Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.10: Ms. Apocalypse, New Normal, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 1, and Empire V

Always awkward when the official account for a movie follows you on social media, faves and retweets all your posts about the festival, gets a lot of buzz from very enthusiastic programmers, and then you show up and just don't like the movie much at all. Figure I'll get an unfollow for it.

Not from Ms. Apocalypse writer/director Lim Sun-ae, though, there for her second day and had a pretty good film with her. One issue that was brought up was that there isn't a whole lot of representation for the disabled in Korean film (see also: everywhere), although one thing that I found kind of interesting was that I don't think Cho Yu-jin's affliction was ever actually named in the film, although Lim did specify muscular dystrophy in the Q&A. Interesting choice, that; I wonder if it was just a case of not wanting her to explain her condition when there are other, less sympathetic but more individual parts of her personality to highlight, or if it gave the filmmakers a little wiggle room with diagnoses.

I skipped a slot in the middle of the afternoon to get some fish & chips at McKibbins, amused by how, despite their being the official pub of the festival at least since The Irish Embassy burned down and my seeing their same promo before films at least 300 times, conservatively, I had never stepped foot in the place. I may not do so again, as I'm not a drinker and the food was just fne, but I can at least cross it off the list.

(I was kind of surprised to see another location, apparently larger, near the hotel/dorm where I was staying; I'd assumed it was a neighborhood business and now, like, did they expand from the one near Concordia to the one near UQÃM or vice versa, or is this a place that has locations all over Canada/Québec/Montréal and I just thought it was local? That sort of thing can throw you!)

The thing I skipped was A Disturbance in the Force, the documentary about the Star Wars Holiday Special; I've seen too many fandom-oriented documentaries at Boston Sci-Fi and music docs at IFFBoston that were fine but not really interesting, esecially if the subject matter doesn't, and I can't say this thing held any fascination for me, no matter how much I enjoy Star Wars. So I sat down to eat and ran some errands to make sure I had breakfast stuff on-hand at the hotel room instead. My friend Paul, who programs a theater in upstate New York, saw it and shrugged, saying it wasn't great, but he figured he could sell some tickets, although he was kid of surprised that the screening wasn't better-attended, but it's a different world than when we were younger - where once folks may have sought this out from vague memories and the desire to have even a little more material, there is now so much Star Wars that you have to choose what to care about, and the Holiday Special can properly be regarded as a memory-holed dead end.

No guests for the next movie, because it was a last-minute substitution - My Worst Neighbor was, for one reason or another, no longer able to play the festival, so another Korean film, New Normal played in its place (there were noteworthy sponsors for the Korean film series this year, so there are likely reasons for not just treating it as a free slot). This was fine by me; I hadn't been able to fit it in earlier in the week and it looked to have roughly the same vibe. Made for a relatively small crowd in Hall, though, as I figure most folks who wanted to see it had six days earlier.

(The online program shows a short, "Uberlinks", as playing with the film, but my notes have no record of it; maybe it only played with the first screening.)

Director Tsutomu Hanabusa and prodcuer Naohito Inaba (second and third from left) were there for Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 1, and as you might expect, there wasn't necessarily that much to say afterward, what with Part 2 scheduled for the next night.

Finally, Mitch Davis and Viktor Kinzburg toalking about EMPIRE V, which fills out that big Russia-shaped space on one's Letterboxd map nicely, and which had gotten a hard,enthusiastic push from Mitch in particular and certainly worked to attract some attention, especially with talk about how it had been banned for being too enthusiastic about taking on the oligarchs, but, man, you could feel Mitch's boundless enthusiasm clash with the reality of just how tough a slog this movie can be. One can absolutely see where a programmer's enthusiasm would develop - when watching the screener on a small screen, you would absolutely want to see some of it blown up to the size of a small building, and it's certainly got more ideas up its sleeve than the average blockbuster, but it can be dull to the point of sapping more life than its vampiric characters.

Which does not, oddly enough, make for a bad Q&A! Mitch's enthusiasm was still there after the film, and it is sufficiently strange that Kinzburg couldn't help but have interesting stories, starting with actually having a grant from the cultural ministry that got yanked(*) to and having to make up the rest with crowdfunding and other investors. They also wound up doing some guerrilla-style filmmaking in that they got drone shots in places where even much less paranoid cities than Moscow would prefer you not fly drones; if you want aerial footage of the Kremlin and Red Square, you just have to factor losing a few octocopters into your budget. One of the signals to Russian viewers that these vampire oligarchs have incredible power was apparently that they regularly drove in special lanes meant to be reserved for the military, and, no they did not get permission to do this. More prosaically, the film needed poetry at its climax, and though the source novel was written by a famous poet, he made a show of not wanting to interfere with Kinzburg's vision… and then sent verses in at the last minute.

(*) This was actually a pretty important issue for the festival; during the introduction Mitch noted that they said no to several Russian films, some I believe from folks who had previously had work in the festival, because they had received government funding and they could not, in good conscience, be responsible for money going back to the Russian government.

An interesting day, all around. Next up: A Sunday featuring Motherland, The Concierge, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 2, and Late Night with the Devil.

Segimalui Sarang (Ms. Apocalypse, aka Love at the End of the World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Lim Seon-ae's Ms. Apocalypse winds up being quite a nice film about people who find themselves taken advantage of, either because it's their nature or a means of survival, stopping short of being cynical but remaining quite clear-eyed In some ways, the vibe is that of a found-family story where everyone is painfully aware of just how fragile and conditional those sorts of bonds can be bonds can be.

Consider Kim Young-mi (Lee You-young) as she is in the late 1990s, a bookkeeper at a local factory who werks apart from the rest in an unheated office, while her home life has her effectively the sole caretaker of an aunt suffering from dementia, with cousin Kyu-tae no help. About the only person who seems to see her is co-worker Koo Do-yeong (Roh Jae-won), to the point where she cooks the books to temporarily cover for his shortfalls, which eventually lands them both in jail. Young-mi is released first, in 1999, and the only people meeting her at the jail are Koo's wife Cho Yu-jin (Lim Sun-woo) and her hairdresser/driver Jun. Her aunt's house gone and Kyu-tae nowhere to be found, house demolished and Kyu-tae nowhere to be found, Young-mi winds up moving in with Yu-jin, who may be thoroughly unpleasant but has a spare room and, given her severe neuromuscular disorder, probably needs live-in help.

Yu-jin is, at one point, described as having a terrible personality while being a reasonable person, and there's something interesting about that because it's often a bit of freedom that being disabled takes from a person. The film seldom sets them up in direct opposition to each other, or has them in the same frame, but it's worth noting that Kyu-tae is, more or less, able to get away with being a selfish, unreasonable person, even if the audience despises him, but Yu-jin has to have some sort of heart of gold underneath it all, even if she's got far more reason to be angry at the world than he does, because otherwise the home-care people will refuse to come or they'll feel free to steal, and she's got to hold her tongue even though the world has already kicked her around but good.

Lim Sun-woo takes that part and runs with it, knowing Yu-jin cannot back down until confronted directly, but she and director Lim have a very good sense of where the line is between her harsh words for those around her being darkly comic and it being kind of pathetic, making the moments when she steps over mean something. It's a flashy performance that often outshines that of Lee Yoo-young as Young-mi, by design, but in some ways, that makes Young-mi's efforts to find the happy medium between the people-pleasing nature that has allowed people to walk all over her and the desire to lash out all the more interesting to watch. Lee captures how she knows she wants to be stronger but doesn't necessarily want to be like this without looking indecisive or excessively blank.

One thing that's interesting here is that the filmmakers seem quite conscious of how the characters are using bright colors and style to deflect, but it's very present here without quite becoming tacky. Yes, there's something obvious going on where Young-mi's world is black & white before her arrest and in color afterward, as she's introduced to Yu-jin, Jun, and their bolder personalities, but Lim gets the audience to look closer. Even the new red dye job Young-mi gets early on looks almost instantly faded, and there are other signals that the idea is to remind a viewer of movies with colorful and bright production design where characters can unveil new versions of themselves that reflect what vibrant people they are underneath while also saying that it doesn't exactly work that way. Yu-jin is always making sure she is immaculately turned out, but the audience sees her doing it, and it represents not as much her being strong as her desperate to project strength.

Which doesn't make the movie a downer. It's realistic but doesn't look at its helpful main character as a sap for her good nature, even when she's taken advantage of. In the end, she's still a bookkeeper, but she's maybe learned that keeping the books balanced means being fair to yourself.

New Normal

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Intersecting-story movies like, say, Pulp Fiction, can sometimes be fascinating for how various threads come together, or how shifting perspectives helps reassess each one, but that's a best-case scenario. Often, it kind of feels like someone emptying out a notebook of ideas that didn't necessarily work elsewhere and tying them together as best they could to mixed results, because the connections do not necessarily strengthen them so much as justify them being features rather than shorts.

In the first of six stories from writer/director Jung Beom-sik, "M", Hung-jun (Choi Ji-woo) must put her guard up when a man knocks on her door, saying he is there to inspect her fire alarms despite it being an odd hour and no email from the building management, while the second, "Do the Right Thing", has high school slacker Seung-jin (Jung Dong-won) finds helping an elderly lady get her groceries home much more involved than the minor good deed he thought it would be; third "Dressed to Kill" has Hyun-su (Lee Yu-mi) on a terrible blind date, only to see another girl in the restaurant wearing a similar outfit become the latest victim of a serial killer. They are, individually, solid enough short films, and the connecting threads that start to appear are fun, although this stretch of the movie does tend to run into the issue where, if every entry in an anthology takes a dark turn, the amount of surprise and suspense can start to wane. There's fun to be had here; "M" is a tight little one-location thriller and Choi Ji-woo is great in it, apparently returning from a bit of a hiatus, and if Jung Dong-won feels a bit off in "Do the Right Thing", it's got a fine comic premise, as does "Dressed to Kill", although the latter winds up functioning more as a nexus of the other stories than being able to focus on its own premise.

After that, "Be With You" sees Yoo-hoon (Choi Min-ho) receive instructions from vending machines leading him to what he hopes is the girl of his dreams; while "Peeping Tom" has Gee-jin (P.O.), an obsessed creep, sneaking into the apartment of his sexy flight attendant neighbor (Hwang Seung-eon?) only to discover he may not be alone. "Be With You" might be the most purely pleasurable segment of the film, as the previous three create expectations that Choi Min-Ho's character seems to be blithely ignoring, and he sets up an entertaining, linear tale that moves quick and benefits from that tension without seeming trapped by it. "Peeping Tom" isn't quite so cheerful; P.O. is playing a perv and filmmaker Jung doesn't quite find the angle that has the audience with him as the twists happen, or even to make the reversals seem clever rather than something to be shrugged off.

The last piece, "My Life as a Dog", has convenience store clerk Yeon-jin (Ha Da-in) - who really thought she'd be playing rock gigs by now - blow off steam online (she'd previously been glimpsed taunting Gee-jin) and find that some folks asking how to dispose of bodies on Reddit maybe aren't just pretending. Yeon-jin is probably the most fully-realized protagonist of the film, and that happens in part because Jung spends a little time hanging back, watching her steadily lose her patience with the rude group she must deal with in the job before a long bike ride to the suburbs, allowing the audience to get to know her and sort of feel how life can grind people down in mundane ways, with Ha Da-in doing quite well to grab the audience's favor despite all of that.

There's the germ of a pretty good idea in each of these segments, and in most cases Jung attacks it, ready to squeeze the most out of it, and by and large he meets the challenges he sets for himself. The fourth and fifth segments are the most darkly funny, in the way that they really lead to nasty punchlines, and the interconnectedness of it is often fun, because once it's established that all these stories are happening at once, having an eye out for easter eggs or convergences Jung edits on top of writing and directing, and for being a film that stops and restarts a few times, it moves forward very well indeed.

There's a certain nihilism to these interconnected murder stories, even beyond the "always expect the worst" factor, that keeps the movie from having a real climax and gut punch as a whole; Jung arguably highlights digital acquaintanceship and matchmaking alongside his transgressions, but doesn't necessarily have much to say about them or any possible connection. For a much fun as the soundtrack's utter lack of subtlety is, you can't use some of the tracks dropped in without earning comparison to the movie they're lifted from, and the same goes with the chapter titles: Your serial killer story should be a bit better than this to be called "M", for instance.

Many movies can be unsatisfying in spots but still worth recommending because pieces are good, and that's obviously more true with something like New Normal. Some segments are terrific, and some elements of others are able to be seen clearly enough to pop. As a whole, it maybe doesn't entirely come together, but those good bits are really good.

Tokyo Revengers 2: Bloody Halloween - Destiny

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Yep, this is very much half a movie, the sort that has me taking lots of notes of character names and motivations for when I write this review (or watch part 2), but not a whole lot of "wow, that was cool, make sure to mention that". With each half of this movie being right around ninety minutes, I strongly suspect that there's a good epic-size picture to be found in the story if the studios didn't figure they could sell two tickets instead of one. It is also full of actors who are just not plausibly 17 during the time travel to 10 years ago, let alone 15 in the flashbacks.

After the events of Tokyo Revengers, Takemichi "Michi" Hanagaki (Takumi Kitamura) has prevented the murder of Hinata Tachibana (Mio Imada) in the past, only to see her murdered once again, this time in the present, apparently on the behest of Tetta Kisaki (Shotaro Mamiya), who intends to destroy everyone Majiro "Mikey" Sano (Ryo Yoshizawa) held dear. The seeds for all of this were planted fifteen years ago, when the Toman gang was founded, but Hinata's brother Naoto (Yosuke Sugino) can only send Michi back ten years, but that appears to be a critical time, with Mikey's best friend and co-founder of Toman Baji Keisuke (Kento Nagayama) being released from jail but splitting with Mikey, while Kisaki has recently joined Toman after having been a member of the defeated Moebius gang. Michi vaguely knows there's a brawl coming, but ten years ago, he was little more than a hanger-on and mascot - he'll have to rise in the ranks quickly if he stands any chance of preventing "Bloody Halloween".

Though I grumble about this sort of split seeming to be designed to sell more tickets, there's logic to it; subsequent books (or, in this case, manga storylines) tend to be longer than their predecessors but the "right" length for a movie is more constrained than that of other media, so a split may be the only way to preserve the pacing of the first successful adaptation while maintaining the same level of fidelity to the source. You can see that being the case here, with a lot that needs to happen leading up to Bloody Halloween and flashbacks even further back to flesh it out. The film is pretty enjoyable on those terms, though - it throws new mysteries at the audience pretty much constantly while offsetting it with useful background information, and punctuates the melodrama of these youth-gang vendettas with brutal beatdowns.

As before, the film has an appealingly earnest dope at the center, although Takumi Kitamura gets stuck in a rough spot there - as much as Michi is the protagonist, the story is really not about him in any way: The character is not bright enough to really solve this mystery (and can only occasionally consult with the brains of the operation), and even the thin story about a loser revisiting his high school peak is even less of a factor here. He's highly watchable, though, and Kento Nagayama is a great addition to the cast as the bombastic Baji. Ryo Yoshizawa is a fine combination of bluster and fragility, and Shotaro Mamiya solidifies his position as the series's villain.

This movie ultimately lands right on the border of the split seeming like a good idea and it perhaps being wiser to make one movie, but ends on a cliffhanger good enough to make me glad the festival had part 2 the next night.

Ampir V (Empire V)

* * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, digital)

So much world-building and exposition and philosophy, so little actually doing anything. Empire V is the sort of film that looks like it should be exciting, a combination of weird horror melodrama and satirical humor elevated by striking visuals, but can't quite manage it. Its secret rulers of the world never seem to do much ruling the world, and no amount of detail makes their internal squabbles more interesting.

It starts by introducing slacker Muscovite Roman (Pavel Tabakov), who certainly gives the impression of being vampire food, but is instead recruited by vampire Brama (Vladimir Epifantsev), the current avatar of Rama to receive his "tongue" and take his position. He naturally catches the eye of another recent convert, Hera (Taya Radchenko), especially as they are trained in their new abilities and positions by instructor Loki (Bronislav Vinogrodkiy). Rama has a rival for Hera in her master Mithra (Miron Federov), and he's a formidable one, likely behind the deteriorating condition that led Brama to pass his tongue on.

The aim is apparently to take aim at the oligarchs who have outsized power in society, especially in the film's home territory of Russia, portraying them as vampires draining society. Writer/director Victor Ginzburg (working from a novel by Viktor Pelevin) carefully emphasizes that these creatures don't subsist entirely on blood, but actually prefer a "milk" that is distilled from money. It's here that one can feel Ginzburg getting particularly caught in the weeds, especially as the wise old vampires start musing that money is just an idea that people made up and yet it is so powerful that… Well, they go on, and the strangeness of how this is actually implemented does not make it resonate more. Perhaps what it does of that is full of references that Russian audiences will understand immediately, but it can be opaque to other audiences.

Instead, it becomes a sort of romance between two characters that don't have much to them. Rama and Hera are given very little specific background and for most of the movie, Pavel Tabakov and Taya Radchenko are kind of capably bland - never so completely unreactive as to feel wooden but also never finding a hook that suggests there's more going on than them being reasonably good-looking people of a similar age. There's maybe an angle about addiction, but aside from Roman's mother calling him one, there's not much indication; he feels aimless more as opposed to being someone searching for the next high, at least until the movie introduces the milk and makes it sound so impossibly addictive that no human could resist it (and, credit where it's due, Tabakov and Radchenko sell the idea that introducing people who had been addicts as humans to this stuff is probably a Bad Idea). As a result, this story winds up being more about dynasties collapsing through decadence than oligarchs being entrenched. That it's not what the movie was sold as is no big deal, but the way it comes about is not worth the amount of detailed set-up.

It's very fun to look at, though, with imaginative production design, effects shots where I immediately knew what the credits for "fractal art" meant, and the sort of willingness to go big that can paper over some less than photo-real visual effects. Empire V is, at its best moments, deeply weird, offering up more convolutions and creature effects than it comes close to needing and making it all work because Ginzburg puts it all up on screen or has characters drop long tracts of exposition with utter confidence. That's not always enough - he'll keep explaining even when the audience has absorbed what they need to know and enough ancillary details to give it flavor, or he'll serve up a poetry slam when a viewer might be expecting a fight (though maybe it's a great poetry slam for those who speak Russian; the subtitles are just okay).

That is how you make an epic fantasy into a slog: Ginzburg introduces a grand, swooping setting filled with eccentric style and boils it to as bland and small a story as possible.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

The Creator

Huh, thoughts on this went a bit longer than Letterboxd-length, even if I don't quite love it like some do. Give it credit for making one think a bit once the credits roll, which ain't nothing.

On a side note, it's the first time I've been in the Imax screen since it was closed for renovations earlier this year. I think it was already using the Imax Laser system before that, but they've upgraded the seating from older-style stadium seating to recliner-style rockers like the ones in some of the Kendall Square screens, as padded as the recliners in the other screens but with the rows too close together for that much leg room. It's kind of weird-feeling, actually - at least in the front section, it feels like you could trade a little armrest space for seats a couple inches wider, and there's not quite enough leg room to really stretch out but you can't really put your feet on the armrests in front of you (which I know you're not supposed to do but, c'mon, it's the most natural-feeling way). Also, given that the AMC Stubs app only offers the option to have snacks delivered to your seat rather than picked up for that location, I wonder how it works when the place is busy and there are a few dozen people getting popcorn brought to them right at show time. I'm usually alone in a row up front, so it's easy enough to have stuff brought to me, but there isn't leg room for when you've got three or four parties in a row.

Not that I'm saying to avoid this screen; it just feels kind of odd, especially from my seats.

The Creator

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2023 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax Laser)

The Creator is just good enough for the fact that it's not more to be disappointing, perhaps unfairly. It's more interesting than the generic title and previews would lead one to believe, a more idiosyncratic take on its sci-fi material than writer/director Gareth Edwards could manage with the stewards of a couple of massive franchises were going to allow.him to get away with.

The previews lay out the basics of the story - 15 years after an autonomous defense system set off a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, leading the United States to ban artificial intelligence, ex-soldier Joshua (John David Washington) is being sent on a mission to destroy an AI superweapon in a "New Asian" enclave, only to discover that this "Alpha Omega" is a humanoid sim in the form of a little girl (Madeleine Yun Voyles). What it leaves out is that she's about the age Joshua's daughter would be, and that he had met his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) as the target of an undercover operation to find the reclusive "Nirmata", whose research created advanced AI and continues to advance it. He's uninterested, at least until the brass shows him evidence that Maya is still alive.

The science fiction of it is on the questionable side, especially at a moment when people are talking a lot about artificial intelligence; this movie really doesn't have anything to say about how "advanced AI" are different from human beings in their outlook or society, or how their presence changes the world, which is unfortunate, given how much public misconceptions about AI have likely been shaped by movies like this where they are metaphors for human issues. In this case, they're a metaphor for the Vietnam War on the one hand and tell the story of an ex-soldier wrestling with his guilt on the other. Maybe they're the same hand.

Now, make no mistake - the reexamination of the Cold War is interesting, the reason why the film is pointedly set in Southeast Asia rather than the more commercially-promising China (although the credits are subtitled in Japanese for some reason). Every bit at the margins where you see people worn down by war, horrific disrespect by the American forces for the local people, and a propaganda campaign that makes stopping it impossible hits. Floating military platform NOMAD is American power writ large, the American military-industrial complex ignoring borders and raining death indiscriminately but also taking up an enormous portion of the country's budget. Even the faux-newsreel beginning featuring a speech to Congress staged like a State of the Union but given by someone in military uniform hits the right note, believable but also unnervingly off.

The film zooms in on one guy, though, pushing John David Washington into more or less constant action, really only examining his personal demons, and it can't help but feel like an opportunity lost. He's fine, although I sometimes wonder if directors subconsciously try to have him deliver lines like his father would even if the rest of his performance is quite different. He maybe could use more time to play off Gemma Chan to solidify the personal stakes of the movie, even if it plays up how their characters didn't know each other nearly as well as they thought. It makes for a very mission-oriented movie even when it really needs to stop and think.

It all looks amazing, though - the filmmakers know a striking image when they see one and get their visual-effects departments to integrate the CGI with the live action better than a lot of films with bigger budgets trying to make it easier on themselves do. For all that my brain rejects a lot of things on screen as anachronistic in a goofy way, I do love the tractor, anti-Apple aesthetic enough to tell myself that advanced AI obviously uses the materials used to make touchscreens 40 years earlier, and how the Southeast Asian settings contrast with the brief glimpses of Los Angeles to make its future seem different but not patronizing about non-Western cultures. Bits are just enjoyably loopy, from a dog's reaction to a grenade to a polite walking bomb; I suspect Edwards has read a lot of 2000AD from that.

It all makes me curious about what served as bits of inspiration and what was meant to serve as the spine of the film, because The Creator has a ton of good pieces and Edwards is good enough at making movies that you wonder why more blockbusters with twice the budget don't look this good and flow so well. But, man, if he had just followed some threads where they led in the spots where he decided to be conventional…

Friday, September 29, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 September 2023 - 5 October 2023

So, what're you getting me for my birthday, theaters and studios?
  • Maybe the big present is The Creator, the new film from Gareth Edwards that, despite its very generic title and trailer, is apparently in the vein of his feature debut Monsters, including being shot on location with a tight crew but built up to something epic, with John David Washington as a soldier who can't bring himself to fulfill his mission to kill an android child. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), West Newton, Boston Common (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax Laser/Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    After a couple attempts to reboot the series or downplay its elaborate continuity, Saw X apparently gets right back into it, setting the new entry, said to be among the bloodiest, in between previous films. It plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), and Arsenal Yards.

    And, for the kids, Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie is the latest movie spin-off of the popular Nickelodeon animated series, this time giving the police puppies superpowers from a magic meteor. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    Thriller On Fire, which has a wildfire surrounding an isolated family, plays Boston Common. The Blind, which looks at the life of Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson during the 1960s, opens at Boston Common and South Bay; Carlos: The Santana Journey, plays Boston Common after last week's "premiere shows", although note that the latter two are Fathom presentations and not eligible for A-List.

    The next Disney100 special at Boston Common is the original The Lion King (notice how it's never the remakes they bring in).

    50th Anniversary shows of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (an "expanded director's cut") play Boston Common and South Bay on Sunday and Wednesday. Drama Surprised by Oxford has an encore showing at Boston Common on Sunday afternoon. 1521, a romance set in the weeks before a major battle between Philippine natives and the Spanish, plays South Bay and Assembly Row on Monday; it features Danny Trejo as Magellan. Documentary Into the Weeds, about a San Francisco-area man who sues Monsanto after being diagnosed with cancer, is at South Bay and Assembly Row on Tuesday.
  • After having a week exclusive to Imax, Stop Making Sense opens on regular screens at The Brattle Theatre, the Somerville (4K laser), Kendall Square, CinemaSalem, Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    The Brattle also celebrates Silent Movie Day all weekend, with a collection of 16mm shorts from their own collection on Friday, Buster Keaton in The Three Ages on Saturday, and Lois Weber's Shoes on Sunday. Music documentary Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party also plays Tuesday to Thursday.
  • Flora and Son, the latest music-centered film from Once director John Carney, opens at The Capitol, Landmark Kendall Square, the Lexington Venue, West Newton.

    Landmark's Scorsese & DiCaprio series continues with $5 tickets to Shutter Island on Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday. Uncharitable, a documentary about how the non-profit world has had to change, plays Monday, and the Retro Replay series switches to 1980s slashers for October, kicking off with Friday the 13th on Tuesday.
  • Fair Play opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square; it's a drama starring Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich as a couple working for the same hedge fund whose relationship is strained when one is promoted. They also have a special screening on Friday night with Ben Mezrich, the author of Dumb Money, signing books and leading a Q&A after the film made from his book.

    Also Friday, at midnight, they have a 35mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The late shows on Saturday are an "annotated" screening of Showgirls with David Schmader at 10pm a 35mm print of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre just ahead of its 50th anniversary. It will probably be October by the time the film starts, so it kicks off the Halloween programming, which continues on Monday with Night of the Living Dead accompanied by a live score by Morricone Youth, on Tuesday with the Nicholas Roeg version of The Witches. They continue to spotlight Coolidge Award winner Ruth E. Carter with Selma on Wednesday evening, as well as IFFBoston selection 26.2 to Life on Thursday, with post-film discussion for this Panorama show. There's also "Baby, I Don't Care: The Artistry of Robert Mitchum", a five week lecture series kicking off Tuesday morning.
  • Big week for Indian film, as Monday is Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday commemorating the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. Hindi caper comedy Fukrey 3, play Fresh Pond and Boston Common. Apple Fresh Pond has seven more new releases on top of that: Hindi drama The Vaccine War, which looks at the challenges of getting a country of 1.4 billion people vaccinated during Covid, Malayalam action flick Kannur Squad, Telugu revenge pic Skanda: The Attaker, Telugu drama Peddha Kapu 1, fantasy-comedy-romance Chandramukhi 2 with times in both Tamil and Telugu, Tamil crime film Iraivan, and Tamil missing-child drama Chithha. On top of that, Jawan hangs around (also at Boston Common).

    Wuershan's Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms gets more showtimes in its second week. If you can make it out to the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, they may have The Ex Files 4: Marriage Plan, although the ticketing sites are showing all the times as sold out, so I won't be taking the three buses out there on spec.
  • The Somerville Theatre picks up Limbo, a terrifically grimy Hong Kong crime film which finally hits American theaters a couple months after the film director Soi Cheang made after it (Mad Fate), but it's worth the wait. Late shows only, including a midnight on Saturday.

    Also playing at midnight on Saturday is a 35mm print of Death to Smoochy, while Tuesday has a special screening of Dario Argento's Demons ith Claudio Simonetti's band Goblin providing a live score (note that it's on the theater's "concerts & events" page rather than the films). That bumps Stop Making Sense downstairs and Limbo off the schedule for the night, but all shows downstairs will be $3 than night.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has Música de Cåmara: The Cinema of Rita Azevedo Gomes all weekend with her Fragile as the World playing Saturday evening and her The Portuguese Woman Sunday afternoon. She also programs Ella Katappa on Friday (35mm, no English subtitles), featurettes "D. Jaime ou a Noite Portuguesa" & "Padres" Saturday night (16mm, no English subtitles), Splendor in the Grass Sunday evening (35mm), and La vie de bohème Monday evening (35mm).
  • The Regent Theatre four more screenings of the 2023 Manhattan Short Film Festival, where people across the country vote on the best short films - two on Friday, one each on Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday and Thursday also have the first two programs of the Lonely Seal International FIlm, Screenplay, and Music Festival, with a package of musical short films on Wednesday and comedy shorts on Thursday.
  • Cinefest Latino Boston continues with The Eternal Memory playing Museum of Fine Arts plus on Friday, a full slate of programming at Emerson's Bright Screening Room (in the Paramount) from Friday to Sunday, Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project at the Coolidge on Sunday, and three free shows in the Civic Pavillion at City Hall Plaza on Thursday.
  • This week's Bright Lights presentation in the Bright Screening Room is "Radical Imagination: Responding to an Environmental Crisis in Motion", a program of four documentary shorts with curator Homa Sarabi leading a discussion with the filmmakers afterward. As always, free and open to the public.
  • The Boston Film Festival continues streaming a number of films via EventBrite through Saturday.
  • The Lexington Venue opens A Haunting in Venice and Flora and Son, Friday to Sunday.

    The West Newton Cinema brings in Flora and Son, Paw Patrol, The Creator, and Dumb Money, keeping Bottoms (Saturday/Sunday matinees), Golda (no show Thursday), Elemental (Saturday matinee), Past Lives (Saturday/Sunday), Barbie, and Oppenheimer. Closed on Monday.

    The Luna Theater has CatVideoFest 2023Friday evening & Saturday afternoon, Sundance Short Films Saturday, Talk to Me Saturday evening, a UMass Lowell Philosophy & Film presentation of 28 Days Later on Thursday, and apparently no Sunday feature or Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has Stop Making Sense, A Haunting in Venice, Bottoms, The Nun II, and Golda through Monday. Their Halloween stuff gets started in earnest with Event Horizon (hosted by Trivia Time Bitch with Kelly Kapow doing an intro) Friday night and a Night of the Demons triple feature on Saturday. There's a Miz Diamond Wigfall Presents show of Mean Girls on Tuesday.
  • Joe's Free Films shows screenings of Argentina, 1985 at MIT on Friday and Saturday, although if you're not part of the MIT community, they need you to email an RSVP ahead of time.
Time to finally see Stop Making Sense, I guess. I'm also excited to see Limbo again, and am hearing good things about The Creator, on top of being curious what the Brattle pulls out of the closet for silents.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Origin of Evil

Today in "the way movies are booked in post-pandemic Boston is kind of screwed up", The Origin of Evil, a pretty darn entertaining French thriller that is getting a week of terrible showtimes at Boston Common - for the next three days, it will be playing at 11:45am and 5:30pm. It played roughly those times on Friday, at 10:45am and 5pm on Saturday, and at 5pm Sunday, leaving those of us who work during the week three showtimes we could get to.

That is, needless to say, not a whole lot of time to find out that it exists, or is playing, if one vaguely remembers it getting good buzz at festivals back in 2022. Maybe IFC Films has been advertising it somewhere - I believe they've got the same parent company as IFC, AMC Networks, so perhaps there's some synergy there; it's been a long time since I've watched anything on those channels. The theater in which it played, AMC Boston Common (yeah, we've got both AMCs going here) has not at any point had a poster up for it, nor has there been a trailer that I've seen. Which doesn't mean there hasn't been one - the previews that played before this movie were not ones I'd seen before other films in the theater, and since I haven't seen a lot along these lines recently, that just means I might have missed one. Still, I'm going to guess half of the things previewed here won't actually play that theater or any other local AMC.

The other bit that's kind of screwy is that it's playing this theater, and only this theater - for as much as Boston Common with its 19 screens that are mostly pretty dense, seating about three or so times as many people as other screens with the same square footage, has showtimes to throw to something unusual, you'd sort of expect this to go to Landmark Kendall Square pre-pandemic - heck, it might have snared a spot on their printed calendar so people would know about it ahead of time. I still think of it as a boutique house which would absolutely book the sexy French thriller - granted, this isn't necessarily that sexy, and "sexy French thriller" would obviously take a back seat to "eccentric old English ladies" - but it's not really that any more. They didn't book this, but they did get Expendables 4. Maybe they've picked up enough MIT students and other folks in the Kendall area who would rather see new mainstream releases rather than boutique-house material.

It means there's not really a home for movies like this in Boston right now, or at least not very many. Perhaps there will be a little more when the Coolidge opens its two new screens, but even they've been playing a pretty mainstream slate this summer. I worry a bit that maybe that's just the post-pandemic movie world, with screens to precious and audiences too hard to come by for anything less mainstream than a Wes Anderson move to get a planned release, and the rest are just lucky to get a couple showings a day with no warning, which don't do well, convincing the bookers that there's no audience.

I'm not sure how you get around that, and it's a bummer, because in an ideal world it could work the other way - folks who went to see A Haunting in Venice might get a trailer for something a little out of their comfort zone like The Origin of Evil, know it's going to be out in a few weeks, come even though they don't usually see French movies, and then be ready for the next French thing the theater programs. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the direction we're heading.

L'origine du mal (The Origin of Evil)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

A living room full of taxidermy is generally a good way to warn you that these rich people are more than garden-variety weird, and it's probably telling that writer/director Sébastien Marnier almost overwhelms the taxidermy with other eccentricities as the audience gets to know the Dumontet family in The Origin of Evil. It is, quite clearly, going to be a lot of movie, with a lot to sift through.

There's a little time getting there, as we first meet its protagonist (Laure Calamy) working a line at a sardine packing plant, being stood up by the girlfriend (Suzanne Clément) she was visiting in prison, and then finding she would be kicked out of her room, as her landlady's daughter is returning home. It has, finally, made her desperate enough to call Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber), the man who fathered her out of wedlock. Serge has recently suffered a stroke, which has perhaps made him re-evaluate being a part of Stéphane's life; wife Louise (Dominique Blanc), daughter George (Doria Tillier), and Louise's longtime servant Agnès (Véronique Ruggia Saura), are, obviously, less pleased about this new addition to the family.

The filmmakers do a fun thing here where, really on, one of the characters jumps straight to guessing the sort of crazy twist that is usually reserved for late in the third act, the sort that otherwise would stop the film for explanatory flashbacks when revealed, well ahead of the audience. The way we engage with thrillers makes us want to rule it out - you can't just say what's really going on at this early point! - but it makes the next little while a little more interesting: Are we getting those bits that reveal this has been seeded throughout the film in real time, or is it all a misdirection for something else? It's a nifty strategy, because the bulk of the movie is not so much people plotting against each other to specific ends but watching Stéphane amplify the family's assumptions while blowing off her real life, and seeing how the rest of the family reacts to how she threatens their comfortable present and future existence.

That's fun, and in the meantime, the Dumontets just keep getting weirder and weirder, not bad considering that the living room full of taxidermy is kind of a red flag to start. I suspect there's some Succession vibes here - I've never watched the show, but Jacques Weber does come off as "Brian Cox but French" as Serge - creating a cast of highly-watchable but possibly terrible people. Dominique Blanc's Louise is eccentric enough to make one wonder if there's something dark under the loopiness, Véronique Ruggia Saura hits the right combination of servant-snobbishness and caginess as Agnès, and Doria Tiller makes George the sort of coolly capable manager who could either be ready to collapse or go in for the kill at any point. It's all in orbit around, Weber, who essays this particularly French sort of lion in winter perfectly - the sophisticated man who has risen in large part due to his good taste, his affairs smiled at, but with a level of nastiness underneath and a horror at his failing body that he's just capable of masking.

And then there's Laure Calamy; she and Marnier are able to score plenty of early sympathy by showing the weight on her shoulders and the delight and finding a family even beyond how her father is loaded, and maintains just enough of it to keep the audience mostly with her as Marnier allows this status to go to her head and Calamy makes her performance bigger and more manic, fully merging with the crazy around her and at times surpassing it. Her scenes with Suzanne Clément crackle, as the free woman's lies and growing alignment with the Dumontets cracks the other's head-down, calm-but-simmering manner.

It's a good enough juggling act to keep one from spending too much time on how there's not necessarily any endgame to be had that makes any kind of sense, to the point where some of the later dramatic scenes tend to work in spite of the audience wondering what the point of that was and looking at the other shoe Marnier has pointedly held high above the floor as if to drop it, wondering if maybe the two go together. Or, on the other hand, maybe it's one of those thrillers where things just get out of control (as I imagine many improvised crimes do), and haven't you been enjoying chaos all along?

Friday, September 22, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 September 2023 - 28 September 2023

Hey, wasn't Alamo talking about opening "later this summer"? What's going on with that (and North Station, and even the expanded Coolidge)?
  • Expend4bles, the latest entry in the action-all-stars series, appears to only have Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, and Dolph Lundgren from the original (though others have by and large drifted away rather than been killed off), with 50 Cent, Megan Fox, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, and Randy Couture as the new recruits. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema/Spanish-subtitled shows), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    I enjoyed It Lives Inside at Fantasia; it's a solid little horror movie about an Indian-America girl who must confront a demon that other immigrants have brought from the old country, and plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Dumb Money expands, adding the Coolidge, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row to Boston Common. Barbie gets a week-long run on Imax screens this week (since Oppenheimer claimed them the week they were released), playing with extra post-credits goodies at Jordan's Furniture, Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Also opening in Imax is the new blow-up of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film directed by John Demme often called the best of the form, playing at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    The Warner 100 revival for the week is The Matrix, playing at Assembly Row. Assembly Row also has Get Out, because why not, I guess.

    Music doc Carlos: The Santana Journey plays Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Assembly Row on Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday. British Drama Surprised by Oxford, starring Rose Reid as an initially-reserved PhD student and Simon Callow as one of her professors, plays Boston Common Wednesday. The Creator has early-access screenings on Wednesday at Boston Common (Imax Xenon), South Bay (Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (Imax Laser). Korean concert film IU Concert: The Golden Hour, featuring Lee Ji-eun, plays Boston Common on Thursday.
  • Landmark Kendall Square has a quick theatrical run of Reptile before its Netflix premiere. It stars Benicio Del Toro as a detective investigating a gruesome murder in a town with secrets.

    They wind up their September series of $5 "Movies You May Have Missed" with Indian extravaganza RRR and Quentin Dupieux's latest, the Power Rangers-style spoof Smoking Causes Coughing. They also have Gangs of New York on Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday as part of a series leading up to his new film, and Lost Highway wrapping their David Lynch series of "Retro Replays" on Tuesday.
  • Much-lauded indie Freemont opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, though with limited showtimes on the 14-seat Goldscreen. It stars Anaita Wali Zada as a former local translator in Afghanistan now working in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, who starts sending messages out. They also get Dumb Money on the main screen.

    The Coolidge also host the Ax Wound Film Festival, a feminist/intersectional slate of horror programming, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, including midnights, with short packages, features, and panels. Regular midnights include 1980s cult classic Angel on Friday and Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain on Saturday. Tuesday's Big Screen Classic is Raising Arizona, with critic Jake Mulligan offering a seminar beforehand, while Thursday has a 35mm print of Black Dynamite as part of their tribute to Coolidge Award recipient Ruth E. Carter, while Thursday features another Big Screen Classic, House of Flying Daggers, on 35mm.
  • French thriller The Origin of Evil opens at Boston Common, with Laure Calamy as a woman on the verge of bankruptcy attempts to reconnect with her wealthy father. Also opening there is Armenian drama (and Oscar submission) Amerikatsi, starring/written by/directed by Amernian-American Michael A. Goorjan as an Armenia who fled to America as a child and returns after WWII, only to be imprisoned by the new Soviet regime.

    Three new Indian films at Apple Fresh Pond from India this weekend: Hindi-language comedy Sukhee stars Shilpa Shetty Kundra as a woman who rediscovers herself attending a high-school reunion; Hindi-language thriller Shibpur has a reporter tracking down a mysterious mafia queen; and Telugu romantic comedy 7G Brundavan Colony, which looks to be either a reissue or remake of 7/G Rainbow Colony from 2004.

    Mark Antony, Jawan (also at Boston Common), Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty (through Monday), and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani all continue.

    Wuershan's Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms plays Boston Common on regular screens after last week's Imax previews; it's a mess but enjoyable enough to hope the series gets finished. No More Bets also continues.

    The week's Ghibli Fest film is Howl's Moving Castle, playing Boston Common subtitled on Saturday/Tuesday, and dubbed Sunday/Monday/Wednesday.
  • The Brattle Theatre spends the week "Walken on Sunshine" - that is, dipping into the work that Christopher Walken did in the 1980s. The program includes A View to a Kill (35mm Friday), The Milagro Beanfield War (35mm Saturday/Sunday), Brainstorm & The Dead Zone (Saturday), Heaven's Gate (Sunday), Communion (Monday/Tuesday), Pennies from Heaven (35mm Tuesday), and At Close Range (35mm Wednesday/Thursday).

    They also have a free "Elements of Cinema" screening of The City of Lost Children on Monday evening, with an introduction from Enrique Gonzalez Müller of Berklee College of Music. RPM Fest has a retrospective program of short films from Vincent Grenier on Wednesday, and there's an as-yet-unannounced member event on Thursday (watch your email, fellow members!).
  • The Somerville Theatre's main screen plays host to the new 4K restoration of The Fugitive through Sunday. On Saturday, they have a 35mm print of Mamma Mia! with the ticket including admission to a post-film dance party at the Crystal Ballroom upstairs - or you could catch the midnight show, a 35mm print of District 9. On Sunday, Author Lara Gabrielle will sign her new Marion Davies biography, Captain of Her Soul, in conjunction with a 35mm Silents, Please! screening of Davies in Show People, with Jeff Rapsis accompanying on the keyboard. On Monday & Tuesday, they complete their miniature Harrison Ford series with Witness on 35mm.

    On Wednesday, The Irish Film Festival hosts a free preview of Flora & Son with live music by Billy Keane; passes are available here, and folks are advised to arrive early.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Ignacio Agüero for two "Chile Year Zero" screenings this weekend, with featurette "One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train" and short film "To Not Forget" on Friday and his new feature Notes for a Film on Saturday. Also playing as part of that program is Cristián Sánchez's The Chinese Shoe on Monday.

    Sunday is given to Rita Azevedo Gomes, whose A Woman's Revenge shows in the afternoon, while she programs Manoel de Oliveira's Francisca that evening.
  • Museum of Fine Arts has two screenings this week: Close to Vermeer, following Rijksmuseum curator Gregor Wber as he assembles the largest Vermeer exhibition ever, and a 50th anniversary show of surreal French animated feature Fantastic Planet.
  • The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston has its annual event at AMC Boston Common this weekend, with Day Off, Coo-Coo 043, and "Can You Hear Me?" Saturday afternoon and The Lucky Woman, City of Lost Things, and Blue Gate Crossing on Sunday.
  • The Regent Theatre has music documentary BackBeat from Above: The Legacy of Sib Hashian on Sunday evening, which will also include a special ceremony inducting Hashian into the New England Music Hall of Fame. They also have the first screening of the 2023 Manhattan Short Film Festival, where people across the country vote on the best short films.
  • The Museum of Science will have a very special guest on Tuesday afternoon, with Jane Goodall on hand for the 1pm show of "Reasons for Hope"
  • Wednesday is opening night film of Cinefest Latino Boston, with actor Isel Rodriguez on-hand for a Q&A after La Pecera at the Coolidge; on Thursday, the venue shifts to the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount with producer Ines Hofmann Kanna on-hand for a Q&A after You Were My First Boyfriend. That film is part of Emerson's Bright Lights series, free and open to the public.
  • The Boston Film Festival begins the virtual portion of its schedule on Friday, with four narrative features, six documentary features, and six short programs running through the end of the month. There are also free screenings at the Boston Public Library and MIT Media Lab, and two other films at Emerson's Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room, including a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award for Treat Williams before American Outlaws Saturday evening.
  • The Lexington Venue opens Golda and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, holding over Barbie, and is open Friday to Sunday.

    The West Newton Cinema keeps A Haunting in Venice, Golda, Elemental, Past Lives, Theater Camp, Barbie, and Oppenheimer, and is back to being closed on Mondays.

    The Luna Theater has the Sundance Short Films Friday evening & Saturday afternoon, Talk to Me Saturday evening, The Crafton Sunday, and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has A Haunting in Venice, Bottoms, The Nun II, and Golda through Monday. The classic Ghost in the Shell anime is the "Night Light" show on Friday, with Soylent Green on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

    If you can make it to Dedham, Irish/Finnish drama My Sailor, My Love is playing at the Community Theatre. Sci-fi comedy Relax, I'm From the Future plays at the LIberty Tree Mall in Danvers
  • Joe's Free Films shows two outdoor shows: The Lion King at The LOT in Dorchester on Friday (not sure which version, RSVP requested), and E.T. at the Frog Pond in the Common on Wednesday.
One last Red Sox ticket tonight, and then I have no idea, really, how I fit The Fugitive, The Origin of Evil, Show People, Freemont, and anything that looks interesting at the Taiwan Film Festival in over the weekend, on top of how I've kind of saved Barbie for this Imax re-release. Oh, and all the Christopher Walken stuff looks interesting, too. (And here I am, asking for more theaters to open!)

Fantasia 2023 in theaters: It Lives Inside (and Creation of the Gods Part 1: Kingdom of Storms)

I should really be caught up to It Lives Inside by now and the degree to which I am behind in reviews these days has me worried that I might have some Covid brain fog or whatever. I feel like I've grown much worse at focusing as I've gotten older.

Anyway, I'll circle back around to the Q&A for It Lives Inside eventually, but the crowd seemed to be into it a lot more than you might think from some of the ratings I've seen; I dug it.

As for Creation of the Gods, which I saw as part of an early Imax run, it all but sold out the big Imax screen at Boston Common, and if I wasn't the only person there who needed subtitles, it was close. I'd forgotten just what a long gestation period this has had; I believe it started shooting almost ten years ago, soon after Wuershan's Mojin movie, intended to be the first of a trilogy that was all shot at once, Lord of the Rings style, but it had financing and pipeline problems as far as post-production was concerned even before Covid. This first film, at least, doesn't look any more compromised than the typical big-budget Chinese fantasy, although it may be a situation where the box office from this will be feeding post-production on the rest. For what it's worth, it's got at least two mid-credit stings and there was a screen that had some English text for "Creation of the Gods Part 2" that looked like the title card for this one, although I couldn't suss out a subtitle or release date.

The credits were mainly Chinese, but I spotted James Schamus's name early on, though it's not clear in what capacity; his IMDB page doesn't list this

I wound up liking It Lives Inside more than Gods, but both are interesting options for a weekend full of "sure, we've got a screen for that" releases.

It Lives Inside

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It Lives Inside is a classic-style "monster brought here from abroad" thriller that thankfully puts its Indian-American characters at the center rather than making them mentors whose warnings are dismissed before inconveniently dying, which doesn't happen as much as it used to but is still more common than you'd like. The filmmakers don't always hit their marks but the movie has a strong enough center to get past that and become a solid monster movie.

Meet Samidha "Sam" Avasthi (Megan Suri), a thoroughly assimilated teenage daughter of Indian immigrants who has little time for the traditions her mother Radha (Sangeeta Wylie) finds important, preferring not to do anything that might might make her seem strange to white best friend Kitty or crush Russ (Gage Marsh). She and another Indian-American classmate, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), used to be inseparable, but of late Tamira looks enough of a wreck that concerned teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) asks Sam to find out what's wrong. The answer? Tamira is carrying a glass jar that she claims contains the evil spirit that killed their neighbors, the exact sort of thing that a girl like Sam who doesn't want to be seen as a weird foreigner is going to dismiss until it's too late.

The center of this movie is undoubtedly lead actress Megan Suri, who ably embodies all of the things about teenagers, in particular fully-Americanized children of immigrants, that make them so amazing and so frustrating: Sam is smart and self-aware enough to take initiative but volatile enough to do the wrong thing in ways that can really gum up the works, and Suri does a very nice job of making the audience able to empathize even when they can see her doing something dumb or unkind. Suri and writer/director Bishal Dutta clearly know what makes a good horror heroine, with her rough edges all things that can become something else; a viewer can see that she's got the potential to swing a mace at an invisible demon even if she's also really not there yet at the start.

When that demon does reveal itself, it's enjoyably monstrous, a giant that may once have been human but has both shed its skin to bones and replaced it with cancerous hate. It's mostly realized practically, so it winds up being tactile enough to make folks getting run through or thrown around hurt. It is, perhaps, fully invisible or in the shadows for a bit too long, and its choices of who gets killed immediately and who is tortured are seemingly more what the movie needs at the moment than anything consistent. Dutta does not exactly reinvent the wheel with this pishach, staging chases where sinks into shadows or attacks invisibly in ways that will be fairly familiar to a lot of horror fans, but those pieces are effective, with darting cameras and nervous potential victims keeping the viewers on their toes. One may snicker a bit about how incredibly obviously haunted one house is, but that doesn't make it less creepy.

The film can be a bit thin otherwise; one character who seemed at least potentially important early on just disappears halfway through, and the material with Sam and her mother butting heads can at times be frustratingly formulaic. No, teenagers and their parents who disagree on many things but share stubbornness are not going to be particularly witty or creative in how they clash, but they often seem to be going through the motions a bit, especially since there's no way that the movie doesn't have Radha's knowledge of their homeland's tradition and folklore be a key part of arming Sam to fight the demon. Give Sangeeeta Wylie credit for playing the sort of mother who can fight with her daughter non-stop and then pivot to that sort of thing; there's also some nice support from Mohana Krishnan, who does a nice overwhelmed terror as Tamira, and Betty Gabriel for making sure that every time Betty goes above and beyond to be useful to the story comes off as her being a teacher who is very involved with her students.

For all its shortcomings, It Lives Inside pays off with a boss battle that nicely combines Sam focusing her mind to defeat a creature that feeds on toxic emotions with actually slugging it out, and an epilogue that has a bit more substance than just setting up one extra scare. Some of the connective tissue is almost thin enough to snap, but the pieces it's holding together are strong.

Feng shen Di yi bu: Zhao Ge feng yun (Creation of the Gods Part 1: Kingdom of Storms)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)

After watching Wuershan's long-gestating first Creation of the Gods film, I felt the need to go back over what I said about the director's previous films to see if I should be a bit disappointed by this one or nod and say that it being an impressively-mounted mess is about what I should have expected. It's great-looking, full of big adventure and grandiose scale, but also feels a little hollow. I get the feeling that 30 years ago, Tsui Hark would have made a much more fun version with 2% of the budget.

As it opens, the Shang army has traveled north to deal with Lord Su who has refused to pay his tribute, with Prince Yin Shou (Fei Xiang aka Kris Philips) leading the Hostage Battalion - 800 sons of lords meant to keep them from getting out of line - including the highly loyal Ji fa (Yu Shi) and Yin Shou's own son, Yin Jiao (Luke Chen Muchi). They chase the Su family down to the Xuanyuan Tomb, where they disturb something dark, and the lord's daughter Su Daji (Na Ran aka Narana Erdyneeva) awakens from her suicide very different indeed, soon feeding Shou's ambitions to be King himself. This will place a Great Curse on the land, leading the mystic immortals of Kunlun to dispatch one of their number, Jiang Ziya (Huang Bo), to deliver the new King a holy artifact, the Fengshen Bang, with fellow immortals Nezha (Wu Yafan) and Yang Jian (Sha Chi) along for protection - although Ziya is soon convinced that Shou cannot be trusted to use the Fengshan properly.

That's a lot, and there's more, and the two mid-credit teasers suggest that the sequels will be even more packed with lore. As a result, Creation is too often the sort of blend of fantasy and mythology that has scale but not weight: The Great Curse doesn't seem to be hurting the parts of the setting we can see too much (palaces are isolated from that sort of thing), with prophecies, magic items, and strange creatures that don't raise as many eyebrows as maybe they should for their rarity and danger are all part of the scene. There's betrayals and plots and cutthroat politics that maybe play better if you've been more immersed in this material earlier (for example, including Nezha as a supporting character is sort of like having Hercules show up in a Western fantasy without explaining his mythology). But what's it all about? Early on, there's this sort of nugget of an idea that a dynasty destroying itself so destabilizes the world that new gods must be created to heal it, but that at best seems like one of the many things that hopefully pay off in part 2. It's genre material that is so busy moving around that it never has much at the center.

Part of the problem is how dull the likely heroes are; Yu Shi and Luke Chen Muchi don't have much chance to differentiate Ji Fa and Yin Jiao in the early going, coming off as blandly noble in much the same way, easily upstaged by the immortals even though this is the pair's story as much as it is anyone's. There are hints of potentially interesting directions to go - Yin Shou's own son seeing corruption that hostage Ji Fa, desperately loyal to too many masters, cannot confront, for instance - but they don't have enough to do to demonstrate the basics of their personalities through action.

The movie's got villains, at least - Yin Shou is a pretty standard emperor who rises through treachery, but he's established as a genuine maniac early on and Fei Xiang gives him major "of course I can do this, I'm king!" energy, a monstrous true believer who briefly seems genuinely sad to kill a hostage soldier who has been nothing but loyal to the dynasty early on. only reveling in it later. Shou is no Macbeth, but Fei plays how ambition and power bring corruption to the surface well, while Na Ran makes the leap to delightedly enabling this much earlier. Together, they can manage both a delightfully manic musical interlude and a relationship that's a little more interesting than the two alpha villains awaiting the chance to betray one another and size sole power.

And, of course, Wuershan and his team can still put together really pretty pictures, the calling card of four previous visually-stunning films. It's a little unsteady - the overwhelming construction of a massive sacrificial pyre is juxtaposed with some really terrible compositing as Ziya almost blunders into being trampled by elephants - but there's seldom a feel that Wuershan is holding back and saving budget for the climax, even if the film could probably stand to be a little less pretty as it claims the kingdom is suffering under the Great Curse. And for as good as much of the big finale is, some of what he chooses not to show plainly is very frustrating: A decapitation deserves a chance to have emotional impact, rather than being edited into uncertainty, even if the censor board won't allow one to be too graphic. I don't know that we ever get a clear shot of the fifteen-foot-tall statues that come to life and start chasing the heroes, instead either framing too tightly on Ji Fa at ground level or overwhelming with fiddly little details. Let us gawk and be impressed!

That wish for the movie to just let the awesome bits breathe highlights where it succeeds and where it fails as much as anything. As with a lot of fantasies, Creation of the Gods works best when it lets the audience bask in something they can instinctively understand, blown up larger than life, but stumbles when it overwhelms with details and explanations kept off-screen for too long.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Inventor

I feel like there were ticket-sale shenanigans going on for this movie but I can figure out why. Observe, if you will, what was blocked out as unavailable on Fandango shortly after I bought my ticket:
That "X" just behind the handicapped companion seats is me, though I'm normally in the last row of the front section. For some reason, that whole section, and the outer two seats on either side of the rear section was marked as sold, although, ahem:
… nobody in any of those spots. All four weekend shows had the same seats "sold".

I don't get why, though - does the streaming contract or the like get more lucrative if the movie gets a top-ten finish or makes more than a million at the box office, or some other metric, and the producers bought up all the seats most folks consider less desirable while still leaving plenty that folks would buy to try and hit that goal? That's my only guess. I suppose it's smarter than the Sound of Freedom folks who bought so many seats that people who legitimately wanted to see the movie couldn't (if they didn't know about where to get the pre-sold tickets), but, it's weird.

Aside from that, I was psyched to see it because I backed the Kickstarter for the animatic way back in 2020, which feels like something I should disclose in a review, although I only kicked in $10, which should get me a digital version of the movie at some point in the near-ish future, but didn't get me in the credits (that was a $100 perk), so it's not like I'm a producer who stands to make money on anybody seeing it. Truth be told, that's probably less than one typically spends on the hope that there's a good movie on the other end. Still, it's pretty cool to see something one contributed to on a big screen; I don't think that's happened for me aside from the Veronica Mars movie, and that was probably, at least in retrospect, more of a "this will probably happen anyway but let's get the money up from and see if that gets enough people feeling involved for a word-of-mouth campaign" situation than this.

Though I feel involved and am maybe trying to get this some word of mouth during it's one week of matinees in Boston. Hey, I'm not saying it's a bad thing, even if it's kind of cynical when a less independent production does it.

Also also: Even if it doesn't feature "Kickstarter Backer: Jason Seaver", this has one of the quirkier sets of end credits I can remember.

The Inventor

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

The Inventor is not exactly the movie I imagined when I contributed to its Kickstarter several years ago, but what ever is? Even setting that aside, it's an odd duck, focusing on a period more than a story, built to be kid-friendly but featuring more grave-robbing than that may imply, but charming in its earnest educational intentions.

As it opens in 1516, Leonardo da Vinci (voice of Stephen Fry) is pursuing a number of different interests Rome, from art to optics to anatomy, with the Pope (voice of Matt Berry) less than enthused about the latter in particular, as da Vinci aims to find the seat of the soul. When he attempts to task Leonardo with creating weapons of war for a conflict with France, the artist instead counsels peace, and King Francis I (voice of Gauthier Battoue) is so taken with da Vinci's work that he becomes the Florentine's new patron . The King's sister, Princess Marguerite (voice of Daisy Ridley) is taken with Leonardo's idea for an "ideal city", but Francis is soon more focused on a grand exposition, featuring a powerful statue of himself, that will impress visiting monarchs Charles (voice of Max Baumgarten) and Henry (voice of Daniel Swan).

Visually, the film is quite a delight; it is primarily presented as stop-motion animation featuring smooth, clean designs, contrasted to the fiddly detail of Laika or the emphasized imperfection of Aardman; it does not exactly call to mind Leonardo's own work, which can frequently be seen as part of his thought balloons, but have an expressiveness to the characters and functionality to the environments that reflects him as both artist and engineer. The picture does deviate from stop-motion a bit more than expected, although the 2-D portion of the film is made in consultation with Tomm Moore and his Cartoon Saloon studio, and as such is charming in its own right. When the filmmakers have the chance to be clever and playful, they shine, such as how the Pope is presented as a giant who dominates a scene even when acting a fool, with spies who are literally shadows. Marguerite and her children work as a unit, occasionally shown in Fibonacci-inspired patterns.

It's something of a shame that the soundtrack does not often live up to the charming imagery. Stephen Fry makes a fine Leonardo, of course; his voice is full of intelligence, wonder, and wit, just hearing it almost automatically brings forth what one wants da Vinci to be, and it's almost unfair that Daisy Ridley, Marion Cotillard, and Gauthier Battoue can give fine performances as the French royal family but just aren't so obviously perfectly cast as Fry. The songs don't particularly do the intended job of amplifying their material, either; that they are meant to sound like something from 500 years ago rather than something anachronistic is an intriguing choice, but it means one sometimes has to strain for the lyrics and meaning rather than letting them carry one away; they often seem to be there because this sort of animated feature has songs, rather than because a song is the best, most powerful way to communicate the scene's idea.

There is an idea or two lurking in this film, with the delight of discovery and invention being foremost, but the film is perhaps at its most interesting when Leonardo explains to Marguerite that the world is divided between those who see, those who can be made to see, and those who cannot see, an unusual moment considering how he has mostly pressed on without a lot of reflection on the system around him, though he is quite aware of it. At times, this feels like it should naturally be the central idea animating the film, a bit of wisdom that the movie is not quite pointed enough in its critique of the powerful to fully embrace.

Which, I suppose, is probably a lot to expect of a mainly-charming little film that will likely be some kids' introduction to Da Vinci, if not so much something for the adult Animation Appreciator. It's cute and maybe a bit slight, but also a bit of a relief compared to how visibly hard many animated films work to astound.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 15 September 2023 - 21 September 2023

Lots of stuff with kind of limited showtimes this weekend to make you wish you could be at various spots on the Red Line at once.
  • Would I have bet on Kenneth Branagh doing a third Hercule Poirot movie when Orient Express came out, especially after the pandemic so delayed the second? No, but here's A Haunting in Venice, an adaptation of Hallowe'en Party that goes for haunted-house thrills rather than a mobile crime scene with a sprawling cast, though it's still got Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, and Michelle Yeoh on hand. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), West Newton, Cinema Salem, Boston Common (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Digital), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax Laser/Dolby Digital), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    The latest "Nicolas Cage chewing some scenery in an otherwise D2V-looking action flick" production is The Retirement Plan, which has him as a beach bum who is actually a retired assassin, which is not great news for the criminals chasing his daughter and granddaughter. That's at Fresh Pond and Boston Common.

    The Inventor plays matinees at Boston Common, with former Pixar animator offering up a stop-motion look at the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, with Stephen Fry voicing the title character and Daisy Ridley & Marion Cotillard in the voice cast. Very excited for this one, as I contributed to the Kickstarter for its animatic years ago.

    Michael Jai White stars and directs in Outlaw Johnny Black, an action-comedy that appears to be in the Black Dynamite mold, except a western, with Anika Noni Rose, Erica Ash, Chris Browning, Randy Couture, Barry Bostwick, and more along for the ride as a gunslinger disguises himself as a preacher to seek revenge in a boomtown. It's at South Bay for a couple shows a day.

    Dumb Money gets an early opening at Boston Common on three screens before it goes wide at the end of the month. It stars Paul Dano as Keith Gill, whose vlog created a run on GameStop's stock, threatening to break the multi-billion dollar funds planning on shorting it. Terrific cast around him for something that appears to be in the vein of director Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya.

    The Warner 100 film this week is Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, playing at South Bay, Assembly Row, with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises joining it on Saturday (the trilogy also plays Boston Common and South Bay that day), with The Lego Movie also playing matinees starting Saturday at Assembly Row. The Disney 100 film at Boston Common is Coco, just reaching way into the vault to celebrate their history there.

    Rain Man has anniversary screenings at Assembly Row on Sunday and Wednesday. Documentary Canary, which follows archaeology Lonnie Thompson as he investigates areas about to be erased by climate change, plays Boston Common Wednesday. Horror spoof Shaky Shivers plays Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row on Thursday.
  • Cassandro opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square, featuring Gael García Bernal as a luchador whose new persona, a subversion of the flamboyant "exotico", turns the wrestling establishment on its head.

    The Coolidge also uses both big screens for midnights this weekend, with Paul Schrader's Hardcore and Russ Meyer/Roger Ebert collaboration Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on Friday while Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 and a screening of The Room with live commentary from co-star Greg Sestero. Sunday features both a Geothe-Institut German film show of Ingeborg Bachmann - Journey into the Desert and a Brookline for the Culture presentation of The Wood on 35mm film, while Monday offers "Sights Unseen", a collection of short films from under-represented local voices. Tuesday's Big Screen Classic is a 35mm print of All That Heaven Allows with a pre-film seminar from UMass Boston professor Sarah Keller, while Thursday's is The Marriage of Maria Braun, also on 35mm.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a week-long run of Sundance award-winner Scrapper with Lola Campbell as a 12-year-old girl living on the streets of London whose life is upended by the sudden reappearance of her father (Harris Dickinson). It shares the screen with music doc The Elephant 6 Recording Co. through Monday.

    They also have a second show of documentary Ariel Phenomenon on Saturday afternoon, an "album watch" for Bonny Prince Billy's "Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You" on Sunday evening, and a Maggie Cheung's Birthday Double feature of Irma Vep & Days of Being Wild on Wednesday & Thursday.
  • The two $5 "Movies You May Have Missed" at Landmark Kendall Square this week are The Last Rider, a documentary on Greg LeMond, and How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a terrific contemporary thriller about a group of Gen Z-ers attempting to strike back at unaccountable fossil fuel companies. Also $5 is Tuesday's David Lynch Retro Replay, Wild at Heart.
  • Two new films at Apple Fresh Pond from India this weekend: Mark Antony is a Tamil (?) action-comedy about two gangsters who get hold of a time-traveling cell phone, and Buhe Bariyan is a Punjabi-language picture about a group of women, including a young police officer, pushing against the patriarchy. Jawan (also at Boston Common), Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty, and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani all continue.

    Chinese legal drama Heart's Motive opens at Boston Common, maybe, as showtimes are listed but not available for sale. They also have director Wuershan's Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (starring Bo Huang) on Imax Wednesday and for a Thursday matinee. No More Bets also continues.
  • The Somerville Theatre has another team-up with IFFBoston this weekend for "Streaming Soderbergh", with the three films Steven Soderbergh recently made for various streaming services on their big screen: Kimi on Friday, No Sudden Move on Saturday, and Let Them All Talk on Sunday; if that's not enough, the Saturday Midnight Special is a 35mm print of Out of Sight. Tuesday's "Attack of the B Movies" $5 double feature is Quatermass II & Quatermass and the Pit, and Wednesday kicks off a week of some of Harrison Ford's greatest hits with a 35mm print of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has more entries in their quick Shochiku Centennial Collection series, with a new restoration of Demon Pond on Friday plus 35mm prints of The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice and The Sun's Burial on Saturday. Rita Azevedo Gomes has programmed a 35mm print of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir on Sunday afternoon, with Chile Year Zero presentation Latent Image on Sunday evening. Director Jessica Sarah Rinland visits on Monday to present her documentary Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another.
  • Museum of Fine Arts has Loving Vincent, the fully-painted animated film dramatizing the last years of Vincent Van Gogh's life, on Friday evening (that's this week, not last; oops).
  • The Regent Theatre has one last show of documentary Mr. Jimmy on Friday evening.
  • Bright Lights returns the the Bright Screening Room at Emerson's Paramount Theatre on Thursday with How to Blow up a Pipeline, followed by a panel discussion on the future of environmental activism.
  • The Boston Film Festival has its opening night on Thursday with Breakwater star Dermot Mulroney on-hand to receive an award, though I don't know if you get to call yourself a Boston film festival if your most notable presentation is 77 minutes away on the commuter rail in Rockport.
  • The Lexington Venue adds Theater Camp to the mix of Oppenheimer and Barbie, and is open Friday to Sunday.

    The West Newton Cinema opens A Haunting in Venice and keeps My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, Bottoms, Golda, Elemental (Saturday/Sunday matinees), Past Lives, Theater Camp (Saturday/Sunday matinees), Barbie, and Oppenheimer.

    The Luna Theater once again has Talk to Me Friday & Saturday evenings, Sundance Short Films Saturday afternoon, Scream (the original) on Sunday, and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has A Haunting in Venice, Bottoms, The Nun II, and Barbie through Monday. Forbidden Planet plays Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Rocky Horror with Teseracte on Saturday night (Full Body is, as usual, at Boston Common), and Soylent Green on Thursday.

    If you can make it to Danvers, Camp Hideout plays at the Liberty Tree Mall, with a street-smart city kid dodging crooks by ducking into a summer church camp, with Christopher Lloyd as the strict leader.
  • Joe's Free Films shows two outdoor shows Friday: Three Nights a Week on the Tufts Quad (part of a French film series), The Little Mermaid '89 at Boynton Yards.
I caught A Haunting in Venice last night (it's fun, even if I am a mark for both Kenneth Branagh and Agatha Christie) so that I could theoretically fit in the Soderberghs, The Retirement Plan, The Inventor, and Outlaw Johnny Black this weekend - though the times on that last one kind of stink, especially since you're talking about taking the Red Line far south enough that it's tough to plan for these days. The Quatermass double feature is tempting - none of the films in that series are streaming anywhere! - but the last one of those I attended kind of looked awful, so I'm cautious. I may choose Creation of the Gods over Raiders on Wednesday, even though it will probably play regular shows next week