories, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Town, Blown Away, Lift, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Knives Out, Good Will Hunting, and Manchester by the Sea. The second half will feature academic and upper-class stories; keep watch on the Brattle's site to see if it will also include a Thursday-afternoon panel discussion as the 9th did.

    Friday evening, they have two one-off virtual experiences: Movie Night is hosting a special stream of John Lewis: Good Trouble at 8pm, followed by a Q&A with director Dawn Porter and with a portion of the proceeds going to the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund. Furie at 9:15pm is decidedly at the other end of the spectrum, with Veronica Ngo as a debt collector punching her way through a Saigon organ-harvesting ring to rescue her daughter; it's presented with commentary by Warrington Hudlin and Lady Sensei. The Virtual Screening Room also continues to showcase Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, The Killing Floor, the Pioneers of Queer cinema group (Mädchen in Uniform, Michael, and Victor and Victoria), and Shirley.
  • The Lexington Venue is open! The two-screen cinema out in the burbs has Jon Stewart's Irresistible downstairs and splits the upstairs screen between Once Were Brothers and Emma. Short subject "25: Tony Conigliaro - The Documentary" is on the schedule for one show on the 18th, although I suspect that they would be well-served to add another show or two if places are still limited to 25 people by then.
  • The Somerville Theatre has John Lewis: Good Trouble, Shirley, Alice, Pahokee, and the Quarantine Cat Film Fest in its virtual cinema; sister cinema The Capitol has the ice cream shop open (from 2pm to 9pm) but is still limited to the virtual cinema with shorts package "One Small Step", the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time.
  • The Regent Theatre is still running What Doesn't Kill Us, Reggae Boyz, and WBCN and the American Revolution virtually, along with a Sunday night Kalliope Reed Quintet concert and a GoFundMe campaign.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues their GoFundMe campaign.

Am I going to head out to Lexington just to experience seeing a movie again? Not for Irresistible! But I will be sorely tempted if they're the only place open when the Train to Busan sequel comes out (though it doesn't seem to be their thing). I will try and catch Never Too Late and can heartily recommend We Are Little Zombies.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 29 June 2020 - 5 July 2020

Holidays are weird in general right now, but this one seems like it was just set up mess with me.

This Week in Tickets

So, the actual holiday is on a Saturday, so my employer gives us Friday off, and then has an early end-of-day on Thursday, but it all feels like a long regular weekend because all the stuff that would usually go with the Fourth aren't happening because nobody is crowding onto the Esplanade yet. I don't know to what extent a lot of people are for a "USA, yeah!" festival given how we're kind of not in great shape right now and the reasons for that.

That early day on Thursday without necessarily needing to get up the next morning gave me plenty of time that evening to go for a double feature I'd been planning for a while: City Without Baseball & Dealer/Healer, just under the wire before the Red Sox started their "summer camp". It turned out not to be a particularly clever one - though they share a director, he's not exactly an auteur, as likely as not just brought in to be a steady hand for rookie filmmaker Scud. It's interesting, at least.

Friday evening's movie was part of the "don't let it even make it to the 'unwatched' shelf" effort, in this case the new Blu-ray of Narrow Margin, which I hadn't seen for years but quite liked when I first saw it on video in high school or college. I may have only just watched the original version for the first time about eight months ago (and am somewhat shocked to see that the only way to purchase a physical copy is a discontinued noir box set), but they turn out to be a nice pair, both high-quality examples of b-movies for their period.

That gets us to Saturday and the Fourth of July, and obviously that night's movie is going to be Jaws. Normally, the Brattle would be building a week of "nightmare vacation" movies around showing it on 35mm film, but that's obviously out the window. Which means that, yeah, watching a movie about people dying because the government insisted on opening the economy in the face of an obvious threat would be kind of on the nose even if there wasn't video coming in from the UK of the pubs being open and crowded because their Prime Minister has said the mayor is the real hero of that movie and apparently decided to emulate him. But, counterpoint, there is never actually a bad time to watch Jaws.

The week then wrapped with Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, since I'd finished the third series earlier in the week (on one of those blank days) in anticipation of this arriving in the mail. Kind of a disappointment - setting sail for new locales means leaving behind all the things in the show's Melbourne setting that allow it to run smoothly, and the filmmakers don't find adequate substitutes - but it's still another couple episode's worth of the frisky/cozy series, which can't be a complete loss.

I would have been leaving for Montreal this Thursday if not for all this (gestures at everything), so I won't be putting my Letterboxd page under quite the strain I might have otherwise, though hopefully it will get a few more entries than normal..

Narrow Margin

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

I'm not sure why, exactly, this one grabbed me when I pulled it off a shelf of a video store when it was a relatively new release; maybe as a 20-year-old I just hadn't seen a whole lot of movies that were pitched to adults and turned out to be relatively low-key. Heck, seeing the Carolco logo on something that wasn't blockbuster-style threw me a bit - they were the studio of things like Terminator 2, Total Recall, and Cutthroat Island, not this sort of modest thriller!

Revisiting it for the first time in a while (and having seen the film it remade recently), I can see that it is, in fact, good. Not great, but like its predecessor, awfully darn solid, a bit better than expected in every area, from the terrific group of character actors that writer/director/cinematographer Peter Hyams surrounds Gene Hackman with to stunt/green screen work that is awfully convincing for 1990, really only leaving a moment or two when one clearly sees a seam during the climax - the sort of movie where one might say, yeah, folks are pretty clearly being doubled here, but the stunt work itself is exceptional. Hyams was clever in remaking a B-movie that demonstrated a strong foundation but hadn't quite attained classic status, and not quite keeping it at the same scale but doing the late-80s equivalent and dialing it up a notch or two. Gene Hackman is Gene Hackman, just exactly what the movie needs.

Seeing it close to The Narrow Margin, I almost think that this is the platonic idea of what a remake should be - upgraded but not wiping out the feel of the original, remixing the original ideas in such a way that it has a surprise or two for fans who know the story but doesn't sell things out, feeling of its time. If studios are going to raid the vaults for new takes on proven material, this is the way to go about it.


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

This is, somehow, Steven Spielberg's second theatrical feature, despite being ridiculously assured in a way that seems like it would suggest a veteran. Instead, Spielberg and a great cast take something that could be little more than a B-movie and make it a classic through sheer force of doing everything right even when the actual shark is clearly not able to pull its weight. The resources poured into that shark and the shooting on the open sea probably keep it from ever being a real "B", but after a number of times re-watching this film, you don't necessarily discover new layers so much as you see just how well the layer it has is put together, with neither cut corners nor waste.

Part of that is John Williams, of course; I've spent a fair amount of the past half-year pointing out how Williams's work inspires a knee-jerk reaction by now, but unless his disaster-movie scores have penetrated the public consciousness more than I realized, this is his first one that really just wormed its way into the general public's heads enough to really have meaning and trigger something for almost anybody who hears it. On the day I write/post this, we're mourning the loss of Ennio Morricone, and there's probably nobody else who fits quite the same slot as Williams in terms of how their collaborations have become iconic in this way.

It sounds good coming out of the new 4K UltraHD disc that Universal released last month, although the picture for me is the part that is really eye-popping. It's distractingly good, like something this high-quality really shouldn't be shrunk down to fit in one's living room without compromise, a reminder of just how great an image 35mm film could capture and how home formats are still lagging behind even after several waves of new formats that have amazed people in just how good these films they'd only seen in some lesser way could look.

What I thought back in 2012

City Without Baseball & Dealer/Healer
Narrow Margin
Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Monday, July 06, 2020

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

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

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

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

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also on EFilmCritic

Saturday, July 04, 2020

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

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

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

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

Mou ye chi sing (City Without Baseball)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duk gai (Dealer/Healer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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