Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Amazing Maurice

What's "doing well" in theaters for a movie like The Amazing Maurice these days? I saw it on its fourth weekend at Fresh Pond, in a 34-person auditorium that was maybe half-full, and I'd be surprised if it was ever in any larger rooms.over that time. It probably hung around a little longer because most schools in Massachusetts were on vacation this past week and an extra kid-friendly title for matinees couldn't hurt. Still, given how crazy the turnover often is at Fresh Pond - it's a 10-screen theater that is only the closest place for a fairly small area - it's impressive staying power. Most films like this will have two shows a day for a week and be gone.

But this stuck around, and I've kind of got no idea why. Does the Boston area have an unusual number of anglophiles who will say "hey, that's a Terry Pratchett adaptation, I'm in!" without ever seeing a trailer - and is the fact that Apple is a local chain going to make them more sensitive to that, even if they weren't already the place where this sort of thing opened? Did the trailer play before enough other things there to get that audience's attention, like the trailer for The Magic Flute that played before this one? Was it advertised in some way that I, having no kids and not seeing a lot of ads for anything these days, just missed? Would it have played other theaters if the wasn't down 30-odd screens compared to before the pandemic?

I honestly don't know. And does pulling $3M in qualify as a big windfall for Viva Pictures, whose stuff generally seems to go straight to video? Especially as this could sort of be a multiplier for that business, because people might vaguely remember it being in theaters and treat it more like a real movie. Does it count as an overperformance and maybe get director Toby Genkel a look from the bigger studios?

Perhaps, perhaps not. There's so much reporting on the juggernauts that this far more modest thing doesn't get a lot of talk, and likewise, it's hard to say what counts as "success", especially in the current environment. I suspect that this will wind up doing pretty okay by the standards of non-studio animation - it got seven-digit box office, it will probably sell a few more discs* than usual because Pratchett has fans, and… well, who knows how things go on streaming, although I've got to figure this gives it a little bump.

But I don't know, certainly not well enough to guess as to whether making decent movies at this scale which get this sort of release is sustainable.

* A stereographer is mentioned in the credits, so, yeah, I'd like a 3D release, although I suspect that might only happen in the UK and/or Germany.

The Amazing Maurice

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2023 in Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond/Cambridge #8 (first-run, DCP)

Bold move, small studio, releasing your animated film with a taking orange cat while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is still in theaters! For all that many may look at this and see an off- brand knockoff, though, it's very much its own thing and does carve out its own space, feeling like it captures just enough of Terry Pratchett's voice to have a distinct appeal. The Amazing Maurice may be a notch below the big boys in some areas, but it's decent all-ages entertainment.

Maurice (voice of Hugh Laurie), as you may have gathered, is a talking cat, which even in the magical realms of Discworld is fairly unusual. He's got a good racket going, showing up in a town along with a rat infestation, drumming up donations for a piper to lead them away. The piper, Keith (voice of Himesh Patel), is in on it, of course, as are the rats, who can also speak. One, Dangerous Beans (voice of David Tenant), tries to convince them to give up swindling, but Maurice prevails, and they're off to a new town. Something is fishy, though - food in the town disappears immediately, as if treats were stealing it, but there are no ordinary, dumb rodents to be found. They, on the other hand, are discovered by the mayor's daughter Malicia (voice of Emilia Clarke), who was already itching to solve the mystery.

Malicia, to this point, had been the film's narrator, the sort that winks hard at the audience because she knows all the tropes, although she's studied harder than the average hero who has learned everything about life from storybooks (she will teach her audience what a "framing device" is and why it's useful). She's rather a lot, to be honest, right on the edge of being the character who ruins the movie both by being the loudest and potentially making it about spoofing other things rather than telling its own story. Fortunately, the filmmakers are mindful of how they mix and match and otherwise divide attention among their ensemble, so that nobody truly takes over or gets crowded out. It also uses its meta winking to drop something kind of important on an audience of unsuspecting kids.

Mainly, it's funny, with a bunch of fun characters from humans to cats to rats that use their broadness to bounce off each other in fun ways, often set up so that one person can be deadpan about how the other is crazy and vice versa without taking sides. It's a smartly twisted take on how talking animal stories would "really" work, what with the non-talking variety tending to eat each other, that nevertheless isn't truly mean, and it's got a good balance of visual and verbal jokes. It's also one of those British cartoons that draws on a ridiculously deep voice cast: Hugh Laurie is smooth but capable of some barbs as Maurice, Emilia Clarke puts enough glee into Malicia's manic know-it-all nature to make her tolerable, David Tenant captures how Beans is a spiritual leader still trying to understand the world, and Gemma Arterton is the good-hearted but no-nonsense Peaches, just to start.

The animation is actually pretty decent cartooning on a budget probably well below what Disney and DreamWorks spend, and smoother than these second-or-third-tier studios often manage (there's a credit or two for stereography, but it didn't play in 3D locally; there's a sequence or two that would probably look good that way but the film doesn't have the too-obvious parallax one often sees when 3D is a high priority). It's got the sort of character design that doesn't exactly feel identifiable as one thing but also isn't quite its own in a lot of places - lots of Disney faces with Aardman noses and spindly Laika legs. The exception is Maurice himself, where the filmmakers have seemingly worked hard to not make him look too much like any other orange cartoon cat from Garfield to Puss in Boots, and seem not to quite know what to do with his toothy mouth before it's time to remember that cats are predators as well as snobs. There are moments when I wonder if it's a bit of a riff on medieval paintings where you wonder if the artist has only heard cats described, which is an interesting idea, but they're fleeting and wouldn't match up with the conventional design elsewhere.

The story is shaggy at times and screenwriter Terry Rossio maybe finds himself a bit tripped up by the end, and maybe not quite sure just how self-referential this should be, but as a whole, it's pretty good all around. The kids in the audience and their Discworld-fan parents both seemed into it, and I must admit, I wouldn't mind seeing this group tackle Pratchett again, maybe poking at something that has been exhausted a little less than fairy tales.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 February 2023 - 2 March 2023

End of the month, already? I mean, yeah, February's short, but 2023 is zipping by.
  • The big opening this week is Cocaine Bear, a horror-comedy about a bear that goes on a rampage after ingesting a whole bunch of coke, directed by Elizabeth Banks, featuring most of the cast of The Americans, and what I believe is Ray Liotta's final role. It's at the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill, and it's a shame it doesn't get the premium screens.

    Also opening is Jesus Revolution, with Kelsey Grammar as an uptight minister in the 1960s who reluctantly welcomes his daughter's hippie friends into his congregation. It plays Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    Oscar-nominated doc Navalny plays Boston Common, with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On playing Saturday morning. The $5 Black History Month shows at Boston Common and South Bay are Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (so kind of Black Alternate History Month). Arsenal Yards has matinees of Minions: The Rise of Gru Friday to Sunday for the end of school vacation week. There are early-access screenings for Creed III at Boston Common (Imax "Live Premiere Event") on Monday, and then Wednesday at Boston Common (Imax/Dolby Cinema), South Bay (Imax/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (Imax/Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (CWX) on Wednesday, ahead of the regular Thursday early shows and Saturday opening.
  • Emily opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Assembly Row. Directed by Frences O'Connor, it stars Emma Mackey as Emily Bronte, depicting what she drew from to create Wuthering Heights.

    The Coolidge adds the Oscar Documentary shorts to their rotation, alongside Animation and Live Action. Also opening for a limited run of late shows (but mostly on the bigger screens) is a restored director's cut of Videodrome, which also gets midnight shows on Friday and Saturday. The "regular" midnights are a 35mm print of Michael Mann's The Keep on Friday (and they're not playing coy about it the way they did last time) and one of Dead Snow on Saturday.

    The other repertory programs at the Coolidge are a "Big Screen Classics" show of The Conformist on Monday, plus "Love on the Run" shows of Wild at Heart on Tuesday and Moonrise Kingdom on Wednesday,
  • The big Bollywood opening this week is Selfiee, with Akshay Kumar as an action star who blows off a fan (Emraan Hashmi) asking for a picture only to discover that he's the one who must sign off on his driver's license before shooting an automotive-stunt-heavy movie, a feud which gets completely out of control. It's at Fresh Pond and Boston Common.

    Apple Fresh Pond also opens Malayalam comedy Enkilum Chandrike on Friday, with Bangledeshi drama Made in Chittagong playing Sunday. Sir (the Tamil version of Vaathi continues at Fresh Pond, while Shehzada and Pathaan are held over at Fresh Pond and Boston Common.

    Cheng Er's WWII thriller Hidden Blade gets a more standard slate of showtimes at Boston Common (you can actually see it at 7pm!), with The Wandering Earth II also hanging around there.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a second Bugs Bunny Film Festival program running through Sunday, featuring different shorts than the ones that played for the past week.

    The bulk of the week is given over to "Greenaway x4", including a new restoration of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (Friday to Sunday), plus A Zed & Two Noughts (Sunday/Monday), The Belly of an Architect (Tuesday), and Drowning By Numbers (Wednesday).

    There's also a free Elements of Cinema screening of Stormy Weather on Monday, free at 6pm, with Emerson College's Professor Shaun Clarke introducing and leading a post-film discussion.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square finishes their month of Billy Wilder throwbacks with Double Indemnity on Tuesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre adds animated and documentary Oscar Shorts programs on top of Cocaine Bear; they also seem to be back up to a full-ish schedule, with 5pm/7pm/9pm shows (roughly) even on weekdays.

    Their sister cinema in Arlington, the Capitol, brings back All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • The Harvard Film Archive wraps their "Kinuyo Tanaka: Actress, Director, Pioneer", program with 35mm prints of Mother and Where Chimneys Are Seen on both Friday and Sunday. Another two-month program, "Remapping Latin American Cinema: Chilean Film/Video 1963-2013", begins on Saturday with The Chilean Charles Bronson and a 35mm print of Tony Manero. On Monday, they welcome actress Seret Scott for two Black History Month presentations; one in the afternoon focusing on the broad scope of her career and an evening screening of Losing Ground on 35mm film.
  • The Regent Theatre shows the "Willow" program from Banff Mountain Film Festival on Friday, with Concert for George screening on Saturday night to celebrate what would have been George Harrison's 80th birthday.
  • The ICA has the Oscar short documentaries on Sunday; the various programs also playing at the Coolidge, the Somerville, the Kendall, the Lexington Venue, West Newton, and Luna Lowell.
  • Bright Lights shows My Name Is Andrea, which mixes archival footage of feminist Andrea Dworkin with dramatic re-enactments. It's free and open to the public at the Paramount's Bright Screening Room on Thursday night, including a Q&A with director Pratibha Parmar and producer Shaheen Haq afterward.
  • In addition to the Friday/Saturday Omni shows of Ant-Man, The Museum of Science also uses the giant screen for a free screening of At Your Cervix, a documentary on how medical professional often learn how to conduct pelvic exams by examining sedated women without their consent. That's on Wednesday (pre-registration required), and features a post-film discussion with the director and various doctors and nurses.
  • The Lexington Venue is open through Sunday with the three Oscar shorts packages, Living, and 80 for Brady.

    The West Newton Cinema opens documentary Four Winters, which features interviews from some of the few remaining Jewish partisans who resisted the Nazis during World War II. They also play Ant-Man, Of an Age (through Sunday), the three Oscar short packages, Women Talking, A Man Called Otto, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Aftersun (through Sunday), The Banshees of Inisherin (through Sunday), Puss in Boots (through Sunday), and Tár. No shows Monday.

    The Luna Theater has all three Oscar shorts programs, with Documentary Friday & Saturday, plus Animation and Live Action on Saturday. The Whale plays Saturday, and Dirty Dancing all day Sunday. No Weirdo Wednesday shows on the site right now, but there's a free UMas Lowell Philosophy & Film show of Clueless on Thursday.

    Cinema Salem is open through Monday with Cocaine Bear, Ukrainian film The Guide, Ant-Man 3, James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul - Paris - London, and The Fabelmans. There's a Miz Diamond Wigfall presentation of The Shining on Friday and regular screenings on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

    If you can make it out to the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, they have My Happy Ending with Andie MacDowell as a star who winds up sharing a hospital room with three regular women.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, CinemaSalem, and many of the multiplexes.
Down for Cocaine Bear, some Greenaway, some Oscar shorts, and maybe trying to stay up through The Keep this time around.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

This Week in Tickets: 13 February 2023 - 19 February 2023 (A Couple of Classics)

It was a pretty good week for seeing movies on the big screen, new and old.
This Week in Tickets
I started off with the first of a couple Film Rolls things from South Korea - EXIT on Monday night and lucky Chan-Sil on Thursday, which are both relatively recent and at completely opposite ends of that country's film industry.

On Tuesday, I hit the night-before showing for Marlowe, which has a darn good pedigree - Sam Neill playing literature's second-greatest detective with Neil Jordan directing a script by William Monahan and a cast that includes Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, and Colm Meaney - but which is missing one important name in Raymond Chandler, alas.

It was back to the Common the next day for the new 3D rerelease of Titanic - I made a point to skip the Valentine's Day crowd for that one - and it's kind of mind-boggling that Cameron has only made a couple features (plus some documentary work) in a quarter-century since then, although all those movies are the sort of grand epic that few other people seem to have the ability to do.

Come the weekend, it was a couple days of noting how multiplexes seem to have grown even more hostile to folks catching two, especially if you're cutting across town. I happily caught Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the big screen at the Coolidge - the schedule out from said "screening on digital and 35mm", although I didn't see where the 35mm times were, took the 66 back to Harvard Square to pick up the week's comics, and then wound up hanging around and grabbing a bite to eat at the Smoke Shop in Kendall Square so that I could make it to the 9:15pm show of Living, which was the most convenient time, since I'd dilly-dallied in seeing it.

And I don't just mean I'd waited until it was almost gone from local screens - I could have seen it in Dublin back in November, as that's when it was released there and in the UK, but apparently I had better things to do some evenings, though I can't imagine what.

Then, on Sunday, I'd kind of hoped to pair something else with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but the 4pm showtimes for the Imax 3D presentations really don't lend to that. But that's okay; Sunday is crossword & grocery shopping day, after all.

The ticket kiosk ate my ticket, by the way, which is why all that stuff is written in on the page. Not as bad as Assembly Row just not having them, but, c'mon, your loyalty program's name is Stubs, and I need my stubs!

One disappointment aside, a fun week! This coming one looks interesting as well, so catch the first draft of this blog on my Letterboxd or wait around for me to consider things a bit.

Eksiteu (Exit)

Seen 13 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I will, of course, go longer on this one when I reach it in the Film Rolls queue, but it's a thoroughly fun action/adventure that I could probably recommend to the family members with kids even if it's not specifically made for them. Fun, friendly, always moving forward and fairly non-violent once the inciting incident is over; I think I really would have enjoyed seeing it on the big screen, but it had it's miniature North American release right at the end of Fantasia and skipped Boston anyway. I'd feel kind of dumb if I could have seen it in Montreal, so I won't be looking that up.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #14 (25th anniversary, 3D Dolby Cinema DCP)

I'm not sure I've seen this since the original release, and might not have gone to an anniversary re-release without the 3D conversion because, like with Avatar, it is very easy to forget how effective James Cameron's movies are in the moment one you've got a little distance, seen them shrunk to the size of a television, and started to break them down into pieces. The man is a precision crafter of motion pictures, though, and knows how to make a classic story work for a broad audience as well as anybody.

Which is kind of funny - the spectacle has been the hook for Cameron since The Abyss in 1989, with story often considered secondary because he doesn't necessarily surprise or break new ground. And yet, for as much as the grandeur and obsessive detail of this movie's production design isn't nearly so overwhelming as it was 25 years ago, it never feels like it's been passed by. There's a command of the form and knowledge of what rings true here, taking a simple enough story that almost anyone can relate and finding the little details that make it feel alive. One never feels like he's switched over to "blockbuster mode" when the catastrophe and visual effects begin to take center stage, and he uses great action work and some horrific imagery to communicate the scale without changing the type of movie.

And, boy, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are great here, both at a spot to make a big leap after a few impressive parts and both exactly what the film needs, full of youthful energy, their characters more polished and rough around the edges than one might expect, and almost effortlessly in love. Cameron's going for simplicity here means they can't really work at explaining or justifying that - the audience just has to believe it - and they hit that mark. That they'd go on to excel in more cynical material enhances how perfect they were at this time, in a way; you can see them as newcomers who still have some illusions here. A special supporting cast shout out to Victor Garber, whose modest engineer is achingly tragic.

The conversion to 3D is nice, if mostly understated; I'm not sure if they did it anew with the upscale or if it's the one from the last re-release a decade ago. It shines a bit of a light on the rare digital effects that haven't aged as well as the rest throughout the film but impresses in the last act - the extra depth and mechanical structure is nice throughout, but when the stem is vertical and the camera looks down, one sees why they'd do this. The 4K upgrade is mostly impressive a swell, aside from a couple shots where it doesn't quite take; Paramount is going to sell some good looking discs later this year.

As they should. It's easy to forget just how great this is, because it hasn't really been imitated enough to be better than its imitators and romance as a genre doesn't get much respect. But it works like crazy, even when that's harder than it looks.

Chansilineun bokdo manhji (Lucky Chan-sil)

Seen 16 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)

The idea of this movie that I had in my head - director Kim Cho-hee, who had spent much of her career as producer for Hong Sang-soo, making a feature about a producer who suddenly has the art-house figure she'd been working with drop dead - had more potential to be a satire that bites the hand that feeds it than Kim goes for. I'm not disappointed that she went the way she did, but no matter how warm and charming this film is, I kind of still want that other one.

As an aside, the Blu-ray edition is gorgeous from packaging to video, and the simple song over the end credits is weirdly catchy. I really wish there were more English-friendly releases like it.

Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2023 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (special engagement, DCP)

I just saw this a few years back (have we really been doing pandemic stuff for three years?), and I once again wonder if Ang Lee would have used flashbacks if the de-aging tech had been available when this came out, and what that would have been like. I think he can be trusted with it as much as anyone, but it's tough to imagine the movie being any better.

Indeed, this film is close enough to perfect that I really don't have that much to say about it: It's some of Michelle Yeoh's and Chow Yun-fat's best work, and what's kind of amazing about that is just how reserved the pair are and how much time they spend basically as sleuths working a case as opposed to would-be lovers totally focused on one another, just really beautiful jobs of revealing who they are through what they do.

And that's considering that what they do is often revealed through impossible action, with Lee and Yuen Woo-ping just making the fact that this group can run up walls and fly feel perfectly natural even though the way they stage it is telling: Chow's Li Mu Bai is a master, defying gravity casually; Zhang Ziyi's Jen is the prodigy, so even if it comes easy to her, she clearly likes to show off; Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien is not quite in the same refined air as Li, so you see her working at it, but always get the feeling that, among normal people, she's one of the best, and never actually looks bad next to the preternaturally gifted folks she meets.

Anyway, I love this movie, and am reminded why every time I see it. I don't know that the new restoration being touted is actually newer than the 4K disc I watched last time, but I have no problem with Sony coming up with a thin veneer of "look, we're going to cash in on Michelle's Oscar buzz". Hopefully they'll have a chance to do so with Chow and Zhang in the next few years.

What I wrote in April '20


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2023 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Living is just an exquisitely constructed and photographed film from start to finish. The opening made me wonder why we don't present the main credits like that any more, and I want to know how they managed the trick where it looked like the photograph at the funeral was about to come to life, as if imbued with its subject's new found vitality. At the start, there is also a seamless transition from nostalgic grain to painfully sharp digital capture with rich dark shades, and a formal rigidity to the shots throughout that threatens to crush the viewer but only if they allow it.

There are folks who don't necessarily like to see the filmmaker's hand so clearly, but in some ways, that seems the whole point of the film - the characters need to see the forces that are pushing them into unfulfilling situations, not necessarily out of malice, but inertia, propriety, and fear of blame if something goes wrong. Director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro often seem to be tipping their hand so that the audience can recognize it applying to them as well. There are metaphors for this sort of control throughout; note, for instance, how Mr. Williams doesn't quite get the knack of the claw game, while the less set-in-her-ways Miss Harris is able to pull her rabbit out.

In the middle of all that, is Bill Nighy, his wiry figure and precise diction the perfect representation of a man who simply doesn't register, but it doesn't take much for him to become a version with a little joie de vivre, even if the flip side is palpable sorrow despite practicality about how much good it does. He's a perfect fit for the role, especially when he is seen as a template for almost every other male character in the movie, from Alex Sharp's newcomer who could choose not to go down the same road, to how the burlier figure and loud clothing Jamie Wilkes sports as Talbot marks him as Williams's opposite.

For a moment, it seems to go on a bit too long, but there's a certain self-awareness in that, as those left behind have to face how their memorable gesture may not last, and one must find new ways to keep oneself on a good path when the system is built to move one away from the daring. Yes, you may feel like it's time to coast out, but you don't really have that option.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon 3D)

People often fairly complain about how fake and weightless some of these movies are, but consider this: Maybe it's just because he's a good actor, but Michael Douglas looks like he's having the time of his life imagining what weird creatures will be digitally composited into his scenes and being a giant nerd about ants in this movie. Other guys with his resume would obviously be wondering how it came to this, but I'm not sure anybody is having quite as much fun as him, although Michelle Pfeiffer sure looks like she's going to enjoy getting to be a sci-fi badass as long as she can.

That aside, Quantumania is a pretty good Marvel movie, not breaking new ground but delivering the goods folks have ordered. By now, you've kind of got to meet these things where they are - yes, this will sacrifice some things that would make it a better individual film for the epic material; there's going to be a sky full of visual effects in the climax even if it maybe would have worked better with a tighter focus. But, the folks making it also know how to make a solid, entertaining adventure with enough danger to make you consider whether Paul Rudd is signed for more movies and enough wisecracking to grease the wheels without it quite becoming cringe material. It hits its marks and the guys doing creature work are clearly having as much of a blast as the folks at the top of this three-generation adventure.

Is it mostly solid, competent work built to look good on an Imax 3D screen? Yeah, and it probably only really transcends that when Jonathan Majors is putting in the work to establish Kang the Conqueror as a worthy foil for the next few years of Marvel material, tweaking what we've already seen on Loki for something more overtly villainous but the sort of confidence that feels human as well as formidable. I'm eager to see where he pops up next in these movies.

At a certain point, I imagine most folks get in a rut writing about Marvel movies, because they are unusually consistent and unambiguously commercial in their storytelling. I probably gave this an extra quarter-star because I like 3D goofiness, the way this particular Marvel crew seems to value kid-friendliness a bit more than the rest (really, this is probably a couple easily-replaced cusswords from being a straight PG), and, heck, I even still kind of like Bill Murray showing up and doing Bill Murray. These guys know what they're doing and don't screw it up. Exit Marlowe Titanic Lucky Chan-sil Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Living Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Monday, February 20, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 14: You Shoot, I Shoot and The Shock Labyrinth

Hey, here's a fun spot to land, even if I had some reasons for reservations.given the specific movies. There was a big delay between the stuff in Round 13 and this as the IFFBoston Fall Focus and a vacation had me not messing with the shelf much, but I tried to pick up some speed after that what with orders coming in.
Mookie's 14 gets him to the end of the Pang Ho-Cheung section, which for some reason is his first movie as director, despite me having put most sections in chronological order. I've got a Pang Ho-Cheung because I've liked his stuff at festivals, and figured the ones I've missed would get reissues and the like from Hong Kong, along with the new releases, because he was on the rise and made movies that those in the know say really captures the place. But then there was an exceptionally stupid kerfuffle in Hong Kong about a Chinese flag being vandalized, he voiced support for China, and then his former collaborators turned on him, as did the public, and he retreated to Western Canada, where he was reportedly doing NFT stuff. His production company was behind a poorly-reviewed English-language horror movie in 2020, but nothing since. I do hope he's able to either mend some fences back in HK or find some work in North America.
A couple days later, Bruce rolls a 13 to get to Shock Labyrinth from Takashi Shimizu, and it's another "hey, why isn't there more?" on two fronts. First, Shimizu himself was notable figure when Ju-on: The Grudge was an international hit, and he's kept working ever since, but while the Ju-on reboots tend to show up at the genre festivals, Shimizu's stuff doesn't, and, honest, I don't know if it can be that much worse than what they've done with his best-known creation. There's also not much at all from Japan on the shelf; I've grumbled often about how relatively little makes its way to disc or even theaters aside from anime, but what can you do?

So how's that go for them?

Maai hung paak yan (You Shoot, I Shoot)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

This is the sort of movie where it feels very clear in retrospect that a new filmmaker is going to turn out to be a big deal. The world was swimming in movies like this at the time - indeed, has the self-aware hitman story ever really gone into a lull over the past 30 years - and it's not so much that Pang Ho-Cheung had a terribly unique idea, but that he executes his gags exceptionally well. It may occasionally be rough, but this is exactly the sort of first feature that inspires a producer to give a filmmaker a bigger platform.

It introduces Bart (Eric Kot Man-Fai), a gun for hire who is seeing a downturn in business because things are rough all over in post-handover Hong Kong. He has found a potential new employer in Mrs. Ma (Miu Fei-Lam), a wealthy woman with a lot of petty grudges, but she demands video evidence of the kill, and since it is very hard to hold a gun and camera at the same time, Bart hires a camera operator, Li Tung Chuen (Cheung Tat-Ming). Li is hardly enthusiastic at first, but for all that the murder-for-hire business is a mess, the movie industry is worse, and Bart's a better boss than the folks making adult movies with his crush Michiko (Asuka Higuchi). Business booms, but their newfound success attracts the wrong sort of attention.

Although, really, is there a right sort of attention in either business? Not that Pang really has a lesson to teach here beyond how neither filmmaking nor crime is glamorous, or even as dramatically tragic as both would have you believe; it's all muck and very little glory. As is Pang's wont when doing comedies, he jumps quickly from joke to joke, often able to make one scene turn into something else seemingly on the fly, and gets the whole thing done in just about 90 minutes, because that's about how long it takes before this sort of premise starts to collapse under its own weight. Indeed, the movie gets pretty close to that point at the end, because the climactic gag is more elaborate than the loose construction of the film to that point can really bear.

It's like that all around - Pang's got good jokes, but he's still pretty raw, the young filmmaker eager to declare his fandom and influences, good instincts for when things are about to get out of hand but not practice in cutting them just right. He works with actors fairly well but doesn't quite give them the material to make their characters more than their type very often, so that the jokes spring from who they are rather than the situation. The budget seems tight and the timeframe limited, and he's not quite able to squeeze all he can out of it.

As a first film, it shows enough sparks that you can see folks involved might be going somewhere, even if they aren't quite there yet. It's still got enough jokes to be a good comedy, at least.

Senritsu meikyû 3D (The Shock Labyrinth)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

Takashi Shimizu is, perhaps, a little too professional at times, spending a large chunk of his early career on various versions of Ju-on/The Grudge, and then soon enough doing this little movie which is apparently a rather obvious tie-in to a famous amusement park and which would get re-purposed itself for Shimizu's Rabbit Horror 3D a couple years later (it says "Tormented" on the box, but, c'mon, it's "Rabbit Horror"). Aside from a few short films as part of anthology projects, his only real foray outside horror was a live-action Kiki's Delivery Service soon after those. He dutifully put himself in work-for-hire boxes, and eventually became out of sight, out of mind to the folks who had gotten into Japanese horror because of his movies.

Shock Labyrinth doesn't do anything to bust him out of those boxes, really. It's a familiar as heck story, with Ken (Yuya Yagira) returning to a place he lived as a kid to reunite with friends Motoko (Ryo Katsuji) and Rin (Ai Maeda), only to have someone crash the party - Yuki (Misako Renbutsu), who vanished ten years ago and gives the impression of having been institutionalized since. They try to contact Yuki's parents, but only find her little sister Miyu (Erina Mizuno), who was with them the day Yuki vanished ten years ago, when they tried to explore the shuttered mental institution next to a popular theme park. When Yuki collapses, the directions to the nearest hospital bring them back full-circle.

It's a J-horror first act that feels kind of rushed and sloppy, doing the bare minimum before putting its young group in a position where they can make even worse decisions, with things feeling rather threadbare, like the shooting schedule for this material is short so there's not a lot of time to refine performances and character, while the crew is looking for easy set-ups to knock things out fast on the way to the trickier material. It's capable enough - much of the cast had the talent to go on to have fairly successful careers, and Shimizu has always been good about wringing as much as he could out of fairly little.

And when he gets to the hospital/park? Shminizu knows what he's doing there, milking both dark passages and garish feel like there's something lurking around the corner. Shimizu and cinematographer Tsukasa Tanabe seem to be having fun with the 3D camera rigs, finding clever angles and uses for the depth along with the sheer fun of dropping down the center of a spiral staircase, having something jump out at the audience, or float uncannily in the middle distance. Writer Diasuke Hosaka gives Shimizu the sort of ouroboros of a screenplay that he had done well in Ju-on: The Grudge 2, and it holds together pretty well.

Like a lot of one-hit wonders, Shimizu was maybe never quite so great again as they were that one time, but he was still the guy who could make Ju-on and has occasionally made a fair movie since.

So, nice to fill in some gaps from filmmakers I've generally liked, and it tightens things up a bit:

Mookie: 46 ¼ stars
Bruce: 54 ¼ stars

Next up: If you're reading to see who wins, not gonna lie, round 15 is huge.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 February 2023 - 23 February 2023

Not necessarily fewer options for what to see this weekend, but fewer places to see them, as Regal's Fenway location had its last day on Sunday, one of a few places where their landlords wouldn't back down enough on rent to keep it open. I suspect that someone else will eventually move in, but it might take a while, considering that Alamo and AMC announced they were taking over the Seaport and Causeway Street cinemas weeks/months ago and they're not open yet.

Ah, well. At least there's a lot of other places still open, and Fenway only occasionally had something not showing anywhere else.
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp is the latest Marvel entry, kicking off "Phase 5" by formally introducing alpha villain Kang The Conqueror and the third generation of shrinking heroes, with director Peyton Reed and cast members Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, and Michelle Pfeiffer returning (not seeing Michael Pena listed, though). It gets a bunch of screens, including most of the big ones, at the Capitol (including RealD 3D), Fresh Pond (including 3D), The Museum of Science (Omnimax, Friday/Saturdays), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), West Newton, CinemaSalem, Boston Common (including Imax 2D/3D, Dolby Cinema, and RealD 3D), Kendall Square (including RealD 3D), South Bay (including Imax 2D/3D, Dolby Cinema, and RealD 3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D, Dolby Cinema, and RealD 3D), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    The new take on Marlowe opened Wednesday and continues at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row.

    The Woman King is this week's Black History Month presentation at Boston Common and South Bay (Till also has showtimes Saturday morning at Boston Common while Devotion plays Sunday afternoon at South Bay). Arsenal Yards has vacation matinees of Minions: The Rise of Gru.

    Winnie the Pooh Blood and Honey encores at Arsenal Yards on Sunday. There's an early screening of Jesus Revolution, the incessantly-trailered picture with Kelsey Grammar as a preacher who makes nice with the hippies in the 1960s, as an early show on Wednesday at Boston Common and Assembly Row before its regular early shows the next night.
  • It's Oscar Shorts time! As usual, there are three packages, with Animation running a bit more than an hour and a half and playing the Coolidge, the Capitol, the Kendall,The ICA (Friday-Sunday), the Lexington Venue, West Newton, Luna Lowell; Live Action running roughly two hours and playing at the Coolidge, the Capitol, the Kendall, the ICA (Saturday/Sunday), the Lexington Venue, West Newton, Luna Lowell; Documentaries run 2:45 and are at the Capitol and the Lexington Venue, Luna Lowell.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is apparently the biggest box office that The Coolidge Corner Theatre ever had, so they're putting the 4K restoration being released this week on their biggest screens, and, yeah, it's as good as you remember it, maybe better, and if the restoration looks better than the existing 4K disc, it'll be something on the big screen. It also plays shorter schedules at the Kendall, CinemaSalem, and Boston Common.

    Opening in much more limited times on smaller screens is Full Time, which features Laure Calamy as a single mother trying to get to her job (and interviews for a new one) in the middle of a transit strike, which is like the Parisian equivalent of those Hong Kong thrillers that hinge on real-estate costs.

    MIdnights at the Coolidge offer comic-book movie alternatives The Rocketeer on Friday and a 35mm print of the del Toro Hellboy (that is, the good one) on Saturday. At the other end of the day, Mary Poppins plays Saturday and Sunday morning, and there are also special "sing along" kids' shows in the afternoon for school vacation week with Frozen on Monday, Moana on Tuesday, Encanto on Wednesday, Beauty and the Beast on Thursday. Monday night, the big screen classic is a 35mm print of Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break. Love on the Run shows this week are Queen & Slim on Tuesday and a 35mm print of It Happened One Night (including Jake Mulligan seminar pre-show). There's also a special 35mm screening of The Hollywood Shuffle co-presented by NAACBoston on Thursday.
  • Australian romance Of an Age opens at Landmark Theatres Kendall Square, the Capitol, West Newton, and Boston Common, chronicling a whirlwind romance between a Serbian immigrant who hopes to become a dancer and his friend's older brother at the end of the Twentieth Century.

    The Kendall also plays Some Like It Hot on Tuesday for their weekly throwback. Also, while Living does not play Friday through Monday to make more room for Ant-Man, it returns from Tuesday to Thursday
  • Apple Fresh Pond has four new Indian films this week: Shehzada (also at Boston Common) is a Hindi-language action-comedy with Kartik Aaryan as a man who has a great relationship with his sexy boss (Kriti Sanon) until she finds out who his estranged father is. Bakasuran is a Tamil-language drama about online harassment Vinaro Bhagyamu Vishnu Katha is a Telugu comedy about two people coming together (and, from one of the posters, possibly a robot). A film about a student struggling with privatized education is the subject of a film playing as both Vaathi and "Sir"; I think the first is Telugu-language and the second Tamil, but folks who know the languages can say better than me. Pathaan sticks around Fresh Pond and Boston Common.

    Though two big CCP-flattering pictures from China are making its way to American shores this weekend, Boston only gets limited screenings of Hidden Blade, a World War II thriller starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and directed by Cheng Er, who made the at-least-interesting The Wasted Times. It's fellow Lunar New Year release, The Wandering Earth II continues at Boston Common.
  • The Brattle Theatre celebrates school vacation week with the Bugs Bunny Film Festival, an 80-minute program of classic Looney Tunes presented on 35mm film. The exception is Thursday night, when they present a decidedly different collection of short films from Sabine Gruffat & Bill Brown in collaboration with RPM Fest, with Guffat & Brown on-hand for a Q&A afterward.
  • The Somerville Theatre picks up Oscar nominee Close this week, although it will be displaced from the main screen on Sunday.

    That's because of the The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival proper, which has programs of shorts, features, and related documentaries on Friday and Saturday (plus a shorts encore on Sunday), with the main event, a 24-hour marathon including Back to the Future II on 70mm film and many others on 35mm, kicking off at noon. They also have streaming programs from Friday to Sunday.

    Their friends at the Capitol are mostly showing the blockbusters, but they're also the only place with the documentary shorts all week.
  • The New England Aquarium adds "Secrets of the Sea" to its rotation of Imax 3D films, displacing "Wings over Water".
  • The Harvard Film Archive has their first Black History Month program of 2023 on Saturday with Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a documentary by Nancy D. Kates about one of the civil rights leaders of the 1940s who was, on top of being Black, openly gay in a time when that was rare. No screenings Saturday, but two directed by Kinuyo Tanaka, with Girls of the Night Sunday afternoon while Love Under the Crucifix plays Monday evening. Alain Guiraudie's Nobody's Hero has its final show Sunday night.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts wraps their series of some of the Best International Films of 2022 with the excellent Decision to Leave on Friday evening, Corsage Saturday afternoon, and Saint Omer Sunday afternoon. All three were expected to vie for Oscar, but it was a strong field, which doesn't make them any less worth catching.
  • The Regent Theatre has Armenian drama Zulali on Sunday afternoon, a co-presentation with Amaras Arts Alliance, with this year's edition of Banff Mountain Film Festival running from Monday to Friday
  • Bright Lights has You Resemble Me, a documentary about Hasna Alt Boulahcen, accused of being Europe's first suicide bomber. It's free and open to the public on Thursday night, with director Dina Amer on hand for a Q&A afterward.
  • The Lexington Venue is open through Sunday with the three Oscar shorts packages and 80 for Brady.

    The West Newton Cinema gets Ant-Man, Of an Age, and all three Oscar short packages, plus Women Talking, A Man Called Otto, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Aftersun (no show Friday), The Banshees of Inisherin, Puss in Boots, and Tár. So far, only showtimes through Sunday have been put up.

    The Luna Theater has all three Oscar shorts programs, with Animation Friday & Saturday, plus Documentary and Live Action on Saturday. The Whale plays Saturday, and Breakfast at Tiffany's plays three times Sunday. And, of course, Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem is open until Tuesday and has a full slate, with Ant-Man 3, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, All Quiet on the Western Front, James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul - Paris - London, Knock at the Cabin, 80 For Brady, EO (no show Saturday), and Fire of Love (no show Friday).
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, CinemaSalem, and many of the multiplexes.
Already got tickets for Ant-Man, and I'll try and fit in Crouching Tiger, Full Time, and some Oscar docs. I should also check out some of the previews for the sci-fi fest films, although, I dunno, it seems like even more of an afterthought than usual compared to this year.

Thursday, February 16, 2023


I'd be genuinely interested to hear what someone who doesn't have any particular prior attachment to Philip Marlowe thinks of this new film, based not on the original Raymond Chandler stories but one of the works by other writers that his estate licenses every few years, because this just felt off in so many ways to me but may, I suppose, play fairly well for the folks who are seeing it primarily as a Liam Neeson action/crime flick, or are far bigger Neil Jordan fans than I am. They are probably a bigger audience than Chandler fans, after all, and I gather this might not be a bad adaptation of a John Banville story, so it could just be Not For Me despite looking a lot like Just For Me.

Still, it kind of rubs me the wrong way. The ratio of "Marlowe punches someone out" to "Marlowe gets knocked unconscious" is way off. And I'm not usually one to complain about coarse language, but it comes off as pretty dull here when you know how Marlowe speaks when Chandler writes him.

Ah, well. I've got at least two good Marlowe movies on one set of shelves and all the books, and it's not like the Jason O'Mara TV series or Clive Owen movies are ever going to happen, so this is pretty harmless.

Marlowe '23

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Marlowe isn't based on a Raymond Chandler novel, but rather a licensed work by John Banville (writing under a pseudonym), and there are times when Chandler doesn't even feel like a primary influence to this film. Neil Jordan and company know the basics, and certainly know the trappings of the genre well enough to deliver something serviceable, but either don't get the vibe of the character enough to capture him or are trying to subvert expectations without ever really seeing them up to knock down.

It opens, as these things do, with a beautiful woman looking to hire Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson), a Los Angeles private eye but not telling him everything at first. Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) wants him to find her lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud), but doesn't tell him that (a) Nico was found dead when a car ran over him a couple weeks before and (b) she claims to have seen him afterward. Annoyed but undeterred, Marlowe keeps on it, knowing he must be onto something when numerous people - Clare's mother Dorothy (Jessica Lange) and gangster Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming) among them - alternately try to bump him off or hire him away from Clare, so that they'll have first crack at Nico.

It's got the shape of a classic detective story, with a crooked path for Marlowe to follow, clues that dead end in what is often quite literal fashion, and some seaminess lurking just in the shadows. It's populated with stock characters, some more entertaining than others; Alan Cumming, for instance, couldn't be boring if that was the job. Neil Jordan and co-writer William Monahan tend to emphasize the wrong details, mechanism over personality. It's telling, I think, that where Chandler's books and the movies most directly adapted from them are full of clever turns of phrase that reveal Marlowe as having a sharp, self-deprecating wit, this film more often has him and those he'd verbally spar with quoting other people, expecting points for recognition but not creation.

It's also generally bland in other ways - for a movie that winds up centered on an illicit brothel and has characters described as being seductive, the film is so unsexy that it's hard to believe this is the same character Bogart played in The Big Sleep. It's got tons of Art Deco design but no shadows in which to hide things, and Jordan seldom gives the moments when things escalate from quiet to violent a moment to let the audience feel some shock. Everyone has nice period costumes and Spain stands in for sunny California well enough, although it all looks a bit too brand-new considering Marlowe is supposed to be a bit low-rent. There are moments when the Irish-ness of the film shines through to the point where one wonders if Marlowe's "bad war" was not World War I but the Irish War of Independence, but not so much that the Irish influence on this part of America at this point in time serves as a hook

Liam Neeson could have been a fine Marlowe, but he never gives any indication of why Marlowe tends to get drawn into foolish quests here, more cynical than world-weary on top of barely getting any chewy Chandler-style dialogue or narration to work with. Everybody seems too aware that the actor is too old to pair with Diane Kruger, heading that off immediately with acknowledgment of the age gap but never giving either of them something else to work with (as with the Irish-ness, there's an interesting idea to having an aging Marlowe drawn more to Jessica Lange's domineering mother than the daughter, but the filmmakers don't quite go for it). Marlowe disappears inside Neeson, rather than vice versa.

Darn shame. This has the talent involved to sit alongside the two or three great Marlowe movies, but plays like just another Open Road Neeson entry rather than an interesting take on one of the detective story's best characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

This Week in Tickets: 6 February 2023 - 12 February 2023 (Staying In Edition)

Very short week for, uh, reasons.
This Week in Tickets
So, remember last week, when pipes in my walls burst? Well, my landlord wasn't able to get my shower put together until Tuesday, so I kind of stayed away from theaters early in the week out of deference to folks who might have sat next to me. Not recommended.

Wednesday, I at least was able to do a Film Rolls viewing of Bullet in the Head, which is going to be getting a second view when writing time comes. Started way too late, but it's some classic John Woo material.

Between longer run-times, twenty minutes of trailers, wanting to close up early and maybe not having as many people coming into the city to watch a movie or making an evening of it as before, it seems they're starting earlier and I'm having a little trouble trusting the T to get me to them, which was why that late-ish start for Infinity Pool was so appealing on Friday. I may have made myself dinner before heading to the theater to have Cronenberg fils try and gross me out!

Saturday would be a long one - I spent the morning re-watching Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain before writing up the Film Rolls entry, finding it awfully darn entertaining. After that, I headed in to Harvard Square to buy some comics and check out the Brattle's new surround sound system with House of Flying Daggers, then back home to do more Film Rolls with The Foul King. Glad it landed there, because that's a Kim Jee-woon movie starring Song Kang-Ho, kind of a big deal, and would have just sat on my shelf for some time.

I was kind of amused that, while seated in the Brattle further back than usual because I arrived only 10 minutes or so before showtime, I wound up behind someone who was wearing a knit hat and kept it on throughout the movie, which meant I was leaning in to see between her and her date for much of the film. No pom-pom on top, but, man, who knew that wanting to ask ladies to take their hats of in the theater would still be a thing in 2023?

As for Sunday, I had an ambitious day planned, but wound up catching up on crosswords. I'm sure this is somewhat disappointing to those who come to this blog looking for someone talking about movies, but, you know, sometimes you've got to switch it up.

So that's a quiet week. Maybe this week will be less so; check out first drafts of my movie thoughts on Letterboxd if you just can't bear to wait.

Dip huet gai tau (Bullet in the Head)

Seen 8 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Interesting sort of overlap between John Woo's war films like Heroes Shed No Tears and his Hong Kong crime pictures, sending its gangsters to Vietnam during the war as a place to really have their brotherhood tested. Nifty cast including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jacky Cheung, and Simon Yam, trademark John Woo operatic violence, and the initial odd disconnect that comes from the tune of the Monkee's "I'm a Believer" being a big part of Sherman Chow's score, despite one's brain saying it really can't be that, right?

Infinity Pool

* * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2023 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

Infinity Pool doesn't exactly prove something that's been kicking around in my head since David Cronenberg returned to doing weird bio-horror stuff with Crimes of the Future (which also plays as an interrogation of his legacy of doing so), but I still can't shake the feeling that where the father used grotesquerie to express his thoughts in vivid fashion, the grotesquerie is where son David starts, backfilling some idea to make it feel like more afterward. That isn't necessarily a bad thing - if you've got weird images in your head, it makes sense to try and figure out their meaning and do something with them - but one gets the feeling that there's nothing there when he doesn't find the images' inspiration. I didn't particularly love Riley Stearns's Dual, which plays with the same plot devices, but Stearns is at least saying something there.

Not that there's nothing to this movie, but I kind of feel like what is there is not all that clever: Rich folks get a thrill out of harming poor folks and buying their way out in grotesque fashion - sure, it's evergreen, but Cronenberg can't quite find the point where the exaggeration melds with the familiar and the fact that this is only a couple steps beyond present-day life makes the whole thing even more horrific. An artist feeling he's a fraud and spiraling into self destruction, spawning doubles that he causes to be murdered - could be something there, but a sequence of Alexander Skarsgård's protagonist, a novelist, having a review that highlights self-indulgence read at him just feels like self-justification on Cronenberg's part, like he's not getting into James Foster's head but anticipating similar accusations being hurled at him. Nothing breaks through the weirdness to grab at something in the viewer, and the transgression itself isn't particularly compelling, nor is the world-building. One can let the latter slide if the rest hits emotionally, but this often feels like making up someone to be mad at.

Cronenberg knows what he's doing on a set, though, and being this sort of weird does work a lot better when you've got some folks who are all-in. Here, that's mostly Mia Goth, who dives into her monster and goes from giving 110% as an uncomfortably devoted fan to something like 130% when all the masks come down, although Alexander Skarsgård makes James impressively pathetic at times, the sort of prick that crumples so quickly and completely that he can't even ask what is wrong with these people. The director also continues to display the good sense to hire Karim Hussain as director of photography - he never fails to make a shot interesting or keep attention where it belongs even during showier pieces.

Still - as exciting as it was to see Brandon pick up the family business as his father had gotten all respectable, Infinity Pool is hollow and, honestly, kind of boring rather than unsettling much of the time. He has his father's knack for the grotesque, but doesn't seem to have as much to say with it.

Shi mian mai fu (House of Flyiing Daggers)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, 35mm)

The Brattle's choice to try out their new surround sound system has apparently been a popular test for home units over the past 20 years, and it continues to look and sound terrific on 35mm, although I suspect that 20 years later, it plays a little different. "Art-house wuxia" had a moment after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is still pretty and grandly melodramatic, but I've had time to grow to love the more down-to-business forebears in a way I didn't then. Zhang Yimou is so keen on letting you see his budget and how hard everyone has worked as he jumps from contained to grand canvases!

(I was also amused to read my review from 2004 and see that I apparently only knew Andy Lau from Infernal Affairs then, chastising myself as I read it, only to see a fair amount of IA stuff going on here!)

The curious thing this time around is how tightly constricted this movie is, despite Zhang's setting it in lush environs and the high stakes given - only four people in the cast are credited, one a "special guest", although apparently a character whose face is shrouded was meant to be Anita Mui. I'm not sure the clashing scales enhance the drama, but it doesn't particularly hinder the film either. It's just these three and the revelation that there might be more going on doesn't come until a bit late. With such a small cast to focus on, one wants to dig deeper, but Zhang and his co-writers are doing so much sleight of hand that it almost requires a second viewing as much as benefits from one.

If you're going to make it a chamber piece like this, though, heck of a cast. Takeshi Kaneshiro has the sort of movie-star charm that makes me wonder where he's been the past decade, considering he could have resurfaced in Japan if The Crossing got him greylisted in China; there's lots of reasons to dislike his character but Kaneshiro gets one past them. Andy Lau does great work jumping from a gruff, too-tough cop to monstrous male petulance in pretty short order, catching the core of this guy through lies. And Zhang Ziyi, man, she can glow when she wants to, especially when the last act has her shedding layers of deception.

Zhang (the writer/director) starts piling it on really thick at that point, after things being a little thin earlier, in part because it snowed like crazy at his shooting location and that added something truly surreal to the final act. The whole thing works more often than not, though, even if the pieces are occasionally in conflict.

Banchikwang (The Foul King)

Seen 11 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)

In another window, there's a document where I talk about how you can see a certain filmmaker was destined for bigger things in his early work, at least in retrospect, but I don't know that it's the case here. It feels like a case where Kim Jee-Woon got a script that was kind of a mess but did everything he could to make every scene as good as it could be, and put them together into something coherent - although, of course, Kim is also one of the writers, so he clearly had room to grow in some areas, even if one could certainly see a bunch of talent in others. Bullet in the Head Infinity Pool Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain House of Flying Daggers The Foul King

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 13: Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain and Sex & Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy

Oops, I skipped Mookie and Bruce wound up going first this round! Not that it really matters, because this is not a real game as opposed to a game-shaed thing, but fortunately fate made it up to Mookie.
Bruce rolls a 17 and lands in the Tsui Hark zone, specifically Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. I don't tend to give a lot of thought to connecting the figures with the movies - maybe for "season 2", I'll try to have the figures be more in-character - but this did make me ponder that about five years separated Bruce Lee's death from Tsui Hark's first film as a director, and, dang, does that seem like a great what-if!
Mookie, meanwhile, rolls a 20! That gets him to Sex & Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy, which I was kind of annoyed didn't play Boston back when 3D was at its peak and Chinese film distribution in the US was just starting to take tis current shape. I was mistaken to feel that way.

The rule with 20s is that you get a freebie from the recent arrivals shelf, but I kind of forgot that, so Mookie benefits from a Halloween viewing of Army of Darkness.

So how did this weird round work out?

Shu Shan - Xin Shu shan jian ke (Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Even beyond Tsui Hark remaking this film 20 years later, it's fun to look at this and the big fantasy adventures he would make in the 21st Century and see how those are what he wanted to do all along - he did this right at the start of his career, and it's just taken circumstances this long to catch up, between Mainland Chinese financing and more accessible effects.

For as much as watching this forty years later is to imagine what he would be doing with modern CGI - he stages these scenes the same way modern directors do, a generation ahead of time - it often seems to take its inspiration from Saturday Serials as much as anything else, a regular barrage of action that tosses soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) into a newer, crazier situation every fifteen minutes or so, teaming him first with an aloof master (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and then an equally overwhelmed monk (Mang Hoi). The pacing kind of feels like a serial edited down to a movie, a combination of zipping from one episode to another to sort of running in loops as the crew goes to and from the Ice Queen's Palace, the sort of quest that there are lots of stops on and a roundabout path that occasionally allows the good guys to fight each other.

The action's a ton of fun, though, starting with classic period swordplay done exceptionally well - Corey Yuen and star Yuen Biao are handling a lot of the martial arts, and Yuen gets to play off Sammo Hung in the early going - to increasingly crazy and abstract wire fu that Tsui and his crew put together well. For all that Tsui is anticipating later digital blockbusters, he's still building monsters with papier-mache and ingenuity, with a demon represented by a dyed-red sheet being stretched over faces and other shapes a standout for being exceptionally practical but nevertheless very cool. Effects have got to both communicate and look cool on screen. The martial-arts team does darn good meshing weightlessness and momentum throughout.

This is also about the right time to be a star-making performance for Yuen Biao, who previously seemed to be one of his classmates Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's favorite sparring partners but got few lead roles; he's got a charmingly earnest persona here, a puppy dog audiences will happily follow who slips easily into screen fighting in a way that seems natural. He pairs well with Mang Hoi, a different sort of naive (there's a real delight in movies like this where the action feels like it's following sidekicks until they come through), while Adam Cheng and Damian Lau are a more abrasive odd couple as the masters. A lot of folks get underused - even with two roles, one wants more Sammo Hung, for instance, while Brigitte Lin doesn't show up until 45 minutes in and has little to do, which is also when Moon Lee makes her first appearance and makes the audience wish that the filmmakers knew what they had and gave her a bigger role.

Underneath, there's something going on about war wearing down the gates of Hell, making it possible for demons to escape, but Tsui's not looking to make something that deep, even if he does see how that might strike a chord with viewers. He's just trying to make the big wuxia action he wants to see on screen, and honing his chops for when he'll have the right tools.

3D Yuk po tuen: Gik lok bo gam (3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy)

* (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

Look, I'm not going to tell you that the original Sex & Zen was a good movie - although it apparently played the Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings at the Allston Cinema (remember that?) just before I made this into a full-time movie blog so I don't have any record of what I thought, though I remember it as mostly good fun, a Category III film built to entertain as well as titillate. This reboot from 2011 is more porn-y, not much more than excuses to stitch its sex scenes together.

The main problem, though, is that it's mean. There's not much joy in its sex, just selfish lust and cruelty; though Ruizhu (Hara Saori) initially intends to learn from the Prince (Tony Ho Wah-Chiu), the latter is a despot and the former picks up his attitudes quickly enough, and the audience is left to get its vicarious pleasure in watching people be victimized, with the story taking increasingly violent as it moves toward the end.

The filmmakers certainly seem to be having fun with their 3D and virtual backlot tools, at least - this was during the period when folks were shooting with actual 3D rigs, and it's just professional enough to be watchable - the cast (many imported from Japan's adult film industry) understand their particular sorts of sex appeal and play to it, and while the non-digital scenery is not elaborate, it doesn't immediately strike one as cheap.

It's not fun, though. There may be some who get some thrill out of erotica leaving them feeling kind of gross, but that's not for me.

Army of Darkness

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Army of Darkness wasn't quite my first big cult film - I'm of the age that inhaled Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school - but it hit me just right in college, and was probably my favorite movie for a long time. I don't know how many copies of it I've purchased - a VHS, probably 2 DVD editions, an HD-DVD, a Blu-ray, and now this Shout Factor 4K disc. This will probably be the last, unless I find a 35mm print at a yard sale somewhere, and what are the odds of that?

I occasionally worry that I'll outgrow it, but it never quite happens. The jokes are still good. Sam Raimi stages action and slapstick as well as anybody ever has, and has a unique ability to blend the two so that they both impress without undercutting each other (someone should have put him and Jackie Chan together at some point). Bruce Campbell taps into this unique dumbass persona that makes Ash weirdly relatable whether he's being a moron or weirdly competent. It's earnest in its love for old Harryhausen films but is its own thing rather than a slavish recreation.

Why? I think because it came at a very specific point in this team's careers. This was probably not not meant to be one last project right at the point where they were still folks screwing around but had just graduated to having a real crew, making a movie for fun before everyone got professional, but it sure feels like it exists at that turning point, and that's a large part of what makes it a blast. It's why even the studio interference works in the movie's favor; rather than sulk, Raimi made that absolutely bonkers ending.

I don't love it quite as intently as I did in college and soon thereafter; I can't. But I appreciate it as fun in a way that is awful hard to accomplish on purpose.

Mookie really lucks out with that 20, doesn't he?

Mookie: 43 ¼ stars
Bruce: 51 ¾ stars

Next up: A big jump forward in time, a couple more favorites, including a bit more 3D.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 10 February 2023 - 16 February 2023

Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if the new releases are particularly romantic, but that's never been my area anyway.

Anyway, it's worth noting that even though the 15th is when Regal will supposedly "refuse its contract" on the Fenway theater, they're selling tickets for the big Marvel movie opening next week. Also, there's a big Marvel movie opening next week, so if there's things you want to catch up on, as there is for me, we should probably get on it now.
  • Magic Mike's Last Dance is the improbable third film in that series, with Channing Tatum returning and being rediscovered by Salma Hayek's London-based theatrical producer. It's at the Somerville, Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    Consecration plays Boston Common, and features Jena Malone investigating the death of her brother (a priest) at a Scottish convent.

    Titanic gets a 25th-anniversary 3D re-release, stereo-converted, upscaled to 4K resolution (if the projector can handle it), and apparently interpolated to 48fps in some locations. It screens at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby 3D), Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill.

    Marlowe, which casts Liam Neeson as Raymond Chandler's sardonic detective, opens Wednesday, with Neil Jordan directing and a cast including Diane Kruker, Jessica Lange, Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, opens at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row on Wednesday.

    Devotion is this week's Black History Month selection at Boston Common and South Bay. Animated kids' film The Amazing Maurice gets a second week at Fresh Pond, so I guess it's doing well.

    Fenway has the 1981 My Bloody Valentine on Monday. Fire of Love makes another welcome return to theaters for Valentine's Day, playing Boston Common and Assembly Row on Tuesday. Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a horror film that pounced upon the character entering the public domain, plays Wednesday at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Thursday at Arsenal Yards.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square open One Fine Morning, a Velntine-y looking story with Léa Seydoux as a widow looking after her daughter and ailing father, but who reconnects with a longtime (married) friend.

    Also opening at the Coolidge is Jafar Panahi's No Bears, another film he's made despite being forbidden from making films by Iran, putting himself in front of the camera as a man skirting his prohibition from leaving or making films in Iran by directing a film in Turkey by Zoom.

    Midnights at the Coolidge this weekend include Surf Nazis Must Die and The Room on Friday plus Green Room on Saturday. There is also a matinee kids' show of Fantastic Mr. Fox on Saturday, with Geothe-Institut presentation Axiom starting at 11am Sunday. Monday's Shakespeare Reimagined presentation is Shakespeare in Love, while Tuesday's Valentine Big Screen Classic is Before Sunrise on 35mm, with Open Screen in the screening room the same night. The Love on the Run show is a 35mm print of Something Wild, with critic Jake Mulligan reading a pre-show seminar, while Thursday's Science on Screen has a pair of local doctors introducing Awakenings.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has two more films beyond that: Let It Be Morning comes from Israel and stars Alex Bakri as a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who returns home for a wedding when his village is suddenly locked down.. Close comes from Belgium and is nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar, following two children whose friendship is disrupted and must try to figure out why; it also plays Boston Common.

    The Retro Replay romance this week is the original version of Sabrina, with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden, playing on Valentine's Day (Tuesday).
  • Apple Fresh Pond has six new Indian films. Amigos is a Telugu crime film about "the two doppelgangers". Dada is a Tamil drama about teenage parents. The rest are Malayalam: Romancham is a Malayalam horror-comedy about 7 bachelors who mess with a Ouija board; Iratta is a Malayalam film about two identical twins; Shiv Shastri Balboa follows a Indian Rocky fan on a road trip across America; while Spadikam, which plays through Sunday, seems to be a re-release of a Malayalam action-adventure from 1995.

    Writer Padmabhushan continues at Fresh Pond, while Pathaan sticks around Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    Big Chinese action flick
    The Wandering Earth II continues at Boston Common (including Imax) and Fenway.

    Anime Sword Art Online: The Movie: Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night plays Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row; check for dubbed/subtitled shows throughout the week; another anime, Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: First Kiss wa Owaranai, plays Assembly Row on Tuesday.

    Korean concert film BTS: Yet to Come continues at Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row through Sunday.
  • The Brattle Theatre re-opens on Saturday evening with a double built to show off their new surround sound system: A 35mm print of House of Flying Daggers followed by Batman Returns. The next day offers football counterprogramming with "Superb Owl Sunday", featuring 35mm prints of the original Harryhausen Clash of the Titans and Jim Henson's Labyrinth, both of which feature superb owls.

    The Princess Bride takes the lead on Valentine's Day duty this year, with shows on Monday and late on Tuesday. Casablanca gets one already-sold-out show on Tuesday; I gather Warner has been holding it close and only letting the Brattle book it because it's tradition.

    Wednesday and Thursday, they have a new restoration of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.
  • The Somerville Theatre gets a head start on an annual event with double features of Back to the Future & Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure on Sunday, Blade Runner (Final Cut) & Blade Runner 2049 on Monday, and a 35mm print of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on Tuesday .

    That all leads into The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival proper, which opens Wednesday with two short packages, documentary Doctor Who Am I, and feature UFO Club; Thursday offers another shorts package plus docs Isaac Asimov: A Message from the Future and Beyond Tomorrow. The festival portion will continue through Saturday, with the traditional marathon running noon-to-noon Sunday and Monday.

    Up the 77 route at the Capitol, there's a special screening of short horror film "Perfida: The Diabolical" in the birthday party room on Thursday night.
  • The Harvard Film Archive hasErnie Gehr in person for two programs of his "Ever-Expanding Cinema", with a programs of recent digital shorts on Friday and Saturday. Alain Guiraudie's Nobody's Hero continues its run on Sunday afternoon and Monday night. That leaves room for just one Kinuyo Tanaka film this weekend, with Girls of the Night playing Sunday evening.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has two cinema presentations this week. The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks plays Friday night in association with the Roxbury Film Festival, while EO on Thursday kicks off a program of what were expected to be International Feature Oscar nominees (though it's the only one of the four to get a nod).
  • Bright Lights brings back IFFBoston documentary Riotsville, USA, which depicts the early development of militarized police in the 1960s, on Thursday evening, with producer Sara Archambault on-hand for a Q&A. Free and open to the public.
  • Streaming encores of Boston Jewish Film favorites The Art of Silence and Karaoke are available on their site through Sunday.
  • The Lexington Venue is open through Sunday with Living, The Whale, and 80 for Brady.

    The West Newton Cinema continues 80 for Brady, Women Talking (no show Thursday), A Man Called Otto, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Aftersun, The Banshees of Inisherin (Saturday/Sunday), Puss in Boots, and Tár. Closed Monday.

    The Luna Theater has The Whale on Friday, Saturday, early Sunday, and Thursday. The Princess Bride plays Saturday evening and most of Sunday. And, of course, a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem brings in All Quiet on the Western Front, Fire of Love, and James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul - Paris - London, a collection of three short films where he is interviewed.sharing screens with holdovers Knock at the Cabin, 80 For Brady, and EO. They also play classic romance It Happened One Night on Saturday and Sunday. As usual, they are closed Tuesday and Wednesday, but the two VideoCoven Presents shows on Thursday are opposites but both kind of great: Frothy classic supernatural comedy I Married a Witch at 7pm and Álex de la Iglesia's mad road movie Perdita Durango.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, CinemaSalem, and many of the multiplexes.
Marlowe! Been waiting for that one. Also down for the fancy Titanic, House of Flying Daggers, and some of the other goodies at the Somerville and Brattle .