Friday, May 28, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 May 2021 - 3 June 2021

Memorial Day weekend is looking like the first big movie weekend in 15 months, with capacities expanding, the Capitol reopening with two new blockbusters and, unless I miss something, just one new virtual offering.

It's kind of a weird in-between situation, though - demand for the new releases looks much higher than increased capacity, so they wipe everything out, which means if you've got a long rainy weekend, your choices are kind of limited.
  • The big releases this week have been waiting to come out for a while. Cruella was originally planned for last Christmas, and features Emma Stone as the title character, before she was the villain in 101 Dalmatians, although the film is set in the mid-1970s, a decade or so after the original animated version came out, which is weird. Then again, it's a movie that apparently casts a woman who wanted to kill dozens of puppies to make a coat as an antihero. It's got Emma Thompson as the apparent alpha villain, though, and she looks delightfully nasty. It plays The Capitol, The West Newton Cinema, Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and Disney+ (if you shell out extra).

    The other big opening is A Quiet Place Part II, which picks up right where the first left off - what remains of the family having a way to fight the sound-sensitive aliens but waking into what may be a "people who have lost everything are more dangerous than creature-feature monsters" situation. It's been pushed back a full year by now, and opens at The Capitol, the Kendall, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway, South Bay (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    The F9 count-up is up to Fast Five on Friday night at Boston Common (also Monday), Fenway (for reward program members), and Arsenal Yards. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 have $5 shows at Assembly Row from Monday to (at least) Wednesday, in anticipation of its third episode.
  • Vietnamese film Bo Gia (Dad, I'm Sorry) opens in South Bay; directed by star Thanh Tran, it's a comedy about a former biker living among a large family in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. It is apparently the biggest home-grown hit to come out of Vietnam and gets multiple screens over the weekend. Demon Slayer continues subtitled at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is ditching reserved seating as capacities open up on Saturday, which means no sitting in some rear corner, seeing your favorite seat empty with nobody around it for a five-seat radius again (although maybe that was just me)! Anyway, that means that while Blade Runner and 2001 (on 35m) are sold out on Friday, there are seats to be had for 2001 and Aliens on Saturday; Akira and 2001 on Sunday; 2001 and Blade Runner on Monday; as well as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with "The Human Voice" on Thursday. Those are all in the main room, with the other three are still available for rental via the Private Movie Party link.

    The Virtual Coolidge is around for at least another week with Us Kids, Duty Free, About Endlessness, and In Silico available.
  • Belmont World Film begins their virtual World Refugee Month program on Tuesday with Antigone, which transplants the Greek classic to a family of Algerian immigrants in Montreal. As with the spring program, films we be available for a week, with a live online discussion on the finale night (Monday the 7th).
  • The Brattle Theatre re-opens in July and has their eye on that, with nothing new opening in the Brattlite virtual theater and take-out concessions off the menu, though Two Lottery Tickets, The Paper Tigers, RK/RKAY, Punk the Capital, The Story of a Three Day Pass, The County, and Work Songs continue to be available.
  • The Somerville Theatre is not yet open, and it looks like I'm going to have to do a walk-by to see what the deal is at Fresh Pond.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and many of the multiplexes. The Coolidge has slots available to reserve Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen online through the end of June, with "Premium Programming" including Wolfwalkers, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Minari, Sound of Metal, and In the Mood for Love available, although all but the last are slated to no longer be available after Monday.
Looking forward to A Quiet Place II, morbidly curious about Cruella, and intimidated by all the various sorts of backlog staring me in the face.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 21 May 2021 - 27 May 2021

We're edging fairly close to back-to-normal-ish, and I've got to say I am ready for it. Should be at full-vax by this time next week, and I'm already starting to talk about seeing movies without a whole bunch of caveats at the front.
  • The Brattle Theatre is reopening the first weekend of July, and while I would not presume to know their plans exactly, that's Jaws season. The plans for June are rentals on the weekend and members-only 35mm screenings during the week, so if you're not a member, it's a great time to join and help them get a bit more onto solid ground after fifteen months. Can't hurt to buy snacks and merch for pickup over the weekend, too.

    In the meantime, they've still got the Brattlite virtual theater going, picking up Two Lottery Tickets this weekend, a new film from up-and-coming Romanian director Paul Negoescu, a screwball thing about a couple wastrels chasing down a stolen chance at six million euros. It plays alongside The Paper Tigers, RK/RKAY, Punk the Capital, The Story of a Three Day Pass, The County, Work Songs, and Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts.
  • Their friends at The DocYard wrap their online season with Taming the Garden, a peculiar story of an oligarch (and former prime minister) in the country of Georgia who is uprooting the countries oldest and largest trees to place them in his own park. Director Salomé Jashi will join a live Q&A on Monday afternoon.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is open and adding matinees and late shows to the ones that sold out immediately. On Friday, Black Narcissus and Vertigo on 35mm are at capacity (the latter also sold out on Monday); but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has tickets at 10pm. On Saturday there are tickets for The Philadelphia Story at 11am but not 2pm, and for Citizen Kane at 10pm but not 7pm, with a similar pattern on Sunday, where has 11pm slots but not 7pm and Beau Travail is sold out at 2pm but not 10pm. Both Akira and 2001: A Space Odyssey are sold out on Thursday. The other three are still available for rental via the Private Movie Party link.

    They may not be winding The Virtual Coolidge down yet, but don't open anything new this week, keeping Us Kids, Duty Free, About Endlessness, In Silico, and the three Oscar Nominated Shorts programs (Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary, also available virtually from Landmark) available.
  • ArtsEmerson and their partners have "Shared Stories" entry Nailed It a documentary on the 40 year-history Vietnamese nail salons in America, running through Sunday evening.
  • The Regent Theatre still has Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos available to stream; they've also got a combined live-stream and in-person show for the Advanced Ensembles from the Real School of Music on Friday and Saturday.
  • A couple IFFBoston entries are making quick turnarounds to theaters, with Landmark Theatres Kendall Square picking up the pretty nifty Australian mystery The Dry, which features Eric Bana as a detective returning to his hometown where a recent murder and a year without rain have left it a figurative and literal tinderbox. They're also one of the places playing Dream Horse, with Toni Collette and Damian Lewis two folks in a small Irish town looking to change their fortunes by investing in a racehorse. It's also at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row

    They also open two films centered on the Holocaust from different sides: Documentary Final Account documents the testimony of the Germans who lived through World War II, describing what "ordinary" life during the time was like; it also plays Boston Common. There's also director Caroline Link's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, an adaptation of Judith Kerr's roman a clef based upon her Jewish family's flight from the country in 1933.
  • Hey, remember when Warner moved Scoob! to VOD last year? It's finally making its way to theaters 53 weeks later, playing Boston Common, Fenway, and Arsenal Yards as a discount "fan favorite". Kind of marking time until the big holiday weekend openers, I guess.

    Boston Common also opens IFFBoston Fall Focus alum New Order, which starts out as a thrilling you-are-there movie about folks caught up in a revolution, although it becomes little more than cynical and mean-spirited by the end (which isn't inaccurate, but it's a sort of default-state cynicism).

    The F9 count-up has reached Fast & Furious (#4) on Friday night at Boston Common, Fenway (for reward program members), and Arsenal Yards. Bon Jovi: Encore Nights plays Boston Common and Fenway on Saturday; the week's anniversary screening is Stand By Me, playing Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday and Wednesday.

    Most theaters have early shows of Cruella and A Quiet Place II on Thursday; the latter has a live Q&A at Kendall Square and Chestnut Hill.
  • Arsenal Yards continues Hindu-language action flick Radhe - Your Most Wanted Bhai; Boston Common has Chinese films My Love and Cliff Walkers. Demon Slayer continues subtitled at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards (including dubbed shows), and Chestnut Hill.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open Friday to Sunday with Together Together, Raya and the Last Dragon, Tom & Jerry, Nomadland and Godzilla vs Kong, and also open Thursday with Cruella on two screens with Together Together, Raya, and Nomadland. They're also available for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre and sister cinema The Capitol aren't ready to open yet, though the latter will sell you ice cream shop and snacks.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and many of the multiplexes. The Coolidge has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of June with early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, and "Premium Programming" including Wolfwalkers, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, and Sound of Metalrentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out, and I'm not sure whether it's encouraging or not that the website for Apple Fresh Pond is down despite a previous May re-opening being teased there; it looks like they've forgotten to pay their web-hosting bill.
Same as last week's good intentions, really - catching up with Army of the Dead, Wrath of Man, and some of the big pile of discs that recently arrived from various orders. Maybe Demon Train, because it's kind of crazy that it's done better than a lot of things treated as mainstream over the past three weeks and seemingly gotten zero attention outside of manga/anime die-hards.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 14 May 2021 - 20 May 2021

Whoa - the Coolidge is putting in-person shows on their front page of their website and the virtual room off to the side. Makes sense, but, wow, I've gotten so used to the other lineup over the past year that this is going to take some re-acclimatization.
  • Under normal circumstances, they would have hosted the last couple days of Independent Film Festival Boston a couple weeks ago, but IFFBoston is going to be virtual until the end on Sunday. They've backloaded the heck out of the schedule, to the point where I was grateful they added a couple extra days to Strawberry Mansion to give people some extra time to watch it. My plans for the weekend are First Date, Luzzu, and Sabaya for Friday; Last Night in Rozzie and Weed & Wine on Saturday; plus The Gig Is Up and closing night film How It Ends on Sunday, though I may use as much of the 48 hours each movie gives you as I can, even into Monday if necessary.
  • As mentioned, The Coolidge Corner Theatre is back open for customers this weekend, although most of the shows have sold out. Friday has Enter the Dragon for the matinee (tickets still available!), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the evening; Top Hat and The Grand Budapest Hotel on Saturday; Frances Ha and "The Human Voice" & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Sunday; Do The Right Thing on Monday, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin' in the Rain on Thursday. Next thing with tickets available is 2001: A Space Odyssey on 35mm come Memorial Day. That's all on Moviehouse I; the other three are still available for rental, although the Private Movie Party link is now a little harder to find, how in the "Visit" menu.

    Over at The Virtual Coolidge, documentary Us Kids opens, telling the story of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who basically refused to be mealy-mouthed after a school shooting. It joins Duty Free, About Endlessness, In Silico, and the three Oscar Nominated Shorts programs (Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary, also available virtually from Landmark). And it looks like City Hall has its last day on Friday - a remarkable nearly seven-month run for a four hour documentary on city government.
  • The Brattle Theatre is still pretty much virtual through the end of the month, and has a pretty strong influx this week. I can vouch for The Paper Tigers, a fun action-comedy about three former martial arts prodigies who reunite after their teacher's funeral. Another fun-looking and self-referential movie, RK/RKAY, features Rajat Kapoor as something close to himself, an independent actor/director whose latest part has escaped from the editing room. Both the Brattle and the distributor will be donating part of the ticket price to Covid relief programs in India.

    They also pick up Punk the Capital, a documentary about the DC punk scene in the 1970s, and jumps back even further for a new restoration of The Story of a Three Day Pass, Melvin Van Peebles's first feature, made in France from his own French-language novel. They join The County, Work Songs, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, Hope, and This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection in the Brattlite virtual room. Snacks and merch are also available for order and pick-up over the weekend.
  • ArtsEmerson and The Boston Asian-American Film Festival (among others) team for another "Shared Stories" program starting on Wednesday, with Adele Pham's Nailed It looking at Vietnamese nail salons, which had an outsize effect on the beauty business in America. For the first 24 hours, there's also Spanish-language short "Abuela's Luck"
  • The Regent Theatre still has Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos available to stream.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is still closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but opens The Killing of Two Lovers, centered around a man who wants to keep his family together but is having a very hard time keeping himself together as his wife starts a new relationship. They're also still picking up the occasional Netflix original before they premiere, with Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead featuring Dave Bautista putting together a crew to steal $200M from a casino in zombie-infested Las Vegas before the government levels the whole city. There's also a one-night-only show of Lindemann: Live in Moscow, a concert film shot in March 2020, maybe the last big event before everything closed down.
  • The big in-person opening of the week is Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a spinoff of the gruesome horror series with a story from star Chris Rock that I gather is not so tightly connected to the series's convoluted continuity, plus Samuel L. Jackson as his father and mentor. It's at Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway, South Bay (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    Those Who Wish Me Dead stars Angelina Jolie as a firefighter who comes across a kid on the run from people who will apparently start a forest fire to cover their tracks (a lot of that going around). Taylor Sheridan directs, and the film plays Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill. Universal also takes Timur Bekmambetov's Profile off the shelf; it's a "screen-life" film about a reporter infiltrating a Da'esh-affiliated group online told through what's on her laptop. It gets screens at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    There's also cute-looking "American girl in Ireland" movie Finding You, where a student studying abroad surprisingly befriended by a movie star shooting nearby. That's at Boston Common, South Bay, and Chestnut Hill.

    Top Gun gets a re-release on the Dolby Cinema screens at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Scott Pilgrim Versus The World sticks around Boston Common, Assembly Row and Arsenal (Saturday only). The F9 count-up has reached Tokyo Drift on Friday night at Boston Common, Fenway (for reward program members), and Arsenal Yards. Arsenal Yards also has 25th Anniversary screenings of the De Palma Mission: Impossible on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday.
  • Arsenal Yards is apparently the current home for Indian film in the Boston area, with Hindu-language action flick Radhe - Your Most Wanted Bhai featuring Salman Khan as an ACP cop hunting down a crimelord.

    Chinese films My Love and Cliff Walkers are still at Boston Common; Demon Slayer continues subtitled at the Kendall (including dubbed shows), Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards (including dubbed shows), and Chestnut Hill; it's now apparently Japan's highest-grossing film ever.
  • The West Newton Cinema is on a relatively short schedule this weekend, only open Saturday and Sunday with Together Together, Raya and the Last Dragon, Tom & Jerry, and Nomadland; they're also available for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre isn't yet ready to open (but has construction going on!), but sister cinema The Capitol has their ice cream shop and concession stand open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Majestic/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of May with early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, and "Premium Programming" including Wolfwalkers, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, 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, and Apple Fresh Pond has plans to re-open in May.
I'm catching Enter the Dragon at the Coolidge after my second shot on Friday, taking up the last few days of IFFBoston, then may go for Army of the Dead, Wrath of Man, and some of the big box of discs that recently arrived from Hong Kong afterward.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.06: The Oxy Kingpins

As much as I kind of knew that the guy who I hear opening every all-employee "Town Hall" call at work was going to show up in this movie, it's still awfully dispiriting when your employer's parent company appears prominently in a movie about how there was a pretty darn seamless pipeline between major pharmaceutical distributors, street drug dealers, and addicts that created a crisis that has killed many, with only the latter two groups actually facing consequences for their action. I didn't really choose to work for them affirmatively - I joined a small-ish start up looking to save lives by preventing chemotherapy drug interactions and overdoses, and then somehow a few years and two acquisitions later, that startup is a division of a business unit of a Fortune 10 company. I don't hate the vacation policy, but being even vaguely associated with this is depressing.

Anyway, it's a weird feeling to get to the end of a documentary still being in favor with corporations being hit with fines that are as proportionately ruinous as any individual would face but also hoping that when they make cuts to offset them, they'll ignore the good people in the chemotherapy drug reporting department.

End disclaimer, begin review, watch the movie.

The Oxy Kingpins

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Though many people are touched directly enough by what is often called "the opioid crisis" or "the opioid epidemic" for it not to be abstract, some are lucky enough for it to not be directly affected and others, quite naturally, are concerned enough about the immediate ill effects that they don't tend to think about the other end of the supply chain. The Oxy Kingpins does a fair job of remedying that; it may not have a proper ending, but the filmmakers do yeoman's work explaining how so many pills got into the wrong hands, and maybe what can be done about it.

The film starts provocatively, as a young man without either face or voice disguised says that he enjoyed being a drug dealer, and how oxycontin changed the game: A powerful painkiller that might as well be heroin, easy to transport, and insanely addictive, the only problem was getting enough, and while some people were selling unused pills from a prescription or stealing from pharmacies, parts of Florida were creating a cottage industry of "pain management clinics", basically doctors writing bogus scrips which could be filled at any drug store. He's not just sharing this information with the filmmakers, but with attorney Mike Papantonio, whose firm handles massive trials and is putting together a series of class-action lawsuits against the major drug distributors for how their push to over-prescribe has created addicts and their lax enforcement has allowed criminal networks to thrive.

In many ways, The Oxy Kingpins is most notable for what it's not: Directors Nick August-Perna and Brendan Fitzgerald spend almost no time on poverty porn or watching addicts suffer, with the main figure chosen to represent that side of the story has more or less come out the other end, rebuilding her life and not looking back, although it's clear that the spinal surgery that led to her painkiller habit still affects her today. At times, the filmmakers seem to be deliberately putting those stories to the side - even Papantonio emphasizes that he is not representing individuals, but the governments that have had to increase their budgets due to the suppliers' criminal negligence - because while those stories hit the audience hard on a gut level, that emotional response can be a distraction from what they're trying to get across.

And it's kind of necessary, because while what Alex-the-former-dealer and his more-anonymous colleagues talk about is exciting, Papantino's side of the story is kind of dry. Both are charismatic enough in their way, but Alex's stories are things you can get caught up in even as you blanch at the sheer amorality of it, even if you obviously much rather have someone like Mike Papantino on your side in a courtroom where the judge will brook no nonsense and grandstanding. It's a useful contrast, especially when you look at the two types of operations that this situation fundamentally entwines: The obvious relatively low-level criminals that traditional law enforcement is built to deal with, and the folks who are so rich and able to hire clever people as to be outside their reach.

Whichever part of the chain that they're dealing with, the filmmakers are adept at getting their information out clearly, not getting too bogged down in specific procedural details but giving the viewer the sort of specific facts and scenes that can stick in their heads. A big part of making a movie like this work is telling the sort of story that someone else might retell later, so that even if it doesn't give the movie a bigger audience, the facts get out there. This film lays the situation out clearly in a way that goes down pretty easy, and that is more or less the goal.

The one caveat is that it ends on a screen saying the trial in Nevada is set for April 2021, and while that does make one wonder why the filmmakers couldn't have waited for an actual ending. Of course, the goal here is to explain, not necessarily tell a story, and that ending could have forced a change in focus on what is considered important. Without it, The Oxy Kingpins does the job its makers set out to do - no more, but certainly no less.

Also at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.05: The Dry

I think America was roughly fifteen minutes into the pandemic before people started talking about not wanting to see masks, isolation, distancing, etc. reflected in entertainment, either as a way to pin a date down or as a metaphor, and it's been kind of odd to watch it play out on television as the likes of 911 and Law & Order try to feel current but also watchable afterward, and it doesn't always work. Australia has by and large dodged that bullet - not as completely as New Zealand, but orders of magnitude better than it's done in the USA pre-vaccination - but I wonder whether the heat waves would be seen the same way.

At any rate, this movie is all sort of my thing and should start hitting theaters next Friday, which means we'll have three consecutive weekends of movies where wildfires or the threat thereof, are a major part of the danger - The Water Man last weekend, Those Who Wish Me Dead next, and then this the week after. It's a weird coincidence, especially considering how the pandemic has shuffled release dates over the past year and into the future, but a thoroughly relevant one as both California and Australia have had some horrific fire seasons recently, and for all we know they won't be slowing down any time soon. Given where the movie industry is, one wonders if it's just going to be a more omnipresent thing that works its way into more of our entertainment.

(Fills in Amazon link that none of you are going to click, sees Jane Harper has written a second Aaron Falk novel, and hopes like heck that Eric Bana is up for another go.)

The Dry

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Early on in The Dry, there's a subtitle specifying that it's been 324 days since the last rain in the town of Kiewarra, and I wonder whether that was the inspiration for the story or just something the filmmakers couldn't avoid, given how bad the drought and heat waves have been in Australia in recent years. Either way, it's a way to add some color to a somewhat dour mystery.

Our sleuth is Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a member of Australia's Federal Police Force who has recently broken a major financial case. He probably had no real intention of ever returning to the farming community where he lived as a boy - even if it is nice to see old friend Gretchen (Genevieve O'Reilly) again - and it would be completely inappropriate from him to investigate the murder-suicide old friend Luke Hadler was apparently involved in. But for as much as Luke's mother Barb (Julia Blake) thinks that maybe he can find something in the farm's books that would exonerate her son, his father Gerry (Bruce Spence) has gnawing doubts, as he's fairly sure that Luke didn't tell the whole truth when his girlfriend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) drowned twenty years ago. Most in town are more liable to look at Aaron where that incident is concerned, but local deputy Greg Raco (Keir O'Donnell) wasn't there then and doesn't particularly mind Aaron giving everything a second look.

Director and co-writer Robert Connolly have a neat little nested-mystery setup here, built in such a way that there's a good story to be had even if the most obvious connection between them - and thus the default explanation for both incidents - is true. It's compelling enough that even as Raco points out a crucial bit of evidence that would seem to cast doubt on Luke as the killer and enough characters are introduced in the present to make the viewer look closer, the impulse is still there to look at it more as an ensemble drama about how one maybe doesn't know anyone, or how secrets everyone knows can fester in a small town. It's a clever structure, full of red herrings which nevertheless seem essential even when revealed as such; it gives both the problem-solving and emotional halves of the brain something to do without making the other unimportant or over-complicated.

The drought also makes the difference between the two timelines striking, even if I'm not completely certain that Luke's body is found in the dried-up river where Ellie drowned (the implication is delicious, though). Kiewarra circa 1991 is filled with greens and blues, right up until Ellie's death, when the light shifts and everything gets darker. The present is all bleached sand and dried out, leafless trees; even the opening where the Hadler farmhouse briefly seems like it's in the middle of a haven of green is a fake-out before a grisly crime scene. There's a different feel to the relative emptiness of the town in the two periods, an undercurrent of how various factors from climate change to corrupt development are hurting towns like this.

Pieces are kept mysterious enough that Falk can easily seem a cipher, but Eric Bana does good work in giving him a sort of insider-outsider nervousness that reads a lot of ways - a kind of abrasive confidence in his early scenes with Raco that also says he knows he shouldn't be there, the non-specific guilt that can sometimes be pinpointed, and the right bit of happiness to push all that halfway aside when Gretchen greets him warmly. Genevieve O'Reilly plays the opposite sides of those scenes nicely, and puts a little bit more of a twist into the scenes when it looks like she might be a suspect. The crew of young actors playing their younger selves maybe doesn't entirely look like them, but Joe Klocek certainly catches the sort of earnest vibe that could believably be beaten down into what we see out of Bana, and Sam Corlett establishes enough about Luke that one can extrapolate some but not entirely to the present. BeBe Bettencourt is the standout in that group, though, carrying the whole load for Ellie and making her feel important enough that her death would blow this hole in the community. The rest of the cast is terrifically solid in parts that all need to be immediately understood but could potentially hold secrets, and Keir O'Donnell is sneaky-impressive as the cop who is not on Falk's level but also quite respectable. There's a fun scene when he reacts to the phrase "shooting rabbits" where the audience can feel him catching up, and the shift can make a viewer lick their lips.

There's a nifty climax as well, a tense confrontation that nevertheless feels like something new and doesn't shift the feel of what has been a nice, slow simmer for a couple of hours. Connolly and company deliver a mystery that's more than just a puzzle and a drama that benefits from the crime story's focus.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Water Man

Taking a week off for IFFBoston means weekday matinees for other stuff, although it would have been nice to see this with a bigger crowd. I'm curious about David Oyelowo doing a few movies like this in the past couple of years (I was really curious about Come Away, but wasn't walking to Watertown the week that was out); a lot of folks sign on to do family movies when their kids reach a certain age, but he seems to be taking that a little more seriously. He's got mixed kids with British parents growing up in America, and seems to get that their being able to see themselves is important.

(I'm also kind of curious about what the numbers are on actors making their directorial debut on splashy passion projects versus small pictures that let them quietly hone their skills like this one.)

Anyway, got a few kid-oriented trailers here, and while I'm happily counting down to "not seeing a preview for Cruella again", with Space Jam 2 solidly in "this will be terrible and I am going to watch it anyway" category, 12 Mighty Orphans has my eyes going up, because it certainly starts off looking like an awful inspirational sports thing, and I'm not sure about Luke Wilson's accent or Wayne Knight seemingly trying to channel Stephen Root, but Robert Duvall shows up about three-quarters the way through it. Who doesn't enjoy seeing Robert Duvall in movies, and at 90 years old, he doesn't have to do stuff just to work, but must see something in them to show up on set. His judgment may not be as good as Redford in that regard, but he certainly makes it more interesting.

The Water Man

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, DCP)

The Water Man is a movie of charmingly modest ambitions, an adventure for kids that doesn't slip in anything that's just for the parents or aim to be the start of a larger series. It's pretty good little movie that will hopefully get a few people to come to matinees before disappearing into the vague "family" category online.

In it, the Boone family has recently moved to Pine Mills, Oregon; father Amos (David Oyelowo) has recently left the Navy so that he can be with wife Mary (Rosario Dawson) as she fights leukemia, while son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) is spending his time reading Sherlock Holmes and drawing his own graphic novel. When Mary takes a turn for the worse and Amos has difficulty handling the stress, Gunner latches on to the local legend of "The Water Man", an obsession of local undertaker Jim Bussey (Alfred Molina), who claims the spooky figure in the woods has healing powers. Homeless girl Jo (Amiah Miller) claims to have seen him, so Gunner convinces her to help him look, hoping to find a way to heal his mom.

Co-star David Oyelowo has been spending a fair amount of time working on family movies of late - it hasn't been his entire focus, but he seems to be taking the desire to make something his kids can watch more to heart than many actors do, even choosing this film as his first feature to direct. He and writer Emily A. Needell do good work in how they portray their two young main characters - both Gunnar and Jo are somewhat precocious, but they never have the voices of clever adults. They're cringe-y at times, but also allowed to be honestly scared or full of bluster. Just as important, Amos and Mary Boone are models of parents who strive to do their best but often fall short, and both they and Maria Bello's sheriff are given a chance to explain why they make the decisions they do. It's a kid-centric film, but neither one that presupposes kids and adults as fundamentally opposed to each other nor one that speeds past the things which might seem boring on the page but which are actually pretty useful for communicating to a young audience - and in doing so, it maybe gives the adults in the audience more than just double-entendres for their time.

That said, it aims to be a fun adventure first and foremost, and it is that. With Gunner's interest in fantasy adventures established early, it spins a yarn about its title character that's just scary enough to be exciting and keeps the audience in that space as the kids head into the woods, offering stuff that seems a bit weird to keep one curious but never underselling that just these two tweens being in the woods alone is dangerous (even without smoke from wildfires starting to appear on the horizon early enough to make one worry). There's samurai swords, unexpected wild animals, fallen trees, spooky things hanging from branches, and bugs (so many bugs!). Animated bits let Oyelowo and company save things for later without completely hiding them, and there's room for the father to make good without completely pulling things out of Gunner and Jo's hands.

Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller make a fun pair as the two kids - Chavis' Gunner is booking but not just nerdy, and Miller's good at showing how much Jo is putting on a front even though kids might still buy it. They play well off each other without ever being flustered by one another. It also never hurts when this sort of movie has a bunch of pros who treat a family movie as more than just a favor or something to do for their kids in the cast: Oyelowo commits to both the comedic and dramatic bits of Amos being a bit of a fish out of water in this small town after his time in the Navy, and he's got nice chemistry with Rosario Dawson. Alfred Molina has fun with the character of the local crackpot without ever seeming unreal. Most everyone else hits all the right notes as well.

It's a nice-looking movie, too, though not showy - Oyelowo and all aren't looking to innovate here, or transcend their genre, or otherwise garner superlatives. They're making a movie that can entertain and hopefully speak to kids, and they wind up doing a pretty fair job of it.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.04: I Was a Simple Man and Who We Are

Let's mostly go with release date rather than watch date , with this getting split up because I was doing all the Sunday crosswords and making pizza, so I got to I Was a Simple Man relatively late in the evening, too late to be up for a second movie (although I'd happily be up until almost 2am the next night).

Not a whole lot to say here. Both were pretty good. And it's a day late, but I think I heard construction as I walked past the Somerville Theatre on the way back from the camera shop on Saturday, so I'm guessing there will be an at least somewhat upgraded concession stand when they re-open.

I Was a Simple Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Point a camera in any random direction in Hawaii, and odds are that you're going to get a great-looking movie, and though that is not entirely the direction Christopher Makoto Yogi takes with I Was a Simple Man, it is a major part of what makes the film work. Not so much the scenery, but the star, who often seems to embody his character to the point where everything more than taking him in is (entirely welcome) elaboration on a theme.

Steve Iwamoto was likely cast for the vibe he gives off; his short list of screen credits paired with his age make one wonder if maybe he's taken up a new hobby in his retirement. He plays Masao Matsuyoshi, who may have been a troublemaker once but who is dying now, an unspecified cancer advancing quickly. It's a part that requires a certain amount of quiet presence early and quiet but pained absence later, as both the pain medication and his natural tendency to look back are going to make him less responsive to whichever family member is looking after him.

There will be several - son Mark (Nelson Lee), who is spiritual; daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko HIrai), who is practical; and grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), who is still mostly interested in skateboarding. Unseen by any of them is Grace (Constance Wu), his wife, who died on the day Hawaii became a state. Seeing her ghost sends his mind back in time, to when they were first courting - to his parents' disappointment, as she was Chinese - to when he found himself unable to reconnect with his children without her.

That is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of the film - that Masao effectively died with her, and though the timing of it seems meaningful, Yogi doesn't necessarily dive into the parallel, which is a bit of a shame, because there's something gripping about the central idea of how, despite having apparently never moved from the house where he and Grace lived during their short time together, he died in a different country than the one he considered home. Indeed, by choosing to live there, he arguably gave up his first homeland, as his parents would return to Japan without him. This mostly feels like convenient sign-posting, and it's the empty spaces that matter - assume the "present" is roughly Y2K, and there are 40 years left almost completely empty after Grace's death, and another 20 before without much else. Tim Chiou does a nice job of matching Iwamoto during those flashbacks - beyond resemblance, they both seem to play the same way against Constance Wu - and if Kyle Kosaki and Boonyanudh Jiyarom don't quite seem the same, it still kind of works - Masao grew with Grace, and froze without her.

It thus falls to the cast playing Masao's adult children and grandchildren to sell the effects of his inability to be a proper father, whether a son only heard on the phone from the mainland or the folks puttering around as Iwamoto is part of the scenery. It's nice work from all three, too: Nelson Lee does a nice job in showing how Mark finds himself strained as he tries to act on a connection his beliefs say should be natural, while Chanel Akiko Hirai plays the caretaker who best remembers who her father was before the tragedy (with a nice flashback featuring Alexa Bodden showing how she has strived for that connection even when he pushed her away). For Kanoa Goo's Gavin, Masao is almost an abstraction, a way for him to learn a bit more about life outside Honolulu and how life has a decay and end, which he has not yet had to face.

Yogi and cinematographer Eunsoo Cho wrap it up in a fine looking package, embracing digital brightness and sharpness to enhance the tragedy of Masao's weathered face and slumped posture. They find shadows among the bright colors and make darkness especially oppressive even before the world turns red after the eclipse prefigured in one of Grace's paintings. As the film goes on, Yogi has Masao's memories become more dreamlike, with his dog seemingly able to run into a past where, in memory, Grace tells him the future. His life, as it ends, goes from being a string of events to one thing which is linked to other lives in a way which would mystify the outside world.

The end comes, and everyone must make peace with that, even if they don't entirely forgive. Yogi could perhaps have done more with this, but he gets an awful long way on beautiful country, a lived-in face, and a uniformly impressive supporting cast.

Also at eFilmCritic

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

There's a segment early on in Who We Are when Jeffery Robinson tries to have a conversation with a man standing in front of a Confederate statue with a matching flag, and it goes about as well as it can: There's no profanity or violence, but also no visible movement. It's not exactly the film in miniature, but it does make one worry about how much two hours of even the most earnest, well- crafted talk on the subject can be.

It's a talk Robinson has likely given a lot, and the film is built around a lecture on America's history of anti-Black racism given at New York City's Town Hall theater in 2018. That presentation is somewhere between skeleton and meat, as he visits notable sites from just down the street to Selma and Tulsa, both visiting his own history, talking to those keeping the memories of these incidents alive, and occasionally talking to survivors.

This is often grim material that sometimes actively seeks to overwhelm; no matter how much one has learned before now, there's probably some particular incident or document that Robinson mentions that a viewer may not have heard of. Robinson acknowledges that it's a lot, and that even he wasn't fully aware of the full extent of it until relatively recently. There are enough items he could list, even limiting the focus strictly to anti-Black racism as the film does, that it's impressive how well Robinson and directors Emily & Sarah Kunstler pick out pieces that do not always directly follow from the previous segment but form a sort of lattice, the laws and norms which enable intersecting in ever finer ways. The group can't talk about everything, but the parts they do show make one wonder just how anything gets through at times.

That Robinson can be such a charismatic host when having to confront all this both in his own life and as the Deputy Legal Director at the National ACLU is, honestly, beyond my understanding, but I'm grateful for it. He shows a natural ability to connect with an audience that also works well in a one-on-one setting, which I imagine must help in his day job, whether gathering what one needs to build a case or present it. It is, I imagine, a tricky face to present - optimistic would feel dishonest, but the film would be unwatchable if he didn't see a way past the oft-referenced tipping point, even if he does often shift into justified anger.

The Kunstler sisters do a fair job of pulling material together (both direct and produce, while Emily also edits), although it's not necessarily the sort of dynamically-presented documentary that can pull in people who normally only watch narrative features. There's more than a few mid-interview cuts to Robinson nodding along that made one wonder what else they could do to mix a sequence up a little, and bits where Robinson will seemingly come to a place in order to be overcome by emotion, which doesn't feel less than genuine but which also doesn't have the impact of a truly spontaneous reaction. The important thing that they do is balance the field trips with the lecture well, giving a viewer time to let the emotional appeals sink in while Robinson approaches the intellect and vice versa.

This is the point where you wonder if folks like that pro-Confederate protester near the beginning will ever even see it - or, if they do, not have it just completely bounce off them because that worldview becomes a fundamental part of their identity, but I suspect that's not really the hope of the film or the lecture in draws from. The point is to make those who might be persuaded more certain, angry enough to act rather than just disagree. How effective that will be is anybody's guess, but it's well-enough put together to have a shot.

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, May 10, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.03: Holler and We're All Going to the World's Fair

Neither of these movies are really bad at all, although I must admit that my thoughts after each were:

* Dang, Jessica Barden is not an actual teenager? She sure seems just that young.

* Was We're All Going to the World's Fair shot around Yarmouth, ME? Some of the exteriors looked really familiar, but also like the sort of streets you see in any sort of mid-sized town.

Anyway, I feel like both could have been sharper, though I did how Holler was satisfied to make Ruth regular-person smart rather than a genius (unless it was made by a bunch of people who think her doing some basic arithmetic is super-impressive, which has happened). She's not Will Hunting, but bright enough that this would actually make a decent pairing with the previous day's A Reckoning in Boston, stories about how there are probably a lot of smart people out there who just don't get the opportunity. Some of the most intriguing bits are about how everyone, even Ruth, kind of accepts that she's not cut out for anything but what she's got.

As to World's Fair, well, the EFC review is verging on spoiler territory already, so…


I think what made this fall flat for me was that it was really hard to tell for most of the movie whether this is "spooky internet thing having real-world consequences" or "teenagers play-acting online opening themselves up to adult predator", and it never developed tension between the two possibilities. I tend to gravitate toward the non-supernatural version anyway - the whole deal where people thinking outspoken young girls are witches is scarier than young girls being witches - and I think that there's a really good movie to be made about how these unformed teenagers are creating elaborate alter-egos online and earlier generations either don't get it or want to insert themselves into it. But you've got to leave room to play with that, rather than getting to the end and saying "oh, that's what this movie was really about".

It's a shame, because the very end, when they lean into it, with JLB smirking as he makes up a story about how he helped "Casey" a year later, is one of the most believable and genuinely unnerving things in the movie, and it would have been great if were able to get something even close to that level of intensity during the previous 80 minutes.



* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

I wouldn't necessarily have guessed that Holler is filmmaker Nicole Riegel's second go at the material, but it makes sense in retrospect - the story at the center is straightforward, but with a lot more room to explore the world around it, even if she doesn't make things that much more intricate and complicated than you might find in a ten-minute short. It kind of lives right on the line where one might want her to explore certain things further but are also glad they aren't forced, winding up a familiar tale but still fairly satisfying.

It opens with Ruth (Jessica Barden) dashing down the street and hopping into a truck with brother Blaze (Gus Halper); with their mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) in jail because she can't afford rehab and jobs scarce in this small Ohio town, selling scrap to salvage-yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio) is the best way they can make ends meet. It means her attendance at school is lousy, which is a shame, because she's smart enough to get into college, although to make the kind of money where the family could afford that, they're going to have to get a little deeper into Hark's organization, where they raid abandoned factories at night for the copper wire, an order of magnitude more illegal, dangerous, and lucrative than what they've been doing.

The action in Holler probably stretch out over more than a couple weeks or so, but maybe not by that much, and one of its great strengths is that this fairly manageable slice of time means that the filmmakers don't ever feel the need to start from scratch or have anyone undergo a massive change. It lets one get a general idea what it's like to live in this sort of decaying town, and let the cast be generally authentic rather than getting tripped up on too many specifics. Jessica Barden is in nearly every scene and the audience gets to know her Ruth fairly well even without some defining trauma to hang on her, smart and angry enough to push back but just trusting enough under the cynical posturing for betrayals to hurt (and to occasionally believe what people say about her). She and Gus Halper are well enough in sync to come across as siblings without having to do too much to underline it - the script has them in each other's business and they don't oversell - with Halper playing Blaze as maybe not quite as positioned for bigger things as Ruth but not self-martyring about it. Becky Ann Baker doesn't need a lot of explanation as the friend of their mother's who takes an interest, and Austin Amelio finds a level of capable scuzziness that makes Hark dangerous but not obviously villainous.

The downside of it being so slice-of-life is that there are times when it feels like Riegel could dig a lot deeper but the path she's chosen doesn't allow it. There's this big, obvious metaphor in how it seems like the only way to make a buck in this town is to tear everything that American industry left behind up and sell the Chinese; maybe it deserves a movie of its own, but given that the film eventually leans toward "Ruth has what it takes to get out", maybe it deserves a little more. The whole deal with Ruth applying to college is also the part of the story that seems unique enough to maybe be worth digging into her thought process a little - she does everything up to sending her application in, which Blaze does in secret, and she's apparently buying into how college won't teach her anything staying won't until she's not. There's potentially great material in how so many folks in the lower economic classes see higher education as something that, paradoxically, is both corrupting and something they're not worthy of. Heck, at one point it walks right up to her having to convince a teacher that she deserves this and then just skips that scene. The finale similarly has the feel of everything that needs to happen occurring and in the right order, but never actually making this feel inevitable or something only Ruth would think of.

For all those flaws, it's pretty darn good for a first feature. The 16mm cinematography by Dustin Lane looks great, really capturing the windy and gray winter when it takes place, especially when a fair amount of the action takes place at night. The story may be simple, but the pacing is good; time rolls forward at a measured clip but the film never bogs down, and Riegel is good at inserting pieces of other connected lives in a way that gives a fuller picture of what this family is up against without ever pulling away from Ruth. The detail is solid enough that the film can make up in immersion for what it maybe lacks in complexity.

Holler is a well-made movie, although it does make me wonder if it would be better if there were more like it. Only a handful of movies seem to be set in this portion of America each year, compared to the cities and the comfortable suburbs, and if there were more, maybe they would have to dig a little deeper than this one does.

Also at eFilmCritic

We're All Going to the World's Fair

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

There's a great movie to be made about the ground that this one covers, but I'm pretty sure that We're All Going to the World's Fair isn't it. It may be closer than I thought - for as much as I've dabbled in the sort of social-media storytelling that filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is playing with, I've never been that engrossed. It's a younger person's game, after all. Still, I found myself remembering the feeling of watching The Collingswood Story back in 2005 - a prototype for the later "screen life" movies that hadn't quite figured out how to make it work yet - and wondering what the next movie that plays with this hook would do.

It starts out in internet urban legend territory, with teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) taking the "World's Fair Challenge" - saying "I want to go to the World's Fair" three times, offering up a bit of blood, and playing a video with a lot of strobing lights. Others who have taken it have disconnected from reality in some ways - feeling no pain, skin taking on a plasticine consistency, and the like - and Casey promises updates to her followers. One of them, JLB (Michael J Rogers) is older and seems not so much worried about kids playing with the supernatural, but plunging themselves so deeply into viral role-play scenarios that they can't get out.

That's a topic that merits a lot more examination in popular culture than it's getting, and not just in genre cinema - though for all JLB talks about teens, they're not the ones being taken in by QAnon. Even if the movie winds up in "they think it's a game but it's real" territory, that's still a neat hook, but the trouble here is, Schoenbrun doesn't do a whole lot to establish the idea. The "World's Fair" lore presented in the movie isn't built up to the level where it's interesting on its own, especially since the film spends so much of its time with Casey and JLB that there's not much context for what Casey's getting herself into if it's real. Schoenbrun never gives the audience enough that a sudden twist could have an effect, and Casey is an isolated-enough character whose biggest trait is that she likes horror stuff, so the slow burn itself doesn't have that much effect.

That's probably realistic, but there are times when realism isn't necessarily an asset. Anna Cobb and Michael J Rogers are both thoroughly believable in their respective roles, but the characters are enigmas out of necessity - Schoenbrun sometimes seems to be saving any juicy details for a twist that sort of fizzles when it comes - and neither their body language nor the various details add up into much. They seem fairly average, and this sort of horror movie or thriller needs something a bit more out of the ordinary. Everything gets played so straight that the big scene where the audience is supposed to gasp at something impossible in thoroughly grounded footage never actually feels uncanny.

Schoenfeld seems primed to offer something unique at the start, as the film opens with an extended shot from the POV of Casey's webcam, a nifty inversion of those screen life movies that maybe emphasizes things moving from on-line to the real world in a way that the live feeds don't. She seldom does much to follow up on the hints she drops, which is unfortunate, because they individually feel like they could lead to something. The finale gets at something about how teens and adults approach this sort of content on the internet - and each other - that works as a satisfying conclusion but is also frustrating, because she's got something to say here but has spent so much of the film playing coy and half-heartedly feinting toward a more conventional horror movie that it's frustrating that she doesn't just dive right into this stuff earlier.

At least, that's how it hit my middle-aged eyes; it's entirely possible that a teenager more immersed in this stuff is going to see it more clearly. Even if they do, I still wonder whether there's enough meat on the movie's bones to actually pull a viewer in and actually make them scared of anything going on.

Also at eFilmCritic

Sunday, May 09, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.02: The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet and A Reckoning in Boston

Is it just me, or is anyone else watching Brian Tamm's intro to these movies, especially the ones labeled "Generic Somerville" or "Generic Brattle", and seeing if they map to where they think the films in question would play during an in-person festival? For instance, I could absolutely see The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet playing the Brattle, while you head back to Somerville for A Reckoning in Boston. Maybe not scheduled for screen #1, but one of the odd-numbered side-screens, at least until a bunch of people with some connection to the production show up and are standing in the rush line, and it eventually moves up.

There'd also be a filmmaker Q&A that results in me having to use the "horrible photography" tag and gets into enough issues for long enough that I eventually have a hard time separating what was part of the film and what wasn't for the review, but not this year. Maybe in 2022.

Anyway, this is getting too late for these two to still be available via the festival site, but I'm A Reckoning in Boston will be on PBS later this year, and hopefully some streaming service or three will pick up The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet. It's odd and slight enough to disappear outside its home territory of Argentina, but as I say in the review, I'm impressed with its attitude toward randomness and chance. We're not wired to handle that particularly well as a species, from imagining gods to personify forces of nature to looking for scapegoats, and I often find the phrase "everything happens for a reason" kind of horrifying when it's meant to give comfort, whether it makes people think there was something they could have done to not deserved misfortune or that some jerk deity is being cruel to toughen you up for later. It's not healthy to think that way, but human brains are pattern-recognition machines, so it's awful hard not to.

Reckoning takes the other side - that there are reasons for the challenges Kafi and Carl face, a system designed to help those already with an advantage (maybe they have what they do "for a reason"), but in a way, that makes it the yin to Dog's yang - some things are random and some are part of a pattern, and being able to distinguish the two and act appropriately is one of the most valuable skills one can have.

El perro que no calla (The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet has maybe the strangest mid-film detour I can recall, surprising me as I watched it although I'll bet that two-weeks-ago me put this film on the schedule because the description hinted at it. Even before that, it's a movie that's as amiably eccentric as its title, well worth a look before it finds the most peculiar way it can to tell what could be a fairly conventional story.

The dog, Rita, doesn't seem particularly difficult as the audience meets her, but that's because her person, Sebastian (Daniel Katz) is home; apparently she whines non-stop when he's at work, to the point where the neighbors gather to complain. He tries taking her to work, and though Rita is well-behaved, it's apparently one of those offices afraid that anything out of the ordinary will be a slippery slope to chaos. So he's soon taking a job on a farm, with plenty of room for Rita to run. But that doesn't last, sending Sebas on other stops, until he sees a woman (Julieta Zylberberg) at his mother's wedding, also dancing by herself on the other side of the floor. They connect, and then…

Well, you've got to see what happens next to maybe believe it, but up until then, it's a well-above average guy-looking-for-his-place sort of movie. A big part of why it works so well is that star Daniel Katz plays Sebas remarkably straight-down-the-middle, even in the early scenes where he's sort of playing a straight man against the petty folks who have a problem with his dog. There's something a bit introverted and isolated about him, even when he's happy, but seldom with an abrasive sense of superiority. It's a performance built out of how he carries himself rather than what he does or says (and he doesn't really say a lot), and is especially complemented by Julieta Zylberberg and Valeria Lois, the former often a female reflection while Lois is the sort of confident, well-integrated-into-her-space mother that makes someone like Sebas seem a bit more uncertain.

As generally likable as Sebastian is, filmmaker Ana Katz recognizes that seeing him quietly be somewhat dissatisfied and move on could wear on an audience if drawn out too long, so not only does she keep the film itself short (a tight 73 minutes), but she makes sure that no individual segment ever wears out its welcome, telling a little vignette and then jumping on to the next stop, giving them just enough time to have meaning but to also let them be transitory. The crisp black-and-white photography proves flexible enough to reflect her main character's moods - almost always feeling a little gray and overcast, not at home among the office's harsh fluorescents, finding some quiet warmth in agriculture. There are a few animated segments which feel like how Sebas would process major shifts in addition to probably covering things this small picture doesn't have an effects budget for - though the production gets impressively creative when things take a weird twist in the last act.

Some may check out at the last act twist that literally comes out of nowhere, but I must admit to being impressed at just how thoroughly the filmmakers embrace that randomness as a theme. Sebastian might have been on the road to a predictable life had his neighbors not had a problem with his dog, but that sends him in a new direction, as does everything from what happens at the farm to meeting a girl to just helping give a stalled truck a push. But chance is not entirely something that happens to individuals; sometimes it's massive and completely unpredictable, a world-changing event that is absolutely an unfair thing for a screenwriter to drop into a script, but those things happen, arguably with increasing frequency, and they're not always timed to be what starts a story.

Those seeing this movie at a virtual film festival in 2021 don't need to be reminded of that, of course, although I'm curious about just when Ana Katz and her collaborators came up with this idea and shot it, just in terms of whether it's reflecting the world or the world is validating its thesis. Either way, there's insight to its oddity, and even the events before the big one are a fascinating way to treat chance as a real part of our lives beyond just chalking things up to fate or finding them cute and quirky.

Also at eFilmCritic

A Reckoning in Boston

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

The title of A Reckoning in Boston suggests a confrontation with a somewhat definitive finale, but I don't know that anything has particularly changed in the city. In some ways, filmmaker James Rutenbeck gets caught between scales here, but then, that's where a lot of stories end up, especially when they involve race or poverty - it's not hard to see the large forces at work, but most stories are going to be about surviving them rather than bringing them down.

Filmmaker James Rutenbeck has been in the business for around 30 years, settling in the Boston area, and has taken to teaching "Clemente Courses" in the neighborhood of Dorchester. That's a program designed to give inner-city adults exposure to the humanities that they might not have received before. Two Black students in particular catch his attention - or at least agree to be filmed - in 2015: Kafi Dixon, a bus driver for the MBTA with a growing interest in urban farming, and Carl Chandler, caring for grandson Yadiel while his daughters concentrate on their education.

Kafi's story is the one most clearly entwined with the larger issues Rutenbeck points out early on - she's a state employee facing eviction and also working so that other women in the city can be more self-sufficient, but empty real estate is increasingly previous in Boston, and developers certainly have their eye on the parcel where Kafi has started her first farm. Rutenbeck points out that of the thousands of mortgage loans made as working-class neighborhoods gentrify and the Seaport is just developed out of whole cloth, only a trivial number are going to Black families. She doesn't feel that she's being taken seriously as she talks to people in city offices trying to make her farm official. Rutenbeck's empathy is clear, and though he makes a certain amount of effort to be invisible, he recognizes that this is impossible; having a white man with a camera in the room, even potentially, changes the environment, and he's not shy about expressing anger at how much this is the case.

Carl, meanwhile, is seldom in the middle of confrontations as dramatic as Kafi, which means they spend a little more time focused on his time in class, and the viewer quickly gets an idea of just how sharp he is, at one point spotting a hierarchy in ancient Egyptian art while his classmates are still seeing more surface-level properties. As with Kafi, one quickly gets a sense of much the filmmakers like and respect him, but it also highlights the extent to which one can find brains almost anywhere, but folks like Carl and Kafi don't get the same sort of encouragement when young and don't have the opportunities to climb out of a hole the way white people with just a little more money do.

There are moments when a viewer might suspect that Rutenbeck might have started out making a movie about the Clemente Courses program itself, and how studying philosophy and art can be just as valuable as the job-training programs that often seem more directly practical, if only because it gives one a better understanding of the big picture, as the reading is often used for transitions, and there's talk of economics and the city's racist history around busing. There are plenty of related stories that might be more dramatic, but Rutenbeck makes the choice to center Carl and Kafi whenever possible, making sure that when he includes himself or something more abstract, it's in a way that speaks about them, rather than positioning the teachers as saviors.

Has Boston particularly changed in the six years since production started? It doesn't seem that way; what reckonings have occurred have been more or less at the individual level. Not everybody is necessarily going to have the sort of determination Kafi and Carl show, although it certainly suggests that the right mindset and set of tools can make a big difference.

Also at eFilmCritic

Saturday, May 08, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.01: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Thursday was opening night of Independent Film Festival Boston 2021, and since we couldn't be there in person, here's a little bit of IFFBoston Opening Night goodness:

We all miss this, and I hope to see a full set by Jon Bernhardt before the opening night of IFFBoston 2022.

Anyway, to continue the musical theme, Summer of Soul is a pretty darn fun movie, and while I don't know that there's a lot of time to see it even if you're reading it right as I post - it came online for 48 hours at 7pm Thursday and I don't know whether that's 48 hours to start or finish - it will be on Hulu come 2 July, and I wouldn't be shocked if Searchlight gave it a day-and-date or week-early release. Hopefully that means Disney+ Star outside the USA and a soundtrack album.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Summer of Soul isn't quite a concert film, but it's hard to blame director Ahmir-Khalib "Questlove" Thompson for never wanting to stop the music: The raw material is a treasure trove of great performances not seen in fifty years, and more often than not, they say just as much on their own as anybody talking about them later might. The trick, which Questlove, editor Joshua L. Pearson, and the rest of the crew pull off nicely, is to insert just enough present-day reminiscences to give a little bit of context without slowing the party down.

The party in question was the Harlem Cultural Festival, six concerts that took place in Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969. The country in general and black community in particular was a powder keg, and the city of New York wanted something to defuse the nervous energy in Harlem. Enter producer and emcee Tony Lawrence, who aside from being a charismatic host on stage also had the knack for convincing agents and labels that they should send their stars because they were also negotiating with someone else, leading to a lineup that had everyone from Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson to Nina Simone. The Black Panther Party would provide security, 300,000 people would attend, and it would all be filmed - but nobody at the time was interested in the rights to "Black Woodstock".

I don't doubt that Questlove could have gone through the film, found two hours worth of great performance, and let it be, making for a solid film - and if the producers can get a soundtrack album out, it will likely be a great one to listen to. That's close to what he does, rather than make the shows a climax in a film mostly focused on the challenges of putting on an event such as this, but they're interrupted with voiceover just enough to underscore the point that this is a movie about the event, rather than just a recording of it. He and his team will generally let a song play in its entirety, but the whole event is compacted to seem like a single event, although the various themes of the different concerts (which, from the occasional glimpses of the advertising, seem to be presented in roughly chronological fashion) allow the film to have rough chapters - pop, blues, gospel, Spanish Harlem, more direct African influences.

It is by nature an overview, but a useful one; it is easy for those of us who are outsiders to the Black community, and I suspect even for those who are part of it but mostly familiar with their favorite contemporary music, to see all of this as one thing evolving, but Questlove picks performances and occasional bits of interview material to show how this is sometimes the case - Mavis Staples talks about how she didn't realize that her father was playing blues riffs until they were touring - but also how even what was popular in one summer covered a lot of ground. Audiences may be surprised by some of this,especially the gospel section, where what is often presented as dignified and maybe a bit watered-down has more than a bit of the revival tent and spiritual possession to it, but it strikes a balance by showing that even in this one summer, fifty years ago, Black culture had already started to grow in many different directions from the same roots, doubling back and intermingling with other traditions.

You can see that just looking at what's on stage - and just in terms of being a fun movie to look at, the colorful backdrops hold up pretty well for being of the period and the original footage looks great, whether restored or preserved - and Questlove proves the have the knack for both choosing interesting interview subjects and getting them to chat until something interesting and conversational to come out. Early on, it's fun to watch Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo start out delighted to see this footage even if they cringe at their old outfits but move on to talking about how they were perceived as a white-sounding band and thus were more proud to be asked to play in Harlem. Later, he'll talk to Jesse Jackson about the overlap between music, religion, and the civil rights movement, discuss the change in language from "Negro" to "Black" that was going on at the time, , and give audiences an opening to think about how Black Americans are not really of Africa but are often keen to explore those roots.

It is not, by any means, a deep dive into any of those subjects, but it's less shallow than it may seem - by grounding the film in music, Questlove is able to use a lot of musical techniques, where a quote or a reference can serve as powerful shorthand and a contrast between music and lyrics can hint at a middle ground without minimizing the extremes. It makes Summer of Soul a movie that manages to cover a lot of ground even within a small window of time and space.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, May 07, 2021

Chinese Double Feature: Home Sweet Home and Cliff Walker

So, this is the double feature that gets me to add "dumb 'crime does not pay' epilogues" to the tags. It's a particularly goofy pair:


… one where I nearly yelled out "come on, of all people, she's the one where you make sure that the audience knows she spent some time in jail? That was a completely justified stabbing!" in the theater, and one "some time later, the bad guy in a war movie gets garotted because there must be justice rather than chaos". It's gratuitous in both cases, and almost undercuts the purpose, vindictive as much as just.


It's kind of a bummer that it took me a while to get the write-up on Sunday's double feature done, because it was long enough for Home Sweet Home to leave Boston Common after just a week. I initially liked it more than Cliff Walkers, but what can you do; Zhang Yimou is a bigger name than Chen Leste, to the point where he's not just bringing in the Chinese-language audience. Cliff Walkers actually had a pretty good crowd for the pandemic, and I wasn't even the only non-Asian person there.

On the other hand, having a couple days to let the movies turn over in my head did lead me to like them a bit more. They're both kind of messy in certain ways, but I'm not entirely sure that Zhang wasn't doing that on purpose. Chen's movie may have big structural problems, but I've been seeing people talk lately about folks not being able to properly mourn for a while, and even beyond that, there's something maybe a little subversive about the way it plays with how the pressure to be part of a traditional nuclear family can be toxic. As Harris Dang said on Twitter, the last act is Twists Ahoy, but it's not like they're entirely twists for the sake of jolts - they reveal what the movie is about, to the point where I wish they'd happened earlier so it could spend some more time being about that, so to speak.

Finally, in the "only a problem for film writers" category, the director, star, and main character of Cliff Walkers all have the surname "Zhang", and while I get the impression that it's not uncommon to refer to people by their full three-syllable name in Chinese dialects, it sounds kind of weird in English! Hopefully I didn't have to contort too much to make it work.

Mi Mi Fang Ke (Home Sweet Home)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

The sheer amount of "wait, what?" at the back end of Home Sweet Home isn't quite enough to fritter away all the nasty vibes and tension it starts with, but there's a short stretch where it seems to be trying its best. It winds up a case of twist overload, a movie whose makers don't seem to recognize that what's going on up front is far more exciting and resonant than what's hiding behind it as they pull the rug out from under the audience.

After opening in the immediate aftermath of a horrific school bus accident, it soon jumps several years forward, with the bus's driver Yu Kunqiao (Duan Yihong) having spent the intervening time hiding in the basement of the Wang family, barely able to remember the incident thanks to his own head injury and afraid to face China's harsh punishment for his part in an incident that left so many school children dead. Even without harboring a fugitive, the family seems increasingly frayed: Wealthy Mr. Wang (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing) is controlling, Mrs. Kwok (Tiffany Hsu Wei-Ning) wants a divorce, daughter Chutong (Zhang Zifeng) is at an awkward, rebellious age - she prefers sketching and having Kunqiao critique her work over her mandated piano lessons - and son Chuqi (Rong Zishan) still walks with a limp from being the only kid to survive the crash. They are the very image of a picture-perfect life that is about to explode, and Kunqiao apparently isn't the only secret.

Some thrillers like to start out with a seemingly serene status quo, but writer Shu Qiao and director Chen Leste - who recently collaborated on TV series A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower - opt to start dropping bombs early, and if it looks clear that Kungqiao's fuzzy memories of the accident are awful convenient for Mr. Wang (and probably a greater reason for the lack of a TV in the house than his desire to keep the kids focused on their education), that's fine. A Chinese thriller is seldom going to turn on whether or not someone gets away with a crime, and the audience knows that, but the inevitability of the end lets the filmmakers take a perverse glee in surveying the rot. Mrs. Wang prepares beautiful dinners that nobody ever seems to actually enjoy, the scene of her skinning a duck as much a reminder of how riches come through ruthlessness as the disturbing photograph above the piano Chutong plays. The kids are more sympathetic than the adults, but not exempt, often lashing out with their own sort of cruelty. It's a portrait of a tremendously unhappy family that will fight any member's attempt to ease their own misery.

Not having to keep their resentments hidden often pays dividends for the impressive cast. Consider Aaron Kwok as the patriarch of this messed-up family, giving a skin-crawling performance that doesn't really need a lot of nuance, but which is all the more enjoyable for how readily one can hiss even as one can occasionally see where Mr. Wang is coming from. It's just one of several that let the audience savor their messed-up but kind of consistent values, with Tiffany Hsu especially doing entertaining work as someone who comes off as shallow and materialistic but isn't exactly unsympathetic at any point. What's perhaps surprising is how thoroughly Zhang Zifeng winds up taking the film's center as Chutong even though the story is built around Duan Yihong's Kunqiao; though natural parallels in breeding to escape this toxic environment, it weighs a bit more heavily on Chutong, who doesn't have an easy feeling if guilt to fall back on so much as the growing unease at what she's part of. It's potentially a lot to drop on a young actress, but Zhang is more than up for it, giving a performance that works with the story but always seems real, rather than one thing hiding another, which makes sense for the character.

That qualifier gets at what makes the movie frustrating, though: For the most part, this movie is far more fun to just watch in the moment than to look back at, reconsidering with more information. Wang's plan is complex to the point where revealing it takes much more effort than just pulling back a curtain, and it's a major stumbling block. Maybe if the powder keg had gone off earlier, the second half would be more fun, but instead it's just a ton of people saying what really went on. It doesn't exactly throw away the rest of the movie, but does make it into a little more work and a little less grand melodrama when it feels like things should be going the other way.

That said, the ideas behind it are good enough to turn over in one's brain even if there's some immediate discontent coming out of the theater. It's not a perfect thriller or one that lives up to its early potential, but it lingers a bit and works enough in the moment for a watch.

Also at eFilmCritic

Xuan ya zhi shang (Cliff Walkers aka Impasse)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)

Cliff Walkers at times feels less like a movie and more like a TV series that has gone on a year too long, to the point where it has needed to switch in new cast members for departing stars, given audience favorites in small roles more to do, and kind of lost the main plot, all in just over two hours. That it's not actually stretched over two years keeps it from truly being a drag, at least, especially since filmmaker Zhang Yimou seldom puts in less than a full effort, even when you suspect he's doing a movie to get back in the good graces of the powers that be after doing something a little too controversial, to the point where it's easy to second-guess any disappointment.

Here, he parachutes the audience and his characters into 1930s Manchukuo, a puppet state in Northeastern China controlled by Japan. Their goal: To reach Harbin and extract Wang Ziyang, the only survivor of a prison-camp purge. The team: Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), a former reporter and their leader; Yu Wang (Qin Hailu), his wife, like him as concerned with the children they left behind when they fled Harbin years ago as the mission; Chuliang (Zhu Yawen), a loyal soldier; and Xioalan (Liu Haocun), young and inexperienced but with a gift for cryptology. Zhang wisely splits them into teams of two - him and XIaolan on one with Yu and Chuliang on the other - only for both to wander into traps that Section Chief Gao Bin (Ni Dahong) has set after getting wind of their arrival from a traitor. Even if the team sees that their supposed allies (Yu Hewei, Yu Ailei, Zhou Xiaofan) are fakes, can they extricate themselves before Gao decides there's no point in keeping them alive?

Gao Bin is far enough ahead of Zhang at the start that the stated mission that it would be easy to forget what Zhang's team is there for if someone didn't occasionally mention it in conversation, and it's occasionally frustrating, especially if one bought a ticket looking for a straightforward bit of action. Co-writer-/director Zhang Yimou seems to get caught up in details and side tracks, although a clear alternate purpose eventually resolves: The film is an exploration of just how stressful and potentially deadly the paranoid head game that being a spy entails. There's a fair stretch of the film where one expects some sort of mini-resolution so that everyone can move on to Step 2 or Plan B, but instead things keep getting even messier and more hurry-up-and-wait, but there's at least enough intrigue to keep it going.

It becomes a bit unbalanced; the apparent core four are so out of their depth and closely-watched that there aren't a lot of chances to really impress - Qin Hailu and Zhu Yawen, in particular, have to be so stone-faced that they don't even get much chance to do fun things at the corners, and the split of the teams keeps the two halves of the film's couples apart. There's more interest to be found in the pairing of Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun as the most and least experienced in the group, Zhang's uncertainty that Xiaolan is up for what needs to be done isn't quite upended by how sharp the sweet girl can be, but I suspect many would like to see a version of the film that centers Xiaolan more, and not just because Liu looks to be the latest in a series of Zhang Yimou muses that includes Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, already filming her third collaboration with the director. On the other side, Ni Dahong gives the sort of performance as the villain that makes one wonder how easily a smart, capable person can fall into that role, and has a nice group around him, though I wouldn't dare spoil which of Yu Hewei, Zhou Xiaofan, and Yu Ailei are playing competent, hapless, and treacherous.

And, as per usual with Zhang Yimou, the film is gorgeous, not quite so stylized as Shadow but still having a lot of fun putting dark clothes on snowy landscapes, giving people cool hats to cut a sharper silhouette, and throwing 1930s neon in for some variety. The action is staged right as well, messy and with no middle ground between quick and lingering ugliness, even when everything hits a climax and the set-pieces get bigger. Gunshots are deafening and headlights blindingly bright, accentuating both danger and what revolutionaries must become to face it.

It doesn't quite peter out, but it's eventually swallowed up by its machinations, not quite the twisty thriller it's sold as or truly exciting when one realizes it's something else. Still, it's hard not to give a filmmaker as accomplished as Zhang Yimou the benefit of the doubt; he spends enough moments pointedly noting poison pills that one wonders if that's what he's figuratively giving people here: Cliff Walkers looks like a story of heroic Communist agents on a mission, but becomes a story of the stress and self-destruction of living in even a gilded surveillance state - and the fact that it's hard to know how willing the director is to bite the hand that feeds him at this stage of his career doesn't exactly work against that reading.

Also at eFilmCritic