Friday, October 30, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 30 October 2020 - 5 November 2020

I thought I had something really clever to say about this weekend a couple days ago, but I forgot it and it's snowing out so it's a good thing the IFFBoston folks are going to be supplying us with good movies all weekend.

  • Independent Film Festival Boston's "Fall Focus" is going on this weekend, and it's tempting to call it just the festival, but it's still got the vibe of the Fall Focus, which has always been more a preview week without as much of the "you may not see this in theaters otherwise" material of the spring festival, but, then, who knows if there will be theaters open come Thanksgiving? Anyway, they started on Thursday with Minari, which was co-presented by Boston Asian American Film Festival, whose own selection of short films are still available through Wednesday. That one was just there for an evening, but the rest will be available for 48 hours starting at 10am on the day they premiere. That includes New Order and Night of the Kings starting Friday; Sound of Metal, Undine, Zappa starting Saturday; Farewell Amor, Freeland, and Little Fish starting Sunday; and MLK/FBI starting Monday.

    Which means the last IFFBoston movies will be going offline just as Boston Jewish Film is putting most of their program online, although other pieces will be one-time or available for shorter periods. I haven't had time to look over the full program yet, but I immediately caught sight of Honeymood, the new film from the director of Zero Motivation. Like many of the features, it has a corresponding conversation, so consider that as you set your schedule.
  • In addition to providing the stage for at least some Fall Focus screenings, The Brattle Theatre offers a reissue of 2006's Bamako, where a residential courtyard in the capital city of Mali serves as the scene for a mock trial of the various world institutions which have perpetuated the circumstances keeping African countries as second-class world citizens. It joins Nationland, Sweetgrass, Ham on Rye, White Riot, La Haine, and Once Upon a River in the virtual screening room.

    In shorter runs, The DocYard's engagement of found-footage Election '92 documentary Feed continues through Saturday, and the Brattle will program Inman Square's takeout-and-a-movie "Inmanween" promotion on Friday. That same night, 36 Cinema also has a triple feature of genre classics with live commentary, from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla at 5pm to Night of the Living Dead at 9pm and Master of the Flying Guillotine at just-before-midnight.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opened Wayne Wang's Coming Home Again a little earlier this week; it stars Justin Chon as a Korean-American man who returns home to take care of his ailing mother (Jacky Chung), who teaches him their traditional family recipes. They also add a new "Big Small Screen Classic" with the new 4K restoration of La Strada, in addition to continuing runs for Martin Eden, Totally Under Control, and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.

    Halloween Weekend marks the final entry in their "Quattro Di Bava" series, with Mario Bava's debut, Black Sunday, available through Sunday. They'll also be at Rocky Woods for the "Cabin of Horrors" (with the sequel and reboot to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead) on Friday and a 12-hour werewolf marathon on Saturday. Both are sold out, but they'll be back there for a Friday the 13th double feature and heading back to the Medfield State Hospital with Knives Out on November 20th and 21st. The current "Wednesdays with Wiseman" feature, Sinai Field Mission, ends on Tuesday, giving way to Hospital on Wednesday, featuring a conversation with Wiseman and Jesus Camp filmmakers Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square picks up Boston Asian-American Film Festival selection The Donut King, Alice Gu's documentary on Ted Ngoy, a Camboidan refugee who founded a multimillion-dollar donut business and sponsored other refugees to follow in his footsteps. They also open Radium Girls, the story of 1920s factory workers who fight for workplace safety in a time when the harmful effects of radioactivity were still not generally known.

    Note that the Kendall is closed Monday through Wednesday this week, although I suspect screens can be rented on those days, with any of their 11 films playing.
  • The big Halloween new-release horror movie this year is apparently Come Play, with writer/director Jacob Chase remaking his 2017 short film "Larry", with that monster being a withdrawn kid's maybe-not-so-imaginary friend and appearing in smart device screens. Looks like Blumhouse, is actually Amblin, and it's being released through Universal's Focus imprint, so it may be available on VOD in 10 days, although they can't say so while it's in theaters like Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), and Revere.

    With Halloween this weekend, the Conjuring releases finish with The Conjuring 2 at Boston Common & South Bay, and the first at Revere. There's also the 1982 Poltergeist at Boston Common, Watertown, and Revere; Watertown and Revere also bring back the original 1978 Halloween. Less-scary Halloween flicks from Disney - Monsters Inc., The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Hocus Pocus - continue/return at Boston Common (all three), Watertown (Monsters Inc.), Revere (Monsters Inc.); Revere also has Hotel Transylvania and the animated The Addams Family, and a Saturday matinee of "PJ Masks: Halloween Tricksters". Addams is also sticking around in Watertown, while Hotel plays Chestnut Hill.

    In non-Halloween returns, Disney/Twentieth is bringing back Alita: Battle Angel in what may be testing the waters for interest in a sequel, but is more likely betting that it's got the sort of small but hard-core fanbase to sell a few tickets even under these conditions at Boston Common, South Bay (including Imax Sunday), and Revere. Warner offers up a reissue of V for Vendetta at Boston Common and Revere ahead of the 5th of November. Showcase seems to be doing a "Best of Bonds" series with the top film with a different actor playing James Bond every week, starting with Sean Connery in From Russia with Love at Chestnut Hill and Revere.

    South Bay puts It on the Imax screen Friday/Tuesday, with the 2018 sequel-not-reboot-except-it-sort-of-is-because-the-sequels-are-ignored Halloween on Saturday/Wednesday. There are 25th Anniversary screenings of Apollo 13 at South Bay, Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and Revere on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday (South Bay & Watertown). The Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold Concert has another encore at Chestnut Hill and Revere on Sunday. South Bay and Watertown have the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Thursday.
  • China's Coffee or Tea? opens at Boston Common, featuring three young men returning to their thousand-year-old village from the big city. It doesn't look like much, but the Friday shows are already sold out, so I guess some of the actors are pretty popular. One of them was in Leap, whose director produced this film; director Derek Hui made the pretty darn nice This Is Not What I Expected a few years ago and has edited a lot of good stuff. It's at Boston Common, which also holds on to My People, My Homeland continue at Boston Common.
  • The West Newton Cinema is only showing showtimes for Friday this weekend, with the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper, Tenet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey playing.
  • The Regent Theatre continues their short run of Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative through Sunday, with a live Q&A with writer Ryder Ansell after Friday evening's show. Their two streaming presentations look to be ending soon, with Chet's Last Call confirmed through Monday and Herb Alpert Is… there through Sunday. The streaming "Together Tuesday" show flips from the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra to Mojo & The Bayou Gypsies on the 3rd. They also have an in-theater show of documentary Chuck Leavell - The Tree Man on Thursday; Leavell is noted as both a rock pianist and an environmentalist.

    Their Saturday Halloween event is kind of confusing - you can stream Rundgren Radio's Virtual Vision Halloween Party for free (donations appreciated), but also sit in the main theater to watch it there at 7pm, and then at 8:30pm, The Hermits of Mink Halloween will be performing Todd Rundgren's album "The Hermit of Mink Hallow" in the downstairs Regent Underground, but that will also be streamed and sent up top, with interaction between the two spaces via closed-circuit TV
  • This weekend's "GlobeDocs Presents" is Steve James's 5-part Hulu series City So Real; click the link to sign up and be eligible for a Zoom call at noon Monday with James and Zak Piper.
  • Bright Lights at Home streams Cured on Thursday evening, including a livestream with director Bennett Singer on-hand afterward to discuss his documentary on a crucial moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights, when the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.
  • The Capitol is selling snacks, but it's not even worth linking to their virtual cinema page; sister cinema The Somerville Theatre is still closed, but most of the links on their virtual cinema page are live, including The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice, though the latter two no longer seem to be sharing with the theater.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, and now Kendall Square have information on private rentals on their sites. The Coolidge has slots available to reserve online up to November 22nd, while the Brattle looks to be sold out.
I'll be mainlining the IFFBoston stuff for the next few days, which is a good reason to stay out of the rain and cold.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Nightstream 2020.02: Come True and The Doorman

My plan with Nightstream was to try and watch as many of the movies I could close to when they went online, to try and simulate the festival experience in as close to real time as possible, which went out the window right away when I saw that The Doorman being scheduled for something like 11:15pm on Thursday night. At least one of the fests that united for Nightstream was on the West Coast, so it made sense to give them premieres that worked with Pacific time, but I was just not going for that after staying up for the Run premiere and Q&A.

It was an easy slide to Friday, though, as the only thing I'd selected from that date was Come True, something I hadn't snagged a Fantasia screener for but had been looking forward to. It made for a nifty little "hey, I liked their previous films" double feature even though I seems to have lost track of Come True being from the director of Our House and The Doorman being directed by Ryuhei Kitamura at least a couple of times. I'm sure that I noted these facts multiple times and had it figure into my decisions to select the movies, but it didn't stick until late. Weird, but the whole festival season has kind of been like that - without a physical program and schedule to flip through and mark up, more and more information is left in one's head, and maybe not as easily flipped to.

One of the other things that's been kind of strange about this whole digital festival season is watching things online. By and large, the quality has been pretty good, but streaming is almost never as reliable as a disc or an DCP "ingested" into a theater's projection system. Take Come True, for instance, where the deep blacks often had that effect where you could see the jagged borders between one shade of black/dark gray and the next. It's not really distracting until you notice it, and even then it doesn't really hurt the experience; it just serves as a reminder of what the limits on this delivery medium are. But here's the thing: The only scenes that are really dark enough for this to be an issue are the dream sequences, which the characters in the movie record and view using equipment that, if not explicitly analog, is kind of cobbled together and imperfect, which makes me wonder if this is a deliberate effect, playing on the fact that certain members of the audience will recognize this as a modern signal of lo-fi video recording where the actual analog artifacts that the apparently tape-based system would just scan as "old".

It's not really a big deal, but it's something that's kind of interesting to be as a streaming skeptic. I wouldn't be surprised if you could trace filmmakers using imitation of less-technically-advanced filmmaking for a purpose back to someone making flashbacks silent in a circa-1930 talkie, but it's usually been easy to identify where it's a deliberate choice and where it's just hitting technical limits, and I don't really know what it is in this case.

None of this is really a big deal, especially considering all the circumstances that have us doing film festivals in our living rooms, but I think both of these things are great examples of why I can't wait for life and moviegoing to get back to something resembling normal.

Come True

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

Come True has the look of an indie horror movie that aims to be more than spooky - the sort that, by dint of the exceptionally specific circumstances of its characters and somewhat vague sources of its scares, must be About Something Real. As it turns out, while there's a fair amount going on here, writer/director/cinematographer Anthony Scott Burns appears to primarily be interested in creeping viewers out, and he's got a pretty darn good handle on that.

It opens with Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) having a weird dream and waking up, not in her home in a sleeping bag in a local park's playground. Why she's only running in and out of her family's house isn't said, but not getting proper sleep is starting to mess with her. Best friend Zoe (Tedra Rogers) is happy to let her stay over, but doing that too much causes trouble. Luckily, she finds a two-month sleep study that pays $12/hour, and for now, that looks like just what she needs, especially since the grad student she meets, Anita (Carlee Ryski), seems pretty nice and there are several subjects who have done it a few times, saying that it's not odd when the woman she shares the room with doesn't come back after a day or two, since sleeping in strange places is weird to a lot of people. When another patient has an episode, she realizes that the guy who followed her and Zoe earlier (Landon Liboiron) is one of the people doing the study, and she's having some very weird dreams. Plus, she's got no idea what this team is measuring.

If Come True were the sort of film I initially thought it was going to be, Burns would spend a fair amount of time digging into what's up with Sarah - that she's sleeping outside despite seemingly having a place to go suggests a rift that would be worth digging into, but it's approached obliquely at best, mostly serving to highlight how stubborn she can be, arguably well past the point where it makes any sense. For the most part, Sarah's circumstances are used to push her inevitably back to the sleep study, rather than make the movie about her, to the point where she spends much of the last act literally sleepwalking through the action.

It's a bit of a waste, because Julia Sarah Stone could carry a movie focused entirely on Sarah; for all that the audience is not given a lot of details about Sarah's life, she and Burns excel at convincing the audience that there is a consistent story behind all this and that it's slowly destroying her, with Stone excellent during the periods when she doesn't have anyone to work against. She's good the rest of the time, getting across how Sarah is often both smart and foolish. The way Burns eventually pairs her with Landon Liboiron's Jeremy is not always great story-wise, but it's fun to watch her teenage cockiness play off his junior mad scientist persona, where he's got a full dose of hubris but is still afraid of getting caught. It's nifty chemistry without coming off as cute for long enough to hobble Come True as a horror movie.

And when all is said and done, Burns and company do a great job of building up the creepiness from a good start to an exceptionally tense finale. Though set in the present, it often calls back to the sci-fi horror of the 1970s and 1980s, with fuzzy analog tech and bulky monitoring suits that scoff at modern, sleek design. There are eerie tracking shots through the caverns of Sarah's dreams that feel uncanny but not weightless the way virtual cameras often can be, with motifs that feel connected but aren't always decipherable and eerie presences that are dead simple in design but effective in use. Burns occasionally jostles the timeline just a bit to get the audience close to Sarah's confused, sleepless headspace, and spends the last act on a clever way to blur the line between the waking and dream worlds without doing the usual trippy thing.

That half of the movie is so impressively and meticulously executed that I look forward to seeing Come True again to see whether or not the pieces I wanted more from snap together better on a second go. Burns's previous film Our House aimed for and hit the same intersection of sci-fi, horror, and drama square, so it wouldn't be surprising even as he approaches it less directly.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Doorman

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

The Doorman was never going to be an all-time great movie within its genre - its ambitions just aren't that high - but it probably should have been a good one. The idea is familiar but solid, most of the cast has been good in something or other, and the director is not some anonymous worker bee. At worst, it should be an average bit of not-quite-theatrical action maybe brought down by some piece not being up to par, but instead, it's unimpressive all around, no single part being as good as it should.

It starts with soldier Ali Gorski (Ruby Rose) doing escort duty for the American ambassador in Bucharest, the sort of mission that leaves one with a great deal of regrets or PTSD. A year later, she's back home in New York City, discharged and at loose ends until her uncle Pat (Philip Whitchurch) hooks her up with a job as a doorman at the Carrington, a Manhattan residential building undergoing renovation. And it should be easy to start, since most all the tenants will be out of town over the Easter weekend for planned construction work. Well, almost everyone - one thing Uncle Pat didn't mention was that Ali's late sister's husband Jon (Rupert Evans) and his kids (Julian Feder & Kila Lord Cassidy) live there and are one of the two remaining. The others are an elderly couple whom superintendent Borz (Aksel Hennie) and recently-released criminal Victor Dubois (Jean Reno) are targeting.

The setup is Die Hard without the numbers completely filed off, but that's not exactly a bad thing; even as it aims to steal from the best, the story has some other stuff going on, although with four writers credited it's not surprising that somewhere along the way they couldn't really make the other things they're playing with stick. There's a script somewhere in there where all the secret passages, forgotten crimes, and people who have left old lives behind connect and resonate, but it feels like sheerly practical things like how to keep the action from spilling outside or how few characters they can get away with having without it seeming excessively unlikely than any of that. There's also a plot thread about Ali and Jon apparently having been a couple before he married her sister that is just completely useless, like screenwriters can't imagine writing not having a romantic subplot but can't be bothered to make it interesting.

Maybe something would come of it if anybody in the cast seemed to see this as a stepping-stone to bigger things rather than a job to fill time, but there's nobody in the cast who's really fun to watch. Ruby Rose has often been a solid part of an ensemble when she and they are able to challenge each other to raise their games, but she doesn't have that here and winds up fairly bland when not fighting. Rupert Evans is a big ol' nothing as her brother-in-law, and while Aksel Hennie kind of has a good detached-mercenary thing going, it doesn't exactly play off anything because nobody is heated enough to make his calm seem reassuringly professional until it's dangerous. The closest anyone gets to being fun to watch is Jean Reno, who has done dozens of these movies and probably knows what makes them work better than anyone else on the set, so even though he's not really trying to steal scenes (and in fact seems perfectly comfortable spending most of his time on screen in an action movie sitting in a chair directing underlings with nods), doing the minimum amount that works is more than the rest of the cast manages.

Rose, Hennie, and a generally capable group of goons on hand to slow Ali down (Louis Mandylor, David Dakurai, Hideaki Ito) do a fine enough job of running and shooting at each other, and generally don't look bad when they get into punching range, but for the amount of action there is, it's not very exciting. Lots of rounds get shot off, but it's almost always the sort of suppressing fire that keeps something interesting from happening rather than forces it to. The secret passages and hidden areas occasionally made for cool visuals when they're revealed, but are seldom exciting beyond that. Things only start to really cook in the final showdown, when a bit of unconventional camerawork and an impressively gross kill are a reminder that for a while, roughly from Versus to The Midnight Meat Train, director Ryuhei Kitamura was one of genre cinema's most distinct and exciting voices, even if the results were all over the place.

The Doorman could use the Kitamura who went for broke and wiped out half the time; it might at least make for a memorable disaster. Instead, he's just one more person among the many here who aren't living up to their full potential. Maybe it's one of those movies where everything from the script to the shoot to the editing is on tight deadlines and the filmmakers never had time to get something great once they had something usable, or maybe everybody was just collecting a paycheck in Romania between more interesting jobs. Either way, it makes for a B-movie that is neither good nor interesting enough to grab a viewer's attention in a sea of straight-to-video action.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, October 23, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 23 October 2020 - 29 October 2020

It's 2020, so the best movie to hit theaters this weekend (and maybe in a while!) comes with filmmakers saying that they, personally, wouldn't risk going to a theater to see it. And, honestly, the theatrical landscape gets weirder from there.

  • The Brattle Theatre has two new restorations this week: Nationland is William Greaves's thought-lost documentary about the National Black Political Convention of 1972; Sweetgrass is a 2009 film tracking modern-day ranchers bringing their sheep across the mountains to pasture. Their friends at the DocYard will also be streaming the 1992 documentary Feed - made up of raw footage from that year's election coverage not meant for air - starting on Monday, including a Q&A with fellow filmmakers Sierra Pettengill and Daniel Garber.

    They also open a new narrative, Ham on Rye, a surreal tale of a group of teens' unusual rite of passage. It and the docs join White Riot, La Haine, Once Upon a River, and Native Son in the virtual screening room.
  • No new releases at The Coolidge Corner Theatre this week, but they've still got Martin Eden, Belly of the Beast, Ganja & Hess, Totally Under Control, Aggie, Major Arcana, and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life on-demand. It looks like the "Wednesdays with Wiseman" movies will be sticking around after that night, which is good, because sometimes Wednesday is just not the day you can watch a three-hour documentary like The Ballet. This week's selection is Sinai Field Mission, a 1978 look at the people manning the early warning system for hostilities between Egypt and Israel. It comes with a conversation with Errol Morris. The night before, Tuesday the 27th, they'll have a special conversation with author Adam Nayman on the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.

    The weekend's "Quattro di Bava" entry is Black Sabbath, an anthology with three segments, while the last Coolidge After Midnite seminar of the spooky season has critic Katie Walsh talking about De Palma's Carrie on Thursday (find the best way to watch it, register for the talk Thursday night, and also see a special introduction). There's no drive-in shows this weekend, but they'll be at Rocky Woods shows for Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead remake on the 30th and 12 (sold out) hours of werewolf pictures on the 31st, returning there on November 13th for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Friday the 13th: Jason Lives.
  • Boston Asian American Film Festival started on Wednesday and continues adding new entries throughout the weekend, as well as short packages that will still be available for a week after the features go offline Sunday night. I can recommend Saturday's The Paper Tigers, a thoroughly entertaining movie about former martial arts prodigies trying to avenge their master after getting out of practice in middle age.

    That makes for an easy segue to Independent Film Festival Boston's "Fall Focus", which kicks off online Thursday (running through the following Sunday) with Minari, featuring Steven Yuen as a member of a Korean-American family that moved to Arkansas to farm in the 1980s. After they finish up, Boston Jewish Film will run from 4 to 15 November.

    The Weird Local Film Festival will be streaming a bunch of 1-minute films produced in the Somerville area on their YouTube page Saturday night. GlobeDocs is offering a stream of documentary short "Conviction" this weekend, which also includes a Zoom conversation with director Jia Wertz and subject Jeffrey Deskovic on Monday
  • Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson are two of the best folks making genre films, so the release of their new movie Synchronic is cause for excitement, but they're also genuinely good folks who have been up front with how they can't recommend seeing their movies in a theater right now. Still, if you're going to head out and see something on the big screen for a couple of hours, it is pretty terrific. It's at Kendall Square, Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere.

    There's also The Empty Man, hitting the big screen now because Disney is contractually obligated to release the movies they acquired with Twentieth Century Fox in theaters even if they might otherwise go almost straight to video, so why not throw exhibitors a bone with this long-delayed feature starring James Badge Dale as an ex-cop searching for a missing girl and maybe finding something unearthly. It's at Boston Common, Watertown, South Bay, Chestnut Hill, and Revere. Revere also gets documentary Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton.

    The Conjuring-in-whatever-order releases continue with The Curse of La Llornona and The Conjuring at Boston Common and South Bay, with just The Conjuring at Revere. This week's AMC DreamWorks feature is The Boss Baby, playing Boston Common and South Bay; Monsters Inc. joins The Nightmare Before Christmas for Disney Halloween stuff at Boston Common, South Bay (no Nightmare), Watertown, and Revere (which is also still hanging on to Hocus Pocus). Last year's animated The Addams Family also returns to Boston Common, Chestnut Hill, Revere. Revere also has It: Chapter Two and the director's cut of The Exorcist Boston Common, Chestnut Hill, and Revere have an encore of Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold: The Concert on Sunday. A 20th anniversary special of Thomas and the Magic Railroad plays South Bay and Revere on Saturday, with family-oriented indie When Last We Spoke at those places Tuesday and Thursday. PJ Masks: Halloween Tricksters plays Revere Saturday and Sunday; they also have the very cool anime anthology Short Peace on Monday, Bram Stoker's Dracula on Tuesday, and the NT Live version of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as the Doctor on Wednesday.

    France's A Mermaid in Paris and China's My People, My Homeland continue at Boston Common.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square looks like they're down to being open Thursday through Sunday for a while, and in addition to Syncrhonic, they pick up two new documentaries of a similar bent. Escape from Extinction covers the works being done by zoos and other zoological organizations to help species on the brink avoid disappearing, while I Am Greta is a profile of teenage activist Greta Thurnberg.

    And then there's After We Collided, which is the sequel to After, a youth romance from last year that I vaguely remember seeing previews for but never thought of as a hit (it opened in eighth place), but which is apparently based upon a hugely popular series of novels and which did solid business internationally, which not got it this sequel but which has two more after that in various stages of production. Good for them!
  • The West Newton Cinema and The Regent Theatre host Screaming Ostrich International Film Festival, with "Back to Normal" shorts at West Newton on Friday, a horror set at the Regent on Saturday with a real-life ghostbuster there to exorcise the haunted theater (wait, what?), and then two more short programs at the Regent on Sunday.

    The Regent will also live-stream a one-man TuttaCrums show with no seating on Tuesday, when they also switch their weekly streaming concert from The Hitmen to the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra. They also still have Chet's Last Call and Herb Alpert Is… available to stream through the end of the month, and also open a short run of Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative on Thursday.

    West Newton is once again running a Friday through Sunday schedule this week, with the new addition being the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. That's alongside A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper, The Maltese Falcon (Sunday), Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Saturday), and Casablanca (Sunday), with curbside popcorn pick-up as available on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays.
  • Bright Lights at Home offers Councilwoman on Thursday evening, with director Margo Guernsey joining for a post-screening discussion of her documentary about Carmen Castillo, an immigrant hotel housekeeper who won a city council seat in Providence, RI.
  • More dead links at The Somerville Theatre website that usual, as they are not gonna run From Dusk Till Dawn with live burlesque on Friday. The virtual screening room listings still include live links for The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice (no more discount). The Capitol is open for snacks, but the link to The Surrogate is the only one still live on their virtual theater page, and it's no longer supporting the theater.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and West Newton are also offering private rentals for small-size groups, with information on their websites (which often include other fundraising links) or by contacting them directly. The Coolidge has online booking through the 31th and the Brattle currently has slots available up to November 22nd.
I'll probably mostly stay in, though I am tempted to give Synchronic a little box office. I'll probably try and see if I can watch Robert Zemeckis's The Witches on HBO Max (if I have that) while shaking my head about how Warner Brothers has done a lot of dipping into the vault for theaters over the past couple months but won't throw them that bone.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Lupin x III: The First, the live-action, The Castle of Cagliostro

I'd planned to do a Kitamura/Miyazaki double feature at some point during all this (gestures at 2020), but pushed it off a bit when I saw that there was a CGI version due to get a Fathom release, although it looked like that might be out of reach when a lot of the theaters scheduled to show it closed. It got booked at Boston Common, though, and I opted for the Sunday afternoon show over tonight's evening one. Didn't realize that meant I was getting it dubbed rather than subtitled, but that's why you read all the details closely.

(Obligatory "don't go to the movies if you don't feel it's safe or can't otherwise minimize risks" disclaimer. There were six people in the room and no concessions giving us reason to take our masks off.)

It turned out to be a much more entertaining couple days of movie-watching than I anticipated! I suspect that I'm not particularly unusual in basically knowing of Lupin III as the series which includes The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki's first feature and the most readily available of the series (although the one not included in the box set because it's not only not a Ghibli film but licensed to different distributors). I don't know that I consciously ever absorbed a specific narrative that these movies were bland pap that rising star Miyazaki elevated, but that's kind of the default when you take a director-centric view of film, or just about any career: Doing stuff like Cagliostro is seen as paying your dues and often presumed to be exploitative, and that such stuff is less worthy (at least, before the modern day when a whole lot of people act like doing something acclaimed and original is a stepping-stone to working for Marvel).

The thing is, though, all three Lupin III movies I watched over a couple of days are fun in their own ways. It's the sort of franchise that you don't see much of these days, where the idea is less to set up one story than to create an environment where you can tell not just many different stories, but many types of stories, and since it doesn't look to have ever had a hard reset, it never got refocused in a way that would prevent it from being James Bond adventure one day, light slapstick capers the next, noirish crime the third, and Indiana Jones cliffhanging the before starting again, with a little of each sprinkled in among the others.

I suspect that at some point, I'm going to have some fun dipping into Amazon Prime and the like to see which series are available to stream, not particularly worried if I have to do some skipping around between 1971 and 2019 because it's not like there's fifty years of tight continuity. I'll also kind of marvel that the Ryuhei Kitamura one isn't there, especially since I strongly suspect that I made other plans when it played Fantasia back in 2015 because it was a no-brainer that something like this would get U.S. distribution.

(Also, as much as I'd generally like it if people ordered from my Amazon links - I feel like I've been close enough to being able to redeem for a gift card for years - the price currently on there is crazy; you can order the same Hong Kong BD from DDDHouse and probably still get it for less even if you're having it be the only thing in your shipment, although I certainly recommend buying a bunch of things so that the shipping cost per film is less!)

Lupin III: The First

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2020 in AMC Boston Common #15 (Fathom Events, English-dubbed DCP)

I wonder to what extent audiences in the west (and particularly the United States) think of Lupin III as just the main character of the Hayao Miayazaki film that isn't in the boxed set rather than a franchise that has been going for 50 years and is very popular in his own right in Japan and elsewhere. It's fine; you've got to start somewhere and one of the fun things about it is that it's got the sort of all-but-nonexistent continuity where you can jump in anywhere - say, with this digitally-animated version from 2019 - and have a pretty good time.

The film opens with a prologue set just outside of Paris during World War II, as a legendary archaeologist's family escapes with his intricately-locked diary just ahead of the Nazis - though not far enough ahead. Twenty years later, a museum is including the Bresson Diary as part of an exhibit, with gentleman thief Arsene Lupin III announcing his plans to steal it at the last minute. Security guard Laetitia spots him, but secretly absconds with it herself, before Lupin's rival Fujiko Mine swoops in while the other two fight. She delivers it to her clients, French Professor Lambert and German true-believer Geralt, and that's just the beginning of the double-crosses on the way to unlocking the diary, which supposedly contains a map to Bresson's greatest find: The Eclipse device, a powerful energy source created by an ancient civilization that can generate seemingly limitless energy... or focus it into a deadly weapon.

This is my first Lupin III adventure (though I've had two others on my shelf for a while), and it serves as a very enjoyable introduction to Monkey Punch's gentleman thief and his friends: It leans into the bigger parts of their personalities without making them look foolish, hints at long-standing elements that make everything more cohesive without actually requiring the audience to know backstory, and generally does a good job of starting small but building into something grandiose. Screenwriter/director Takashi Yamazaki sets this particular adventure in a time period that's deliberately vague - there's an "over 10 years later" caption that probably covers at least fifteen, with a mix of technology and fashions from throughout the second half of the twentieth century - but draws on the best bits of several eras of globetrotting adventure.

It's also got some big and fun set pieces, particularly the early shell game with the diary that includes a niftily choreographed rooftop tussle (neither Lupin nor Laetitia really wants to fight and it's not really a chase) and a helicopter out of nowhere, as well a car chase that shows off the impossible skills of supporting characters Jigen and Goemon in a way that I gather is a hallmark of the franchise. The character designs make a nice transition to 3-D rendering - even Lupin himself, whose pinched monkey-like face and sideburns always look kind of off, looks pretty good - with the cartoony style feeling more or less like what many live-action manga adaptations trying to capture the style of the original artist are just missing.

It falls a bit short of being really impressive in some ways; for something that feels pitched to teens rather than younger kids, the English script at least could aim a little higher, although it can be tough to tell whether that's translation or voice-acting. The story ambitions seem to outstrip the maturity of the script on occasion, even before getting to some weird Hitler bits. The finale is also the sort of large scale action scene that maybe looks better on the small screen, like the filmmakers can't quite decide on the scale.

Mostly, though, it's a fun, fast-paced adventure with a zippy score, and that's good for an afternoon. There have been a lot of Lupin III productions over the decades, sometimes running in parallel, and if this winds up being the first of several made in this style, they'll be worthy additions to a list that's already had some noteworthy contributors.

Also at eFilmCritic

Rupan sansei (Lupin the 3rd)

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

The characters in this live-action take on the Lupin III comics has enough English-language dialogue on the one hand and a filmmaker in who has worked in both Japan and Hollywood on the other that one wonders to what extent the studio had visions of a global release that never really happened (it doesn't appear to have had theatrical or home releases in the United States at all). That would serve to at least partially explain why this feels like a movie trying to serve multiple audiences and likely not satisfying any; for all that this has always been a flexible franchise, it seems stretched into directions that don't entirely work.

It opens with a handful of master thieves - Lupin (Shun Oguri), Fujiko (Meisa Kuroki), Pierre (Kim Jun), Michael (Jerry Yan), Jiro (Shunichi Yamaguchi) - converging on the private Hougang Museum of Art in Singapore, aiming to steal the Medal of Zeus, said to have been awarded in the first Olympics. Interpol inspector Koichi Zenigata (Tadanobu Asano) tracks them to Hong Kong, suspecting them to be part of a criminal organization known as "The Works", led by Brit Thomas Dawson (Nick Tate). A betrayal at the meeting has the group's most precious treasure stolen, with Lupin and allies chasing the traitor to Thailand, where he intends to reunite the two halves of the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra. Retrieving that will require Lupin and company to pull off their biggest heist yet, breaking into the apparently impregnable Ark operated by security mogul Pramuk (Nirut "Ning" Sirichayna).

I'm not familiar enough with the original manga by Kazuhiko Kato (best known by the pen name "Monkey Punch") or the various animated productions to know to whether Dawson and The Works are original to this version or pulled from the source material; in either case, director Ryuhei Kitamura and screenwriter Rikiya Mizushima are building a sort of hybrid version where some situations are long-established, some character are meeting for the first time, and some appear to be new introductions (a crew didn't need a hacker when Lupin first appeared in 1967). Usually, when building a new version like this, filmmakers will put the title character at the center of the story, but while Lupin is doing a lot of running around, the story is never really about him; he make be looking to avenge a mentor, but he's two or three steps away from the stuff that is making everything happen. It's a weird decision when this may be one's only shot at this sort of property.

Their take on the character is a bit less whimsical than others' and closer to a straight crime picture, and it's a tough fit at times; it's the sort of comic book movie where the costume department uses a lot of black leather even if they do eventually drift toward more iconic looks. The movie actually starts to loosen up a bit when Go Ayano shows up as the most serious-minded character; his Goemon Ishikawa is basically a ronin samurai dropped in the middle of a modern heist story and his incongruous presence means that Kitamura and the cast can only play it so straight from there forward. Shun Oguri and co-stars Tetsuji Tamyama, Meisa Kuroki, and Tadanobu Asano start looking like they're having fun as Lupin and his crew start planning a flashy, elaborate heist and they start looking the part, even if Oguri, like most human beings, doesn't really have the rubber face necessary to really capture Monkey Punch's art.

Oguri's capable when it comes to action but never seems quite so assured as Go Ayano and Meisa Kuroki, which shows in not just how many fight scenes those two get compared to the rest of the cast, but how easily Ayano seems to move during the required car chase when Goemon is climbing out of the vehicle to dispatch someone with a sword. For all that Kitamura first rose to international fame on the back of action that was grander and faster-paced than many of his local peers, that part of this movie is a fairly mixed bag, like he often can see how a fight is supposed to go and be paced but can't quite get the shots he needs to put it together, although the times when all the pieces do fit are a lot of fun. It's frustrating that the moments that feel like they should be big turning points with action boosting the emotion of the scene are often scripted as fairly drab.

It's not really a surprise, then, that this never became the global hit that Toho was likely hoping for, even with the international locations and dialog that runs much more smoothly than is usually the case when people are using English as a common language. It doesn't quite treat the things fans love about Lupin III as weaknesses, but it seldom fully embraces them, too often winding up in no-man's-land.

Also at eFilmCritic

Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro (Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro)

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

The Castle of Cagliostro is often marketed in the United States without highlighting how it is part of an ongoing series of comic-inspired productions that first appeared on Japanese television in 1971 and has been in almost continual production in one form or another since. It is, after all, Hayao Miyazaki's first feature, and as such fits a certain part of a familiar narrative: The work-for-hire thing he did before being able to start his own studio that nevertheless shows glimpses of his true talent. It turns out to be a rare case of the movie that satisfies both a franchise's fanbase and an artist's, a familiar adventure that benefits from having someone as great as Miyazaki working on it.

It opens with master thief Arsène Lupin III and his partner Daisuke Jigen stealing fifty million dollars from a European casino, only to discover that the money is all counterfeit. These "Gothic Notes" come from the small principality of Cagliostro, called a black hole as those who attempt to investigate the source tend to disappear. No sooner have they crossed the border, though, than they have another problem - a runaway bride being chased by secret-police types, whom they soon learn is Lady Clarisse, recently returned from a convent and expected to marry the regent, who believes she holds the key to a massive treasure. Lupin and Jigen send for frequent partner Goemon Ishikawa and also make sure that Interpol detective Koichi Zenigata follows them; it turns out that rival Fujiko Mine is already undercover in the castle as Clarisse's keeper - and that Lupin may have reasons beyond pure random chivalry to get involved.

The story is more than a bit messy, in the way that is often the case with movies that are spun off from ongoing series are, half Lupin inserting himself into someone else's problem and half already part of it, before you get to there only being so many ways to bring Goemon, Fujiko, and Zenigata into the story or make Clarisse an active part of it. It doesn't matter that much, though; Miyazaki and co-writer Haruya Yamazaki do nice work of keeping everything moving in the moment, establishing high stakes but using cartoony devices from impossible car chases to a Wile E. Coyote-eque pause before falling down a trap to mostly keep things light and moving quickly.

And though much of the visual style may be derived from the original Monkey Punch manga and previous TV series, Miyazaki was a director on that show, and it's easy to see how its look would influence his own, with the baroque armored henchmen, or how the titular castle has a classic storybook look but all sorts of retro-futuristic and Saturday-serial elements. He's good at visually coding things so that the gangly figures of folks like Lupin mark him as a scrappy underdog in relation to the Count's bulk without them looking like they're separate species as so often seems to be the case. Even for 1979, this doesn't look like an expensive animated movie, but Miyazaki clearly knows his tools well enough even at this early stage to get the most from them.

That's especially noteworthy when Lupin and company leap into action. Animation at this time was a medium where the technology often encouraged static, planar visuals with tricks to suggest speed and depth, but Miyazaki and his crew will have his characters circle each other and dash through a scene that doesn't just feel like a painted backdrop. Characters move and interact in a way that feels solid and fluid the way well-staged live-action does, but it never just feels like the filmmakers are imitating that, working with both the art form's limitations and special abilities to create something that feels both tangible and fantastic, making what's on screen exciting.

Miyazaki would go on to create grander animated features with loftier storytelling ambitions, and but for a hiatus in the early 1980s, TMS would keep producing Lupin III adventures for television and theaters every year, steadily evolving while remaining true to the original style despite recent forays into live-action and CGI. It's worked out pretty well for both, and it's impressive just how well this relatively early intersection still holds up.

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, October 19, 2020

Netflix Movies in (Empty) Theaters: Rebecca '20 and Over the Moon

I don't know that I've got a whole lot of thoughts on the two movies I saw at the Kendall on Saturday themselves - they're both solidly acceptable if not exceptional despite coming from directors worth keeping tabs on - or more about the experience of seeing something in a theater in pandemic times than I've written previously. There were two of us in Rebecca and three or four in Over the Moon (none of us close to being the kids who are the movie's main audience). No food or drink, nobody took off their mask so far as I can tell. It feels pretty safe but it's likely that this is in large part due to the fact that there aren't more of out there for whom it feels pretty safe and because theaters are operating in ways that likely aren't sustainable in the long term (see all the stories about AMC likely running out of money early next year).

What is notable, I think, is just how much the streaming services are likely going to dominate the Oscars next year, whenever they get held, and not really because the Academy is opening things up to them in a way they wouldn't in more typical times. No, they seem to be the only people actually releasing award-quality movies in theaters right now, perhaps because they never saw the theatrical release as more than part of the promotions budget anyway. If Landmark is only taking in $450 from people seeing Rebecca at their Cambridge location opening weekend, that's not a disaster that wrecks Netflix's business, that's just their awards campaign doing less to pay for itself than usual. But the fact that they are doing this and, say, Warner Brothers and Searchlight are not, might mean that Rebecca gets consideration for more than just costume design, because there are not looking to be a whole lot of choices among nominees as everything else gets pushed back. Almost all the previews before these two movies were from Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

I was a bit disappointed that Over the Moon wasn't in 3D, as it's the sort of CGI animated movie that seems planned for it and the credits mention stereographers but not 3D conversion, so it was probably made to be shown that way and likely will be in in China. I wouldn't be completely shocked if it was high-frame-rate there, but I don't know. I doubt I'll be curious enough to order a 3D disc should one be released in Hong Kong, but I also wonder if Netflix is set up for side-by-side or native 3D streaming. It kind of makes the movie more weirdly homeless, made by Americans but set in China, produced in a format far more popular in one place than the other.

Rebecca inspired a stranger and maybe more sinister thought, though - as all the studios start consolidating their libraries onto services they own (Disney+/Hulu, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, Crackle), is Netflix, for example, going to start buying up rights to adapt the source material of classic films like Hitchcock's Rebecca (or dip into the public domain) where possible and just have their own versions available. Right now, MGM or whoever currently owns Rebecca (it has moved around!) doesn't have it available on any streaming platform in the USA; pretty soon, Netflix will have something if you hear it's a classic and then drop the name into their search, and it's not too bad.

I don't really think Netflix will go around making store-brand versions of movies that they figure they'll never be able to have on their service again, but I'm kind of worried that I don't really see the downside of them doing so. Does the Hammett estate say no if Netflix says "hey, we'd like to have David Fincher remake The Maltese Falcon for us"? Is this the way talking about art as "content" is heading?

Man, I hope not. But it's kind of a way that the relatively narrow filter of theatrical releases (and, once upon a time, just having a few television networks) can be useful, especially if we get to some silly point where every streaming service figures that they need their own Three Musketeers or Robin Hood and you might not even know about the others because you can only afford to subscribe to so much.

Rebecca '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

It's been long enough since I've seen the Alfred Hitchcock version of Rebecca that it's hard to compare it to Ben Wheatley's new adaptation directly, but just knowing it exists and remembering that it's brilliant makes this one feel unnecessary. Lavishly shot as it is and despite it seldom actually falling below "pretty good", the original version can't help but loom over every decision Wheatley and company make here. Kind of amusing, I guess, given that this is Rebecca we're talking about, and I almost wonder if that meta-narrative amused the filmmakers throughout.

After all, Rebecca takes its title from the perfect first wife of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), widowed a year when he arrives in Monte Carlo and makes the acquaintance of a fellow traveler's lady's companion. Soon, he and the girl are married and return to Manderley, the de Winter family estate, after a European honeymoon. It would be a major adjustment for the new Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) even if the memory of the late Rebecca didn't hang over the place from business manager Frank Crawley (Tom Goodman-Hill) to housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), with Maxim occasionally sleepwalking to the shuttered west wing and snapping at his bride when she wants to know more.

A new version of Rebecca need necessarily be unworthy or uninteresting, especially with Ben Wheatley at the helm. Outside of his television work, this is one of the first times he's seemingly been shooting someone else's project (neither he nor wife Amy Jump have writing and producing credits and it does not come from his Rook Films shingle), and it certainly doesn't feel like his sort of thing in obvious ways: It's polished and tony, prone to play things out rather than the way he usually pushes forward past the bland connective tissue. What he does bring is an uncanny sense of where the line is between a ghost story and something that feels like it could become a ghost story at any second, and maybe most importantly, a sense of what is specifically English or British about a story and how might mean a lot of things. There's a class-consciousness to this movie that many trying to shoot it might dance around or make universal. Where many might see the DeWinters and Manderley as aspirational, this group leans into how this system feels almost alien to their eyes 80 years later, just as it likely would for the new Mrs. de Winter herself.

It gives Lily James a lot to work with, despite her being pretty and elegant enough in the fine costumes that one wouldn't necessarily peg her as a serving-class girl who has married above her station; she manages to make her unnamed character uncomplicated and as such a little in awe of the world she's thrust into, the sort of awe that overlaps easily with frustration. She's good at connecting the clumsy maneuvers at the start with the more determined action at the end. She and Armie Hammer spend much of the movie reacting to each other as much as having conventional chemistry, but it works for this story - the pair know there's something good there but don't exactly know how to access it.

And then there's Kristin Scott Thomas, who shows up when the characters finally arrive at the great house and quietly announces that it's her movie now. She's fantastic and magnetic, doing more with reserve than many can do with grander melodrama. When "Dani" appears the villain, she's such a frighteningly assured one that Thomas doesn't have to underline it at all; when she's sympathetic, it's only a slight pivot that redirects the way the entire film comes across. It's a great performance that doesn't announce itself but is also never trying to hide.

Is it enough that I'll ever watch this movie again, what with the other version already being on my shelf? Doubtful. But right now, it looks like the Hitchcock isn't on any streaming service, and if this one is all you have access to, it's not exactly disappointing.

Also at eFilmCritic

Over the Moon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Glen Keane's job at Disney over three decades (most notably the 1990s) didn't exactly map to a specific one in live action, and you had to wait a little while to see his name in the credits but as the supervising animator and/or character designer for lead characters in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, he was in many ways as much the star of those movies as the more easily-referenced voice actors. Maybe that's why Over the Moon occasionally feels like an actor's first feature film as a director - the result of someone who has absorbed a lot by watching how others do it from his front row seat but still has that same focus - even though his old job is a much more direct overlap.

This first feature is built around Fei Fei (voice of Cathy Ang), a bright junior high schooler who has been hanging around her parents' moon pie stand her whole life, delighting in her mother's tales of Chang'e, the goddess who floated to the moon, saw her mortal love wither and pass, but remained faithful. Her mother died four years ago, and now her father (voice of John Cho) has brought Mrs. Zhong (voice of Sandra Oh) to the moon festival, who brings with her new recipes, her exceptionally annoying eight-year-old son Chin (voice of Robert G. Chiu), and a basic threat to the idea of true love lasting forever and knowing no substitute. There's only one thing for it - build a rocket to the moon, prove Chang'e exists, and have her father abide by her example. Chin is obviously going to stow away, of course, and Chang'e (voice of Phillipa Soo) may not be what Fei Fei expects.

Though Keane was instrumental in making the movies of the Disney Renaissance whose popularity immediately spanned generations, he doesn't bring that broad appeal with him to this. Instead, it's one of those animated features that spends most its time hitting targets square on the nose in a way that may bore adult fans of animation but may work really well for the kids it targets. And that's fine, because there's a big space there for kids' movies that don't treat dead parents as a storytelling convenience but something that's at the center of a kid's life, with neither Keane nor writer Audrey Wells seeming afraid to be uncomfortably honest about that. It's direct and straightforward, but that may go over very well with kids the same age as Fei Fei and Chin.

Will they be as impressed with the rest of the film, which as you might expect seems eager to mmic the 1990s Disney formula in the way that all the other studios tried to do at the time before finding their own styles? Maybe not. Cathy Ang and Hamilton's Phillipa Soo have the voices for the requisite songs, but the songs themselves don't have the clever wordplay or the tunes that can carry a bit of visual comedy that the Disney movies featured. The animation of the earthbound action looks okay if a bit bland, pushing a fair amount of pixels but not having a lot of personality; the splashy, colorful look of the lunar city sometimes may be a way to simplify the animation, but it's at least fun to look at. There are some nifty bits, although they're not always consistent. I don't think it gets nearly as much out of imagining its goddess as a pop diva as it could, for instance, especially when the film immediately takes a more traditional track as soon as that's tricky to work with.

It's worth noting that the film is a production of Pearl studios, the former DreamWorks venture now wholly owned by their Chinese partners. They produced last year's Abominable and this has the same sort of feel that comes from American creators making a film very much set in modern China and drawing on that culture, with the idea of having it be a hit on both sides of the Pacific. It doesn't exactly feel clumsy on that account - the filmmakers don't stop everything to explain moon pies to foreign audiences, for instance - although I do wonder a bit if a "biker chicks" pun translates into Mandarin/Putonghua at all. It doesn't seem like anything that should trip a western kid up, especially since almost all will be watching it on Netflix and likely have a tablet or laptop handy to look up something they don't know, but I'd be curious how authentic it feels to Chinese or Chinese-American audiences.

Over the Moon doesn't have what it takes to stand aside the Disney classics to which it is clearly related, a disappointment considering that Keane already has an Oscar for short "Dear Basketball". But, then, it's not for me, and I don't have my nieces around to fill me in on how well it works for them. It's got a fair amount that should connect well to its young audience, but probably isn't one parents will be excited to watch alongside their kids.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, October 16, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 16 October 2020 - 22 October 2020

The theatrical world is upside down, what with the new movie that likely would be direct-to-video if Liam Neeson wasn't in it at the Kendall and the French comedy at Boston Common. Madness.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre adds Martin Eden to its virtual offerings, a bit of a curiosity in that it's an Italian adaptation of an American novel by Jack London, which seems against the usual tide. They also pick up documentary Belly of the Beast, about the discovery and fight against a program of involuntary sterilization in women's prisons, and a Big Small Screen Classic run of Ganja & Hess, which is incidentally part of the "Black Horror" online class that began Wednesday but whose Sunday sessions may still have some spaces left. They also continue Totally Under Control, Aggie, Major Arcana, The Disrupted, and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. They also head out to the Medfield State Hospital for drive-in screenings of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on Friday and Saturday, and later kick off a "Wednesdays with Wiseman" series with The Ballet on the 21st. For that last one, in addition to a nearly three-hour documentary, there will be a conversation between Wiseman and Free Solo filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

    Though Ganja & Hess is technically a vampire film, it's not generally considered to be in the same category as their other Halloween programming. For that, the After Midnite crew continues their "Quattro Di Bava" series with Baron Blood, streaming Friday through Sunday. They've also rescheduled one of their rained-out John Carpenter double feature programs of The Thing & They Live at the Medfield State Hospital for Sunday, with tickets still available. Tickets are also available for their Halloween Rocky Woods shows, with Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead remake on the 30th and 12 hours of werewolf pictures on the 31st, and they'll also be returning there in mid-November 13th, because a little pandemic isn't going to stop Friday the 13th on Friday the 13th, with this iteration featuring The Final Chapter and Jason Lives.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens White Riot, which looks at the late-1970s birth of Rock Against Racism in the United Kingdom, and a restoration of Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine, which takes place in the volatile multi-racial Paris suburbs in the mid-1990s. Also continuing are Once Upon a River, Native Son, The Myth of a Colorblind France, Dead, and The Hole. Faust and Vinyl Nation still have live links, but were scheduled to end on Thursday.
  • Honest Thief is probably the biggest mainstream release since Tenet and maybe through the end of the year, featuring Liam Neeson as a retired bank robber who aims to return his horde in exchange for a reduced sentence so that he can be with his new love without anything hanging over him, only to have the agents he's surrendering to double-cross him. It's at West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), Watertown (including CWX), Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including XPlus).

    In smaller releases, The Kid Detective features Adam Brody as a 32-year-old who was an Encyclopedia Brown type in school and kind of got stuck there, only to be thrust into the big leagues when a young woman brings him the case of her murdered boyfriend. It's at Boston Common and Revere. Also playing is 2 Hearts, which follows two parallel romances in different decades and whose trailer sure does a bad job of hiding an obvious twist. That one has screens at Boston Common, South Bay, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    I'm not sure if Conjuring-in-order is actually just Annabelle-in-order, but Boston Common has Annabelle: Creation, South Bay has Annabelle Comes Home, and Revere has The Nun and Annabelle Comes Home. This week's AMC DreamWorks feature is The Croods, playing Boston Common and South Bay; the Disney Halloween picture is The Nightmare Before Christmas at Boston Common (in 3D), South Bay (in 3D), Watertown, and Revere (in 3D). Fandango has a "4D" note for the 3D showings of that one, but I'd be pretty shocked if they installed motion seats or other gimmicks right now (I'd actually bet against 3D as well, even if the glasses are pre-wrapped). Revere has It, with the second part presumably playing next week.

    Lupin III: The First, the latest screen adaptation of the Monkey Punch manga about a gentleman thief (this one CGI), plays Sunday afternoon at Boston Common & South Bay and Wednesday evening at those two plus Revere. Boston Common and Revere also have Bong Joon-Ho's Memories of Murder on Monday and Tuesday. Revere has PJ Masks: Halloween Tricksters on Saturday and Sunday, The Shining on Saturday/Tuesday/Thursday, anime feature Aura: Koga Maryuni's Last War on Monday, and Sense & Sensibility on Tuesday. South Bay has The Big Chill on Sunday.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square fills other screens with a couple of Netflix productions this weekend, both kind of interesting: Rebecca is a new adaptation of the novel that brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood, directed by Ben Wheatley, who is mostly known for less tony productions, here working with a cast that includes Armie Hammer, Lily James, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Over the Moon also has a noteworthy director in Glen Keane, who won an Oscar for "Dear Basketball" and was the primary character animators for Disney during their renaissance period, making his feature directing debut with an adventure about a girl who builds a rocketship to travel to the moon and meet the goddess thereof.

    Their website is not currently showing any times for Monday and Tuesday, and I wonder if they'd be down to weekends-only if they hadn't already sold tickets for the Stevie Nicks: 24 Karat Gold concert film on Wednesday (it also shows at Boston Common, Chestnut Hill, and Revere that night). The musically inclined can also watch Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, which focuses on his activism as much as his music.
  • The mainstream foreign film getting a theatrical release this week actually comes from France, with Mermaid in Paris a fair-sized hit there and delivering enough French whimsy to maybe collapse under its own weight. For Chinese film fans, My People, My Homeland and Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification continue at Boston Common; Korean film Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is still at Revere.
  • The Boston Women's Film Festival runs through Sunday; I liked Proxima when I saw it at the Sci-Fi festival in February. The virtual festival run doesn't stop there, though, as the Boston Asian American Film Festival kicks off with Definition Please on Wednesday (one night only, limited to MA/NH/ME/RI) and Keep Saray Home, which is available through the end of the festival on 25 October. After that, Independent Film Festival Boston is taking their annual "Fall Focus" online from the 29th to 2 November, and A HREF="">Boston Jewish Film picks things up a couple days later to run from 4 to 15 November.
  • The Regent Theatre has up to 50 seats available for their premiere of Come Together, a concert film featuring frequent guests The Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra, on Friday evening. They are apparently also opening doors for the first night of the Screaming Ostrich International Film Festival, which promises a festival of short films as eccentric as its name.

    In between, they'll be streaming a live concert with Go Now! Playing the music of the Moody Blues in London on Saturday afternoon, and switching up their weekly streaming concert from Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats to The Hitmen on Tuesday They also still have Chet's Last Call and Herb Alpert Is… available to stream through the end of the month.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open Friday through Sunday this week, adding A Rainy Day in New York to their offerings (and Honest Thief, according to Fandango, but it's not on the theater's site). The rest of the lineup includes The Keeper, Lolita, The Bridges of Madison County (Saturday/Sunday), RBG (Friday), The Maltese Falcon (Friday/Saturday), Citizen Kane (Saturday), Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Saturday), and Casablanca (SaturdaySunday), with curbside popcorn pick-up as available on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays.

    They've also got a special preview of locally-shot A Ring for Christmas on Sunday, one of those cable-destined holiday romances, this one centered on a trust fund kid who returns home to seduce her old high-school boyfriend by Christmas because she will inherit a substantial sum if she marries.
  • Thursday's Bright Lights at Home presentation is Code of the Freaks, a documentary on how disabled people have been portrayed on film. Reservations start at noon, the stream begins at 7pm, and the post-film discussion will include producers Susan Nussbaum and Carrie Sandahl
  • The Somerville Theatre is still dark and not updating their virtual screening room listings which still include The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice (no more discount); and a dead link. The Capitol is selling snacks, but their virtual theater is basically empty, with the link to The Surrogate still live but the coupon no longer valid.
  • The Capitol has joined the Brattle, the Coolidge, The Lexington Venue, and West Newton in also offering private rentals for small-size groups, with information on their websites (which often include other fundraising links) or by contacting them directly. The Coolidge has online booking through the 30th and the Brattle currently shows all available slots as filled.
Plenty of good reason to stay in, but I may try to catch the Netflix stuff at the Kendall; The Kid Detective and Lupin III are tempting as well. And as always, if you haven't yet, go to Save Your Cinema to send a letter to your Congresspeople.

Thursday, October 15, 2020


Obligatory eerily-empty multiplex picture:

The fact that all those mini-marquees just say "AMC Theatres" rather than the film playing and its showtime doesn't mean that they're empty; the place at Boston Common has just been doing that for the past year or so. It's kind of annoying, especially since the app doesn't have the big number on it the way a printed ticket stub does (seriously, movie ticketing apps: put the screen number and seat assignment in big, easy-to read characters), but it's not like it's ever kept me from finding my theater, so probably no big deal. I just kind of wonder why. Were so many people theater-hopping that management figured this would make it a little harder so they might as well?

Anyway, I was alone in theater #12, which probably means that the demand from Chinatown has tapered off and that's why it leaves town after tonight. Pretty good three-week run, though, especially since it seems like the Chinese equivalent of New Mutants - the movie that opened up a week before the really big entries to sort of prime the pump and maybe let theaters see if people would come back. Especially when you consider that it was probably also originally keyed to release right around the Olympics. You've got a couple hours to reserve a ticket, because who knows if this kinda-decent movie will make its way to US television screens anytime soon.

Duo Guan (Leap)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2020 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Sports movies have the same problem as sports broadcasting in a lot of ways - particularly, in how both too much desire to make the results a reflection of one's chosen narrative and too much worship of the tough-love coach. Pair that up with a story meant to get the audience waving flags, and you can wind up with something deceptive and even damaging to young athletes looking for heroes. There are moments in Leap when the filmmakers seem very well aware of these shackles, even if they can't quite see their way from escaping them entirely. And it's not like they have to, because most sports stories worth telling have a great final stretch built-in.

This one opens at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where two juggernauts in the sport of women's volleyball - the People's Republic of China and the United States - will face off, with there being a little extra excitement because Team USA coach Lang Ping (Gong Li), known as "The Iron Hammer", is a Chinese sports icon and longtime friends with China's coach Chen Zhonghe (Huang Bo). The two are longtime friends, going back to 1979, when Lang Ping (Lydia Bai Lang) was an 18-year-old newly-recruited to the national team - though coach Yuan Weimin (Wu Gang) won't let her actually practice with a ball until she builds up her strength - and Chen (Peng Yuchang) is a former player just brought on as a "hitting partner" to help mimic the play of specific opponents.

The first half of the film is an often-impressive-looking slog, as director Peter Chan Ho-Sun and writer Zhang Ji follow the patriotic sports story template almost to a fault, with the harsh coach, the unrefined athlete who needs to work harder than everyone else, the timely injury that gives that newcomer a chance to shine, and the opposite-sex supporting character whom one would probably surmise was a love interest if the movie ended with the 1981 World Cup. It's utterly predictable even if one doesn't know the outcome and even if Chan doesn't drench it in nationalist posturing as thoroughly as some might - there's a bit of a wink to how the propaganda posters that show up in the background influence the style where he could be unironically sincere about it. There's been enough money spent that the period details look great, both in terms of bright 1980s colors and how the Japanese team they face in the finals all seem to have nicer uniforms and hairstyles to highlight China's attempt to be taken seriously. It doesn't necessarily help that while Lang Ping's real-life daughter Lydia is a fine athlete in her own right, she's clearly a first-time actress and doesn't click as playing the same person as Gong Li in the same way that Peng Yuchang does in sharing the same role as Huang Bo.

A lot of the material that frustrates in the first half is improved immensely in the second, if not necessarily to the extent one might hope. Consider, for instance, how the fast-forward between 1981 and 2008 is kind of insane, spending absolutely zero time on why Lang Ping would choose to come to America in the late 1980s when it sure seems like that should be a major part of her story, along with how competing in that decade put so much wear on her body that it becomes something regularly mentioned later. The second half often feels like a reaction to the first in terms of how Lang is seemingly determined that the next generation of Chinese athletes has a different experience than she did - best exemplified by how, unless the subtitles deceive me, Lang Ping is the only character who gets a name in 1979, with the other players referred to by their uniform number by "coach" and "hitting partner", while everyone gets a little attention in 2013 - but between the time jump and lack of introspection in the first half, it seldom comes across as two parts of the same story. Instead, it often seems like the filmmakers simultaneously want to make a film about how to improve on a previous era's shortcomings but can't actually admit that that era had faults because, after all, it's still China. It's a tricky line that they don't quite manage to walk, even with Gong Li and Huang Bo on board and giving enough to their characters that one can easily pick up what they're not saying.

The thing is, sports are built to be involving, and when the filmmakers get what works, they can be so much fun that even when a movie is generally a mess, it's hard not to get into a hyped-up Big Game. Chan and Zhang are kind of clever in structuring the movie so that this one climaxes in the quarterfinal match of the 2016 Olympics, because that's where they played Brazil on their home turf, thus making the second half's finale parallel the match against Japan in Tokyo that ended the first. They also appear to have recruited a large portion of the actual 2016 teams to play themselves before recreating their game (and, presumably, other talented players beyond Lydia Bai for the first half), which means that there's no need for doubling or deceptive camera angles; the audience is just seeing the game played by world-class athletes, to the extent that when Chan and his editors sometimes get in the way, it's frustrating because the game they've done well to set up is engrossing on its own.

Overall, I do like the movie well enough when it's being pure sports, and admire the attempt by the filmmakers to honor Lang and her original teammates, especially when it pushes back against familiar toxic coach tropes. I feel like the filmmakers might have really had something had they concentrated on the later years and used flashbacks to inform that; the movie as it is winds up being bloated and a fair bit too timid, especially removed from its home audience.

Also at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Nightstream 2020.01: Run

I'm not quite going to say that the scariest thing about this genre film festival was entering the data for it into the eFilmCritic database and pausing over whether to include "2020" in the title. Like, are we still going to be in a situation where we do this again next October, or maybe just looking to do a smaller one as things are getting back to normal in only a few early fests have had to be cancelled, or might this just be an annual thing where a bunch of festivals bring genre movies to the people who maybe don't live near one?

It's at least been a successful enough event that it could be the latter - the back-end went off without a hitch from what I've read and experienced, and running the whole thing through Eventive meant that my Roku handled it without issue, aside from needing to use the laptop for the Q&A things. Much smoother than NYAFF, at least, among the ones I've "attended", and it was scheduled pretty nicely - a few things (like Run) were only available at set times, and a few things (like the shorts packages) were online at the start, but the rollout of various films throughout the weekend created a bit of a feeling that we're watching it together and making schedules, especially for those who want to sync to the Q&As live, and while it's not perfectly flexible, there's a little something to trying to make this more than just a block of movies available for a limited time.

Speaking of Q&As, the one for Run was fun; the filmmakers talked about how doing these sort of small-scale thrillers was a good way to break into features, and how part of the challenge they were enjoying was finding new things to do within that niche every time, with the one they are working on now a heist movie. One thing that didn't particularly come up that I found was interesting is that star Kiera Allen uses a wheelchair to get around (based on what I've read online), and it's cool that they're not doing a victory lap on representation even though they're clearly making more of an effort than a lot of movies that don't even have the excuse of wanting to do flashbacks do. She's a fun young actor I hope to see more of, especially as she talked about how part of the audition video she sent it was showing how pumped she was for the stunt scene, and how it wound up being half her in a studio and half a stuntwoman on location. It was her first big production, so she was excited by doing stuff like that, or learning how the director would say to look at some counterintuitive point because just looking at her co-star wouldn't necessarily seem right on film. She also was really excited to work with Sarah Paulson, who I've liked since Jack & Jill and has seemed to attain "That Guy" status in recent years - in a lot, sometimes as the lead, but even then not really a star whose name casts a shadow on the production.

Anyway! It was fun, and I'm kind of sad that this wound up going to Hulu instead of theaters, especially since I figure it's the sort of thing theaters could use right now: Short, enough name recognition to get people's interest rather than just looking like opportunistic material, good enough to get good word of mouth and maybe keep playing for a few weeks. Maybe it will get some play - there is a lot of "what the heck, why not play the streaming stuff" at Landmark Kendall Square, after all - but it seems kind of funny that Searching did pretty darn okay in theaters when it was far more built for home screens than this!

Run (2020)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

A couple years ago, director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian made what is probably the best of the recent group of movies presented entirely as what appears on various characters's screens in Searching, and for their follow-up, they don't necessarily entirely go the opposite way, but one of the more suspenseful scenes in Run is built around its heroine trying to do some pre-internet-style search. It's a nifty bit in a film that's got a few of them, packed into a tight little package.

Diane Sherman's baby was born premature with arrhythmia, asthma, diabetes, and lower-body paralysis, with the implication it was because she was a mess 18 years ago. Now, though, Diane (Sarah Paulson) has really gotten herself together, remarkably self-sufficient in her small-town Washington State home, occasionally subbing at the high school, and telling her home-schooling support group that she's excited for her smart, super-competent daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) to go off to college, so they can both really get started on a real life. That acceptance letter from the university seems awfully slow in coming, though, and Chloe briefly spots that her new medication has her mother's name on the bottle, rather than hers.

One way to approach this thriller would be to play coy, choosing one's shots and moments to highlight how normal things seem, and the filmmakers do some clever sleight-of-hand in that regard; because Chloe is in a wheelchair, Chaganty spends a fair amount of the opening act getting the audience up to speed on things that non-disabled people might be familiar with. While noting that set of accomodations, some may be inclined to lump other things in with it, feeding the engine that makes everything function: Certain things aren't "normal" but there's not really any way for the people involved to notice that when it has always been that way.

The filmmakers do that, but they also realize that they can only string it along for so long and that a bunch of reversals which will later get reversed themselves will just make Chloe look foolish when taken altogether even if they seem individually sensible. So they start to tip their hand fairly early, counting on the audience's instincts to carry some weight (and maybe suggest a familiar alternate explanation) even as they build a set of increasingly gnarly situations for Chloe. They might not be showstoppers in other movies, but in this one, they're extremely effective because of how precisely they are deployed: Chloe's attempts to get information that might be otherwise much easier to come by highlight just how strictly parents can sometimes control a kid's life, on the one hand, and on the other, there's a terrific sequence where she's got to MacGyver her way through a house that is far less handicapped-accessible than it was. It feels like a big action scene even if it doesn't particularly suffer from the film losing its big-screen release because it's 2020.

They're all great showcases for Kiera Allen, who is good enough in her feature debut that other filmmakers will hopefully be rewriting characters not originally conceived as disabled to accommodate casting her. She's quickly able to establish Chloe as everything Diane brags about her being at the top but also dive into how she can be abrasive in her desperation and righteously angry. Something that both she and Sarah Paulson tap into that doesn't always come across is that most people aren't really practiced at lying or other forms of deception, and even the big ones tend to rely on people not questioning them. Diane has been lying to herself as well Chloe, and Paulson seldom plays it as clever or convincing as opposed to increasingly desperate.

This lets Chaganty and company go hard with the homestretch, which has a few nifty individual bits but isn't quite up to what came before, one of those cases where switching locations highlights a character's ability to think on her feet at the expense of her being surrounded by things with meaning to her and the audience. There aren't a lot of other missteps here, though, and I'm very excited to see what this group has up their sleeve for their next movie.

Also at eFilmCritic