Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 25 November 2020 - 3 December 2020

Switching the format up a bit this week, since the open-in-person places are (mostly) getting new movies on Wednesday and the ones offering virtual screenings (mostly) reload on Friday.

Based on the ads I'm seeing in various places, I'd be very curious to see what portion of the big new release's box office comes from theater rentals. I mean, if I were foolishly planning a big family get-together or even if I had a fair-sized pod, that would be tempting.
  • Said big new release is The Croods: A New Age, which seems kind of destined to come out during all this - the first one was actually pretty good and nifty to look at, but even those who really liked it probably lost a lot of excitement at the idea of a sequel over the past seven and a half years. Getting a major holiday release date but also not being valuable enough to save for when people are comfortable returning to theaters is kind of like being dumped, and on top of that, 3D screenings are going to be tough to come by even though DreamWorks uses that format better than anyone. It's getting plenty of screens, though, playing Boston Common (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Watertown (including CWX), Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including 3D and XPlus)

    There's a smaller opening for Last Call (aka "Dominion"), with Rhys Ifans in what is supposedly a fine performance as poet Dylan Thomas in his last days "as he dreams and drinks", with chunks of the dialogue and narration presented as free verse. The film has been in limbo for a while, shot back in 2014 and playing a couple film festivals as a work in progress since, but making its way to Boston Common nevertheless.

    The reissues are pretty holiday/winter-slanted too, with the original Frozen playing Boston Common and Watertown; Elf at Boston Common, and The Santa Clause sticking around Boston Common and Watertown. Showcase continues to dig through the Paramount/Miramax/Tarantino library with Pulp Fiction at Revere, and moves up to Pierce Brosnan in their Bond-a-week series with GoldenEye at Revere. The Last Waltz also plays Revere (note that showtimes for Revere's reissues drop from Fandango starting Monday, but may get put back on; I suspect they're leaving room for rentals). Guardians of the Galaxy also hangs around Boston Common and South Bay.

    Magic Mike plays Chestnut Hill on this Wednesday (the 25th) and The Notebook on the next (the 2nd). South Bay has Stand! The Movie Musical on Tuesday; it's an adaptation of Strike! that played Canada last year and whose director (Robert Adetuyi) at least seems to have some experience in shooting movie with choreography and dancing.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has another Netflix awards hopeful in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis as the "Mother of the Blues" and Chadwick Boseman in his final role as her band's trumpet player in the adaptation of August Wilson's play. They've also got Stardust, with Johnny Flynn as a young David Bowie still creating his on-stage alter ego, which isn't a bad idea for a movie but the family wasn't up for it so soon after his death and didn't license any music to the producers, which I imagine leaves a bit of a hole in it.

    Elvis: That's the Way it Is plays next Thursday, the 3rd, and Kendall Square and Boston Common. The Kendall is listed as closed on Monday and Tuesday.
  • The Regent Theatre doesn't yet have a link up for Insert Coin, but they will be streaming the documentary on Chicago-based arcade-game studio Midway, most notable for creating Mortal Kombat. It's directed by Justin Tsui, who produced the pretty entertaining IFFBoston entry The Lost Arcade (which I thought I reviewed but apparently not!). They begin streaming Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol starting Saturday, as well as a one-night livestream of The OTA from their stage on Sunday (but with no in-person seating). They also continue their streams of Herb Alpert Is… and Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man through at least Monday.
  • Zappa had one night in brick-and-mortar theaters and moves to places selling virtual tickets like The Brattle Theatre starting on Friday; Alex Winter's documentary on Frank Zappa does have the full co-operation of his estate, allowing him to use all sorts of archive footage. They also open Sandra Kogut's Three Summers, with Regina Casé as a housekeeper for a family whose fortunes change over those two-plus years, although her Madá has schemes of her own. They've also got a new restoration of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai, which features Hong Kong stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Michelle Reis, and Carina Lau, as well as Michiko Hada. They join Fire Will Come, The Twentieth Century, Francisca, City Hall, Six in Paris, Action U.S.A., and Ham on Rye in their streaming selection.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps The Twentieth Century, Collective, Monsoon, Radium Girls, Smooth Talk, Coded Bias, City Hall, and Martin Eden in their streaming room, with Born to Be joining the line-up on Wednesday the 2nd; it follows the staff at Mount Sinai center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York, with special attention paid to Dr. Jess Ting, who was a renowned plastic surgeon before specializing in gender affirmation.

    Jake Mulligan's "Roger Corman, Producer" begins on Monday with discussion of Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha; slots are still available. Participants have to find the movie themselves, which is also the case with the Coolidge Education entry Watermelon Woman, with cultural critic Soraya Nadia McDonald joining for a Zoom seminar on Wednesday the 2nd. Registration is also open for their annual Film Trivia Night fundraiser, held virtually this year on December 5h.
  • Out-of-town virtual streaming festivals Noir City International and DOC NYC continue through the 29th, with the latter giving you the chance to get a discount and support The Lexington Venue by using the DOCNYC-LEXINGTON code when checking out. The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston's free Thanksgiving program also runs through Sunday, featuring documentary short subjects "After Crossing" and "Moving In Between" and featurette "1 / 3 Millions".
  • Bright Lights at Home skips this Thursday for Thanksgiving, but will be back on 3 December with The Condor & The Eagle, a documentary on Indigenous woman leaders fighting to protect their lands from the climate crisis. The film will be followed by a discussion with climate activists.

    Their colleagues at ArtsEmerson, which whom they would share the Bright Room in normal times, also have a film-ish event, with musician Somi's featurette in the absence of things premiering on Tuesday with a live-stream followed by a conversation with Somi, director Mariona Lloreta, and National Black Theatre Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory, with the film available to stream on-demand for a week afterward.
  • The Museum of Science re-opened their Omni theater last week with "Superpower Dogs" and "Back from the Brink: Saved from Extinction"; like the rest of the museum, timed tickets must be bought in advance, and there are big gaps between showtimes to allow time to clean/sanitize. Sadly, the re-opened theater is now using digital projection rather than classic 70mm-film-with-frames-the-size-of-your-fist-projected-onto-a-dome-the-height-of-a-medium-sized-office-building-with-a-lamp-that-doubles-as-a-death-ray OMNIMAX.

    I believe The New England Aquarium's Imax screen is also digital these days, and is currently only open during the weekend (which includes Friday this week). They also co-present the weekend's GlobeDocs presentation, Entangled - RSVP, stream the documentary about the fight to save the North Atlantic right whale over the weekend, and then tune in for a panel discussion including filmmaker David Abel and a number of experts on Tuesday evening.
  • It looks like The Somerville Theatre site no longer links to their virtual cinema, but they are offering up a link to a streaming version of Slutcracker: The Movie, which is edited together from last year's performances at the Somerville (including two separate casts) starting on Thanksgiving. Their friends at The Capitol in Arlington have the concession stand and ice cream stand open, but are only showing films for private rentals.
  • The West Newton Cinema has not yet posted a holiday-weekend schedule; I wouldn't be surprised if they added The Croods 2 and jettisoned some of The Climb, Pride and Prejudice '40 (Saturday), A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon, and wouldn't be surprised if they didn't.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, the open AMCs (that is, not Assembly Row), the Majestic in Watertown, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (the Belmont Studio has a rental page on their site, but it's the same as it was back before everything). The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through December 23rd, the Brattle has scattered slots through December 3rd. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.

    While the open multiplexes mostly offer the chance at private screenings of their line-ups, it's worth noting that South Bay has listings but no available showtimes for The Star, Bad Moms & A Bad Moms Christmas, Arthur Christmas, The Holiday, and Hook; presumably those are available rentals even if they're not on the marquee.
I've got a ton of Noir City International to watch over the long weekend and will probably also try for Vanguard, Mank, Ma Rainey, and The Croods 2.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Noir City 2020.01: The Black Vampire & Panic

Hey, this technically makes it a Boston-area festival, right?
Okay, that's a reach, as is "this probably would have been the lineup for Noir City Boston at the Brattle", but so what? If there's any series festival shrugging off borders is worthwhile, it's this one.

I've got to admit, watching the first couple night's worth has been fun, but I'm kind of glad that Eventive is letting one rewatch within 48 hours after pressing Play, because I started Panic way too late and dozed off a lot during it, and watching it a second time in the morning just wasn't the same. I suspect that the best thing to do if you go in and out during a movie is write it off and come back later, but with a limited rental like this, I had to do it right away but wasn't really in the mood to either give that second all my attention or half-watch it.

Still, they're both nifty little movies, and if you read this while the series is still going on (link through the 29th), you can see them with the introductions from Eddie Muller and some interesting post-film material, from talk about the Argentine film industry of the 1950s to discussion on the history of subtitling

El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2020 in Jay's Living Room (AFI Silver/Noir City International, Eventive via Roku)

There are some who will say that El Vampiro Negro is the best version of its tale, and while that's a stretch - Fritz Lang's M is a legit classic - this Argentine take on the story from 1953 nevertheless makes a much stronger case for its own existence than many remakes do. It's a smart update of the story which doesn't lose its way for having a lot to say.

It can't escape the inevitable comparisons to its predecessor, of course, in part because star Nathán Pinzón - described in the post-film discussion as an avid cinephile - is seemingly determined to not just play the same part that Peter Lorre played, but to be Peter Lorre in M. It's not quite mimicry, but there's nevertheless a sense that he is pointedly making the same choices and using that performance as a guide wherever he can, and why not? Not a lot of people in Argentina can easily see a 20-year-old German film, and this is his chance to bring something he loves to them. It's not Lorre - it evokes him well enough but doesn't quite have the same "born-for-this" feel that Lorre brigns to it, especially if you've seen the original.

But it doesn't quite matter, because the serial killer in this movie is almost secondary; the film's true villain, arguably, is Prosecutor Bernard (Roberto Escalada), he may not be corrupt but he is always ready to bring the full force of his office to bear if it will help him resolve his case, and that's doubly so if he sees someone as his societal inferior. As such, he sets his sights on Amalia (Olga Zubarry) early on; a single mother who works as a nightclub singer in a club owned by a former drug trafficker (Pascual Pellicota), and who as such has no reason to believe that her precarious position will be helped by doing the right thing. And while director Román Viñoly Barreto and co-writer Alberto Etchebehere were likely pushed to make some changes by mid-century censorship requirements, they're able to be subversive and clever in how they do it: The mob as in organized crime isn't going to be the ones that do the work the police can't in this movie, but the overlooked people - folks with disreputable jobs, the homeless, the disabled - will.

That occasionally makes for a movie that gets a little wobbly when it gets to the child murders that supposedly drive the plot; there's a good argument for the filmmakers not engaging in lurid exploitation, especially since the theme of pitting the privileged against the displaced means that Ulber will be lashing out in a lot of the same ways the underdogs are. It doesn't reduce the horror of the serial killing to a plot device, but it does kind of show that there's enough going on that some things get pushed back a bit.

Panique (Panic)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13-14 November 2020 in Jay's Living Room (AFI Silver/Noir City International, Eventive via Roku)

Notably based on a George Simenon novel from outside his Inspector Maigret series, and it's one of those odd postwar French movies where there's this broad amorality and paranoia that sometimes seems peculiar from 75 years later, oddly dry even for noir.

Part of the thing that makes it so is that while all three leads are good in their parts, only Viviane Romance's Alice seems well-rounded throughout; she's aloof at some points but even as she's working a cynical seduction, she's got genuine affection for the boyfriend who was part of the gang that had her spending a year in jail and a believable as she starts to develop a soft spot for their patsy. Michel Simon is a guy whose charisma comes through as Monsieur Hire - it's not hard to see how he was a big star despite being kind of an odd nebbish in this film. He plays the sort of protagonist who is midway between hero and antihero, right below abrasive but just not-friendly enough that one can see why he's still an outcast. Paul Benard, meanwhile, is a guy you buy as Alice's no-account (and then some) boyfriend Freddy, but he's still someone you're told is charming rather than one where you believe it.

Director Julien Duvivier and co-writer Charles Spaak can't help but see the war over their shoulders as they make the film, and it's maybe a little bit more believably frustrating now than it has been at many times since. Freddy's blunt, seemingly transparent riling up of the townspeople who are already on edge seems kind of ham-fisted, as is the way it rapidly becomes a game of telephone, but it's not like what's going on in the real world is that much more sophisticated. What is a real delight is the town itself, apparently close enough to Paris or some other city to be on the Metro but still isolated; it may be filled with easily duped people but hits a real sweet spot between feeling like something created for the film and real, cozy enough to seem like a set but big enough for a finale. It's a nifty environment to lose yourself in even when you know what's under the surface, and the big finale is one where you can see a lot of the tricks but it's still stitched together into something that's more than a bit impressive in its scale.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 20 November 2020 - 24 November 2020

Short week, because at least some new movies will be opening Wednesday like there's still any difference between holidays and the work week.

  • The Brattle Theatre has two new releases and a reissue this week. The first of the new releases is Fire Will Come, a 16mm-shot film from Spanish director Oliver Laxe with Amador Arias as a man recently released from prison for arson who returns home only to find that even in an isolated situation, he can't escape his past. The other new release is The Twentieth Century, a silent-inspired Canadian film with Dan Beirne as a would-be Prime Minister whose path to the office is bizarrely different than it is in our world. The restoration is Manoel de Oliveira's Francisca, a love triangle involving a novelist, his friend, and the woman they both love. They join City Hall, Six in Paris, Action U.S.A., and Ham on Rye in the virtual screening room.

    The final (?) KinoLorber Euro Horror double feature is The Flesh and Blood Show & Virgin Witch, both available through Tuesday, the latter apparently not available elsewhere. On top of that, RZA joins his 36 Cinema crew for live commentary on Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, to which RZA contributed the soundtrack.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also gets The Twentieth Century as well as Collective, a documentary that follow reporters from a Rumanian newspaper as they investigate the seemingly disastrous care received by survivors of a nightclub fire and find that the story keeps twisting. Monsoon, Radium Girls, Smooth Talk, Coded Bias, City Hall, and Martin Eden also continue.

    On Friday and Saturday, they head out to Medfield State Hospital for what may be the year's last drive-in show, and if so, the locally-shot Knives Out is a fine one to end it with. They're also currently offering registration for Jake Mulligan's "Roger Corman, Producer" series (Mondays from November 30th to December 21st) and their annual Film Trivia Night fundraiser, which will be held virtually this year on December 5h.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation is also listed in the thanks for the movies in the Noir City International series, so I guess we can stretch like crazy to call it a local film festival, even if it is being presented by the AFI Silver in Maryland. It's 19 films from ten countries, with thirteen already available but six new ones with heists, femmes fatales, murder, and more from Italy, France, and the USA still to be unlocked. has extended their virtual festival with a 10-day "encore" running through the 29th, with the DOCNYC-LEXINGTON code still giving you $2 off and kicking some money toward The Lexington Venue.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square looks to be open all through the next week, with the big new release this weekend another Netflix film, David Fincher's B&W Mank, featuring Gary Oldman as the writer of Citizen Kane as well as Amanda Seyfried, Lilly Collins, Charles Dance, and more. They're giving away lobby cards this weekend while supplies last, and if the crowds I've seen are any indication, you've got a good chance of scoring them.

    Their other weekend opening is Sound of Metal, which played IFFBoston's Fall Focus and stars Riz Ahmed as a punk drummer suffering rapid hearing loss. It's another streaming preview, heading to Prime in a couple weeks. Another IFFBoston selection, Zappa, has a one-night-stand on Monday (also at Chestnut Hill & Revere), with director Alex Winter able to source material from Frank Zappa's family trust for his documentary. Their weekly email suggests more musical films coming Wednesday, with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Stardust opening as well as The Croods: A New Age.
  • Vanguard is probably Jackie Chan's biggest American release in some time, especially considering it's not made for an American studio. It was, ironically, not scheduled to hit American theaters for its original Chinese New Year release, and word has it that his latest film with director Stanley Tong didn't just get low ratings on my Hong Kong movie times app because they consider him a CCP stooge these days. Still, it's got some premium screens until Tuesday, playing Boston Common (Dolby Cinema), South Bay (Dolby Cinema), Watertown, Revere. Also opening is The Last Vermeer, with Guy Pearce as an artist (and possible forger) accused of selling a valuable painting to the Nazis. Do not get too excited about the director being named "Friedkin"; Dan is mostly an investor and occasional stunt pilot who made his feature debut as a labor of love. It's at Boston Common, South Bay, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    Reissues include holiday favorites from now until the end of the year, with A Christmas Story at Boston Common on the one hand and The Santa Clause at Boston Common, Watertown, and Revere on the other. Showcase is up to Timothy Dalton in their James Bond Series, with The Living Daylights playing Revere (and skipping Chestnut Hill, depriving folks near the fancy theater of a highly-underrated Bond). Revere also has Kill Bill: Volume 2, after the first part played last week.

    Fate/Stay Night [Heaven's Feel] III: Spring Song plays Watertown through Tuesday and Revere on Saturday/Monday/Tuesday. TCM has the 1982 version of Annie at Chestnut Hill and Revere on Sunday and Monday. Lots of places opening The Croods on Wednesday.
  • The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston has a free film program streaming for Thanksgiving from Monday the 23rd through the 29th, featuring documentary short subjects "After Crossing" and "Moving In Between" as well as featurette "1 / 3 Millions", featuring stories of Taiwan's indiginous Atayal people, a transwoman completing her transition and moving to Japan, and an attempt to return 30 baby tiger sharks to their natural environment.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this week, featuring The Climb, Pride and Prejudice '40 (Saturday), A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca (Sunday) and The Maltese Falcon (Sunday).
  • The Regent Theatre has streams of Herb Alpert Is… and Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man through the month, as well as special streams of local bands playing an Elvis Costello tribute show (Friday 8pm), a Ben Rudnick & Friends Family Fun Show (Saturday 10:30am), and the Whiskers & Whiskey benefit for The Cat Connection (Saturday 7pm)
  • Not going to bother to find a new way to say that The Capitol has the concession stand and ice cream stand open; sister cinema The Somerville Theatre is still closed with their virtual cinema page still having the same links to The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice that they have all summer.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, the open AMCs (that is, not Assembly Row), and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (the Belmont Studio has a rental page on their site, but it's the same as it was back before everything). The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through December 19th, the Brattle has scattered slots through December 6th. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I'm working my way through Noir City International at a leisurely pace and will probably head out for Vanguard and Mank on top of looking into The Twentieth Century.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


Did another movie, because, hey, I needed to go to Marshall's downtown to buy some pants and I'm not exactly sure there's an easier one to get to. I didn't time it that well, though, so I had a half hour to walk around. It's genuinely freaky how empty the city is at 7pm. Sure, it's chilly, but you'd think there'd be people down at the market starting their Christmas shopping:

The theater has gotten a little more bare-bones, too, down to just one ticket-taker by the Imax screen directing you to go upstairs via the elevator, where the whole lobby/concession area is roped off. This is probably the most crowded a movie has been in the past few months - something like 8 of us in a smallish room, capacity-wise, although the seats are bigger. Not bad for something that's not exactly hiding that it will be streaming in a few weeks. Seeing it with an audience was at least interesting, especially when you consider the different reactions that came from Vince Vaughn-as-Millie and a boy about to kiss (where the audience seemed to think it was really weird and kind of gross) compared to a guy kissing Millie's gay friend (no big deal). You can probably parse that however you want.

Anyway, I liked the movie well enough, although I expected to like it more. I was a big fan of the Happy Death Day movies and I really, really like this sort of gender-bender plot, but it didn't all connect for me. I think that a large part of it is that I'm not really a slasher guy, especially when you talk the "faceless, implacable killing machine" variety, so I don't have a lot of affection for the basic set-up, even if I didn't feel like they could have done more with a twist or spoof of it.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2020 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

This movie was almost certainly called "Freaky Friday the Thirteenth" at some point of it being pitched and developed, and I hope the producers reached out to Disney, Paramount, New Line, and/or the estate of Mary Rodgers in the hopes of possibly using that title, because it can't hurt to ask, right? It's fun to imagine what this would be like as a way-off-kilter entry in the franchise(s), rather than a mostly-fun riff that doesn't quite live up to its insane potential.

It starts out in Scream territory, as a group of teens chat about their town's urban legend, the "Blissfield Butcher", a couple of days before homecoming, only to have said killer (Vince Vaughn) show up and do horrible things with the collection of South American relics that one girl's father collects. That's when the film introduces Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a sweet girl who's a bit too accommodating of her mess of a mother (Katie Finneran), especially compared to her sister Charlene (Dana Drori), along with her best friends Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), along with crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) and an assortment of mean girls. Millie is set to become the Butcher's next victim only to be interrupted - and for the pair to find that the ancient Aztec knife the killer used somehow switched their bodies.

From the moment he's introduced, it's easy to see where the filmmakers' inspirations are as far as their killer is concerned; The Butcher is a Jason Vorhees/Michael Myers type: His face is initially hidden behind a mask, his bulk is intimidating, and he sort of lumbers after his victims slowly but crashes through walls and otherwise displays incredible strength, like his body is both stiff from rigor mortis but powered by some demonic force of pure malevolence. The opening gambit is the sort of thing that would fit easily into a Friday the 13th movie (despite its cheeky "Wednesday the 11th" label) where Jason comes upon a group of kids and just exterminates them because they're unprepared and that's what he does. It's one of the first places co-writer/director Christopher Landon shows a genuine fondness for bloody kills and a lack of interest in a PG-13 rating that should please those who like these movies for the gore.

Still, there's a reason that a lot of slashers have more than a dash of murder mystery to them, and Freaky finds itself halfway between the Fridays and Scream (or Landon's own Happy Death Day) as it goes for the twist - its Butcher is initially presented as a hulking, mindless menace, and the filmmakers need to either completely commit to the bit or have him be more, but they never do either. The bits where they play with the tropes of these killing machines are fun, whether it's Millie consistently not knowing her own strength (but not actually being able to run), a scene where a non-vocal "Millie" is presumed to be in shock by Charlene and Coral, or most especially a potential kill where the Butcher finds himself physically outmatched and the audience has to kind of root for him not to get killed in Millie's body so she can get it back (though it might be even more delicious if the shop teacher he's targeting wasn't a complete dick). Eventually, though, Butcher-as-Millie has to act like a person, talking and pretending to be her, and that's when the fact that there's nothing there starts to really become a problem. A slasher villain is built to just be a force of nature, killing teenagers less because he hates anything about them specifically than because they're there, but the script winds up raising questions about what he's got going on inside his head (or technically Millie's) that Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy never do much with.

That may be a missed opportunity, but the filmmakers chose this route, and Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton make a fine tag-team as the body-swapped killer and final girl, both doing a good enough job at capturing Millie's essential sweetness that it's no trouble to follow the character rather than the actor. It's not exact - Vaughn does an exaggeratedly girly run that looks especially silly when Celeste O'Connor sprints past him as Nyla at one point, and Newton's Butcher has a more gleeful nastiness than Vaughn's - but the filmmakers aren't trying to make a point about the pair being more similar than you might think, so the heightened difference work. The cast around them is actually quite good, more than enough to invest in: Particularly noteworthy are O'Connor, who's enough fun as Millie's best friend that I look forward to seeing her in a leading part, and Dana Drori, whose tough older sister plays off Newton's Millie and Katie Finneran's mother in just the right way.

There's no specific moment in Freaky when Christopher Landon and company hit the wall with what you can do with an old-school slasher, even as parody, but they can't really get past the genre's limits, even with a game cast and a fun start. I suspect that this idea's natural format is a 15-minute short that plays the genre film festival circuit to fans' great amusement; doing it as a more mainstream feature dilutes it a bit, but it still does what it sets out to do.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Lady Friends in the British Isles: Ammonite & Wolfwalkers

Some days, an afternoon at the cinema resolves itself into a themed double feature whether you want it to or not. Yeah, they're intended for different audiences and there's only this very surface-level similarity, but you can't not see it.

Anyway, it was a quiet day at the theater. I'm pretty sure that I was the only person in both shows, and I only saw one or two other patrons while I was there. This is probably a good thing - it means that Boston-area folks are taking things seriously, even on what I mentioned was a pretty darn good movie weekend on Friday. The danger of movie theaters may be exaggerated, especially with concessions not being served, but I know that very few people are in the same situation I am (working from home with nobody sharing my space, happy to walk a few miles to avoid the subway). There aren't enough of us to sustain theaters and I wonder to what extent Landmark is being kept relatively-afloat by private rentals. It certainly can't be enough that I can have personal screenings for $14 a pop on the weekend.

Given that, this image from theater #8 amused me:

For this screen, second-row center is where it's at; I want my vision filled and don't want to be off-center if I can help it, and the front row is too close even with recliners. The bullseye was taped off, though, so I went for the front row. I find it sort of hilarious that the situation means I have the theater to myself and I can't use the best seat.

Anyway, I liked Ammonite well enough and loved Wolfwalkers, and I really hope that it's not exclusive to AppleTV+ for very long. It feels like a perfect niece present and I'd hate for it to completely disappear behind the gates of a relatively small streaming service, especially since I have been waiting years for Cartoon Saloon to make a movie with the sort of girl heroes that my nieces love. That it not only comes out in the middle of a pandemic, but it's also set to disappear into Apple's walled garden as soon as its small North American theatrical release finishes, is some monkey's paw garbage.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

The opening scene of Ammonite - a woman on her knees doing scut work being rudely brushed aside so that men can do something which involves erasing the important contribution of a woman - isn't the movie in miniature, thankfully, but that just makes one wonder why it's so prominent. The film is instead a small love story where the tension is the point, one that would probably impress a bit more if it hadn't appeared in such relatively close proximity to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which shares more or less the same structure.

This one also offers a woman, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who is very good at what she does, who is hired not just in her official capacity but to serve as a companion of sorts. Though Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) is an admirer of the Lyme-based fossil-hunter's findings, he is planning an expedition to the continent which his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is clearly not up for. Could Mary keep an eye on her? When it turns out that Charlotte has rather more than "light melancholia", and it has been exacerbated by the water therapy that was in vogue in the 1840s, Mary and her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) wind up taking Charlotte into their tiny home, and their proximity soon reveals attraction.

It's a bit of a plodding film at times, a romance that is often mincingly tentative, with Mary and Charlotte spending a lot of time circling each other. It makes sense; being gay in this particular time and place would mean making absolutely certain that the other person reciprocates your interest and is willing to respond in kind. Writer/director Francis Lee has hit upon a nifty way of illustrating this in Mary's work of finding the ordinary-looking rocks that may have something different inside and carefully bringing that out, but he seldom dives into it. That's too bad, because the process of it would be fascinating to see and it would maybe give this love affair some structure and individuality rather than the way it often feels like Charlotte is willing to fall for anybody who treats her kindly while Mary holds back because she can't be sure and doesn't want to test the waters.

Fortunately, the film has Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who are both good at delivering just what it needs. Winslet gives Mary the proper working-class combination of earthiness and intellect while Roman delivers a sort of innocent insulation from that, but they spark against each other in a way that crosses that boundary without making that big a deal of it. We could maybe do to learn a bit more about each of them, but we don't really need to with what we're given. There are some nice performances around them that do good work in sharpening who Mary is in particular - Gemma Jones's hardened mother, Fiona Shaw's one-time lover, Alec Secareanu as a doctor whose attraction is not going to get anywhere - and it might be nice if there was a bit more of that on the other side; James McArdle never seems wrong as Charlotte's husband, but her world never seems as precise as Mary's.

It's a muddiness that often works to the film's advantage - everything that steers things to Mary's more hardscrabble world rather than the more thoroughly-chronicled intrigues of those in the upper class lets Lee get closer to the raw emotions of these women and how being circumspect is hard and painful - but just as often makes any joy the pair are deriving from their pairing hard to discern. The sex scenes in particular are often more primal release than something happening between two individuals (which, admittedly, does give Ronan a big "oh, so this is how good that's supposed to feel" moment without using those or any words) and the film is otherwise more comfortable in showing the depth of the pair's affection through potential separation rather than how they are together.

There's a coda that hints at a more individual romance which draws on their differences in age, class, and experience, and I suspect I won't be totally alone at getting to the end of Ammonite and wishing I could have seen that story. It's not that movie, and while it's good to have a movie that looks at the board uncertainty as much as the specific, it does make things slow going at times.

Also at eFilmCritic


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The pace of animated film production means that, so long as their work is staggered properly, I can probably get away with calling two or three people the best purveyors of animation out there without it looking too much like I'm being overly enthused about whatever I've seen last. Tomm Moore and the rest of the team at Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenney, Ireland are in that group, and Wolfwalkers may be their best movie yet, a kid-friendly adventure that hits familiar notes but never misses.

The film is set in 1650, when Kilkenney was a walled city expanding its farmlands to keep up with its growth, displacing wolves as it cut down forest. The Lord Protector (voice of Simon McBurney) has hired English hunter William Goodfellowe (voice of Sean Bean) to deal with the wolves, and daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is eager to help. In doing so, she chases her pet falcon Merlin into the woods where she discovers Mebh Óg MacTíre (voice of Eva Whittaker), a "Wolfwalker" her own age who lives in the woods and has access to wild magics, most notably the ability to manifest as a wolf when she sleeps. Mebh's mother has been looking for a place to relocate their pack, but she has been gone a long time, her sleeping body inert.

Those in the audience older than Robyn and Mebh (pronounced like "Maeve") will likely find that much of the story hits familiar beats, but this isn't a mark against it; screenwriter Will Collins (working from a story by directors Moore & Ross Stewart and Jericca Cleland) takes care to earn the story's next steps without crossing a line from challenging to cruelty. It's familiar, but more because the writers are following what kids and adults would do in this sort of situation rather than trying to fit a framework. They're canny about setting it at a point where magic seems possible but naturally imbuing it with material that feels contemporary, from bullying to the long and contentious relationship between Ireland and England to fanaticism to environmental impact, all of it interconnected. The story is simple but the background is rich and relatable to its viewers.

And, of course, it's gorgeous, and the different ways in which it looks fantastic are worth considering. There's the conventional ones, where action-packed animation is smooth and not overwhelming, or how it will occasionally pause for an especially great image. The character designs are shapes that kids can draw themselves but which still manage to be expressive, able to use things like the complementary curves on Robyn and William's heads without it being too cutesy or switch styles to quickly show the power of a wolf's senses and other magic. On top of that, there are numerous moments in this film where they buck conventional practice in deliberate, striking fashion - where so much of even hand-drawn animation is concerned with realism, these filmmakers will just as often use the medieval Irish art as a guide, and the effect is often amazing, as when a flattened style makes Kilkenney look as massive as any modern city without it becoming anachronistic, or where they go even further and just get rid of conventional perspective because something else works better. It's downright beautiful to look at while still feeling alive, such that the film seldom narrates something other filmmakers might, because the visual tells you enough.

On top of that, its two young heroines are delightful, an odd couple whose pairing has a genuine edge to it in their early encounters though they nevertheless quickly become fast friends. The animators give them contrasting shapes and different body language that translates surprisingly well to that of wolves, and the voiceover work by young actresses Honor Keafsey and Eva Whittaker is really quite excellent, whether it's how the two girls play off each other, how Mebh's bluster occasionally cracks, or Robyn imitating her father. In the middle of all that, the filmmakers are able to give some attention to how William, the bravest man Robyn can imagine, is scared all the time in a way that seems far more raw than is usual, with Sean Bean absolutely nailing the line where it all comes out, without taking away from how this is the girls' story.

A few heavy-handed pushes near the end aside, this film does everything right, moving at the sort of steady pace a younger viewer can follow without ever seeming hobbled. It's an exciting story that works as a couple hours' adventure and is packed with enough mythology, history, and art to start a curious child down any number of paths and one which encourages young girls to see and do what's right even when well-meaning adults say otherwise. I love it and hope my nieces do as well.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, November 13, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 13 November 2020 - 19 November 2020

Virus numbers are spiking, so the rules of irony dictate that we've got one of the best weekends for moviegoing since Tenet came out, good enough that I can actually grumble about what's playing where and the weird rules that different chains have for which studios they will deal with.

But first, the options for sensible people staying in.

  • At The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the newest release is Monsoon, starring Henry Golding as a man who left Vietnam as a refugee when he was six returning for the first time. They also open three others with guests scheduled: Radium Girls, a docudrama about women who fall sick while painting glow-in-the-dark watches in 1928, has directors Lydia Dean Pilcher & Ginny Mohle and environmental epidemiologist Dr. Richard Clapp dialing in for a Q&A on Monday, and Smooth Talk has director Joyce Chopra on hand Tuesday to discuss her 1985 film which served as a breakout role for Laura Dern. Coded Bias opens on Wednesday, and a panel will get together virtually on Thursday night to elaborate on the documentary's subject of how supposedly-unbiased computer systems (especially facial recognition) often take on the priorities of those who program them, notably in that they are optimized for white men. Thursday night also features a "Coolidge Education" seminar on Fritz Lang's M. Register, get an introduction from writer Farran Smith Nehme, watch the film on your own, and then come back for the Zoom discussion.

    Since it's Friday the 13th, they'll be showing two films from the series (The Final Chapter and Jason Lives) at Rocky Woods on Friday and Saturday, with tickets still available. Last one of these until August, I think. They also continue to stream City Hall, Hospital (through Tuesday), the Frida Kahlo "Exhibition on Screen", and Martin Eden.
  • The Brattle Theatre brings in City Hall, including a special post-film conversation between director Frederick Wiseman and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. They also pick up a pair of new restorations: Six in Paris is a 1965 anthology film in which different up-and-coming directors made a short film about a different neighborhood, and those directors included Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Cabrol. On the other end of the spectrum is Action U.S.A., a 1989 flick by stuntman 1989 which apparently has him sticking to what he knows - non-stop practical mayhem. They join Nationtime, Sweetgrass, and Ham on Rye in the virtual screening room.

    They also continue to team up with various partners: The current Euro Horror double feature is Baron Blood & Requiem for a Vampire, available through Tuesday, with one more week's worth announced on Wednesday. Friday night's 36 Cinema movie-with-commentary has Jim Jarmusch talking about how Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill was one of the inspirations for Ghost Dog. Their friends at The DocYard will be streaming Unapologetic, which follows two Chicago organizers as part of the Movement for Black Lives. It plays Friday to Thursday, with the filmmakers participating in a Q&A Monday night.
  • Boston Jewish Film has one last weekend to go, with Q&As for Honeymood, Shared Legacies, and Sublet along with three other live-streaming events, including Sunday's Closing Night Cocktail hour.

    DC's AFI Silver theater may not be local, but that's hardly a reason not to dive into their Noir City International series, especially since it's likely that its selections would have been the program for Noir City Boston had that happened this year. It's 19 films from ten countries, with one to four new ones coming online daily from the 13th to the 22nd and available through the 29th. Not quite so far down the virtual coast, DOC NYC is being held online, and you can help support The Lexington Venue by using the coupon code DOCNYC-LEXINGTON, which both saves you $2 and makes a donation of the same amount to the theater every time it's used. It started Wednesday and runs through the 19th.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square opened Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy on Wednesday (as did Watertown), and turns a great deal of its screens over this weekend. The big release is Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as a fossil hunter in the 1840s who is charged with an apprentice (of sorts) in her patron's young wife (Saoirse Ronan), though their relationship grows from there. It also plays Watertown and Chestnut Hill. I saw the trailers for it and The Climb before nearly every film I've seen there since it re-opens, and the latter also opens this weekend, a story of a close but sometimes toxic friendship written and played out by real-life friends Michael Angelo Covino (who also directs) and Kyle Marvin. It also plays West Newton, Boston Common, and Revere, but Landmark will be hosting a conversation between the filmmakers and Judd Apatow on Saturday afternoon.

    The new animated film by Tomm Moore should be a big darn event - The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea were both terrific - but only Kendall Square is giving it a regular release before AppleTV swallows it up, though others (Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown, Revere) will have weekend shows of this story of two young Irish girls, one of whose family hunts wolves and the other of which may become one. And, believe it or not, this boutique-focused place is the one opening Fatman, which stars Mel Gibson as Santa Clause, fighting off an assassin (Walton Goggins) hired by a disappointed 12-year-old. They're closed Monday and Tuesday but will re-open Wednesday for an NT Live showing of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's original Fleabag play (which means an extra couple days for Wolfwalkers too).
  • The week's big theatrical release is Freaky, a slasher film in which the killer (Vince Vaughn) somehow switches bodies with one of his intended victims (Kathryn Newton), allowing for all manner of chaos and carnage, with Millie desperately trying to find a way to get her own body back before "he" is caught. It's front Christopher Landon, who made the surprisingly good Happy Death Day movies, and plays Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Watertown (including CWX), Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including XPlus).

    Frustratingly, Watertown seems to be the only place showing Come Away, which imagines Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland as siblings - and the children of David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie - before being pulled into their fantasy worlds. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Caine, and Derek Jacobi are also in this, which is the first live-action film by Brave director Brenda Chapman.

    Guardians of the Galaxy is the biggest of the re-releases this week, playing Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown, and Revere. Girls Trip and Minions play Boston Common & South Bay (with Toy Story also sticking around there); the Common has John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 and holdover Goldfinger. Revere has Kill Bill: Volume 1 and their weekly Bond is Roger Moore, featured in The Spy Who Loved Me.

    The Outpost finishes its four-day "run" at South Bay and Watertown with shows on Friday and Saturday. Anime fans get a double feature of Fate/Stay Night [Heaven's Feel 1 & 2 at Watertown and Revere on Saturday, with Part 3 ("Spring Song") playing Wednesday. There are 40th anniversary shows of Flash Gordon at South Bay, Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and Revere on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, and the Sex and the City movie also plays Chestnut Hill and Revere on Wednesday. Apparently Jackie Chan's latest, Vanguard, rates a "fan event" at South Bay and Revere on Thursday before its early shows and Friday official opening.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Wednesday this week, including The Climb, as well as 1940's Pride and Prejudice (Friday/Sunday), A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Friday/Saturday), Casablanca (Friday/Saturday) and The Maltese Falcon (Saturday/Sunday).
  • The Regent Theatre has extended their stream of Herb Alpert Is… through November, and will apparently be streaming Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man sometime soon, though the link is not yet up on their site. They will be hosting a live performance of Deborah Henson-Conant on Saturday evening with both in-person seating and streaming versions (although the kids' matinee has been canceled). They've also rescheduled a previous theater show of the 11th Annual "Ciclismo Classico" film program as a streaming event on Thursday.
  • Thursday's Bright Lights at Home presentation is Dope Is Death, a documentary about an "acupuncture detoxification" clinic in the Bronx that opened in 1973 and still functions to this day. Free registration opens at noon on Thursday, with the stream starting at 7pm and followed by a discussion with director Mia Donovan.
  • The Capitol has the concession stand and ice cream stand open; sister cinema The Somerville Theatre is still closed with their virtual cinema page still having the same links to The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice that they have all summer.
  • AMC's app is now letting you rent screens at their open theaters (three screens seem to be blocked out an Boston Common and two at South Bay), with $99 getting you and your pod the room for one of their "Fan Favorites" and new releases running $299, which is roughly the price if you've got a group of 20. The Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, and Apple Fresh Pond (I think?) are available for private rentals, with the Coolidge showing slots available to reserve online through November 22nd, and the Brattle having times available through 6 December. Call whoever's closest up if you've got a group and something you'd like to see on the big screen
I'm laying down money for Noir City and Action U.S.A. and will probably try and catch Wolfwalkers, Freaky, and Ammonite. I'm either trying to talk myself into or out of finally checking the theater at Watertown out for Come Away, currently leaning toward "out of" because it's a heck of a hike from Harvard Square, which is the only way I can figure on doing it without getting on a bus.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 6 November 2020 - 12 November 2020

It kind of feels like everybody figured on folks just wanting to lie down and rest after this week. If that's the case, they aren't exactly wrong.
  • And if you want to just lie around for a while, The Coolidge Corner Theatre has you covered, with Frederick Wiseman's newest, City Hall running four and a half hours to give viewers a deep dive into the goings-on within Boston's City government. Wiseman himself will be on-hand for a live streaming Q&A Sunday afternoon, and two of the previous films from the "Wednesdays with Wiseman" series, Sinai Field Mission and Hospital, are also available, including chats between Wiseman and other noteworthy documentary filmmakers.

    Frida Kahlo is a more manageably-scaled film at 90 minutes, although Ali Ray's "Exhibition on Screen" presentation is apparently more than just an overview. Those films join Coming Home Again, La Strada, Martin Eden, and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life in the virtual screening room.

    After taking a week off, the Coolidge Education series is back on Thursday with "Filmspotting" co-host Josh Larsen talking The Royal Tenenbaums on Thursday. Find a copy or stream, watch the introduction, and then join Thursday's Zoom call. After that, it's Friday the 13th, which means they head to the Rocky Woods for a double feature of The Final Chapter & Jason Lives on the 13th and 14th. A week later, the Coolidge crew will be at Medfield State Hospital with Knives Out on the 20th and 21st. A bit further down the road, there's a "Roger Corman, Producer" class planned for Mondays starting the 30th.
  • The Brattle Theatre is the local home for Kino's Wild Wednesdays: Euro Horror series, with new titles announced Wednesdays at 10:30am. The selections available as of the 4th are The Blood Beast Terror and The Man Who Haunted Himself, with one or two more weeks on tap; that's in addition to the Dusk-Til-Dawn Drive-In Marathon, where $20 gets you 4 restored horror/exploitation classics in The Nude Vampire, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Lisa and the Devil, and House of Whipcord. They also continue to feature Nationland, Sweetgrass, Ham on Rye, and White Riot in the virtual screening room. Check back on their site and follow them on social media, because occasionally new series like this have just popped up mid-week.
  • Boston Jewish Film continues online this week, with the whole program online but several live Q&As, obviously, taking place at specific times, so get lined up that way. It continues through the 15th.

    Not a local festival, but still worth noting: DC's AFI Silver theater has had a number of online festivals, and the films in the Noir City International series likely would have been the lineup for Noir City Boston had that happened this year. Maybe it will be pushed to next year, maybe not, and I kind of wish this was like other programs where you could support your local theater, but it's an awfully great slate.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square opens Netflix's The Life Ahead, starring Sophia Loren as a Holocaust survivor who takes in a 12-year-old who tried to rob her, on Friday, and Hillbilly Elegy on Wednesday, the latter being Ron Howard's adaptation of the controversial recent sensation, with Amy Adams and Glenn Close. The latter also plays Watertown, and its Wednesday opening means that the the Kendall is only closed Monday and Tuesday this coming week
  • At the multiplexes, the main opening is Let Him Go, starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as parents who, having lost their son, are determined to get their grandson back from the other half of his family, who are apparently loonies in a fortified compound. Interesting how Lane is pretty consistently billed above Costner in the advertising for this even though the synopsis generally starts by talking about his character, eh? It's at Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    As near as I can tell, True to the Game didn't get a theatrical release here, but True to the Game 2 does, with Erica Peeples as a woman who has left her boyfriend's violent life behind but who nevertheless crosses paths with old associates. It's at Boston Common and Revere. The Majestic in Watertown goes with underground-boxing movie Jungleland and Joel Kinnaman thriller The Informer, which has been kicking around various markets for a year or so before finally landing here.

    The first hook for this week's reissues is Veteran's Day, with 1917 playing Boston Common, American Sniper at Boston Comm and South Bay (including Imax), and They Shall Not Grow Old playing Revere (in 2D); the second is the late Sean Connery, with Goldfinger and The Hunt for Red October at Boston Common. Get Out also returns to Boston Common and South Bay, Happy Death Day returns to South Bay ahead of the director's Freaky, while Revere gets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Departed, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service for the weekly James Bond selection, the latter also at Chestnut Hill. Toy Story gets a 25th Anniversary run close to the actual week of its original release at Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere.

    One-offs include the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at South Bay and Watertown Friday & Saturday; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and Revere on Sunday and Monday; war movies Recon at South Bay, Watertown, and Revere on Tuesday and Rod Lurie's The Outpost at South Bay, Watertown, and Revere on Wednesday & Thursday (apparently a "director's cut"); and Crazy Rich Asians at Chestnut Hill and Revere on Wednesday. South Bay has something named "Purgatory" on Thursday, which may be a Filipino horror movie from 2016, a preview of a forthcoming TV series, or something else.
  • The Lexington Venue is otherwise closed, but they will host a few screenings for Caleidoscope: Indian Film Festival Boston this weekend, with Barunbabur Bondhu Friday, Achcham Madam Naanam Parirppu and Hellaro Saturday, and The Parcel Sunday. Six other features and seven shorts are available to stream.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday this week. The continue to show the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, A Rainy Day in New York (Friday-Sunday), Honest Thief, The Keeper, Tenet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday), and bring back Casablanca (Saturday) and The Maltese Falcon (Friday-Sunday).
  • The Regent Theatre has extended Herb Alpert Is… through November, and also has both live streams and in-person attendance for Friday's "Lyrically Speaking" cabaret show and Saturday's Hugh Hanley kids' show. The streaming "Together Tuesday" show finishes up with both Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra to Mojo & The Bayou Gypsies concerts available as an inexpensive double feature.
  • This week's Bright Lights at Home show is A Woman's Work, telling the story of two former NFL cheerleaders who filed a class-action lawsuit for rampant wage theft and illegal hiring practices. Free registration opens at noon on Thursday, with the stream starting at 7pm and followed by a discussion with director Yu Gu.
  • The Capitol still has the concession stand and ice cream stand open; sister cinema The Somerville Theatre does not, but still has live links on their virtual cinema page including The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice, though the latter two no longer seem to be sharing with the theater.
  • Screens at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, and Apple Fresh Pond (I think?) are available for private rentals, with the Coolidge showing slots available to reserve online through November 22nd, while the last email from the Brattle had everything taken. Call whoever's closest up if you've got a group and something you'd like to see on the big screen
I'm three festivals behind on writing up reviews, so maybe I'll concentrate on that and try to chip away at the shelves. If you're planning to go out, note that Boston and other cities are stepping up stricter restrictions starting this weekend in response to rising infection rates and in anticipation of flu season, although it doesn't seem to have impacted things much beyond moving showtimes up a little so that they mostly appear to let out before 9:30pm.

Thursday, November 05, 2020


Finally! This isn't necessarily a movie that I was waiting for impatiently, but one I was hoping to see earlier on a couple of occasions and it never worked out. I got a publicity email about it which showed that it wasn't going to be booked in Boston near the start of January offering screeners. I emailed back, yes, send me a link, I've reviewed a whole ton of Korean films for EFC and would like to review this one! Nothing. Mid-January, I strongly considered bus-tripping it to NYC to see it, but didn't for some reason or other (some combination of "it's cold", "it's either a long day or an expensive hotel room", "there's something else going on closer to home"). A Hong Kong disc was announced for mid-May, but Hong Kong wasn't shipping stuff to North America at the time. Finally, an American Blu-ray that came out the first week of October but which I finally put in the player last night. Well, not quite "finally", as the Korean place I occasionally order from is showing a release there in a couple of weeks from now. No 3D or 4K versions, though, which is a pity, because this is a movie that could do well with those.

Not that I have any idea whether or not it played in 3D in Korean theaters or not, or even to what extent 3D is/was-as-of-December-2019 a big thing in South Korea any more than it is in the U.S. A year or so ago, a South Korean place was a good bet to find combined 3D/4K releases, but you don't see the 3D ones much any more, so maybe it's not particularly popular there despite what one occasionally reads about other over-the-top exhibition tech showing up on the peninsula. I wonder this, though, because it seems worth noting that both this and Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula both wound up having a lot of car-chase material, and it occurs to me that car chases are the sort of thing that would go great with those theaters that have screens on the left and right sides of the auditorium. You don't need to specifically stage a whole lot of action that only a small percent of the folks going to the movie will see - just stick a couple of small HD/4K cameras on the sides of your rig as you zoom through the desert or city streets - but having scenery whizzing by in one's peripheral vision will probably enhance the visceral impact of that sort of action quite a bit.

Aside from that, I'm considering giving the disc a quick re-insert today to see if it gives you alternate opening credits if you choose to watch in Korean without subtitles, because it was initially kind of odd to see how those titles were entirely in English. I don't particularly think the Korean version would credit one of the actors as "Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee", but then, I suspect figuring out what to do with him when you're advertising is kind of weird, since different parts his American fandom probably know him by different names.

His English being better than most people who play "Korean-American" characters in Korean movies isn't surprising - his family lived in the US for some time - but it's kind of an interesting thing to watch as these movies become more international. I can't tell whether he sounded particularly "American" when speaking Korean, but it might explain why there's occasionally references to his characters being Korean-American when he pops up in other movies, if it's something a Korean audience would notice. This one also had a couple lines about Lee Byun-Hun's character having a southern accent despite playing a North Korean, which amused me some because he actually did sound kind of different from the rest of the cast, and I probably have assumed that this was a North Korean accent without the filmmakers specifically telling me otherwise.

It's a funny coincidence that I put this in right after finishing my post on Minari, because I did kind of find myself idly wondering what South Korean folks think of Steven Yeun in movies like that where he's playing native Koreans, especially since he's the only part of the main cast who doesn't match his character's background. Is it jarring? He could have believably been Korean-American in Okja and his delivery in Burning was meant to sound like he came from nowhere in particular. Maybe he's got a really good Seoul (or wherever) accent in his pocket.

Anyway, if nothing else, this was a pretty enjoyable way to close my laptop, put my phone away, and not continually read about news that would make me nervous all night despite there being nothing I could do, and let's be thankful for that!

Baekdusan (Ashfall)

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

Ashfall is the sort of movie that looks made for a splashy world-wide release: Slick visual effects, a plot that hits the sweet spot between being of its origin country (and thus not easily remade) but readily accessible to outsiders, and a couple of cast members who are already international stars. The problem: It hit screens in South Korea on the day that The Rise of Skywalker opened in the rest of the world, and between that and Oscar season, screens would be hard to find in areas that don't have large Korean-American communities (it even skipped Boston, where such films tend to do okay). It's good enough to be fun on video, even if its timing wasn't great.

It opens hopefully, with North Korea's impending denuclearization on the news while Captain Cho In-Chong (Ha Jung-woo) and his team defuse a piece of unexploded ordnance from the Korean War; he's due to be decommissioned later that day and looking forward to spending it with his pretty pregnant wife Choi Ji-Young ("Suzy" Bae Su-Ji) before Seoul is hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and the new gets worse: Mount Baekdu on the border of North Korea and China has erupted, devastating Pyongyang and leaving the North in chaos, and is poised to do so three more times in as many days, with the last one likely to devastate the entire peninsula.

Fortunately, Senior Secretary to the President Jun Yoo-Kyung (Jeon Hye-Jin) recalls a paper by visiting Korean-American scientist "Robert" Kong Bong-Rae (Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee) outlining a long-shot technique to vent the magma before it erupts, but which would require at least a 600-megaton explosion. Fortunately, those last six nukes are still somewhere in the DPRK, but their only lead is an informer, Ri Jun-Pyong (Lee Byung-Hun), who will have to be broken out of prison. A hard enough task for seasoned combat soldiers, but one of the two planes carrying the secret mission can't make it through the ash, the whole thing falls on Cho's squad of engineers.

It is a gloriously over-the-top scenario even before you get to the many ways Ri is not to be trusted and how the President (Choi Kwang-Il) recognizes right away that their American allies are not going to be cool with a plan that involves detonating a nuclear bomb on the Chinese border for a 3.5% chance of success (though Kong is working on it!). If nothing else, filmmakers Kim Byung-Seo and Lee Hae-Jun are dedicated to keeping their characters busy enough that the audience doesn't have a lot of time to feel let down after the splashy opening that may also be where most of the effects budget was spent, or because the characters succeeding will mean there's not a whole lot of destruction at the climax. It's one thing after another, and maybe it's not insightful and intricate, but it's exciting and good enough to keep the audience from going "hey, that's stupid" as they move from one action bit to the next

It means none of the impressive cast are doing their most exceptional work, but they're all giving the movie what it needs. Ha Jung-Woo, for instance, gives good "working-class guy stuck trying to save the country" as Cho, easy to get behind and funny without becoming comic relief, a great foil Lee Byung-Hun, whose Ri is intimidating enough to be believable as a dangerous, sophisticated spy but able to look kind of foolish when he and Cho are talking about ordinary things. They're a comedic-style odd couple with enough genuine tension to not make what's going on a joke. Ma Dong-Seok is, as usual, a delight on the side, playing the fussy and kind of cowardly scientist easily despite most of how his parts play into his being a big intimidating guy; there's clearly some sort of backstory about him having rejected his home country that doesn't need to be dragged in despite it making for nice interplay with Jeon Hye-Jin's Jun. Suzy Bae makes for an unusually strong girlfriend-in-danger.

Filmmakers Kim & Lee have a good visual-effects budget to work with and know what to do with it; the budget may not be Emmerich-sized but they know how to get maximum impact from short bursts of FX work and plenty of on-the-ground action. Kim has been the cinematographer for a lot of other glossy/big-budget features, and between them they're good at making chaotic firefights clear and letting the audience get long, wide looks at what's going on before zooming in to the middle of the action. They don't let a lot of fat build up and are good at finding the spot where there are high stakes but the action and adventure are fun - challenging, but not crushing.

It makes for a big, fun disaster movie that has just enough other than destructive spectacle going for it to be a decent at-home watch. It's a shame that more people outside of South Korea didn't get to see it as a giant-screen blockbuster.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2020.01: Minari

Not quite like being there, but…
I haven't seen Brian Tamm since, well, probably some rep show at the Brattle in January or February, and as much as going out to that theater to film these introductions for the various films in the Fall Focus may be a bit of an affectation, it's a welcome one, a slight nudge toward normality in a situation where everything seems compromised and out of place. These intros can't help but remind us that we're not there, but at least get us a little closer rather than pushing us away.
Nancy Campbell, his co-director at IFFBoston, didn't attempt to stage a festival-style Q&A by necessity, but instead had a nice chat with writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and Kim's Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee that was free to go in a number of different directions naturally. You could tell that getting this story told in this way was a big deal not just for the filmmaker but for other Asian-American viewers. I love immigration stories a lot even if I can't directly relate to them (and if this one doesn't quite fit the category), but to see everyone on-screen talking about seeing themselves in a way they don't often get to is almost the best part, and it might possibly have made Minari the best virtual-festival experience of the year, because viewing a movie with an audience that has something more than just a couple hour's entertainment invested and seeing how they react is a big part of what makes going to a festival so great compared to just queuing two or three things up in an evening.

It was good talk when they got to stuff that was a bit more nuts and bolts, too, like how Chung was very lucky to be able to have most of the movie in Korean, because that's often a point of negotiation and I suspect that they were making this before The Farewell demonstrated that you could tell an American story even if most of the characters speak their first language rather than English. I was glad to hear that, in part because one of my favorite moments of the movie was when the two kids started speaking Korean on a bus with other kids (most if not all white) after having mostly spoken English with each other but Korean with their parents throughout the rest of the movie. It's such a telling little point that might disappear if you have everybody speak English to make things easier on the audience (which is often a valid choice).

Anyway, I really liked this movie and immediately linked it with In America in my head, which is one of my absolute favorites.and which I am absolutely shocked is not currently available on disc. It's rentable and streamable if you've got the right services, and I do have a copy (so old that it has widescreen on one side and pan & scan on the other), heartily recommended if Minari has you wanting more after A24 settles on a release date.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Movies like Minari are often close enough to the same in their broad contours that the little ways in which they surprise their viewers become all that much more intriguing. One doesn't necessarily want a story of immigrants trying to find their way in a new country to veer too far from the template - it's a genre meant to reassure the audience as much as anything - but what makes the great ones special is how they can be both earnestly hopeful and unpredictable at once.

Here, the family is the Yis, arriving in rural Arkansas in 1989. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Yeri) arrived in California from South Korea a dozen years ago, with children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) born in America. Jacob, it seems, has misrepresented their new home somewhat - rather than a house with room for a garden, it is a trailer in a field that he intends to farm when not working at the poultry plant. Even with local veteran Paul (Will Patton) helping, they are still stretched too thin - David has an issue with his heart that requires watching - so they are soon joined by Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung), who is not exactly the David's idea of what a grandmother should be.

Indeed, she's not exactly what one would generally expect Monica's mother to be. They have one of those relationships where one suspects the daughter has spent a great deal of her life trying to avoid becoming her mother even if there's no animosity, and it's the sort of thing that one will immediately catch onto even if writer/director Lee Isaac Chung doesn't spend much time spelling it out. There's something similar going on with Jacob and Monica, with a little bit more in the way of detail revealed there. There's friction in their marriage, and it has always been there, not just as something Anne and David recognize, but all the way back to Korea, and one wonders how many times they have looked for a new start. Chung at one point has them refer to how Jacob has always been more country while Monica gravitates to the city, something their chosen English names reflect, whether they recognize it or not.

It's the sort of clear but not constraining characterization that gives the cast plenty to work with, with Steven Yeun doing an especially fine job of keeping the way in which Jacob is a man often consumed by pride and an earnestly-motivated need to succeed present at all times but also giving him the right sort of self-awareness. There's a bit of fear there when he gets angry or feels things closing in, and it makes the times Jacob and Monica get into shouting matches feel more tragic than like a situation where one is likely to take sides, especially when contrasted against Han Yeri's Monica. Han takes the character that could be mainly cowed and confused - the wife who is a fish two layers out of water as they follow her husband's dreams - and seizes on how she's perceptive enough to see things very clearly in most cases, letting that surface rather than stay buried. This pair never quite fit together and maybe never have, but they're together even if it's never going to be easy.

They may be at the heart of it, but the film is mostly from David's point of view - he's Chung's stand-in for this semi-autobiographical tale - and Chung and the cast do a good job of capturing both how a seven-year-old would see them and what an adult figures out later. Youn Yuh-Jung has played more than a few unconventional grannies of late in hernative South Korea, and there's a liveliness to Soon-ja that doesn't hide her wisdom but intertwines with it. Like her daughter, she sees things pretty clearly and approaches them directly rather than trying to outsmart a situation. She plays very well off young Alan Kim so that Soon-ja can simplify herself for a young boy without talking down to him. Will Patton does something neat with Paul, taking the sort of big tics that can look like someone trying too hard and always redirecting them into something that implies that living with what's in his head is harder for him than it is for the people who may find him off-putting. He may never quite seem natural, but it eventually goes from being stuff Patton is doing to what Paul is enduring.

It's a bit of a shame that there's not a whole lot of Noel Cho to do in here as Anne, but Chung kind of realizes this, and if she doesn't get the "I've been holding this family together" line that Sarah Bolger got in In America, there's something maybe a little better in the way Chung and the movie acknowledge that the smart and sensible daughter often gets overlooked in this situation and shouldn't be. It's one of many details that are sometimes surprising because they're not the easy storytelling choice but nevertheless ring true even as they push things a certain way. There are two or three moments, for instance, when it looks like the audience may be in for some racism, but Chung finds a way to handle the moment in a way that's hopeful and keeps the emphasis on the Yis but also gets across that it's a heck of a thing to have hanging over you. The characters go to church, but it feels like a complicated relationship, and there's a great deal of sympathy for the people out there living tough lives, acknowledging that often you can't just work your way out of a situation without being fatalistic. I love the attention paid to how David and Anne tend to default to English when talking with each other but Korean with their parents and grandmother, and then sometimes switch to Korean when they are surrounded by monolingual local kids.

Minari is also a nice-looking film, with bright solid colors and a way of framing practical everyday things without mythologizing them and production design that doesn't just nail the late 1980s but also recognizes that nothing in this situation is going to be new or fancy. It's an attitude that reflects just why this story works so well - it knows its characters, time, and place, and is sentimental about them without ever being trite. It's downright beautiful in both its comforting familiarity and personal, unpredictable detail.

Also at eFilmCritic