Monday, August 30, 2021

Fantasia 2021 Extra: Cryptozoo

A kind of amusing thing, now that the festival is over and I've blown past all the embargo dates, is that the date for Cryptozoo was on Saturday the 21st, when it actually opened in Boston on the 20th. Would I have been breaking embargo to review it then, or would that have only been the case had I mentioned the festival? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, since I didn't get around to it until after the festival shut off the screener tap and it was on its last day on screen #9 at the Kendall.

I did have the "man, I'd like to see the $125M-budgeted live-action version of this" thoughts while watching it, and I feel like we're almost programmed to feel bad about that, like big movies must by their nature be soulless corporate product and there's virtue in liking less polished things. And while that's not exactly untrue - once you've got $125M in a project, there are a lot of incentives toward "nobody should dislike this" versus "some people should love it", and you can see something interesting in the flaws of something that has room for improvement - but blockbusters at their best entertain and communicate with a lot of people, including myself. I don't think it's too awful to think about how filmmaker Dash Shaw and company could get some of the things that might hinder one's enjoyment of the film out of the way even as one practically looks at the movie and knows that it's never getting made that way with all its violence and sex.

This is perilously close to complaining about a film not being what you want it to be rather than talking about what it is, and let's make it clear: I"m pretty fond of Cryptozoo as it is, at least once I sort of linked the comix-y style to the period, with almost a meta-level about how, in retrospect, both the counter-culture in general and underground comics in particular look like kind of a mess in retrospect. It's a nifty little movie that pulls some things off that are very impressive - the last act contains a guilt-and-redemption arc that almost never rings true in the time that it's given, for instance, and I certainly wouldn't trade that away.

Cryptozoo

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2021 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Is it awful to watch a distinctive piece of independent animation and think that you'd like to see the big mainstream blockbuster version, or maybe just a conventional anime from the same script? Understand, I wouldn't trade this Cryptozoo for another, but filmmaker Dash Shaw's style isn't for everyone, even though the movie underneath is the sort of fantasy adventure that an audience would easily go for, if the style was a little more familiar.

It opens with a young couple in the woods in 1967, smoking and screwing, and then coming upon a massive fence. Matthew (voice of Michael Cera) and Amber (voice of Louisa Krause) climb in and discover a unicorn and a midway, but the encounter doesn't go as one would hope. Elsewhere, Dr. Lauren Gray (voice of Lake Bell) has followed the trail of another rare cryptid to the Soviet Union and hedonistic faun Gustav (voice of Peter Stormare), though nemesis Nicholas (voice of Thomas Jay Ryan) is not far behind. With Lauren injured in the fallout, the institute's founder Joan (voice of Grace Zabriskie) assigns her a partner for her next mission; Phoebe (voice of Angeliki Papoulia) is a Gorgon who wears contacts and keeps her snakes under a kerchief and tranquilized so that she can live among non-cryptids. Their goal is to find a baku that has escaped from U.S. Army confinement; the dream-eating yokai had eased Lauren's nightmares as a kid on an Okinawa army base, while Joan fears the establishment could use it to erase the ambitions of the counterculture.

It's not unusual, at this point, to talk about how Shaw has other things than just the plot on his mind or how this is all a jumping-off point for exploring something interior, and that's what makes this different than something Disney or DreamWorks would produce, Cryptozoo works in large part because it's a darn good adventure movie, putting Lauren and Phoebe in constant pickles and taking them seriously, using a first trip to the zoo to set things up that will pay off in the climax, keeping things moving and seldom putting itself above an audience looking for creatures and mayhem, and not clutching pears at some nudity and gore. There's little ironic detachment to its action, which may sometimes be super-stylized but is also intense. Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski give it solid genre foundations that allow them to digress at times or get absurd, because this is too important to the characters to leave the story behind.

That does mean it's occasionally a bit wobbly when that story conflicts with the other things Shaw and his team have on their minds. Phoebe, Lauren, and the rest are smart enough to recognize that Joan's Cryptozoo is well-intentioned but problematic, the sort of thing that lets privileged people have helped a little but doesn't actually give the folks they're helping much agency about it (or at least be open to seeing that point of view), and if the comments along those lines are kind of on the nose at times in terms of pointing out, it's conversations that sound awkward in a familiar way, even if a satisfying resolution is hemmed in by the film being a period piece.

The visual style makes the film period in a fairly noteworthy way, in that Shaw's art has a bit of the underground "comix" of the 1960s and 1970s to it, though maybe more in general style than draftsmanship. The film has some everyday ugliness, aggressive nudity, trippy bits that can seem more an end to themselves than something revelatory, and a fondness for distortion and overloading the background to the point where it can swallow the action. The way it literalizes a scene where someone gets a tarot reading is the same kind of wrecking-ball approach to storytelling. The style does interesting work in placing Cryptozoo in this specific period and mindset - it's of this world and carries the same sort of blended cynicism and idealism - but it's often kind of off-putting in the same way underground comics can be.

It's also got the sort of voice cast that might be better off swapped out for either celebrities where the audience immediately associates something with the voices, or voice-over artists who know the medium and what it demands better. Nobody here is bad, but it's kind of interesting how Angeliki Papoulia's voice work winds up the most memorable once all is said and done - Phoebe has the most meaningful design, visually - a monster hidden underneath her desire to be be part of a more social world - and Papoulia shifting how she talks to match what's going on with what the audience can see makes both sides of the performance more effective. Mostly, though, the voice cast is relatively naturalistic actors working with a relatively static design, and it's sometimes a rough combination.

Which is how one's mind can wander in the direction of wondering what this script would be like with a lot of money, performance capture, and familiar style thrown at it. Odds are it wouldn't be quite as strong - Shaw and a tight team are by and large able to pull in the same direction and make it work in a way that five visual effects houses might now - but Cryptozoo is good enough that I wish it were a little easier to recommend to people who generally don't like "things like Cryptozoo".

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, August 27, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 August 2021 - 2 September 2021

(Unhooks laptop from living room TV to which it was streaming Fantasia screeners for three weeks) So, are there still movies being released the usual way? Apparently there are! Of course, folks are kind of skittish about opening big movies in late August the week before a Marvel release.
  • The only major mainstream opening is Candyman 2021, which revisits the story a generation later, when the housing projects where the original took place have been gentrified but the dark history remains. It's at the Coolidge (including a "Masked Matinee" on Sunday afternoon), 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.

    12 Mighty Orphans returns to Boston Common for a show or two a day, while Arsenal Yards gets the re-release of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (including about 15 minutes of bonus material). The Halsey video album, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power, plays again in Imax at Boston Common on Saturday. GKids continues their monthly anime shows with Lupin III: The First at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday (in English) and Tuesday (in Japanese and not at Arsenal Yards). There are also anniversary shows of Stripes at Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Sunday, Wednesday (South Bay only), and Thursday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also opens The Lost Leonardo in the smaller rooms, with the documentary looking at the "Salvator Mundi", a painting initially thought to be by an anonymous Renaissance painter but attributed to Da Vinci once later touch-ups were stripped away, eventually selling for $450 Million though its provenance is disputed, with the auction serving as a look inside the political and criminal strangeness in the highest echelon of the art world. It also plays Kendall Square.

    The Coolidge also has a super-limited release of Rushed, with Sioban Fallon Hogan as a mother investigating and avenging her son's death in a hazing incident, with 9pm and midnight shows on Friday and Saturday and 9pm shows Monday and Wednesday; the actress will dial in for a remote Q&A after the 9pm Saturday show. The After Midnite crew also offers up Blood Diner on 35mm, both Friday and Sunday; they also head out to Medfield State Hospital for drive-in shows of The Goonies on those days. Samurai Summer wraps with a 35mm print of The Sword of Doom on Monday.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square picks up Together, a comedy with James McAvoy and Sharon Hogan as a couple who find out a lot about themselves and their relationship during a year of staying in because of Covid. It also plays The Capitol, West Newton, and Boston Common.

    They also get Ma Belle, My Beauty, in which a marriage on the rocks is potentially thrown into even further into chaos when the third member of their old throuple arrives at their doorstep There's also White As Snow, which re-imagines Snow White in contemporary France with Lou de Laâge as the young ingenue and Isabelle Huppert as the jealous stepmother who exiles her, only to have the stepdaughter to have a sexual awakening.
  • The Brattle Theatre will finally be done with "Some of the Best of 2020" next weekend, but in the meantime they have Tenet (Friday/Saturday), Nomadland (Sunday), and Swallow (Monday). The last "Movie Movie" of the summer is Goodbye, Dragon Inn on Tuesday, and there's a two-day run of Summer of Soul Wednesday and Thursday, not part of the other series since it's a 2021 release.

    The Brattlite pares their online offerings to What We Left Unfinished, Sabaya, and Witches of the Orient.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens two Telugu movies this week, with Sridevi Soda Center looking like a comedy and Ichata Vahanumulu Niluparadu more a drama. They're also back to saying "sure, why not?" to mostly-VOD movies with comedy Defining Moments on the shelf so long that it has Burt Reynolds listed as the star (he died in 2018), while Megalodon Rising comes from The Asylum and has Tom Sizemore listed as the star on the poster even though he's not on the IMDB page.

    From China, Confetti and Raging Fire continue at Boston Common.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open at least through Sunday with Together, Respect, Free Guy, Stillwater, Reminiscence, Roadrunner, Space Jam 2, Summer of Soul, and In the Heights.

    The Lexington Venue is also on the weekend schedule with CODA and Respect.
  • Cinema Salem goes with Candyman, The Night House, and Free Guy Friday to Sunday, with a Friday late show of Tetsuo, The Iron Man.
  • The Somerville Theatre looks to be close to re-opening, what with a concert scheduled for 7 October, although you can look in and see they've still got the lobby in pieces. The Harvard Film Archive and Embassy Cinema are still closed for now (I'm trying not to read too much into both the Embassy and Causeway Street popping back up in Fandango listings as "temporarily closed"), but The Luna Theater in Lowell has a post on their site stating that they are re-opening in September. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • Joe's Free Films has Toy Story 4 at the Iacono Playground in Hyde Park on Monday and The Croods: A New Age at Doherty Playground in Charlestown on Tuesday.
  • New York Asian Film Festival's Taiwan Ghost Month runs through Wednesday.
I've actually still got some Fantasia backlog (last year, I think I got sent one screener a month after the end of the festival, so who knows if more will come trickling in?), but I'll probably go for The Night House, Reminiscence, The Lost Leonardo, and The Sword of Doom at some point. It's also my nephew's first birthday, so I will trade toys for cake on Sunday.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 August 2021 - 26 August 2021

Late August is always a weird time on the movie calendar, but I think the studios actually having noteworthy stuff open because of their backlog but the indies putting out little enough that the bigger things are playing at more boutique-y theaters kind of balances 2021 out.

  • Does The Coolidge Corner Theatre open The Night House (including the Sunday afternoon "Masked Matinee") under more normal circumstances? Probably not, but it looks like a spiffy supernatural thriller from David Bruckner with Rebecca Hall as a widow moving into the house her husband built before his apparent suicide and finding that something is definitely strange there. It also plays Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Kendall Square, and Assembly Row. The Coolidge also has an extremely limited run of Searching for Mr. Rugoff, with the documentary about a mid-century cinema entrepreneur playing the GoldScreen Saturday & Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening.

    Late night at the Coolidge, Folk Horror Friday has the '06 version of The Wicker Man on 35mm; someone asked Nicolas Cage what it was like being in that sort of unintentional comedy and he replied "do you think any of this happens by accident?" There's another 35mm print for Samurai Summer Saturday, Takashi Miike's terrific 13 Assassins. For those that can't stay up late, there's classic samurai with a 35mm print of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo on Monday evening.
  • Original sci-fi thriller Reminiscence, from Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, opens at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row (including Imax), Arsenal Yards (in CWX), Chestnut Hill, and on HBOmax. It takes place in a flooded Miami and has Hugh Jackman as a specialist in virtual reality memory recreation who finds himself in a massive conspiracy when his femme fatale client goes missing. There's also The Protege with Maggie Q as an assassin looking to avenge her mentor (Samuel L. Jackson) against a crime boss played by Michael Keaton; it plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    For the kids, there's Paw Patrol: The Movie, a feature-length adventure from the Nickelodeon cartoon/toy line. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, South Bay (including sensory-friendly screenings), Assembly Row, Chestnut Hill, and on Paramount+.

    Chance the Rapper's Magnificent Coloring World continues daily at Boston Common, and another music-themed presentation, Halsey's long-form music video/album "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" plays the Imax screen at Boston Common on Wednesday night. 35th Anniversary screenings of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home play Fenway and Arsenal Yards on Sunday. Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards have Coraline for Tuesday, with about a half-hour of supplemental material on top of the great Harry Selick stop-motion picture ahead of its upcoming Blu-ray reissue (in 2D, though). There's also a one-night show of urban fantasy The Show at Boston Common and Assembly Row on Thursday, which I believe is the first feature written by comics icon Alan Moore.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square opens documentary Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, including a Friday-night screening with director Abby Ginzberg doing an in-theater Q&A about the film and the Congresswoman who was one of the sole anti-war voices after 9/11.

    They also open Flag Day with Sean Penn directing himself and daughter Dylan as, well, a father and daughter, the twist being that the father was a notorious counterfeiter. It's also at Boston Common. There's also Fantasia selection Cryptozoo, Dash Bloom's animated follow-up to the bizarre My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea which has Lake Bell and others providing voices for cryptozoologists seeking to observe and/or capture mysterious and mythological creatures.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens No Ordinary Man, a documentary on Billy Tipton, a pianist who was also an icon as a trans man. It plays during prime time (late afternoon/evening) from Friday to Sunday, and matinees from Monday to Thursday.

    It shares the screen with "Some of the Best of 2020", entering the home stretch with indie horror movie Relic playing Friday and Saturday, documentary Time on Sunday and Monday, and influential Czech sci-fi classic Ikarie XB-1 - which predated but anticipated many elements of Star Trek, 2001, and Alien - on Wednesday and Thursday. The Movie Movie selection on Tuesday is Variety.

    The Brattlite keeps their line=up of What We Left Unfinished, Sabaya, Summertime, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, and Witches of the Orient.
  • Chinese drama Confetti opens Boston Common, featuring Zhu Zhu as a mother who moves to New York City in order to get her dyslexic daughter an education, which is apparently difficult in the conformist People's Republic. Fans of action from the Hong Kong SAR can still catch Raging Firethere as well.

    Telugu-language crime comedy Raja Raja Chora plays Apple Fresh Pond.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open at least through Monday and moving a bit back toward their boutique/second-run usual by bringing Dream Horse back to join Respect, Free Guy, Jungle Cruise, Stillwater, Roadrunner, Space Jam 2 (no shows Saturday/Sunday), Summer of Soul, and In the Heights.

    The Lexington Venue is also on the weekend schedule, opening CODA alongside Respect.
  • Cinema Salem goes with The Night House, Free Guy, Pig, and Roadrunner Friday to Sunday, with a Friday late show of Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue.
  • The Somerville Theatre, The Harvard Film Archive, and Embassy Cinema are still closed for now. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • Joe's Free Films shows A League of Their Own at Christopher Columbus Park on Sunday, Raya and the Last Dragon at Dorchester's Ronan Park on Tuesday, and Trolls: World Tour at Roxbury's Marcella Playground on Thursday.
  • The New York Asian Film Festival officially runs through the 22nd, but some of its films will still be available on Film at Lincoln Center's virtual platform into the next week, and they will also be using their Eventive site for a Taiwan Ghost Month series of seven recent supernatural thrillers from the island, including the recommended Silk, Detention, and Mon Mon Mon Monsters.
I'll be plowing through more Fantasia and NYAFFprograms, including the shorts programs, hopefully with time to detour to Cryptozoo, Reminiscence, and The Lake House.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021 Extra: Raging Fire

Does it count as a festival detour if a film plays the festival you're covering, but you watch it at a regular theater? Points for when you're trying to decompress after a movie-packed weekend trip to New York City and overnight train trip home (which, yes, the blog will catch up to soon)? Or is it just going to a movie?

Anyway, I wasn't really thinking of Benny Chan's legacy when I wrote this - he's a HK filmmaker I'm anxious to catch up with, because I loved him going all 3D kung-fu spaghetti western in Call of Heroes and want to see what the heck Paul Rudd being dropped into a Hong Kong movie was like in Gen-Y Cops, plus a few Jackie Chans I haven't seen. It's a good hook for the EFC review, but I must admit that those Jackie Chan flicks made me think of him as Just A Guy, the sort of capable dude Jackie hires to get the skeleton of the movie built while he's in charge of the action, but he's clearly better than that, even if he never exactly become a big name on the order of John Woo, Johnnie To, or Dante Lam.

His last film has already opened in mainland China but is just hitting Hong Kong this weekend, and I wonder a bit how it's going to be received, what with it starring Donnie Yen as a cop in a movie that at least seems to make an argument that cops shouldn't be second-guessed, and this all could have been avoided if they'd just let someone beat a confession out of a suspect. I can't claim to have the finger on the pulse of the SAR, but given how aggressively downvoted Yen's movies have been on the HKMovie app I keep on my phone (because why not?), I wonder if this might be a little bit problematic, even if the folks there love Benny Chan and Nicholas Tse.

Weird thing about this movie and Donnie Yen in general: For someone who spent many of his early years in Boston, his English is always kind of weird in Hong Kong films, which is especially noticeable given that when Nicholas Tse (who spent a similar amount of time in North American when he was a kid) drops an English phrase, he sounds like a guy who legitimately speaks English. I always kind of wonder if Yen is deliberately trying to come across as less American for the Chinese audience.

Anyway, I hope this does well because Benny Chan's final film is a banger and copaganda elements aside, this sort of no-messing-around action is a terrific release and a lot more fun when you can see everybody knows what they're doing rather than doing a lot of cuts to suggest it.

Nou fo (Raging Fire)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Raging Fire arrives in theaters about a year after its director's death, and it must be an odd thing to leave behind a legacy like that of Benny Chan Muk-Sing: Some romance, some comedy, a weird kids' movie, but mostly mayhem, three decades or so in the movie business of putting together a string of punches, kicks, gunshots, and explosions for maximum excitement. Some filmmakers spend their later years using the chops they've developed on such crowd-pleasers to do something more personal or "important", but Chan passed too early for that. Perhaps it's fitting that his last work is some high-quality action that still ends with a question of whether things could have turned out differently.

As it opens, the HKPD is targeting a drug deal between Wang Kwun and Long Hair of the Viet gang, only to have a fourth group show up and turn it into a bloodbath, slaughtering both gangs and the cops. Maybe it would have turned out different if Cheung Chung-Bong (Donnie Yen Ji-Dan) and his team had arrived on time, but some petty higher-up took them off the assignment because Bong wouldn't change a report to get a rich man's son out of a jam. And, indeed, Bong's unflinching dedication to the rules may be even closer to the root of the whole situation; the assault was carried out by ex-cops led by Bong's former partner, Yau Kong-Ngo (Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung), who spent three years in jail because Bong wouldn't fudge his testimony after a suspect died in Ngo's company during a kidnapping investigation. Now, Ngo's team is out and looking to get paid - and, of course, revenge.

It's the sort of story one can pick at a lot if one is in the mood - with Ngo's team losing a guy during the first assault, and what the audience eventually flashes back to, either the HKPD should be onto him much earlier or there should be a reason why, and Bong has enough old friends, mentors, and the like on the force that they kind of become a middle-aged, suited blur. To the extent that the script by Chan and others has a theme, it's the fickleness of fate, with the idea being that if Ngo and Bong were given the others' assignments during that kidnapping four years ago, the film would have different heroes and villains (or at least it's hopefully that, rather than tough cops with guts should be given a free hand rather than be punished for it).

On the other hand, Chan and company don't play with the idea that their fates could be interchangeable that much, in large part because Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse are so clearly more suited for their respective roles. Tse dives into the villain role with apparent relish, suggesting that the self-effacing fellow seen in flashbacks was a skin he shed pretty naturally, selling that he can be calculating and ruthless even as he's full of rage. Yen, on the other hand, seems a bit stiffer than usual, maybe not exactly lacking charisma but using the squareness that comes natural to make Bong more by the book. Of course, he's not exactly there to be charismatic; he's there because he's still light on his feet despite hitting hard, and brings along his own quality action team. There are only two or three sequences where that sort of hand-to-hand combat are at the forefront, but they're good stuff, heavy-hitting slugfests that wreck everything around Bong and Ngo and let them wail on each other. Yen's at the point where his body can use a little more time pointing guns than throwing punches, but the finale in a church undergoing enough renovation to have scaffolding the play in is a blast to watch as it finally narrows the conflict down to these two guys directly.

And there's plentiful action along the way, with Chan and his team pouring plenty into the other big action pieces, from an opening bit of combat where the masks worn by Ngo's team adds atmosphere to the ruthlessness to a climactic daylight shootout where producers Chan and Yen have clearly ordered the large, John Woo-in-his-prime-sized boxes of blanks and squibs, with enough bystanders stuck in the crossfire to completely hammer home just how unhinged Ngo and his team have become. Chan and company use the action centerpiece to kick things up a notch, playing up Ngo's cleverness and ruthlessness and escalating the general level of damage he's willing to cause with a car-shredding chase that not only leads into another fun bit of cat and mouse but incidentally has a couple of the film's best comic beats, including Yen's semi-meta best line.

Could these two characters have each gone the other way? Maybe; that's certainly the idea Chan and company seem to want the audience pondering once the smoke clears. But ultimately they're who they are, and Chan was who he was, and that's a guy who, if not quite in the upper pantheon of Hong Kong's great action filmmakers, certainly capable of delivering the brand of high-impact action in Raging Fire like few of his contemporaries.

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, August 16, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.06: Hotel Poseidon and Baby Money

Fairly narrow windows of availability during this virtual festival had me watching Giving Birth to a Butterfly and Hotel Poseidon back-to-back, two films with surreal elements that may be revealing just in terms of what I'm up for. Butterfly is 77 minutes long, builds sympathy, and generally gives the audience something worth looking at. Poseidon is considerably longer, pushes the audience away early, and mostly delivers more ugliness. I don't necessarily think that a film should be obligated to be nice or pretty, or to make it easy on its audience, but I must admit, as I started to get through Hotel Poseidon, the thought going through my head was "this probably has as much going on as Butterfly, but is it worth it? Does it have enough more going on that to be worth more effort than something which is not just friggin' nasty?"

Anway, I did wind up finding more than I expected in Poseidon, although I can't say I really like or recommend it that much. I feel like I had to actively play film critic to find metaphor underneath its ugliness, while Butterfly resonated immediately. Different audiences react to different things, which is why star ratings are as foolish as they are addictive.

For example, I don't know how many other folks like "dumb crime" as much as I do. I suspect that for a lot of people, it's tied up pretty strongly in "what the Coen Brothers do", and they are the unquestioned masters of this genre, there are times when I think they may be too clever for it, like they can't help but scoff at the schlubs who have backed into a bad situation that they can't get out of. This genre doesn't have to be black comedy, but it's really easy to stumble into that, or make it sort of straight twisty crime. I've commented before that I think the fourth season of Fargo (talking about Coen-adjacent) isn't dumb enough, all told, except maybe the nurse who is sort of a side story. Props for trying something new, but it didn't feel like Fargo.

Which is a long way of saying that I liked Baby Money for being serious dumb crime. More or less everyone screws up at some point, but it feels legit, like the way most of us would panic and not think things through if we ever got to the point where crime seemed to be our best option. Most of us aren't wired for it, despite what some will tell you about humans being innately sinful or selfish, and as a result, we're going to handle this stuff badly, and I dig the way that the filmmakers found a way to work with that despite the fact that our brains are pretty well trained to either solve a puzzle or enjoy someone being unusually clever when watching this genre, and this defies expectations without being disappointing.

Hotel Poseidon

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Hotel Poseidon is probably not the first film to peak with its opening titles and decline precipitously after that - at some point in his career, Saul Bass must have worked on a stinker - but what it demonstrates about getting through off-putting material for a payoff is interesting. That opening has its gross bits, but they pay off in a nifty title reveal; the rest of the movie asks the audience to endure plenty more for less concrete awards.

Admittedly, filmmaker Stef Lernous is aiming to make a strikingly off-putting first impression, showing Dave (Tom Vermeir) living in the midst of the rot and decay that has overtaken the shuttered hotel that his late father opened, with this late morning bringing something between belittling and encouragement from the neighbor on the other side of a thing wall and his apparent lover (Ruth Becquart) skipping the latter. It also brings Nora (Anneke Sluiters), whose options must really be limited if she's knocking on the papered doors and asking Dave to rent her a room for one night; an appointment with Jacki (Dominique Van Malder), who has ideas of transforming the function room into a cabaret; and the death of his Aunt Lucy, whose hospital bed had been parked in a hallway, inactive to the point where she may actually have passed some time ago.

The hotel is established as a nasty place, with moldy surfaces, standing water in every aquarium used as decoration, and every disused item from the coffee pot to the lights catching on fire when it they try to draw a little electricity from the shoddy wiring, and Dave himself seems to belong there, walking around as if he's long accepted that adapting his routine to the squalor is less effort than making it what one might call livable. Lemous and actor Tom Vermeir seem to understand this mindset well; they make Dave feel like he absolutely hates the very idea of people, to the extent that one can see him accepting abuse because he feels he deserves it but also sneering in his responses because everyone else does too. That so many of them are played as cruel or callous doesn't exactly make one inclined to disagree with this take. Dave seems to barely leave the hotel, and they run together, with it hard to see where he ends and it begins.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Baby Money

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Of all the different ways one can make a crime movie, there is probably none more difficult to get right than straight "dumb crime" - that is to say, one which reflects that few crimes (beyond white-collar frauds that are seldom investigated much less prosecuted) are actually committed by people who are actually good at it. There are moments when one wants Baby Money to have a clever twist or characters colorful enough to make for black comedy, but it manages the trickier route of getting suspense from its characters being enough out of their depth to be unpredictable but not random.

Minny (Danay Garcia) isn't dumb herself; she's just had an unexpected pregnancy put a real hitch into her job as an exotic dancer. Her boyfriend Gil (Michael Drayer) has a line on a job that can earn them some quick cash: He'll serve as lookout while Tony (Travis Hammer) and Dom (Joey Kern) break into a house to retrieve a purple box, with Minny driving; a call on the burner phone at 4AM will say what to do. Things naturally go completely sideways, with Minny fleeing the scene as the police arrive and the home invaders taking refuge in an empty house - at least, until Heidi (Taja V. Simpson) and her autistic son Chris (Vernon Taylor III) arrive home.

The typical caper tends to go sideways because of a hidden flaw in the plan - somebody can't be trusted, or there's some unexpected security measure - and while that is kind of the case here, it's not like anything unlikely happens. Instead, writers Mikhail Bassilli and MJ Palo build the bulk of the movie on fight-or-flight responses, and the irony is that most of the time, the characters are probably better off that way; even they are as relatively bright as Minny and Heidi seem, they misread the situation and make bad decisions, and the neat trick the movie pulls off is that characters always seem to panic in the way that makes the most sense in the moment. It makes a crime into a chaotic combination of understandable actions.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, August 13, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 August 2021 - 19 August 2021

I almost wonder if Disney is four-walling just the 3D editions of some movies right now, because it was part of pre-pandemic contracts and after the Black Widow lawsuit they want to make sure they're technically doing what they're supposed to.

ANYWAY...

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens CODA, an acronym for "Children of Deaf Adults", which features Emilia Jones as the teenage hearing child of Deaf parents who has spent much of her life interpreting but discovers a passion for music It's got a Masked Matinee show on Sunday and also plays Kendall Square.

    Since this Friday is a 13th, they head out to Rocky Hill Woods for a double feature of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday & Freddy vs. Jason, and hang around for a twin-bill of Wet Hot American Summer & The Final Girls on Saturday. The midnight screenings back home in Brookline include Night of the Demon for Folk Horror Friday and Blind Woman's Curse for Samurai Summer Saturdays. Samurai Summer also includes Lady Snowblood on Monday.
  • It's kind of a crowded weekend at the multiplexes, with three fairly noteworthy openings. Respect is the one meant to be prestigious, with Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha Franklin in a look at her rise and inevitable troubles at the top. It's at The Capitol (including a baby-friendly matinee on Monday), Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds as a video game background character and Jodie Comer as a player who notices more than he seems, finally comes out after being delayed a long time between the Disney/Twentieth merger and the pandemic, and it's getting some surprisingly good reviews based on how rough most of the trailers have been. It plays The Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway (including before-noon 3D), South Bay (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill. For horror fans, Don't Breathe 2 apparently features a new group of idiots trying to break into the home of a blind Stephen Lang and probably not living to regret it; that's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row.

    Boston Common also has Chance the Rapper's Magnificent Coloring World, which seemed like it was supposed to be a bigger thing at one point.

    A 50th Anniversary presentation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays Fenway, South Bay, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday & Wednesday. On the opposite end of intended audiences, Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman plays Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Monday. Arsenal Yards also has 35th Anniversary screenings of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on Thursday.
  • If you can't get to Fantasia or NYAFF, some of it will be coming to you this weekend with Raging Fire, a big of Hong Kong action starring Donnie Yen as a hard-line cop and Nicolas Tse as his former mentee turned criminal, and which is also the final film from director Benny Chan, who died last year after a long and lauded career. It's at Boston Common, as is Korean thriller (and NYAFF opener) Escape From Mogadishu.

    Telugu-language romantic comedy Paagal plays Arsenal Yards.
  • Also playing Landmark Theatres Kendall Square also opens Ema, starring Mariana Di Girolamo as a dancer whose marriage and life collapses after her son brings disgrace to the family.
  • The Brattle Theatre continues "Some of the Best of 2020" with this week featuring Kajillionaire (Friday/Saturday), Possessor (Friday/Saturday), the restored Lupin The Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (Saturday/Sunday), Wolfwalkers (Sunday), Martin Eden (Monday), Minari (Wednesday), and On the Rocks (Thursday). The Tuesday Movie Movie is a 35mm print of Sunset Boulevard.

    The Brattlite (their virtual space) picks up What We Left Unfinished, an examination of five unfinished films from when Afghanistan was a Communist country. It joins Sabaya, Summertime, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, and Witches of the Orient.
  • The Boston Jewish Film wraps the "Summer Cinematheque" series Here We Are available online through Tuesday (including pre-recorded Q&A with star Shai Avivi). Tuesday is also the make-up date for the outdoor screening of The Band's Visit that was postponed by rain a couple weeks earlier.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open all week with Respect, Free Guy, The Suicide Squad, Jungle Cruise, Stillwater, Roadrunner, Space Jam 2 (no shows Saturday/Sunday), Summer of Soul, and In the Heights. The Lexington Venue is on the weekend schedule, with Respect, Roadrunner and Summer of Soul, as well as Saturday & Sunday matinees of The Boss Baby 2.
  • Cinema Salem goes with Free Guy, The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, and Annette Friday to Monday, with a Friday late show of John Waters's Multiple Maniacs.
  • The Somerville Theatre, The Harvard Film Archive, and Embassy Cinema are still closed for now. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
  • SomerMovieFest wraps up Thursday with Guardians of the Galaxy playing Seven Hills Park in Davis Square. The Joe's Free Films also shows Hidden Figures at Christopher Columbus Park on Sunday, Trumbo on the Watertown Library's patio (RSVP required) and Missing Link at Fallon Field in Roslindale on Monday, Onward at Moakley Park on Tuesday, and The Descendants 3 at the Hynes Playground on Thursday, .
  • The New York Asian Film Festival has its shorts on Eventive and many features online via Film at Lincoln Center's virtual theater, available throughout the United States, including New England, with at least a couple of new ones coming on every night and available for five days. It runs through the 22nd.
And, indeed, I'll be heading out to Manhattan for the in-person offerings at NYAFF Friday through Sunday, returning Monday morning to hit of the 3D Free Guy and Raging Fire (unless it's too hot when I get to NYC to do anything but duck inside another theater). After that, it's back to the Fantasia screeners.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.05: Giving Birth to a Butterfly

Short day, and not necessarily because I was daydreaming about the possibility of going up to Montreal for the film in the festival's lineup that I most wanted to see, Septet, which apparently was only screening once, in person at the Imperial. Hopefully it will play elsewhere. Anyway, this was the only movie with an embargo date of Monday, which is roughly what I'm using for scheduling.

At any rate, I took a little extra time to let this one turn over, so this is where I start to fall behind. It's good enough to run long on despite being pretty short itself. I'm always a little surprised when something like this has its World Premiere at Fantasia, because it seems like the sort of thing that might get grabbed by a non-genre festival during the Sundance/SXSW/IFFBoston/Tribeca period, although the "Fantasia Underground" section is a nice fit for it. It's streaming time was 9:15pm, and I suspect that's when we'd get into de Seve for it with an intimate Justine-hosted Q&A at the end.

Now that I think about it, a Septet/Giving Birth night with me running underneath Maisonneuve between would have been one of the best nights of Fantasia ever. Get your shots, folks, so that we can do something like that next year.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Theodore Scaefer's Giving Birth to a Butterfly is an intriguingly odd duck of a movie, with a 16mm aesthetic that recalls old home movies despite its modern concerns, and a cast of characters you could drop into a sitcom except for the ones that are in the midst of existential crises. It is a bunch of combinations that seem like they shouldn't work even before they start to wander into stranger territory, but it nevertheless leaves one even more anxious to unpack what's going on.

Things are a little bit tight in the Dyer household, with mother Diana (Annie Parisse) sewing costumes for a community theater production and mulling over how she could add something like that to the rotation as internet gig work she does on top of her job at the drugstore while husband Daryl (Paul Sparks) talks about opening a restaurant. Teenage daughter Danielle (Rachel Resheff) is working on the same production in lighting, while her older brother Andrew (Owen Campbell) is introducing the family to his girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney) - pregnant, but by someone else. Diana is reasonably alarmed, while Daryl is almost obliviously supportive of this situation. Diana is so used to being the glue of the family that when she discovers an identity theft has drained their bank account (under the guise of "Janus Identity Protection" software), she enlists Marlene to help her confront those responsible. But what they find when following that path…

Not that things are necessarily sensible in their small New York town; although sometimes the sense of how things are off is a little harder to put one's finger on, especially for the people of Diana's generation. Marlene's mother Monica (Constance Shulman) is completely, obviously delusional - a one-time actress who lost her best shot at fame when a movie set to shoot in this town didn't happen, she is constantly anticipating her comeback and seems unable to acknowledge Marlene's pregnancy, choosing to believe she's the star of the community theater production. Daryl imagines himself a chef, dressing the part at every opportunity, but everyone avoids saying too much about his home cooking. His comments about his employers aren't quite racist, but he also can't understand why they are the bosses and he is the employee. They're of a generation when many were raised to believe that their dreams not just could come true, but would, and literally can't handle it.

Their kids don't seem to have the same sort of delusions. The Dyers reflect their parents to some extent, Owen Campbell's Drew isn't that much brighter than Paul Sparks's Daryl, but Drew's not a selfish the way Daryl is and obviously has a big heart. They're both broad, simple characters, but one feels affection for Drew; his simple nature doesn't deny anything or treat others poorly. Rachel Resheff is perhaps the most underused member of the cast; Danielle is funny and practical without being particularly wiser than her years, finding what she likes and learning about it, although one worries about her in the scenes where Resheff is playing against one of the men in the cast - she's halfway onto her father's selfishness, but there's signs she might shrink from asserting herself as she's literally shining light on others.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Monday, August 09, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.04: Bull and Tokyo Revengers

Fun accidental double feature here, with the Sunday virtual second screening of Bull and in-person-in-Montreal screening of Tokyo Revengers both featuring movies that involve trying to right wrongs after a ten year break, just with that break running in different directions, time-wise. This amuses me.

Bull

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, IndeeTV)

Bull is a revenge story, distilled almost completely down to the genre's essence, so much so that its twist arguably just makes it even more elemental. It is lean, nasty, and tremendously satisfying in its nasty way.

It's been ten years since anybody last saw Bull (Neil Maskell), and that is by and large probably for the best; the audience first encounters him buying a gun, plugging someone off-screen, and then casually tossing the weapon back to the person who sold it to him, apparently not terribly worried about being recognized. Soon he's back in his hometown, but only former sister-in-law Cheryl (Kellie Shirley) is to be found. She's not much help in finding the rest of her father Norm (David Hayman) and sister Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt), who have moved on in the past decade. Bull used to be part of the muscle for Norm's protection racket, and their falling out was such that Norm and his other lieutenants at the time, Gary (Kevin Harvey), Marco (Jason Milligan), and Clive (David Nellist), are shocked to see him alive, to the extent that they track down his mother Margie (Elizabeth Counsell) to find out if he has some sort of look-alike brother or cousin.

The scene where Norm confronts Margie is not necessarily an important one as far as the plot goes, but it's got a couple of moments which exemplify the almost self-contradictory melodrama of it better than almost everything else. Watch Norm just seethe in anger talking to this 80-year-old woman who spends her days making small bets on the ponies, his declaration that her family was put on Earth to destroy his seeming absurdly hyperbolic, but that's the scale of this sort of feud - everything to those involved, but verging on petty from the outside. Nearly as much fun is the moment when director Paul Andrew Williams and his cinematographer zoom in on a corner of the screen, an doubly-unsettling change in a film whose go-to-way to put the audience off-balance is in how it cuts between scenes.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Tokyo Revengers (Tôkyô ribenjâzu)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Cinando)

As near as I can tell, the anime series and live-action movies of Tokyo Revengers are coming out almost simultaneously, and while the movie is not bad at all - especially for fans of the teenage-delinquents-fighting genre - this is a story clearly made for another medium, whether it be comics or television. There's too much to fit in and spots which beg for both cliffhangers and room for subplots to get fleshed out. The filmmakers do impressive work getting the story down to two hours, but it's really not a movie at heart.

It kicks off with Hanagaki Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) working the sort of part-time convenience store job usually reserved for teenagers, and his younger boss suggests he peaked in high school. If so, it wasn't much of a peak - he was the kind of kid who thought fighting made him look tough and cool but always got his ass kicked - with the best part of it the girlfriend he had at the time, and now the news says that Hinata Tachibana (Mio Imada) and her brother Naoto have died in their mid-twenties, the victim of violence involving the Tokyo Maji gang. Soon after, he's apparently pushed in front of a subway train, only to emerge ten years earlier, but at least able to convince Naoto (Yosuke Sugino) to keep alert on 1 July 2020 before returning to a reality where Naoto survived and is now a detective who notes that "Toman" changed drastically ten years ago, when leaders Manjiro Sano (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Teetta Kisaki (Shotaro Mamiya) met. They figure out how to send Takemichi back and forth, and he's able to change things so that he's befriended by "Mikey" Sano, who seems pretty nice for a delinquent. Takemichi figures things changed when his best friend and conscience Ken "Draken" Ryuguji (Yuki Yamada) was killed in a fight with Moebius (Keita Arai) and his gang, but he's still more or less the same loser he was the first time through high school - how can he change destiny?

You'd think that a biker gang led by a gang named "Moebius" whose logo is an ouroboros might have something to do with the time-travel shenanigans, and there are vague hints that there's more going on than what happens when Takemichi and Naoto shake hands, but that's not an element this film does much with. Maybe that's for the best - if screenwriter Takahashi Izumi were to commit to a cause, he might have to spend time explaining it, then maybe talk about how, if there's more going on than just these two coincidentally having this power, someone thinks their best use of it is pushing a group of street punks to become a powerful yakuza rival, which isn't really the story these filmmakers are interested in telling. Still, it feels like they could have done a lot more with Hinata, who had apparently been the best thing in Takemichi's life but often gets treated like an impediment to the plot. Heck, there's barely any talk of what happened to her during the missing ten years. This story could be streamlined down to someone older but not at all wiser reliving his youth and determined to do it right (for a weird value of "right") without all the back-and-forth and maybe work better.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.03: Pompo: The Cinephile and Tin Can

Two scheduled screenings from north of the border on Saturday, albeit opposite ends of the day - Pompo played at 1pm and Tin Can at 9:30pm - and pretty close to the opposite ends of what Fantasia is as a festival: The first is a Japanese import that is probably much more mainstream than my brain which was programmed by growing up in the 1980s, when anime was super-niche and that niche was weird, would expect. I swear that every time I see one of those in Montreal, I figure it's okay to stop at Tim Hortons on the way to grab some breakfast-y movie snacks and then realize that it's packed and I have a moment of worry that my press pass won't get me in. I come out hoping that GKids or someone picks it up so I can give it to my nieces as a birthday or Christmas present, although I am now told that they don't even have anything hooked up to the TV that could play it. The second is a weird Canadian production that fills Hall with a completely different crowd, a bunch of cast and crew in attendance, Mitch hyping it up at the start, and the crowd giving it a big round of applause. I may or may not hear about the film again until the filmmakers make another one which plays BUFF or Fantasia five years later.

(Sighs, looking vaguely northward)

That's one of the genuinely cool things about Fantasia - though it feels like a single event defined by its community, that community is broad enough that if you take us media guys out, sold-out shows in the largest auditorium can have completely different audiences. I've come out of one and seen that the lines of people going to both and allowed in first to reclaim their seats are empty (and other times been glad to see that there were other folks with that sort of broad taste to overlap).

Eiga daisuki Pompo-san (Pompo: The Cinéphile)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Cmosy (?))

In an utterly meaningless coincidence, the animated adaptation of Pompo: The Cinéphile played the Fantasia Festival mere days after the first volume of the manga is released in North America, which I mention because, somewhat unusually, it seems to cover the exact same material, ending on a joke that I suspect screenwriter Takayuki Hirao took as a challenge. He may have had to work as hard as his protagonist to get there, but it by and large works out.

Said main character is not Joelle Davidovich "Pompo" Pomponett (voice of Konomi Kohara), B-movie producer and granddaughter of Nyallywood legend (and studio namesake) J.D. Peterzen, but her frazzled assistant Gene Fini (voice of Hiroya Shimizu), who spends as much time as he can manage watching what happens on Pompo's sets and soaking up what he can, hoping for an opportunity, though he doesn't expect the one his mercurial boss drops on him after he cuts a trailer for her latest monster movie: A straight drama script she's written and will produce, with legendary actor Martin Braddock (voice of Akio Otsuka) signed for one lead part and newcomer Nathalie Woodward (voice of Rinka Otani) being groomed for the other, with Pompo moving her in with frequent genre flick star Mystia (voice of Ai Kakuma) to learn the ropes. That doesn't make it easy on them, though, as Pompo's name on the screenplay doesn't mean she'll be any less exacting and demanding a producer.

That Pompo is a producer is an interesting choice, because it's not a well-understood job among laypeople (or even many film fans), and mostly portrayed in pop culture as the penny-pinchers or tasteless tyrants standing in the way of the director's art. Hirao (and presumably original manga-ka Shogo Sugitani) may have the story follow Gene and his point of view, but they are very much invested in presenting filmmaking as a team activity, with Pompo overseeing the process of making sure Gene gets what he needs and key members of the crew making suggestions he's wise to take to heart. It is, I suspect, fairly true-to-life in its procedural details and in how filmmaking is filled with challenges and opportunities to improvise within limits, mostly without needing to resort to full-fledged crises to advance the story.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Seobok

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Vimeo)

Seth A. Smith's Tin Can is an unabashedly weird bit of science fiction, escalating its eccentricity twice, more or less to the point of abstraction. The ironic result is that a flashback to a thoroughly conventional series of events is almost the thing that causes a viewer to have momentary trouble suspending their disbelief. Sure, one might say, I'll buy all that other stuff, but are we really going to have something this big turn on that? That's not a complaint; that's a sign that a movie has rewired what one finds possible but good.

In the near future, there's a new pandemic, this one mostly contained to eastern Canada and involving a fungal infection. Fret (Anna Hopkins) and John (Simon Mutabazi) are both working on the problem for research institute VASE as well as being lovers, and John's recent diagnosis has given Fret a little extra motivation. Her current research in using gold to halt the fungus's advance shows promise, at least until she is unexpectedly knocked on the head and wakes up in a container with barely any room to move around, thoroughly intubated. She manages to pull some of that gear out and pry open a grill just enough to see that there's not much more than other cans to see out there. John is in another one, as are other folks she saw at VASE. Some are talking about a long-term hibernation project, but that doesn't make sense to Fret - her muscles haven't atrophied, for one thing. She's a scientist, and that sounds like pure science fiction.

Which is saying something, considering her circumstances. Smith spends a good chunk of the movie testing just how much of the claustrophobic setting the audience can take, narrowing the already-tight framing, building a shot so that Fret is easy to read but still feels buried behind tubes and such, occasionally switching to a cutaway with the rest of the screen blotted out by some brightly-colored pattern so it doesn't feel too zoomed-out. Anna Hopkins gives an impressive physical performance, contorting and straining against everything around her, escalating from methodical to fierce, playing against disembodied voices, with the changing angles and sound mixing making it hard for the audience to construct a mental map of whatever space contains these units.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.02: Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Seobok, Escape from Mogadishu, and The Suicide Squad

I can't be in Montreal, but…

I had the idea of figuring out how many spots in my general area had this bit of French-Canadian cuisine on the menu while covering Fantasia last year and having a "poutine of the day" to go with the festival, but never followed through, and I won't necessarily be doing it more than a couple of times over the next few weeks - there are more than a few places with poutine on the menu in the Boston area (and even around Davis Square), but mostly as a two-person shared appetizer and I don't really like it that much. I'm also not going into places that are mainly bars just to get some fries & curds.

That said, this "Big Poutine with Pork Belly" from Saus hit the spot between two movies at Boston Common; their fries are genuinely terrific. I felt okay with hitting even though I was technically taking time off work to cover the festivals because Escape from Mogadishu would be the New York Asian Film Festival's opening-night movie later that evening in Manhattan and The Suicide Squad had a Fantasia-sponsored preview at the Imperial Theatre on Wednesday, the night before the festival started, in part because director James Gunn is a long-standing friend of the festival, first bringing a movie there back in '97 with Lloyd Kaufmann. I kind of wish I liked this one more, but, hey, I kind of got a chance to vent about what I think the issue with DC Comics and their movies is over the last decade or so.

As for the genuine festival material, I found both Broadcast Signal Intrusion and Seobok interesting and a bit frustrating in similar ways: They're full of style and you can see the lines that the filmmakers are trying to follow, but they skip enough steps in the case of Intrusion or go too hard-boiled in the case of Seobok that it doesn't quite work. Those aren't indefensible choices in the least, and I could probably talk myself into thinking they worked if I'd run into someone enthusiastic after the screening, but I'm alone in my apartment, so that didn't happen.

Anyway, if you're north of the border, Broadcast Signal Interruption and Seobok should still be available on the Festival's VOD; the other two should be playing in plenty of theaters on both sides, although the big DC Comics tentpole is going to be on many more screens than the Korean import.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, IndeeTV)

Broadcast Signal Intrusion shows how thin the line between "good thriller" and "bad mystery" is, and how that can mostly be a matter of perspective. The filmmakers do a pretty terrific job of building atmosphere and laying out intriguing pieces, and if you mostly just want to feel a movie, it's successful more or less right up to the end. If you enjoy solving a puzzle, or more often vicariously experiencing someone else figuring something out, it may eventually turn sour.

It opens in 1999, with James (Harry Shum Jr.) working nights in a TV station, moving their archive from analog tape to DVD-R, checking to make sure that the contents are what they say. He stumbles on a night in 1987 when the station's signal was hijacked by some creepy figure in a rubber mask, which he learns is an unsolved mystery, the "Sal-E Sparx Incident", which happened two nights a week apart, with the FBI and FCC confiscating much of the evidence. Fellow A/V enthusiast Chester (Arif Yampolsky) gets him video of the other example, and he contacts Dr. Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle), the FCC bureau chief who investigated the incident at the time. Lithgow lets slip that there were rumors of a third incident in 1997, and it seems like it can't be a coincidence that it was the day after James's wife Hannah disappeared. Also unlikely to be coincidences: The young woman (Kelley Mack) following him and the message on an electronic bulletin board hinting that there's more information to be found.

Director Jacob Gentry and writers Phil Drinkater & Tim Woodall set up an intriguing set-up here, but it's one that may be too good a mystery for James to actually solve. It's not long before the sheer number of people who don't just get inserted into the story but seem to insert themselves to both point James in the direction he needs to go and tell him that no good will come of going there is more than the story can bear. It's the sort of thing where, once the situation becomes a bit clearer, viewers may find themselves scratching their heads, wondering why these guys are making so much effort to do things whose entire point is to lead a sleuth back to them - indeed, the way that they know the right moment to do so can almost seem like omniscience even as their ability to trash an apartment but leave the incriminating evidence where James can easily find it suggests something else - and if you're trying to make sense of it, very frustrating.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Seobok

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Lee Young-Ju's Seobok is a story that's been done a fair amount and is on the one hand a strikingly impressive case of the benefits of stripping things down and on the other a warning that when a filmmaker does that, there should still be something a little surprising up his sleeve. I love the bits where there's no messing around, and would love them more in a movie that isn't so resolutely working off a familiar template.

After an American researcher (Paul Battle) is assassinated by a drone strike, former intelligence agent Min Ki-Hun (Gong Yoo) is contacted by his old boss, Ahn Ik-Hyun (Jo Woo-Jin) for a seemingly simple job, escorting clone Seobok (Park Bo-Gum) from the Seoin Research Institute's off-shore laboratory to a secret bunker, lest the terrorists get him too. The scientists there (Park Byung-Eun & Jang Young-Nam) give him the creeps, and Seobok himself is unnerving - he looks about 20 but was gestated 10 years ago, and apparently has some sort of mental influence on things around him - but Ahn has offered a heck of an inducement: Treatment from Seobok's unaging stem cells to cure the glioblastoma that threatens to kill Min within months. The transport inevitably gets attacked, leaving Ki-Hun and Seobok on their own, not certain who to trust.

Seobok is more hostile than is typical for these movies, where the norm is more of a childlike curiosity than Park Bo-Gum's cynical teenager, and while that's an occasionally interesting choice, it doesn't exactly challenge Gong Yoo's cynical spy for much of the movie. They rankle each other, but they don't make good fits for each other's blind spots, mostly arguing over details and which practical concern should direct them. Gong gets to be exasperated and Park aloof, at least until their time on the run connects to their respective tragic backstories, and they do it well, but there's no contrast.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Mogadishu (Escape from Mogadishu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

Ryoo Seung-Wan's Escape from Mogadishu is primarily being touted as an action movie, although it is more a film that meticulously builds up to the big action sequence at its climax. A minor distinction, perhaps, but it doesn't hurt to set one's expectations accordingly: It's not a non-stop thrill ride (and it's worth noting that the original Korean title is just "Mogadishu"), but Ryoo sure knows how to let the audience leave the theater on a high note.

Ryoo opens by reminding the audience that, during the 1980s, neither South Korea nor its northern neighbor were part of the United Nations, and with the African continent having the most votes on that matter, both countries are making major charm offensives. In 1990, that means Ambassador Han Shin-Sung (Kim Yun-Seok) and Secretary Gong Soo-Cheol (Jeong Man-Sik) are awaiting the arrival of Counselor Kang Dae-Jin (Zo In-Sung), whose diplomatic bag contains a number of "gifts" for Somalia's leader (Kang is also clearly working for the KCIA), only to be waylaid by rebels on their way to meet President Barre. They suspect the work of North Korean Ambassador Rim Yong-Soo (Heo Jun-Ho) and Kang's opposite number, Tae Joon-Ki (Koo Gyo-Hwan), and plant a story implying that North Korea is supplying the rebels. Whether they are or not, the rebels make it into the capital city near the end of the year, trapping the missions in their embassies while they try to find some way out of the country with flights grounded and communications out. And when the DPRK mission is forced out of their building and unable to take refuge with an ally, the ROK embassy may be their only hope.

There's a lot going on here, and you could probably make a fairly interesting dark comedy just about how the Korean embassies in these countries try to outmaneuver each other, deal with the absurdity of there often being no Korean visitors or interests beyond UN votes to assist, and have internal conflicts. At times, it seems like Ryoo is going for something like that - not comedy, per se, although he does open with gags about Han's chronic tardiness and does have a memorable moment built around how his generally nice wife Cho Soo-Jin (Kim Jae-Hwa) is sort of presumptive in her Christianity to the point where it annoys the other women there, just sort of doing a lot of procedural cloak-and-dagger set-up to make sure the audience understands just how difficult it is for the two missions to trust each other even in the middle of a life-or-death crisis, although there's also something enjoyably ironic about how Mogadishu is that movie until outside events send it in another direction.

It makes for a couple of very nice performances by the actors playing the ambassadors, and how they come at their roles from different directions. Kin Yun-Seok's Han is introduced as fairly lightweight, not exactly mocked, but one can easily see how this guy winds up assigned to an African backwater even though he's put in the time to make it to the level of ambassador, which also makes him an interesting clash with Zo In-Sung's Kang. Zo often comes off as playing things a bit broader than the rest, a smirky hardliner maybe not accustomed to accountability. It's worth noting that Koo Gyo-Hwan plays Tae as a mirror, maybe not the greatest performance but a clever indicator that the ROK and DPRK were sometimes more alike than different in this era. On the other hand, Heo Jun-Ho's performance as Ambassador Rim is one of the film's greatest pleasures - what plays as a gruff adversary early on grows more experienced and dignified as the film goes on, his irritation at the South being johnny-come-latelies to Africa early on highlights how humbling it is to ask Han for help later.

(It is worth noting that the film's treatment of Mogadishu and Somalia itself is not nearly so generous as that of the diplomats from the DPRK and their families. The closest thing to a Somali character who isn't corrupt or treacherous is the comic-relief cabbie at the beginning, with even the embassy's driver presented as a dangerous rebel. It's an admittedly a dangerous, violent situation, but there occasionally seems to be unneeded effort expended in making the Somalis nothing but obstacles to the Koreans.)

For someone mainly known as an action guy, Ryoo holds back until relatively late, although both the initial attack on the embassy car and a fight between Kang and Tae are fairly well-done. Still, he's clearly going for broke with the last mad multi-car dash through the city, from how he spends time building up to it with the parties doing their best to armor the cars with books and sandbags to the ominous image of rebels picking up their guns as daily prayers end and what head start the group has managed evaporates. After that, Ryoo and his crew do a terrific job of switching between wide-open shots that let the audience see where the bullets are coming from and tight reaction shots. They throw in missteps to show how half the people driving these cars are not exactly experts, and make sure things get a little less comfortable when one car gets separated from the convoy. The makeshift armor probably proves far more effective in the movie than it would in real life, but the tension is that much higher because what the audience sees is not the typical huge numbers of misses around the occasional broken window, but things getting shredded because when this many people fire this many bullets, a fair amount are going to find their mark. It's a terrific sequence, and Ryoo takes the time to make sure that the audience can't entirely decompress afterward because there are a few plot threads that need some resolution, although it's just enough time that the adrenalin hasn't entirely left a viewer's body.

I described the plot of Escape from Mogadishu to a friend and he asked an interesting question - what does North Korea think of movies where North and South Koreans must cooperate to overcome a shared danger (consider Ashfall as another recent example), and though I'm really in no position to know, I'm guessing a country that will jail a citizen for using slang from its neighbor's pop culture is against that pop culture showing reconciliation as possible. Which means they miss out; this particular example is slick, occasionally thrilling, and at least worth a watch.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Suicide Squad

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

The Suicide Squad is better than its article-free predecessor from five years back, but that's not exactly a titanic improvement, and it suffers from the same problem: For all that there's a solid core of comic book fans that go crazy for more R-rated power fantasies and assembling various characters in a shared universe's roster - they've probably been a big part in keeping a fair number of comics shops afloat during lean years - I suspect that most people respond to superheroics as larger-than-life expressions of ideals clashing, a grand and abstracted battle rather than a detailed and bloody one. But the latter is all that something like The Suicide Squad can offer, and the fact that James Gunn is in a better position to realize an adaptation without compromise than David Ayer was can't overcome that.

Though named like a reboot, Gunn's film is a sequel, opening with a team of supervillain prisoners known as Task Force X that includes a few of the first film's survivors - Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), parachuting into a beach on the South American island of Corto Maltese and running into a bunch of soldiers, with few survivors. Meanwhile, on another front, Bloodsport (Idris Elba) leads his team of Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (voice of Sylvester Stallone), and a new Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchoir) - plus her pet rat Sebastian - on a second front. The goal: To locate The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) and use him to get into the lab containing "Project Starfish", so that they can shut it down and destroy all records now that this island nation has had a coup and the new rulers are less aligned with US interests. The rules are the same: Those who survive and succeed get ten years knocked off their prison sentences, while any who attempt to run will find director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) quite ready to detonate the bombs implanted in their skulls.

James Gunn drops what is probably meant to be the theme to the film early, disguised as a joke: What, exactly, is the difference between Bloodsport and Peacemaker, both described as being trained from birth so that anything is a deadly weapon in their hands? Apparently, that one is a reluctant leader and the other a sociopath comes down entirely to having a daughter, because the two guys who could use a little backstory don't really get one. It doesn't really matter that much, on the surface - Gunn has assembled a pretty great cast and given them big personalities to work with, with even the returnees seeming like they've got a better handle on these guys than they did before. It's quite possible nobody has more fun playing a character in any movie than Margot Robbie does with Harley Quinn; she plays the Joker's ex big and so far off-kilter as to be sideways but still makes her feel three-dimensional. Idris Elba makes a great choice for the leader because he's got impressive chemistry with everyone, and Sylvester Stallone milks more out of a few grammatically-iffy words than seems likely.

It's good that they can put all that out without a lot of seeming effort, because Gunn doesn't figure to slow down to let them flesh things out. His movie is frantic from the start, jumping back and forth in time and barely finishing one needle drop before the next one begins, and eventually gets kind of meta about it, spending a couple minutes on how one character who gets wiped out barely had time to give his name. It's also the sort of movie that happily panders to the "comics aren't for kids any more" and "ugh, PG-13?" crowds in the bloodiest way possible, gleeful in how quickly or casually it increases its body count. It name-drops Superman in order to boost Bloodsport's reputation but without considering what this thing existing in the same narrative space as Superman and Lois Lane means for each (sure, it's technically Zack Snyder's Superman, but chasing an audience by being bigger and edgier has been a problem for DC Comics since well before that mismatch of character and custodian).

Gunn and company are still good enough at all these pieces that the movie by and large works. There is a tremendously mean-spirited bit with a hatchet that made me laugh enough to make up for the three or four similar jokes around it that don't, for instance, and as with the Guardians of the Galaxy films he's done for the competition at Marvel, he seems to take great glee in using the resources of a massive media conglomerate to bring the weirdest things in their comic-book library to life, and generally briefly enough to not wear out their welcome. He's able to sweeten the violence and black comedy enough to get the audience to feel some affection for these reprobates by the end without making it sappy.

It's a better movie than the last one in the series, but still probably not a movie that will appeal to an audience not already primed to smile at actually seeing Starro the Conqueror on-screen and killin' lots of folks. The folks involved are capable enough and move at such a clip that the audience is seldom going to check out, but it isn't such an improvement as to suggest that this sub-series of DC movies has much appeal beyond fans of the universe's minutiae.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, August 06, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 6 August 2021 - 12 August 2021

Taking the better part of the week off to watch movies, although the amount I'm doing here...

  • The week's big release is The Suicide Squad, which has Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn taking some of the survivors of Suicide Squad (not confusing at all), add Idris Elba, John Cena, and a bunch of other newcomers, and sending them of on a mission to stop one of DC's goofy-but-dangerous villains, in what everyone says is a marked improvement on its predecessor. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Assembly Row (including Imax & Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and on HBOmax.

    The Great Muppet Caper gets theatrical showings at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row on Sunday, while Top Gun plays Arsenal Yards every day except Sunday. Documentary Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story plays Boston Common on Tuesday. Horror movie The Stairs plays Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Thursday. Also, there will be special preview screenings of Aretha Franklin biography Respect at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill on Sunday, and some of the Thursday night previews are offering a live-streamed Q&A.
  • Cannes came late this year but handed out awards to Annette a new musical from director Leos Carax starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard singing most of their dialog, with songs by Sparks. The Coolidge Corner Theatre (including a Sunday afternoon Masked Matinee) and Kendall Square. Those theaters also open Ailey, director Jamila Wignot's documentary about the pioneering choreographer that leans heavily on Alvin Ailey's own words.

    The Coolidge is running two programs "After Midnight" through August, with Folk Horror Fridays kicking off with Midsommar and Samurai Summer starting on Saturday with a 35mm print of Shogun Assassin, the English-dubbed combination of two episodes of Lone Wolf and Cub. Samurai Summer also includes Big Screen Classics, such as the 35mm print of Seven Samurai playing Monday. They also have their annual 35mm screening of The Big Lebowski on Thursday, always a big deal with lots of pre-show festivities.

    (And don't forget - next Friday is a 13th, which means a double feature in Rocky Woods with somewhat less lethal summer camp shenanigans on tap for Saturday the 14th.)
  • Also playing Landmark Theatres Kendall Square and Boston Common is Nine Days, in which Winston Duke plays a man who must determine which of a number of souls get to be born into the world.
  • Korean hit (and, incidentally, New York Asian Film Festival opener) Escape From Mogadishu plays Boston Common, with top South Korean director Ryu Seung-wan telling an action-packed story of how the diplomats and staff at North and South Korean embassies must work together to flee the erupting civil war. Boston Common also retains Chinese Doctors (although there are no listed showtimes after Sunday).

    Telugu-language movie SR Kalyanamandapam plays Arsenal Yards (through Wednesday) and Apple Fresh Pond.

    Blackpink: The Movie has an encore screening at Boston Common and Fenway on Sunday, while anime tie-in Shirobako: The Movie plays Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Tuesday.
  • The Brattle Theatre isn't finished looking at "Some of the Best of 2020", with this week featuring Promising Young Woman (Friday/Saturday), Sabaya (Saturday/Sunday), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Sunday), The Assistant (Monday), and Nationtime (Wednesday). The Tuesday "Movie Movies" offering is Hollywood Shuffle on 35mm film, and a new restoration of Layao Miyazaki's first feature Lupin The Third: The Castle of Cagliostro plays Thursday (plus matinees the next weekend)

    If you can't make it into town or are sensibly spooked by Delta, their virtual space (The Brattlite) will also be offering Sabaya this week, joining the new Grrl Haus Cinema package, Summertime, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, Witches of the Orient, and Sweet Thing.
  • The Boston Jewish Film is scheduled to wind up their "Summer Cinematheque" series with Nir Bergman's Ophir-winning drama Here We Are coming online Thursday (including pre-recorded Q&A with star Shai Avivi). Or at least it was, as last week's outdoor screening of The Band's Visit was postponed until the 17th due to bad weather.
  • The West Newton Cinema appears to be back down to Friday to Sunday shows, including The Suicide Squad, Jungle Cruise, Stillwater, Roadrunner, Space Jam 2 (Saturday/Sunday), Summer of Soul, and In the Heights. The Lexington Venue is also on the weekend schedule, with Roadrunner and Summer of Soul, and Stillwater, plus Saturday & Sunday matinees of The Boss Baby 2.
  • Cinema Salem sticks with Jungle Cruise, The Green Knight, and Summer of Soul for their Friday to Monday schedule, with a Friday late show of John Carpenter's They LiveB/I>.
  • The Somerville Theatre, The Harvard Film Archive, and Embassy Cinema are still closed for now. 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 Baxter Park in Assembly Row, featuring Black Panther. The Joe's Free Films also shows Boston Parks Outdoor Movies starting again with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World in Jamaica Plain's Pinebank on Monday.
  • Despite "New York" being right in the title, most of the films that the New York Asian Film Festival is playing on Eventive and Film at Lincoln Center's virtual theater are available throughout the United States, including New England, with at least a couple of new ones coming on every night and available for five days. That festival opens on Friday and will run through the 22nd.
I'll mostly be watching Fantasia screeners and some NYAFF, but both The Suicide Squad and Escape from Mogdishu are part of those festivals, so I've got plenty of excuse to see them as well. And, hey, it's hard to watch stuff on my TV before it gets dark...