Friday, September 24, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 September 2021 - 30 September 2021

Really, studios and exhibitors? Just one terrible-looking wide-release this week? No clever indie studios grabbing a free screen or two or Chinese/Hong Kong/Korean imports?

This is a level of nothing usually reserved for New Year's weekend.

  • So that means the big release of the week is Dear Evan Hansen, an adaptation of the Broadway musical about a teenager who tries to benefit from his classmate's suicide (although, I guess, somewhat reluctantly), starring the man who originated the part on the stage but was in his late twenties as he filmed it and now has to deal with close-ups. Seems ripe for counter-programming, but, nope, nothing. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, the Lexington Venue, West Newton, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema and an Imax matinee), Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Assembly Row (including Imax), Arsenal Yards, the Embassy (closed Monday-Wednesday), and Chestnut Hill.

    MGMazon (can we call it that yet?) is getting audiences prepped for the big Bond finale in a few weeks by putting a couple of Daniel Craig's films back in theaters, kicking off with Casino Royale at Boston Common. There's also a re-release of Gorillas in the Mist (starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey) at Boston Common and South Bay. Boston Common also has The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 9:30pm Saturday, listed as a "Special Show", so maybe a live cast? There is an anniversary release for The Transformers: The Movie on Sunday and Tuesday at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards (Tuesday only), with one for Carrie on Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards (Tuesday). Arsenal Yards has Francis Ford Coppola's latest revisitation of his previous work, The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, on Sunday and Monday. And it also looks like the third "After" movie, After We Fell, gets a one-night deal on Thursday at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row.
  • That does leave a little room for a larger-than-usual release for the Telugu-language Love Story, starring Naga Chaitanya Akkineni and Sai Pallavi as two young people who move from their village to the big city but presumably keep finding their way back to each other. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Kendall Square, Fenway, and Arsenal Yards.
  • I'm Your Man opens at Kendall Square and the smaller rooms at The Coolidge Corner Theatre; a German-language comedy starring Maren Eggert as a scientist who can only get the funding for her work if she agrees to beta-test an android personalized to make her happy (Dan Stevens).

    At the Coolidge, Marty After Midnite continues with Nicolas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead on Friday (in 35mm) and The Wolf of Wall Street on Saturday (a little early, because it's 180 minutes). The Big Screen Classic on Monday is a 35mm print of Best in Show with a print of The Royal Tenenbaums playing for Wes World on Tuesday
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square continues to help streaming movies get a little bit of extra theatrical credibility by playing Antoine Fuqua's The Guilty, a remake of a Dutch movie about a cop demoted to answering 911 calls - here played by Jake Gyllenhaal - who may wind up in over his head when one comes in.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a bit of many interesting things this week. It starts with a weekend of African-American Neo-Noir, including Devil in a Blue Dress on Friday, One False Move (one 35mm) and Deep Cover as a separate-admission twin bill on Saturday, and Set it Off on Sunday.

    The DocYard offers a true double feature on Monday, with "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind" at 5:30pm and director John Gianvito's latest film, Her Socialist Smile at 7pm, with Gianvito on-hand for a discussion of both films afterward. The DocYard double feature is also available on The Brattlite, as is Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), What We Left Unfinished and Witches of the Orient.

    On Tuesday they present three experimental shorts from the late Luther Price (aka Tom Rhoads) on 16mm film. They also stretch National Silent Movie Day out to two nights, with Buster Keaton in Seven Chances and Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary on Wednesday (both with musical accompaniment from Jeff Rapsis), while Chaplin's The Kid and Fritz Lang's Metropolis play Thursday.
  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has the Manhattan Short Film Festival 2021 program, where audience votes on which films get awards, on Sunday and Thursday; it's also at Cinema Salem from Friday to Sunday.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights continues with IFFBoston alum Fruits of Labor, with with director Emily Cohen Ibañez and subject Ashley Solis Pavon joining the online discussion Thursday evening, after a 24-hour window to watching it beginning on Wednesday evening.
  • The Boston Latino International Film Festival is entirely online via ArtsEmerson's platform this year, running from Friday 24 September to Sunday 3 October, with five features and a free shorts program available for the whole festival and three more being added on Thursday, plus the Bright Lights presentation.

    We've already missed the start of the Boston Film Festival, which has had all of its in-person screenings already, although they have three short programs, four narrative features, and ten documentaries available on Eventive through Sunday.

    The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston will be at Boston Common and online next weekend.
  • The West Newton Cinema is a little less packed from Friday to Sunday, paring down to Dear Evan Hansen, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Blue Bayou, Cry Macho, Shang-Chi, Roadrunner (Saturday), and Summer of Soul (Sunday).

    The Lexington Venue also thins things out, opening Dear Evan Hansen alongside The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
  • Cinema Salem has Shang-Chi, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Cry Macho, and the 2021 edition of the Manhattan Short Film Festival package Friday to Sunday. The Friday late show is the delirious anime Mind Game.

    The Luna Theater has the 2021 Sundance short program on Friday and Saturday (masks required Saturday); All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) and The Green Knight on Saturday; John Carpenter's The Thing on Sunday. No Weirdo Wednesday this week.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has virtual programs showing up on their calendar, but still nothing in-person. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
I've got some catching up to do, especially since I've got an actual real get-out-of-town vacation coming up! I'll be hitting the Saturday AANN at the Brattle, and maybe I'm Your Man and/or The Guilty. .

Wednesday, September 22, 2021


How is Stretch? I ask because Joe Carnahan had a nice little run going with Smokin' Aces, The A-Team, and The Grey about ten years ago, and then that movie comes out and he's stuck in TV for the next six or seven years, at least in terms of directing movies. There was some good TV in there, but is it really the sort of thing that just makes people with money not trust a director any more. Or is it just a capable-enough bit of VOD-quality action that makes one suspect that The Grey was a fluke, in terms of him being able to do more than big but fairly heartless action?

Or maybe it's just that the sort of action movie he makes, where you're supposed to enjoy the raw cathartic violence of it, has fallen out of favor, and the skill of staging that that kind of action isn't really something you look for in a director these days - it's done in previz and second-unit work, and then tweaked to get the PG-13.

Those are the things I wonder, looking over his filmography, because Carnahan did seem like a guy who was going to be a reliable source of that kind of action for a while, and I watched The Blacklist in large part because he directed the pilot and a crucial action-heavy first-season episode where you could tell he was just better at this than a lot of the other guys working on the show (although, to be fair, he probably had a lot more in the way of time and resources while most guys directing TV are mostly trying to survive a brutal schedule). Heck, I probably would have skipped this if I hadn't caught his name in the rapidly flashing credits on the trailer.

And I'll probably watch the next thing he makes like it. Joe Carnahan only rarely puts together a movie that does everything well, but he does some things that I really enjoy a lot better than many of his contemporaries.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2021 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, DCP)

It may be the second-most predictable thing in the movie world that Joe Carnahan would try to set a North American record for the most Chekhov's Guns in a movie; the second one appears about a minute after he opens the film with a shot of the first, and he spends a fair amount of the early portion of the film making sure that the audience can see that there are not just a lot of weapons here, but a lot of specific weapons. The first-most predictable thing, of course, is that his cast will eventually discharge those firearms as much as possible. In between… Well, he could do a bit better with the bits in between.

The first gun is a .44 wielded by Valerie Young (Alexis Louder), a rookie partnered with Sgt. Duane Mitchell (Chad L. Coleman); the second is a birthday present he's purchased for his niece. A humdrum day starts to turn when they go to break up a fight at a wedding reception and some rando sucker-punches Valerie and gets hauled off to their brand new, isolated police station for his trouble. That guy is Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a mob fixer with a price on his head who figures a nice quiet jail would be just the place to lay low, though he doesn't count on hitman Bob Viddick managing to get himself arrested in the same jurisdiction. Viddick has managed to come up with a pretty decent plan on the fly, but there's always one or three things you can't count on, like Valerie immediately seeing that something is off with Teddy, an officer (Ryan O'Nan) who owes money to some bad people and was already planning to steal some confiscated drugs out of evidence, and Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss), a rather less-nuanced assassin who is not far behind.

It's a bit surprising that Carnahan hasn't worked with Gerard Butler before - they've both been doing the same brand of "you don't come to this sort of movie for nuance" action for a while - and the result isn't nearly as much fun as one might hope. It was probably an unreasonable hope - Carnahan has always been better at the mayhem than the fun-to-watch tough guys with their own lines (with everything else a distant third), but for much of the movie he gives a potentially entertaining cast little to do but sit and wait. Part of that may be that the film was seemingly designed to be shot under Covid protocols, the jail being enclosed but spacious, maybe a bit underpopulated, room for characters to stand six feet apart and the crew to spread out off-camera. A filmmaker can work with this, but Carnahan seldom has his characters get under each other's skin in a way that makes an audience lead forward or feel something more than "yeah, this is what I paid for" when it leads to bullets flying.

Butler is going to be first-billed in this movie, of course, and he's not bad at all; he hits a nice blend of Viddick being professional but having fun with his work, kind of what one figures Butler himself brings to these movies. It's kind of generic, but capable. Frank Grillo never quite brings the scuzziness and relatable guy over his head aspects of the character together. Meanwhile, Toby Huss is given all the scenery to chew and has at it; he's there to be the weird guy with the sick jokes, and he handles it well. The real heroine is Valerie Young, and Alexis Louder is pretty great, living up to the cocky gunslinger confidence dropped upon her in the first scene and always holding herself like she's taking everything in and thinking it through. The writers give her a line about how she's digging into her mysterious prisoners because she's bored and it's not just the right amount of snarky to give her some personality and sincere enough to highlight just how her mind is always working even if she comes off as a woman of action before anything else.

Everybody lights up when they get to go into action, especially Louder, who has credit in other productions for stuntwork and always moves with purpose. Even beyond her, the two or three big action pieces are pretty darn good. This movie isn't subtle - Carnahan is blowing the hell out of everything until it's time for Valerie to just have one bullet left - but the filmmakers use the fair amount of space they have well and have a good eye for how to use bullet-proof material to make things more dangerous rather than less. Carnahan's still more interested in making the staging impressive rather than the impact most of the time, but it's hard to fault him for sticking with what he does well.

The action is good enough and the cast has enough potential that Copshop would really be a nifty little action movie in the mold of John Woo's Hong Kong days if Carnahan had that sort of flair for melodrama in addition to being able to stage action. Instead, it will probably be "the first place I noticed Alexis Louder", which is at least something to let it stand out amid other mid-size action movies.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.07: Indemnity, Hold Me Back, and Ghosting Gloria

Yikes, has it been a month? I can't even say it's been that busy at the day job and outside of movies, but sometimes you just can't get traction. I hope I've got some good notes here. Anyway, this is roughly the one-week mark for the festivals, right about where I usually start falling behind at Fantasia because there is Just So Much and I'm stupidly trying to do regular work at the same time. It's good to see that even restricted to press streams and such, I'm still kind of on schedule for being late.

I didn't see these all in the same day even if they're grouped that way, and this is out of order for how they were released to Fantasia viewers in Canada, you could have had this as your Wednesday there. It wound up being a sort of 1+2 day, where a couple of the movies make a decent double feature and the other is kind of separate.

The "other" one was Indemnity, which is a streaming-quality action/adventure from South Africa, and kind of interesting for how it wasn't that long ago that RSA filmmakers were talking about how there was no arts funding for much other than apartheid dramas and not a lot of venues for something commercial. This is slick and kind of empty-calorie, with some visual effects bits stretched, but that's kind of okay. As much as you'd like a film industry to be all brilliance, I suspect that there are more chances to create something great when there's an infrastructure cranking out disposable product like this than when anyone who wants to make a movie has to build up from scratch.

Watching RSA movies is kind of an odd experience at times, because at this point in its history, it feels kind of off to the rest of the English-speaking world, which it is maybe half part of, given how characters in this movie tend to bounce between English and Afrikaans pretty freely. It's not like the USA/UK/Ireland/Canada/Australia/New Zealand are homogeneous, but they do run together a bit, while every once in a while South Africa will show that the place's architecture hasn't entirely left its history behind. The mix of languages can be odd, too, especially in translation: It's weird to hear a character say "cloak and dagger" in the middle of some Afrikaans but have it subtitled as "obscurity", like someone didn't recognize that the phrase was borrowed from English to start with.

Also curious for outsiders is when an Afrikaner villain starts doing the "my evil plan is actually being done for the common good" monologue and lecturing the hero, who is black, about how this will enable them to expel the "colonizers" and reclaim Africa for Africans, completely without irony. I suppose, in its way, it's no stranger than my calling myself an American or some of my countrymen being up in arms against immigrants, although that last bit is dumb too.

"After" that, it was two movies about single women in their early 30s who start out not particularly interested in romance, which is kind of refreshing even if they do sort of become romantic comedies . Hold Me Back is particularly interesting in that regard, because I feel like I've been reading frightened "young Japanese people just not dating" stories for twenty years but never seeing it in the movies I watch, and while it's not really that - it sort of resolves into Mitsuko having had bad experiences rather than focusing on her career - it's closer to it than anything else I've seen. I really like Non as Mitsuko, as well - between this, Princess Jellyfish< and The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8, she's staked out a nice space in terms of playing cute oddballs.

As for Ghosting Gloria, I kind of have to talk myself into liking parts of it, because it's got some major consent issues in it's "woman just needed to have sex with the right man (or ghost)" story, and it feels like it could have avoided them. It also could have done a lot more to make use of its gorgeous bookstore location(s); the filmmakers seem to overlook how much Gloria seems to like being a bookseller as opposed to it being a boring retail job until the last act, which is a shame, in part because both the big shop and the smaller one seen toward the end are really charming places. The former may be a chain, but it's got labyrinthine nooks and metalworks and an open elevator cage.

Next up: Road trip!


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

It doesn't seem like very long ago that I was watching a South African crime movie at Fantasia with the director talking about how it was almost impossible to make because the only source of funding was the government and all they wanted to do was prestige apartheid dramas, although it can't have been too long before District 9 happened. Times have changed enough since then that at least a few sleek, commercial films like Indemnity are coming out; and if they're not yet exactly great yet, you can at least see some potential.

Cape Town firefighter Theo Abrams (Jarrid Geduld) survived a major blaze but his PTSD has restricted him to desk duty, although he has bristled at seeing his therapist (Susan Danford). Elsewhere, a former employee of shady corporation M-Tech (Abduragman Adams) and a hacker associate are looking for Theo but are just as happy to make contact with his wife Angela (Nicole Fortuin), a respected reporter, about the strange list of men all across Africa found on the company's serves, over half of whom are either dead or in prison, that includes Theo's name. It's the sort of trail where the target is alerted early, and leads to Theo being on the run for murder, pursued by Detective Rene Williamson (Gail Mabalane), who can see something doesn't add up, although her superior Alan Shard (Andre Jacobs) mostly seems to want the case closed fast.

It's pretty basic direct-to-video material, plot-wise; even when it gets weird or high-concept, it does so in fairly familiar ways, and it often doesn't quite seem like writer/director Travis Taute has a great handle on what might be intriguing and what doesn't quite work. It's the sort of movie that has a massive continent-spanning conspiracy but still feels the need to kidnap Theo's son Wesley (Qaeed Patel) to make sure he's got motivation, along with a conspiracy that seems huge and hyper-competent when they're lurking in the shadows but sloppy once they start trying to murder loose ends. There are moments when characters all but turn directly to the camera to make sure that the audience is included when Theo is being lectured about how PTSD and trauma are real and need to be dealt with like other health problems.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Watashi wo kuitomete (Hold Me Back)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Those of us inclined to follow links to Japanese lifestyle stories when we come across them feel like we've been reading about young people - especially women - opting out of the dating pool and what a demographic time bomb that is for the past twenty years, although it has seldom seemed like those women have shown up in exported pop culture as protagonists. Hold Me Back does offer up a romance that the audience can get behind, but it's a relatively rare movie in that it's as interested in its protagonist being single as not.

That would be Mitsuko (Rena "Non" Nounen), who has one of those "office lady" jobs seemingly as much about meeting eligible bachelors as becoming a skilled administrative assistant but isn't committed to either, even at 31. She fills her time and enjoys her freedom, taking art classes, fretting a bit whether it's odd to go to amusement parks on her own, finding herself amused by the crush colleague Nozomi (Asami Usuda) has on handsome but vapid Carter (Takuya Wakabayashi), and exchanging postcards with an old school friend, Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), who has settled in Italy and has invited her to come for Christmas. She enjoys cooking for herself, and as a result runs into Tada-kun (Kento Hayashi), a somewhat younger salesman who regularly visits her company, at the local market. They hit it off, even if Mitsuko isn't looking for romance.

At first, it seems like Mitsuko isn't quite alone, talking with "A" (voice of Tomoya Nakamura), who initially seems like an especially helpful personal digital assistant, with "A" standing for "answer", but in their very first conversation, Mitsuko says "you're me", and it makes for an intriguing sort of dynamic. Mitsuko isn't presented as someone with a split personality so much as she mostly asks A what norms and expectations are so that she can put that in a corner and do what she wants. It's why A is silent in Italy, for instance, and it lets writer/director Akiko Ohku (adapting Risa Wataya's novel) get a bit abstract toward the end as she confronts both her past and future, because there's trauma in the past when A was in charge and she mostly did what was expected, but things can't go forward with Tada-kun if she decides she wants no part of it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Muerto con Gloria (Ghosting Gloria)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Vimeo via Roku)

There's enough about Ghosting Gloria that is really clever and funny that the movie being built on a foundation that is, at best, questionable as all heck shouldn't really be necessary. A viewer can deal with that in a couple of ways, depending on their temperament (lamenting that some might be too circumspect for a sexy comedy or saying that the film tacitly acknowledges its issues), if one is so inclined, but one can't help but wonder: Why couldn't a film which is smart and creative throughout do better in one of its biggest moments?

That moment is its title character's first orgasm; Gloria (Stefania Tortorella) is thirtyish, works in a Montevideo bookstore, and isn't exactly a prude but is still annoyed by the continuous sex of her newlywed neighbors on the floor above her inherited apartment. It gets to the point where she decides to rent the place out and move into a spot that her oversexed friend and co-worker Sandra (Nena Pelenur) knows of, cheap because previous resident Dante (Federico Guerra) recently died there. It turns out, he's not entirely gone, and one night he moves from just knocking things over to making some aggressive moves on his new roommate. After that, Gloria knows what she's been missing, and even tracks down a way to make Date visible to her, but is he a lover worth defying nature for, or maybe just what she needs to be ready when Ángel (Marco Manfini) walks into the store and appears to be the direct opposite of most of the appalling customers?

How that first supernatural sexual encounter lands for a viewer will probably color the entire rest of the movie for the audience, and it's going to miss the mark for plenty. Married directors Marcela Matta & Mauro Sarser stage the scenes leading up to it more as standard horror where the destructive poltergeist adds rape to his bag of tricks, and it's frustrating that it didn't have to be this way; it shouldn't take much of a shift to make the sequence more clearly built around Dante's clumsiness and Gloria's repressed desire colliding. If one is generous, it's not hard to see how the film is about someone being overly-romantic about the first person to make her feel a certain way, even if he basically sees her as a way to self-gratification and he can't be part of her life (because he's dead). Sarser and Matta do good things with that idea, but the way into it pushes things just a bit too far.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, September 17, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 September 2021 - 23 September 2021

Aw, yeah - I can hit a movie without getting on the T this weekend. Okay, I've been able to - I walked to Kendall Square a few times and have made a couple non-Brattle walks to Harvard Square and could probably get to Fresh Pond without much effort - but you know what I mean!
  • Which is to say - The Somerville Theatre re-opens on Friday, just under the wire for playing movies this summer. They are now a three-plex (or a three-plus-Micro), with the two upstairs screens now a ballroom that will be opening in October. The two downstairs screens were renovated a couple years ago, and a poke around the site shows that they have upgraded the main theater to 4K laser projection (although it is still quite capable of showing 35mm and 70mm film); no new images of the room itself or just how the lobby has been rearranged. They are also requiring customers show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test.

    The main film opening there this weekend is Cry Macho, the new one from nonagenarian Clint Eastwood in which he plays a former rodeo cowboy enlisted to get an old friend's son out of Mexico. It's been nearly 30 years since he made Unforgiven which seemed like a knowing way to wind down his career and sort of deconstruct his legend, and while that has not quite become half his career, it is nevertheless some amazing longevity. The film also plays Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, the Embassy (Friday-Sunday), Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and on HBOmax.

    The Somerville also opens IFFBoston selection Last Night in Rozzie, with Neil Brown Jr. as a lawyer returning to the rough neighborhood where he grew up to help his dying childhood friend (Jeremy Sisto) who has an unreasonable request or two. Director Sean Gannet, writer Ryan McDonough, and two other producers are scheduled to be on-hand for a Q&A after the Friday evening show. The third screen, meanwhile, gets Pig, a film whose ability to stick around various venues is genuinely impressive.
  • Also opening at the multiplexes is Copshop, a new one from Joe Carnahan which has him doing his brand of over-the-top action, with Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo as rival hitmen, Toby Huss as the target, and Alexis Louder as the cop whose jail becomes the site of the inevitable showdown. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards.

    Citizen Kane has 80th-anniversary shows Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, South Bay (Sunday only), and Arsenal Yards. There are also Thursday-night screenings of Oasis Knebworth 1996, a concert film that reminds us that this group was huge 25 years ago at Kendall Square and Boston Common. Early Thursday shows of Dear Evan Hansen are including live Q&As at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre gets two notable new releases this weekend. Justin Chon's latest is Blue Bayou, with Chon as a Korean-American facing deportation to a place he hasn't been since he was adopted as a toddler 30 years earlier, in part for being in the middle of a custody battle between his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) and her cop ex-boyfriend. Other venues include The Capitol, Kendall Square, West Newton, and Boston Common.

    There's also The Eyes of Tammy Faye, with Jessica Chastain as the wife of televangelist Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), one of the early noteworthy prosperity gospel types, though she was notably less exclusionary about who she prayed for than most. It's got a Masked Matinee at the Coolidge on Sunday and also plays Kendall Square, Boston Common, West Newton, and the Lexington Venue.

    Among the special events, the Coolidge welcomes The Card Counter cinematographer Alexander Dynan for a post-film Q&A on Friday night. "Marty After Midnite" continues with The Last Temptation of Christ on Friday (at 11:30 because it's long) and Cape Fear on Saturday, both on 35mm. Monday's "Science on Screen" show is a 35mm print of Tenet, with Harvard physicist Jacob Barandes talking about entropy and the nature of time before the movie twists them into pretzels. Tuesday's 35mm "Wes World" show is Rushmore. The Wednesday Panorama presentation is Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are), with filmmaker Rachel Boynton joining a number of guests for a post-film discussion that expands on the topics of her film, which itself is about how the Civil War is taught in various parts of America.
  • On top of the things playing the Coolidge, Landmark Theatres Kendall Square gets a couple streaming services' films for their theatrical runs. Prime's My Name Is Pauli Murray comes from the directors of RBG and tackles the life of a Black and non-binary civil rights attorney and activist whose career predates many others in their own words. The Starling is headed for Netflix, and features Melissa McCarthy as a woman drifting apart from her collapsing husband (Chris O'Dowd) after a loss and battling a small bird in her garden, with Kevin Kline as the shrink-turned-vet she is recommended to.
  • The Brattle Theatre will be spending much of the next week on "The Fictions of Werner Herzog", including his early collaborations with Klaus Kinski where they would often voyage to the jungle and find madness. The slate includes Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Friday); Cobra Verde and Fitzcarraldo (Saturday); Woyzeck and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (Sunday); Heart of Glass and Even Dwarfs Started Small (Monday); Fata Morgana and Where the Green Ants Dream (Tuesday); Stroszek (Wednesday); and Nosferatu the Vampire (Thursday). All are new digital transfers, and days with two films appear to be separate-admission ticketing.

    There's also one last "Tale of the Muppet Diaspora", with The Great Muppet Caper playing early matinees on Saturday and Sunday, both on a 35mm print.

    The Brattlite link from the main site adds Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), a second chance to see the Nigerian film which played on the big screen last week. It joins What We Left Unfinished and Witches of the Orient as at-home options.
  • The big action/comedy at Apple Fresh Pond this week is Gully Rowdy, starring Sundeep Kishan and "Bobby" Simha; there are also Tamil-language screenings of Thalaivii on Saturday & Sunday.

    Boston Common gives some of its Imax showtimes to a restored edition of the original Ghost in the Shell anime, which I swore already did this last fall ahead of the new 4K disc, but maybe not. Anime fans can also catch a return of Promare in Japanese on Sunday at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights series is going to be "at Home" for another semester, with the fall season kicking off with On These Grounds, a documentary which digs deeper into an infamous viral video of a school cop attacking a student. As with the last couple semesters, slots are free (but limited to 175) with the film available to view for 24 hours starting Wednesday at 7pm, with a Zoom discussion including director Garret Zevgetis, cinematographer Christopher Lewis Dawkins, and subject Vivian Anderson at 7pm Thursday.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed through Sunday and squeezes 12 movies onto its six screens with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Blue Bayou, Cry Macho, Malignant, Shang-Chi, Searching for Mr. Rugoff (Sunday), On Broadway (Saturday), Respect (Friday), Roadrunner (Friday/Saturday), Space Jam 2 (Saturday), Summer of Soul (Saturday), and In the Heights (Friday/Sunday).

    The Lexington Venue is also open through Sunday, packed tight with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, CODA, and Respect, plus weekend matinees of Space Jam 2.
  • Cinema Salem has Shang-Chi, Candyman, and Cry Macho Friday to Sunday. The Friday late show is Sion Sono's Antiporno, and they're also showing Rear Window on Thursday evening.

    The Luna Theater shows The Green Knight on Friday and Saturday; All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) (masks required) and The Year of the Everlasting Storm on Saturday; The Fifth Element on Sunday, and "Weirdo Wednesday".
  • The Harvard Film Archive looks to be the last going concern in hibernation, although they have recently announced a virtual series for October. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Plans include Cry Macho, Copshop, The Alpinist, Blue Bayou, and then seeing how to best balance the Herzog stuff with other possibilities like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and The Card Counter.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Make the Movie You Want to Star In: Small Engine Repair and Language Lessons

It seems like we used to see a lot more movies like these two on the festival circuit and in theaters afterward, with actors writing and directing the parts they want to play, writer/directors acting in their films because there's just not enough money in independent film to hire a full cast, and folks trading work on each other's films to get things made. Even considering that the last couple years have messed everything up, the landscape seems to have changed enough that it doesn't seem to happen as much. I'm not sure how I can blame Netflix and Amazon for this - something about how there's an easy market for anything the least bit commercial but with disc and VOD dead, nothing below that - but for all that I rolled some eyes at mumblecore back in the day, the do-it-yourself nature of it seems a bit rarer.

And yet, we wound up with two movies like that this weekend; Small Engine Repair has a writer/director/star adapting his own play, while Language Lessons feels like a return to when producer/co-writer/co-star Mark Duplass and his brother Jay seemed ubiquitous on the independent film festival circuit. They haven't really gone away so much as they got cast in bigger things and moved into television (where I suspect it's easier to keep busy to keep oneself afloat in some ways) and Netflix (where you just don't get talked about if you're not the one thing out of then they're choosing to push in a given month), but there haven't really seemed to be any new folks sliding into the same niche.

I wound up not really loving Small Engine Repair, even if it's not something where I really see a whole lot of crippling issues. It's just twist-centric enough that the story seems like it should snap together in tighter fashion, and the somewhat-bigger-named supporting cast clicks in a way that makes one wonder why their deal isn't the center of the movie, so even when the last scene John Pollono is building to works, the circuitous route getting there isn't quite forgotten. It's confident but not assured, right from the opening where they define "Manch Vegas" on screen out of fear that people won't get a little bit of local color later. I also readily admit that it's not the sort of film I identify with well, and this one has just enough inspiration in playing one of its working-class characters who spend a bunch of time drinking at the bar and using some form of the word "fuck" twice a sentence against type that the rest seem even more like stock characters.

(That guy's played by Shea Whigham, who I submit as maybe the best "That Guy" working today. He looks too rough around the edges to be a leading man and maybe fits better in period pieces, but he seldom plays boring goons. He's a memorable character actor in the middle of standardized would-be stars.)

I found myself smiling stupidly fairly quickly during Language Lessons, though, in large part because I've liked both of its stars in different things - though I readily admit that I don't know if I've actually seen Morales in much since The Middleman - and it's cool to see them in a project that fits them like a glove even if it's a pandemic picture. It's got to be weird to sit down and plan something like this, though - it rests so much on tailoring characters to your strengths and being sure that the audience will like you that it almost seems like a sort of arrogance to build it around that. I suppose that you can't write/produce/direct/act in movies as a profession without that level of confidence, but it seems like a heck of a thing to bet on.

It's a bet that they win this time at least, and even if they had only done about as well as Pollono did, I'm at least glad to see there's some room for people who figured out parts they wanted to play and stories they wanted to tell to actually get those stories in front of people in theaters. Maybe not quite so much as there was ten years ago, but enough.

Small Engine Repair

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2021 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Buried at the very end of the credits of this film is that it was adapted from writer/director/star John Pollono's play of the same name, and though it doesn't appear to have been a one-act play, it's got the feel of something where he started from a well-constructed second half and worked backward. He does it well enough that he's not just killing time and padding the movie, but there's certainly something more potent to be distilled from this fairly decent movie.

It spends a fair amount of time letting the audience get to know its characters - Frank Romanowski (Pollono), who owns the repair shop of the title, and has done a fair job of pulling himself together and raising his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo), what with her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) being a frequently-absent hot mess. He's been best friends with Patrick "Packie" Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) and Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) as long as they can remember, at least until things blew up three months ago in a blast of rage and alcohol. Now he's reaching out to reconnect, with MDMA supplied by Chad (Spencer House), a Boston College student he met playing pickup basketball, but it turns out that they've all been invited to the shop under false pretenses.

By the time Pollono puts his cards on the table, it's clear what he's holding, but he's done a fair job putting things into place without making it too obvious that this is what he's doing. It's kind of a thin story that spends a bit of time running in place than it needs to, using the openings stretches to establish the characters' personalities and get them to the spot where they haven't talked for a while even though the audience would probably be just fine starting with Frank texting Packie and Swaino to meet him at the shop. The simplicity of the story also has Pollono throwing in a fake "here's the plan" digression, right before coming up with a smart reason not to proceed and a kind of rushed follow-up that even the characters point out as being not cool.

All of the male characters get a flashback that was probably just a speech on stage but which kind of plays out strangely on screen. The most successful is probably Swaino's, which does a nice job of using the objective version of events to undercut his macho bluster, although it's not like Jon Bernthal hasn't been making it fairly clear that the guy is full of it all along. There's something kind of interesting going on with Packie's, which goes back to the friends' childhood but still has Shea Wigham playing him with child actors as the other two, as if to suggest he was always both child-like and middle-aged, but it also breaks up how his speech is this long response to something that Chad said and circles around to a punchline. Pollono holds back a bit with Frank and Chad, because at that point showing too much might tip his hand.

Ideally, that gives one the chance to look at the characters a little more, steep the audience in the sort of toxic, crass environment that leaves them sort of stunted and quick to violence. Pollono likely created Frank for himself but he still has the least to do as an actor at times; the rage erupts out of him on a hair trigger but he doesn't exactly show Frank holding it back or galvanized in such a way that he's actually planning his violence, only occasionally finding the spots in between the loving dad trying his best and the guy who loses control. Ciara Bravo does well as a teenager who kind of reflects the men who raised her (though I wonder if Crystal was actually in the play or off-screen from how she's used), and Spencer House does the puffed-up frat guy well enough. Karen's not exactly a fresh character and is in a number of scenes without a lot to do, but Jordana Spiro puts energy into making her the woman that Crystal loves but doesn't want to be when she grows up.

It's not surprising that Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham are the guys listed first in the credits despite being supporting characters, even beyond being the actors filmgoers are most likely to recognize. Swaino is enough of a jerk that one almost sees this as a waste of such a charismatic actor, but it's a good performance; Bernthal takes this guy who grew up the only brother of three older sisters and has him kind of internalize the overcompensation. He's a macho jackass that one nevertheless instinctively believes changed diapers for his sisters' kids or was the one 4-year-old Crystal wouldn't let go of in a flashback. Whigham, meanwhile, makes Packie that character one would like to see dug into and unpacked the most, fragile enough to be bullied and often framed as the arrested-development eccentric such that every moment when he clearly knows what he's talking about better than anyone else comes as a delightful surprise; Whigham takes scenes that contrast Packie's reactions against the expected casual sexism and homophobia of the working class and makes them funny but also makes the point that blue-collar guys don't have to be that way. You can almost believe that the weird flashback comes from just not finding a 9-year-old who can do what Whigham is doing as the younger Packie.

It's all a bit of a mess with a fair amount of making sure we know folks aren't sophisticated guys who went to college by having them use "fuck" twice a sentence, and the audience can see that, but when it gets to an emotional last scene and line, that same audience buys it. Not having seen the play, I can't tell whether there were bumps going from stage to screen or if some of the issues are just part of the movie, but it works more than it doesn't when all is said and done.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Language Lessons

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2021 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, DCP)

I did not realize, going in, that Language Lessons was a movie that plays out on the characters' computer screens, and while there will probably a few more of those than usual coming out over the coming months,this one seems like it might wind up more than just a time capsule of the present moment. Even when the credits are rolling, it's not obvious whether this was specifically created to be a quarantine movie or not; odds are it's an influence, but it's good enough to stick even for those who don't want any reminders of what life is like now.

It starts with a gift to Adam (Mark Duplass) from his husband Will (Desean Terry) - 100 Spanish lessons online with Cariño (Natalie Morales). Adam learned the language as a child, but hasn't had much opportunity to speak it of late, so this is mostly immersion and confidence-building. Adam is late to call in for a subsequent lesson because he's still in shock from what happened to Will the night before, leaving Cariño in the awkward position of helping the panicked Adam cope. She checks in on him virtually over the next few weeks (he's in Oakland while she's in Costa Rica), and when they resume lessons, they're probably as much friends as teacher and student, which becomes awkward when it turns out Cariño has her own issues she's dealing with.

The film is almost entirely built out of conversations between Adam and Cariño or messages from one to another, and it's easy for a movie like this one, where the two lead actors are also writers, producers, and (in Natalie Morales's case) director, to meander as they give themselves room to try things and figure out the best way to put it together later. This film turns out to be impressively tight, though - they get to the thing driving the film quickly rather than spending a lot of time on a different setup so that the audience will feel an absence, and they don't mess around with a terribly protracted ending. Some scenes and sequences will play out at a relaxed pace, but it's a rare one that's just there for one thing, and it lets them build a story around the premise that lets them switch things up with hard turns just as the viewer is getting comfortable.

They can do that in part because Morales and her co-star/co-writer Mark Duplass are well aware of their particular strengths and charismas - she's smart and energetic, he's dry and laid-back - and how well they can play off each other without being in competition. Morales especially is terrific for how she is never blank while Duplass is letting everything spill out, giving the audience enough to speculate about her life outside of these conversations until it's time for her challenges to come closer to the fore. That's the trick of the movie: It initially seems built around what happens to Adam, only to dive into how nobody is just someone else's supporting character. Morales grabs the movie even as the focus tends to stay on Adam's point of view, and the pair do a nice job of keeping the characters on equal footing even though their interactions are never balanced in the way one might want them to be for storytelling symmetry.

It's a bit of an odd movie to watch in theaters, given how consciously Morales uses bandwidth issues and the like for verisimilitude, although she thankfully doesn't feel the need to show the UI or the like in the way that many making this sort of film do. It brings to mind how odd the editing of these movies can be, because Morales and editor Aleshka Ferrero seem kind of boxed in without many options beyond switching from who has the main screen and who has the inset, and there are moments when the film kind of stumbles trying to give the two equal weight in a scene. Morales deals with the seemingly-limited options well, though - you notice the medium, but mostly it reinforces rather than distracts.

More than anything, it's fun to see Duplass and Morales doing something like this: They're an eminently likable pair who are both comfortable at this scale, so it's a pleasure to be in their company and watch their characters work through things, and they're clever in how they find a way to talk about sudden loss and mostly connecting electronically without being overtly reminding the audience of current events. It's an impressive little movie that threads a needle that plenty of others with more to work with haven't managed.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, September 10, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 10 September 2021 - 16 September 2021

Kind of a quiet few days, since nobody's messing with Marvel during something's second week of release - heck, between that being a juggernaut, folks wanting to spread out, and the relative slow pace of releases, there are only 4 different movies playing at the 13-screen Fenway plex this weekend!
  • Check out The Brattle Theatre with Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), an new, independent Nigerian film about two people looking to move to Europe after family difficulties, playing Friday through Sunday on actual 35mm film!

    Around and after that, "Tales of the Muppet Diaspora" continues, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on 35mm Friday & Saturday, Muppet Treasure Island Saturday, Muppets From Space Sunday, The Dark Crystal & Mirrormask Tuesday, and Where the Wild Things Are & The Witches Thursday. Looking at the site and the schedule, it doesn't look like they're back to running single-admission double features yet, so bear that in mind when reserving tickets. There's also a special event on Wednesday, David Byrne's American Utopia, with an introduction by Byrne and a conversation between him and director Spike Lee playing after the film. That one is also at The Coolidge, the Kendall, Boston Common, Fenway, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    Their friends at The DocYard start their fall season with North By Current, in which director Angelo Madsen Minax depicts the process of grieving for his niece. They will be using a hybrid format here: In addition to a Monday night screening at the Brattle with Minax doing Q&A, it is also up on The Brattlite (their online presence) from Friday to Thursday; What We Left Unfinished, Sabaya, and Witches of the Orient are also still on the platform.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens the new film by Paul Scrader, The Card Counter, with Oscar Isaac as a former military interrogator who has turned his keen observational skills to gambling while also fighting his own demons. It also plays The Capitol, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Assembly Row. They also pick up Everybody's Talking About Jamie, about a British teenager who dreams of becoming a drag queen; it's got a Masked Matinee on Sunday.

    The "Marty After Midnight" movies this weekend are The King of Comedy on Friday and After Hours on 35mm Saturday; there's also a "Big Screen Classics" show of Raging Bull on 35mm Monday evening. They also have what I think is their first screening of The Room since reopening on Friday, with co-star Greg Sestero there at midnight. Sunday also brings the return of Goethe-Institut films, with a matinee of Christian Petzold's Undine; the price has increased to $7 but it's still one of the best moviegoing bargains in the area. The countdown to Wes Anderson's new film begins on Tuesday with the first of five 35mm "Wes World" screenings, kicking the series off with debut feature Bottle Rocket.
  • Shang-Chi continues to take up most of the real estate at the multiplexes, but there are some other new entries, with Malignant the biggest; it's the latest creepy thing from James Wan, this one offering Annibelle Wallis as a woman who has visions of murders, apparently committed by her childhood imaginary friend. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, the Embassy, and on HBOmax.

    Smaller openings include Small Engine Repair, a dark comedy/thriller with Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham among those being pulled into a revenge plot, at Boston Common and Assembly Row. Documentary The Alpinist also plays Boston Common and Chestnut Hill, following climber Marc-André Leclerc on his harrowing solo ascents.

    If you're not getting enough Jim Henson material at the Brattle, Labyrinth plays Fenway, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday, Monday (no Arsenal Yards), and Wednesday. For anime fans, Knights of Sidonia: Love Woven in the Stars plays Boston Common Monday (subtitled) and Tuesday (dubbed); GKids continues their anime encores with Promare at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Thursday; and the original Ghost in the Shell starts its Imax re-re-release on Thursday at Boston Common. Documentary Free Burma Rangers plays Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Monday, with Eating Our Way to Extinction playing Fenway, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Thursday.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has Language Lessons, with co-writer Mark Duplass playing a man who bonds with his Spanish teacher (director/co-writer Natalie Morales) after the death of his husband. It's crazy; I don't know that Duplass and his brother ever stopped making little movies like this, but they seem to have mostly fallen under in recent years. They also get Mogul Mowgli, with Riz Ahmed as a rapper whose career is suddenly derailed by illness. I've got no idea whether he did this and Sound of Metal back-to-back or if there's just weird scheduling having them come out within a year of each other.

    Landmark's theater in Waltham, The Embassy, re-opens on Friday! It appears to be just open Friday to Sunday for now, but they've stocked it with the past month or so's worth of movies, including Shang-Chi, Malignant, Candyman '21, The Green Knight, Pig, and Free Guy.
  • Apple Fresh Pond has Thalaivii in both Hindi and Tamil, with Kangana Ranaut starring as J. Jayalalithaa, an actress who would later become a politician and serve six terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Intriguingly, IMDB shows that at least one part is played by different actors in the different versions, although I suppose one could be dubbing the other.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed through Sunday for Malignant, Shang-Chi, Searching for Mr. Rugoff, On Broadway Respect, Free Guy, Roadrunner (Sunday), Space Jam 2 (Friday/Sunday), Summer of Soul, and In the Heights.

    The Lexington Venue is also open through Sunday with The Green Knight, CODA, and Respect. They are also apparently having a yard sale of sorts with cheap movie posters on Friday (3-7) and Saturday (12:30-4:30), a fair amount of which probably never even got hung up while they were shut down.
  • Cinema Salem has Shang-Chi, Candyman, and Mogul Mowgli Friday to Sunday. The Friday late show is Gregg Akari's Mysterious Skin, and they've got a special early screening of Prisoners of the Ghostland on Thursday; it's Sion Sono's first English-language film and includes Nic Cage, Sofia Boutella, and Tak Sakaguchi in the cast and I don't know if it's otherwise playing Greater Boston until it hits the Brattle later in the month.

    The Luna Theater gets back into semi-regular business with The Green Knight on Friday, Saturday, and Thursday; The Year of the Everlasting Storm (masks required) and All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) on Saturday, Alien all day on Sunday, and "Weirdo Wednesday". "Secret Satellite Society" membership is required for the last (and gets you discounts on the others), although you can purchase a weekly membership for $5 or a monthly one for $10.
  • Joe's Free Films has one listing for the week, with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker playing on Boston Common Friday night
  • The Somerville Theatre looks like it's just going to deliver on "re-opening later this summer" at the last second, with showtimes listed for the 17th (next Friday). That leaves The Harvard Film Archive as the last place really in limbo unless you count Causeway Street and the Seaport, where I'm sure the developers are trying to find new tenants for the vacated ArcLight and Icon. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
I'm looking forward to The Card Counter, Small Engine Repair, Language Lessons, and The Alpinist, and hoping to fit in Eyimofe and Bottle Rocket. As a fan of manga-ka Tsutomu Nihei, I'm curious about the Knights of Sidonia movie, but don't know that I can get through 24 episodes of the anime to catch up by Monday.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Fantasia Extra: The Night House

Part of the Fantasia experience: The mid-sized genre movie that was either booked before it was acquired by a distributor, or where the distributor and festival think they can get some sort of synergy by having what basically amounts to a preview showing at the festival a couple of days before it hits theaters. I don't know how often that works out - I've been to a couple that were dead, and a couple where I couldn't get in with my media pass because all the local working film critics who don't otherwise touch the festival show up. Most of the time I just go for the thing playing in De Seve which I probably won't have the chance to see again in three days. I then do that, and write it up with something like "Fantasia Day 27 (of 24)".

Or "Fantasia Extra".

Anyway, I've been looking forward to this one all year; for a while, the preview seemed to show up in front of every movie I saw for six months and then vanished in the weeks before its release, which made me wonder if it had been pushed off or even sent to VOD (which I gather Disney can't do as part of their deal to acquire Twentieth Century Fox's entertainment properties, but maybe they've got clever lawyers). It hasn't exactly set the box office on fire, though it probably was never going to, but I wonder if it hit the "saw trailers for so long that people figured it had already come and gone.

I really like it, though. I get into it in the main review, but the places where it isn't smooth are in the places where it's maybe useful to struggle a bit. I'm kind of impressed by that, because I've found myself less fond of a lot of similar smart horror movies (The Witch, Heredity, etc.) because they sacrifice the stuff that's really scary about human nature for the supernatural details that aren't ultimately as scary to me. This one is more interesting in that even as it's ambiguous in some ways, it starts from a place of wrestling with how to deal with not being conventionally spiritual - when you don't believe that there is something external to defer to, an afterlife or some other entity, it's easy to create it or fall prey to despair. I think it's a question that a lot of the film's viewers probably struggle with, and I am kind of impressed with how the film's answer is not "there may be more to all this than you think", but something closer to "you can get lost in the metaphor you use to understand all this". It certainly resonates with me far more than the other way around.

The Night House

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2021 in AMC Assembly Row #10 (first-run, DCP)

The Night House is the sort of smart genre movie that I start to get worried about in the middle; I've been burned often enough by supernatural thrillers that are willing to sacrifice the themes that make them resonate in order to get one more scare or twist. This one definitely gives off that vibe at times, sometimes sinking a little too deep into its mythology for its own good, but ultimately the folks involved do want there to be something more to their scares than just making a viewer jump.

As it opens, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is just returning from the funeral for her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), who committed suicide for reasons she doesn't begin to understand. She returns to the house that he built on a lake and her work as a high-school English teacher (though, as summer break has started, it's mostly annoying administrative tasks) but after 15 years of marriage and with her family and friends scattered, her life seems more hole than anything else, and neither widowed neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall) nor best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) can really do much for her. And when strange apparitions and noises start appearing, it's frightening and something she is even more ill-equipped to handle than most - she had a near-death experience as a teenager, and saw nothing when her heart stopped.

That last bit is something that writers Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski have some difficulty shoehorning into the script, but it is in many ways the crux of the entire movie. Director David Bruckner and star Rebecca Hall make do a really clever job of leaning into the way that there's no natural place for that information as it comes out, though it may not seem that way at the time: Beth is desperately trying to reconcile all of this and there's no way to get help doing so without the information dump. The trick is that any reading of this being her asking to help is buried deep, because as in almost every other scene in the movie, Beth is angry. She's got every right to be, of course, but the fact that her first-hand experience says there is no afterlife leaves her with few other places to go. Hall is tasked with delivering a full symphony of anger, and it's something magnificent: The emotion is omnipresent but mostly directed at someone not there, so there's a stinging meanness to when she finds a living target that the audience enjoys but with some unease. It ebbs and flows and interacts with other things so that Hall's performance is never monotonous, but the anger is always there.

So is the loneliness, of course, although that's buried underneath the anger. It's inescapable in the early scenes, as Bruckner, cinematographer Elisha Christian, and production designer Kathrin Eder find ways to remind the audience that the house was specifically built for two, with everything from the bathroom to the home office having his-and-her arrangements, so that when Beth starts packing up Owen's things, the audience knows that this is just going to accentuate his absence. The film's best jump scares and unnerving visuals come from manipulating negative space and reflection. Beth seeing something early on that hints at this is almost unnecessary. Visually and thematically, it all makes the sort of eerie sense that doesn't need a specific lore to explain it.

Trying to integrate some sort of mythic element into the story is where the film starts to get a bit wobbly, although as with Beth putting her brush with death out there, there's an argument to be made that the filmmakers want the audience to have an unsteady relationship with that element of the story. If the mythology is too easily dismissed, The Night House might be reduced to Beth just being a traumatized, unreliable narrator; if it's too easily accepted, or even if the filmmakers try to be slyly ambiguous, then it becomes a movie about finding some sort of faith, and that's not really their game either. Indeed, the film often seems to argue that the human need to ascribe meaning and lessons to things which have none is where the real danger lies, leading one to mentally transform "nothing" as an absence into "Nothing" as an entity, or reacting to horror with a terrible nihilism. It's a very tricky needle for Bruckner and company to thread: Nothing as a being that does visually impressive supernatural things is memorable, but potentially hollow; Beth (and perhaps Owen) grasping at that because there's no comfort in the alternative is perhaps too abstract aims more directly at the gut but isn't similarly exciting. Ultimately, Bruckner and company do navigate it, and maybe the fact that they don't do it smoothly is part of the point - this isn't an easy thing to grapple with and metaphor only gets you so far.

That's a kind of fascinating thing to bury inside a horror movie that is mostly built to be a good example of the genre rather than a commentary on it: The Night House is mostly about creeping the audience out giving Rebecca Hall the sort of genre-movie role that surprises non-fans with how meaty it is, and it works quite well as that. The filmmakers may struggle a bit with their other ambitions, but they commit to the struggle in a way that is both honest and unnerving, and that lingers better than one last gotcha moment.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

It's almost ancient history now, but there was a point when the conventional wisdom was that superhero movies would rise and fall on their villains. The heroes, after all, wore masks and were simple do-gooders who had to be around for the next movie, while the bad guy was a meaty role with a rise and fall. The Burton/Schumacher Batmovies could swap new actors into the role of Bruce Wayne without a lot of complaint - and Jack Nicholson was billed above Michael Keaton in the first, with the bad guys being the things people pointed to later. Even the Sam Raimi Spider-Movies had a little bit of that going on; Alfred Molina's terrific Otto Octavius is a big part of why the second is a favorite versus the third with its forgettable Topher Grace.

The current run of Marvel movies has never really been about that; as they built to the Avengers, charismatic leads the audience would want to watch interact were important, and villains were either disposable or supporting characters like Loki (or Magneto, if you include the X-movies). In twenty-five movies, by and large fairly enjoyable, there have only been a handful of really memorable bad guys: Kurt Russell's Ego in Guardians 2, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, maybe Hugo Weaving's Red Skull, possibly Thanos (although he's more about scale than anything Josh Brolin does). Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is arguably the first Marvel Cinematic Universe villain to really overshadow the hero in the way that used to be the case.

It's an understandable choice - Leung is terrific, after all, - but it means I don't really know how much I'm anticipating future Shang-Chi movies as a result of so much of this one being tied up in Leung's Wenwu. Simi Liu is plenty likable, but he's not quite able to assert ownership of his movie in quite the same way as the other Marvel leads have. It's fine that he's part of a great ensemble, but I feel like I've got more concrete reasons for wanting more of Awkwafina and Meng'er Zhang in sequels than Liu himself. That's going to be the challenge for Cretton (if he returns) and Marvel, although the hints that they're pulling from Matt Fraction's Iron Man run and maybe his and Ed Brubaker's Iron Fist comics (it sure seems like they were referencing the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven at a couple points) suggest they'll have interesting material to work with.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to catching it again, probably on an Imax screen after watching it from maybe too close in 3D this time. It's a fun 3D watch - given the amount of stereoscopic techs listed up with the cinematography folks rather than down in the visual effects credits, I think Marvel is certainly working harder to build a good 3D experience than many other studios, which makes Disney's abandoning of 3D discs a bummer - but not an essential one. It certainly seems like it has re-watch potential, at least.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

A funny thing about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is how it is in large part made up of pieces that Marvel couldn't use elsewhere as much as his original 1970s comics: On the one side, an Iron Man villain who no longer works as his arch-nemesis when targeting a global market; on the other, what looks an awful lot like Iron Fist material that was too large in scale for that character's Netflix series. Those elements are almost literally this character's DNA comes from in the film, pulling him away from his pulpier origins toward something which fits more comfortably in the Marvel movie mold. It's a good mold and Shang-Chi is a pretty good movie, but it could maybe use a little less Marvel Universe and a little more Master of Kung Fu.

Shang-Chi is the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a warlord whose mysterious armbands have allowed him to live a thousand years and wield incredible power; he went looking for a hidden city 25 years ago and found Ying Li (Fala Chen). There was no happily ever after, though, and in the present, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has been living in San Francisco as "Shaun" for ten years since escaping his father's fortress, happily underachieving as a hotel valet with best friend Katy Chen (Nora "Awkwafina" Lum). The past he'd thought he left behind is about to catch up with him, as his father's men come to steal the jade amulet his mother gave him, as well as the one in the hands of Shang-Chi's sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who has similarly fled their father and made her way to Macau.

Shang-Chi's name may be in the title and Simu Lieu may be billed first, but for all that there's good material to build around him here - or, from another perspective, important parts of his character like why he never went back for his sister that are just completely glossed over - that will probably have to wait for a sequel, because this is very much Wenwu's story. It's not so much that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai steals the film as much as how, when a production manages to land Leung, it's only natural to give as much of it to him as possible. He makes Wenwu one of Marvel's best villains yet, effortlessly carrying off the haughty belief that he is born to rule in a way that makes him seem dangerous rather than a simplified cartoon - watch how he quietly dominates a "family dinner" scene - but also shifts that charisma in a way that makes his love for Li genuine. It drives the back half of the movie in clever fashion, because it makes Wenwu both villain and victim, but the latter doesn't let him off the hook - Leung, director Destin Daniel Cretton, and his co-writers make the toxicity of his grief clear. They don't make Wenwu a sympathetic villain, but one can empathize.

The main cast is pleasant enough, though - Simu Liu and Awkwafina have a fun best-buddies-who-could-be-more chemistry that doesn't feel generic, fun to watch with Liu doing a nice job of revealing how his secret past has been a weight for Shang-Chi, while Awkwafina makes Katy one of the most entertaining normal people pulled into a superhero story Marvel's done; she's given a chance to be funny, gobsmacked, and useful. Meng'er Zhang has an auspicious movie debut as Xialing, giving weight to her issues with both father and brother, while Florian Muneanu makes a henchman much more fun than he could be when given a chance. It also never hurts to be able to pull out Hong Kong action legends Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wah at the halfway point.

It also doesn't hurt to have Bradley Allan on hand for second-unit and action work; a veteran of Jackie Chan's stunt team, he and Cretton do excellent work together when it's time for martial arts, with an early fight scene on a crowded runaway bus a standout that has a lot of Hong Kong in its DNA. What's equally impressive is the way they are able to downshift at points, especially in Wenwu and Li's first encounter, as the combat becomes dance and a terrific example of how to get emotion out of action sequences. Even as the film begins to expand into something larger, Cretton and company do their best to keep things focused on how the action is an expression of what's going on for the Xus.

The story can't quite escape the pull of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course, and not just in how the filmmakers spend a fair bit more time than necessary on how Xu Wenwu and the "Mandarin" from Iron Man 3 are and are not connected. Shang-Chi has never just been the Master of Kung Fu, of course, and the way Cretton and his team come up with nifty ways to use the Ten Rings is impressive (akin to how the Russos figured out ways for Captain America to do more with his shield than throwing it), but once it's revealed that Wenwu is not the final boss and the village of Ta Lo is guarding something bigger, it's almost inevitable that the film wil head to a big, effects-heavy finale, which means there's only so much room for punching and kicking, with Shang-Chi just too small compared to what he's fighting for the sort of straight-ahead action choreography that Allan's mentor is known for, which (fairly or unfairly) is often more impressive than the big digital rendering.

And then there's the inevitable mid-credits piece to connect everything even more directly to the franchise, because Marvel's got no reason to stop doing what has worked so well for them over the past decade or so. Heck, it works here, more or less; folks will come out of this movie wanting to see Shang-Chi and his supporting cast in more adventures on top of maybe wanting to see more from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Fans of the Hong Kong action that originally inspired Shang-Chi will probably wish there was a little bit more of that, but that doesn't make it any less a reliably pretty-darn-good Marvel adventure.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, September 03, 2021

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 3 September 2021 - 9 September 2021

If Labor Day being a big movie weekend becomes a thing because of Covid, I won't mind. I'd rather it happened some other way, obviously, but who needs three-day weekends with no cool new movies to watch?
  • So gear up, folks, Marvel has Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for us, with Simu Liu as the Master of Kung Fu, Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as his supervillain father, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh, and Jackie Chan protege Brad Allan in charge of the martial arts action. It gets a ton of screens at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common (including Imax, Dolby Cinema, RealD 3D, and Chinese-subtitled shows), Fenway (including RealD 3D), South Bay (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, Assembly Row (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    The Capitol also picks up the Cinderella movie that Columbia sold to Amazon, reimagined as a modern-day-ish jukebox musical by Kay Cannon, who wrote the Pitch Perfect movies and directed the apparently well-liked Blockers. Apple Fresh Pond, meanwhile, has late shows of something called Burial Ground Massacre, with Michael Madsen as the guy picking college kids off one by one (sort of; IMDB has him as "Demon" and wrestler Vinny Marseglia as "Masked Damon").

    Boston Common and Assembly Row bring back United 93 to mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, which, uh, I dunno. There are 35th Anniversary screenings of Backdraft Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row. There's also a special "Premiere Event" show of documentary The Alpinist (with ten minutes or so of bonus material) at Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Tuesday. There also seems to be some extras included with Thursday's screening of Time Is Up (the English-language debut of director Elisa Amoruso) at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Fenway also has an extended cut of RUSH concert film Cinema Strangiato 2019 on Thursday.
  • Arguably the biggest news at The Coolidge Corner Theatre is that starting this weekend, proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test will be required for entry. They also open On Broadway, a documentary about the previous revival of the Great White Way, which is hopefully more than people famous for doing theater talking about how important theater in New York is to America. That's also at Kendall Square.

    With a new month comes new midnights, with "Marty after Midnite" featuring a 35mm print of Taxi Driver on Friday. Most weekends will feature two Scorsese films, but Saturday is given over to Haus of Oni for It Follows with a special drag pre-show. There's a Masked Matinee of Pig on Sunday, the annual labor day screening of Jaws on 35mm Monday, and the first "Rewind!" show in a while on Thursday, with Clueless followed by an after-party at Parlour.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square gets anthology film The Year of the Everlasting Storm, an shot-during-Covid anthology with seven filmmakers from around the world, with David Lowery representing the USA and Apichatpong Weerasethakul repping Thailand, among others. They also open Who You Think I Am, which stars Juliette Binoche as a middle-aged woman who creates a second Facebook profile and finds herself involved with her younger former lover's roommate.
  • The Brattle Theatre has documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught from Friday to Monday, which looks at the life of Guy Clark, a legendary Texas songwriter whose relationships with his wife and best friend are as complicated and fraught as any country song. The Friday evening show also includes a pre-recorded Q&A with the filmmakers.

    Not having the chance to do the usual marathon back in April, the Brattle presents "Tales of the Muppet Diaspora" throughout September, with both the original films and the later projects worked on by Jim Henson and company. This week's presentations include The Muppet Movie on 35mm (Saturday/Monday/Tuesday), Little Shop of Horrors (Saturday/Sunday), The Muppets Take Manhattan on 35mm (Sunday/Monday), Follow That Bird on 35mm (Monday/Tuesday), Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Tuesday), The Empire Strikes Back (Wednesday), and Return of the Jedi (Thursday).

    Online, The Brattlite holds steady with What We Left Unfinished, Sabaya, and Witches of the Orient.
  • The West Newton Cinema has times listed through Monday and must looks like they're back to crowded marquees with Shang-Chi, Searching for Mr. Rugoff, On Broadway Together, Respect, Free Guy, Stillwater (Sunday/Monday), Roadrunner (Sunday), Space Jam 2 (Saturday-Monday), Summer of Soul, and In the Heights (Saturday-Monday).

    The Lexington Venue is also open through Labor Day with CODA and Respect.
  • Cinema Salem goes with Shang-Chi, Candyman, and Free Guy Friday to Sunday. The Friday late shows - Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre this week - are joined by a couple other special presentations this week: There's a Sunday matinee of Vertigo, while record producer Richard Guérin visits for a a Cinema Sounds screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, chatting about the process of scoring films.
  • The Luna Theater in Lowell has new events on the schedule, kicking off with the first "Weirdo Wednesday" in 18 months or so on the 8th. It's now free for their new "Secret Satellite Society" members, although you can purchase a weekly membership for $5 or a monthly one for $10.

    Elsewhere on the re-opening front, Landmark's weekly email indicates that the Embassy in Waltham will be back in business next weekend, which is cool (it's a neat little place and it's a bit of a hike to the next-closest cinema from there). The Somerville Theatre, meanwhile, is at least replacing the circa-March-2020 posters in the window with others, emphasizing their upcoming 70mm presentations. The Harvard Film Archive is probably shut down until the campus itself reopens in 2022. Theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Shang-Chi, The Night House, Jaws, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, maybe a little more. And, yes, there's lingering Fantasia stuff still to watch.