Monday, December 28, 2020

Merry-ish Christmas from Kendall Square: News of the World, Promising Young Woman, and The Midnight Sky

I've kind of known that going to the movies on Christmas is a thing, beyond it just being a good week where a lot of people are off work, but never really did it. I've got a fair-sized extended family a couple hours away, and even though there are enough people with inlaws among them and snowbirds, it's rare that I'm not up there for at least the day, if not crashing in someone's spare room, and even when I get home in time for a movie, I'm pretty run-down and pretty much ready to be done.

Obviously, not getting on a train for a couple of hours this year even if I was cool with hanging around a dozen people who all have other people they've got. I'd figured on maybe seeing something on Christmas, and then using the week of vacation time I couldn't roll over hitting the occasional matinee - and then the City of Cambridge throws a monkey wrench in that plan by saying theaters have to close down starting the 26th for three weeks, with the theater saying they would open their new slate on Christmas and then close down the next day. So, to see some things on the big screen at the Kendall, you're looking at that date. Maybe the Boston places pick them up if they open after three weeks, maybe they've got other things to open. Though probably not.

(All the usual caveats of going to the movies right now apply - there haven't been many if any cases linked to theaters, Massachusetts isn't allowing concessions, the Kendall is being very careful about enforcing masking, I'm walking at least one way to avoid excess time on the subway, and I don't have anyone at home to bring it to. Change any of that, or even have more people realize that it's pretty safe, and maybe I'm not doing this nearly so much.)

It rained on the walk there, and there were a few people there for both the afternoon shows, but it kind of thinned out afterward. I hung around outside the theater for a bit then to suck down a candy bar and a soda that I'd brought from home, then it was just me, I think, for The Midnight Sky, since it's already on Netflix. It was quiet enough for people to notice that I was doing a triple.

Not a great day at the movies, all told - I probably should have found a slot for The Dissident once I saw what the situation was, since it seems to be the one least likely to be brought back at other theaters when they open.

So, around 9pm, I left, not knowing when I'd be back. Hopefully we'll be moving out of all this before some theaters have been closed a full year.

News of the World

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

There's ideas floating around News of the World that don't really have much opportunity to come together and amount to much more than some pretty scenery. Paul Greengrass and company want to talk about how stories can shape the world for people, or dig into how westerns are, as a genre, about people who know civilization in a place where it's weak, but they're unfocused, playing these themes up or ignoring that as is convenient. They've got a main story about returning a long-lost child to her relatives, but it doesn't really give the film a lot of structure or play into the themes directly.

It does have Tom Hanks, though, and he makes for as nice and solid an anchor as one could hope for. It's good use of Hanks as a movie star, letting the audience fill in the gaps in the character with what Tom Hanks would do without completely becoming stock. The shots of the West are beautiful, though, with cinematographer handling everything well even as Greengrass does a sort of Western sampler: There are a couple of gunfights, wagons stretching to the horizon, encounters with Natives with appropriately heavy undertones, and muddy townsfolk watching the outsiders with curiosity - and there's no part where they fare badly. It's wonderful to look at.

It's just not a lot more. It feels a lot like the folks involved wanted to make a western, or even to have made a western, just not any specific one, and it has to be a story that goes down relatively easy. News of the World is a fair example of that, but for something with a potentially unique hook, a talented star and director, and a potential ability to examine itself, it seems like it could have been far more.

Promising Young Woman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

Writer/director Emerald Fennell worked on Killing Eve, though not during its recent mess of a third season, her film has the same vibe of that show at its roughest: Kind of glib, more interested in having fun playing dress-up and playing around with broad characters than most anything else, but still fun even when it's not as clever as it thinks.

The good news is that Carey Mulligan sure seems to know what to do with every bit of the script, relishing the moments when her Cassandra flips from falling being out if it to fully aware, adding an appropriate snap to every line that could use it, finding the spots where we're supposed to buy into Cassie being potentially more or less stable and making them work and hinting at the deep hurt underneath her being seemingly capable and decisive. The movie doesn't work without her being less than terrific, and even if one doesn't believe in everything that Cassandra does, it's not hard to believe in who she is.

It's kind of a shame that the material she and those around her have to work with is generally kind of a mess, loving to imply that Cassandra is up to something really deranged or sinister but cutting away before a scene can climax. It's admittedly important by the end that she is primarily only putting herself in danger, but Fennell never does anything that works as the sort of convincing misdirection that is actually laying a foundation in retrospect*, instead giving the audience a bunch of episodes that fizzle individually but getting to the next one fast enough for one to miss it. It leads to a finale built in a way that requires her to be both absurdly reckless and downright diabolical. It's a movie that is built to feel satisfying even if you don't really believe a word of it, and it's just the right sort of polished to be fun in a way, but I don't know that it will hold up.

* At least, not to a man in his mid-forties who was never really adjacent to these sorts of situations even when younger; maybe a 30-ish woman will say that it's the sort of flying close to the sun you have to do to have any fun.

The Midnight Sky

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The folks doing visual effects on The Midnight Sky are amazingly good at putting things I love looking at on-screen - like, right up there next to The Expanse even without the same rigorous attention to scientific detail. There were plenty of moments during this film when I just beamed, even after it had gone on a while.

The trouble is, there really doesn't seem to be any limit to how far movie-makers will go to turn the exciting challenges of exploring the universe into mincemeat to tell a story of estranged parents; there's this sort of writing disease that holds that the key to making respectable science fiction is to emphasize the importance of a familiar human relationship, and it can not only suggest that the people involved not only can't imagine things beyond their own experiences, it causes them to trivialize the stakes of the story if they don't make the themes that compelling. More or less all of humanity has died by the time that The Midnight Sky really hits its groove, and it never does anything to earn that scale, to say that what is animating Augustine's stubborn will to continue to do his job to the very end is that operatic (director George Clooney's capable but unremarkable old-man shuffle as the dying physicist doesn't exactly help), and the whole thing is building up to a finale that doesn't pack nearly the surprise it's supposed to.

Meanwhile, between Jupiter and Earth, all sorts of ridiculous but meaningless things are happening to keep a pretty decent cast busy, with the whole thing starting from an impossibly inhabitable moon of Jupiter (apparently we've just missed this one in 400 years of Westerners observing the planet and discovering almost 80 with some less than a kilometer wide) and becoming more conventionally absurd after that. They don't mean anything, and just underline that ultimately apparently nothing other than one family matters.

(It also contains a sequence whose inanity is almost sublime, one which is roughly the equivalent of me and my co-workers deciding to bust out a song from 1940 during a life-or-death operation and only the youngest Gen-Z-er not getting the appeal, which I admittedly kind of love because I am a New Englander and the Red Sox have made "Sweet Caroline" part of my DNA.)

I don't hate The Midnight Sky the way I really should; Clooney has banked a lot of goodwill and it looks good enough that I am glad that I used one of three precious slots on the last day I could see movies on the big screen for a while to see it that way. Honestly, I kind of wonder what this is actually like as a Netflix movie - is the reduction in spectacle made up for by how many people are doing something else? It's not a good movie, and it is in fact a lot of the things I hate about people who don't love science fiction hijacking the genre, but the people involved do enough of what they're good at to make up for a large chunk of where they are way off base.

Saturday, December 26, 2020


This has a second weekend in The Coolidge's Virtual Screening Room through Sunday, and it's pretty good! I think I've said that the Goethe-Institut's presentations at the Coolidge have long been one of the theater's hidden gems - back before the virus, they were like $5 but you had to be there at 11am on a Sunday - and the larger window they've had has been pretty nice, even with the cost up to $12 (still pretty reasonable).

It's a real shame that it's pretty much the entire chance we get to see some of these movies, since they're not exactly arcane or difficult to get into. Curveball, for instance, has large chunks in English, tells a story that is fairly relevant to American lives, and is genuinely funny in ways that don't exactly require getting into a different cultural headspace. It could be an outsider critique of the USA, but isn't, really. But I've got no idea how well it will get on people's radar. They may or may not get U.S. distribution, and that distributor may not be able to get a slot on the various services. Heck, near as I can tell, the film that director Johannes Naber and star Sebastian Blomberg did five years earlier, Age of Cannibals, never got a particularly US-friendly release, and it really looks like something I'd enjoy seeing.

As an aside, part of how it's US-friendly is that it has a number of moments when it cuts to what people in power were doing publicly at the time - once even making it clear that this is a thing the characters were watching - and one of them was Colin Powell, whom my employers had breathlessly engaged to speak to us in as part of a monthly "town hall" conference call, and for as much as it seemed worthy of a little suspicion then - it was the sort of "I came from humble beginnings and made it this high, so obviously the system works in general" pep talk that you should probably expect from large corporations - it looks a bit worse when you're reminded what he was a part of, and how little consequences the people most responsible faced.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Instiut German Film/Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

There must be an entry in Ebert's Little Movie Glossary about the way movies like Curveball start, with a little bit outside the main film's setting that isn't entirely dispensable but certainly shows what's about to happen at a larger scale in microcosm. Here, it's German chemical weapons inspector Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg) letting his American colleague Leslie (Virginia Kull) believe that he was married rather than a widower because he thought she was looking for an affair as they searched for WMDs in 1997 Iraq. Even without hindsight, we'd know that something like this was about to be writ large; fortunately, the movie knows how to hit those notes even if they won't be a surprise.

It picks up two years later, when Dr. Wolf is working in a BND lab outside Munich; as the department's foremost expert on anthrax production, he's tasked by his superior officer Schatz (Thorsten Merten) to aid agent Retzlaff (Michael Wittenborn) in debriefing refugee Rafid Alwan (Dar Salim), a 34-year-old chemical engineer who claims to have witnessed tests personally. Alwan is canny enough to keep details close to the vest until he has an apartment and promises of protection, but the BND is eager to find out what he knows - they are a small player in the global intelligence community, and might be able to trade this information to the Americans for Stasi files they have been guarding since the end of the Cold War. It's the sort of information that becomes extremely valuable after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., because even if it's not reliable, it certainly fits the narrative that some in the Bush Administration want to sell.

For as cynical as the story being told is, there's something oddly gentle about the way director Johannes Naber and his co-writer Oliver Keidel go about telling it. Wolf and most of the people in his immediate orbit aren't really that ambitious - he's got a job he wants to do well, Rafid just wants to be safe in a new home, and everyone has a very human reluctance to admit when they've made a mistake, not really thinking about how those feelings can be weaponized. Even the people who wind up falling into the category of villain are human despite their amorality, personable enough that one might grasp for reasons they can be redeemed and not the bureaucratic idiots that become the targets of easy satire.

There's still a lot of dark humor to be mined from the situation, which starts out as a kind of goofily absurdist look at the BND: For all I know, the real-life Retzlaff does smoke an actual pipe, and their offices circa 1999 really did look fifteen or twenty years out of date, but it's kind of delightfully anti-James Bond in the way it goes the other extreme in how it embraces just how relatively irrelevant this one-time great power can sometimes seem, a second-class shop whose internal politics are petty still seeing itself as competing with the superpowers. As the film reaches 2001 and beyond, it becomes cheerfully ridiculous, with a car chase so silly it would make one laugh out loud even without the genuinely funny, important twist to it. The sheer enormity of the jigsaw puzzle Wolf is solving after being dismissed feels like self-parody without winking at the audience too much.

It's a line the film often has to be careful of with Dr. Wolf, but Sebastian Blomberg is on top of it, doing a very impressive job of making him believably one of the top men in his field but also just right when taken away from his area of expertise, impressive because the script calls for him to be aware of how he's in over his head some places but blindsided in others, and it never feels off. He's got a nice chemistry with Virginia Kull that lingers after Leslie turns out to be different from how he (and through him the audience) initially sees her, and she does nice work in not making those scenes feel like flipping a switch. Dar Salim is nifty as Rafid as well - fairly transparent to the audience, but just credible enough that folks who are invested in his story might believe him, and genuinely funny when he gets into ridiculous situations later on.

It's seemingly light for a movie about decisions that caused so much death and destruction, right down to the tagline incorporated into the opening titles ("A True Story, Unfortunately"). But there's a sort of terrible honesty in how both seemingly and actual reasonable people make these mistakes that can be seized upon by bad actors, and for all that Naber encourages us to laugh at the absurdity of it, the end result is never allowed to drift too far from the viewer's mind.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, December 25, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 25 December 2020 - 31 December 2020

Merry Christmas and welcome to the bizarre one of these things I've opted to write in this bizarre year. Stuff's crossing over between streaming services and theaters, one city has decided to shut theaters down for three weeks while another, just a few miles away, is saying "let's not be so hasty"; the extended Oscar deadline means that fewer heavy-hitters are opening when they usually would; the Coolidge isn't having one of those weird weeks where they're opening something that also plays the multiplexes and the Brattle isn't switching from holiday-adjacent stuff to a cool end-of-year repertory series. It's madness!
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre instead picks up Love Sarah, a charming-looking film with Shannon Tarbet as a 19-year-old woman who determines to open the bakery her late mother always wanted in London's Notting Hill neighborhood, roping her grandmother (Celia Imrie) and mother's best friend (Shelley Conn) in. Cute British film is a genre and this looks smack-dab in the middle of it, which may not be the worst thing for those stuck at home over Christmas break. They also continue "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" (new restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, Fallen Angels, Eros segment "The Hand" (from 48 to 56 minutes), and In the Mood for Love); plus The Emoji Story, Assassins, Sing Me a Song, Another Round, 76 Days, City Hall, and Martin Eden.

    As has often been the case, Goethe-Institut presentation Curveball gets held over (so to speak) for a second weekend; it's worth a look.
  • The Brattle Theatre hangs steady, continuing To the Ends of the Earth, Bright Future, Ikarie XB-1, Markie in Milwaukee, Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Mayor, Zappa, and City Hall.
  • I was planning to talk about how, because Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is winding up having to carry the load for the mainstream multiplexes that are open, it's a tight squeeze, but it turns out it's even tighter than that, because Cambridge is closing theaters for a planned three weeks on the 26th and Newton is re-opening them the same day. So the big Christmas movies like Wonder Woman 1984 are kind of a moving target. It's playing The West Newton Cinema (starting Saturday), Kendall Square (Friday only), Watertown (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill (starting Saturday); it's also the first of a number of movies Warner Brothers is playing simultaneously on HBO Max; shame it's not a more auspicious start to that deal.

    It's also opening weekend for News of the World, a western directed by Paul Greengrass featuring Tom Hanks as a man whose job is to bring said news to the frontier, who winds up paired with a young settler girl raised by Native Americans that he's charged with returning to her family. It's at Kendall Square (Friday only), Watertown, and Chestnut Hill (starting Saturday).

    There's also more award-targeted things opening this weekend, with Promising Young Woman, featuring Carey Mulligan as the lady in question who has turned to revenge after a college trauma, finally opening after a long delay at Kendall Square (Friday only) and Watertown. Documentary The Dissident looks at the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi and plays Kendall Square (Friday only). The most recent Italian adaptation of Pinocchio, this one featuring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto rather than the title character and plays Kendall Square (Friday only); there is apparently an English dub in theaters, but I'm not sure of the original Italian.

    Watertown has 25th Anniversary shows of Clueless on Sunday and Monday.
  • The Regent Theatre closes out the year with seven hybrid performances with Jimmy Tingle's 2020 Vision playing Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with the 60-minute film followed by stand-up comedy and Q&A. Some in-person seating is available, but it will also be live-streamed. They also continue to stream Insert Coin and Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but The Slutcracker is still streaming a version cut together from last year's performances; The Capitol in Arlington has the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, West Newtonthe Capitol, The Lexington Venue, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing!) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown), although it might be worth checking to see if any reservations made at the Brattle or Kendall are still active with the new restrictions. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through January 27th, and has added rental slots for the Screening Room as well as Moviehouse II, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, Wolfwalkers, and Fleabag available along with the option to bring your own disc. The Brattle currently shows no open slots, even beyond Cambridge's restrictions. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I may try to hit the Kendall on Christmas and also go for Love Sarah and others.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Two Docs from the Virtual Coolidge: Coded Bias & Assassins

There are…. four hours left to watch Coded Bias via the Coolidge, or at least pay for it and maybe have another 48 (I'm not sure whether the Coolidge's site will let you do that), with Assassins probably around for at least another week. Maybe the former will be easy to find in other places soon enough, but I do kind of wonder if Netflix or Prime might push movies that have it in for algorithms themselves down to less prominent placement. It's the sort of movie that I suspect could have benefitted by being one of just a few movies at a boutique theater, or getting a nice spot on the PBS schedule when there weren't a thousand channels and services, but the movie doesn't really need to get made then. That's kind of why I wonder if the future of documentaries isn't things like these easily digestible movies, but deep eight-hour dives that let the viewer get some depth, and maybe gain a little traction in the discourse via its sheer mass. Right now, I kind of worry that it's only going to show up on the radar of people who already know something about its subject matter, although it at least gives them someplace to point others.

Anyway, it's a pretty decent double-feature, as Assassins gets into internet stuff and online reputation fairly quickly and both have a bit of focus on marginalized people being taken advantage of. They're also easily digested lengths and value being clear even when a certain amount of things being unknowable is part of the story. You can watch them both in under three and a half hours and maybe have some interesting cross-pollination.

Also: Coded Bias isn't exactly a Boston movie, but it's enough of one that a lot of establishing shots and locations had some meaning to me and I kind of found myself wondering if I'd met primary subject Joy Buolamwini at some point. We don't exactly run in the same circles but I wouldn't be surprised if she and I got our comics in the same shop and she seemed kind of familiar. Granted, it's just as possible that my white-guy brain is just as unpracticed at telling Black women apart as the algorithms people in my demographic build, proving her point, but that's a meta-level of information I'll gladly take from the film.

Coded Bias

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

There's been a complaint in recent years, likely justified in many cases, of documentary television series whose multi-episode bloat could probably be condensed into a conventional documentary feature, but I sometimes wonder if the big miniseries is the natural next evolutionary step. Consider Coded Bias as an example: It is a good documentary; it raises an interesting issue, makes its points in clear fashion, and will almost certainly be watched primarily by those who already have some interest in the material, learning little beyond a few specific names. It is absolutely a useful thing to get in front of people, but may be even more useful as a deep, multi-episode dive than as an overview.

Director Shalini Kantayya focuses on a number of experts and activists, with Joy Buolamwini at the center. As a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, Buolamwini discovered with dismay that the facial recognition software behind her computer's camera often would not pick up her face until she put on a white mask, and that it wasn't just a trick of lighting: Most of this software was designed and tested by men of European descent with comparatively little thought given to its use by other groups. What started out as a fun project turns into a serious piece of advocacy, inspired in part by author Cathy O'Neil and picked up by Silkie Carlo, a more street-level activist in London.

There are actually multiple facets to the issue that Kantayya explores, from how machine-learning algorithms meant to be objective instead tend to reflect the biases of the data it is trained with, to whether even a well-trained system can be used ethically, to what new questions having computers being able to sort through millions of real-time images raises, each with an example or two that goes with it and enough of a toehold into adjacent issues to hold film together as a whole rather than split it into separate units. It can seem like a lot to compact down to 90 minutes, but Kantayya and the on-screen participants are good at boiling the issues down to easily-grasped ideas that don't start to feel over-simplified with repetition. This is an issue that can be simply stated but not easily solved.

If Kantayya had wanted to make something less compact, she could have; there are plenty of examples here and more coming up every day. It's also helpful that, from the start, her experts aren't presented as detached academics who merely study the problem, but instead have the sort of personal involvement that make Buolamwini, O'Neil, and Carlo active participants in the narratives. Though Kantayya shows how far back the roots of it go, this is too modern an issue for them not to still be actively confronting it and refining their knowledge still, and that makes them more engaging than many "talking heads".

(It is worth noting that almost all of the on-screen experts are women, both because that is so often not the norm in documentaries and because algorithms picking up sexist behaviors figures into the film. I'm mildly curious whether this has just resulted in much of the important work being done by women or if Kantayya is deliberately pushing back on what is considered "default" as she recognizes how this affects the algorithms.)

In terms of filmmaking, she tends to stay modest and grounded even as the film is shot on four continents and necessarily requires some animated visualization at times, tending to pull those scenes closer to the subjects' human interactions rather than going for slick, meme-worthy presentations. If there's a fault in her presentation, it's how willing she sometimes is to completely abstract the idea of the algorithm as something unknowable as opposed to something that can be untangled, or the villain itself rather than being a tool used by people who either over-prioritize efficiency or are happy to hide their own biases behind its supposed objectivity. She'll take half the story from the general to the specific but not the other.

It's nevertheless a good way to learn about an important subject, although as with so many documentaries, I am reasonably sure I wouldn't have watched it if I wasn't already interested but I don't know if it will make its way to people who could probably do with paying more attention to the topic. And, indeed, I wonder about its future prospects in a world where independent and documentary features primarily reside on the streaming services whose algorithms are probably most found wanting on a day-to-day basis.

Also on eFilmCritic

Assassins (2020)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

The 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam may not be the crime of the century (it's early and the world is only going to get stranger), but it is almost certainly the crime of the decade, one whose effects are felt on a global scale but whose most visible public faces are as modest as you get, tied up in the internet and a world where borders can go from barely noticed to crucial in an instant. It's a story Ryan White tells very well in Assassins, well worth one's notice.

Kim Jong-Nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, was killed in the Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13 February 2017, dying less than an hour after being exposed to the VX nerve poison. That his life should end that was wasn't entirely unexpected - Kim Jong-Il's eldest son was living in exile in Macau for almost ten years after being embarrassingly caught visiting Tokyo Disneyland and opining that maybe a People's Republic shouldn't have hereditary rulers, and that's the sort of person those opposed to a dictator can rally around - but the killers were: Siti Aisyah (of Indonesia) and Đoàn Thị Hương (from Vietnam) were two young women who claimed to have no idea that they were involved in anything more nefarious than filming prank videos for YouTube.

Despite making a documentary that is necessarily going to require its filmmakers to be somewhat hands-off - an American filmmaker is not going to get to interview North Korean government officials on this subject, and even if Malaysia wasn't one of the handful of countries that has normal relations with North Korea, its media and justice system are the type that don't welcome scrutiny - White is impressively able to cover multiple angles, embedding himself within the women's separate defense teams, forging an alliance with a relatively-independent local journalist that allows him to take a somewhat local view, and talking with Westerners who have studied North Korea without the film having to rely entirely on their questionable expertise. There are no unbiased sources for any story, but White and his team do a good job of finding people who can be informative even as the audience consciously corrects for their perspectives.

More than that, he does nice work in finding ways to approach the story from the multiple angles necessary, splitting time between how young women like Siti and Đoàn wind up in this situation and the background that makes Kim a target to the machinations of the trial, where lawyers must approach their co-defendants cautiously and forces well above the justice system can have an influence. White does impressive work laying out how Đoàn and Siti have different but parallel stories that lead to the same place, leaving the Kim family just vague enough to get the audience interested - if they weren't already - without making the why behind the murder the whole story. White fiddles with the timeline just enough that the audience isn't absorbing the backstory and the trial simultaneously, but never feels too far away from either.

Perhaps most importantly, he's able to integrate the thing that often cripples this sort of documentary - the vast amount of material one may just never know, or which remains out of reach of the filmmakers - into the film better than most. Đoàn and Siti are pawns in a conspiracy that has little to do with them, and the fact that they cannot personally affect the outcome much or ever particularly define themselves. White gets only a little bit of access and it's hard to know what to make of them, and in some ways they wind up thrown together with Kim Jong-Nam in that, for all their experiences are far out of the ordinary, a viewer can at least feel like they can relate to those people, while the shadowy masterminds, chemists, and world leaders are almost unknowable despite the power they wield. There's little resolution there, but how can there be? They barely seem like real people.

That can be a fatal flaw in a documentary, but it winds up a strength here. This story is larger than life even as it lands on people who are in many ways ordinary, and this may be the only way to keep both scales in view.

Also on eFilmCritic

Friday, December 18, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 18 December 2020 - 24 December 2020

AMC Boston Common got all dressed up only to have the party cancelled:
For those keeping track, The Rescue was supposed to come out back for Lunar New Year in January, and is just now getting a global release, only to have theaters in Boston and Newton closed down as the city rolls back to an earlier phase. I suspect it will be there when things reopen in January, but it's darkly funny that Covid could have us missing out on that one twice. Makes for a potentially quiet weekend!
  • The Brattle Theatre opens (one of) the latest by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, with To the Ends of the Earth having him reteam with his Seventh Code star Atsuko Maeda, once again seeing them leave Japan, this time for Uzbekistan to follow a TV travel host who is as reserved off-screen as she is charismatic on the air. It joins the reissue of Kurosawa's =Bright Future in their streaming offerings, along with Ikarie XB-1, Markie in Milwaukee, Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Mayor, Zappa, and City Hall.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre brings in quite a bit of "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" this weekend, with new restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and Fallen Angels, as well of an expansion of Eros segment "The Hand" (from 48 to 56 minutes), along with In the Mood for Love, which started last week.

    Outside of WKW, they also add The Emoji Story to their offerings, a documentary which looks at how those symbols are standardized and implemented, including questions of diversity and inclusion. Those movies all join Assassins, Sing Me a Song, Another Round, 76 Days, Coded Bias, City Hall, and Martin Eden.

    They also have a Goethe-Institut presentation this weekend, with Curveball playing through Sunday. It's about a German intelligence officer assigned to an Iraqi emigre who may have evidence that the country was producing anthrax, and how wanting suspicions confirmed distorts how one handles such situations.
  • With the Boston, Somerville, and Newton screens dark for the rest of the year and Revere closing after Sunday's shows, it is a quiet weekend. The big opening was supposed to be Monster Hunter, with Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson and wife Milla Jovovich taking on another video game franchise, with the release date having been bumped up to grab giant screens, but now it's just at Watertown (including CWX). Fatale offers Michael Ealy as a married man caught in a bad situation after a one-night stand with a detective played by Hilary Swank; it's at Watertown, Revere.

    Watertown also has Wonder Woman playing starting Saturday evening ahead of the sequel opening next weekend.
  • Cambridge hasn't closed theaters, so Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is open with the same slate as last week, though they are not listing any showtimes for Monday and Tuesday.
  • The Regent Theatre continues to stream Insert Coin and Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but The Slutcracker streams a version cut together from last year's performances; The Capitol in Arlington has the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, Kendall Square, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing!) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown). The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through December 29th, and has added "Premium Programming", where you can not just bring your own disc, but also choose from In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, Wolfwalkers, and Fleabag, akin to how the multiplexes will let you show their lineups; the Brattle has open slots through 3 January. The independent theaters (including The West Newton Cinema) also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
To the Ends of the Earth and Curveball for sure, plus maybe some of the stuff I missed last weekend. Time to find out how much fun it is walking to Kendall in the snow!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984

This isn't quite the example of how abandoned theaters are right now that it may look like; AMC Boston Common hasn't opened the ground-level concession stand regularly for at least a year or so, instead directing folks to go up to the one upstairs where you can get hot foods and the like, at least under normal circumstances. I don't think they even turned the soda fountains on back when they were allowed to turn soda fountains on.

Anyway, it this was a Stubs preview which I would never have made under normal circumstances - you've usually got to be there an hour early to guarantee a seat, which is tough when reverse-commuting from Burlington, and there's a whole bunch of people who I swear never actually pay to see movies, just showing up at the previews way earlier than the rest of us. But it's 2020, I'm not only working from home but I stayed up late doing work Monday, banking time so I could leave early on Tuesday, and was able to get a seat roughly where I liked a half hour before the start time. It was the most crowded theater I've been in since February even if still probably only at 20% capacity, maybe feeling a little more so when you look at just how virtual the DC FanDome presentation they played before it was.

Can't say I enjoyed that much; I kind of suspect I'd hate comic book/entertainment conventions, because, honestly, what's the point of spending 20-25 minutes seeing people ask questions about movies they haven't seen yet, mixed in with the sort of soft sell you do when you're pretty sure that nobody is going to be watching it if they weren't already likely to see the movie. I don't mean to slag it too hard - everybody involved seems genuinely excited and thrilled to be part of it, but 25 minutes at the start of the movie? We're here. We don't need to be amped up by people on a weird green-screen set.

It really felt crowded when the fire alarm went off about a half-hour in and we all started milling around the lobby, probably the most crowded situation I've been in for a while, since the grocery store and the like are pretty distanced. Of course, I suspect the fact that we knew the theater would be closing for about three weeks or so after the show played into that: Boston announced on Monday that they would be rolling back openings come Wednesday, with the three weeks mentioned in the announcements taking us into January. I'm guessing this isn't my only chance to see the movie in Imax - what else is going to push it off the giant screens before that time is up? - but I won't be able to see it on a real premium screen opening weekend.

So we wind up the evening here, a pretty good summary of 2020 - trying to get back to normal, but always backsliding.

(Bonus nerdy/spoilery stuff at bottom!)

Wonder Woman 1984

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2020 in AMC Boston Common #2 (preview, Imax digital)

A fire alarm went off during the preview screening of Wonder Woman 1984, and the film started a little bit before when it left off, presumably so people wouldn't miss anything as they filed back in, so in the process I saw the movie cut to Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) laughing at something Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) said that the audience isn't privy to a second time, saying the other woman was so funny and personable rather than letting the viewers discover that themselves. It's ironic that the movie does this time and again, because the lesson that a younger Diana learns in the flashback that opens the film is that taking shortcuts is cheating and she shouldn't be awarded for that.

In the film's present-day of 1984, Diana is working at the Smithsonian, although she occasionally does a bit of superhero work, such as when she foils a mall jewelry store being robbed - though mainly of the black-market antiquities in the back. The FBI asks that the Smithsonian help identify the pieces, with mousy gemologist Minerva getting a crack at it. Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a potential underwriter, seems to have an interest in one piece, whose Latin inscription implies that it can grant wishes - which certainly seems to be the case, as Diana's lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) reappears during Lord's party, and he died during their first adventure back in World War I.

The way that Trevor returns - apparently possessing the body of some random guy who never even gets a name - would create a much larger ethical dilemma for a superhero in a movie whose writers ever worried about things making even the smallest bit of sense than it does in this one. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't betray any such interests, from the opening when Diana makes sure to change into her superhero costume in order to do her good deeds but also makes sure to smash any security cameras recording it to the finale where there's pretty much no reason given for how she knows where to confront Lord. The movie is filled with decisions that might be reasonable if the audience knew just a bit more about what went into them, but instead always seem to be missing that one bit of information that makes the workings of a fantasy world seem real.

That it's not two and a half hours of the audience scratching their heads over why this person did that thing is a tribute to writer/director Patty Jenkins and her team handle the ebb and flow of the movie; it doesn't really make sense from one minute to the next but they've got great instincts for how every moment should feel and how the movie should rise and fall, and what pieces associated with the franchise should make it in. Minute-to-minute, it's often a mess, but for a long-ish movie it never really drags until a couple of spots near the end (including what may be the most awkwardly shoehorned-in cameo these movies have ever done).

It can get a lot of mileage out of what is essentially a four-person cast, especially returning stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. Gadot hits a tricky target as Diana throughout, zeroing in on how she is larger than life even outside the costume, giving her a civilian life and personality that's often been hard to come by for this character while also stepping up when the big superhero material happens. Pine continues to slide happily into the love-interest/sidekick role; the movie doesn't really need Steve Trevor but Pine boosts every scene he's in and makes a great team with Gadot. Kristen Wiig is a bit underused as Barbara - Cheetah is often treated as Wonder Woman's most iconic villain, up there with Lex Luthor and the Joker, but she's kind of just hanging around until Max needs someone to stall Diana at the climax - but she has a nice dry take on the material she's given. Pedro Pascal is a kick as Max Lord, a sad-sack villain who is nevertheless able to careen into being enormously destructive, comedic but never quite a joke.

They're dropped in the middle of a big, pretty production, slick and able to revel in the bold colors and styles of both superhero comics and the 1980s without becoming point-and-laugh material. The action and visual effects tend to be nifty ideas, and aren't hacked into quick-cut messes, but are often frustrating in their execution. A lot are built around Wonder Woman's golden lasso but the film often loses track of where it is and how long it can be, with a few places where it will be connected to something in one shot and looped at her waist in another, basic continuity that a movie at this scale should be getting right.

At the other end of the film, we walked out to find the theater would be closing the next day for at least a couple of weeks as a result of coronavirus cases rising in a way that maybe makes the inspirational finale seem a bit more like a fantasy. It's an irony that doesn't exactly hurt the film itself, instead being just one more thing that doesn't really make sense in a movie that is all too full of them.

Also at eFilmCritic


Honestly, if we can't get people to wear masks to help keep their neighbors safe and theaters open, are we really supposed to believe that people all over the world will renounce their wishes just moments after they've been granted?

The comic fan in me wants to blame Geoff Johns, who had a hand in the script and has consistently been one of the most popular writers at DC despite never actually adding anything interesting to the universe, but it comes from a Grant Morrison Justice League with Superman at the center as much as anything. It does feel a bit of a piece with the rest of the movie, though, with a lot that happens that wouldn't necessarily feel out of place in a superhero comic but also not quite holding up in a movie where the world is not working from the same set of superhero-universe assumptions.

Also, and this may be a small thing, I'm not sure that the movie really gets what made Lord such a good foil for Wonder Woman when Rucka was handed that to work with as part of a crossover: The psychic powers he has in the comics make people believe something other than reality, while Diana represents truth, something which could be incredibly timely considering how many people have gone down an alternate-reality rabbit hole these days. Giving him wish-granting powers that alter reality as this film does could have been interesting - what is truth? - but the filmmakers never get a handle on it.

Of course, now that I think of Rucka's first WW run (arguably the definitive take on the character), it amuses me that I was jolted out of the movie by Diana apparently drowning Cheetah - though not really, she apparently just knocked her unconscious or zapped her with lasso energy or something while they were underwater at the end of an unclear, messy fight - but Rucka made her just up and snapping Lord's neck work.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 11 December 2020 - 17 December 2020

It's a weird weekend at the box office, but an interesting one online. But it looks like the folks in Revere get to keep their theater for at least a few more weeks, so that's good.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has the first of a half-dozen restorations (with some alterations) in "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" in what many consider his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, a beautiful romance starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, with photography by Christopher Doyle. The run includes a Coolidge Education seminar led by Justin Chang on Thursday (including an introduction to watch before the film.

    They also pick up Assassins, a documentary on the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, the brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un who was killed in broad daylight in a Malaysian airport, but whosekillers claimed they thought they had been hired for a television stunt. The other new documentary is Sing Me a Song, about a young monk in Bhutan who has his existence thrown into disarray by the arrival of modern technology. It's also got a Q&A session on Sunday afternoon, a "Science on Screen" event with director Thomas Balmès and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School Dr. Michael Rich. They join Another Round, 76 Days, Born to Be, Coded Bias, City Hall, and Martin Eden.
  • The Brattle Theatre picks up two reissues, with Ikarie XB-1 a striking Czechoslovak science-fiction film from 1963 where I'm surprised that the restoration is just hitting (virtual) theaters now, as it played the Boston Sci-Fi Festival last year, where I was impressed but tuckered out, so I'm looking forward to seeing it again. The other is from 40 years later, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, one of his more sinister works which helped him make the jump from being known strictly by J-horror fans.

    They also add documentary Markie in Milwaukee to their virtual screening room, a documentary that follows the ten-year journey of a 7-foot-tall fundamentalist minister who comes out as a transgender woman. It plays alongside Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Mayor, Zappa, Three Summers, Flowers of Shanghai, and Fire Will Come.

    The theater has sent members an email offering screenings of the final DocYard presentation of 2020, with Night Shot co-presented by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and featuring Chilean filmmaker Carolina Moscoso examining the ongoing trauma after her assault eight years prior. Moscoso will join DocYard curator Abby Sun and BARCC's Bella Alarcon Flores for a Q&A on Tuesday afternoon.
  • The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston wraps its monthly streaming events this weekend with a double feature of documentary Millets Back Home, about the indigineous Tayal people, and Taipei-set drama Missing Johnny. The latter's director, Huang Xi, will participate in a streaming forum Sunday evening.
  • Not subscribing to Netflix, I didn't realize just how much stuff they pumped out until Landmark Theatres Kendall Square started filling their schedule with the service's films this fall. For instance, I had no idea that George Clooney was directing and starring in The Midnight Sun, a science fiction film where the Earth has undergone a massive climate disaster and his radio astronomer must inform a starship not to return, with Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demian Bichir, and Kyle Chandler in the crew; it also screens at Chestnut Hill and Revere. That's got almost a two-week window; I'm Your Woman is day-and-date with Amazon's Prime Video and features Rachel Brosnahan as a young mother on the run because of something her lowlife husband did, and comes from Fast Color writer/director Julia Hart.

    They also give a screen to Wild Mountain Thyme (as does Watertown), with Jamie Dornan as a young Irishman whose next door neighbor (Emily Blunt) has loved him forever and whose father intends to sell the farm to an American nephew if he doesn't marry, but apparently there's something holding him back. The fourth film the open is Farewell Amor, which streamed as part of IFFBoston's Fall Focus and tells has an Angolan immigrant reconnecting with the wife and daughter he has been separated from for 17 years.

    On top of that, they have the New York Dog Film Festival on Wednesday evening; like last week's cat package, it contains eight shorts featuring man's best friend with some of the proceeds going to local animal charities.
  • Nothing really new at the more mainstream multiplexes, to the point where The New Mutants and The Empty Man return to Boston Common despite the former being on video. The big release is Wonder Woman, which returns to Boston Common (including Imax) South Bay (including Imax), and Watertown (including CWX) so that folks can catch up ahead of the sequel.

    Die Hard continues at Boston Common, South Bay, and Watertown. Love Actually is the other Christmas movie at Boston Common; Watertown has Elf, and It's a Wonderful Life; South Bay has Elf and other stuff on offer if you rent a theater.

    South Bay and Watertown has Timecrafters: The Treasure of Pirate's Cove on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday in which a pirate ship from the past (with folks like Malcolm McDowell, Denise Richards, and Eric Balfour) gets pulled the present and can only be stopped by a bunch of kids. Watertown plays Buttons: A Christmas Tale on Thursday.
  • The Regent Theatre has live streams of a Pat Travers Band concert on Saturday and a comedy show by Roger Kabler on Thursday, the latter with limited in-house seating; both are touted as being "interactive", the artist can see the audience if they put their webcams on or something. They also continue to stream Insert Coin and Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
  • ArtsEmerson has musician Somi's work-in-progress featurette in the absence of things through Tuesday the 15th.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open for the weekend, with Singin' in the Rain A Star Is Born '18 (Saturday/Sunday), The Climb, A Rainy Day in New York (Saturday/Sunday), Honest Thief (Friday/Saturday), The Keeper (Saturday/Sunday), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Casablanca (Saturday/Sunday).
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but The Slutcracker streams a version cut together from last year's performances; The Capitol in Arlington has the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, the open AMCs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing!) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown). The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through December 30th, and has added "Premium Programming", where you can not just bring your own disc, but also choose from In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, Wolfwalkers, and Fleabag. while the Brattle shows one on the afternoon of the 11th (if you call now, I guess), but may add more since this was posted. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out, while the multiplexes mostly offer the chance at private screenings of their line-ups.
I could very well do two double features at Kendall Square this weekend, and am also looking forward to Assassins and Ikarie XB-1.

Thursday, December 10, 2020


To give some idea of how not-busy movie theaters are on a weekday evening at the moment, the AMC at Boston Common is using a single standard-sized elevator as the only way to get to the 17 screens (out of 19) on the third floor - and it's not close to being a social-distancing bottleneck. The escalator going upstairs has been closed off, because there's no reason to pay people to "rip" tickets on both ends of the lobby rather than just the one near the Imax screen.

(I find it oddly amusing that, if you bother to go to the kiosk and print a ticket out like I do because I like to put it in a scrapbook, AMC doesn't actually tear it, leaving one with both halves, whereas Landmark expects me to leave the half they do give me in the cupholder so that they know which seats to wipe down. Given the small numbers of theatergoers these days, I suspect that someone there already knows me as "that weirdo who brings scrap paper to leave at his seat so he can keep his stub.")

Anyway! It's leaving Boston tonight (the 10th), leaving the multiplex surprisingly Chinese-movie-free this weekend, in part because Caught in Time, the hit crime movie expected to open in North America on the 4th not only didn't come out here, but has been thoroughly scrubbed from the distributor's social media and website, which is weird. Vanguard also seems to be getting an unusually quick release on home video in Hong Kong - 18 December, after opening 15 October and apparently tanking because Jackie Chan is not so popular there any more. Although maybe the discs were manufactured long ago and the distributor doesn't see any need for them to hang around the warehouse any longer.

Also - because this movie was originally planned for a Lunar New Year release, it supposedly takes place at that time of year (although London looks kind of warm for February) and does the little fourth-wall break at the end, which makes me wonder if they didn't just give it the full-year delay other LNY movies got because Project X-Traction (Chan's next movie) is also tagged to that date. It's also got some fun credit outtakes, such as Tong showing his young star that you really want to drive your elbow firmly into the other guy's face. And Chan nearly drowning after being pinned underwater by a jetski, although that's not exactly "fun".

Ji xian feng (Vanguard)

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2020 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

Vanguard isn't the worst movie in Jackie Chan's lackluster late career, and it's not even particularly unique in how it's disappointing: As with many of his recent movies, the kung fu clown is at war with the elder statesman; the mainland production seemingly aims to use Chan's international stardom to make a film that plays globally while also being the sort of actively pro-China film that makes the state film board happy; and even though it would be completely unreasonable to ask Chan to carry an action movie the way he used to after 45-plus years of death-defying stunts and hard hits, he's proven tricky to fit into an ensemble as anything other than a mentor. That the movie is not good in so many other ways is, of course, not a help.

Reflecting the film's original, pre-Covid release date, it opens amid a Lunar New Year celebration in London, with Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang) joining his friend Zhang Kaixuan (Allen Ai Lun) and their family. Not far away, banker Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou Hsueh-Hsien) and wife Meiwei are kidnapped by middle-eastern terrorists led by Broto (Brahim Chab), but since Qin has hired the Vanguard security company, CEO Tang Huatin (Chan) is able to dispatch Lei, Kaixuan, and eventually driver Mi Ya (Mu Qimiya) to rescue them. Broto escapes, though, and though the Vanguard team anticipates that Broto and his boss Omar (Eyad Hourani) will attempt to get what they want from Qin by kidnapping his daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), they arrive at the wildlife activist's African campsite only minutes before Broto and his "Arctic Wolves".

Old Jackie Chan movies were often clumsy in many respects, barely enough to tie the fight scenes together, and that worked not just because those fights were extraordinary, with any one of the three or four set-pieces with the price of a ticket on its own, but because the whole film held together in straight-ahead, functional style. It doesn't really work quite so well when one can see that there's enough money being spent on locations and effects that some more time could have been spent on the script, or getting a really good take; it also doesn't help that the action isn't the same sort of jaw-dropping hand-to-hand masterpieces. I suspect this movie manages to be awkward and stilted in three languages, and if not exactly racist, so unconcerned with how it plays outside China to come off as tone-deaf. The plot is just whatever is convenient at the moment, no matter how much nonsense it is. It moves quickly enough that it's not quite boring, but it's generic.

The Chinese cast is generally a cut above that; in addition to the generally-reliable Chan - who makes Tang being a different guy when he's wearing a suit in the office versus being in the field work - the rest of the Vanguard team has, at the very least, the makings of a good television ensemble. None of them really have much to do outside action, but Yang Yang and Ai Lun are likable and pleasant while still feeling like capable professionals, Mu Qimiya plays off them as the scowling no-nonsense driver (the character's job/demeanor/costume suggests a reboot of The Transporter that I'd watch), and Xu Ruohan bounces nicely off Yang as the young "client". They aren't entirely on Chan's wavelength, but they're fine.

And while the action is a bit rough when the visual effects and editing crew gets asked to do too much, director Stanley Tong and the JC Stunt Team still know what they're doing. Jackie may not be as spry as he once was, but the younger cast members like Yang and Mu, as well as the stunt people, do fine, if less comically inspired work. The opening gambit is a nice throwback that makes use of the environment and keeps the amount of things going on manageable even as it moves around, something missing from the big central piece which is a bunch of people in desert camo and tactical gear aided by super-tech. There's also a nice Indiana Jones-style car chase/fist fight, except with boats, and I can't exactly hate a movie with one of those.

A few good bits and a few more fun ideas that don't quite become good bits are more than a fair number of action movies have, and probably would have been enough in Chan's Hong Kong days, but the sloppy stuff in between doesn't work with this movie's larger scale. Or, for that matter, with Chan's recent talk about doing something more ambitious than nearly getting himself killed for other people's entertainment.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, December 04, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 4 December 2020 - 10 December 2020

Big-ish weekend in person last week, less so online, and that flips this week.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is one of two virtual rooms with Another Round this weekend; the new one from Thomas Vinterberg which stars Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher who puts to test the theory that one is better off at least a little buzzed all the time. They also get 76 Days, a documentary about the lockdown in Wuhan province early in the global pandemic. They also continue Born to Be, Collective, Smooth Talk, Coded Bias, City Hall, and Martin Eden.

    In addition to having films on demand, their sold-out Film Trivia Night fundraiser will take place on Saturday night. They will also host a virtual Q&A for Born to Be on Tuesday, with filmmaker Tania Cypriano and three of the film's subjects. The Coolidge Education seminar on Thursday has Slate editor Sam Adams discussing Citizen Kane (and probably some talk of Mank as well).
  • The Brattle Theatre also picks up Another Round, as well as two others. They're documentaries, with Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan looking at the lead singer of The Pogues and featuring pre- and post-film extras. The other, Mayor follows Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of the city of Ramallah in occupied Palestine. They've also got Zappa, Three Summers, Flowers of Shanghai, Fire Will Come, The Twentieth Century, City Hall, and Ham on Rye in their streaming selection.

    Brattle members have received an invitation to the new DocYard presentation, The Inheritance, a partly-fictionalized take on filmmaker Ephraim Asili's time making his grandmother's house into a home for Black artists. Ephraim Asili will do a Q&A with moderation in the Amherst Cinema, who co-presents the film as part of their Bellwether Series. For those out in the Western part of the state, they've got their own virtual screening room which is showing Born to Be, Three Summers, Zappa, Coded Bias, Another Round, 76 Days, Pier Kids, Markie in Milwaukee, and Ikarie XB-1, the latter three not having a Boston-area platform.
  • Whew, looks like I'm not going to see that trailer for The Prom again, as Landmark Theatres Kendall Square opens it this weekend, with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, and James Corden playing Broadway actors who come to a Midwestern town to throw a party for a teenager girl, as the official dance won't let her bring her girlfriend. It's a musical from Ryan Murphy and looks a whole lot like theater people going on about how theater people are awesome.

    They also get a couple of new documentaries, with Billie not only telling the story of Billie Holiday but presenting concert footage in color for the first time. There's also Dear Santa, telling the story of the Post Office's group that reads the letters to Santa Claus and does their level best to answer them. And, hey, The New York Cat Film Festival, screening once on Wednesday after the theater is closed Monday and Tuesday, includes some documentary shorts as well (the dogs will have their day a week later).
  • It's a slow enough week at the multiplexes that The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone gets some screens at Boston Common and Revere despite being on video on the 8th. It's Francis Ford Coppolla's latest go at reworking one of his earlier movies, this time taking the much-maligned Godfather III and tightening it up.

    The other openings are also kind of built around death. All My Life features Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum as a young couple determined to marry and make the most of their time despite one having a terminal diagnosis; it's at Boston Common, South Bay, Chestnut Hill, and Revere. Half-Brothers has a proud Mexican man meeting his estranged and dying father only to find out that he's got an American brother, and Dad wants them to get to know each other. It plays Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown, and Revere.

    The other wide-ish release is a Christmas reissue of Die Hard, which plays Boston Common, South Bay, and Watertown, and with that, jokes about ironically watching Die Hard for Christmas are no longer funny. We're all moving on to Anna and the Apocalypse now. Elf also hangs around at Boston Common, while Frozen continues in Watertown.

    There are also some concert one-offs, with Stop Making Sense at Revere on Saturday evening, DJ Snake's big live Paris concert at Watertown on the same night, and Elvis: That's the Way it Is playing Boston Common and Chestnut Hill on Sunday afternoon.
  • The Regent Theatre has a single Friday-night in-theater screening of Insert Coin followed by a Q&A with director Joshua Tsui & game developer William Brierly, in addition to having it available on demand; they also continue to stream Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
  • Bright Lights at Home wraps their fall series on Thursday with Queering the Script, which looks at how LGBTQ2S+ characters are more present on television, but are often the first to be killed off. Reservations open at noon on the day, the stream starts at 7pm, and it will be followed by a discussion with director Gabrielle Zilkha and subjects Dana Piccoli & Florence Klink. ArtsEmersonalso continues to stream musician Somi's featurette in the absence of things.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open for the weekend, adding Singin' in the Rain and the 2018 A Star Is Born to their rotation, along with The Climb, A Rainy Day in New York, Honest Thief, The Keeper (Saturday/Sunday), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Casablanca (Sunday).
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but will point folks who want their December hit of The Slutcracker, to a version cut together from last year's performances, while their friends at The Capitol in Arlington have the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, West Newton, Kendall Square, the open AMCs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing!) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown). The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through December 30th, while the Brattle shows one on the afternoon of the 11th, but they may have added more since this was posted. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out, while the multiplexes mostly offer the chance at private screenings of their line-ups, though South Bay has listings but no available showtimes for a number of movies which are presumably also available.
I'm kind of sad that it look like the Showcase in Revere might be done for; its closing has been announced, there are no showtimes listed after Thursday (not even presales for Wonder Woman), and it's only got about 8 screens programmed out of plenty more. It will be missed; I took a few buses out there many times when something wasn't playing in town, and it was a pretty nice place even without being the only theater within miles of the locals.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

(More) Netflix Award Contenders: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Mank

I've been joking with friends about how I wouldn't be terribly shocked if Netflix was paying them to open so that they could tell various directors that, yes, your movie did open in the top 20 markets as per your contract. Look, here's a blog from a guy in Boston who saw it and quite liked it!

Surprisingly, there were decent-for-Sunday-in-a-pandemic audiences for both of these, like a half-dozen or so each, with more people in the smaller theater for Ma Rainey, which was kind of neat, as it is the better movie. It's an interesting comparison, though - both are showbiz stories, but Ma Rainey feels vibrant and alive even if it also sometimes seems rough and takes what feels like a couple wrong steps; Mank is sleek and well-produced and not really that interesting. The latter is very much a "he was a jerk who treated people around him poorly but man he could play guitar" sort of movie, while the former doesn't try to sugar-coat its characters' ego and selfishness but makes them interesting regardless.

I hope Ma Rainey gets some traction beyond being Chadwick Boseman's last film, because it kind of feels like it could get buried by the Netflix algorithm while Mank gets pushed hard, although I'd be curious how it works out from people with the service. I also find myself very glad that, though I saw it before both these movies, I will likely not have to see the trailer for The Prom again, because that looks like some ghastly "musical about how people who are into musicals are just the best!" garbage, even if the cast is mostly pretty good.

And, finally, I kind of cannot wait to be able to buy food and drink in a theater again. I walked to the Kendall and was pretty darn thirsty before the first movie, and then stupidly passed a couple of closer places by in order to just grab a soda between movies - which I didn't have time to drink. That can make for a long double feature!

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

So many of Chadwick Boseman's obituaries mentioned his love for and involvement in the theater that it seems fitting and proper that this, rather than something from Marvel, will be his last work - if his time had to be cut this short, at least a lot of people will get to see him performing something that is likely not far removed from August Wilson's play. And while it's not always amazing, it's quite good, and that's fitting too: It highlights that his career and life was cut short, a look at what could have been.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was known as the Mother of the Blues and a big star in Black America during the 1920s, when much of that population was moving north. In 1927, her tour was in Chicago, and her backing band included Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a talented and ambitious trumpet player who wants center stage for himself. Ma's manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) have set aside time to cut an album, and while pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trombone player and Ma's #2 Cutler (Colman Domingo) arrive on time, both Ma and Levee want to make an entrance, with Ma bringing girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). She wants Sylvester to record the introduction to her famous "Black Bottom" song, rejecting the new, more contemporary arrangement Levee has supplied.

Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe both have theatrical roots, but the opening is very much an example of what film can do without dialogue, both in how it sets the stage by showing the audience how the great migration from the rural South to the urban North was beginning to transform Black culture, reminding audiences that many of these people still had one foot in the previous status quo, and then laying out the friction between Ma and Levee with some clear storytelling disguised as a performance beat. It still works as a movie after that but you can see its stagebound origins: There's little action but a lot of talking back and forth as we wait for something to happen, with characters telling stories, explaining themselves, and building small things up to something bigger. It's not always quite as effective when the cast isn't in the same room, reacting to the audience, but Wolfe and the other filmmakers do a nice job of defining spaces, following the actors with the camera, and putting the audience in the middle of things rather than having them sitting back.

The patter and showmanship makes its two central performances more fun than they seemingly should be. Both Ma and Levee are towering displays of ego, the sort that performers need to both get onto the stage and build names for themselves, but which start to eat a person from within, and while that can be fascinating, a barrage of it can be a lot. Here, Viola Davis is at times almost grotesque as Ma, aided by gaudy gold teeth and makeup choices that simultaneously emphasize her as gaudy but also worn-down, but it only takes a little bit of talk to see what builds that. Ma has seen great success but whether because of her nature or because of the world she lives in, she seldom seems to actually enjoy it; she's too well aware that if she doesn't keep pushing everyone from the trumpet player to her white manager to anyone else is going to try and get a piece of what she's earned. Even the brief moments where she lets her guard down to talk about musical inspiration with Cutler are pessimistic; Davis makes sure that while the audience may understand, respect, and sympathize with Ma Rainey, she is difficult to like.

Boseman's Levee isn't quite as big a personality as Ma, but that's not for lack of trying on the character's part. He's right on the line of being too big for his britches and what he needs to be, the sort of guy we might be set up to like in another movie but who is just the right bit too much here. Boseman walks a fine line in finding the exact right amount of charisma - Levee has something, but not enough to fool people who know better, a little silly next to the journeyman musicians he spends most of his time with but not so much that one couldn't see him rising higher. Boseman goes back-and-forth with the talented supporting cast while Davis makes damn sure nobody ever steals a scene from Ma, and when the story pulls back some layers on Levee, Boseman digs into what's underneath but holds back the last little bit, as the idea is not to make the world revolve around him.

Wolfe and his team pick the pace up as recording actually starts, and though they've spent a lot of time on how the music business in the 1920s could be especially dirty, there's still a lot of delight in every facet of the music itself that doesn't quite become nostalgia, right down to lovingly examining the actual tools used to record onto vinyl. Branford Marsalis's score blends seamlessly into what appear to at least partially be original Ma Rainey recordings, and the filmmakers do nifty work in making the recording session satisfying even as tension is still mounting.

The film climaxes on a moment that is not quite out of nowhere but close enough that one wonders if the playwright August Wilson and/or screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson were caught flat by how their inspirations didn't fit a single narrative and decided to roll with the chaos. There are worse storytelling sins than that, I guess, and it does let the filmmakers underline one of their main points in its final scenes. In doing so, it almost becomes too much a movie, concerned with what happens rather than hours people tell us about it, which is the essence of theater - and maybe the blues.

Also at EFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

The thing about David Fincher's Mank - or, if not the thing, than a thing - is that it knows full well who the most interesting figure in this tale is, devoting the film's showiest, most theatrical scene to just why William Randolph Hearst was a fascinating character, and the only reason we have this film is that someone did make a movie about him, more or less, and someone later decided that the story behind the story might be worth telling, even if writer Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz is arguably the least interesting figure in the tale despite being the closest to the center of it.

Mank may not be particularly interesting, especially given the admiring presentation he gets in Jack Fincher's screenplay, but he's the sort of character that movie people love on-screen and off. He's always got a quip at the ready, he enjoys his work but he's able to laugh at the phoniness of the industry and scam his way through it. He's not only never in the wrong on the "important" things and everyone laughs and encourages his acting like a jerk, indulging his self-destructive behavior even if it was obviously going to put him in an early grave and makes his being played by someone 20-odd years his senior more believable than usual. I suspect that a great number of people in Hollywood would like to be Herman Mankiewicz, just famous and well-paid enough that they can do what they want without being under a great deal of pressure or subjected to the whims of the public, and Gary Oldman certainly seems to have a grand old time of it, pouring every ounce of charm he's got into the role and getting the chance to do the bit where he silently realizes a moment too late that his devil-may-care attitude has hurt somebody as the camera lingers.

Compare him to Marion Davies, where Amanda Seyfried dives into "dizzy screen blonde is actually smart and empathetic" and steals every scene so thoroughly that it feels completely natural that the most important part of the 1940-set scenes is how Marion will react to her analog in Mank's script (she, of course, says it's not a big deal because how could anyone truly be angry at Mank?), but every scene she's in suggests an interesting contradiction and complexity that just isn't there in the main character. Or look at the resonant material around the race to be California's governor, where the Finchers have their knives out on how the rich convince the poor to vote against their own interests and always have done, giving that material a lot of room to breathe before ultimately reducing its importance to inspiring Mank to write what would become Citizen Kane. That's the movie, not the cheerful alcoholic.

It mostly works despite all of this, because David Fincher is really good at making movies, something you can almost forget because they've become fewer and further between (six years since Gone Girl!). Arguably the only scene that doesn't have great rhythm is the one where Mank drunkenly invades a dinner party and one wants him to flail about until it's uncomfortable for everyone, the theatrical audience envying the partygoers who are visibly bailing (you just don't get that feeling on Netflix with the fast-forward button right there should you need it). It's exquisitely crafted, and both Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt are great at shooting in black-and-white in a way that feels more like how things were shot at the time of the film than using it as a generic signal of the past.

They get a little too cute with that at times, from the opening credits that proudly proclaim that it was shot in High Dynamic Range with retro graphics to fake cigarette burns, not to mention all the cute little winks at non-linear story structure. It's not quite too self-indulgent - there's too much talent here - but it's the sort of thing that calls attention to itself as trying too hard to be clever when the rest of the movie around it isn't quite up to the level where that fits in.