Sunday, March 28, 2021


Even in the pre-Covid times, the Belmont World Film spring series could be an easy one to overlook - you've got to take the 73 bus to get to a theater that always feels like it might be about to shut down (except when a show is someplace else), it overlaps with other local film events, and it's easy to lose track of in the time between the main series and the January family film festival, even though there's often a sort of pop-up series or two in that time. In the current circumstances, you really have to be on the mailing list or checking back at their page every couple weeks, and although I feel like I've given my email address in the past, maybe I haven't or maybe it just hasn't stuck.

That's an explanation, not an excuse, since they do solid work in bringing interesting world cinema to the Boston area that will absolutely slip through the cracks otherwise. This one has a director whose name is worth remembering and has been picked up by Strand Releasing (as an aside, I love that Strand's animated logo hasn't changed in at least 30 years and has the feel of being from even earlier than that), but that doesn't mean much; a lot of us loved Agnieszka Holland's Spoor on the festival circuit four years ago and it just hit American (virtual) theaters last year.

That relatively small gap is interesting, though; they're her two most recent Eastern European films and both offer up older protagonists who have more interest in the natural world than most of those around them, an interesting connection given that Holland does a lot of work-for-hire in multiple languages between movies that necessarily get categorized as hers. It also makes me curious about a film I didn't know existed before digging for an Amazon link for this one - Julie Walking Home (aka The Healer) is English-language and has someone visiting Poland to find a faith healer, and I wonder whether Jan Mikolásek served as any sort of inspiration for that.

I don't know that this is necessarily a great film, but it's the sort where the way it maybe doesn't entirely work is interesting enough to give it a bit more consideration than just dismissing it, and it can lead to other things that are just as interesting. As I hit publish, there's about 24 hours to go to Belmont World Film's website (or jump straight to their Eventive page and buy it in order to watch it before the zoom discussion.

Šarlatán (Charlatan)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Belmont World Film, Eventive via Roku)

There were a lot of stories like the one depicted in Charlatan happening during its 1950s Eastern European setting, and by now audiences have seen a lot of movies or read a lot of books about those tragedies, which presents the filmmakers with a tricky problem: How does one make a movie that both examines a man who is such a singular character and considers the one-size-fits-all machine that will inevitably destroy him? It's not an issue that the filmmakers necessarily must resolve - that history is under no obligation to provide a thematically satisfying resolution is part of its lesson - but it does make me wonder if maybe this should have been two movies, rather than one.

The film starts with the end already in sight; no sooner has Czechoslovakia's President Zápotocky died than the papers are starting to run stories attacking Jan Mikolásek (Ivan Trojan), mocking the "Oracle of Urine" whose clinic in Jenštejn is busy and apparently very effective. Mikolásek is not a doctor but an herbalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants' healing properties and an uncanny ability to diagnose someone's health issues by examining their urine - and though he has long been protected by patrons at every level from local officials on up to Zápotocky, his personal wealth, unorthodox methods, and long-term relationship with assistant Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) do not fit well in the conformist and communist nation, and the system may now finally be able to purge itself of him.

Jan Mikolásek emerges as an intriguing figure before the downfall story that frames the movie in large part because Ivan Trojan - and son Josef, who plays Jan during the flashbacks to his earlier life - capture the drive and arrogance of this sort of savior so well. The script by Marek Epstein occasionally ascribes almost supernatural abilities to Mikolásek, but though belief is an important part of his character, it doesn't make him close to perfectly selfless. His compulsion to heal is almost impossible to extract from his fascination with the means, and the elder Trojan has a particularly nice knack for finding the spot where Mikolásek's sense of entitlement is well below cartoonish villainy, instead the sort of thing that may or may not rub one the wrong way should they just meet him in passing without the rest of the story. He's an intriguing contrast to the mentor (Jaroslava Pokorná) who takes little pleasure from her good work, and there are interesting scenes where his knowledge of his limitations seems more unnerving than the ones where similar characters promise the moon.

That's half the film; on the other side, Mikolásek's belief that he is untouchable is important but the main thrust is how his fall comes not necessarily from his own hubris but from a stubborn form of progress that has no room for variation. Director Agnieszka Holland and the other filmmakers don't noticeably distinguish between the Nazis and the Communists, visually, though there is a bit of a grainy faux-film look to some of the earliest flashbacks, and there's never any invocation of particular ideology in justifying the government coming for Mikolásek; he's just different and his methods seem unscientific, and the system is better built for crushing that than accommodating it. The story with Jirí Cerný as Mikolásek's lawyer discovering the truth is built out of the same pieces as a thriller but plays out as futile.

The film pointedly doesn't check in with Frantisek much after the police raid Mikolásek's clinic, an odd choice considering that he often seems to be the point-of-view character in the scenes between his arrival and their arrest, and he's often making personal choices that eat at him in a way that the more self-certain Mikolásek often doesn't. Holland and her crew are too strong for the film to ever feel disjointed, so that even the stylistic flourishes that stand out (such as the bright yellow dandelions in the middle of the slate-gray prison that dominates that portion of the movie) always feel tied together. Parts of the film feel blunted, like the split focus prevents the filmmakers from digging deep into any one particular facet of the story.

It's at times unsatisfying, but there's a certain sort of truth to that; many lives were upended in this way, one at a time but in relentless, standardized fashion. Mikolásek's life story gets derailed and cut off, and while that leaves a movie at loose ends, it does give the feel of just how arbitrarily and efficiently an authoritarian system can snuff things out, and this movie does so without stopping to underline how that's the point of the exercise.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, March 26, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 26 March 2021 - 1 April 2021

Not sure what deal is with the usual Oscar-related ebb and flow of things, what with that being off a couple of months, and to what extent distributors are vacillating between going virtual and in-person with movies, but it is pretty darn quiet until Wednesday, with the local virtual places standing fairly pat.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Goethe-Institut have a second weekend with the new adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which transplants a novels about an ex-con in the 1920s to the present day, with the protagonist now an immigrant. It plays through the weekend, and budget your time well, because it's three hours and director Burhan Qurbani will dial in for a Q&A at 2pm on Sunday. Otherwise, they continue their existing lineup of virtual theater presentations: The Mole Agent, Another Round, Collective, Wojnarowicz, Still Life in Lodz, Stray, Night of the Kings, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, and City Hall.

    The weekly Coolidge Education Seminar has critic Charles Bramesco talking about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan on Thursday - sign up, watch the intro, stream it from your favorite source, and them come back Thursday evening for the Zoom discussion.
  • The Brattle Theatre still has three more weeks where they're just for rental, but much of the next week looks kind of like a rep series, with "The Brattle Selects" continuing a run of Russian Ark, but also doing a few things that are just around for a day or two before being switched out: Hot Fuzz, with an introduction by director Edgar Wright (and some other bonus materials), is available through Saturday, with another director, Guy Maddin, recording an introduction for Brand Upon the Brain!, which streams on Sunday. As yet, no word on an introduction for The Babadook, which is available Wednesday and Thursday.

    Continuing offerings include The Fever, The Inheritance, Keep an Eye Out, Truth or Consequences, and F.T.A.. There's also the Brattle-supporting run of Minari via A24 and IFFBoston, which after many extensions has its last show at 8pm on Sunday. They also offer take-out concessions over the weekend.
  • The DocYard has an interesting-sounding selection this week, with The Choice a single hour-long take of a family in China making decisions about an ailing aunt's intensive care in a formal, hierarchical family meeting that nevertheless is said to take some interesting turns. It's available through Thursday, and filmmaker Gu Xue will be joining DocYard curator Abby Sun for a discussion on Wednesday evening.
  • The Harvard Film Archive was the first place to close down (with the college) for the pandemic, but after a year they're getting into the virtual screening room game, with their Eventive page offering "Cities of Love and Sadness: Rediscovering the Taiwanese-Dialect CInema of the 1960s". There are three programs, all free of charge, with The Husband's Secret & May 13th, Night of Sorrow available from Friday to Thursday; Early Train from Taipei & Dangerous Youth playing from Tuesday to Monday the 5th, and a series of lectures and conversations about the film and Taiwanese cinema featuring Dr. Chun-chi Wang and Dr. Evelyn Shih for the entire run.

    (It's been a while since I've had reason to visit the main page, but they've got a selection of programs from the past for those seeing movie-watching ideas, and it looks like someone has spent their free time entering all their previous calendars into a database, because there's at least a decade and maybe more of series to dig through.)
  • The Regent Theatre continues Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos, and has the third (and final) Taj Mahal livestream from UC Berkeley on Saturday night, this one a concert with Taj Mahal & Fantastic Negrito.
  • Belmont World Film has Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan through Monday, with that last night including a discussion moderated by Czech film curator Irena Kovarova. Normally, a new film would start Sunday, but the window for A Son doesn't start until next Friday.
  • I seem to recall not being a huge fan of The Corporation when I saw it back when it first came out, but my perspective has shifted since then, so I'm curious about The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, which is the week's selection for Bright Lights at Home. It's available starting at noon on Wednesday (free but capped at 175 total viewers), with returning filmmakers Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan joining for a Zoom webinar on Thursday evening.

    Before that, ArtsEmerson's other film program has the tail end of their "Shared Stories" presentation of La Chana, a documentary about a renowned Gypsy flamenco dancer returning for one last performance after a 30-year absence. It is available through Sunday, with the presentation including both short film "After Dark" and a post-film discussion with the filmmakers.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square (closed Monday) has an interesting week. The most conventional opening is Six Minutes to Midnight, a mystery set at an English boarding school just before the start of World War II, where two dozen German girls and a teacher vanished just before the outbreak of war, with co-writer Eddie Izzard starring as the replacement who is charged with finding out where they have gone.

    They also have Telugu romance Rang De, which joins Jathi Ratnalu (being presented in the same language), the latter of which actually broke into the top five at the box office last weekend. Pedro Almodóvar's short film, "The Human Voice" also opens, with Tilda Swinton as a woman waiting for her ex to pick up his luggage. It's thirty minutes, but it's being paired with Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with a similar theme but a more comic bent. The short is in English, the feature in Spanish, and they close on Tuesday.

    Though they haven't been open on Tuesday as of late, they do this week to screen Violet Evergarden: The Movie, a feature-length sequel to the popular anime series, which plays with subtitles on Tuesday and Wednesday, and also playing Boston Common. On Thursday, they've got a Lumineers "double feature", which pairs an extended edition of their 2016 episode of Live from the Artists Den with the 45-minute short III, a visual companion to the album of the same name.
  • At the multiplexes, the weekend opener is Nobody, where the idea is that Bob Odenkirk is an unlikely action hero, but he's got the John Wick team behind him, so some folks are going to seriously regret underestimating him. It's at Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema through Tuesday), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema through Tuesday), and Chestnut Hill (closed Monday/Tuesday).

    It doesn't get the premium screens for long, because marquee battle Godzilla vs Kong opens on Wednesday, with Adam Wingard the fourth director in four movies for Warner/Legendary's Monsterverse and throwing cinema's two best giant monsters at each other for the first time in decades. It's at the Kendall, Boston Common (including Imax, Dolby Cinema, and 3D), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), Chestnut Hill, and on HBO Max. Note that while some Regal locations around the country are re-opening for this one, the ones in Massachusetts do not appear to be among them.

    South Bay also has The Ten Commandments on Sunday and Wednesday, a 65th anniversary TCM presentation.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, continuing last week's slate of The Father, Raya and the Last Dragon, Nomadland, and Tom & Jerry; they're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre and The Capitol are still not showing movies, though the former still promotes The Slutcrackeron streaming and the latter has their ice cream shop and concession stand open 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 has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, and Sound of Metal; 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 may hit theaters this weekend for Nobody, The Father, Six Minutes to Midnight and/or "The Human Voice". Or I may chicken out. I do intend to try for both Charlatan and the three-docs-under-four-hours things you can do via the Coolidge.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Rey & Rose: Chaos Walking & Raya and the Last Dragon

No idea why getting this written has taken so long - some combination of just not feeling writing at the moment, daylight savings throwing me off just enough to over-caffeinate, and going down crossword rabbit holes, I guess. Fortunately, it's not like the stuff in theaters is turning over much right now, and with the recent announcement that Disney has pushed a bunch of movies back again, that's not changing any time soon.

Which makes the fact that these two movies were released the same day even more peculiar! Is the first full week of March when schools outside of New England have spring break, compared to President's and Patriot's Day weeks? Did the studios in question both decide not to mess around with more places reopening that week? It's genuinely peculiar, and the local AMCs with two premium screens have been doing odd timeshares, tweaking it week to week, trying to guess how it's going to go with Raya available for purchase on Disney+ and Chaos not being very good. I almost wondered if Disney and Lionsgate coordinated in so that someone could low-key do double feature built around the actresses from the latest Star Wars trilogy without either undercutting the other.

At any rate, since I've found myself much more comfortable in the Imax room than the Dolby one during All Of This - maybe it's partly the way that the smaller number of larger seats looks on the AMC Stubs app, but the Dolby Room just feels small - so I bought my tickets in such a way as to see them both in the larger room, reserving the same seat for both shows. The order was good, since it meant the day started with the Cruella trailer - the one that makes me wonder why the movie wasn't nixed at every single stage of the process, from someone at Disney noting which characters to which they have rights to after the last pixel of visual effects was rendered - and built to Raya, which had me grinning in delight at every inventive moment. Heck, I may have cheered a little when Raya did the vovinam thing where a fighter jumps, gets legs around the opponent, and flips them over by twisting in midair, which has kind of been dropping my jaw since seeing Veronica Ngo do it in The Rebel.

My nieces may not like Raya as much as they do Frozen, which is unambiguously about sisters as opposed to two girls who could be best friends if they weren't so angry at something, but it sure feels like the sort of thing they could enjoy. I certainly dig it and hope that it comes out in 3D somewhere in the world, especially since I'll likely have access to the 4K version on Disney+ once it gets out of the pay tier.

Chaos Walking

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

I don't know that Lionsgate has been chasing "the next Hunger Games" that much harder than other studios; but since so much of a hypothetical LG+ service would be built on those series of young-adult adaptations, each obvious Part One that is never going to get a sequel looks like an even bigger misfire. So it is with Chaos Rising, which has enough interesting ideas and talent involved that one could see it evolving into something compelling but is not nearly good enough as a movie for one to want more.

Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is the youngest man in the Prentisstown colony on New World, which makes him the youngest person there; all the women were killed in an attack he's not old enough to remember. He appears to be something of an outcast because he has a hard time controlling his "Noise", a projection of the thoughts in his head that afflicts all males on the planet (both human and the native species). A scout vessel from the ship carrying the second wave of colonists doesn't expect this, and the crash leaves only one survivor, Viola (Daisy Ridley). One would think that the colonists from Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) to Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo) would be thrilled at the prospect of their community dwindling and dying until only Todd is left, but they regard Viola with suspicion and hostility, leading her to flee. Todd's fathers (Demián Bichir & Kurt Sutter) say that there may be a radio that can reach Viola's ship at Farbranch - and it's news to Todd that Prentisstown isn't the only settlement.

Putting all that in a row, it's not hard to see why various producers spent a decade trying to make the movie after Patrick Ness's novel The Knife of Never Letting Go was published and then another couple trying to fix it up when what they shot in 2017 wasn't working: It's got adventure on a new planet on one side and a powerful idea that strikes right at the heart of what teenagers, especially young women, are discovering about the dangers of the world around them and how their parents have sugar-coated it. It winds up being too much for a mainstream two-hour movie meant to start a trilogy in a couple of ways: It's okay that there's not much time to explore how New World has a history and geography that stretches well beyond the horizon of Prentisstown; that can be saved for later films, although the planet's native life is too close by for that logic. Having only passing reference to the world Viola does the film no favors, especially when you combine it with how the filmmakers always skitter away from the most potentially obvious and hard-hitting idea around The Noise, that men are constantly projecting their desires while women must work around it and hold their reactions close. The story is inextricably tied up with men playing the oppressed even as the aggressors, but the people making the movie seemingly can't bring themselves to just say that, and as a result the film is all about Todd and how he feels about Viola but seldom casts its eyes in the other direction. Viola often just has a thing she has to do.

Even once you get past the filmmakers not seeming to have the courage to dive into their big ideas - and it's worth noting that saying "the filmmakers" should not necessarily be an indictment of credited director Doug Liman and screenwriters Ness and Christopher Ford because a movie like this has passed through a lot of uncredited hands working at the behest of producers and executives trying to create the version that will be the easiest sale - it's a bland film. New World seldom has a chance to establish itself as anything other than a random dead-ringer-for-Canadian-woods planet the team would visit on Stargate SG-1, and the CGI fauna just heightens that impression rather than making it feel more alien. The production designers have clearly spent some time imagining how the planet was colonized and how the advanced technology that got humans there exists in the middle of agrarian communities with little infrastructure to manufacture more, but the script does quite connect that to Todd and the others.

The film is also frustratingly scripted at a nuts-and-bolts level, though sometimes in a way that makes one wonder whether a lot of the nuances of The Noise would have been given some explanation in the books but were cut as boring exposition here. It's noteworthy that nobody aside from Todd seems to have the level of trouble controlling their Noise as he does, and his dials back when Liman et al need a scene with few distractions, to the point where even fairly passive viewers are going to think that the filmmakers are cheating a bit. When it's revealed that there are things he doesn't know about Prentisstown, it's not unreasonable to ask both how and why - not only is the whole point of the movie that this all-male community can't help but put what they're thinking out there, but what's the point of the secret and the chase that ensues? What's the Mayor's line of thinking? It would be okay for it to be kind of irrational - people hide things for dumb reasons all the time, and the dumbest secrets can be the most closely-guarded - but the pointlessness of it all should be part of the story, not an inconvenient issue with the plot.

In some ways, the film is extremely lucky to have Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, though the film loses a fair amount by aging Todd and Viola to their late teens or early twenties rather than their early teens (as they were in the book) - Todd especially seems a little more off the further he is from feeling like an adolescent. Holland's not bad at all - truth be told, not many actors could sell the line "Spacegirl!" or all the variations on "ugh, stop thinking that!" as often as he does within two hours - and Ridley does good work giving Viola some personality despite not appearing to have as much on the page or all the assistance the male cast members get. As little as she gets, the rest of the cast gets less, despite being a very solid group.

Between the delays, people aging out, the pandemic, and the film just not being very good, the odds of this doing well enough for The Ask and the Answer to be adapted any time soon or with this group must be very low indeed. That's probably a good thing; between the pieces that probably make this a better book than movie and the specific decisions that didn't work, it seems like a fool's errand. The filmmakers and cast do hit on something that works often enough to make one wonder if they might do better with a second shot, but then again, there are enough of these series out there that the producers might as well start from scratch.

Also at eFilmCritic

"Us Again"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

I was kind of surprised not to see a choreographer's name featured prominently in the credits for "Us Again"; the short has everybody dancing throughout basically every scene, and you'd think this would be a great high-profile gig and that Disney would want to splash such a name around. But, then, the movie isn't exactly about the dancing so much as it's a cheery way to make a story that could have just been talking about something entirely visual.

And it's great at that; though only seven minutes long including credits, it does so much - establishes how the not-quite-real world works, does nifty character animation for its senior citizen characters, and hits on two or three different ideas, from how decreased mobility can just be crushing for someone defined in large part by their physicality to how (literally) chasing one's youth can be tempting but futile. It's all tied together naturally but not so tight that a viewer feels they have to examine every frame or motion. It's terrifically easy to get caught up in what's going on, and while this isn't the sort of short where you don't realize filmmaker Zach Parrish is telling a story until he's done - the intent is always clear - it feels loose and unfettered as it makes its way to its end.

Which is more or less what one wants an animated short of this type to do. A lot of Disney's showcase shorts (for lack of a better term for the ones attached to features) do this, and fairly well, but this one seems just a notch better than usual.

Raya and the Last Dragon

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

As Disney cranks out two or three live-action remakes of their animated per year, they will inevitably catch up to the point where they started this practice, and I wonder if that ever crossed the minds of those making Raya and the Last Dragon. It is, maybe not coincidentally, the sort of grand and fantastic adventure that only animation can manage right now - and genuinely terrific at being that - but where one can maybe see a slightly older-skewing version that surrounds actors with more photorealistic CGI coming in ten years. It won't be necessary or a likely upgrade, even if it is inevitable.

One would be surprised if the filmmakers weren't aware of the possibility, considering the wink with which Raya's opening narration notes that the lone swordswoman crossing a desolate land on a quest is a possible too-familiar setting. After a flashback to seven years earlier to see how the world as she knew it ended - we get back to the business of Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) trying to find the last dragon in Kumandra, since the dragons were the ones who stopped the Druun when they first appeared hundreds of years ago, though at great cost. She does awaken Sisu (voice of Awkwafina), only to discover that said dragon is far less powerful and more down-to-earth than expected, and though she gains powers when exposed to fragments of the shattered Dragon Stone. Each is hidden within one of Kumandra's five city-states, all dangerous in this post-apocalyptic world, even without Raya's nemesis Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan) looking to settle a score.

Raya may talk about this as being standard adventure-story material, but it's not the sort that's typically been the fodder for kids' adventure movies, though it's nothing new to kids who have grown up on Adventure Time and the like. It's impressive how well the large creative team lays out a fair amount of lore across multiple eras without it taking up too much story time, especially since the film doesn't switch things up for songs the way that many of Disney's movies do. It's at times a little odd that the language often feels more Twenty-first Century than fantasy-world, but it keeps things moving smoothly.

It also means that the filmmakers are free to pack the movie with eye-popping visuals and impressive action, taking not just visual cues from Southeast Asia but also the action; when Raya, Namaari, and others have to fight, martial-arts enthusiasts will see bits of muay thai, silat, and vovinam, not exactly athletic in an animated feature but certainly giving the animators a chance to have people moving in fun and sometimes new ways. They also get a chance to do nifty things with the fantastic elements, from the whimsy of Raya's giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (who sometimes feels like both a sci-fi mutant and a cheerfully larger-than-life bit of fantasy) to the almost completely abstract Druun. It's especially fun to see what they do with Sisu's design when she gains the ability to shapeshift; both dragon and human forms have a messy look that matches Awkwafina's vocal performance well, but the latter fits while sort of looking off-model, not looking wrong but also not entirely blending in.

The fact that the Druun are inhuman forces of nature lets the filmmakers mostly dispense with conventional villains in a way that a lot of family-friendly movies try to do but can't quite manage. Raya and Namaari are fierce rivals in a way that can be more harsh than typical in part because the film doesn't have to back down and explain why someone isn't really bad, and it's impressive how the animators and voice actors Kelly Marie Tran & Gemma Chan echo each other in how both are confident and capable until they have to deal with each other, which brings a lot of tension to both voice and body language. The pairings of Raya with both Sisu and Namaari are good enough that it's clear that the fairly sizable supporting cast doesn't have nearly the same amount of attention lavished on them; and it's a lot of sidekicks when the movie needs more equals.

It's only a slight unbalance compared to the string of sheer fun and creative adventure that the bulk of the film represents. It's a big, grand, clever adventure with the sort of constant invention that animation does better than anything else right now. Maybe there will be another iteration (though it's kind of strange to start speculating on that already, even if that may be where Disney seems to be heading), but in the meantime, it's one of the most exciting and adventurous things that their feature division has done in a while.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, March 19, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 19 March 2021 - 18 March 2021

It's kind of a slow week in theaters both real and virtual - the delayed "what gets a second look for the Oscars" times "some folks are vaccinated but not enough" makes for a real new-release lull - so it's a good time to announce that the good folks at Independent Film Festival Boston have announced that they'll be having a virtual festival this year. The dates (6 May to 16 May) are a little later than usual, but also a little longer. So check and see the state of your membership (or join), sign up for emails, and what have you.
  • One of their usual hosts, The Brattle Theatre, adds The Fever to their streaming offers; it's from Brazil and follows a man who grew up in a small forest village but lives in an industrial city with his daughter, but her impending departure for med school has him feeling caught between worlds. It joins The Inheritance, Keep an Eye Out, Truth or Consequences, F.T.A., Sin, and Un Film Dramatique on the "main screen".

    For "The Brattle Selects", their latest 20th Anniversary presentation is Russian Ark, a single-take trip the the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg that goes bigger and bolder than one may expect. Like most of these presentations so far, it's there for two weeks, which means The Gleaners and I is at its halfway point. A24 and IFFBoston have also extended the Brattle-supporting run of Minari through the 28th (the Brattle's site says the 21st, but there are showtimes for another week after that on A24's). Take-out concessions are happening this weekend (and likely every one for a while) as well.

    EDIT: The theater has just announced Edgar Wright is recording an introduction for Hot Fuzz, which had a special screening back in '07 immortalized in the behind-the-scenes "Fuzzball Diary", which will also be part of the program. It's not on the theater's main site yet, but can be preordered at the Brattlite to watch from Thursday the 25th through Saturday the 27th.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre brings back three previous presentations that have been nominated for Best International Feature: Chile's The Mole Agent, Denmark's Another Round, and Romania's Collective. They also pick up Wojnarowicz, which looks back at the life and work of David Wojnarowicz, a fiery activist during the 1980s AIDS crisis as well as a famed artist and photographer. They join Still Life in Lodz, Stray, Night of the Kings, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, and City Hall in the virtual room.

    Also there is the first of two weekends of the Goethe-Institut presenting the new adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which reimagines the story as being centered around a modern immigrant rather than an ex-con in the 1920s. Director Burhan Qurbani will dial in for a Q&A next Sunday (the 28th); before that, there are two other live discussions on the slate. Science on Screen will host UCLA Professor Suk-Young Chwe on Wednesday, discussing how game theory relates to the work of Jane Austen's matchmakers through the lens of another modernized adaptation, Clueless; the weekly Coolidge Education seminar on Thursday has film critic Jordan Hoffman discussing the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Register and watch the films on your won before
  • The Regent Theatre is the streaming home of Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos, which bills itself as a deep dive into hard rock with a whole mess of interviews. In a different area of the music spectrum, the month's second Taj Mahal livestream on Saturday night is a "Roots Rising" Showcase.
  • Belmont World Film continues with Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom available through the 22nd, on which date director Pawo Choyning Dorji will join a live discussion. That was Bhutan's Oscar submission, and on Tuesday they pick up the one that the Czech Republic submitted, Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan, which stars Ivan Trojan as a so-called healer in the 1950s, when the dictatorial government of Czechoslovakia was clamping down. It will run for a week itself, with Czech film curator Irena Kovarova leading the discussion on the 29th. Holland's Spoor was one of the niftiest genre movies released during the pandemic, so one hopes this is in the same ballpark.

    The Irish Film Festival continues their virtual 2021 edition with more movies rolling out through Sunday: The Man Who Wanted to Fly, Director's Choice The Last Right, and a shorts program on Friday; Global Vision Documentary Katie, Metal Heart, and short docs on Saturday; and both the "New Encounters: Women in Film and Television (WFT) Ireland Shorts Program" and Special Jury Prizewinner When Women Won on Sunday. Movies are available for 72 hours after their premiere times, so you can keep the festival which started on St. Patrick's Day going through Wednesday afternoon.
  • Wednesday afternoon is right when Bright Lights at Home makes their weekly presentation available, and this week it's Crutch, a documentary about disabled dancer Bill Shannon. Shannon will join directors Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans for the Thursday-night discussion, and as usual "seats" are free but limited.

    ArtsEmerson's other film program also has something starting Wednesday, a "Shared Stories" presentation of La Chana, a documentary about a renowned Gypsy flamenco dancer returning for one last performance after a 30-year absence. It comes online at 7pm that day and will be available through the 28th, with the presentation including both short film "After Dark" and a post-film discussion with the filmmakers.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square (open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week) isn't all about Oscar releases but goes hard for them, bringing back Sound of Metal, Promising Young Woman, Mank, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 to join The Father, Nomadland, Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Quo Vadis, Aida? for those who like to cram for the ceremony by seeing these movies on the big screen.
  • The Kendall is also one of the theaters opening The Courier, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as an extremely mild-mannered salesman ca. 1960 who is recruited to mostly cause distraction on business trips to Moscow, only to become friendly with a Russian mole. It also plays Boston Common, South Bay, and Chestnut Hill (closed Monday-Wednesday).

    The AMCs reshuffle the deluxe screens again, with Chaos Rising getting Imax and Raya and the Last Dragon getting Dolby (which isn't the way I'd go, but maybe Disney+ has actually cut into theatrical viewings locally).
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, and looks to be up to four screens, with The Father joining Raya and the Last Dragon, Nomadland, and Tom & Jerry; they're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre is closed for a while, the website giving directions to a film version of regular Christmas presentation The Slutcracker. 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 has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers; 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.
And, of course, HBO Max is dropping Zach Snyder's new assembly of Justice League, but you could do a triple-feature of movies in the Coolidge's screening room that look pretty spiffy (or you could go even longer with City Hall). I'll probably do that, some from the Brattle, and maybe hit The Father, The Courier, and some others at the Kendall. Probably Charlatan, maybe an Irish film or two. (I say, knowing full well there's the rest of Doom Patrol on my shelf and all sorts of crosswords to do.)

Friday, March 12, 2021

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

I'd make a joke about a movie coming out where I've been seeing the trailer for four months and how it's about time, but everyone else has been more sensible than me. Quiet otherwise, though.
  • The Brattle Theatre gets The Inheritance, which ran as part of the DocYard's fall series even though the description this time positions it as a scripted drama about young men forming an artists' collective with documentary elements. It joins Keep an Eye Out, Truth or Consequences, F.T.A., Sin, Un Film Dramatique, Twilight's Kiss, Demonlover, and Lapsis in the Brattlite virtual theater.

    Speaking of The DocYard, the second entry of their Spring program is So Late So Soon, which looks at artists Jackie and Don Seiden, married for fifty years and running down after a long run in a colorful Chicago house. It's available through Thursday, with director Daniel Hymanson and editor Isidore Bethel doing a Zoom Q&A on Monday afternoon. The Brattle also goes back to their first schedule under current management twenty years ago for Agens Varda's The Gleaners and I, the film that in many ways started Varda's late-career revival. It's not available to rent anywhere else right now, and joins schedule-mate The Mystery of Picasso. They also celebrate the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg's birthday with a quick pay-what-you-can run of RBG on Monday and Tuesday, with an introduction from Cambridge mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. There's also take-out concessions through Sunday' order ahead and choose a pick-up time.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also picks up a new documentary, Still Life in Lodz, telling the story of life in the Lodz, Poland's jewish quarter, building its story around a painting that hung in the same apartment for 75 years. It's in the virtual screening room with Stray, Night of the Kings, Days of the Bagnold Summer, Test Pattern, Two of Us, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, and City Hall.

    Still Life in Lodz director Slawomir Grunberg and subjects Lilka Elbaum & Paul Celler will join a live Q&A on Monday evening, while Wednesday has the latest "Shakespeare Reimagined" talk, with critic Devika Girish, director Tanuj Chopra, and folks from the Commonwealth Shakespeare company discussing Chopra's Maqbool, which transplants MacBeth to the Mumbai underworld.
  • The Regent Theatre has three online events this week, two on Saturday. The morning show that day is Margot Fox and Friends, a family-oriented folk-rock, while blues legend Taj Mahal has the first of three weekly concerts from the UC Theater in Berkeley at 9pm; this week's show features Phantom Blues Band and Jon Cleary. Then, on Thursday night, there's the 12th Annual Ciclismo Classico Bike Travel Film Festival, a program of short real-life adventure films on two wheels.
  • Belmont World Film starts their spring series on Tuesday with Bhutan's Oscar submission Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, following a teacher who, when his dreams of emigrating interfere with his work, gets exiled to a tiny village. It will be available through the 22nd, when director Pawo Choyning Dorji will join a live discussion.

    On the 17th (Saint Patrick's Day), The Irish Film Festival kicks off a virtual edition on St. Patrick's Day, with Cumar - A Galway Rhapsody and Arracht becoming available on Wednesday, with Thursday adding a group of shorts, The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine, and Breakthrough Feature A Bump Along the Way.
  • Bright Lights at Home makes Morgana, a documentary about a 50-year-old housewife who reinvents herself as a feminist porn star, available from noon Wednesday until 8pm Thursday, with at which point filmmakers Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard will do a Zoom Q&A.
  • The Father is the film that I've been seeing trailers for since sometime in the fall, but it looks worth the weight, with Anthony Hopkins as an octogenarian starting to lose his grip and Olivia Colman as his daughter. What looks impressive is that, despite that almost certainly being the set-up, the trailer gets enough inside the man's head that one starts to wonder if maybe something sinister is going on. It plays Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, Boston Common, and South Bay.

    The Kendall (open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week) also opens a couple foreign-language films this week, covering the full spectrum of how they get to America. The traditional manner is represented by Quo Vadis, Aida?, the Oscar submission from Bosnia & Herzegovina, featuring Jasna Djuricic as a UN translator seeking safety when the Serbian army arrives. In the "hitting America the same time as its home territory" category, there's Jathi Ratnalu, a Telegu-language comedy about three ex-cons who come to Hyderabad after being released and find new kinds of trouble.

    They also get Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which is apparently getting an awards-season rerelease.
  • It's a quiet week at the mainstream plexes, rearranging when the two movies sharing the deluxe screens get them. The big opening is Long Weekend, with Finn Wittrock as an out-of-work writer who falls in love with the new girl in town (Zoe Chao), although she may not be there for long. It's at Boston Common and South Bay.

    South Bay also has religious comedy Church People on Saturday and Sunday. Chestnut Hill is keeping its slate from last week, and is open Friday to Sunday.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, adding Raya and the Last Dragon and Nomadland to Tom & Jerry; they're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre is closed for a while, the website giving directions to a film version of regular Christmas presentation The Slutcracker. 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 has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Minari, In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers, with Nomadland available starting on the 19th; 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 may head to Kendall square for The Father, maybe pairing it with My Salinger Year. The shelf's also starting to get a little bit out of control - box of all region Blus of American films somehow only available in Australia arrived, and I'm starting to think it may be time for another order or two from Hong Kong and Korea - and, honestly, I really thought that I'd come out of this having watched more than I purchased. And Happy Pi Day! Have something sweet (or savory) on Sunday!

Monday, March 08, 2021

Johnnie To/Chow Yun-fat/Sylvia Chang: Eighth Happiness; All About Ah-Long; The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon; and Office

I don't know whether The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon was released on Hong Kong Blu-ray with an eye on the then-forthcoming release of Coming 2 America, or if Panorama was just grabbing what had decent elements from their catalog and getting some Johnnie To or Chow Yun-Fat material out. That's why I bought it, not seeing that it was a remake until later, at which point I was, as you might imagine, like "whaaaaaaat?" Combine that with wanting to see what my 3D copy of Office looked like and a couple other Chow/To collaborations. I thought all involved Sylvia Chang, but that's not the case; Eighth Happiness gives Chow other leading ladies. I was kind of surprised to see that all three of the earlier movies had the same kid actor, Huang Kun-Hsuen, who improved pretty quickly for All About Ah-Long and The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon after being kind of rough in Eight Happiness. He got good enough that I'm a bit surprised to see him kind of vanish into obscurity in both Hong Kong and Taiwan when he became an adult, and I kind of wonder what his story is. Not that I'm going to go looking, because I feel that for every "went to college, found other interests" there are half a dozen "destroyed by substance abuse" stories.

Anyway! I'm buying a bunch of these with familiar names like To & Chow and kind of wishing I could justify more, because the late-1980s stuff here is kind of a blast. I've watched some previous batches of thirty-plus-year-old Hong Kong stuff where the take-away was that they were just cranking stuff out like crazy and didn't necessarily have the time to make it great, but if you look how much some of these people were working back then, you can also see a studio system that knows what its audience likes and gives it to them without getting too fancy. To and Chow (and Chang and Huang) did the first three of these movies along with many others over the course of a couple of years, and while they're not glossy, they're assured and capable at what they're aiming for.

I'm glad that publishers in Hong Kong are working through their 80/90s catalog, putting English subtitles on them so that they are easy for those of us in North America to import and watch, and pricing them at around $20 a pop. I love you, Hong Kong movie industry, for not being Japan (who seemingly doesn't want to make it easy for Americans to discover and love your films) or Korea (better but still making it harder than it has to be). I wonder to what extent it is so much easier to get cheap, English-subtitled Blu-rays from Hong Kong than the other Asian Region A countries because studios and viewers can look over their shoulder and see China ready to cut off decades of film history if they go all-streaming. If you like movies in HK, you're probably going to buy yourself some physical media just in case some CCP-backed company owns the most popular local streaming service next year, or so I imagine.

It's funny that when I first saw Office five years ago, it was unexpected to me that the first time I saw Johnnie To and Chow Yun-Fat working together, it seemed like something out of their wheelhouses. A little more time to dig into their work and it's pretty clear that they can do everything and the stuff that made it over here in the nineties and twenty-first century doesn't always show that. On the other hand, watching Office right after the other three was whiplash, stylistically. It's sometimes easy to overlook just how quickly digital tools from shooting to editing to distribution have allowed more places to aspire to the sort of slickness that only Hollywood (with its large and relatively affluent native audience) managed for decades, whether local indies or places like Hong Kong and China. There are still some folks in Hong Kong cranking out two or three movies that make a little money a year (you go, Herman Yau), but a potential audience of a billion people with more spending money than they used to have - and theaters to spend it - means that China, including those in Hong Kong with an eye on Mainland success, can do this sort of elaborate movie now, and folks like To have adapted to that new reality well, with a lot of room to experiment compared to the need to just get the movie from script to print in a couple of months.

Bat sing bou hei (Eighth Happiness)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Eighth Happiness starts with a gag that may just be too tacky to make the cut in an American comedy today, if anyone were still making broad 90-minute farces, but which is executed beautifully and works because there are pros involved who know how to handle its insanity. Screwball requires both meticulous timing and commitment to total anarchy, and this movie has a fair bit of both.

It follows the three brothers of the family Fang. Chien-Sheng (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) wound up raising his younger siblings, and now hosts a morning cooking show on Hong Kong TV aimed at housewives. Chien-Lang (Chow Yun-Fat) is a would-be actor who has probably only kept girlfriend "Do-Do" Hung (Carol "Do-Do" Cheng Yu-Ling) so long because the flight attendant is often out of town and won't see his attempt to bed a woman from each of Hong Kong's districts. Chien-Hui (Raymond Wong Pak-Ming) is a shy artist looking to become a cartoonist. Over the course of a night, a number of misdialed and mis-connected telephone calls will connect them with potential dream girls: Chien-Hui believes he overhears a suicide attempt but winds up bursting in on Ying-Ying (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying) instead; Chien-Lang gets a lead on shopgirl "Beautiful" (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung), as horny and reckless as he is; and Chien-Sheng starts a feud with Wu Fen-Fang (Petrina Fung Bo-Bo), not that he knows her name when he meets the Chinese Opera singer at the pastry shop the next morning before she is the guest on his show.

Those who mostly know Chow Yun-Fat from his work with John Woo and other bullet-filled action spectacles will likely drop their jaws at his character here, who despite the womanizing never seems less than flamboyantly gay even before you get to the posters of shirtless men in his bedroom, although his explanation is that at some point in his youth his brothers dressed him in girls' clothing and "now I'm campy!" It's a downright weird but never less than energetic performance, and the movie is at its most manic when he and Cherie Chung are competing to see who can top what the other is up to. It's a movie so full of broad, strange performances that Jacky Cheung's Chien-Sheng seems just as off in his grounded responsibility, while co-writer Raymond Wong and Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying almost fall into the background as a couple of nice kids you'd like to see wind up together even if they do get some of the movie's funniest scenes.

That includes the opener, which starts with Ying-Ying getting (sort of) flashed by a guy short enough that she initially thinks he's a kid and ends with her mother's martial-arts class running at Chien-Hui with swords. Director Johnnie To would spend much of the 1990s building a body of crime and action work that ranks among the greats, and he applies the same skills to the various slapstick set pieces here. They are over-the-top and the result of ridiculous misunderstandings, but To is great at keeping things hidden so that the audience isn't necessarily looking down on those jumping to the wrong conclusions, and even when some in the cast may not have perfect comic timing, he does. This isn't a fancy movie at all - it kind of looks cheap at times - but it's surprisingly rare that a comic beat gets missed.

(It doesn't hurt that the Hong Kong studio system meant that when you want to bash some cars together or have people stumbling to evade a madwoman with a sword for a joke, you can call the folks who built the action for the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam in for a couple days' work).

To and a mostly game cast are still having to work overtime to get the most out of a messy script that feels like the result of people pitching gags and then having a hard time tying it together into an actual story. It doesn't help that, thirty years later, the telephone-related stuff seems like it comes from an even earlier century and some of the characterizations are questionable, but there's a number of moments where one might be more invested in the brothers getting their comeuppance rather than working their way out of a situation and others where a gag just doesn't work and the bits that build on it can't either. Farce needn't be deep, but this one gets very random at times.

The bits that don't work aren't nearly as frequent or intense as those that do, thankfully, and though Eighth Happiness is a ridiculous, dated trifle, it's the sort that makes one think that the world could use more trifles. 90 minutes of making an audience laugh with no strings attached can be a lot of fun.

Also at eFilmCritic

Ah Long dik goo si (All About Ah-Long)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

All About Ah-Long is one of only two movies where Chow Yun-Fat has a story credit, and it's maybe not coincidentally some of his best work as an actor, winning him his third Hong Kong Film Award and holding up well thirty-odd years later. He's far from the only reason to see it, but the movie is in his orbit and he makes that a good place to be.

His Ah-Long used to be a top motorcycle racer - old friend and coach "Dragon" Ng (Ng Man-Tat) thinks he could still be better than a lot of the kids he's training despite the three screws in his leg - but now works construction to provide a stable, if not fancy, life for son Porky (Huang Kun-Hsuen). Dragon thinks of Porky when an advertising agency contacts him looking for a charismatic kid who can do some BMX riding for a campaign, and the executive in charge, Sylvia Poon Por-Por (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia), is taken with Porky immediately. It turns out that the three adults know each other from before Por left for America ten years ago - just long enough for her to be the mother Ah-Long told Porky was dead, although if that's the case, why is she so surprised to see Ah-Long has a son?

It's a situation that seems peculiar at first but which the film explains without a whole lot of fuss, using just enough in the way of flashbacks to establish just what sort of rebellious messes the pair were in the late 1970s. Screenwriters Ng Man-Fai & Philip Cheng Chung-Tai and director Johnnie To Kei-Fung do a neat job of referencing the sins of the past just enough for there to be some irony to what Ah-Long will do to assure a better life for his son without making him too self-aware of how he'd be doing something similar to what Por's mother did. There's also an impressive sort of restraint in how this never becomes a romance in the way Porky clearly wants it to. The kid may have a fairy tale of long-separated parents coming back together in his head, but the filmmakers let the adults be smart enough to realize that even though they've matured, they're in many ways even more star-crossed than they were ten years earlier, even if a lot of the attraction is still there.

The cast does nimble work with that, with Chow playing the shaggy working-class Ah-Long as a little more mature but not particularly refined, a fuzzy line between the often-callous young man we see in the past and the ex-con dad of the present. There are some "son's best friend and in many ways still a big kid himself" vibes to Ah-Long, but Chow and the filmmakers get that Ah-Long in many ways being the means there's an occasional meanness to him. Sylvia Chang makes an impressive complement to him; Por's well-collected professionalism never seems like a put-on but it's still easy to connect her with the more volatile version in the past, and she does a nice job of allowing the euphoria of discovering Porky exist side-by-side with the knowledge that this situation will not be easy going forward (she also has a story credit here and unlike Chow would do a great deal as a writer and director in addition to acting). There's a joke in the film about how Porky doesn't really look like either parent, but it's worth it to have Huang Kun-Hsuen in the part. A busy child actor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he's good at making Porky a reflection of Ah-Long with a hint of Por while never being precious or broad as kid actors often can be (heck, as he himself was in Eighth Happiness a year earlier), despite the fact that his big emotions aren't ever hidden. Ng Man-Tat is solid character-actor bonus.

Doing a small marathon of four movies To, Chow, Chang, and Huang made together (in one combination or other), it was striking what a different feel this had from Eighth Happiness and The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon. Between those garish farces, To and cinematographer Horace Wong Wing-Hang give this one a grainier, less colorful style that often evokes home movies without seeming drained, always in close enough to see emotions but never zoomed in so much that one loses the context of Ah-Long's world. Without scenes of him doing so, one can see that Ah-Long has tidied up his apartment to look better for Por, and the scene when Porky first goes to Por's hotel for breakfast drives home that he clearly couldn't imagine places like that existing in Hong Kong.

It's good enough to make it's finale something of a head-scratcher: Ah-Long enters a big motorcycle race in Macau after getting a haircut so that he looks a little more like the Chow that's a big movie star than the down-on-his-luck ex-con he's often vanished into. It's so oddly disconnected from the rest of the movie that one wonders if the producers demanded a big set piece that could be used in ads or if there's a thread of Ah-Long returning to racing and developing some sort of antagonism with one of the other riders that got cut. To handles the action well, of course, right up until the operatic end, but it feels tacked on from another movie with the same cast.

I'd see that movie, even if it's something of an odd match with this one, forcing a resolution that the film otherwise wasn't headed toward. With or without that last part, All About Ah-Long is still an impressive bit of work from some of Hong Kong's best.

Also at eFilmCritic

Gat seng gung ziu (The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I ordered the Blu-ray of The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon from Hong Kong on the strength of the cast (Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang!) and director (Johnnie To!) doing what looked like a fun light comedy, and then found myself kind of gobsmacked to look it up and see it described as a remake of Coming to America, as if I should just know about things I like intersecting like that. The combination is a lot to live up to, but it manages to be zany fun even if a lot of people in it are coasting.

Tycoon La Bo-Sun (Chow Yun-Fat) is the scion of one of the richest families in Hong Kong, and though something of a spoiled brat, not a bad person at all. His mother and aunt have long planned to marry him and cousin Cindy Chan (Nina Li Chi) to make sure that all the money stays in the family, but Bo has no interest in that. Having borrowed his butler's jacket, he wanders into a charity function where he is mistaken for one of the caterers and plays along. Impressed with the female half of the sibling team running the catering, he answers the help-wanted sign at East East Wonton incognito, happy for the lousy pay and dormitory housing with hard-drinking 12-year-old Rocky Ma (Huang Kun-Hsuen) and four other immigrants with musical dreams if it means he gets to know Hung Leung-Yuk (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia) better. She's already got a boyfriend, Jimmy Hsu (Lawrence Cheng Tan-Shui), who has a Canadian passport as well as enough money to impress Yuk's brother Hung East (Ha Yue), while the butler (Wong San) is trying to keep Bo out of trouble while coaxing him to come back.

Director Johnnie To Kei-Fung and screenwriter Hoi Dik open the movie with a great little bit of physical comedy, brings a little more with Cindy's arrival, and has progressed all the way up to an actual pie fight (well, cake fight) before Bo has actually arrived at East East Wonton. To and company seem to be having a great time making the film as a live action cartoon, and while the "Production Design" credit To is given alongside the one for directing appears to mean something a bit different in Hong Kong than it does in Hollywood, the team has had a ball building both Bo-Sun's lives as colorful fantasies with plenty of silly bits in the corners.

It's not exactly a set-up built to have Bo do much soul-searching about how much he has versus others or discover that he's not good enough at anything practical to be worth Yuk's interest, so it's probably good that Chow doesn't play Bo as too deep a character. Instead, he's more or less Bugs Bunny, floating above situations with a silly grin because he knows he can't actually conceive of being in real trouble, at least until the last minute when he realizes Yuk may not in fact be that impressed. There are bits of Eddie Murphy in the performance as Chow laughs at his own jokes and the chaos around him, with Chow also playing a second role, although it's far from an imitation (it's kind of odd that Murphy was apparently well-enough known in Hong Kong for the dialogue to name-drop him twice in a remake of his movies, even if fame isn't necessarily fandom).

There's an enjoyable group around him, even if Sylvia Chang gets stuck in nice-girl territory as Yuk. Which isn't to say Nina Li Chi's Cindy is more appealing; she's just ridiculous in a way that's much easier to build jokes off of. Huang Kun-Hsuen gets the most entertainingly goofy role as Rocky, selling the heck out of this half-pint with an abrasive adult's soul, while Wong San's earnestly devoted butler may be half the reason why the audience cheers for Bo more than finding him obnoxious, because that loyalty had to come from somewhere. That Bo's singing co-workers are played by Beyond, apparently one of the hottest groups in Hong Kong at the time, is a pop-culture joke that probably worked a little better at the time but which doesn't thud here.

Thirty years can make a lot of comedies that a studio churned out to make sure the theaters they owned had something new every month with whatever was hot at the time into weird curiosities, and this movie is no different; I'd probably never have paid it any attention if later films hadn't made Chow Yun-Fat and Johnnie To into favorites and it might have stayed on the shelf longer if Coming 2 America hadn't made it momentarily a bit more relevant. It is, nevertheless, still fairly enjoyable: Everybody involved seems to be having a good time while still being the sort of pros who know how to make studio product into quality entertainment.

Also at eFilmCritic

Hua li shang ban zu (Office '15)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

I'd been planning on giving this one a rewatch for a while before the prompt came up; the 3D disc I ordered from Hong Kong has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years and as such things grew less common, my original belief that this would be neat but not transformative had become "it's a whole different movie this way". My original instinct on that turned out to be correct - the 3D version lets you add "shooting in 3D" to the list of things Johnnie To is good at (which includes roughly everything that has to do with making movies), but it's not exactly a revelation. I'm still kicking myself for not finding an excuse to go to New York when the 3D version was playing at the Metrograph, though.

Otherwise, it's still a pretty great movie. One oddity was that the DLP file I saw at Boston Common five years ago was likely in Mandarin/Putonghua, the "official" language of the movie, but the disc from HK only included Cantonese soundtracks, despite usually including both, and I wondered if the subtitling was slightly different, because it seemed slightly sharper and more satiric than I remembered the movie as being, although that may just be five more years of finding more to dislike about the systems it skewers. To a certain extent, I think both director Johnnie To and writers Sylvia Chang & Wai Ka-Fai found themselves stretching to include a bit too much in the film, especially if Chang's original play was more a star vehicle centered around her veteran executive. What seems like a story about corporate capitalism inevitably chewing up, corrupting, and discarding those who don't work their way to the absolute top becomes a bit of a cautionary tale for the two youngest characters whose souls may still be salvageable by the end.

One thing did click better this time, in that while I was kind of disappointed that Chow Yun-Fat was the only person who didn't get to sing in the movie, I see there's a certain logic behind it now. Characters in musicals have songs so that their feelings can be amplified, and Chow's Ho Chung-Ping is just too calculating for that, just not motivated enough by strong emotions to have a song. He's not even petty, jealous, or vindictive, still finding Winnie and Lee Xiang good enough at what they do to want to keep them around even if a more emotional person wouldn't want to. In that way, he's kind of the embodiment of the corporation as a legal person, just thoroughly amoral and focused on the goal of making money even when not actively corrupt.

Original eFilmCritic review from 2015

(Some of those prices are about twice what I paid at DDD House, and has Office seriously not gotten a physical release in the US until now - and that only on DVD?)

Friday, March 05, 2021

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

Is it school vacation or spring break or something in other parts of the country? In Maine and Massachusetts, I'm used to vacations mid-February and mid-April (President's Day and Patriot's Day), but maybe it's early March in other places, which would explain why so much is coming out this week, relatively speaking despite the calendar being wide open.
  • Virtually speaking, The Brattle Theatre picks up the most, with Quentin Dupieux's absurdist crime comedy Keep an Eye Out at the top of the list. Between Deerskin a year ago and Mandibles playing as part of Nightstream, it may seem like Dupieux is having an inhumanly productive pandemic, but this one played Europe back in 2018 and just hadn't made it here yet. They also open a couple of odd documentaries: Truth or Consequences (part of the Boston Sci-Fi FIlm Festival a month ago) looks at the small New Mexico town in question, the site of a spaceport and not much else, with a speculative framing; F.T.A. is a new restoration of Francine Parker's look at the explicitly anti-war comedy show Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland put on for American soldiers in Southeast Asia during the height of the Vietnam War. They join Sin, Un Film Dramatique, Twilight's Kiss, Truth to Power, Demonlover, Lapsis, and Mirror in the Brattlite virtual theater.

    That site also has a "Brattle Selects" presentation of The Mystery of Picasso, a 1956 film that played the theater back in 1960 and was also the first movie the theater played after becoming a non-profit 20 years ago, an event the play to celebrate for the next twelve months. A24 and IFFBoston have also extended virtual shows of Minari (which benefit the Brattle) for another weekend through Sunday, and they are also offering take-out concessions through Sunday (order ahead). And while the good folks at The Boston Underground Film Festival will have to hold off having an in-person festival again this year, they're teaming with the Brattle for an virtual advance screening of Come True on Wednesday, before the film starts its regular run in the Brattlite on Friday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre will welcome director Elizabeth Lo and canine cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz on Tuesday evening for a Science on Screen presentation related to Stray, which is opening in the virtual room on Friday; it's a look at the stray dogs of Istanbul, and if it's as good as Kedi was for the city's cats, it should be a treat. They also bring IFFBoston Fall Focus alum Night of the Kings to local streaming (it has already opened in-person at Kendall Square). The virtual room will also continue to feature Days of the Bagnold Summer, Test Pattern, Two of Us, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, Some Kind of Heaven, and City Hall.

    In addition to the Stray chat, they will be teaming up with Brookline Booksmith for a virtual book tour event on Wednesday, with The Nolan Variations author Tom Shone discussing said book about filmmaker Christopher Nolan; there's a special discount code at the theater's website if you order from Booksmith's site. And on Thursday, critic Odie Henderson stops in for the weekly Coolidge Education seminar, talkin 'bout Shaft, the original 1971 classic. Sign up, watch Henderson's intro, rent the film on your streaming service of choice, and come back for the Zoom discussion.
  • Boston Jewish Film started their Boston Israeli Film Festival on Thursday night, and its eight films and short programs will be available through Wednesday. Five will also have live conversations: Rain in Her Eyes and Rockfour on Sunday afternoon, Four Mothers on Monday evening, Menachem Begin: Peace & War on Tuesday evening, and Here We Are on Wednesday afternoon.

    A week after that, the Irish Film Festival will begin its virtual edition on St. Patrick's Day, combining new selections with, I believe, some which were part of the drive-in version that was held in the fall; only a limited number of slots are available for each program, open for pre-order now. Passes are also available for Belmont World Film's virtual spring series, with new films (mostly) coming online Tuesdays starting on the 16th and being available for a week that ends with an online discussion.
  • Bright Lights at Home has an especially interesting-sounding presentation this week, with The Viewing Booth inviting the audience to watch a young woman as she herself watches and reacts to footage, in this case a young Jewish American woman having what she thinks of Israel and the occupation of Palestine territory challenged by images from that milieu. It's free to stream from noon Wednesday until 8pm Thursday, with director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz joining a live chat afterward.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday and gets two new releases. My Salinger Year stars Margaret Qualley as the assistant to a literary agent (Sigourney Weaver) whose clients include J.D. Salinger, who begins to write responses to fan letters that are normally shredded without being sent to the reclusive writer.

    There's also Boogie starring Taylor Takahashi as a Chinese-American teenager who may have the talent to play in the NBA but is under tremendous family pressure to direct his efforts toward academics. It also plays at Boston Common( some screenings subtitled in Mandarin) and South Bay.
  • The multiplexes get two big movies to split the premium screens this week - both, oddly enough, featuring actresses from the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon is their new animated adventure which features Kelly Marie Tran as the title character, a warrior in a world inspired by Vietnamese myth on a quest for an elusive dragon. It plays Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), and Chestnut Hill (through Sunday), and is also available for home rental via Disney+. Chaos Walking, meanwhile, features Daisy Ridley as a woman who crash-lands on a planet where only men survived some sort of disaster and broadcast their thoughts, with Tom Holland as the guy who befriends her. That one is also at Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), and Chestnut Hill (through Sunday). Both look like they'd be fun in 3D, but nobody seems to be playing them in that format locally.

    In addition to the new releases, Boston Common also has showtimes for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and 42 on Friday, although those may just be titles available for use in private screenings. Paramount, meanwhile, is weirdly schizophrenic, using The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run to launch the rebranding of CBS All Access to Paramount+ after it's been on VOD for a while (though maybe not in the USA), but selling Coming 2 America to Amazon, which has it on Prime starting this weekend.
  • The West Newton Cinema has Tom & Jerry playing through Sunday and is also open for private rentals.
  • 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 has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Minari, 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 already bought tickets for an Imax Rose & Rey double feature on Sunday, with Keep an Eye Out and Stray also in my plans, as well as getting a few things moved from the

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Let's Get Weird: Jumbo and Psycho Goreman

So, as I post this, you've got another couple hours to rent Jumbo from The Coolidge, although (if what showed up on my screen when I did is correct), you can wait a while before starting it, which beats what I did with Psycho Goreman, where I rented it from the Brattle's site Thursday night and then played three seconds because while I had to start it by midnight, you had 48 hours to finish. As I may have mentioned before, these virtual screening rooms are opening new frontiers in waiting to watch a movie until the absolute last minute they're available because you're not in exactly the right mood right now.

(Or you can go to Amazon or other VOD services if you read this after midnight. Seriously, click the links; I've been fifty cents in referrals away from a gift card for what seems like a year!)

Jumbo was one that I never got a screener for at Fantasia - and I don't know if I even asked, as prioritizing everything was tricky - and it's definitely a weird one. I'd love it if some distributor somewhere went nuts and made a 4K disc or stream with HDR, just to get better resolution than streaming from the Coolidge's virtual room gets you (or, at least, gets me on my cable/laptop setup) and the greater color depth, because it's actually a really beautiful film with some of the greatest use of color I've seen on this sort of indie in a while. Heck, I'd love to see it on the big screen, although I'm not sure I'd necessarily want an audience, because someone snickering could mess it up for an entire room. It might have been a good de Seve show at Fantasia.

Psycho Goreman, on the other had, would have been a blast in Hall - or at the Brattle as part of BUFF - the sort of thing I might have liked a little more for seeing it with a big, reactive crowd. Like I note in the review, it's got a sort of Don Coscarelli vibe to it, and I'm curious how it's practical effects would look blown up to big-screen scale. Plus, I feel like I may be judging it a little unfairly - like a lot of stuff from the people who were in Astron-6 it's good enough when played straight that I'd love to see how it works without the self-deprecation or winking at the audience. Especially with the young protagonists, I kind of wanted it to be Turbo Kid, which leans toward being The Thing Its Makers Love for real rather than backing off from having to really stick the ending by descending into self-referential chaos. I'd probably write the same thing about it afterward, but I'd probably have been more caught up in the moment.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (first-run/Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

It's tempting to search the internet to see if the romance (of sorts) in Jumbo is a thing common enough to have a name, especially since it has one of those "based on a true story" credits that one naturally half-suspects to be trolling. It's probably not a good idea, though, because once one does that, it's not much of a leap to what a person should do if someone in their life falls in love with a machine, and this is a movie about not knowing the answer.

The young lady in question is Jeanne Tantois (Noémie Merlant), a young woman who has spent most of her summers at the local amusement park and loves building little mechanical replicas of the rides, but is working there for the first time this year. As shy as her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) is outgoing, she is happy enough working clean-up during the night shift, especially when wiping down the "Move-It" ride which she names "Jumbo". She's not expecting it to come to life for her, reacting to her touch and communicating with its lights, but she quickly feels a connection to it that's far more sensual than anything she shares with, say, her manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon).

Writer/director Zoé Wittock doesn't necessarily go for subtlety here; there's a moment when Jeanne tells Margarette that she feels the sorts of things that her mother wants her to feel for boys. But while Jeanne's attraction to Jumbo serves as an obvious metaphor for being queer, it seems to have a particular focus on how there's no easy way to tell from the inside whether you're not well or if the straights and normies just don't get you, especially when there's not obviously anybody similar around. Wittock brings this into incredibly tight focus, to the point that if there is anything else on Jeanne's mind, the audience is not privy to it. It could be limiting, but the sheer oddity of her interests and the semi-fantastic way they're presented keeps the film from feeling like it's reducing her entirely to her sexuality rather than just focusing on that aspect of her.

Jeanne being such a relatively blank slate makes for an interesting challenge for Noémie Merlant, who spends much of the film playing introverted to almost the point of blankness but manages to do well playing the odd things that allow her to open up. Strong emotions play across her face without seeming exaggerated or toned down so much as to make the viewer read too much into the slightest variation. It's also delightful to watch how her performance shifts after she apparently consummates the affair; after getting through being afraid of the enormity of what she's just felt, she carries herself differently, like she's still not sure how to deal with other people, but a little more certain of herself. It's the sort of performance that the rest of the cast could easily overshadow or shrink from in fear of overwhelming her, but they by and large don't; even the ones with big personalities are conventional enough to make a contrast.

Then you've got Jumbo himself, the thing at the center of Wittock's seemingly absurd premise that could be handled wrong in so many ways. She seems to make almost every decision correctly, though, never giving him a voice beyond his lights, nor doing much to anthropomorphize him beyond fleeting moments. Jeanne doesn't love him because she sees a man in there, after all. Instead, she leans heavily on cinematographer Thomas Buelens and his team to use the bright candy-colored lighting of the ride to create a bold palette that reacts to where they're pointing the camera - sharp and energetic when shining on Jumbo's clean white body but warm and comforting when lighting the woods around the park. The lighting and composition is often jaw-droppingly beautiful, selling the audience on affection rather than just weird technological lust, and the music by Thomas Roussel has an off-kilter feel while mostly avoiding obvious synth or carnival sounds.

Ending a picture like this is tricky, and Wittock doing better than can be expected still leaves the audience in a position where they may be scratching their heads or wonder just what the message of the film was, specifically. It still winds up surprisingly beautiful and affecting for a movie whose premise invites irony and mockery.

Also at eFilmCritic

Psycho Goreman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (first-run/Brattle virtual screening room, Eventive via Roku)

Filmmaking collective Astron-6 went their separate ways a couple years ago, but promised they would each still be making a lot of the same sort of throwback comedy/horror and that they'd probably work together when there was a good fit. With Psycho Goreman, Steve Kostanski captures a lot of the bloody 1980s-style fun of the old group, and if it seems to fare a little worse at straddling the line between doing a thing well and making jokes about that thing, I suppose that it's inevitable that this film might fall victim to accelerated nostalgia.

The film kicks off with siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) playing a game of "crazyball" in their backyard, and while Mimi doesn't necessarily change the rules so she always wins, one gets the impression the pushy sister has never lost. This leads to Luke digging a hole in which to bury himself alive in the backyard, where they find a strange red crystal - and then, while they sleep, an alien monster emerges. Before he can start his reign of terror, though, it turns out that the crystal Mimi has taken for her own can control the one time universe-threatening despot she names "Psycho Goreman", and it's tough to know what is worse: A terror like Mimi having control of a cosmically-powered alien, or the fact that the galactic alliance which buried him here ages ago has no trouble with causing a lot of collateral damage on a backwater planet to keep him from re-emerging.

Lots of people love the R-rated genre movies of the 1980s, paying homage by using John Carpenter's favorite typeface, casting veterans of their favorites, or setting their films in that time which is conveniently free of mobile phones, but most of them are making pretty basic slashers, or doing a tongue-in-cheek take that highlights how cheap or absurd they seem thirty-odd years later. Kostanski and his compatriots, on the other hand, take their fandom a little more seriously and have the chops to make it work - though they may be young enough to have initially encountered films by the likes of Don Coscarelli on video, they know that this stuff had to look good on the big screen, and bust their butts to make everything from the title sequence to the miniature landscapes to the makeup look good. Even the stuff that's meant to look obviously fake or comedic seems to have a ton of clever mechanisms in its practical effects, and the music by Blitz//Berlin never works against what's on screen - that everybody involved seems to be taking things seriously only makes the jokes seem dryer and darker, and makes the foundation legitimately cool.

That's what Kostanski is getting out of his young stars, who set the tone for the whole movie. Mimi is often a headstrong and difficult-to-like kid, but Nita-Josee Hanna plays her in fearsomely straight-ahead fashion, making her the sort of kid who is compelling once you've got reason to find her more than abrasive because she's smart and focused in the way a precocious child is without being precious or wise beyond her years. There are at least half a dozen times when she says something completely ridiculous and the movie rolls on because of her confidence. It's no surprise that Owen Myre's Luke is so often bulldozed if not outright bullied, and if Myre has a little trouble holding his own with Hanna, it seldom feels like the actor is weak - Luke's his own person rather than just Mimi's punching bag. The adults play more conventionally dry, with Astron-6-er Adam Brooks as a comically ineffective father and Alexis Kara Hancey a compensatingly capable mom, while Matthew Ninaber (body language) and Steven Vlahos (voice) combine fairly seamlessly to make "PG" funny in how thwarted his grand ambitions are but still threatening when he needs to be.

Kostanski has all these terrific pieces and has a great time smashing them against each other - the action is bloody and not bad, considering it maintains some of the lumbering weight of its inspirations, and the film spends a lot more time with the grandiose flashbacks to PG's past than one might expect. There are nevertheless a lot of times when I couldn't help but remember that the Astron-6 movies were often better when played somewhat straight rather than entirely tongue-in-cheek. The bench beyond the central family isn't really deep enough to make any mayhem PG causes the combination of darkly funny and horrible the film is going for - it might have worked better if the council that condemned him to Earth had shown up there in the final act, both as satisfying story material and because they've got bigger and more fleshed out personalities than many of the rest of the foes. The idea of PG growing fond of Mimi undercuts the thread of Mimi potentially realizing what a monster she can be, which is what makes the movie feel like more than just style.

The style is pretty great, sure - Kostanski and his crew are good at this in a way that few others working at this scale manage to be - and the film itself certainly has more ambition than just splattery practical effects. It's good enough to make one wonder just how could it have been if it didn't take refuge in being a goof on the material.

Also at eFilmCritic