Saturday, January 29, 2022


Not related to the movie itself at all, really, but for the second time in as many weeks, I was clumsy in getting my popcorn into a stable position while managing soda, coat, and backpack, this time spilling just about the whole container all over the floor. As was the case when it happened in Belle, I felt completely mortified, because being 25 years away from having that particular job does not make me any less sympathetic to the people who are going to have to get that tidied up before the next show. The funny bit, though, was that someone saw this and handed me the "1 Free Large Popcorn & 2 Large Sodas" coupon you get when you join the Brattle as a member so I wouldn't go without. It's a very cool thing to do, but I think I may have a couple in my wallet and ten years' worth tossed because that is far more popcorn and soda than I can take for one showing (although I should maybe ask if I can have my second soda ready for the tail end of a double feature sometime), and it amuses me that apparently this happens to other people too.

Closer to the film, the timeframes that go into making movies are kind of strange. I saw filmmaker Julia Ducournau's first movie, Raw, at MonsterFest in Melbourne five years ago, and even without the pandemic sort of messing with time, that trip seems both relatively recent and a while ago, and I'm not sure whether four or five years to get her second feature made is a long time or not. I know folks who hate the term "elevated horror", but what Ducournau and folks like her do is different than the folks who can knock a new movie out every year because they're either doing work for hire or not making something terribly elaborate (or alternately trusting the FX specialists when they do). It's not a quick follow-up, and I actually lost track of how I apparently liked Raw more walking out of that theater in Australia than I remembered later.

Can't say I liked this one as much. Even before the sexy/bloody/crazy first act finished, I kind of found myself flagging (though the bit where there were just so many people to murder made me laugh for how delightfully nasty it was), and got really fidgety during the rest. I could see what they were doing well, but I must also admit that I've grown impatient with movies where you have to work out that what you see isn't literally what's happening - if fooling the audience is part of the game, I prefer it come with a rug-pulling moment rather than some sort of winking ambiguity. Parts of this movie, I think, would probably hit harder if you assume that Alexia is raped by her stalker and concocts the whole thing with the car and all the later bits about bleeding motor oil and having something metallic within her as a defense mechanism, but I don't know that it's fair to make the viewer reconstruct something that didn't happen on screen and isn't revealed in order to fit things together, especially if that viewer is like me and doesn't have a real handle on what is and isn't a likely delusion. Alfred Hitchcock's heavy-handed explanations as in Psycho may be psychologically dubious, but putting that in the movie means there's no second-guessing it: That's how things work in the movie, and you don't have to worry about whether it's realistic or not at that point.

Titane has a lot of things you've got to see at least once, and like a lot of horror by/for/starring women, it's entirely possible something in it is going to resonate strongly with someone who is Not Me; there's a lot of pregnancy body horror and queer themes that don't mean as much to me as they would to someone closer to it. Still, when I face the inevitable question of which "French woman sort of getting it on with a machine" movie I prefer from the two I saw in last year, I'll probably go with Jumbo, which may have a layer or two less but communicates a bit better.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (Some of the Best of 2021, DCP)

The descriptions for Titane as it played festivals and made its way to theaters were notably vague, calculatedly so, perhaps because writer/director Julia Ducournau often seems to have bolted two movies together and folks pulled in by one may be disappointed to get a heaping bowl of the other. The sort of switcheroo she pulls on the audience can pay off, but in jumping from the outrageous to the merely very weird, she doesn't necessarily do either side of the story any favors.

She starts by introducing the audience to Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a model and dancer who mostly works car and boat shows, the sort of gig selling the idea that this machine will make a hot girl wet. It may not be far from the truth for Alexia; she's been excited by cars and metal even before the accident that led to doctors putting a titanium plate in her head. Indeed, she seems more excited by the nipple piercings of fellow dancer Justine (Garance Marillier) than the girl they're attached to, and she seems quite fond of her titanium hairpin beyond how well it lets her deal with a fan who stalks her in the parking lot. It doesn't seem to be her first time using it that way, but she soon goes way overboard and winds up on the run. That's when she notices that she bears a vague resemblance to the digitally aged image of a boy who disappeared ten years ago at the age of seven, and soon finds that his father Vincent (Vincent Linden) is willing to overlook a lot of things that don't feel right to have his son back.

This description elides some important events, such as how Alexia's classic muscle car seems to come alive after the first killing, leading to what sure as heck plays as a sexual encounter that leaves her pregnant. Once that happens, no matter how twisted and uncomfortable things get later, the audience can't help but think "okay, but what about that? How's that going?" It's truly strange that for as much as the start of the film establishes a certain pathology - she was obviously drawn to cars even as an awful-seeming seven-year-old and the metallic implant gave her more reason to identify further with them - that never particularly matters once Vincent has taken "Adrien" in and made him part of the firefighting team. There are icky moments that depict something weird going on in her reproductive organs, but it never pushes her to act in a way that someone without this particular issue wouldn't.

At that point, a lot of the attention has shifted to Vincent, and that's not a bad thing: Actually-first-billed actor Vincent Lindon gives an impressive performance as a man whose identity as a father and firefighter requires complete confidence and authority despite being utterly desperate, with every single performance choice made building that up a little more. The way Ducournau and her co-writers keep Alexa/Adrien around so that the audience can watch that never passes the sniff test, and fails it in ways that are not nearly spectacular enough to get a pass in the way that Alexia's mania does. There's a line about Vincent refusing a DNA test, but do the cops seriously not fingerprint "Adrien"? No social workers? No physical for someone who, at the very least, has recently had their nose broken? Even if you figure "Adrien" doesn't need certification or examination because he's meant to be a mascot, and the rest of the station is terrified of losing Vincent's favor, any suspicions are quickly pushed aside. The movie that got Alexia into Vincent's house (or near those sexy fire engines) would have her reacting to that, but the one which is centered around Vincent can't upset the apple cart until it's time.

At times, it's almost as if Ducournau wrote the first act and then realized that she maybe couldn't sustain that level of out-and-out craziness for feature length and came up with something still unnerving but more manageable. One can't exactly say that this movie plays it safe at any point, but it's interesting that she does a bit of what she did in Raw toward the start, getting a gross-out reaction from Alexia's surgery but then going relatively light on the gore thereafter And when she and Agathe Rousselle feel free to let loose on Alexia being weird and awful, the film plays as terrific black comedy, whether Alexia's making her father squirm, making the audience believe that killing makes both her her and the car horny, or a dance scene that doesn't make any damn sense but which plays out exactly as funny as it must have been in Ducournau's head. Alexia doesn't talk a whole lot but Rousselle is great with body language and attitude.

Titane is electrifying in its best moments, and what's on screen is always people giving all they can, whether it be Lindon and Rousselle or the terrific cinematography by Ruben Impens. Those great scenes and complete commitment are the sort that make a viewer tell friends that they've got to see this, even if they spend a lot of time asking why these people are doing this without exactly being intrigued. There are two potentially fantastic movies inside this one, and maybe they don't mix, but it's better to have their conflicting weirdo natures on full display rather than have them cancel each other out.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, January 28, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 January 2021 - 3 February 2022

Oof, it's not like studios knew we'd be getting a winter storm this weekend before creating this big ol' slate of nothing. That changes next week, but I guess it's reason to stay in, what with everything.
  • Jockey opens at Landmark Theatre Kendall Square, featuring Clifton Collins Jr. in the title role, although he's aging out of that job and confronted with a man who claims to be his son on the way to trying to win one last title.

    They also get the new Woody Allen film, Rifkin's Festival, while the folks at the Embassy add Flee and the black & white Nightmare Alley (also opening at Fenway and South Bay). Both locations will be closed Saturday.
  • Documentary GameStop: Rise of the Players has the team behind Console Wars examining the recent events where a bunch of amateur investors bought into the chain of video game pawnshops (I kid!) to bleed the hedge funds that were looking to profit on its collapse. It opens at Boston Common and Assembly Row. Note that those are AMC theaters, who may have a vested interest in this sort of thing!

    Peter Jackson and company have pulled the rooftop concert out of The Beatles: Get Back for a feature-length event, which plays Sunday afternoon in Imax at Boston Common and Assembly Row. Another Concert documentary, New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization features Bill Murray, cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang, and pianist Vanessa Perez in concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, with Murray apparently singing and reciting poetry. That's at Kendall Square and Fenway. There are also Imax showtimes for Dune at Boston Common and South Bay, with Dolby Cinema shows of Belfast at the Common (both matinees).

    The Thursday night previews of Jackass Forever at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row indicate "bonus content" while Arsenal Yards and Chestnut Hill list it as "Fan Appreciation Night".
  • The Brattle Theatre continues "Some of the Best of 2021", with Titane (Friday), The Power of the Dog (Sunday), Saint Maud (Sunday late), The Green Knight (Monday), El Planeta (Tuesday), Shiva Baby (Tuesday), and Summer of Soul (Thursday). They're also the local spot for the one-night screening of music doc Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché on Wednesday.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens Telugu drama Good Luck Sakhi, with Keerthy Suresh as a woman apparently jinxed to the point where her fiancé dies in an accident before her wedding who trains to become a competition sharpshooter, which sounds kind of ill-advised. They also keep Bollywood drama '83 around.

    Mamoru Hosoda anime Belle continues to play the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Check listings for when/where it's dubbed versus subtitled versions.

    Russian comedy Swingers plays Fenway again on Sunday afternoon.
  • No new releases at The Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend, but they have a fair amount of special presentations. The midnights include James Wan's giallo-inspired (and apparently utterly bonkers) Malignant and Tommy Wiseau's The Room on Friday, and a 35mm print of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (aka Next!) on Saturday. Sunday's masked matinee is Parallel Mothers, and they start a "Love Hurts!" series with 35mm prints of Bonnie and Clyde on Tuesday and The Fifth Element on Wednesday. There's also a special "Panorama" presentation of Flee on Thursday, with post-film panel discussion including representatives from the International Institute of New England and others.
  • Part of the The Somerville Theatre's repertory shows include a double feature of Summer of Soul and Wattstax, the latter on 35mm, on Friday and Saturday. If you enjoyed Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, his other film from 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, plays Monday through Thursday.

    Their sister cinema, The Capitol in Arlington, opens Parallel Mothers.
  • Bright Lights is apparently back for real in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room, with this Thursday evening featuring Lamb, with Emerson professor Sarah Zaidan part of the discussion afterward. Tickets are still free on the day of the show.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues to present "Tabooed Initiation: Two Early Films by Mou Tun-Fei" online through Sunday. Both films in the program - I Didn't Dare Tell You and The End of the Track - are free to stream and also include lectures by Victor Fan and Wood Lin.
  • Belmont World Film's Family Film Festival has finished, but there are three on-line modeling workshops with Aardman's Jim Parkyn on Saturday afternoon (which doesn't leave a lot of time to purchase/make modeling clay beforehand.
  • The West Newton Cinema keeps the schedule of Parallel Mothers, Sing 2, Licorice Pizza, Spider-Man, West Side Story, and Saturday/Sunday matinees of Encanto; The Lexington Venue re-opens with Parallel Mothers and West Side Story this weekend; note that they are unable to sell tickets online at the moment but "have plenty at the box office".
  • The Luna Theater has The Tragedy of Macbeth Friday and Saturday evenings, plus a masked matinee Saturday afternoon. Red Rocket also plays Saturday, while My Own Private Idaho runs Sunday. There's a Weirdo Wednesday show, and a free screening (with discussion) of Black Hawk Down on Thursday as part of UMass Lowell's Philosophy & Film series. Cinema Salem is closed for renovations this week.
  • The Museum of Science has their last weekend of The Matrix Resurrections on the Omni screen Friday and Saturday, though obviously double-check that day.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Oof, that's an impressive amount of nothing. Not even any Chinese New Year movies! Sure, the theme of this year's crop is apparently more "we drove you vicious Americans out of North Korea" and theaters are apparently closed in Hong Kong, but someone could have booked the Taiwanese puppet adventure! Anyway, I've got a ticket for Titane at the Brattle Friday, had one for The Harder They Fall on Saturday but what can you do, and might do the Indian sports double feature on Sunday, plus Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, catch-up, and shelf stuff.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Drive My Car

I occasionally review or blog about films not so much because I imagine that I have the reach and influence to influence audiences broadly, but because I'm trying to figure out what to say when discussing the film more directly, and that's certainly the case with Drive My Car. I like it a lot, but I still find myself at a bit of a loss of how to recommend it to people outside of my film friends, the ones who aren't going to see a 3-hour Japanese movie about a withdrawn man directing a Russian play without a lot of assurances that it's not dull or pitched above their heads. I'm not sure I quite know how to do it, especially at a time when theaters and major platforms have been so flooded with easily categorizable, targeted material that this film's best qualities, when talked up, can sound like a rebellion. It's not - this is just a good movie, and I both love what plays theaters now and hate to feel like a scold - but it feels like one has to tread a bit lightly to make a case for this sort of drama right now.

For those who are interested, it's playing one more day at the Somerville Theatre (27 January 2022) but should hang around the Coolidge and Kendall for at least another week. They also have director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's other film from 2001, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, playing Monday to Thursday next week, and near as I know that's the only time and place it's hitting screens in the Boston area. I wasn't planning on anywhere near this much Japanese film coverage for this month, but the theaters are kind of shoveling it at me.

Also, this was my first time at the Somerville but not the main theater for the first time since they re-opened post-shutdown/renovation, and it's a bit odd. I got used to the new box office/concession stand quick enough, but my brain says that it starts to get tight when headed downstairs to theaters 2 & 3. I "know" there's supposed to be another stairway going upstairs to where the Crystal Ballroom has replaced screens 4 & 5, and it being walled off seems to shrink the stairs down more than it probably does. The space that used to house the Museum of Bad Art doesn't look like it's going to get that sort of use any more, even as the lounge during IFFBoston (and, yeah, I'm curious how that works if it's in-person this year, what with previously using all 5 of the theater's screens). Oh, and it looks like the old Load Bearing Piano is downstairs too, although it's not labeled as such.

Anyway - the movie's good, and I went long, and probably nudged the star rating up a bit afterward because I don't really write this much about something that isn't worth that sort of attention.

Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2022 in Somerville Theatre #3 (special presentation, DCP)

For as good as Drive My Car is - and it is very good indeed - it's the sort of movies that film-lovers may hesitate to recommend to friends who interact with the medium more casually. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's film has several traits that people have come to associate with films that are difficult to grapple with; it's long, it's Japanese, it draws on other works one may feel uncultured for not knowing, and it alternates between people just talking and purposefully not talking without a lot of activity in between. It is not, however, hard to digest at all; it's mature and dense but works in large part because Hamaguchi puts what he is doing front and center.

The film follows Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director and actor whose productions frequently include actors from multiple nations each performing in their native language. His latest is a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He chooses a cast including an actress from Taiwan, Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan), and one from Korea, Lee Yoon-A (Park Yoo-Rim), who communicates using sign language though she appears mute rather than deaf. Most surprisingly, he has Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the title role - not only is it one Yusuke has played frequently, but Takatsuki is quite young for it. Yusuke also clearly suspects that Takatsuki was the one with whom his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) was having an affair when things collapsed two years earlier. Part of what happened then was an automobile accident that revealed Yusuke had glaucoma, which is likely why the festival has hired 23-year-old Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) as his driver despite the drive being part of Yusuke's process, though they claim it is standard practice.

Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe don't start in Hiroshima, although I gather Haruki Murakami's short story does and flashbacks would in some ways be more conventional, revealing Yusuke's background as needed rather than taking 40 minutes to get to the opening credits and the main thrust of the film. Instead, the thinking seems to be that what put Yusuke in this headspace isn't a secret and isn't a twist to him; it's weight that has accumulated in real time, something that's always there rather than popping up unexpectedly, and while Hamaguchi and the rest do still have a few details that won't be explained until Yusuke has a reason to explain them, one can see how the filmmakers commit to telling the story from his point of view by comparing how pieces of others' stories are sprung on him while his is generally laid out early.

Which is not to say that Yusuke is an open book. He is, in fact, as bottled up as a character can be at times, spending much of that opening act in false mustaches or other bits of obscuring makeup; at another point he walks in on his wife with her lover, quietly leaves before being noticed, and spends the next scene acting as though nothing is amiss. He at times seems to encourage his cast to put away the emotion their characters feel during table reads, focusing on creating a rhythm that they can maintain without actually communicating directly with their co-stars. What Hidetoshi Nishijima does in the role is to hint that this sort of repression takes effort, that Yusuke's skill at presenting a calm face is not natural despite the practice. It lets later plain-spoken moments carry weight by the relative lack of tension in his voice, lending strength to simple truth.

The commitment to Yusuke's perspective and the story being told means that, in some ways, Oto must be a bit of an enigma, but also must be a complete person that Yusuke loves. Actress Reika Kirishima handles a lot of that, and she is terrific, making a strong impression in relatively little screen time playing Oto in straight-ahead fashion rather than being coy or ambiguous. Instead, Hamaguchi finds ways to demonstrate distance in the Kafukus' marriage. Consider the opening scene, where she's telling him a story in bed, and the cameras and lighting make Oto a shadowy figure while the reverse angles show Yusuke clearly, or how the story itself is all proxies for connection while establishing arbitrary boundaries. Later, Yusuke takes cassettes of her performing the other parts of Uncle Vanya with him in the car, ostensibly so he can rehearse while driving, but there are times when it seems more like him rehashing arguments that he cannot confront her with directly.

Much of the film centers around acting and performance, to the point where some viewers may get that nervous feeling of wondering if the people making it have other frames of reference, but once one dives in, it's fascinating to watch. Consider Takatsuki and Janice's joint audition, where Yusuke's suspicions about the young actor merge with just how willing he seems to be physically intimidating and tactile with someone he's just met. That the two can't really speak without an interpreter (Janice speaks Mandarin and English depending on context but not Japanese) is writ large during rehearsal, with the cast trying to work together despite speaking at least four different languages in the same scene.

It's a marked contrast to what Toko Miura's doing as Misaki. We notice a scar on the young woman's face early on, and it calls attention to just how little she is offering about herself at first, beyond being very good as a driver and somewhere between reserved and professional where her job is concerned. Eventually, she opens up a bit more, but is never as consciously sophisticated about it as the actors, though Miura is good at walking into a scene with tension, knowing she's not as cultured or of the same caste as the others she's around, though she works to project confidence. There's more to her, of course, and Miura does well to capture how getting it out there can be a relief but not a total one, because a problem doesn't vanish when one speaks of it.

She's also part of a number of scenes that emphasize just how precisely Hamaguchi can be working. Consider one scene where Yusuke compliments her driving, and she almost seems mortified to be receiving that sort of praise, standing from a table and seeming to crumple below the frame; a few moments later, it becomes clear that she's playing with their hosts' dog, and the filmmakers have turned a moment of seeming agonizing self-doubt and repression into one of the first where Misaki is open and cheerful. There's a lot of really masterful use of the camera and frame in this film, from that opening use of shadow to the way aerial shots make it a little bit of work to track Yusuke's bright red car on clean gray roadways, or the turmoil of how one road trip highlights the very different lighting of streets and tunnels at night, not able to settle down. There's tremendous precision in every choice of shot, successions of striking images that are nevertheless not flashy.

Hamaguchi walks a lot of fine lines over the film's nearly three hours, always finding the middle path between being icy and melodramatically wrenching without getting close to either gutter. Drive My Car is long, multi-lingual, and on the surface seems built to play to the audience that knows Chekhov and which is actively looking for symbolism, but Hamaguchi never seems to presume that's who he's playing to, choosing to connect with clarity throughout.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sing a Bit of Harmony

Looks like this one is only getting two screening days - subtitled on Sunday the 23rd, dubs on Wednesday the 26th. I can't speak for the quality of the latter version, since I really couldn't tell you the difference between "folks who rightfully make a living as voice actors" and "non-union office staff who won't add anything to the bottom line what with the license so expensive" when I look at the English-language voice cast of an anime. But, I can say that I liked the movie quite a bit, more than I was expecting. I laughed hard when the android who was supposed to pass for a normal student showed up and was completely ridiculous from the word go, and kind of wish they went full Rumiko Takahashi-style bonkers at that point, not just because I can see some of her cartoony art style in the characters but because it's kind of a great screwball set-up with the very serious girl having to cover for this force of chaos.

Also, the filmmakers seemed to have looked at a lot of the tropes at play in manga and anime and found a sweet spot of understanding the appeal while nevertheless trying to script it as things teenagers would actually do. As much as I'm well past the age where I can really talk about what teenagers are like from any sort of recent experience, a lot of high-school anime seems to have picked up a template and set to mastering it rather than building from the characters. Yasuhiro Yoshiura doesn't quite completely break free - there are a lot of times when this film could work harder to defy expectations - but he does put the template to good use and seldom seems to be lazy about it.

It's also pretty good science fiction; Yoshiura has done another series/movie involving androids discovering some agency (Time of Eve), and he certainly seems to be starting from the position where we've got a lot of artificial intelligence software around us right now, and what's the world look like if we push it a little further. The folks in this movie don't seem to be trying to create an autonomous being like Commander Data who might rebel, but rather an Alexa/Siri that can interact with people in a familiar way in the physical world, and that feels like a distinction that a lot of people who write this sort of sci-fi adventure don't grasp.

So, one more show tomorrow, then hopefully on disc later this year. If you like this sort of thing, you can do a lot worse.

Ai no utagoe wo kikasete (Sing a Bit of Harmony)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #10 (special presentation, DCP)

Yasuhiro Yoshiura's Sing a Bit of Harmony starts out setting up a sort of classic sci-fi premise and then veering into said premise eventually leading to complete, embarrassing disaster, something that more stories like this probably ought to try. It eventually becomes a somewhat conventional young-adult-friendly anime, but earns a lot of good will from being occasionally unpredictable and is good enough to coast on that rather than squander it.

The high concept is that Hoshima Systems is planning to secretly place its latest Artificial Intelligence in a robot body and enroll it in Keibu High School, figuring that if it can pass for a couple of weeks, it will be an incredible victory. Project Shion was developed by Mitsuko Amano (voice of Sayaka Ohara) whose daughter Satomi (voice of Haruka Fukuhara) is a student there, along with childhood friend and computer prodigy Toma (voice of Asuka Kudo). The trouble is, "Shion Ashimori" (voice of Tao Tsuchiya) immediately comes off as a lunatic, interrupting her introduction to the class to ask Satomi if she is happy and then breaking into song. Her second musical number causes her to short-circuit completely in front of Satomi, Toma, confidence-lacking judo club member, "Thunder" (voice of Satoshi Hino) Toma's friend Goto (voice of Kazuyuki Okitsu), and Goto's girlfriend Aya (voice of Mikako Komatsu). Straight-laced Satomi, derisively known as "Princess Tattletale" by much of the student body, begs the other students not to tell what happened while Toma fixes Shion, lest it reflect badly on her mother in the patriarchal power structure of Hoshima.

It initially looks like someone at Hoshima has programmed Shion's neural net with nothing but high-school anime theme songs with the intent of sabotaging Mitsuko, and while Yoshiura doesn't exactly go that direction - it's a funny premise but one which would inevitably put the focus on the adults rather than the kids - he and co-writer Ichiro Okouchi spend a fair amount of time tapping into that screwball energy. As sci-fi, it's a clever and welcome inversion of tropes; Shion's alarming exuberance and cockeyed take on the world being what makes her strange rather than stilted delivery and excessive literalism is in many ways more believable these days when everybody has access to a pretty-good natural language processor with the occasional witty response in their pockets. It also proves to be a fertile set-up for comedy, as Shion comes off as something like Satomi's annoying little sister on the one hand and high-school romance clichés from Aya thinking Goto is into the new girl or the weird "prince" fixation of shojo manga can suddenly go completely off the rails as Shion casually takes control of anything on the local network and generally makes no attempt to be inconspicuous whatsoever.

Eventually, a more conventional storyline finds its way to the fore, but it works in large part because Yoshiura and his team have actually been kind of clever with what they seed. Care is taken to make sure supporting characters like Aya are not silly one-note adversaries, for instance, and the tensions inside Mitsuko's workplace are all the more tense for not having her supervisors and rivals be obvious mustache-twirling villains, making the moments when she seems crushed all the more believably dark, despite the zaniness seen elsewhere. The filmmakers don't approach AI in a technophobic way, often making the way that Hoshima dominates Keibu as the largest employer with their AI and robotics saturating the landscape is well-observed. One could see a more adult-skewing story told in this world portraying it as more sinister, although it seems fairly normal for the teenage characters and mostly functional. The stakes are well short of Shion becoming Skynet, but there's tension at a level that works for a group of mostly-average teenagers.

Visually, the film is fairly grounded as well - there's an AI's-eye-view bit at the start and a couple of other points, but for the most part Yoshiura and company stay in a recognizable world, populating it with robots and other pieces of tech that seem to be a few baby steps ahead of what's out there now; the backgrounds are busy enough that a viewer will spend some time looking at them to figure out the world but not distracting. The character designs are standard - Satomi with the sensible haircut, Toma with the lines around his eyes to make him look constantly frazzled, Shion with the flowing-but-perfect mane, etc. - but they don't quite come across as placeholders, and the voice acting in at least the Japanese soundtrack is good. Tao Tsuchiya mostly walks a tricky line as Shioin, since she's got to be earnest but also deranged in a way that signals that she's inhumanly weird but not actually dangerous. The animation is smooth and active enough throughout that the musical numbers feel a piece with the rest even though things have been kicked up a notch. There's something not quite satiric, but poking around the edges, about how Satomi's favorite cartoon kind of looks like a latter-day Disney animated feature, almost smoother than the "real world" around it, slick and kind of juvenile.

I suspect that those more familiar with the genres at play here, the Japanese high school romantic comedy in particular, will find a lot of places where the filmmakers are poking at the sillier bits and finding ways to tweak them without alienating their audience. By chance or design, it hit theaters in North America about a week after Mamaru Hosoda's more-heralded Belle did (four months separated them in Japan), and while it's not so fancy a movie, it's solid and smart even if it's not quite such a departure from the norm as it initially seems to be.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, January 21, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 January 2021 - 27 January 2022

I think this is the week when Morbius would have opened, but Sony kicked it down the road, and nothing big has exactly filled the vacuum, to the point where multiplexes seem to be like "I had three screens including the Imax set aside for this; what the heck am I supposed to fill them with?".

  • We do get an awards contender in Flee, which seems like it could score nominations in foreign, animation, and documentary categories. It's the story of a man who came to Europe as a refugee from Afghanistan as a child, which he had previously kept to himself. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, Boston Common.

    The Coolidge's month of Kubrick midnight shows finishes off with The Shining on Friday, in 35mm; the final January Giallo on Saturday, Dario Argento's Creepers (aka Phenomena), also runs on film. For those who would rather get up earlier and play things safe, the Sunday masked matinee is Drive My Car. For Big Screen Classics, My Neighbor Totoro plays subtitled on Monday evening after showing dubbed last weekend, and John Carpenter's The Thing plays on 35mm on Thursday.
  • With the expected major release not playing, the biggest release looks to be Redeeming Love, a PureFlix-produced thing that has a romantic poster but is apparently a period piece about human trafficking. It's directed by DJ Caruso with a few folks you might know in the supporting cast (Famke Janssen!), and plays at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill.

    There are also two family-oriented pictures that probably wouldn't do well in a more competitive situation. The King's Daughter looks like it's been sitting on the shelf for something like seven years, with Kaya Scodelario (who has done the whole Maze Runner trilogy since this) as the title character, Pierce Brosnan as King Louis XIV, and Fan Bingbing as the mermaid held prisoner under the castle. It's at Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Arsenal Yards. The Tiger Rising follows a couple of kids who have to deal with a tiger being held in a small town. Dennis Quaid, Queen Latifah, and Katharine McPhee are in the cast. That one plays Fresh Pond and Boston Common.

    With the expected thing not opening on the giant screens and Spider-Man maybe starting to slow down, some places with Imax screens bring back No Time to Die for at least the next week, including Boston Common and South Bay. Boston Common also has The Tragedy of Macbeth in Imax on Wednesday. I'm not sure if Nightmare Alley ever left many of the theaters it plays in this weekend, but Kendall Square and Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema) will be playing a "Visions in Darkness in Light" version converted to black and white. Boston Common also re-opens The Souvenir: Part II.

    Casablanca plays Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, South Bay (Wednesday only), and Arsenal Yards, meaning its regular Brattle Valentine's showings will be pushed later in February to give this a one month window.
  • Another week, another anime, with Sing a Bit of Harmony playing Sunday (subtitled) and Tuesday (dubbed) at Boston Common, Fenway, and Kendall Square (dubbed show on Wednesday); this one from Time of Eve and Patema Inverted director Yasuhiro Yoshiura and involving an AI transfer student joining a school's music club. That makes it kind of Belle-adjacent, with that one continuing to plays the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Most theaters have both dubbed and subtitled versions; check the listings.

    It looked like Egyptian imports could become a regular thing right before Covid hit, and the first to play theaters here is For Zeko, a comedy about a screwy family on a road trip to bring their son to a national competition. It's at Fenway, Friday to Sunday. They also have Russian comedy Swingers on Thursday - not a remake of the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau movie, but of a Latvian farce which has also had Estonian, Ukrainian, Norwegian, Polish, and Dutch versions in the past six years.

    Apple Fresh Pond continues to play Indian films Bangarraju and'83.
  • The Brattle Theatre has more of "Some of the Best of 2021", with About Endlessness (Friday), In the Earth (Friday), Censor (Saturday), Last Night in Soho (Saturday), The Mitchells vs the Machines (Sunday), Cryptozoo (Sunday), Identifying Features (Monday), John and the Hole (Monday/Tuesday), Atlantis (Tuesday), The Green Knight (Wednesday), and Night of the Kings (Thursday).
  • Part of the The Somerville Theatre's repertory shows include Weekend at Bogie's with 35mm double features on Friday (Key Largo & The Maltese Falcon) and Saturday (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre & Dark Passage). Drive My Car plays Monday through Thursday (with director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy on the schedule next week).

    Their sister cinema, The Capitol in Arlington, opens documentary The Velvet Queen.
  • Landmark Theatre Kendall Square also picks up Drive My Car.
  • Unless things change before then, Bright Lights is back to in-person screenings in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room on Thursday evening with Fanny: Right to Rock, a documentary about a 1960s band started by Filipino-American sisters who have reunited to record a new album 50 years later. It's been a while, but I believe tickets are still free on the day of the show. Co-founder/lead guitarist June Millington will be part of the post-film discussion.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is still not open to the public yet, but they will be presenting "Tabooed Initiation: Two Early Films by Mou Tun-Fei" online from Friday through the 30th. Both films in the program - I Didn't Dare Tell You and The End of the Track - are free to stream and also include lectures by Victor Fan and Wood Lin.
  • Belmont World Film continues the annual Family Film Festival through Sunday. There are no in-person events this weekend, and note that the Aardman modeling workshops have been pushed to next weekend
  • GlobeDocs is streaming "Earth Emergency" and offering a Q&A with the filmmakers on Monday afternoon. RSVP here and you'll be sent URLs to view the film over the weekend and then join the Zoom discussion.
  • The West Newton Cinema keeps the schedule of Parallel Mothers, Sing 2, Licorice Pizza, Spider-Man, West Side Story, and Saturday/Sunday matinees of Encanto; The Lexington Venue is closed this weekend.
  • Cinema Salem has Belle, Scream '22, and West Side Story playing Friday to Sunday. Charade plays as part of their Audrey Hepburn series on Saturday & Sunday.

    The Luna Theater has The Tragedy of Macbeth Friday and Saturday evenings, Red Rocket as the masked matinee on Saturday afternoon, the Luhrmann/DiCaprio/Danes Romeo + Juliet on Sunday, and a Weirdo Wednesday show.
  • The Museum of Science has The Matrix Resurrections on the Omni screen through the end of the month (once on Friday, twice on Saturday).
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Obviously doing a bunch of Bogart and Drive My Car while they're an easy walk away, then tempted by the anime, the Egyptian comedy and maybe even the mermaid thing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Belle (2021)

I'm kind of surprised that Belle only played the one show on the Imax screen at Boston Common - has Spider-Man just not slowed down at all anywhere? Figured AMC might mix things up a bit, but, nah, just one special show, which meant it was fairly crowded even for the big room. Did pretty over the weekend, at least.

Anyway, one thing I touch on a bit here is that it feels like we're on something like 35 or 40 years of filmmakers desperately trying to make the Internet (and using computers in general) more visually fun than it is. I can't blame them for wanting to make it feel like people doing stuff, because even QuantumLink's dial-up "Habitat" on the Commodore 64 is likely more fun to watch than people typing while text for the audience to read appears. Unfortunately for them, even graphic-heavy social media today is still pretty much walls of text with occasional interruption, and people throwing emojis and GIFs at each other almost makes it worse. After all, for all that the virtual worlds in Belle and Summer Wars look cool, can you imagine actually using them as opposed to having a couple streams open in various windows? How do you actually find anything?

But folks keep trying. The "metaverse" stuff that Facebook is trying to make happen looks like warmed-over second life and other VR systems that the world has firmly rejected, and this is Hosoda's second trip to the well. In a lot of ways, he tells a good story about life in a world with the internet, but has as hard a time as anyone figuring out how to make that interesting and believable on-screen.

It's not terribly important, really. It's just interesting that the most intuitive-seeming way to represent online life fails to capture how it's not offline life and just seems like it will never actually happen.

Ryû to sobakasu no hime (Belle)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (preview, subtitled Imax Xenon)

If you need an example of how great animation can be, don't look at the big, flashy set pieces of Belle; watch the sequence where three teenagers (two of them fairly minor characters to that point) are acting weird about their crushes and paralyzed in horror at how weird they're being. It's extraordinary cartooning a step or two away from realistic that nevertheless zeroes in on exactly how something feels. Filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda could probably have built the whole movie without the more futuristic elements, but they certainly do get your attention.

He posits an online community, "U", with five billion users existing in a 3D world with "AS" avatars, a glasses-free sort of virtual reality achieved via wireless earpieces and biometric scanners connected to one's phone. Suzu Naito (voice of Kaho Nakamura) is invited in by tech-obsessed friend Hiroka (voice of Rira "Ikura" Akuta), and while in the real world she's been withdrawn ever since her mother drowned ten years ago, too shy even to talk to suddenly-tall-and-handsome childhood friend Shinobu (voice of Ryo Narita), her singing in U is an instant sensation. Hiro is able to make sure "Belle" stays anonymous, but when her performance is crashed by an online fighting-game champion. Suzu and Hiro set out to discover who he is, hoping to stay one step ahead of the platform's self-appointed enforcers.

In some ways, the most surprising thing about Belle might be which sort of movie it is not - Hosoda appears to be almost aggressively disinterested in internet stardom or what effect fame has on a teenager like Suzu, to the point where he both more or less hand-waves away how even online costuming and music production takes a team and has Hiro casually mention that the profits after that are funneled to charity. It's almost enough to make a viewer wonder why this is part of the movie other than as an excuse for the big bits of eye-popping animation which will look good in the trailer. He also introduces some backstory for U, something about "Five Sages", that doesn't really go anywhere. As a result, it sometimes feels kind of shakily constructed on the initial approach, but he and his crew are too skilled to let it collapse. The film is able to jog past bits of plot and world-building that don't make a whole lot of logical sense because its makers are exceptionally good at hitting a feeling just right. The teenagers that form most of the cast of characters are delightfully ordinary even when they're exceptional, and even as he keeps the story compact, he resists the urge to give everybody more secrets than they'd reasonably have.

This is not any sort of implication that the online/quasi-sci-fi elements are any sort of distraction or waste of time; after all, the point of the film is that even withdrawn kids like Suzu or well-balanced ones like the popular Ruka (voice of Tina Tamashiro) have big feelings, and the scenes in U are a big, visual way of getting them out there. It's a flashy contrast to the very grounded school scenes that allows for near-overload of fun designs, and Hosoda adds to that by crashing a lot of visual styles together - a Disney character designer helps out, as does an architect, and the Cartoon Saloon team from Ireland. It's a world where superheroes can attack a castle that clearly owes a lot to Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but never so engrossing that the real world, or even a more conventional internet presentation, ever feels small or less exciting.

For all that he falls into the trap of trying to make the internet much cooler visually than it is, there is something very well-observed in how Hosoda regards social media, how it is and isn't real to the people using it. One of the more clever things he does is let the realization that the "superheroes" seeking out (and intending to dox) the Beast are not official moderators but online vigilantes come to the viewer on their own schedule, playing out as an outwardly well-intentioned mob that could maybe do with minding its own business. Taking these teenagers' sometimes-clumsy point of view lets him keep privacy a bit fuzzy; both anonymity and the lack of it can be empowering, but people are often going on instinct rather than truly considering it. There is also a terrifying helplessness about how being connected with the entire world can lead someone to something awful which is too big to deal with, especially if that person is still a kid themself. It's sort of the macro version of those awkward kids - by not representing online worlds as the way they are, the abstraction gets at something true even if the details don't exactly map.

I still can't help but wonder if maybe Belle could have had its story shuffled around some to either do more with Suzu being a secret superstar or jettisoned that for a tighter focus on other things, but I'm also impressed with how it glides around its messiness. Sure, a lot of details aren't fully formed, but the kids being kids are such a delight that its smaller victories play are all the audience needs.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Labyrinth of Cinema

As I post this, there's one last show at the Brattle at 6pm, and, yes, a three-hour Japanese film is a lot to recommend on short notice but tomorrow is a holiday for many and this is a movie where being in a theater is sort of central. I wouldn't say this is the Boston area's only chance to see it this way, as I can see both the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Film Archive putting a Nobuhiko Obayashi retrospective on their schedules when they get back to showing movies, but who knows when that will be? Or if that'll be any time soon?

The Brattle offers an potential pairing with a 35mm print of House as well, although I wasn't up for it. It's not the most natural Obayashi double feature, to be honest, but it's probably his best-known movie, at least on this side of the Pacific, so it'll get attention if you don't know the director by name. Alternatively, you could ride the 66 and pair it with Drive My Car at the Coolidge, if you're up for two three-hour Japanese movies. That, I have to admit, would have been a little much for me.

Labyrinth of Cinema

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi lived long enough to get at least two farewell projects completed - Hanagatami was also described as such, and at the time it was noted that finishing a film tended to revitalize him - and while both would see him returning to his early years, this one has him embracing how much of what made him who he was came from the movies. It may not be his greatest film, but it's an energetic, ambitious, and often moving final statement of a man born during war and sustained by film.

He gets into it somewhat slowly, introducing narrator Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi) aboard his spaceship that can travel anywhere and any time but alights in 2019 to see the last show at an Onomochi movie theater whose elderly proprietrix has long focused on films about war. Aside from projectionst "Kinema G", she's assisted by 13-year-old island girl Noriko (Rei Yoshida), who says she watches movies to learn about herself. Regulars in the audience are teen cinephile Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki) and cinema history obsessive Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada); among those ducking in out of the rain is Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), a monk's son who would prefer to be a yakuza. When the projection pulls Noriko into the screen, Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru are sucked in after her, finding themselves in the civil war of 1868, Manchuria, and eventually Okinawa and Hiroshima during the doomed last months of World War II.

Obayashi is best known for his more playful works, and the film certainly starts out in that vein; Fanta G's spaceship is utterly fanciful in a way that seems to belie how his words often turn to the subject of war, and he'll use the narration to go off on tangents. Visually, he'll often take the widescreen composition and zoom in on one face, framing it in a circle as if seen through a telescope but making the surrounding screen bright green or pink rather than a neutral black, cutting jarringly between angles so as to make the viewer exceptionally aware of the artifice of it all. There are jokes about moving from silents to talkies delivered with the sort of wink that says he knows this is familiar material. There are a couple of moments during this three-hour movie where he seemingly assures the audience that nobody is going to judge them for taking a little nap. It's not subtle but delivered with a light touch.

Or at least, that level is not subtle, because while Obayashi is cheerfully acknowledging that this sort of meta-movie has its own set of rituals even as it mocks the tropes of other genres, he's leveraging that length and choppiness to his own ends. Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru may have been pulled into the screen, but they are also still in the theater when he cuts back there, highlighting how being drawn into a movie's world is a metaphor but that the power is in how cinema allows one to be in both worlds at once. Many of the early sequences are rousing adventures with playful explanatory subtitles, even when pointedly based on real-world events that had gruesome consequences, but over time, more realism and reflection enters the film and the hyperactive cutting slows down. By the time Mario and his companions find Noriko on a train to Hiroshima days before the bomb will drop, they are thoroughly worn down by war, ready to focus on helping people to survive the upcoming cataclysm.

The three are familiar types, with the actors working well with Obayashi's heightened style. Takuro Atsuki plays Mario as a certain type of passionate but immature teen who doesn't quite grow up even as he has his heart broken but gets a little closer, all nerdy heart on his sleeve. Takahito Hosoyamada's Hosuke and Yoshihiko's Hosoda's Shigeru have different and more internal passions - where Mario's are directed outward toward Noriko, they assume identities to make themselves feel knowledgable or powerful - and do well in showing how a movie reaching them can smooth that out. They're surrounded by nifty casts as they bounce between periods and styles - most notably, perhaps, Tadanobu Asano and Ayumi Ito as competing spies and Shunsuke Kubozuka as a sickly, doomed actor. Yukihiro Takahashi gives Fanta G a sort of modest outsider's cool, and Rei Yoshida invests Norko with a youthful charm and charisma that works even when something about her early lines are kind of faux-profound and as she reappears in various guises, serving as a beacon moving Mario from one period or genre to another.

There's reasons for that, eventually, and as it is eventually revealed one realizes that Labyrinth of Cinema derives a little extra power for being Obayashi's last film. The graying-but-youthful Fanta G played by Takahashi and the mysterious old man at a piano that Obayashi himself plays are both arguably his on-screen avatars, and that duality is important to the movie, which Obayashi made while being treated for terminal cancer: Even those who were very young when World War II ended are growing old and dying now, their first-person experience and perspective being lost. Obayashi hopes and believes that they will still be able to exert an influence for good through their works - he builds the film around the verses of poet Chuya Nakahara and other artists who have passed on - but knows the connection is less strong than it was. Only these three are drawn in out of maybe a hundred in the theater, after all, and he notes that the old 35mm film projector there is a cranky machine in the process of being left behind.

He doesn't necessarily delve too deeply into some of these lines of thought, and indeed, for all that being a final film is part of what gives Labyrinth of Cinema its power, there are also times when Obayashi is being self-indulgent, going on a detour because he won't have another chance to do something, or when one wonders if some unconvincing green-screen work is an artistic choice or an attempt to make shooting easier on a dying man. Heck, the film opens with what amounts to an apology for never finding a project where he could work with an American stage actor he admired. One takes the frustrating with the great, though, and all of it, from the inability to be an invisible craftsman to the bone-deep hatred of war, made Obayashi the filmmaker he was, and all of that is in this last statement.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, January 14, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 January 2021 - 20 January 2022

New Hosoda! And Almodóvar! And a long weekend to get it in!

Also: Note that starting Saturday, you're going to need to show proof of vaccination/negative test to see a movie or any sort of indoor event in Boston proper, as is already the case at most of the local independent theaters. So, obviously, get vaccinated if you haven't yet, and maybe plan
  • The new one from Pedro Almodóvar is Parallel Mothers, with Penélope Cruz as one of two single women who give birth in the same hospital on the same day, and will see their lives overlap over the coming years It plays The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square. The Coolidge also plays Volver, another Almodóvar/Cruz collaboration, on Tuesday evening, and Almodóvar's All About My Mother on Wednesday, both including Almodóvar's recent short "The Human Voice".

    Also opening at the Coolidge is Drive My Car, one of two films from Ryusuke Hamaguchi getting a great deal of best-of-2021 acclaim. Based on a short story given nearly three hours to breathe, it follows a theater director doing his first work since the death of his wife, a tense affair where his unlikely confidant is the quiet young woman hired as his driver.

    For special presentations, the Coolidge has A Clockwork Orange (on 35mm film) and Cats at midnight on Friday, with Cinematic Void's Jim Branscome introducing giallo Orgasmo at midnight Saturday. There are kids' matinees of My Neighbor Totoro on Saturday and Sunday (both dubbed; a subtitled version will play a week later). Losing Ground, one of the first theatrical films directed by an African-American woman, is the BIg Screen Classic on Monday night, while Jane Campion's The Piano takes that slot on Thursday.
  • The latest episode in the Scream franchise (and the first without creators Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven) arrives ten years after #4 which itself came the better part of a decade after #3, with Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette still kicking and looking to protect the teenage potential victims of the latest Ghostface killer. It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), the Embassy, and Chestnut Hill.

    Boston Common has a "Thrills and Chills" surprise screening on Friday, and also has screenings of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in tribute to the late Sidney Poitier. Boston Common and South Bay also have a screening of Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America on Saturday (Dr. Martin Luther King's actual date of birth), and Boston Common also brings King Richard back for matinees.

    There are a lot more showtimes at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, South Bay, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill than are typical for Fathom one-nighter "Betty White: A Celebration", pegged by what would have been her 100th birthday on Monday.
  • This week's noteworthy anime is the new one from Mamoru Hosoda, Belle, which superficially looks like he's back in Summer Wars territory with its young cast and virtual-reality worlds, but slyly goes off in unexpected directions in its story of a withdrawn young girl who finds anonymous fame online. It plays the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Kendall Square, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Note that most theaters have both dubbed and subtitled versions; check which one you're buying tickets for if this matters.

    Telugu-language drama Bangarraju opens at Apple Fresh Pond and Boston Common, described as two grandparents looking to settle affairs for their grandson and preserve a local temple. Fresh Pond also gets Hero, a Telugu-language action-adventure starring Ashok Galla and Nidhhi Agerwal, and Tamil-language comedy Naai Sekar, starring Sathish as a man who switches bodies with a dog. '83 continues at Boston Common and Fresh Pond.
  • Landmark Theatre Kendall Square also opens The Velvet Queen, a documentary which follows nature photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvian Tesson as they travel Tibet in an attempt to capture the snow leopard on film. They also get Netflix film Munich: The Edge of War, a thriller taking place against the backdrop of 1936 Europe as two British and German officials, longtime friends, desperately seek a way to avert the coming war.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens the final film by Nobuhiko Obayashi, Labyrinth of Cinema, in which lightning strikes a closing cinema and transports its viewers into the marathon of war movies being shown. If the name is familiar, it's likely as the director of House/Hausu, his delightfully bizarre horror movie from 1977, which also plays those days on 35mm.

    On Monday, they kick off a lengthy look at "Some of the Best of 2021", including MLK/FBI (Mondah), Pig (Monday), Zola (Tuesday), Candyman '21 (Wednesday/Thursday), and Days (Thursday). The series runs into February.
  • Belmont World Film will present their annual Family Film Festival starting Friday and continuing through . It's mostly on-line with the exception of Laura's Star at Arsenal Yards on Sunday afternoon. There are weekend Junior Film Critic workshops, and several screenings also have filmmaker Q&A sessions.
  • Part of the The Somerville Theatre's reconfiguration hinted at more non-first-run material, and that kicks off Monday with The Power of the Dog playing through Thursday (Belle is matinee-only Monday-Wednesday, with Licorice Pizza losing its evening show Thursday). Bookings through the end of February have been posted, and there's some great stuff.
  • Joe's Free Films lists a screening of documentary Paper & Glue on the MIT campus on Thursday, about renowned French artist JR. Seats are free but limited, so an RSVP is necessary (plus proof of vaccination/negative test).
  • The West Newton Cinema opens Parallel Mothers and keeps Sing 2, Licorice Pizza, Spider-Man, West Side Story, and Saturday/Sunday matinees of Encanto; The Lexington Venue holds over Licorice Pizza and Sing 2.
  • Cinema Salem has Belle, Scream '22, and West Side Story (no show Sunday) playing Friday to Monday (open-caption shows Monday afternoon). The Friday Night Light is Starship Troopers, a repertory screening of John Carpenter's The Thing on Saturday, a Betty White tribute show of Lake Placid on Sunday, and Wait Until Dark as part of an Audrey Hepburn series on Sunday & Monday,

    The Luna Theater has Red Rocket Friday and Saturday, a masked matinee of The Tender Bar and a regular show of C'mon C'mon on Saturday, Carrie on Sunday, and Weirdo Wednesday.
  • The Museum of Science has The Matrix Resurrections on the Omni screen through the end of the month (once on Friday, twice on Saturday).
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Am I up for two three-hour Japanese movies this weekend? If not, I'm prioritizing Labyrinth of Cinema, then looking at Parallel Mothers, and probably also catching up with The 355, King Richard, and maybe Licorice Pizza (even if I've dithered away the chance to see it on film). After that, there is good stuff at the Brattle and enough recent arrivals that I've kind of got to put up another shelf or two.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The King's Man

I am genuinely curious what the guy in my screening of The King's Man who was all "Aw damn bro!" when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated was expecting to happen. I say that not to mock him - we didn't spend a whole lot of time on World War I when I was in high school, basically just enough time for me to learn that this event was the precipitating moment, and the surprised person a few rows back could have been 25 years younger with it being correspondingly more ancient history - but because it seems like the one spot in a movie where you can be absolutely sure you know what's going to happen, and it's not like the film took a sudden unexpected turn into intersecting with history in that alley. It's an odd reaction, but that's part of the fun of seeing movies in a theater with other people; you get those odd little footnotes.

This movie wasn't actually one of my priorities at any point, considering that I didn't bother with the second and didn't realize that it was successful enough to merit a third. I wound up coming pretty much entirely for the action, as it is the last film to see release with Bradley Allan in charge of stunts and second-unit work. I can't say that I knew his name particularly well before his death this summer, but it was one of those cases where you suddenly realize what a big deal he was, as the go-to guy for both Matthew Vaughn and Edgar Wright. Those amazing fights in Kingsman: The Secret Service and The World's End were his doing, and his work was a big reason why final project Shang-Chi had the credibility it did.

So, yes, I was hoping that this would have a scene that got the same sort of thing from Ralph Fiennes as Kingsman did for Colin Firth, because realizing that you should not screw with Mr. Darcy was a kick. It doesn't, really, although it's been kind of interesting to see him embrace this sort of genre role in the past decade or so. He was very much associated with prestige films when he first started doing film in the 1990s, and never quite seemed to fit in when cast in something like The Avengers (as John Steed, not a Marvel guy). Just too darn serious, and too upper-class. He felt classy and, well, soft, and there wasn't much indication he could put something else under that. He barely registered for me in the Harry Potter movies I did see, under a lot of makeup, and it was a surprise to see him genuinely funny in The Grand Budapest Hotel, because he didn't seem the sort. Skyfall was when it seemed like he'd aged into genre work, even if he was playing the sort of guy one would figure has a hereditary title there. He got a little harder as he aged, with a few lines that indicated something other than just privilege and comfort. One wonders, a bit, if he's sort of in the same place Anthony Hopkins was at about the same age, having collected all sort of awards for prestigious productions and wanting to do more vividly exciting things.

Of course, he's still Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes with that first name pronounced in an almost effete way, and his director here is one Matthew De Vere Drummond, and I kind of wonder if that kind of influences the way this film went. The original Kingsman, if I remember correctly, posited that the secret society was formed by tailors who had made a great deal of money off the upper class but were not actually part of it, and indeed aimed to sort of undo the trouble that the aristocracy caused. I actually spent the movie not recognizing this as an origin story because Duke Oxford was one of Them, and he never really stopped being such even if he grew less tolerant of violence and colonialism. I don't think it's the central weakness of the film, but I must admit, I spent a lot of the film more interested in how Gemma Arterton's Polly got to be that hyper-competent, and also wondered if there was more about her being an influence on the Oxfords cut from the movie than the hint of a romance with her charming widower boss.

The King's Man

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, subtitled DCP)

Between the release date shuffles due to Disney's purchase of Twentieth Century Fox and Covid-19, The King's Man has been delayed long enough for that to be the story around it, rather than why it exists at all. The first Kingsman sequel did okay at the box office but still dropped off fairly notably from the previous film, and as near as I can tell there's not a particularly dedicated fanbase hungry for details on the backstory. Most likely, co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn just had an idea he couldn't shake. He's good enough at this to make a fair movie, though not one worth a wait that has pushed the property toward the back of people's minds.

It opens in 1902, with Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a former war hero now dedicated to the Red Cross, disgustedly examining a concentration camp in South Africa being run by Colonel Kitchener (Charles Dance) and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode) as it comes under attack. A dozen years later, he's an even more devoted pacifist, having sworn that his now nearly-adult son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) would not go to war. But it's 1914, and Kitchener is a general well-trusted by King George (Tom Hollander) despite his hawkish nature, and a mysterious Shepherd is plotting to drag Europe into war, with agents Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl) and Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) having the ears of the Kaiser and Tsar. George and Kitchener tap Oxford to investigate rumors around Archduke Ferdinand and, later, the Tsar, assisted by Conrad and two servants who are more than they appear in African chauffeur Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), Conrad's former governess.

It's been long enough since the first film that the details of the Kingsman agency's history it set forth may be fuzzy, enough for this prequel to not necessarily feel like the origin story it eventually reveals itself to be - my recollection was that the founders were pointedly not noblemen like Oxford - to the point where it might have been better off being something Kingsman-like but not actually part of that franchise. Beyond that, this is a film kind of done in by its own ambition. Matthew Vaughn often seems to want to do more than "Kingsman, but 100 years earlier" but Vaughn's heightened take on history doesn't mesh well with the more serious, earnest things he's asking of Ralph Fiennes and Harris Dickinson as the Oxfords. Fitting historical events into a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is a fun game, but it can be rather less fun when it's sharing space with men haunted by actual history, and that storyline can feel diminished by being next to the more free-wheeling material.

The story is messy in other ways, too. There's so much gravity to Oxford that there's little time to flesh out Shola and Polly, despite them obviously having backstory of their own, for instance. There are groan-worthy twists and "surprises", especially for how Vaughn spends a great deal of effort making sure that the audience can't see Shepherd's face without making the question of who he is actually intriguing beyond the fact that it's being hidden - this guy being the puppetmaster behind Rasputin and others fills the movie's needs, but isn't really satisfying. Vaughn sets too slow a pace for either satire or action, while the drama's not strong enough story-wise to handle the time given it.

One can't deny that the thing is awfully well-staffed, though. Ralph Fiennes is, unsurprisingly, pretty darn good as Oxford; not only can he obviously handle the dramatic material, but he's aged into a guy who looks like he's got the sort of history that has him capable of violence, with action guru Brad Allan building fight scenes that let him be efficient and good with a sword. There's nothing quite so jaw-dropping as Colin Firth kicking some ass in the first, but it's the sort of "build fights around how a guy is imposing when he's maybe not a real fighter" material that has fueled the last decade or so of Liam Neeson's career. On top of that, there's a very nice supporting cast - as mentioned, having more Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou wouldn't harm the movie at all, with fun work from Daniel Brühl and Rhys Ifans and Harris Dickinson capturing a certain sort of young aristocratic hero as Conrad and making him fit into this kind of film. Everything around them is slick as heck as well, a modern-looking filmmaking that doesn't feel anachronistic.

There are plenty of fun moments, and maybe the whole thing would have worked if Vaughn had been content to just do the sort of shallow edginess the original comic book series's creator specializes in. Doing both that and a more earnest drama tends to point up the places where they don't easily work together, making for a movie that drags a bit and occasionally frustrates for all the good pieces it contains.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Poupelle of Chimney Town

I was kind of excited to catch up with this one, as I remembered seeing a trailer or images when it ran as part of Fantasia but never managed to get screener access, and it's been so long that I more or less just recognized the name when it popped up as playing locally this week. Thus, I was a bit surprised when the trailers in front of it were mostly for kid stuff, and the movie was pitched a lot younger than a lot of the anime which plays theaters is. Of course, I maybe should have noticed it via the scheduling, with the last show of the day (subtitled) being at 9pm.

Ah, well; it's not like I have much trouble watching stuff for kids, especially when it's done as relatively well as this one, which doesn't talk down to kids and seldom looks cheap. Made for a fairly empty theater, though - I don't think I was the only person there all the way through - I heard laughter behind me at a couple points - but I think they were folks theater-hopping or staff on a break or something.

The film is, if nothing else, a great-looking movie that doesn't waste much time. My nieces have probably outgrown it, but it's probably a pretty good time for kids a few years younger.

Eiga Entotsumachi no Puperu (Poupelle of Chimney Town)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, subtitled DCP)

Poupelle of Chimney Town leads off with the sort of sequences that most movies use at the climax, which maybe sets unfair expectations for how exciting the next 90 minutes will be. It doesn't quite coast on that opening, but maybe switches to a lower gear until the actual finale, which may get some viewers antsy. On the other hand, this movie is mostly for kids, and there's something ro be said for grabbing a young audience's attention rather than making them wait and then keeping a steady pace.

That opening scene involves a crystal streaking from a smoke-filled sky into a smoke-shrouded city, then taking the shape of a human heart and drawing the garbage from a the landfill in which it landed to form a more-or-less humanoid shape. That being (voices of Mastaka Kubota in Japanese and Tony Hale in English) stumbles into this "Town of Night" on Halloween, where everyone is impressed by the "costume" until turning on him. He almost winds up burned in a furnace, but 10-year-old chimney sweep Lubicchi (voices of Mana Ashida/Antonio Raul Corbo) rescues him and names him "Poupelle". They become friends, but beings as unusual as Poupelle are viewed with suspicion in the most open-minded times and places, and this town has had no contact with the outside world for 250 years, with the smoke from its chimneys so omnipresent that stars have become a myth - one that the Inquisitors don't want spreading.

Director Yusuke Hirota and writer Akihiro Nishino (adapting his own picture book) clearly know the value of a good hook, because they grab their viewers' attention immediately, with the first leg of their movie a roller-coaster ride through its setting, doing an impressive job of making sure that the audience sees what they need to but also allowing things to suddenly seem almost normal when they slow down. What they offer is a steampunk world that by and large resists the temptation to be drab and suffocating despite being defined by its belching smokestacks, instead positing that the people who live there would fill it with color. Everything in this self-contained city is recycled and refined, the new built upon the old without reducing the place to a layered-slum aesthetic. Visually, the film sometimes seems more French than Japanese in its design, drawing on everything from storybooks to side-scrolling video games. It wants its audience to Look At This and gives them a reason to do so.

It pulls back a little once it has immersed its audience enough for them to have the measure of the place, going for a specific vibe rather than a story, focusing on Lubicchi as a kid who has had to take on a lot of responsibility since the disappearance of his father Bruno (voices of Shinosuke Tatekawa/Stephen Root), what with mother Lola (voices of Eiko Koike/Misty Lee) not really able to work with her serious asthma. Poupelle is the sort of companion he didn't really know he needed, also neither quite child nor adult, and there's pleasure in watching them just understand each other while the story inches forward in small ways. There's charm in the Japanese voice performances (I cannot vouch for the English ones), and designs that mesh without the two being mirrors.

Unlike a lot of Japanese animation that makes it to North American theaters, Poupelle is squarely aimed at kids, albeit with moments of melancholy and an odd digression on economic theory by way of backstory (although, oddly, no discussion of how 250 years of burning carbon might be bad and certainly wouldn't hide this city). It's got occasional songs that are pretty on the nose, although the mix of Japanese and English lyrics makes them oddly catchy. The story is straightforward, but almost never slows down to the point where a bright kid will feel patronized, and Hirota and Nishino don't seem to suffer much from the American impulse to wink at the parents or come off as cool, trusting that a good kids' movie well-made won't be a chore to sit through. They're smart enough to keep the grown-up stuff around the edges rather than go down a rabbit hole.

Poupelle of Chimney Town is a straightforward kid-friendly adventure given all the gloss that production house Studio 4°C can give it. The eye-popping scenery and zippy animation are impressive enough that older viewers who go for that sort of thing will likely enjoy watching it at least once.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, January 07, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 January 2021 - 13 January 2022

Welp, we're starting to see release dates pushed out again and film festivals are announcing that they're going virtual after planning to be in-person. Not ideal! At least January's usually pretty quiet.
  • Part of the January doldrums is stuff the studio doesn't have much faith in getting quiet releases, and The 355 had been scheduled for January 2020 before getting pushed out. It's got Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong'o, and Fan Bingbing as the top spies in their respective countries working together to stop a terrorist plot, and that's a heck of a cast, at least. It's at The Capitol Theatre, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, and the Embassy.

    Among the previews for Scream 5 on Thursday is one marked "live fan event" at Arsenal Yards and South Bay.
  • Award expansions are also part of early January, which this year includes A Hero, the new one from Asghar Farhadi and Iran's submission for the Oscars. It stars Amir Jadidi as a man given a two-day furlough from a debtor's prison, with unexpected results. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, The Somerville Theatre, and Landmark Theatre Kendall Square; it's also an Amazon acquisition which will be on Prime in a couple of weeks.

    The Coolidge's midnights this weekend include Eyes Wide Shut and Rocky Horror on Friday, with Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace on Sunday. Sunday's Goethe-Institut film is Fabian: Going to the Dogs, an acclaimed adaptation of a German novel from 1931. The Sunday Masked Matinee is Licorice Pizza, and note that some of its showtimes (including this one) are now on a DCP rather than 70mm film. Some of those gaps, though, are to make way for 70mm screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big film; it plays Monday and Wednesday evening. There's also a special screening of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on Tuesday, and a special "Shakespeare Reimagined" show of The Tragedy of Macbeth with post-film Q&A and discussion on Thursday.
  • Poupelle of Chimney Town, which caught my eye at Fantasia last year though I couldn't get a screener, opens at Boston Common and Fenway with both subtitled and dubbed showtimes; it's a surprisingly colorful-looking animated fantasy from Japan set in a town whose 4km wall and chimneys have blotted out the stars for centuries. There's also an Imax preview screening of the new one from Mamoru Hosoda, Belle at Boston Common, on Wednesday (the "regular" preview on Thursday at Boston Common and South Bay is a regular screen and dubbed, though Fenway shows both subtitled and dubbed shows on Thursday).

    From China, there's Embrace Again, the latest from Xue Xiaolu (Ocean Heaven, The Whistleblower, with Huang Bo and Jia Ling among those involved in various love stories in Wuhan during their three-month Covid-19 lockdown. It's at Boston Common; Hong Kong's G Storm sticks around the Common as well.

    The big opening from India, RRR, has been kicked down the road because of Omicron, but 1945, another Telugu-language anti-colonial thriller, is supposed to open on Friday at Boston Common (though it's listed as sold out through Sunday) and Apple Fresh Pond. '83 continues at Boston Common and Fresh Pond.
  • The Brattle Theatre fcontinues their series of "Refreshed, Renewed, Restored" features with Chess of the World and Chameleon Street (separately) on Friday and Saturday, Def by Temptation on Saturday and Sunday, The Secret Life of Plants on Sunday, Goodbye, Dragon Inn on Monday, Cure on Tuesday, and the original Nightmare Alley on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The West Newton Cinema sticks with Sing 2, Licorice Pizza, Spider-Man, West Side Story, and Encanto; The Lexington Venue holds over Licorice Pizza and Sing 2.
  • Cinema Salem has Spider-Man, West Side Story, Red Rocket and C'mon C'mon playing Friday to Monday (open-caption shows Monday afternoon). There's a "Cinema Sounds" screening of Back to the Future with an introduction from Richard Guérin on Thursday evening.

    The Luna Theater looks to be closed this weekend, with just a Weirdo Wednesday show on the 12th.
  • The Museum of Science has The Matrix Resurrections on the Omni screen for the next four weekends (once on Friday, twice on Saturday); do not do what I did with Dune and try to watch from the front row. They also add "Back from the Brink: Saved from Extinction" to their Omnimax rotation starting on Tuesday.
  • Belmont World Film will present their annual family film festival starting next weekend; mostly on-line but their site is already up for browsing and pre-ordering.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Did I grab my phone when I saw that Belle screening? Yeah. I'm also looking to hit Poupelle and The 355, maybe catch up on some of the stragglers, and some of the restorations at the Brattle. Oh, and note that beyond Covid, several theaters have already canceled early shows for Friday the 7th, what with the snow on the way (or coming down, or already fallen, depending when you read this).

Sunday, January 02, 2022

G Storm

Is the week after Christmas kind of a dead zone, movie-wise, in Hong Kong the way it is in North America? The West pushing its way into every nook and cranny and its pop-culture exports have certainly made it a widespread secular holiday, but I'm never sure exactly how much places like Hong Kong or Japan build their calendar around it, especially with the lunar new year not being so close.

I ask because I don't know that this is exactly dumped, but it is kind of notable that this movie doesn't really have the big, CGI opening its predecessors did. The last bit is also extremely rushed and light; not only does the movie climax on something where most filmmakers would slow down and sort of watch the impact on the characters play out, but the "crime does not pay" ending it jumps to is pretty frantic. Also, given how those endings are often tacked on so that a film can play in Mainland China, I wonder what the conversation between the Ching brothers and their father is about in Mandarin, because it's almost certainly not a comedy bit about the older man not remembering which one of his sons is gay and which one is just a workaholic but being okay with both.

There's also a bunch of writers credited, like the producers were trying to hit some target that has become more elusive. With China taking more control over Hong Kong in the past few years, I imagine that there's more pressure to not talk so directly about there being corruption to root out. It really feels like the ground shifted underneath this one, they maybe couldn't do reshoots because of Covid, and they put it together as best they could.


Indeed, I wonder if Louis Koo wasn't available for reshoots or something and they just pieced the last five minutes together as best as possible, even if it means either stopping the series dead or having to do a massive retool should they do another.


Odd one. Personally, I'm kind of mildly surprised that I didn't find a moment to go into the Hong Kong Space Museum where the finale takes place while I was there; it's not off the beaten path at all and is certainly my sort of thing. Also, for all that I think I've said things like "I'd like to see more of Janelle Sing Kwan" in reviews for most of these movies, I just realized that I've had a horror movie she co-stars in on my shelf for a year or so, purchased as DDDHouse was slashing prices on their 3D discs. So maybe I'll give that a watch sometime this week.

G fung bou (G Storm)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

David Lam's "Storm" series has been a peculiarly reliable fixture of the Hong Kong film scene for the past seven years, especially when one considers that he and writer Wong Ho-Wa don't appear to have had many credits in the fifteen years before Z Storm in 2014 and how the industry has favored thematic series rather than actual continuity over that time. There's some strain to this one that makes one wonder if it's time for everyone to move on, though - it feels a little thrown-together and half-hearted, like maybe the attempt to make this sort of thriller during a pandemic and in the region's current political climate was a little much for everybody but the action professionals.

It opens with William Luk Chi-Lim (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) describing the work of his agency, Hong Kong's Independent Campaign Against Corruption, at a conference in "W City" elsewhere in Southeast Asia. He's introduced to a celebrated local judge, Emma Pong (Jessica Hester Hsuan), moments before someone attempts to assassinate her with a suicide bomb. The attempt is thwarted, but it still leaves a body count, leaving Luk and his frequent collaborator in the HKPD, Lau Po-Keung (Julian Cheung Chi-Lam) both worried about providing security for Pong's upcoming speech in Hong Kong and convinced that this ties in with another case where ICAC is investigating various port authority workers for being involved with human trafficking, a string that starts with local businessman Kwong Yai-Long (Liu Kai-Chi), whose contacts include drug lord "King" (Rosyam Nor) and international criminals Schumook (Sienna Li Xin-Yue) and Siu Cheuk-Ah (Michael Tse Tin-Wah), who are willing to ruthlessly cut off any links law enforcement might follow to them. Complicating matters, Luk hasn't been the same since returning from that conference, and ICAC colleague Ching Tak-Ming (Keving Cheng Ka-Wing) spotted half-brother Fei-Hung (Bosco Wong Chung-Chak) driving a truck during a raid that went sideways.

There's a lot going on, which is par for the course with these films - Wong Ho-Wa and the co-writers he's had since second entry S Storm have never had a problem with packing these tightly-paced flicks full of enough twists and subplots to keep large casts busy and have each burst of action redirect things. The trouble here is that this series has never particularly been built for subtlety - the engine that drives it has always been rage at the people who violate a public trust, but "corruption" is sort of a vague specter rather than things people do here, with the targets of the ICAC being killed off in a way that's mostly off-screen and minimizing, or fobbed off on people who are at least vaguely foreign. It offers up layers of criminality and villainy but carefully separates it from what makes it matter to the audience.

It tries to make up the difference by trying to focus on the characters, but that's a mixed bag as well - the most interesting part of giving Luk PTSD from the opening attack turns out to be an ironic dig at the premise of the whole series (the real-life ICAC is mostly following paper trails and pretty much no gunfights), and Koo is much better in the moments when he gets to play intense and emotive rather than frozen. It's nice that they give Janelle Sing Kwan (credited as Anika Sheng this time around) a little more to do in this one, although a lot of that seems to be hinting that Tammy has a crush on her boss. The film tries to engineer a backstory for the Chings but doesn't have a lot of time for it, and Jessica Hester Hsuan's stock noble judge character is fine although never as much fun to watch as the villains.

The action, at least, is pretty darn good, with action choreographer Nicky Li Chung-Chi a go-to guy for people from Jackie Chan to Wu Jing and also responsible for the car stunts in Benny Chan's swan song Raging Fire. He and Lam take a cast of folks who aren't martial-arts specialists and sell a bunch of messy close-in fights that feel messy and like they could go horribly wrong at any second, as well as firefights that are appropriately destructive but make one believe that the main characters could, in fact, have survived that hail of bullets (they are good at using grenades to introduce a bit of chaos into shootouts that are starting to seem too carefully staged). The central car chase is niftily conceived and staged, even if it does occasionally make one wonder about the bullet-proof windshield which is surviving direct hits from ammunition specifically described as military-spec armor-piercing ordnance that the audience has already seen tearing shipping containers up.

That the action is pretty good makes up for the story being bits and pieces connected by "I have a hunch" more times than is really advisable (as well as a random, unexplained bombing). It's able to cruise on being compact and stuffed with a capable cast and action crew, but as it wraps up, it seems reasonable to suggest that there's not enough more to do with this premise despite the Roman alphabet having 21 letters left.

Full review at eFilmCritic