Friday, February 26, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 26 February 2021 - 4 March 2021

Whoa, but does February go by fast. It won't entirely be "Next Week in…" on this blog, but I've got to admit that I'm not really using this to plan my moviegoing week like usual. I have sort of become more of a crossword person than a movie person during the past year - the daily email aggregating the puzzles from both newspapers and independent blogs gives me something to get through, while combining the online offerings with my too-full shelves gives me full-on decision paralysis of not knowing what to watch next, especially since the days blending together means I'm seldom in the mood for anything specific., and I wind up either not watching anything or trying to keep ahead of the TV stuff building up on my DVR. It's a low-turnover week, though, so maybe I'll get to more.
  • The Brattle Theatre keeps busy, though, opening a few new releases. Sin stars Alberto Testone as Michelangelo, who is torn by commissions by successive popes who were each members of powerful rival families. For something more modern, documentary Un Film Dramatique follows the first class to attend a newly-constructed middle school in Paris, who also help director Éric Baudelaire put it together. They join Twilight's Kiss, Truth to Power, Demonlover, Lapsis, Crestone, What Happened Was…, Heartworn Highways, Mirror, and Atlantis in the Brattlite virtual theater.

    That area also features a one-week booking of Smooth Talk, courtesy of Strictly Brohibited; the new restoration of Laura Dern's breakout role was "at" the Coolidge a while a back. Another group of friends, The DocYard, starts their spring season with Downstream to Kinhasa, a documentary which follows a group of disabled veterans of Congo's 2000 Six Day War seeking reparations, combined with spoken-word pieces. Director Dieudo Hamadi will participate in a live Q&A on Monday afternoon.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre pretty much retains the same virtual lineup of Jumbo, Days of the Bagnold Summer, Test Pattern, Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words, Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities, Two of Us, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, Some Kind of Heaven, and City Hall this week, although there's a few noteworthy things coming up. The week's Coolidge Education seminar is for Tod Browning's Freaks - sign up, get an introduction and a Zoom link sent to you, watch the film before and then join Indiewire editor Kristen Lopez at 8pm Thursday.
  • ArtsEmerson's Film Program has encores from their "Shared Stories" series through Sunday, with Our Right to Gaze, Savages, Servants, and Specialty Acts, and Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 "Pick Your Price" features (with Our Right to Gaze and Alternative Facts including pre-recorded Q&As) and six short films being streamed for free.

    Also via Emerson, Duty Free is the week's selection from Bright Lights at Home. It streams for up to 175 from Wednesday at noon until 7pm Thursday, and follows a man and his mother traveling after she loses her job (at 75) and worries about her future. Both director Sian-Pierre Regis and mom Rebecca Danigelis will be on-hand for the discussion Thursday evening.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is open Friday to Sunday (and next Thursday) with three new releases. Julie Delpy writes, directs, and stars in My Zoe, playing a scientist trying to keep her daughter alive in some form after she suffers a massive brain hemorrhage, and I'm guessing the "in some form" is important. They also open Herself (which, interestingly for those following windows, has been on Amazon Prime for a month and a half already); it features Clare Dunne as a mother of two escaping an abusive spouse, looking to build a small place to live.

    Also opening is Night of the Kings, which I didn't get around to reviewing when it played as part of IFFBoston's Fall Focus, but it's a striking film from the Ivory Coast (its Oscar submission), set in a prison where the inmates are basically left to run things on their own, and a new arrival must make a story last through until dawn or be sacrificed.
  • The big opening at the multiplex is Tom and Jerry, a live-action/animation hybrid that functions as an origin story and has Chloë Grace Moretza and Michael Peña in there somewhere as well. It's at West Newton (through Sunday), Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Chestnut Hill (through Sunday), and on HBO Max.

    Apple's documentary Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry gets a Friday-evening screening in Imax at Boston Common, with the big screen still used for Nomadland for the rest of the week, with either Raya and the Last Dragon or Chaos Walking moving in on Thursday. South Bay has the Lord of the Rings films on their Imax screen through Wednesday, as well as one-offs of God's Compass (Friday), Get on Up (Saturday), and Boyz n the Hood (Sunday/Wednesday)
  • End Game and A Writer's Odyssey continue to play Boston Common for Lunar New Year.
  • The West Newton Cinema has spiffed up their website a bit, and offers Leona on Friday and Saturday in addition to having Tom & Jerry on two or three screens.
  • The Somerville Theatre is still closed but had construction permits in the windows when I last walked by, so maybe the upstairs theaters will have the same new look as the ones downstairs when they re-open. The site, though, is still just linking to The Slutcracker: The Movie. The Capitol has ice cream and snacks Wednesday through Sunday.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through the end of March for Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc; the AMC app lists some "sold out" showtimes that are probably just meant to show the movies are available as part of rentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I've hit "buy" on Psycho Goreman and Jumbo, so I should probably watch those before time runs out (if I can - I'm stretching PG's availability badly), and I'll probably head to the Kendall for My Zoe and Blithe Spirit it it doesn't rain all weekend. And, well, lots of crosswords in between, including the Boswords Spring Themeless League; that starts Monday night and there's still time to join.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 19 February 2021 - 25 February 2021

So Detective Chinatown 3 made something like $400M last weekend, but it looks like it won't play near Chinatowns in America because its distributor isn't the one that's booking in US theaters. Which is weird, since they own a large chunk of AMC, the only chain that's committed to being open, but go figure.
  • The Brattle Theatre has something to fit Chinese New year, though, with Twilight's Kiss, a film out of Hong Kong about two older men who meet in a park after having been closeted their whole lives. They also bring in Truth to Power, a musician documentary focused on System of a Down's Serj Tankian, as well as a new restoration of the director's cut of Demonlover, and, folks, I do not like this whole deal of time passing to the extent that movies released in the twenty-first century are getting restorations. They join Lapsis, Crestone, What Happened Was…, Heartworn Highways, Mirror, Atlantis, Have You Seen My Movie?, and Psycho Goreman in the Brattlite virtual theater.

    The Independent Film Festival Boston/A24 virtual premiere run of Minarihas done well enough that all the 7pm shows have been sold out, but they've put extras on at 9pm (and weekend 4pm shows) for the second week of its run, through the 25th. Proceeds from those shows benefits the teater, as does their concessions take-out sale; reserve a time and come away with popcorn, soda, candy, shirts, and more.
  • Things get kind of weird at The Coolidge Corner Theatre this week, at least from what I can tell from two of their films. Jumbo is one I didn't get a chance to stream from Fantasia last summer, but it has a unique hook with Noémie Merlant playing a woman who falls in love with an amusement park ride, and if I remember the discussion at the time, it's not exactly a platonic affair. Meanwhile, Days of the Bagnold Summer is a coming-of-age film about a teenager who just wants to stay in his room and listen to Metallica when plans to visit his father for the summer fall through and his single mother, with original songs by Belle and Sebastian, who, if I'm not mistaken, represent the polar opposite of Metallica, musically.

    Test Pattern, at least, looks a little more conventional, a taut-looking drama about a couple who drive from hospital to hospital looking to have a rape kit performed after the black girlfriend is attacked, the white boyfriend never having faced that sort of official apathy and hostility. They can be found alongside Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words, Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities, Two of Us, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, Some Kind of Heaven, and City Hall as streaming options.

    Filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford and co-stars Brittany S. Hall & Will Brill will have a virtual Q&A for Test Pattern on Monday evening, one of three discussions planned for the week. MLK/FBI director Sam Pollard will join State Representative Nika Elugardo for a Panorama discussion on Wednesday; the film was part of IFFBoston's Fall Focus last summer and while it's not at the virtual Coolidge, it's rentable in plenty of places. The same goes for Singin' in the Rain, the subject of critic Josh Spiegel's Thursday seminar (with an introduction available earlier for those who register).
  • The page for the GlobeDocs Black History Month Film Festival has some of the earlier discussions meant to follow the films up on line, and still shows links to RSVP to stream Black Boys, Code Switching, and short "Together - 6 Feet Apart" even though the Q&A events have already taken place. Process is the Project Part One is available to stream now (with a RSVP), with a discussion at noon on Monday, right about when Glory will become available (though you have to reserve before 9am on Monday) ahead of a 3pm discussion on Thursday.

    Boston Jewish Film continues their preview of The Vigil through Monday, which also gives the viewer a chance to see a live talk with filmmaker Keith Thomas, cast, and crew on the closing night.
  • Bright Lights at Home offers a free stream (for up to 175 people) of Coded Bias from noon Wednesday through 7pm Thursday, with director Shalini Kantayya joining a Zoom call at 8pm on Thursday. I remember it being one of those docs that's a decent overview, the sort of thing where you could probably get a lot of extra benefit from picking the director's brain (and that of the moderator and any other guests) afterward.

    With both series being virtual, they don't have to share the Bright Screening Room with ArtsEmerson's Film Program, which has a week of encores from their "Shared Stories" series starting on Wednesday. Features Our Right to Gaze, Savages, Servants, and Specialty Acts, and Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 are marked as "Pick Your Price" (with Our Right to Gaze and Alternative Facts including pre-recorded Q&As); there are also six short films being streamed for free. They come online at 7pm Wednesday and go off at 10pm on the 28th.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is open Friday to Sunday with the main new attraction being Nomadland, Chloé Zhao's terrific film featuring Frances McDormand as a widow living out of her van after her entire town closes. It's been an Imax exclusive for a while, and also shows up on Hulu this weekend, although the big screen adds quite a bit. The film also expands to South Bay and Chestnut Hill.

    They also pick up Blithe Spirit, an adaptation of a Noël Coward play which stars Dan Stevens as a novelist whose first wife (Leslie Mann) is manifested by a spiritualist (Judi Dench), and is not exactly pleased with her replacement (Isla Fisher). That is, if nothing else, a heck of a nifty cast.
  • It's a quiet week at the multiplexes, with the main addition at Boston Common being End Game, a new film from A Cool Fish director Rao Xiaozhi, in which an out of work actor assumes the life of a man he presumes to be dead, only to find out his new identity is that of an assassin, while that man awakens with amnesia, befriended by a single mother who believes him to be the actor. It joins A Writer's Odyssey, both of which I notice are distributed by CMC, as was The Rescue, as the rest of the folks importing Chinese films don't seem to think it's worth booking in America despite many screens being available.

    South Bay has the three Lord of the Rings films at various times this week - I don't quite see the pattern on the weekend, although Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday is clear enough, with both AMCs' Imax screens going to the Billie Eilish documentary on Thursday.
  • The West Newton Cinema does not yet have their schedule up; my guess is Nomadland and Judas and the Black Messiah, although they might just go with last weekend's slate of Judas and Leona.
  • The Regent Theatre has a livestreamed "My Sweet George" event on Thursday, with a number of artists playing the music of George Harrison from the Beatles to, presumably, the Wilburys, with event posters available and an auction to benefit the theater.
  • The Somerville Theatre is still closed while The Slutcracker: The Movie is apparently still available, because why not, I guess. Over in Arlington, The Capitol, has ice cream and snacks Wednesday through Sunday.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through the end of March for Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc; the AMC app lists some "sold out" showtimes that are probably just meant to show the movies are available as part of rentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I'm tempted to do double features this weekend, with the Chinese movies at Boston Common and maybe Blithe Spirit & The World to Come at the Kendall, getting weird with Psycho Goreman and Jumbo around it. Might do Demonlover, because I remember hating it 20 years ago but am now kind of unsure whether it was the movie or me.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 12 February 2021 - 18 February 2021

Potentially a very busy weekend - Lunar New Year, Valentine's Day, President's Day - all with attached film stuff. Plus theaters reopening with a fair amount of new material!
  • I'm still kind of surprised that it's come down to The Brattle Theatre having to stream Casablanca for Valentine's Day, but here we are, so if that's a tradition for you (or even if it isn't), you can let them send it to you through Sunday. They've also got people manning the concession stand for the weekend, with popcorn, soda, snacks, and other goodies available for pick-up through Sunday night. Pre-order them online, specifying the pick-up time, and maybe get some merch as well.

    They also team up with Independent Film Festival Boston and A24 to do a virtual premiere run of the pretty darn great Minari, with shows at 7pm every day through the 25th. They've actually already sold everything through the 21st out, so lock down your ticket if you want your stream to benefit the Brattle!

    "Regular" virtual bookings include another that I enjoyed during festival streams last year, with Lapsis having played Fantasia and taking place in an alternate present where working class people lay cable throughout parkland for quantum computing, and a man doing it under false pretenses finds he's in for more than he bargained for. Another new addition, Crestone, has a kind of similar now/future/out of sync vibe, following musicians who come together in a Colorado desert town. They also pick up a new restoration of What Happened Was…, Tom Noonan's directorial debut from 1994 with two people spending Friday night in an intimidating apartment. They join My Little Sister, Heartworn Highways, Mirror, True Mothers, You Will Die at Twenty, Atlantis, Psycho Goreman, and Identifying Features in the Brattlite virtual theater.
  • It's a relatively quiet week for The Coolidge Corner Theatre and their streaming options. Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words opens on Friday; it's a documentary that uses animation and illustration to visualize her letters and opinions. Their second new release arrives on Sunday, with Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities an anthology whose six segments are all directed by Black creators. They join Two of Us, A Glitch in the Matrix, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Some Kind of Heaven, and City Hall as streaming options.

    The week's virtual talk is a "Shakespeare Reimagined" presentation, with folks from the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company discussing Ten Things I Hate About You at 8pm on Wednesday. As with the usual Thursday entries, you can either dig through your shelves for a DVD or find a stream (JustWatch shows 4K availability!) after registering and before joining the panel.
  • The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival continues through Monday night, with features, shorts, and panels available to stream any time after they premiere and the traditional 24-hour marathon live-streamed starting at noon on Tuesday. I covered Monster Seafood Wars (very much Minoru Kawasaki pastiche, for better or worse) and A Mermaid in Paris (aggressively cute with a nice cast) via Fantasia, and am planning to catch Toxico, Truth or Consequences, Beauty Water, Bruja, Infinitum, The Trouble with Being Born, Deep In, The Unhealer, Tales of Tomorrow, and Curse of Willow Song, and maybe more if I find the time come Monday night.

    GlobeDocs continues their Black History Month Film Festival, with Code Switching and short "Together - 6 Feet Apart" available to stream now (Process is the Project Part One goes online Thursday). RSVP for the discussions (Tuesday noon for Code Switching, Thursday noon for "Together") to be sent links for both those Zoom calls and the film itself.

    Boston Jewish Film will be presenting the Boston Israeli Film Festival next month, but team up with the Coolidge and IFC Midnight for a preview of The Vigil, in which a man who has left his Hasidic community takes a job watching a recently-deceased man overnight and does not have it go smooth at all. It's available starting on Tuesday the 16th, and the ticket also includes a discussion with filmmaker Keith Thomas, cast, and crew on the 22nd.
  • The week's Bright Lights at Home presentation is Welcome to Chechnya, available from noon Wednesday through 7pm Thursday. Director David France and producer Alice Henty will then join a Zoom call (also part of the same stream) to discuss their film on how the republic's leader is trying to eradicate LGBTQ-ness in the region. It's also available on HBO's streams if you don't want to count against the 175-person limit, although I don't know if that gets you into the Zoom.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square re-opens Friday through Monday with concessions on sale as well - in fact, if you have a vaccination card, they'll give you a free popcorn. They've got Minari on two screens, and five other new releases besides.

    Two are true-story dramas: The Mauritanian stars Tahar Rahim as the title character, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay without charge for years, with Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as his attorneys and Benedict Cumberbatch as their opponent; it's also at Boston Common and Chestnut Hill. Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O'Neal, who has been sent in undercover but has his loyalties tested as he rises through the ranks. It also plays Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), West Newton, Chestnut Hill, and HBO Max.

    Two more have women in isolated parts of America, with Robin Wright's Land (also at Boston Common/South Bay/Chestnut Hill) contemporary and featuring the director's character retreating to a cabin after a tragic loss, while The World to Come takes place in the 19th century and has two farmers' wives growing closer as they find themselves with needs that their husbands cannot fill.

    Serbian Oscar submission Dara of Jasenovac also opens, with director Predrag Peter Antonijević telling a tale from World War II about a young Serbian girl in a Croat concentration camp, the only one during the war not run by Germany. That one is also at Boston Common; Kendall Square also has Amazon's One Night in Miami… and Netflix's Mank.
  • So far, there is only one Chinese movie at Boston Common opening to celebrate the Year of the Ox, with A Writer's Odyssey coming from Brotherhood of Blades director Lu Yang and featuring Dong Zijian as a fantasy writer whose world is starting to bleed into our own, which leads to a price being put on his head.

    Boston Common continues Nomadland on the Imax screen, while South Bay gives it over to the second and third parts of Lord of the Rings. Valentines/Black History presentations include Pretty in Pink at South Bay on Friday & Sunday, The Notebook at Boston Common Saturday & Sunday, and Ray at South Bay on Saturday.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, and in addition to Judas and the Black Messiah, they have Leona, which stars Naian González Norvind as a young Jewish woman in Mexico City who falls for a man outside the faith.
  • The Regent Theatre has their last planned stream of Jimmy Tingle's featurette "2020 Vision" this weekend; as usual, the one-hour featurette is followed by comedy and talk, with virtual tickets marked as "pay what you can"; unlike the previous three, this one is on Sunday at 5pm.
  • The Somerville Theatre is still closed but the site offering The Slutcracker: The Movie is still showing tickets for sale. The Somerville's sister theater in Arlington, The Capitol, has ice cream and snacks Wednesday through Sunday.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through the end of March for Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
As you can see, I've got a lot of Sci-Fi fest stuff to get through before Monday night and am very tempted to head out for A Writer's Odyssey, The World to Come, The Mauritanian, and/or Judas and the Black Messiah on top of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

I Wasn't Really Seeing This as a Double Feature, But...: 76 Days and Monk Comes Down the Mountain

"Stuff from China" is a nebulous-enough theme weekend, but I figured (based upon my previous experience with works of these filmmakers that I'd seen at Fantasia) they might be a little closer. 76 Days was sort of locked in for the Saturday I saw it - after delaying too long on streaming it via the Coolidge, I noted that there was a free one-day thing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Wuhan locking down, and then I figured that I might as well finally pull Monk Comes Down the Mountain from the shelf because the people involved had made somewhat stately, almost too-serious martial arts stories, and I'd left it there because that hadn't been what I was looking for when in the mood for some action.

This wasn't that; it was big and broad and so full of slapstick that I'm still not sure what to do with how the oft-child-like protagonist murders a couple of people for revenge and then kind of feels bad about it but still runs the shop he inherited as a result. The movie mostly just needs him to be in the right place at the right time, but, still, it's weird.

Also weird: I got this disc from Hong Kong but you'd never know it.

It's not the only disc I've ever received from there that doesn't have any Chinese on it, but even the copy of Drunken Master II from Warner Brothers that I ordered from the same place said "licensed for sale in Hong Kong and Macau" on in, while this says "authorized for use in the place where it's sold, for example, the U.S. or Canada". There's no UPC on the package, and I think the special features are all in English as well. I honestly wonder if Sony intended to release this disc in the US, and then just opted not to for some reason, dropping it in HK. It makes no sense, but it feels like madness trying to figure out why certain things get released in one place in one format but not others these days.

76 Days

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (special presentation, Eventive via Roku)

There is, I'm sure, a lot left out of 76 Days that documentaries with a little more time for reflection and focus on a larger picture will eventually cover, and it's probably wise to look at it as something that presents something close to a best-case scenario, or one where the situation was managed to look good for cameras. Even if that's the case, though, it's useful to watch as an example of how things can or could be handled that is not entirely hypothetical. It's a process-oriented doc about heroes doing their thing selflessly, and is reassuring for it.

Not that it's entirely serving up soothing competence, although I suspect that it may not necessarily hit that way for some viewers - there's a stern stoicism to the people going about their work here that I imagine some viewers might find cold and uncomfortable, especially considering its Chinese source, and the filmmakers will sometimes play into it by cutting to a shot of a terrified patient that seems too close in, maybe highlighting how the older man's mind is starting to and he maybe can't comprehend the pandemic despite being near the epicenter. The level of lockdown when the camera leaves the hospital late is also unnerving, with barricades and signage up everywhere. You cannot help but wonder about a community that has what's needed to do this on-hand even as it seems prudent.

Mostly, though, you just feel the stress on the Wuhan hospital's staff, as intended. The fact that the camera seldom leaves the hospital or even shows one person replacing another in shift changes underlines what a marathon it is, hinting at no downtime whatsoever, and there's a weight on everybody even as they pull together. It's likely not the whole story, but it's an important part of it presented in focused, but not quite detached, fashion.

(Monk Comes Down the Mountain)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong (?) Blu-Ray)

It's kind of weird getting to Monk Comes Down the Mountain by way of writer Xu Haofeng, whose own movies (and, I presume, novels) are so rigorous and serious about martial arts that they almost come all the way back around to self-parody, while this movie - for which it turns out he merely has a story credit - is broad and over-the-top from the start, when a Shaolin monastery facing lean times has a battle royale over who will be expelled, and the slapstick orphan is sent packing because he cleaned everyone else's clock.

It doesn't just get sillier from there, but it takes a while to find any sort of equilibrium. Director Chen Kaige and action director Ku Huen-Chieu go for the big lightweight wire-fu in a heightened early-twentieth century China, and it's often a lot of fun as that, but there's a dark and mean heart to some of the adventures "He Anxia" gets into, and the tones don't line up until almost the end. It all looks great and the action is high-quality, though it feels a bit end-of-cycle - I'm not sure that this is the last of the big-budget prestige wuxia films that came into vogue after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it seems to be around the right time and seems a bit confused, like it's trying to evolve into something else.

It has a hard time, though, in large part because the script is a mess. He Anxia could be an interesting character, and Wang Baoqiang gives Chen his best stab at whatever's being asked for in a given scene, but the writers never really figure out how to make this his story. He's at the edges of a few family conflicts, but they never coalesce into what he needs to learn about life outside the monastery, and the film doesn't do close to enough work to deal with the murders that end the first segment. I wondered if this was like CTHD in that it was based on parts of a longer saga only zoomed-out rather than in, the parts that made it into a whole lost.

Also: It's more than a little weird that most of the movie is shot on big, impressive period sets (or at least given a decent virtual environment) but a pivotal scene is literally on a contemporary playground basketball court. What's up with that?

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Stuff that's been waiting: Monster Hunter and The Rescue

So, AMCs in Boston are selling concessions now. The offerings are exceptionally limited compared to the old usual - popcorn, nachos, and soda, maybe candy - and you don't get to serve yourself at the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. I went with a soda because it was my second movie of the day and there aren't any water fountains, and it turns out that even with Chinatown right outside the emergency exit for screen #1, there are not a whole lot of people lining up to see The Rescue on the date of the Large Football Game when there's a snowstorm and it came out in China a month and a half ago, allowing the pirates to do what they do. I was alone and probably could have taken my mask off, but I like the front so there could have been people behind me.

Fun fact #1: It is a fair amount harder to snake a straw up under a KN-95 mask than it is the cloth masks I was using during the last round of movie theaters being open. Not saying I ever brought a can of soda in there, but I may have had one in between shows.

Fun fact #2: That's at least two delays ago! Those cups have been waiting for someone to pull them out for almost a year!

Fact that is fun to fewer people: Both of these films were produced by Chinese entertainment company Tencent, whose logo does not include a Minion as American viewers might suspect, but Wuba, the adorable star of their hit Monster Hunt series, which as you might imagine is in no way connected to Capcom's game. I vaguely wondered if they had to cut Tencent in to play China, although they apparently got pulled and banned for a joke that I don't remember at all.

Anyway, while Monster Hunter is the only one of the two specifically based on a video game, they both occasionally have that feel - mission-oriented, the physics and rendering sometimes a little off, camera doing weird things and pulling back to give you the lay of the land. It's messier in Monster Hunter, because the writing is, but it's a sensation that's definitely in play during The Rescue too.

Also, both of them look like they would have been more fun in 3D, with The Rescue possibly also wanting HFR and "4D" enhancements. Unfortunately, 3D home releases are getting harder to find - Hong Kong used to be my go to for that but it's dried up, and even the UK is iffier these days. It's a bummer, considering how it looks like the virus has apparently killed 3D here, although we'll see what happens in March when Ray and Godzilla vs Kong come out.

Oh, one final aside - I'm mildly surprised that The Rescue is available to stream on Prime already, although maybe I shouldn't be, as it's only at Boston Common for another couple days and was likely only there this weekend as a holdover from two months ago, and, besides, pandemic windows are weird. Still, it's the sort of thing that makes me do a little bit more digging before linking to it to see if it's legit or a pirate stream, since you can't always tell with Prime Video.

Monster Hunter

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

You don't buy a ticket to Monster Hunter without knowing what you're in for, on a certain level - whether it's because you're a fan of the games, you know what sort of movies Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich make together, or you just looked at the poster and/or trailer and caught the vibe. Still, even if you know the sort of thing it's going to be, it's not unfair to hope that it might be more, or at least be a better version of that thing. It's barely a movie as a whole, really only able to be appreciated for its various parts.

And some of those parts are pretty good! I admire Anderson's decision to not screw around much in the early going, as the movie kicks off with a nutso bit of fantasy action and a bland but no-nonsense bit getting folks from our world to the new one and fighting for their life. There's a fun, propulsive synth-heavy score, and it's probably a lot of fun in 3D, because if nothing else, Anderson knows how to build a shot. Don't ever suggest that Milla Jovovich ever gives half effort in this sort of movie, though the world is still trying to figure out what to do with Tony Jaa. He's fun, but he doesn't really get a chance to show his stuff with little but visual effects to fight.

This sure gets mired in a place where I badly wanted to see something half as cool as the prologue as soon as it gets to the point where any sort of story would be really helpful, though - things slow to a crawl, one group of characters is shuffled off, time is killed while Jovovich and Jaa play out the "people with no obvious reason to be enemies" fight bit, and then a new crew is brought in but never given a chance to make individual impressions (though I imagine fans of the game will enjoy seeing them). Anderson never engages with the bits of world-building that look fun, ending on an orgy of mean-spirited violence and hints at a sequel that seems unlikely to come.

It's a bummer to watch the movie sink from showing a ton of potential to becoming a complete mess. Maybe they can build on it - the Resident Evil movies hit their stride with #4 and #5, after all - but who knows if they'll get the chance?

Jin Ji Jiu Yuan (The Rescue)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

Dante Lam Chiu-Yin's latest patriotic blockbuster has everything it needs to be a crowd pleaser and then some, the "then some" coming from a tendency to pile things on a little too high when there's already plenty for the audience to worry about. It's one of those action movies that puts just enough fairly predictable material between spectacles to get by but can escape feeling completely rote thanks to its star's charisma.

It follows a unit of the Chinese Coast Guard based in Xiamen and co-captained by Gao Qian (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen), the "winchman" who is lowered into danger via helicopter, and kicks off with the evacuation of an offshore oil rig in danger of collapse after a fire, hairy enough that one helicopter pilot is injured and the other loses his nerve. Fang Yuling (Xin Zhilei) and Liu Bun (Mario Li Mingcheng) are assigned to replace them, and while she's as good as anyone in the service, she's naturally a bit more conservative than Gao, leading to a little friction between her, Gao, and winchmen Zhao Cheng (Wang Yang-Lin) & Bai Yang (Xu Yang). She's also pretty, and Gao's five-year-old son Congcong (Zhang Jingyi) thinks it's about time the widower found him a new mother.

Lam and the other producers seemed to have had box-office ambitions even beyond being one of the big releases for the Lunar New Year holidays in 2020 - an English-dubbed trailer played American theaters in the weeks leading up to its intended release, and not only do the big set-pieces have a lot of English, but the film goes easy on the flag-waving and nationalism in ways that Lam's last two most certainly did not. It's not likely the film would have had that sort of crossover success before 2020 went haywire, but it's polished, the themes have broad appeal, and the Xiamen location looks good on screen; it's the sort of thing I can see recommending to people who are going to find any opportunity to dismiss a foreign film as weird or a Chinese film as hostile.

And it's enjoyable if not exactly deep. Eddie Peng is a pretty easygoing center of the film, making Gao Qian believably cocky on the job but a big dork around his son, playing his bond with his team as tight but not exclusionary. He and Xin Zhilei play off each other as colleagues and possibly friends well, although the script never bothers to find any reason for them to be paired romantically other than being the male and female leads. The rest of the cast is fine, good enough to pass the time between adventures with, whether it's Wang Yang-Lin as Gao Qian's younger and brasher partner or Lyric Lan Ying-Ying as his finacée, or Zhang Jingyi as the maybe-just-slightly-too-cute kid. It's not his fault that the film puts Congcong in the middle of a late subplot that stretches the film too far because it means cutting away from the big tanker fire that's already got two or three threads going (but I guess a Chinese movie needs Gao Qian to serve the people even when he's got personal concerns).

There's not much arguing with the search-and-rescue action, at least. Thus must be a heck of a thing to see with every bell and whistle a theater can throw at it from the exciting opening gambit to a plane-crash centerpiece that would probably be the grand finale of other movies. Lam is credited with action choreography as well as "regular" direction, and it lets him combine the large-scale set pieces with the up-close-and-personal very well even though that can often seem like the work of two completely different filmmakers cut together (and often is). He's got a good enough handle on how this all fits together than even the sequences where the CGI budget being stretched work better than they look.

It is, at times, a bit too much movie for how simple it is at heart, especially when it gets to the end and it's hard not to feel like there's been too much too often. Nevertheless, when Lam just gets down to delivering the thrills promised, The Rescue is a blast and goes down a lot easier than the more militaristic adventures.

Also at eFilmCritic

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Road Trips at the End: Supernova and Nomadland

So, I figure that this should last me until vaccination, and if it doesn't, then I've been out waaaaay too often. I probably really don't need the temptation of movie theaters reopening right now, especially since I've started to slip back into the habit of making small runs for a thing or two that I need rather than loading up and hunkering down for the whole week. If I'm going to justify going out to movies to myself - which I would talk myself into during the fall because I live alone and mostly stay home for days afterward - I should tighten that up.

Of course, there's the whole question of theaters being open at all, which got some extra teeth-gnashing this week as Imax announced the Lord of the Rings movies getting giant-screen re-releases starting on Friday using the new 4K masters, with folks grumbling about why Imax and Warner had to do that now. I tended to look at it from the opposite side - if theaters like the local AMCs figure they need to be open because insurance won't cover the rent if they're not legally forced to close, then they need to show something, and if you figure that the places getting LOTR are going to have it for a few weeks so that people can spread the long movies out a bit... Well, it's not like those sorts of windows come along very often in non-pandemic times. Maybe you can plan for a couple weeks around Labor Day, but that's about it.

We didn't get LOTR here, but Boston Common did re-open with Nomadland on the Imax-branded screen, and that's also something that doesn't often happen under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, as studios roll out a constant stream of bigger, more VFX-based spectacles. It's a crying shame, because it proves incredibly well-suited to the format, and not just for the striking widescreen photography. I was reminded of what someone described as "big mood" after watching Shunji Iwai's Last Letter from the front section a couple years ago. There is power in letting a film fully envelop oneself, especially when it takes you out of doors and out of one's comfort zone the way Nomadland does, especially as Chloé Zhao makes good use of the screen, giving us lots of chances to look study Frances McDormand's face without being up her nose. I'm sure that this will be a fine move when it hits Hulu in a couple of weeks, but it's sublime on the giant screen.

It also makes a surprisingly good double feature with Supernova, especially when one looks at them as the opposite sides of losing someone. The trailer for Supernova isn't exactly deceptive, but it definitely starts in the middle and obscures just how much of the movie is just Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci on the road. That's fine - the film is brief enough that one doesn't lose patience getting there and makes for a tighter film than one might expect. All that road time made me wonder how it would look in Imax as well, which is not exactly the usual thing I'm musing about when seeing two films of such tight, personal focus.

But it's a weird time. I would never have imagined seeing the same trailer for a Serbian WWII drama distributed by a tiny label twice at the mainstream theater, but that happened as well.

Supernova '21

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The title of Supernova gives the game away if you know your astronomy, but this is not a film about surprising you so much as getting you settled in for the inevitable, so that's fine. It's bucolic in its way, contrasting cozy spaces with lovely landscapes, letting the small cast enjoy each other so that the audience can enjoy them as well.

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been together for a long time, and used to go on road trips like the one they're on more often, but life gets busy and people slow down. This time, they're loaded into their RV for a trip out to the country where Sam will be giving a piano recital, stopping to see Sam's sister Lily (Pippa Haywood) and her husband Clive (Peter MacQueen) along the way. There probably won't be many more like it; though still fairly lively and witty, and young for its onset, Tusker is in the early stages of dementia.

Writer/director Harry Macqueen doesn't exactly try to hide that in the early going, but does present it as something that Sam and Tusker are trying hard to work around. The solitude of the film's first act means that there is no reason to explain the situation but plenty of time to observe the different levels of energy between the two and take note of how the activities presented as therapeutic are seeping into the rest of how they interact. It's early, so Sam's life is not yet consumed with accommodating Tusker's illness, but one can see it starting. It's a dynamic that will change when they reach Sam's childhood home; Lilly and Clive know the score, and they can't pretend it's not a big deal.

Not that Macqueen is going to have this be terribly melodramatic. Though there are moments when the couple's separate intentions for dealing with this come into conflict, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth are playing smart people who have already played this out in their heads, whether they admit it or not. They play a couple that has settled in nicely, able to poke at each other with affection but also simply be affectionate, because there's nothing for them to prove after all these years. They take good advantage of their characters' shared history so that moments of confusion have weight, and little bits of stress in their voices stand out. Tucci in particular does a nice job of creating alternating layers to Tusker, his innate friendliness getting a coat of fear which he is mostly successful in covering with more earnest cheer, letting the moments where the physical symptoms of dementia appear imply more to come. Firth does well to project strength in a way that is seldom rigid, even when he's breaking down.

But for some time in the middle, this is by and large a two-person show, the sort that could almost be a play, but Macqueen seldom limits it to that sort of stage-bound limitation, especially during the pair's time on the road. There's both the comfort and unsteadiness to the way the filmmakers switch scales from wide shots of the road that seem designed for Imax but quickly narrow to tight shots that would be at home on small TVs. There's never anything to distract, maybe as much for in-story reasons as Sam tries to keep Tusker from having to process too much as for us, and despite the film being rooted in the present, all but one or two scenes occur in places unchanged for decades or generations, focusing and grounding. The world endures even as we burn out, and the light sent out generations ago still endures.

It's a fairly simple film and plays out as the audience expects (and, as an aside, a great double feature with Nomadland), and indeed almost assures the viewer that it won't do otherwise as Tusker explains what a supernova is to Sam's niece without actually using that word. But that's okay; everyone's good at what's being asked of them, and there's value in learning to sit with something that can't be avoided.

Also at eFilmCritic

Nomadland

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

For as much good reason as there is not to go to theaters right now, there's some small consolation in how it gives something like Nomadland some time on a multiplex's Imax screen that it would not normally be afforded with new blockbusters coming out weekly. It's beautifully shot, yes, but seeing it like that makes it all-enveloping, and seeing it after a month and a half of theaters not being open reminds one how a movie built for immersion can hit differently when not limited to the size of one's TV.

The nomad of the title is Fern (Frances McDormand); she and her late husband never had kids and had settled in a Nevada company town that completely disintegrated when said company closed the gypsum mine. She's converted a van to live in and is parking it near the Amazon fulfillment center where she's found work, but all the Christmas music on the soundtrack in the early going suggests that it might be seasonal. A co-worker tells her about an annual gathering people living a similar life in Arkansas which acts as both support system and education, so she heads there and makes some new friends - notably Dave (David Strathairn), who trades extra can openers for potholders - and then heads out for the next adventure.

As with filmmaker Chloé Zhao's previous features, she blurs the line between traditional narrative and non-fiction filmmaking here, even more so than in The Rider, with much of the movie feeling like fly-on-the-wall documentary, especially since it's not really time to unlock Frances McDormand's Fern yet, meaning that she spends a lot of time hanging around people with stories to tell and wisdom to impart, and it's something Zhao and McDormand handle exceptionally well. McDormand immerses herself in this world and is able to emerge seeming like part of it such that Fern's eccentricities and discomfort with conventional life never feel like performance or put-on. The veteran actress never feels like she's imitating the working-class folks around her, but she's also able to make the little adjustments necessary as a story starts to form.

That story is inevitably going to be tied to David Strathairn's eponymous character, and the audience can kind of guess that when Strathairn shows up; he's familiar in a way nobody else Fern meets is. But the fact that she merges with the non-actors and he sticks out is something Zhao uses; the way he knows how to connect to an audience means Dave-the-character connects to her, and as we see this world through her eyes, he shines just a little brighter. Just a little - he is never far off the film's wavelength - but Zhao knows the effect he has, and mines the pleasure of seeing a much-appreciated character actor show up in a film a few times and has it work each time. That Mcdormand and Strathairn approach their jobs in different ways but each serves their characters' rootlessness in a way that fits means that as much as the audience inevitably enjoys them together, we also see how it might just not work.

Both manage to immerse themselves in this world without much ego, and that's necessary, because the documentary side to this film demands respect. It doesn't work if Zhao can't step back and recognize that this life fits these people's needs even if the circumstances that led them there often means that they have been failed in some way. There's empathy but not pity for these people that she mostly allows to just be themselves on screen, and love for both the wide-open country and honest work surrounding them. Zhao doesn't romanticize this life - I suspect she included three or four scenes about relieving oneself in awkward situations to drive home that it isn't necessarily fun in very basic ways - but she does find beauty in things that many in the audience have likely walled themselves off from in the name of safety and comfort.

And there is a lot of beauty here; when Zhao and cinematographer aren't pointing the camera at something beautiful - just look at the Badlands in this movie - they're catching the ends of days, either during the golden hour or with the sun setting in the background, lending either bare parking lots or deserts a sort of warm glow that reflects the people Fern finds there who are generally kind despite being weathered and disappointed. Ludovico Einaudi's score contributes to that as well - it's simple, but firm, never trying to do too much or impress with subtlety.

As a snapshot, Nomandland is appealing without trying to be convincing, but it's not just about a different way of life. By the end, Zhao and McDormand have communicated just how it can feel to be unable to either stay put or let go, and though few will act upon that feeling in this fashion, there is something universal to that, especially when presented with what feels like less artifice than usual.

Also at eFilmCritic

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Down a Dark Stairwell

Because there's a clock ticking on this post, let's sort of start with this: This is a pretty darn good documentary, it's worth checking out on ArtsEmerson's site which has a pay-what-you-can price on it. Based on the title cards, it will eventually be on PBS after it disappears from that site on Sunday evening, but if you want to watch it with 45 minutes or so of post-film discussion, you've got about 29 hours after the time when I hit publish on this.

And it's pretty interesting discussion, split more or less evenly between filmmakers and activists, so you get talk about making the film and what's motivating the people seen on-screen. It's a fast-moving enough subject that it's worthwhile to have a reminder that it covers 2014-2016, and a whole lot has happened since then. In some ways, I find that what was already a pretty knotty film feels even more so now that there's been so much focus on the systematic problems with policing and incarceration over the past year; when you add that to how often the Chinese-American and Black groups in this film are broadly aligned but at cross-purposes, you might not exactly despair at how America can ever get its justice system untangled, but you certainly become aware of how big the problem is.

The panelists also brought up something that I find kind of interesting and try to be mindful of (with mixed levels of success), which is what a broad spectrum "Asian-American" is even though it's often seen as one large category the way "Latin" is. Apparently Japanese-Americans tend to be the most liberal with Vietnamese-Americans at the other end for much the same sort of Cold War reasons that Cuban-Americans are outliers. Even within that, though, it's worth noting that it's also in flux because of how Chinese immigration has changed, in that it was traditionally poor people seeking opportunity, but that the past generation has been people with means (whether Hong Kongers leaving before the handover or prosperous mainlanders sending their kids to college).

The melting pot is complicated, and it's fractal, revealing more confounding complexity the closer you look.

Down a Dark Stairwell

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (ArtsEmerson Shared Stories, internet)

That director Ursula Liang's previous documentary, 9-Man, was so rooted in the Chinese-American community may cause one to pause nervously when looking at the subject of Down a Dark Stairwell, because for as important as the events in question are for that group, concentrating on that threatens to minimize other facets of the case beyond just concentrating on a certain detail. Fortunately, Liang and her team are well aware of that, and the inevitable division of focus is what gives the film a certain tension.

On 20 November 2014, rookie policemen Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were doing a "vertical patrol" in the Pink Houses of Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, during which Liang fired his weapon and killed resident Akai Gurley. In a true rarity for officer-involved shootings, Liang was charged with second-degree manslaughter (and other related counts), which stirred up the local Chinese-American community: How is it that the one time someone is actually charged, it's another minority?

There are a couple of spots in this movie where activists acknowledge that part of how white supremacy perpetuates and protects itself is by playing minorities against each other, though nobody in this film seems conspiratorially-minded enough to suggest that this is a deliberate move to sacrifice one cop to shield the institutions. There's no need; Liang instead shows the extent to which it is difficult to separate fighting for an ideal from defending one's group; activists on both sides find themselves facing pushback when they bring up the idea that maybe their own cause is not advanced by working against one another. Liang doesn't stay in activist war rooms to discuss that, though, and one of the strongest ways she makes that point comes toward the end, as two Black men converse about the case and the one who personally had a dangerous encounter with the police can't quite get on board with the other's personal experience.

Liang gets good access to a lot of people, and while she and the editing team tend to operate from the position that both parties have been treated unfairly, they never lose track of the fact that Akai Gurley is dead and Peter Liang is not - and that even while Asian-Americans are protesting that Liang is being used as a scapegoat, the system is arguably still working to soften the blow on his behalf. It may simply be a matter of who was willing to appear in the film, but it's noteworthy that while Gurley's close friends and family appear on screen and either speak directly to the camera or are captured in emotional moments, the Chinese-American interviewees are more arms-length. A good chunk of the movie is about how the Liang case pushed many Asian-Americans to activism after decades of avoiding that sort of confrontation by building enclaves or assimilating, but the filmmakers are always mindful to swing back to the perspective of Akai Gurley's circle whenever attention strays too far from the most important facts of this case.

They do a good job of constructing the film around what they've got overall, right from the opening segment where the low quality of the 911 recording and the claustrophobic nature of the public housing department's hallways makes it clear that there are going to be blind spots in part because there is little attention paid to this part of the city. They'll let some scenes play out for a while even when they could still make their point with tighter editing in order to emphasize the uncertainty and humanity of their subjects, while often going the other way with courtroom scenes, often shifting to voiceover while written transcripts fill the screen in order to focus the audience's attention on the facts of the case. There are a few odd decisions made - one of the most frequent talking heads on the Chinese-American side is an amiable older guy by the name of Karlin whose particular connection to things is never made clear, for instance - and a few facets that could use a little more attention. I'd watch a whole movie about the differences between different waves of Chinese-American immigrants, for instance; it's an important factor here but one that could use more space.

All of that winds up building to an uncertainty that sets this film apart from most current-events documentaries: Where many are often staking out a position by the very fact that their creators chose to spend a couple years of their life on the subject, Down a Dark Staircase is built to let the audience see just where everybody involved is coming from and take a stand on not just what is what's right and what's wrong, but what should be a higher priority. Almost everybody is right here, and in acknowledging that, the filmmakers give the audience plenty to chew on.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, February 05, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 5 February 2021 - 11 February 2021

So on the one hand, the AMC Theaters in Boston are re-opening this weekend, and on the other, I just received the big box of KN-95 masks that I ordered because folks are saying to step up the masking game because there are more contagious variants out there.
  • If you're staying in, The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Goethe-Institut bring Kosovo's Oscars entry Exile back for another weekend through Sunday; they also have France's, with Two of Us featuring Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as two retired women who have lived together for decades without the world knowing they were lovers. They also open two new documentaries, with A Glitch in the Matrix playing the recent Sundance Film Festival, and introducing viewers to the theory that our world is a computer simulation, while M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity looks at the history of an artist whose work famously bends reality in its own way. They join Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, My Rembrandt, Some Kind of Heaven, Through the Night, Santa Sangre, and City Hall in the streaming files.

    The Thursday night Coolidge Education discussion has cultural critic Aisha Harris talking about When Harry Met Sally...; as usual, register, get the introduction, watch the movie (which the Coolidge isn't streaming but is easily found), and come back for the Zoom.
  • The Brattle Theatre picks up Switzerland's Oscar submission, with My Little Sister following Nina Hoss as a playwright whose brother (Lars Eidinger) has leukemia, being drawn together. That's the new one; they also get two re-issues: Heartworn Highways is a 1976 documentary looking at the then-new idea of "outlaw country" music spearheaded by Willie Nelson, while Mirror coming from Andrei Tarkovsky and presenting the memories of a dying poet. They play alongside True Mothers, You May Die at Twenty, Atlantis, Psycho Goreman, Identifying Features, Film About a Father Who, Spoor, and Acasa, My Home.

    Over on the "Brattle Selects" side, they're the only place only playing Have You Seen My Movie?, a collage of shots from dozens of movies pieced together into a meta-narrative. That section also has "The Maya Deren Collection" and Mandabi.

    They're also opening the concession stand, sort of, with popcorn, soda, snacks, and other goodies available for pick-up Friday and Saturday afternoons. Pre-order them online, maybe get a t-shirt or something as well, and pick them up at the designated time. They're also going to be streaming Casablanca next weekend, because a year-long global pandemic is no reason to completely abandon tradition.
  • ArtsEmerson streams a "Shared Stories Film Series" presentation this weekend, with Down a Dark Stairwell coming from Ursula Liang, who directed 9-Man a few years back. It looks at an officer-involved shooting in New York City, unusual for it actually ending in a conviction, and how the officer involved being Chinese-American plays into the usual narrative. Liang and others will have a live panel at 9:15pm on Friday (after the premiere at 7:30pm), which will be recorded and available alongside the movie through Sunday.
  • Bright Lights at Home offers up Landfall from noon Wednesday through 7pm Thursday (limited to 175 free tickets), after which producer Ines Hofmann will join a Zoom webinar at 8pm to talk about Cecilia Aldarondo's film looking at post-Maria Puerto Rico.
  • The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival kicks off its online version on Wednesday, and being virtual lets them compact what would usually be 10 days plus a 24-hour marathon into six, with Mr. Hand Solo, Between Waves, Kubrick by Kubrick, Toxico, Shakespeare Shitstorm, and Blood Moon coming on-line Wednesday; The Old Man Movie, Making Sense, Truth or Consequences, I Can't Sleep, Beauty Water, and Bruja show up Thursday, with each day also offering two recorded panels and two shorts programs. All programs will be available through Monday the 15th.

    GlobeDocs is running a Black History Month Film Festival through February, with currently available films including Memoirs of a Black Girl, Black Boys, and Code Switching, with online discussions scheduled for Monday, Thursday, and Tuesday the 16th, respectively, which is probably when individual films will cease being offered. RSVP for the discussions to be sent links for both those Zoom calls and the film itself.
  • AMC's app has Boston Common and South Bay reopening for both private rentals and ticket sales, picking up where they left off and with things that have opened since, including The Little Things (including Dolby Cinema in both spots), The Marksman, News of the World, Pinocchio (Boston Common only), Promising Young Woman, Wonder Woman 1984 (including Imax at South Bay), Fatale, Monster Hunter, The Croods: A New Age, Come Play (Boston Common only), and The War With Grandpa (Boston Common only).

    Boston Common also gets a couple new-ish releases, with Nomadland getting the Imax screen and featuring Frances McDormand in Chloe Zhao's look life on the fringes; it's one of the most highly-anticipated films of the season. Supernova is another, featuring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth as a couple visiting old friends as one starts to fade from dementia. The Rescue also opens after being scheduled for last Lunar New Year and then the week before Christmas; it's the latest rah-rah bit of action from Dante Lam, this one featuring the Chinese Coast Guard.

    Reissues include Harriet (Boston Common), Abominable (Boston Common), Crazy Rich Asians (Boston Common), and School of Rock (Boston Common). There's also Fathom shows of Earwig and the Witch - a new Studio Ghibli feature directed by Goro Miyazaki, which looks kind of freaky with the house style presented as CGI animation - at Boston Common from Friday to Sunday and South Bay on Saturday and Sunday. South Bay also has Back to the Future on Friday; Woman in Motion, a documentary on Nicelle Nichols's work with NASA after her time on Star Trek, on Saturday; and Pretty in Pink on Thursday.
  • The Museum of Science and The New England Aquarium also re-open, with the former opening on Monday with "Superpower Dogs" and "Back From the Brink: Saved from Extinction" in the Omni theater while the Imax theater at the Aquarium is open Saturday and Sunday with "Great White Shark", "Sea Lions: Life by a Whisker", "Turtle Odyssey", and "Backyard Wilderness".
  • The West Newton Cinema continues to show The Little Things and Some Kind of Heaven, the latter of which they also offer in a virtual cinema, while Chestnut Hill has Wonder Woman 1984, The Marksman, News of the World, Wonder Woman 1984, and The Croods: A New Age. Both are open through Sunday

  • The Regent Theatre has another streaming presentation of Jimmy Tingle's featurette "2020 Vision" on Saturday evening (one-hour featurette followed by comedy and talk), with virtual tickets marked as "pay what you can".
  • The Somerville Theatre is still closed but The Slutcracker: The Movie still appears to be available. Ice cream and other goodies available at The Capitol, their sister theater in Arlington, has ice cream and snacks Wednesday through Sunday.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through the end of March for Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
This could potentially be a very busy week if I want to catch up on what I've been putting off, see Down a Dark Stairwell, hit Boston Common for a couple/few, and then settle in for the sci-fi festival streams, and I'm kind of looking forward to it.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The Brasher Doubloon

There. No-one can say I haven't reviewed all four Philip Marlowe movies made in the 1940s despite how I've occasionally mentioned how weird it is that four different studios did one, each with a different lead actor, in such a short span of time. I have finished something during the pandemic!

I've put this off in part do to format snobbery; as a relatively early adopter of Blu-ray (thought that came after my HD-DVD player) and then excited fan of 4K presentations who has been fortunate enough to live near theaters that often show this sort of thing on 35mm film for the past twenty-odd years, it's been pretty easy to look at this film only being available on DVD-R and figure I'd wait for something better. It's not even necessarily a deliberate decision; I just don't pay attention to the DVD-only section of release lists and always had enough reasons to go out or enough coming in that I didn't need to go looking for more. Occasionally I'd do something like follow links on IMDB from something else, be reminded this exists, and hope I had a chance to see it in something better than standard-definition.

I finally pulled the trigger on it a couple months ago, and it was a pretty good impulse. I don't recall consciously thinking that Disney would probably pull the plug on the Cinema Archives manufacture-on-demand line if they hadn't already, or that it would be harder for the Brattle or Harvard Film Archive to book this one for a theoretical Chandler and/or Marlowe series (note to anyone reading: A Chandler/Marlowe series would be fantastic), but that's probably the case, right? I'm not sure how much they've been letting deep Twentieth Century Fox catalog titles show up in other places (from TCM to KinoLorber Studio Classics) despite not really having a place for them in-house. Stuff like this doesn't really fit on Disney+ and Hulu is still sort of inching its way toward being "the Fox/Touchstone things that don't fit on Disney+" (which is also what I presume Star is going to be outside the States), but as a result of the merger, Disney has a whole massive library of cinema that stretches back to the silent age that they're really not positioned to exploit. Although, I suppose, now that they've more or less reverted the brand to "Twentieth Century" - thanks, Murdoch, for making the Fox name that toxic! - they'd be in pretty good position to launch classic-film/TV service by that name that includes both the TCF catalog and the less-beloved parts of the Disney library.

Anyway, for what it was, the disc didn't look bad on my TV at all. I don't know how much of that is a really nice transfer/encode and how much that is my UHD player doing a really nice job of upscaling, but the end result was that after an FBI warning screen that did not scale well at all, but it was good enough for me to maybe start paying a bit more attention to what sort of catalog stuff is available on DVD, because that format still owns a huge chunk of what's left of the home-video market, and with the folks who own most of the movies seeing streaming as the future but not necessarily seeing catalog titles as worth the effort to have at the ready, that may be the only way you can both see some of these movies now and be able to recommend them to a friend next week. Heck, this one's just barely available at Amazon and doesn't show up on JustWatch at all, so if you're curious, grab it now.

The Brasher Doubloon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off-the-shelf, DVD)

There was a period in the mid-1940s when four different studios adapted four of Raymond Chandler's novels featuring private eye Philip Marlowe in as many years with as many actors, which from a modern perspective seems absolutely bizarre. Even more so, two were remakes of a sort, as the studios had purchased Chandler's novels when they were thought of as mere pulps to use their plots in B-movie series, making new versions when Chandler became more famous and respectable. That's the case with The Brasher Doubloon; Fox's second adaptation of The High Window isn't quite a half-hearted cash-in, but even as an okay B-movie it's certainly the least interesting of the four Marlowe movies.

It opens with Marlowe (George Montgomery) being called to Pasadena; secretary Merle Davis (Nancy Guild) pulled his name from the phone book to recover a coin stolen from the collection of her employer Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates), although Florence's son Leslie (Conrad Janis) assures him that it's not necessary. He's already on the case, though, so he starts following what leads there are - and finds his first corpse on his second stop.

The plots were never the most important pieces of a Marlowe story, and this one in particular is a scavenger hunt that Marlowe never has to work terribly hard to figure out. It's got the usual pieces - the thing hidden in a locker, the apartments and offices conveniently left unlocked after their occupant has been murdered, Marlowe just pocketing any gun he finds and creating a real chain-of-custody mess for the district attorney to deal with later. Fortunately, one can still at least see some of what made Chandler's stories stand out (aside from the delightful language) - the hard shell over a soft and gallant night, the way the city grinds some people to a paste but doesn't make them stop hustling, the nastiness hidden behind privilege. That it doesn't always hold together is not a big deal, because concentrating on the details would mean losing sight of the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, the studio isn't throwing its A list at this movie the way Warner did with The Big Sleep, and while George Montgomery shouldn't necessarily be trying to imitate Bogart's Marlowe, he never seems to get the character on more than a surface level, making for a clean-cut detective whose corner-cutting and cynicism often comes across as bullying rather than a shield for how he cares too much. A little comes out in narration, but though Montgomery is capable enough, it doesn't do much to deepen his character. He's also got to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting for his co-star, describing how Merle is supposed to be timid or shy because Nancy Guild doesn't really get that across (except, ironically, in a scene where she's supposed to be trying to play the femme fatale). Neither of them really sink their teeth into their roles the way that the side characters do - Florence Bates gives Elizabeth Murdock a meanness that could easily give rise to the sneer with which Conrad Janis plays Leslie, while Houseley Stevenson and Jack Overman are memorably disreputable in small parts.

It's capably-enough made, at least, with relatively little fat in its 72-minute running time, keeping things moving at a nice pace that allows a viewer to marinate in Chandler's seedy Los Angeles without feeling like one is mired there. The simple, low-budget staging plays into that, even if it does sometimes look a bit generic. It's got a bit of studio polish, just not a lot of flair.

Of the four 1940s Marlowes, The Brasher Doubloon is justifiably the most obscure and will likely stay that way, as the 70-odd years of studio and library consolidation since has left it in a different place than the other three. It's just good enough that curious fans of the character won't be too disappointed, even if it's not terribly interesting on its own.

Also at eFilmCritic

Sunday, January 31, 2021

International Oscar Submissions: Exile '20 and Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

An hour or so left to rent Exile from The Coolidge, although I wouldn't be surprised if, like a lot of the Goethe-Institut films, it comes back for a second weekend. That's doubly the case since there were some issues with playback on Friday, although you'll at least have plenty of time to watch it after if the window on my screen was typical. So, potentially plenty of time to pair it with Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, which make a nice bloc as Oscar submissions from central/eastern Europe (Kosovo and Hungary) that have their emigre protagonists up against mostly-unspoken prejudices and end at what can seem like odd places.

I liked them both a lot, though, even if I might have liked Exile a little less if technical issues hadn't broken my viewing up over two nights. Both are movies without a whole lot in the way of trajectory-altering events, but I suspect that one can feel the 30-minute difference in their lengths a bit if it wasn't broken up. It's fun contemplation, with just enough weird stuff going on to grab your attention.

Anyway - it's a good pair, and today I learned that they speak Albanian in Kosovo and that Hungarian puts the family name before the given name, which isn't something I recall any other European languages doing.

Exil (Exile '20)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29-30 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Institut/Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

It takes Exile quite a while to get around to a question that viewers may be asking from the start, and though the answer is not trivial, the audience has likely been worn down enough by that point to consider it somewhat secondary. That trick is more impressive than it sounds; a film that plays out on as individual a scale as this one can often lose track of the larger point as it focuses on one character, but writer/director Visar Morina mostly avoids that.

Xhafer Kryeziu (Misel Maticevic) is a Kosovar chemical engineer who has lived in Germany long enough to seem more or less completely assimilated; he's got a good job that supports wife Nora (Sandra Hüller) as she works on her PhD and looks after their three children. But there are things that never let him forget that he's an outsider to some, such as how colleagues like Urs (Rainer Bock) always seem to slow-walk his requests and find ways to undermine him... or the rat he finds tied to his front gate when arriving home one afternoon.

Xhafer isn't always easy to like; he's carrying on an affair with an Albanian-speaking cleaning lady (Flonja Kodheli) but bristles at helping to translate things she must write for immigration authorities into German, for instance, and there's something seemingly off about him even in seemingly ordinary situations. Morina and star Misel Maticevic walk a fine line there, careful to let the audience clearly see the uglier side of his personality while not losing sympathy. Maticevic captures how Xhafer often (but not always) handles things badly rather than maliciously, and when the end approaches and he's both feeling more pressure and having more dredged up, it's never anything that hits just one side of the character. There's this continuing, human loop of "yeah, but..." where he's concerned, urging the audience to both understand and hold him accountable.

The same goes with the people around him; as much as Morina more or less acknowledges within the film that Urs is a very familiar sort of antagonist for this sort of story, one has to kind admire how much Rainer Bock seems to make a study of that sort of unctuousness, what sort of miserable creature he is without being a cartoon villain. Between him, Xhafer, and Uwe Preuss as Xhafer's boss Koch, I spent a fair amount of time marveling at how familiarly dysfunctional this organization was in ways that may or may not have much to do with the sort of prejudice Xhafer is keyed to notice. Sandra Hüller is also given license to be prickly and annoyed as Nora, both to show that this isn't anything new with Xhafer and that she's got her own issues to push against. One wonders, at times, whether frustration is about to overwhelm the rest of their bond.

There's not a whole lot of story there, and Morina pointedly denies the audience much resolution, but all of that plays into showing how oppressive living with that sort of prejudice is. Occasionally it's visual, like how Xhafer never quite seems to fit in his brightly-colored suburban neighborhood, or how the camera will seemingly detach from the action and go looking for something, but mostly it's the placing things in slightly higher relief. It's not just the fact of it, but the seeming impossibility of communicating it to those who don't face it and are invested in thinking of themselves as better than that; the closest thing to obvious bigotry is Koch trying to praise the team's differences and having it come off as a tremendously backhanded compliment. There's a steady background hum here that merges with the foreground, so that the fact that Xhafer, Urs, and Nora are all flawed people makes it harder - how do you know where the line is between something one can maybe do better oneself and something you can't fix about the world?

It feels exhausting in ways that movies with more plot-intensive structures more focused on specific goals often don't, and it may be a larger, more intensive dose than some may want. It seems worth disclosing that tech issues forced me to watch it in two hour-long chunks, so I don't know what the intended effect of taking the film in for two hours straight is. Then again, I'm fortunate enough to not know what it's like to live with this for one's entire life, though I suspect that the film has at least given me a somewhat better idea of it.

Also at eFilmCritic

Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

The hook for Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time hints at something more broadly paranoid or sinister, and while that would have been an interesting way to go, writer/director Lili Horvát doesn't necessarily see the need to exaggerate what's going on here. It's not the noir-ish thriller it initially looks like, but is in some ways more engaging for it.

Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) was born in Hungary but has spent most of her adult life in the United States, becoming a top neurosurgeon over the past eighteen or twenty years. A month ago, he clicked with János Drexler at a conference like she had never connected with anyone before, not even realizing he was also from Buda-Pest at first. They made a date to meet on the Pest side of the Liberty bridge a month later, but when Márta arrives, he's not there; she seeks him out, but János (Viktor Bodó) says they've never met. Literally stunned, Márta decides not to return to New Jersey, but instead takes a job at her old teaching hospital and finds an apartment - both of them well below her status - to try and figure out what's going on.

It's hard to blame Márta for being suspicious when someone doesn't remember her - she's striking on top of being at the top of her field to the point where everyone asks her why she would come back - and what makes the film work is that she's also smart enough and familiar enough with how brains work to interrogate this idea. Conversations with a therapist (Péter Tóth) that might otherwise be a framing device or meant to move things along do something else: They get both Márta and the audience thinking in a certain way rather than offering answers. Horvát never offers any sort of conspiracy or hints that János is some sort of supervillain, so instead we've got to figure out what's going on without easy genre solutions.

It's an intriguingly interconnected mess. One thing that's striking, early on, is how Márta defaults to English before Hungarian and is taken for a foreigner, and though this part of her identity is never addressed directly, one wonders how much it is motivating her actions. Did she read more into János's words because she never truly felt at home in America and wanted an excuse to come back? Does she choose a crappy apartment because it has an obstructed view of her favorite spot rather than a far nicer one despite being able to afford the latter? The way her old professors and friends question her desire to return has some logic to it, especially when one takes the more rampant sexism of the place into account. Preparations often seems like it's a movie about a woman being gaslit because men are intimidated by her being so formidable, but I wonder to what extent the latter is a screen for the first, a way to tell that story without it being over-sentimental, and to what extent they're the two opposing influences Márta must wrestle with.

Either way, it's a real pleasure to watch Natasa Stork work the contrast; she and Horvát never seem to use Márta's confidence as a cover for her uncertainty, or as things that easily fit into different categories of her life. Her certainty in her own capability lets her charge headlong into areas where she is otherwise confused in some spots and tempers that impulse in others, and it's tremendously fun to watch her be so self-possessed in her probing in spots where other characters often seem helpless. She's got nice chemistry with Viktor Bodó in the moments when the story lets Márta and János get close, and Bodó himself has the sort of charisma that can override the way János can often seem like the sort of puffed-up fellow who's not really in Márta's league on more than just her say-so, when the need arises. It's useful (and fun) to have Benett Vilmányi there as a contrast - Horvát is well-aware that his med student eventually pursuing Márta is a flip on convention, and they make sure that there's a little bit of him knowing it and maybe thinking she should be grateful under his mostly-earnest admiration.

Preparations doesn't quite make it all the way through without stopping to hash things out, but the filmmakers are good enough at doing so in a way that still lets the audience play with it on their own and plays up that these are smart people who like to figure things out. It exists in an intriguing place between a mystery and a conventional romance, and makes it work without abandoning either.

Also at eFilmCritic