Friday, July 30, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 July 2021 - 6 August 2021

All right! Fantasia opens this coming Thursday aaaaaand the border's not open yet and there's only an average of one in-person event a day and I don't want to be in a bus for 8 hours to get there.

Ah, well. Some stuff that's been on the shelf a year opens and may be fun!
  • The best will probably be The Green Knight, with Dev Patel as King Arthur's nephew Sir Gawain on a rash quest to confront the knight of the title. David Lowery directs, and by all accounts the guy behind Pete's Dragon, A Ghost Story, and The Old Man and the Gun hits the spot again. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre (including a Sunday afternoon Masked Matinee), Fresh Pond, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, and South Bay.

    The Coolidge also picks up Pig to (mostly) play on the GoldScreen, although it gets the big room on Friday and Saturday night for those who would like to pair it with the last of the month's midnight alien invasions, Attack the Block on 35mm. Monday's Big Screen Classic, Mulholland Drive, is also on 35mm, and if you want a slightly different version of Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail plays on film Thursday.
  • If I recall correctly, Disney's Jungle Cruise was one of the first movies to get kicked forward an entire year last summer, and it finally arrives, with Jaume Collet-Serra directing Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson as mismatched partners seeking the Tree of Life in the middle of the Amazon. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Fenway (including 3D at 11:30am), South Bay (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Lexington, West Newton, Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill get Stillwater, with Matt Damon as a blue-collar American who comes to France to visit his estranged daughter, accused of murder.

    Documentary All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip-Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) plays Arsenal Yards on Wednesday evening. Wonder what it's about.
  • Boston Common has import Chinese Doctors with Andrew Lau reteaming with star Zhang Hanyu as another local hero, this time as one of the first physicians dealing with Covid-19 in Wuhan.

    Telugu-language movie Thimmarusu: Assignment Vali gets one screening a day at Arsenal Yards through Wednesday. Also opening in Telugu at Apple Fresh Pond is Ishq: Not Another Love Story, starring Sajja Teja and Priya Prakash Varrier.

    There's also a Wednesday night screening of Blackpink: The Movie, looking at five years of the K-Pop sensation, at Boston Common and Fenway.
  • The Brattle Theatre has yet more of "Some of the Best of 2020", including Sound of Metal (Friday/Saturday), Son of the White Mare (Friday/Saturday), In the Mood for Love (Saturday/Sunday), Ham on Rye (Sunday), Ghost Tropic (Monday), Vitalina Varela (Wednesday), and Fire Will Come (Thursday). The Tuesday "Movie Movies" show is The Spirit of the Beehive.

    Their virtual space (The Brattlite) picks up the latest offering from Grrl Haus Cinema, giving folks at least a week to see their latest group of shorts, this one focusing on Berlin-area filmmakers, rather than just the usual one slot. It plays alongside Summertime, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, Witches of the Orient, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, and Sweet Thing.
  • Boston Jewish Film continues their "Summer Cinematheque" series, with Love It Was Not available online through Tuesday (with pre-recorded Q&A). There's also a special outdoor screening of The Band's Visit at the Lyman Estate in Waltham on Wednesday, with live music to kick the evening off.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open all week with Jungle Cruise, Stillwater, Roadrunner, Space Jam 2, Summer of Soul, and In the Heights. The Lexington Venue is open Friday to Sunday with Roadrunner and Summer of Soul, and Stillwater.
  • Cinema Salem turns all three screens over for their Friday to Monday schedule, picking up Jungle Cruise, The Green Knight, and Summer of Soul. The Friday late show is Czech cult classic Daisies.
  • The Somerville Theatre, The Harvard Film Archive, and Embassy Cinema are still waiting for new opening dates, and I kind of wonder what the hold-up is for the latter - is Waltham super-locked down, does Landmark figure the audience isn't there, or are they trying to sell the building? Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • This week's outdoor SomerMovieFest show is at the East Somerville School, with Coco playing. The Joe's Free Films calendar remains otherwise barren.
I'm finally catching Sound of Metal Friday night, will go for the 3D matinee of Jungle Cruise Saturday morning, and will probably go for The Green Knight at the Coolidge. There's some catch-up around that, but I've also got a 70-line spreadsheet of Fantasia screeners to get started with!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Brotherhood of Blades x2

Back a couple months ago, I wondered if Lu Yang's Brotherhood of Blades movies were so big and great that he got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with A Writer's Odyssey, because it sure felt like the sort of thing where producers were almost afraid to say "no" to whatever he asked for, and it turned out to be a relatively easy thing to find out, since Well Go has the rights for both and put discs out. I went with the import on the second, though, because why not encourage Panorama and other Hong Kong distributors to go the 4K route whenever possible? It's a nice-looking disc, although it's kind of funny: This is one of those movies with a lot of black costumes with detailed embossing that even a good Blu-ray can mess up, so it benefits from the format, but it also highlights just that scheme can feel simultaneously slick and boring.

I don't know how well these two did at the box office, beyond the first apparently being enough of a hit to get the second a budget upgrade, but you can sort of see why some folks might see Lu Yang as the next big thing or ready to break out, both domestically and internationally - as much as I've seen Shaw Brothers-style period action given more contemporary coats of paint over the past couple of decades, Lu and co-writer Chen Shu bring in some international genre sensibilities without making the movies seem less Chinese.

One thing that's interesting is that in doing this, he seems to be pushing what the censors will allow a bit; Shen's a far more corrupt hero than these movies often present, even when taking place in the past when you can at least use the excuse that the Ming Dynasty was corrupt. It's interesting, though, that the second movie explicitly references free speech and censorship as something tyrants do. Not that that sort of hypocrisy is unusual, but it's interesting that it's a theme that Lu would return to in Odyssey, that artists can be literally dangerous to authorities.

Interesting enough to keep an eye on, at least.

Xiu chun dao (Brotherhood of Blades)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-Ray)

A Shaw Brothers-style story told in thoroughly modern fashion, Brotherhood of Blades isn't the most intricate thriller of the most astounding kung fu, but it's an entertaining middle ground for those who enjoy the genre a bit of martial-arts action but can't get into the rhythms or cultural specifics of those movies. Filmmaker Lu Yang delivers some solid wuxia action, even if one is not inclined to learn terms like "wuxia".

As it opens in 1627, Emperor Chongzhen (Ye Xiangming) has recently ascended to the throne, and his first action is to send the Imperial Assassins after Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh), whose "Eunuch's Clique" had effective control of the court under Chongzhen's predecessor. After the team of Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan), Shen Lian (Chang Chen), and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li Dong-Xue) successfully eliminates one crony, they are sent after Wei himself, in part because, as secret police leader Han Kuang (Zhao Lixin) points out, they are too low in status to have been a target for corruption. But, of course, everyone in the capital has an agenda that the rich and influential Wei and those who oppose him can influence, including the assassins - Lu is angling for a promotion, Shen would like to buy the freedom of courtesan Zhou Miaotong (Cecilia Liu Shishi), and Jin is being blackmailed by Ding Xiu (Zhou Yiwei) about his criminal past - while all the scheming going on above them is certain to render them loose ends to be eliminated.

The script by Lu and co-writer Chen Shu is maybe not entirely efficient - looked at as a whole, it certainly has a fair amount of elements that the movie doesn't exactly need - but it's impressively well-balanced. The main trio, by and large, are all able to have their own things going on without one completely taking center stage at the expense of the others, the conspiracy has enough going on to be interesting without pushing the heroes off to the side, and the spots where things circle back around to link up don't feel cheap. As director, he keeps all of that moving at a comfortable clip and makes the climax satisfying, although it could maybe do without the one last action sequence, a classic "let's take the last fight away from the rest of the movie's context" deal.

That said, it's a pretty good fight, and by and large action director Sang Lin does nice work as he works with Lu to stage the action. With the assassins established early on as an elite force and not much room in the story for other characters beyond Wei's bodyguard (Zhu Dan) to be especially great at martial arts, they mostly go for "throw a small army at these three guys" and it by and large works; everyone seems to be able to handle a sword well enough to keep it moving and it keeps dogpiling to a minimum. Lu uses hails of arrows the way a more modern movie might use automatic weapons fire, but still has fun giving characters different weapons and seeing how they match up against each other.

He and his cast also hit on the right sort of gritty amorality to make the film feel hit differently from a Hong Kong period action movie (often about legends) or the typical Mainland one (where the characters often map to specific modern types and approved attitudes). Chang Chen, in particular, feels comfortable letting the audience see Shen Lian as a piece of work, seemingly more comfortable as an assassin than the soldier or cop he and the crew are also expected to be, with some cruelty in his introduction and later aloofness. Li Dong-Xue and Wang Qianyuan have a little of that too, but Jin gets to play romantic while Lu is frustrated by the everyday corruption necessary to get ahead. King Shih-Chieh is clearly having a ball as Wei, a villain with nothing left to lose as the walls close in, while Zhao Lixin, Nie Yuan, Zhou Yiwei, and others create an enjoyable snake pit.

There's a dirty cops versus grandly corrupt officials vibe to it, and that turns out to be a good way into this material, probably even more so if the typical Chinese palace/temple intrigue leaves one cold or confused. It may not have the best twists or the best swordplay, but it does everything it attempts wee enough to make for an entertaining couple hours.

Also at eFilmCritic

Xiu chun dao II: xiu luo zhan chang (Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-Ray)

What's a filmmaker to do when a movie leaves the bulk of its characters dead at the end but performs well enough that the studio wants a sequel? They can try surrounding any survivors with new characters and see how that works, or do a prequel, or what's been increasingly popular in Hong Kong lately and just say the movie with a number after it is the same filmmakers and actors getting together to do the same sort of movie again, all valid ways of giving the audience more of that thing they enjoyed. For his follow-up to Brotherhood of Blades, filmmaker Lu Yang seems to be doing all three, and it makes for a more muddled, less invigorating take on the genre than its predecessor, even if there's still some fun to be had.

It opens in 1619 as Han soldier Shen Lian (Chang Chen) crawls out from under the corpses of those slain at one of the many battles at Sarhu, soon rescuing some of his comrades about to be executed by the Manchus. One of them, Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi) looks at the carnage and despairs of finding another way to live. Eight years later, Lu is a commander of the palace guards and Shen a captain, the sort that's not quite corrupt enough to get ahead in the same way as Lieutenant Ling Yunkai (Jiang Wu), a nephew of the powerful eunuch lord Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh). Given a bonus that doesn't sit well, he spends it on some work being sold by a local monk on behalf of talented artist Bei Zhai, only to be sent to arrest the artist (now considered seditious) with Ling. When he's shocked to see that the only person at Bei's house is the girl (Yang Mi) who offered him an umbrella to keep the painting dry, he causes the whole thing to go sideways, and soon he is being partnered with shrewd detective Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin) to investigate the case on the one hand and blackmailed by swordswoman Master Ding (Xin Zhilei) to burn the Guards' archives. Is he a pawn in the plans of Wei, whose influence will likely wane with a new Emperor, or the prince (Yuan Wen-Kang) who nevertheless fears Wei's power?

One might be forgiven for not being sure that this is the same Shen Lian, given that this movie would seem to rewrite his backstory and features none of the other characters with whom he formed a tight-knit unit in the other film, and it sometimes seems that Chang Chen isn't quite sure what to do with what Lu and returning co-writer Chen Shu have given him. He gives Shen the same sort of weighted-down body language as before but never really figures out how to make it work with the broad streak of idealism that the story necessitates. He's a lot more interesting playing off Lei Jiayin than Yang Mi; Lei plays Pei Lun as a smart detective who enjoys seeing people squirm, while Yang Mi seldom gets to let the same sort of strong idealism guide her performance, mostly playing the vertex of a love triangle where she's never actually seen with her original partner.

The plot's a messier situation Shen faced in the first movie, although never quite so immediate, with so much happening above his pay grade while he's basically forced to be a better survivor than the schemers realize. Shen's closer to an honest cop in a dirty department than a dirty cop with some scruples here, and even with all the double-crosses and massive conspiracies going on (including a moment or two where the filmmakers do a surprisingly good job of making the trope of a character remembering something he saw on TV earlier in the film work in Eighteenth Century China), they still run out of twists fairly early, with the good guys on the run for long enough to draw things out until the big fight.

And if that finale with a rope bridge rickety enough that the horses want no part of it and a bunch of people with swords doesn't exactly go full Temple of Doom, it is nevertheless a bloody good time. The budget seems to be a bit higher this time around (the title cards certainly show more companies contributing to it!), and while some goes to things that are only superficially more impressive - the leather costumes manage to get blacker and slicker - Lu and action director Sang Lin often seem to have a little more room to work this time around. There are more close-in confrontations that let Chang Chen and Xin Zhilei, among others, confront each other without a lot of cutting or getting lost in hordes - although when there is a horde, the filmmakers do a nice job of highlighting the sensation of sort of force about to crush you, even if you're as good at fighting as Shen.

Brotherhood of Blades 2 has the same basic formula as the first, half sword wuxia and half cops & corruption, but where that film seemed to have the right half of each, this one brings a little more of the genres' weaknesses along. It's still an interesting mix of influences, especially if you decide not to worry about how it fits with its predecessor.

Also at eFilmCritic

Saturday, July 24, 2021

First Cow

Back in early March 2020, the Harvard Film Archive had a preview of First Cow with the director present, or at least had it scheduled, and as I noted in the "Next Week" post at the time, I would miss it because I was going on vacation, but I figured that was okay, it would be opening in a number of places the week after, but by the time I got home, movie theaters weren't really a thing and wouldn't be for another five months, and I wouldn't wind up seeing it until almost another year after that.

I probably could have seen it on some VOD service or other, but it wound up especially out-of-sight, out-of-mind as distributor A24 seemed especially reluctant to embrace that at the time, and I'm glad I waited until it played the Brattle this weekend to catch up. As I mention in the eFilmCritic review, it's the other sort of film where a theatrical viewing is especially beneficial. It requires concentration, and aims to draw you into a world that is counter to the various LEDs and other objects which surround your television. Everything in and around your home is louder than this movie in some way, and seeing it in a theater helps to combat that.

On top of that, this film kind of demands quality projection. Seeing it in just any theater doesn't guarantee that - recall the complaints about Solo being too dim a couple years back - but if you know the good places, you'll get a better experience out of it. I haven't watched as much streaming content as many over the past year, and part of the reason why is that I've been so spoiled by theatrical and even 4K discs that I got frustrated by the presentation; I saw a couple of festival films where I legitimately couldn't decide whether the pixilation was an artistic choice or just compression not handling blacks well. First Cow has a lot of scenes that take place at night, and they looked great on the Brattle's screen. I can't imagine how it would have looked streaming, especially on something like the platform the Coolidge used for its virtual cinema (glad to have it, but the compression was not great).

That said: I purchased this on 4K streaming because Prime has it for $4.50 right now, which is about a quarter of the Blu-ray's cost and it's not like this will get an UltraHD disc. Still, my Roku maxes out at 12Mbps, which is less than what a regular Blu-ray has for throughput, let alone the 4K disc. With a picture like this, it matters. I also tried to watch it during the daytime, and night scenes were invisible. I could turn the brightness up, but would that mess up the daytime scenes? Would I forget to turn it back and make the next thing I watch look terrible? Honestly, I'm glad I could trust the folks at the Brattle to get it right. After all, I'd hate to have my main problem with this movie be frustration with presentation.

Oh, and as an aside: I don't know if it's right to say that I love the way that these filmmakers take a head injury and concussions seriously, but the way this movies last act involves someone being seriously debilitated by a fall in a ravine that almost every other movie character literally shakes off is something. It's an extra level of realism that one normally doesn't see, although you can easily see why most films don't bother with it: Aside from it making things hard and no fun, the sheer seeming randomness of it just isn't satisfying from a storytelling perspective. Still, great work by John Magaro in those scenes; they probably drive home just how dangerous the past was in certain ways - the life can just slip away without much fanfare - without being melodramatic about it better than anything else I can recall seeing recently.

First Cow

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2021 in the Brattle Theatre ([Some of] The Best of 2020, DCP)

First Cow was dealt an especially tough hand by 2020; it was released in theaters just a week before they started shutting down, wasn't in a position to take advantage of local independent cinemas' virtual rooms, with the studio appearing to hope for a chance to re-release it theatrically that never came, and the elongated Oscar-qualifying season must have made it seem ancient by the time nominations were due. As the sort of film that benefits from the theatrical experience in terms of both presentation and community, it had a hard time finding its audience without it, though one hopes that filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's next independent production that seems to meander while being exquisitely precise will lead people to circle back to this film, which certainly deserves the attention.

After an eyebrow-raising segment set in the present day, Reichardt introduces Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro), the cook for a group of fur trappers in 1820 Oregon who don't respect him much. He encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man hiding from the Russians after him for taking a shot at one after they killed his friend, and helps him hide. They meet again at the fort, bonding again over dreams that seem unattainable. Meanwhile, the richest man in the area (Toby Jones) has a cow delivered, and while most of the locals don't see much point in it without the bull and calf that died en route, Cookie instead sees the buttermilk biscuits he could make with her milk. King-Lu suggests surreptitiously milking it at night, and while Cookie's baked goods soon become popular with the local trappers, how do they manage when the cow's owner takes an interest?

That description suggests a bit more intrigue than the film actually offers; "Chief Factor" is not formally introduced until at least the midpoint, with much of what comes before a carefully-paced look at the Northwest and appreciating the little things in a dangerous time. Where many westerns will establish sweeping vistas, this one opens on Cookie foraging for edible mushrooms, and builds its way up to how his relatively simple biscuits become a bit of a sensation because most of the people in this small community can't avail themselves of that kind of simple pleasure - whiskey is numbing, cards can bring out the competitive worst in people, and even Factor with his fancy clothes and tidy house with servants finds himself transported. At various points Cookie and King-Lu relate their histories, and it's an interesting complement to what one sees of them: Cookie is a quiet, decent person whom one can easily see pushed out by others until he winds up in this place, without much further to go, although John Magaro plays him as having the solid core needed to survive in the early Nineteenth Century even if he's not pushy. Orion Lee, meanwhile, grasps onto how King-Lu is more self-directed and worldly, giving more thought to his ambitions. He's not phony or blustery - at least, when he's not making a sales pitch - but more active in how he looks at the world compared to Cookie. They contrast visually - Cookie's clothes are deliberately rough and layered, as befits a man who has learned not to stand out and who fears losing what he has, while King-Lu is well-groomed but not ostentatious - but work together; for all that they have become outsiders in their own ways and also handled it differently, they understand each other.

And yet, for all that the movie would seem like an ode to friendship and simple pleasures - that is certainly the film that its trailers presented - the quotation that opens the film is as much a warning as the flash-forward. A point comes when the audience thinks "oh, he's that friend", the one who is not ill-intentioned or purposefully exploitative but who can drag a person to a place where he should probably not go because he is the stronger personality. Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond (who also wrote the novel that inspired the film, The Half-Life) don't need to circle back around to say what really happened before Cookie and King-Lu met, but it's easy enough to imagine how some of the gaps could be filled in. Still, friendship is not necessarily the most dangerous thing in play; the filmmakers are not subtle about how they lay out the roles that inequalities and greed play. Cookie and King-Lu discuss the difficulties in pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps in a way that certainly feels relevant in the present without being anachronistic, while Factor and the sea captain he is entertaining (Scott Shepherd) are horrifically dispassionate about how expendable workers are in their eyes, on top of being self-deluding about how cavalier they can be about the natural sources of their wealth. The filmmakers don't exactly pivot to say that sociopathic capitalism is the real danger, but certainly recognize that you cannot tell Cookie and King-Lu's story without including it.

This all happens against a backdrop that embraces the contradictions of the story's place in history; the production designers straddle the border between the ugly mess of those who just seem to actively reject hygiene or being palatable to others and those making do with what they have, to the point where Factor's house looks fancy despite being the approximate size and shape of a middle-class home in the present-day suburbs. The land just beyond those humans' reach, though, is beautiful, something Reichardt and regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt will often emphasize by positioning the camera inside King-Lu's cabin and shooting out a window, the vibrant colors outside a contrast to the deep shade of a building, even during daytime.

As they often do, Reichardt and Blauvelt opt for a squarish Academy Ratio framing rather than the widescreen framing that has been the standard for the past sixty or seventy years, and by doing so allow the picture to seemingly sink into the back of the screen with action in the middle distance in the way wider compositions often don't. More intriguingly, that shape and the relatively still camera combines with the sparse, seemingly undirected motion in the background and simple language in a way that reminded me not so much of the traditional western and more of the 8mm or 16mm footage shot for a museum's multimedia exhibits, almost as if it is imitating that sort of sheer functionality so that the viewer will associate it with seeing unadorned history. It is not artless, of course; consider how carefully they wait until the right moment to reveal exactly what sort of risk Cookie is taking by milking Factor's cow, or how delicately all the scenes seemingly lit by moonlight are photographed.

That photography is part of why it's sad that this didn't get longer in theaters, as streaming compression can mutilate that sort of low-light work, but it's also a film that benefits from a distraction-free environment and a community of people to talk with afterward. It's a beautiful film even when it is honestly harsh, the sort of film where "art-house" is a fair description but one which understates how accessible and clear it is.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, July 23, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 July 2021 - 29 July 2021

The two big new releases this week are both solidly in the "wow, this could go any which way" category, which can be kind of fun (especially if you're on a monthly plan anyway). Which is fine; might as well have a weird summer!
  • The new one from M. Night Shyamalan is Old, where the folks at a secluded beach discover that not only can they not escape, but they seem to be aging by a year every half hour. You never know with Shyamalan, but he often does pretty well in this sort of Twilight Zone territory. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre (including a Sunday afternoon Masked Matinee), The Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    Also opening at the Coolidge and Kendall Square is Val, where directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo take forty years of home movies and behind-the-scenes footage shot by actor Val Kilmer, a guy who burst onto the scene in the 1980s, was a huge movie star, and then sort of hung around for a while afterward.

    The weekend's alien invasion picture at the Coolidge is John Carpenter's They Live, playing Friday and Saturday at midnight on 35mm film. They have CatVideoFest 2021 and an encore of Bo Burnham's comedy special Inside on Sunday, plus Big Screen Classics presentations of Bong Joon-Ho's Memories of Murder on Monday and Paris Is Burning on Thursday.
  • On the one hand, G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes looks like it fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of its (previously) silent and mysterious main character and overestimates how much anyone cares about G.I. Joe; on the other, Henry Golidng is a very appealing guy and if you've got a ninja movie with a lot of swordfights, it doesn't hurt to have Kenji Tanigaki in charge of the action. We'll see how it goes, at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway, South Bay (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    GKids brings back Makoto Shinkai's Weathering With You as part of its summer series with shows Sunday (dubbed) and Tuesday (subtitled) at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row (and let's take a moment to pour one out for Demon Slayer, which lasted a heck of a lot longer than one could reasonably expect).
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay open Joe Bell, featuring Mark Wahlberg as the father of a gay son walking across the country to talk about bullying. Nice supporting cast (Connie Britton & Gary Sinese) and writing team (Diana Ossana & Larry McMurtry).

    The Kendall also gets Casanova, Last Love, in which the aging libertine is exiled to London and finds himself entranced by a young prostitute. They also have encores of Inside on Saturday and Sunday.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues to catch up with "Some of the Best of 2020", this week featuring First Cow (Friday/Saturday), Shadow in the Cloud (Friday/Saturday), Dick Johnson Is Dead (Sunday), Black Bear (Monday), and the restoration of In the Mood for Love (Wednesday/Thursday). The Tuesday "Movie Movies" show is Cinema Paradiso.

    The future of online virtual screens like the Brattlite may be second-run movies like Summertime, which lasted about a week in local theaters but may get some more eyes here. It joins Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, Witches of the Orient, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, Sweet Thing, and The American Sector=.
  • Boston Jewish Film has begun their "Summer Cinematheque" series, with most of it online this year. French comedy If You See My Mother is available through Tuesday, with Holocaust drama Love It Was Not taking its place on Wednesday. Both include pre-recorded Q&As.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts closes its "Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation" exhibit this weekend, capping it with a free outdoor screening of Wild Style introduced by director Charlie Ahearn and co-star/musical director Fab 5 Freddy.
  • The Boston Asian-American Film Festival is co-presenting a screening of The Paper Tigers with AREAA Boston at Assembly Row on Tuesday; it's not only a tremendously fun movie, but director Bao Tran and stars Alain Uy, Roger Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins will be there for a live Q&A afterward.
  • The West Newton Cinema expands to being open all week with a schedule including Roadrunner, Space Jam 2, Black Widow, Summer of Soul, and In the Heights; Raya and the Last Dragon and Tom & Jerry have Sunday-morning matinees.
  • Cinema Salem's Friday to Monday schedule adds Riders of Justice to Black Widow, Space Jam 2, and Werewolves Within (apparently its first big-screen appearance in the area after playing IFFBoston). The Friday late show is animated oddity Fantastic Planet.
  • The Lexington Venue is open Friday to Sunday with Roadrunner and Summer of Soul, and the folks there tell me the Belmont Studio is now gone for good. The Somerville Theatre, The Harvard Film Archive, and Embassy Cinema are still waiting for new opening dates, and presumably the landlords are looking for new tenants for the place on Causeway Street (AMC has taken over a number of other Arclight properties, but it's right between two of their other sites). Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • This week's outdoor SomerMovieFest show has The Sandlot playing in Lincoln Park at the Argenziano School on Thursday, although I think all three of their attempts to do this have been hit with rain. The Joe's Free Films calendar doesn't show any other outdoor screenings, but does show a free screening of Obey Giant, a documentary on street artist Shepard Fairey, at The New England Aquarium as part of their "Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans" event, with Fairly painting a mural before the screening .
A good chunk of next week is already spoken for with Boswords and a Red Sox game (which sadly conflicts with The Paper Tigers), but aside from seeing Old, I'm excited to finally see First Cow, might go for Black Bear and, yeah, Snake Eyes. Of course, I might also start receiving Fantasia and New York Asian Film Festival screeners soon and go with those.

One last thing: While I usually tend to focus on theaters that are (a) open and (b) easily reachable from Boston/Somerville via the MBTA, I saw this week that National Amusements has sold Showcase Cinemas Worcester North (which it had previously announced would not reopen after being shuttered during the pandemic) to a company that will not be using it as a movie theater, meaning that the city will not have any cinemas within its borders. A student going to WPI this fall without a car (someone like me in 1992) will have to hop a bus for a half hour to see even a second run movie in West Boylston, or longer to get to the Regal in Millbury. At one point when I went to school there National Amusements had four locations of various sizes in the city (and one just over the border in Shrewsbury), and being able to walk to those places and working in them is a big part of why I love movies as much as I do today. Sure, maybe if that hadn't sucked up so much of my time, I'd have done better in school and really focused on computer science, but maybe that would have led to me being some sort of cryptocurrency weirdo. Anyway, It's crazy that just seeing a movie on the big screen in New England's second-largest city is going to be impossible until someone moves in. I bag on Worcester a lot when given the opportunity, but this kind of hurts a bit.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 July 2021 - 22 July 2021

It's starting to look a bit like a summer movie season out there, even if there are some weird decisions going on.
  • Spanning all sorts of theaters is Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, new from biographical filmmaker Morgan Neville and, unlike a number of other Bourdain tributes, one that grapples with the end of his life. It's been getting a little flak for digitally synthesizing his voice to fill some gaps where they had had his written but not spoken words, which is a choice that probably needs to be examined a bit. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre (including a Sunday afternoon Masked Matinee), the Capitol, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Assembly Row.

    Also playing the Coolidge and Kendall Square is Summertime, a film from the director of Blindspotting that tracks the intersecting lives of 25 people in Los Angeles, told through poetry.

    The Coolidge's alien invasion for the week is Tobe Hooper's memorably creepy remake of Invaders from Mars, playing midnight on Friday and Saturday on 35mm. The week's Big Screen Classic is a 35mm print of A League of Their Own on Monday, and there are theatrical showings of Bo Burnham's comedy special Inside on Thursday (at the Coolidge and the Kendall).
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square also opens Pig, which is a lot more centered and internal than one might expect for a movie featuring Nicolas Cage as a truffle hunter pursing his stolen pig through Portland, Oregon's strange culinary underworld (I like it quite a bit); it also plays Boston Common.

    An organization called "Doc.World" has a Doc.Boston Documentary Film Festival at the Kendall this weekend, with Missing in Brooks County playing Saturday night (along with two shorts) and a 12-short program on Sunday. Tickets are free for those who RSVP to the address on their site, but are first-come, first-serve. The Kendall and Boston Common also have Enormous: The Gorge Story for one night on Wednesday
  • I know other people don't like 3D as much as I do, but it's weird that Space Jam: A New Legacy isn't playing in the format, right? It feels like this "LeBron James and the Looney Tunes playing basketball with everyone else on the Warner Brothers servers" would be a natural, both for "might look kind of cool" and "prying $4 extra out of people" reasons. But, alas, it is only in 2D at The Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and HBOmax.

    In other years you might also have gotten at least a 3D conversion for Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, in which the survivor(s) of the first film look to find and stop the people behind the curtain, but get locked in another set of death-trap puzzles with those who have done so in other rooms. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    There are 70th anniversary screenings of The African Queen at Fenway on Sunday and Wednesday. Assembly Row shows a late screening of Back to the Future on Sunday, but that doesn't seem right.
  • The Brattle Theatre has more of "Some of the Best of 2020", including Another Round (Friday/Saturday), Deerskin (Friday/Saturday), Miss Juneteenth (Sunday), the restored Flowers of Shanghai (Monday), and Shirley (Wednesday/Thursday). The vertical "Movie Movies" series has a special encore of Singin' in the Rain on Saturday and Buster Keaton's The Cameraman on Tuesday, including a live score.

    Online in The Brattlite, they offer Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, a documentary about choreographer Bill T. Jones creating D-Man in the Waters, a major piece of art spurred by the AIDS crisis. There's also Witches of the Orient, a French documentary about the Japanese national women's volleyball team of the 1960s (you may remember that they were considered an almost undefeatuable foe in Leap last year). There's also Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, Sweet Thing, The American Sector, Slow Machine, and Take Me Somewhere Nice.
  • Anime Fans can catch Fate/stay night [Heaven's Feel] III. spring song on Sunday and Tuesday at South Bay, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Demon Slayer keeps going at Boston Common.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday with Space Jam 2, Black Widow, Summer of Soul, In the Heights, Nomadland (Saturday/Sunday), Raya and the Last Dragon, and Tom & Jerry.
  • Cinema Salem is open Friday to Monday with the big guns (Black Widow, Space Jam 2), the niche (Undine and Werewolves Within), and a Friday late show of Nobuhiko Obayashi's House.
  • The Lexington Venue has reopened, with Roadrunner and Summer of Soul. The Somerville Theatre, and The Harvard Film Archive, Embassy Cinema, and Belmont Studio are all still in limbo for various reasons. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • This week's outdoor SomerMovieFest show has Mrs. Doubtfire playing at Nunziato Fieldon Thursday. As yet, it's the only thing on Joe's Free Films, but keep checking back.
Will I see Space Jam? Probably, along with Roadrunner and maybe Summertime.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Hot Take: The Indiana Jones Movies Are Good

A fun thing about Letterboxd (follow me!) is that I was able to see a few other people I know decided that last week was a good time to dig into that new 4K box set of the Indiana Jones movies that Paramount put out last month. There is, of course, never a bad time to watch them and the issues Paramount had getting enough discs pressed meant that some folks might just be getting them now, as my pre-order originally slated for mid-June got pushed out a month before winding up just a week or so late, but maybe it was just rainy enough up and down the East Coast without enough other things going on that folks said, yeah, I can commit to this for a few evenings.

As an aside, I'm trying to not read too much into the delays of this box set, the 4K Scott Pilgrim disc, and likely a few others beyond there still being a pandemic out there and that doing a number on manufacturing and transport, but I'm nevertheless hoping that places are being caught a little bit flat-footed by the demand for physical media going up, especially with people noting that Blu-ray looks better than most 4K streaming services and 4K discs looking almost theatrical at times. I've been reading stories about vinyl manufacturing not being able to scale up to the recent demand, and I'm hoping that the situation with Blu-ray discs and 4K discs might be similar, if less drastic.

The set itself looks fantastic, by the way, although I can't voice for the Raiders disc yet, as Paramount gave that one a 40th Anniversary theatrical re-release that maybe served as a reminder to order this box set and I went for that even though it meant going out in 95-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The joke about how I keep buying that one on disc but don't know why because someone will put it on the big screen still holds, apparently. I'm not invested in this sort of thing enough to see if Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are the sort of upgrades over the previous editions some people are raving about, but they do feel a bit different, like the lighting is a bit more subtly sinister than it was before. On the flip side, either my Last Crusade disc is defective or there's something up with my player (a Sony UBP-X800), because it consistently froze right around the halfway mark, almost surgically removing the motorcycle chase. I power-cycled, jumped straight to the chapter, hit fast-forward/rewind… Nothing. Just lost those three minutes. I gather almost every player has layer-change issues, but this one was a real bummer.

As for the movies themselves, there are folks who will argue against the premise that the four Indiana Jones movies are, collectively and individually, good, partly because people get weird about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in general, and partly because a lot of folks have little room between "great" and "awful", which combined with how Raiders of the Lost Ark is an all-time classic skews expectations for the sequels. People want different things from sequels anyway - more of the thing they liked, finding something else you can do with the same pieces, an explicit continuation of the story that builds on prior events - and what's kind of fascinating about this franchise is that they've done a little bit of each, especially when you include The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Even if you figure that the folks involved executed the plan well each time (which is about where I fall), there's a lot of room for people who loved Raiders to just not like the plan.

I must admit, of the other movies, I found that Last Crusade went down easiest for being the most like Raiders, I found myself more intrigued by Temple of Doom and Crystal Skull, for how they took Indy to different places and poked around the history of the sort of pulp/adventure fiction that inspired the character. There's a part of me that would be interested in them pushing against it a bit - both the Thuggee Cult and ancient astronauts are things that should probably be approached with a lot more care and skepticism even if there are fun stories to be built around them - but it's genuinely nifty how everybody involved takes a character who was designed for a fairly specific milieu and figures out how he fits into others, and also finds ways to give him history and future without destroying everything behind him the way so many others tend to.

Watching these made me a lot more enthusiastic for what James Mangold is doing with the new (and almost certainly final) movie shooting now. I'd kind of checked out, seeing as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were only going to have arms'-length involvement at most and how Harrison Ford is celebrating his 79th birthday on its set today, but if it takes Indy to a new place and era, and gives Ford a chance to wrestle with a man of action nearing his end (something director James Mangold has done before in Logan), there could be something there. My only worry is that the very fact that so much is different right down to a new director will lead Disney/Lucasfilm to be too cautious about going off-template.

In the meantime, we've got these four, they look great, and they're all pretty darn good.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 June 2021 in AMC Boston Common #10 (Fan Favorites, DCP)

Do I really have more to say about this movie that I didn't say eight years ago and multiple times since (and, heck, probably before)? Probably not. If it's not quite perfect in its construction, then the parts that are flawless are also the ones that help move one past missteps. The cast is terrific. Everybody involved seems to get what sort of a throwback it is but, unlike what would often be done in later years, doesn't necessarily need to underline it. I loved Ronald Lacey's Toht long before I had any idea that he was doing a bit of a Peter Lorre riff, and now appreciate how that's not the whole joke.

There are things you can nitpick about this movie, and the whole series, but part of the reasons why it goes well beyond "working anyway" is that the films play as being as nimble and improvisational as their lead character; they'll run into something that should stop things dead, but quickly work out a way around it or shake it off and move onto the next thing. Big action/adventure movies can't actually be like that, of course, but it helps when you've got Steven Spielberg at the helm and he's so good at seeing all the things that need to work together that it doesn't get weighted down.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

It's been a while since I've seen this one, although not quite such a length of time that the way it has not aged well on a pretty fundamental level takes me aback. Although... yeesh, has this not aged well.

That's the thing about this sort of pulp, though - it's tremendously fun, and part of it is the simplicity of its constructs and the purity of the emotion that comes from encountering something lurid and strange, but there's not much room left to feel that innocently, if there ever was. The imagery still works, though, as Indiana and his friends dive into a seemingly insane world.

But, man, that last half hour or so. The set-up doesn't always make sense physically, but Spielberg makes each little bit sing and moves from one to the next with smoothness and confidence that gives a viewer just enough time to breathe without the opportunity to look away. The climax sings after an opening that's not quite all it could be and a middle more reliant on gross-out bits.

Which isn't to say the rest of the movie's without merit. I think it's actually got my favorite characterization of Indiana Jones in some ways, with more James Bond in him than the other movies, with Ford playing a sly adventurer whose amorality is closer to the surface than it would be "later" (after Raiders). We see "Professor Jones" as a part of him he's able to weaponize as opposed to just a secret identity or the safe place he returns between adventures. It's a side of Indy that would have been fun to see more in the other films, the dark side he often as to explicitly overcome and also a reminder that he's smart and resourceful rather than just well-read and light on his feet.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Last Crusade is a bit of an over-correction toward what people liked about Raiders of the Lost Ark after the flawed Temple of Doom, bringing back a lot of familiar faces and style while also kind of full of shortcuts to get from one bit of fun stuff to the next, though occasionally teasing a couple of ideas that never quite get fleshed out, in part because they're contradictory. Watching Indy smash through the Venice catacombs like a bull in a china shop, just desecrating the heck out of bodies among other things, it feels like there could be more of a contrast with Henry Sr. and Marcus Brody as academics who, if they do go into the field, are setting up careful grids and excavating with toothbrushes. There's a part of me that really wants the theme of #5 to be Indy reckoning with how his treasure hunting has probably set actual archaeology back, because it feels like the sort of thing both creators and fans become more aware of as time goes by, with a smart franchise integrating that growth into the work.

Nevertheless, there's good reason for going back to basics - Raiders is near-perfect and the reasons why aren't exactly hard to get a handle on. Crusade takes that, shuffles it into new arrangements, and layers a story about Indy's contentious relationship with his father onto it that makes him more relatable even without being ordinary.

It pays off, too; I'm not necessarily sure that either Harrison Ford or Sean Connery have ever been as purely entertaining as they are in this movie, partly because they rarely seemed to have equals to play off once they achieved a certain status. They're enough fun to render almost everyone else unnecessary, although it's generally a nifty cast, from Alison Doody channeling period bombshell traits that I appreciate more now than I did back when I first saw it to Robert Eddison's grail knight who has something like two scenes in which he suggests his long time alone has made him a bit peculiar without undercutting the basic honor and dignity of what he represents.

Plus, obviously, Spielberg chases, which may just be the best things in cinema. Having read that the director was a big video game fan, I wonder a bit how much that bit on the train was him having fun with platformers while other pieces had the feel of the then-popular point-and-click adventures. There's also a nifty balance between the freewheeling and the grand throughout as Indy solves this problem he can get his hands on even though it's part of something bigger. For all that folks remember Indy's "Nazis; I hate these guys" and how Spielberg probably couldn't do cartoonish Nazis again post-Schindler's List, Henry's utter disgust at collaborators feels much more pointed than one might think. Henry telling a Nazi that goose-stepping morons should try reading books instead of burning them is pithy; the way he lights into Elsa as she cries while watching those books burn is harsh, nastily undercutting where a lot of movies would try to make this character looks conflicted or painted in a shade of gray. Henry's not having it.

It would be great if the film had a little more to say toward the end about some of its themes and wasn't so seemingly built to shut off the possibility of dealing with the Grail in the world, but the muddle is kind of appropriate - both Joneses are drawn to the past while having trouble dealing with the present, the tactile relics easier to deal with than intangible feelings, and that's a part of them that can't be resolved completely, even if they're in a better place afterward.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

As much as I liked Crystal Skull when it first came out, I wondered how much of it was just "holy crap, new Indiana Jones!" at the time, even as I loved the idea of how it was moving Indy from 1930s swashbuckling adventures to paranoid 1950s sci-fi (with nods to the wartime/Cold War adventures they skipped), something I hope tracks to the new one. Happily, I still find myself quite fond of it. The film is flawed, but flawed in the same way the others are, from Indy maybe not being quite so active as a critic's instincts say he's supposed to be to how the ancient astronaut stuff doesn't sit quite right these days with more talk about how it's often been a way for Europeans to deny the capability of other cultures historically. We just got older and wiser, and a film series not keeping up in some areas can be disappointing, plus or minus digital backlot being a little easier to spot than matte paintings.

Anyway, I still kind of love this one. There's a part of me that wonders if David Koepp just writes "Spielberg Chase" in some scripts and then lets the master take over or if he gives Spielberg more to work with than others (they also collaborated on Jurassic Park and its brilliant set pieces), but there are two or three very nice bits like that in here, and you can't go far wrong with Steven Spielberg doing chase scenes. It's nifty how the film both circles back around to Raiders to bring back Karen Allen but also serves as an interesting reflection of Last Crusade, with Indy both becoming his father by being more at home at the school and striving to be better when he finds he's now the elder.

And say what you will about what happens right before it - I love the twisted audacity of "nuking the fridge" and how Indy doing something kids were specifically advised not to goes right along with razing the plastic nostalgia Spielberg is mocked as loving too much - but that shot of Indiana Jones in front of a mushroom cloud is fantastic, a brilliant take on how pulp adventure changed in the Fifties. I'd forgotten the extent to which one of the last scenes in South America is a reflection of it, almost literally, with Indy on the other side of the screen as another cataclysm takes place around another defining image of Twentieth Century mythology and adventure. Tradition says he doesn't belong there, but he's an icon, so he fits, even if the world is moving on from hidden cities and ancient artifacts.

What I wrote 13 years ago

Friday, July 09, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 9 July 2021 - 15 July 2021

Heads up, folks - the AMC app, at least, is no longer enforcing spaces around seats, timed for what could be the summer movie season's main event, so get used to circa-2019 crowds.
  • That main event is Black Widow, originally intended for Marvel's May 2020 release slot and flashing back to between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War to give Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) one last big adventure with her old team of Russian spies (Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, and Florence Pugh). The Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common (including Imax/Dolby Cinema/3D/Mandarin subtitled shows), Fenway (including 3D), South Bay (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), Chestnut Hill, and premium Disney+.

    There's also anime Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish, about a student and diver who takes a job looking after a disabled girl, with opposites starting to attract. It plays Kendall, Boston Common, Fenway, subtitled Monday and Wednesday, and dubbed Tuesday.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square picks up The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, about the team looking for a whale whose song is at the frequency of 52Hz, which is unmatched in the rest of the world. There's also Summer of 85, the new one from director François Ozon about a young man who falls for the guy who rescues him after his boat capsizes. It seemed like Ozon was everywhere twenty years ago and faded away, but he's been cranking films out ever since.

    They've also got the big UFC fight on Saturday night.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues their belated and elongated "Some of the Best of 2020" series with the restorated Jazz on a Summer's Day (Friday), Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods (Friday/Saturday), Lucky Grandma (Sunday), Bacurau (Monday/Wednesday). They also start a vertical "Movie Movies" series on Tuesday, kicking things off with Singin' in the Rain.

    Several of those films were in virtual cinema, which pares down to Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, Sweet Thing, The American Sector, and Take Me Somewhere Nice.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps their same lineup of Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Zola (which also expands to the Capitol), In the Heights, and Werewolves Within, but lines up plenty of special presentations. The midnight alien invasion this weekend is Spielberg's War of the Worlds on 35mm Friday and Saturday, while they will also be running The Shining at Medfield State Hospital on Saturday and Sunday. During the work week, they've got Hitchcock Big Screen Classics - North by Northwest on 35mm Monday, Rear Window on Tuesday, Strangers on a Train on 35mm Wednesday, and The Birds on Thursday.
  • South Bay keeps Vietnamese film Lat Mat: 48H, and Demon Slayer keeps going at Boston Common.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday with Black Widow, Summer of Soul, In the Heights, Cruella, Nomadland (Saturday/Sunday), Raya and the Last Dragon, and Tom & Jerry.
  • Cinema Salem is open Friday to Monday with a fairly straight-ahead lineup (Black Widow, Boss Baby 2, and Zola), but is also beginning a weekly series of 10pm shows with Eraserhead on Friday.
  • The Lexington Venue, The Somerville Theatre, and The Harvard Film Archive, and Belmont Studio are all still in limbo for various reasons. Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • Looks like Somerville is doing outdoor SomerMovieFest screenings again this summer, oddly enough all from various Disney labels, with the animated Mulan playing in Nathan Tufts Park on Thursday. So far, it's the only series Joe's Free Films
  • is listing, but hopefully more get added.

Black Widow time, and let's be honest, probably both on Imax and 3D a la Godzilla vs Kong. I've also already reserved a seat for Da 5 Bloods (because you don't let Spike Lee be confined to Netflix) and really do intend to catch up with Werewolves Within, In the Heights, and Zola.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Chinese New Year 2021: Shock Wave 2, Detective Chinatown 3

Obviously, this is a bit belated, neither of these played Boston. Shock Wave 2 might have done, if the IMDB listing of a Christmas Eve release for it is correct, but theaters were closed in Boston at that time, and if the distributor was putting it on Prime Video (as was apparently the case with The Rescue), I wasn't informed. It still counts as a Lunar New Year release, though, because that's when it came out in its native Hong Kong.

Detective Chinatown 3, meanwhile, still hasn't played the USA, which I find at least a little bit surprising, because the previous two did play and did respectable-enough numbers. I speculated a few months back that Warner Brothers bought the US distribution for DC3 when it was supposed to be released in February 2020 and it's being held up because Wanda Pictures didn't want it to be part of Warner's simultaneous HBOmax releases. I suppose it's possible that the studio is just sitting on it, or it's been the belated victim of AT&T's "don't bother with small profits" directives - or that Box Office Mojo is out of date and WB isn't even distributing this one - but it's weird that this didn't show up back when theaters were pretty starved for new content and there was some word of mouth on its huge (nearly $700M) box office in China.

Moving on...

Something I wondered while watching Shock Wave 2: Is Andy Lau the sort of star that demands things be all about him? It's something I noticed back in February, when his LNY film, Endgame, seemed to focus on his character to the exclusion of others, and it's a problem with SW2 as well: The movie seems like it could be greatly improved with more Lau Ching-Wan (what movie can't?), and having everything center on Andy Lau's character gave everybody a little less room to work. He's prominently credited as a producer on those movies, so he could certainly exercise some pressure, but it also could just be directors' (less-than-optimal) decisions. The first Shock Wave also seems like it might have worked better as more of an ensemble movie, too, and maybe that's just a lot to notice in a relatively short period of time.

Chak daan juen ga (Shock Wave)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-ray)

I liked Shock Wave a little more the second time around, because even if the plot of it is a little shaggier than I remember, writer/director Herman Yau is a guy who knows what the audience is there for and doesn't really mess around: You buy a ticket to this one for stuff blowing up and other violence, and he delivers plenty. It's not exactly a tight movie, but its excesses don't feel like Yau chasing things down blind alleys or being unfocused; he's just not tightening things up as much as he could.

Amusingly, I find I wanted different things that weren't delivered this time around; where 2017 saw me wanting to get more out of the ensemble cast - build something more like a classic disaster movie out of it - but this time around I wanted them to lean into dark comedy a bit more. There's something fantastically bleak about everything that happens to the reformed brother of main villain "Blast", right down to his stretcher bouncing around the tunnel in the middle of a massive firefight, and I don't know if Yau and company were trying to make any sort of point there, but it plays up the madness of the mad bomber nicely and suggests anything can happen during this chaos. It's not so much that action has to have rules, especially not in Hong Kong, but it's just the right amount of randomness and cruelty to make the action a little horrifying even as one is enjoying it a little.

2017 review at eFilmCritic

Chak daan juen ga 2 (Shock Wave 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-ray)

Shock Wave 2 doesn't really need to raise the stakes from its predecessor, given that it's not a sequel so much as Herman Yau directing Andy Lau in another bomb-squad movie since folks seemed to like the first one, but Yau is not exactly known for subtlety and pushes things about as far as he can go in the first scene. He backs off - honestly, he has to - but there's still enough explosion-packed loopiness to make up for how the filmmakers don't quite have as much enthusiasm for the bits that aren't quite so connected to things blowing up.

Five years ago, Poon Shing-Fung (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and Tung Cheuk-Man (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) were partners in the HKPD's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit - Man more cautious, Fung a bit more of a cowboy - until a particularly gnarly incident leaves Fung injured in a way that precludes going out in the field again, no matter how impressive his rehab is. Now, he's no longer on the force - indeed, he appears to be helping terrorist group Vendetta and it's leader "Maverick" Ma Sai-Kwan (Tse Kwan-Ho) construct and plant bombs, with the latest attack landing him back in the hospital, this time with a concussion and retrograde amnesia. Vendetta busts him out, but an encounter with former girlfriend Pong Ling (Ni Ni), an officer in the Counter Terrorism Response Unit, suggests things aren't as they seem. But if he's not Maverick's partner "Davy", then who is?

There's a certain tension in bomb-squad movies, between the need to show the heroes as capable and how the spectacle comes from them failing spectacularly, or at least there usually is. Herman Yau Lai-To is here to blow things up, so he and co-writers Erica Li Man & Eric Lee Sing are going to arrange things so that he can fit as many explosions in as possible, and not small ones. Not that he stops at bombs; he and action choreographer Nicky Li Chung-Chi give Andy Lau a few really fun sequences in the middle of the movie that are kind of laughable when one considers how Fung is supposed to be handicapped, but they're staged and cut so well that a viewer kind of rolls with the improbability of it.

Which is good practice for the plot, where the movie drops the expected twist on the audience pretty quick but soon takes it in a new direction before serving up another set of flashbacks may muddy things further even if it is also transparently setting up how the next bomb is going to be set up and defused. It is, in many ways, nonsense, but kind of clever in the way that everything about that can be as much feature as bug, from the exceptionally convenient way Fung has certain memories triggered to how thoroughly improbable even the simplest solution can be. It's such a mess that Fung literally can't figure out what's true or not, and has to figure out who he wants to be. In hindsight, it probably sticks to its own rules a lot better than many twisty thrillers primarily concerned with action do, but it's built so that it doesn't have to do so.

It would nevertheless be better if the cast was more connected to their characters; Fung and Man feel like they're supposed to be closer than they ever appear to be, and for someone billed as a co-star, Lau Ching-Wan doesn't have a whole lot to do, a seemingly inevitable result of keeping what's really going on ambiguous for so long - the by-the-book Man can't be a mirror of Fung if Fung is a bit of a mystery. Ni Ni plays off Andy Lau fairly well, at least, even if it sometimes doesn't seem clear how intense Fung and Ling's relationship was at the start (some iffy subtitles on the Hong Kong disc and a couple scenes where she seems more noticeably dubbed into Cantonese don't help). Tse Kwan-Ho is at least admirably committed as Maverick, and Philip Keung Hiu-Man is reliably intense as the cop in charge of chasing Fung down. Andy Lau himself is an odd case - even beyond how Fung is an amnesiac, he's often tough to get a handle on, maybe playing the cocky police officer who doesn't take sidelining well just a touch more unsympathetic than is ideal, but Lau nevertheless manages some nicely intense moments.

They all manage to dial it up for an entertaining finale which one might think would be hamstrung by the fact that the opening flash-forward ends with a narrator saying "fortunately, this doesn't actually happen", but somehow it isn't. There's still a lot that could go wrong short of that worst-case scenario, after all, and given that Yau has reached the point where everyone is fairly casually spraying bullets all over the place, it seems pretty clear that he's going to push it. There's a jump in scale that a lot of movies like this don't quite manage - with some aspects quite literally moving at the speed of a runaway train, he's got to use infographics to show everything going on while still getting up close and personal. The actual details are ludicrous whether one stops to think about it or not, but at this point Yau pretty clearly figures that one is either into it or they've walked out/ejected the disc/stopped the stream.

That firm commitment to being over-the-top makes it, at the very least, a lot more consistently fun than the first Shock Wave. That messiness works against it whenever the movie has to slow down, but with as busy as Yau keeps the pyro and CGI crews, that's not nearly the problem it could have been.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tang ren jie tan an 3 (Detective Chinatown 3)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The first Detective Chinatown offered up the sort of simple, repeatable formula that mystery lovers have long been fond of - mismatched private eyes cracking new cases in and about Chinatowns all over the world - but this third entry at times feels a bit like a victim of the series's success. It's reached the scale where everything's got to be bigger than a typical mystery story to justify shooting with the Imax cameras and all the other things a series on this trajectory gets while also developing the sort of inter-film continuity that indicates something trying to make the leap from a series to a saga. It remains at its best when it stays closest to its roots, and fortunately still has enough of that to entertain.

This time around, deductive savant Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his, shall we say, more intuitive uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are headed to Tokyo, where yakuza Harasu Watanabe (Tomokazu Miura) has been accused of murdering his rival to develop the city's growing Chinatown. It's a pretty open-and-shut case - they were the only two in the "Watery Hall", a meeting room with only one entrance in the middle of a lake - with never-defeated Superintendent Naoki Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) making the arrest. And while they are teamed with "King of Tokyo" Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki), Tang is infatuated with star witness Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa), they're being dogged by rival Thai detective Jack Jaa (Tony Jaa), and somehow escaped sex criminal Akito Murata (Shota Sometani) is involved.

It's not exactly a great mystery; the how of it is not that difficult to suss out and the why is fairly late-developing. Writer/director Chen Sicheng still wears his influences on his sleeve - he name-drops John Dickson Carr and clearly both shares and respects Feng's fondness for locked-room-mysteries enough to play that part of the movie straight, and the visuals of Feng working a problem out are as slick and fun to watch as ever. The inevitable courtroom finale winds up a case of Chen telling a neat little story that doesn't really have that much to do with what came before. It's thin enough that Chen fills much of the film's second half with a storyline that theoretically reaches back to the first film - including a brief appearance by Zhang Zifeng as a character I had completely forgotten and whom my my review of the first says "fits into the story somehow" - and which will inevitably lead into the next film, judging from the way the tease of the next Chinatown to be visited is structured. It's little more than a tease, sometimes fun for the cast involved, but it's a lot of material for this movie that won't pay off for at least a couple more years.

It's also a story that is entirely about Qin Feng, which further upsets the balance between stars Liu Haoran and Wang Baoqiang, to the point where one almost gets the feeling that Chen would like to jettison Wang's Tang Ren and just give the movies to Liu, who has come into his own as a star in the past six years. Where the first film could contrast the bookish, introverted Qin Feng with the boorish-but-instinctive Tang Ren, a more confident Feng leaves Ren with little to do but be dumb, and while Wang still dives into it enthusiastically, there's less reward. They're surrounded by what's possibly the series's best cast - international star Tadanobu Asano walks away with every scene he's given, of course, but Masami Nagasawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, and Shota Sometani are all fairly well-known in Japan and never give guest-star type performances. Then there's Tony Jaa, who as a Thai actor in a Chinese film set in Japan naturally delivers most of his lines in English; he's able to deliver a lot of charisma in a role that is more than a bit self-parodying on top of one pretty decent fight. Tweak the script a bit to make his Jack and Ren more earnest rivals, and you might have something.

Of course, a large part of the fun of these movies for their Chinese audiences is goofing on the various locations the characters travel, and it's a huge source of energy from the start where the "Welcome To Tokyo" opening number posits that Tang Ren and Qin Feng have been dropped in the middle of a Tokyo made up entirety of bombastic Japanese movies, with schoolgirls and yakuza alike breaking into fights all over the airport. It's a candy-colored live-action anime wrapped around a gritty yakuza film, and while it crashes hard into cliché and lazy comedy at times, it seldom lacks for energy. Chen and his team are also able to switch things up a bit when, say, the material involving Akito Murata might rub people the wrong way if treated as a joke.

Another sequel is all but assured - after a year's delay, it had a tremendous opening in China for Lunar New Year, even if Hi, Mom was the bigger story at the Chinese box office - and despite some occasional frustrations here, Detective Chinatown 3 is entertaining more often than not. As someone who has generally enjoyed the series and has liked the Japanese cast members in a number of other movies, seeing them intersect here was a bunch of fun. If that's the route Chen and company take with the fourth installment, it could be the best in the series.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, July 02, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 2 July 2021 - 8 July 2021

t's Fourth of July weekend, the target for things being back to normal, and it's kind of weird that the big event movies are staking out weekends on the other side. Like, Will Smith is just looking at that and shaking his head, although I suppose they don't want to upstage the weekend's big event.
  • That, of course, would be The Brattle Theatre reopening for business. They've been kind of soft-opening for the past few weeks and, folks, it is all kinds of great to be there, although the distancing rules and online-everything (even concessions) make it a different experience. The first week of special shows includes 35mm prints of Casablanca (Friday/Saturday but sold out), Better Luck Tomorrow (Friday), Harriet the Spy (Saturday/Tuesday), Jaws (Saturday/Sunday but sold out), Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (Sunday/Wednesday), and the original Shaft (Monday). Thursday, they kick off the belated "Some of the Best of 2020" series with the restoration of Jazz on a Summer's Day.

    That played in the virtual cinema, which is going to keep going for now. This week's new addition is Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, a documentary on the New York-based feminist "No Wave" musician/spoken word artist. It joins Sweet Thing, The American Sector, Take Me Somewhere Nice, Slow Machine, "Who Will Start Another Fire", and The Power of Kangwon Province.
  • Follow the 66 bus a little ways and get to The Coolidge Corner Theatre where they've got IFFBoston opener Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a pretty darn delightful documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which had just a staggering amount of great music, enough that Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has a hard time cramming it all in and also talking about the time and the event. I'm sure it's a blast on the big screen and boy, I wish super-deluxe DVD/Blu-ray box sets were still a thing. It also plays at The Capitol, West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row, and on Hulu.

    Meanwhile, the After Midnite crew is getting back into theme months, which for July means alien invasions, starting (of course) with Independence Day, which plays at 11:30pm on Friday and Saturday.
  • Over at Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, they keep pride going with a couple new releases: I Carry You with Me is the first fiction feature from Heidi Weing of Jesus Camp fame, in which two men from rural Mexico follow their dreams (and each other) to New York. There's also Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, a documentary that traces the lives and careers of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, which often intersected. The 7pm show on Friday also features a live Q&A with critic Gerald Peary and Harvard Theatre curator Dale Stinchcomb, a Tennessee Williams expert. They also get back into the "theater on screen" business on Wednesday with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, co-directed by Branagh, shot in B&W Cinemascope, and featuring Lily James, Richard Madden, and Derek Jacobi. They've also started doing $7 Tuesdays, and appear to be open all week for the duration now.
  • The mutiplexes go with sequels to things that were kind of big at one point but maybe not so much any more. For the younger crew, there's The Boss Baby: Family Business, in which the now-adult kids from the first movie get zapped back to toddler-hood to complete some mission because babies are apparently secretly super-intelligent. It's at The Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and on Peacock.

    For the older folks, there's The Forever Purge, in which some folks either decide to keep doing crimes after the 24 hour period or society just breaks down because apparently this really isn't a good thing. That plays Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards.

    Documentary The Price of Freedom, a documentary on the inner workings of the NRA, plays Boston Common and Fenway on Wednesday, while they go for something a bit lighter at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill, with Yannick: An Artist's Journey telling the story of New York Metropolitan Opera music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Fenway also has Stage Russia: Stanislavski, Lust for Life and the Quiet Place double feature that day.

    Also, note that a lot of the showtimes for Boston Common are marked "Sold Out" after 7pm or so on the 4th; the fireworks are on the Common this year and I'm guessing they do not want to mess with that.
  • South Bay opens another Vietnamese film this weekend, with Lat Mat: 48H which is the fifth in a popular action comedy series (also known as "Face Off", which doesn't make Googling more information about it difficult at all) that has made a detour into horror and may be one of those where they give the cast new characters each time. It joins Bo Gia (Dad, I'm Sorry) there, while anime hit Demon Slayer does a really impressive job lengthening its run at Boston Common.
  • The Regent Theatre isn't quite back into holiday sing-alongs with all the bells and whistles yet, but they will be showing 1776 on Friday and Saturday, and I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if some folks sing anyway.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Monday, what with the holiday, and has Summer of Soul, In the Heights, Cruella, and Nomadland all weekend, with Raya and the Last Dragon playing at 1pm Saturday through Monday.
  • It's looking like The Harvard Film Archive, like much of the campus, is planning to be closed for the fall term, with a recent email talking about a Spring 2022 return. The Somerville Theatre is hopefully just a few weeks off, while The Lexington Venue still seems to be targeting mid-July. Not sure what the deal is with the Belmont Studio, whose homepage still says "temporarily closed until April 6", which initially referred to 2020 but would now mean 2022. Anyone who lives nearby want to take a look?

    Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Got a long weekend to catch up on stuff, and, yeah, I'm curious about the Vietnamese film. Plus Shaft on Monday!