Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Monday Double Feature: The League and Lost in the Stars

An odd case where I worked backward in building a double feature because, initially, Lost in the Stars was only playing shows 9:30pm and later with the last show on Monday as Mission: Impossible grabs all the screens on Tuesday, and as you might expect considering that this is apparently the biggest movie of the summer in China, the folks next door in Chinatown bought up tickets even before i knew it was playing, so that last show on Monday was my best shot at a decent seat.

After I did that, AMC put on more shows (and it's playing for a second week), but I wound up sticking with my reservation, although that meant finding something earlier because it can be a pain to pull myself out of the apartment at 9pm. Factor in AMC's 20 minutes of trailers and how a lot of movies are well over two hours these days, and it can be tough to make a twin bill work.

Maybe not surprisingly, it was looking like I was going to be on my own for The League, in part because of its weird booking strategy: Magnolia Pictures apparently booked with AMC directly for three weekdays, which is a Fathom-like booking but doesn't get it into the Fathom block of previews, and I don't think I saw a trailer before any films. The most advertising I saw online was tweets about it playing AMCs in Chicago. Some other folks did show up, all of us, I think, at least middle aged, and I don't know that I saw any folks of color either, though I wasn't looking behind me from my third-row seat.

On the other hand, Lost in the Stars was fairly busy, already pretty packed when I arrived and then filling up behind me.

And, after that, a good twenty-minute wait for the Green Line Extension heading home, arriving there at 1am with a 9am conference call scheduled the next day, which is a big part of why I don't do a lot of double features that aren't built as such. Who goes to those 10:45pm shows at an AMC with how early the T stops running?

The League '23

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2023 in AMC Boston Common #5 (special engagement, DCP)

As documentaries that probably don't tell their intended audience a whole lot that they weren't already aware of, The League at least had the benefit of being about something fun and only having to compact thirty or so years into a feature length presentation. It is, as I tend to say about a lot of these docs, Negro Leagues 101, but as someone who could use that, I certainly found my curiosity piqued.

Those 30 years are roughly the length of time between World War I and Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Director Sam Pollard doesn't exactly present it as the story of Black businessmen who owned the teams and shaped the leagues, from "Rube" Foster, whose Chicago Giants were the lynchpin of the original Black National League, to rival owners in Pittsburgh, to Effa Manley in New Jersey, who saw clearly that the white leagues signing their players without compensation would lead to the Negro Leagues' collapse. There's plenty of time spent on the famous players - one will hear the stories of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson - but as the story of the leagues, the film focuses on the people who made things happen, directly.

The timing of it was lucky for me, arriving during the MLB All-Star break when there's relatively little actual baseball, leaving the major papers ceasing their daily sports coverage as one of the bigger stories in sports, because a major theme is that sports are important to a community, in both tangible and emotional ways. There's sentimentality here, but also nuts and bolts of how sports teams can be a central part of a community, even when they are not one of the most visible, accessible pictures of Black excellence. The filmmakers are good at recognizing how they're intertwined without diminishing either.

It's well put together, too, making good use of the names the audience is likely to know but also giving plenty of time to those they might not, and doing a fair job of mixing recreation, animation, and plenty of archival material together so that it's seldom overdone, or static (there's a danger of feeling like you're rehashing Ken Burns in substance and style here that is mostly avoided) Maybe a little too smooth at times; the transition from grainy home movies to something sharper can supply a bit of excitement at the filmmakers perhaps finding some great archival material that is probably actually a recreation, with the same happening on voice-overs one may presume are from audio interviews but are actually actors narrating, especially when there are on-screen titles for the speaker. It's not exactly fraudulent, but it does raise the question of whether one is seeing the thing raw or someone's interpretation. That comes right down to one of the central threads; the film is largely based upon the writings of former umpire Bob Motley, but it's not clear when one is hearing his voice, or if one ever is.

A bit of a shame, that, as there's something especially apt about having one of the League's umpires being a primary point of view - an ump is by nature both an insider and expected to call a fair game, compared to players or executives who may have agendas. It's the same story, in many ways, but told well and down the middle.

Xiao shi de ta (Lost in the Stars)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2023 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Chen Sicheng of Detective Chinatown fame knows his mysteries, so it's not exactly surprising that he would be part of adapting a 50-year-old French stage thriller into a modern Chinese movie, though others direct and contribute to the script. His name being attached to the story's solid hook certainly got my attention, and it has been a massive summer hit in China; if you're looking for a nifty little thriller as a massive blockbuster, you could do a lot worse while it's playing North America for a couple weeks.

The film opens with He Fei (Zhu Yilong) bursting into a police station on Bankal Island (a resort implied but never stated to be in Thailand), in a panic because his wife Li Muzi (Kay Huang Ziqi) has been missing for 15 days, but with no evidence of foul play, the police can't help him, though an ethnically Chinese officer, Zheng Cheng (Du Jiang), offers to help. But when He Fei wakes up the next morning, there's a woman in his bed (Janice Man Wing-San) who claims to be Li Muzi, and she's got the passport, photos, etc. to support the assertion. With just days before his visa expires, He Fei hires lawyer Chen Mai (Ni Ni) to help him get to the bottom of this.

Based on a play by Robert Thomas, "Trap for a Lonely Man", that has been adapted for television and film at least ten times in nearly as many languages, and I'm tempted to dig up one of the English-language versions to see if it was a more leisurely, chatty thing than this occasionally frantic production with room for a chase or two, although one way to make it work as a movie is to have He Fei and Chen Man literally running down every bit of evidence. I'm not sure that the film ever entirely recovers from introducing itself with a great premise for a psychological thriller and then bounding ahead at full speed rather than giving the ambiguities time to fester in the audience's collective mind, though; it's the sort of mystery where mentioning a potential twist seems to eliminate it as a possibility, and folks in the audience are probably already wondering whether this is more like Gaslight, The Game, or something else well before the filmmakers are ready to spring a surprise.

I suspect that, even as the Chinese filmmakers modernized and made the story their own, the core of it is something that could easily attract actors, with Zhu Yilong and Ni Ni having a pair of fun opposites to play, especially since Zhu has a chance to play the gaslit husband as an everyman rightfully panicked by all these things happening to him that make no sense, with Ni countering as the cool lawyer who is believably good at everything the story needs her to do, trusting that this sort of chemistry doesn't require a sexual or romantic component. Still, Janice Man's "impostor" probably channels the film's exact gonzo energy best; whether she's the con artist He Fei thinks she is or is having her actions twisted by his delusions, she unbalances every scene she's in, in precisely the right way (right down to how just a little sexiness can feel quite dangerous to someone concerned with reasoning out a puzzle).

Chen, co-writers Gu Shuyi & Yin Yixiong, and directors Cui Rui & Liu Xiang could maybe stand to find more ways to use Ni Ni, both to add a little tension to having to operate in plain sight and to make a movie that doesn't really spend much time questioning He Fei's point of view a bit more ambiguous. Still, you can see why this has been a massive hit in China, and thus one of the biggest movies of the summer worldwide. It's slick and fast-paced, and if the finale may seem like a lot to swallow, making one believe that this is possible is only half of what a thriller has to do along with making it click emotionally, and the pieces fall into place nicely, right down to a scene that has me think that made me smile at how properly cowardly it was. It's also beautiful in spots, with Cui, Liu, and company teasing the audience with mirrors and lighthouses, and eventually coming up with a nifty demonstration of how how to take transformative inspiration from something like "Starry Night", compared to the "immersive Van Gogh" exhibits.

I'm tempted to give it a second look sometime when I know to expect magic rather than moody, on top of seeing how else it has been adapted. It's a mystery just good enough to be worth seeing how many clues were planted that one missed without becoming too ponderous.

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