Sunday, October 08, 2023

Weird Weekend Part I: She Came to Me.& Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman

As I've mentioned in a couple other posts and on social media, It's kind of a wild weekend at the local multiplexes, and I suspect that's in large part because, with the Taylor Swift Eras concert film coming out next week, nobody wants to open anything big this week (aside from The Exorcist 4-ish, which moved to get one week on premium screens in its wake), but enough from September and before was fading quick enough that theaters had showtimes to fill, so a lot of random-seeming stuff is playing: Screwy romantic comedies, two from Korea, two from China, anime that would normally get one or two shows getting an entire (small) screen for a couple days at Fresh Pond even as it's full of Indian films…

Anway, I planned to get an earlier start on this, seeing Dr. Cheon Friday night, but it was way the heck out in Chestnut Hill, and apparently you've got to start at around 7pm to get to a 9pm show from my apartment, and I headed out at 7:15, and by the time all the slow zones, circumventing Haymarket, and "oh this is express now wait for the next" was done, I realized I wasn't going to make it and turned around to head back home, on the same slow train. Wasted night, but the MBTA has done worse to others than make them rearrange their movie weekends.

Once I got out there, I saw that the "SuperLux" had trimmed its operation down a bit since the last time I was there/the pandemic. Back then, there was no concession stand and there were people taking orders/delivering to every seat in the house, whether in the "SuperLux" or "LuxLite" section, with slightly different menus. Now, if you're in the former (which I usually am because the other one is way too far back for my taste), you're ordering at a concession stand and then picking up; in the latter, there's a kiosk by the door so they can bring your order to your seat (makes me wonder if the call buttons on those seats have been removed/deactivated). Makes sense; these are not big theaters and I used to think that they were crazy over-staffed for the relatively low-attendance shows that would draw me out there, and a lot of places have had to cut down on part-time staff, but it being a little less fancy makes that spot less tempting unless, as in this case, they've got something that literally isn't playing anywhere else.

Good pretzel, though, and I am kind of glad that you can get a proper large movie-theater soda now, rather than the 10-ounce restaurant-sized glass you used to get.

In between, I made my weekly comic run and asked the owner of the shop, a huge Springsteen fan, whether "Addicted to Romance" was a new song or not; he said it started popping up on his Spotify a week or two ago. Given that it was apparently composed for the end credits of She Came to Me, a deeply weird little movie, I'm penciling this down as the "random Oscar nominee you've never heard of" for 2022. Not a great song, but folks will nominate Bruce.

She Came to Me

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, DCP)

She Came to Me is a much weirder movie than I expected, and given that I was expecting something sort of eccentric from the description, that's an impressive feat. By the time it's over, one almost has to conclude that filmmaker Rebecca Miller was so stumped with how to make an actual movie out of all these oddball characters and situations she'd come up with that she couldn't even decide on an aspect ratio.

The one it sort of revolves around is Steven Lauddem (Peter Dinklage), a composer who suffered a nervous breakdown after his last opera and is blocked on his current one. That breakdown led him to therapy with Dr. Patricia Jessup (Anne Hathaway), whom he married, though she is tightly-wound in her own way. Her son Julian (Evan A. Ellison) is dating precocious-in-many-ways Tereza Szyskowski (Harlow Jane). Her mother Magdalena (Joanna Kulig) happens to be the Lauddems' new cleaning lady, which is weird, but maybe not as weird as her husband Trey Ruffa (Brian d'Arcy James), a civil war re-enactor uncomfortable with his step-daughter becoming a woman. In the middle of this, Steven meets tugboat operator Katrina Trento (Marisa Tomei) at a bar, and that one-afternoon-stand helps bust his creative logjam - though he may have been wise to run, given how she says up front that she's had issues with being addicted to romance.

That's a bit of a sprawling ensemble, and it feels like it takes a while to introduce them all, and even longer to get the various groups bouncing off each other to start intersecting in interesting ways. It's worth noting that most of the marketing and descriptions of the film emphasize Steven, Patricia, and Katrina, which is the part of the story with a classic romantic-comedy plot and forms a nice little circle in ways that seem natural. The classic romantic-comedy take on this set-up would have Katrina meeting Patricia much earlier and having that triangle play out a lot longer rather than just completely throwing things into a spiral right away, then stepping back so that the kids can actually drive the action of the movie's later stretches. Miller has instead gone a much messier route, taking a bunch of zany characters that would happily populate a farce and then giving them real nervous breakdowns that make you feel bad about laughing at the weird situations, then wrapping it up with a genuinely bizarre finale built around avoiding statutory rape charges because Julian just turned 18 and Tereza is 16.

One does have to admire the cast giving it all, though. Peter Dinklage takes the moments when his character's sharp wit can emerge from a depressive cloud and savors them, while making that cloud feel oppressive. Marisa Tomei does a great job of navigating her working-class romance addict who can have trouble separating her good nature and her mental illness; she's able to make her recited history seem more like a life lived than mere backstory, and it makes Katrina more than a wild card dealt to Steven. Evan Ellison and Harlow Jane project this level-headed good nature that eventually makes you wonder if they're more mature than their parents or showing you how those parents naively made messes of their lives. And Anne Hathaway is so hilariously weird and high-strung as to eventually almost break through to tragic as she and Miller play with how her beauty seems to feed some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder (though I suspect Miller is careful to never use those actual words).

I kid a bit about the aspect ratio thing, but it is weird that some scenes are roughly the old, squarish Academy ratio and others are widescreen scope, and it's not like the former is just the latter cut down, but leave empty space on the left and right or top and bottom depending on the shot (projectionists who pride themselves on proper masking are going to hate this movie). The changes are just noticeable enough to make you wonder if there's a reason, and then you're trying to figure out how the rest of the movie fits together and maybe frustrated that the rhyme or reason of it is just out of reach. Early on, it almost feels like Miller and cinematographer Sam Levy are trying to figure out how to frame scenes with Hathaway in heels playing off Dinklage without it seeming too much like she sees him as a child rather than a husband (although there's sort of some of it there) and eventually deciding they'll just use whatever works in the moment.

The whole deal with the teenagers in the back half of the movie is such a strange way for the film to ultimately go; for as much as it may be the best solution to the issue (though "where did that idea come from, Steven?" isn't an unreasonable reaction), there's something that could possibly be the core of a good story here: The film has established that both Patricia and Magdalena were young single mothers who were likely on the same sort of high-achieving path as Julian and Tereza, and it's interesting to ponder that they were similarly confident in their ability to handle it, a cycle of how recklessly naive even smart young people who know their weaknesses are, it overwhelms the rest of the story. Julia & Tereza's story may be Patricia's & Magdalena's, but it's not really Steven's and Katrina's. There's also a whole racial aspect of Trey's actions that winds up as just sort of vaguely there and mentioned, and the whole "switch from Union to Confederate and dress your wife and daughter in 19th Century garb" is all Miller does and she makes sure Tereza underlines it for the audience.

Which isn't to say it's not a good idea, and if it's executed in a somewhat ham-handed manner, it's because this is a group of people smart enough (and in Tereza's case outspoken enough) to notice and comment on it. A lot of the movie lands between clever and clumsy in that way. I can't say I didn't enjoy it, from the awkward conversations to the screwy operas, but I can't say Miller exactly finds where all this weird chaos is going, either.

Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2023 in Showcase Cinemas Superlux Chestnut Hill #4 (first-run, DCP)

Dr. Cheon starts out as a fun take on "fake exorcist encounters something real" but quickly evolves into something more fun - a sort of swashbuckling contemporary urban fantasy - not wasting a whole lot of time on hand-wringing along the way. While doing so, it tends to follow the Guillermo del Toro model of not wanting to spend a first movie setting up lore and cliffhangers when you can jump to the final battle, and the only problem with that is maybe leaving the movie with a generic villain.

The movie wastes little time introducing its title character, Cheon Dong-sik (Gang Dong-won), and his "apprentice" In-bae (Lee Dong-hwi), although looks can be deceiving: In-bae is an electronics wizard who sets up remote controls and pyrotechnics under their clients' eyes, and Cheon, while the grandson of a grand shaman, is a trained psychiatrist looking to heal the hearts and minds of those claiming supernatural torment. He is, as such, tremendously wary when young Oh Yoo-Gyeong (Esom) shows up at their office offering $100,000 to remove the curse on her kid sister (Park So-yi). The thing is, Yoo-gyeong's claim to see ghosts might just be the real deal, and if that's the case, the team might be in over their heads. But even if they are, Cheon has to follow it to the end, because this might be the case he has been look for for almost twenty years, the one that leads him to the cult leader (Huh Joon-ho) who killed his grandfather and brother.

There's a lot to dig here, in part because the filmmakers recognize what's often unsatisfying about the twist where what had been a story about people being monsters reveals an actual supernatural explanation: The opening gambit gleefully swats away the idea of parents acting like their daughter must be possessed when she's actually just a teenager without making too big a deal of it, and even if Beom-cheon is an actual mage, it's not as if the dark forces he calls upon are more evil by nature or ambitious than he is himself. When a similar possessed-kid situation pops up with Oh Yoo-min, the filmmakers are nimble; that's when the movie starts to pick up the pace and quickly expands its world so that this isn't selling out any principle, staying enjoyably modern: Characters can look around and say this looks pretty trope-y without actually winking at the audience or disrespecting their own genre, and a running fight against possessed townspeople plays more as science fiction than zombies.

It does kind of make it the case that even if things aren't easy, they're maybe not challenging in an interesting way. The Dark Master has what he's doing down to a science, the moments where the hero maybe doubts whether he's up for this are very fleeting indeed, and supernatural mysteries have answers presented without a lot of resistance or are too readily treated as something that can be glossed over. The upside is that the cast plays the group in big, primary colors; Gang Dong-won gives Cheon the cockiness of a highly-educated con artist and doesn't entirely strip it away when it's time to show that he wasn't expecting this, while Huh Joon-ho has an uncaring sort of cruelty, earning the "Master" title with how easily many things seem to come and how smacking down dissent seems like second nature. Esom makes Yoo-gyeong feel like she's been seeing ghosts all her life but like she's a little intimidated by something on this scale and close to home.

And most importantly, the film moves - first-time director Kim Seong-sik has worked as an assistant to a lot of South Korea's top filmmakers, and he has clearly been paying attention. He and the visual effects crew work together well, even if there are a few scenes that look like they were shot Marvel-style in a big green room (or used the rear-projection that has lately come back into style). Unlike a lot of Korean filmmakers, he picks a tone and sticks with it, which does occasionally make the film seem a little conventional and predictable, but also lets it run a tight 99 minutes. It's aggressively non-bloated and more of an escapist supernatural adventure because of it.

As action-fantasies of this sort go, it's kind of slight, but I must admit to liking it a lot, in some cases for the common mistakes it doesn't make. This movie doesn't bite off more than it can chew but never just goes through the motions, either.

1 comment:

William Neal said...

I was going to see She Came to Me, but in looking for better showtimes, I noted Dr. CHEON. Glad I went with the latter. When looking for reviews for the Dr, we found YOUR site. What a delight. Thanks for saving us the aspect ratio headache. It is nice that these 1st shot directors are getting their films made. Hope they make more and continue to improve.