Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Fantasia (and Adjacent) Movies in Theaters This Weekend: She Is Conann and Sometimes I Think About Dying

For a moment or three, I had a false memory of She Is Conann playing Fantasia last summer but it just not being something I could fit into my schedule. Surprisingly enough, none of Bertrand Mandico's features have played that festival, though perhaps the shorts have; they seemingly are always timed better for something else.

Anyway, I liked both of these odd movies quite a bit, and since I probably won't have a chance to see them during the next week as I intend to camp out at the Brattle for their Columbia/Jean Arthur series, I made sure I caught the preview show for Conann. Both are worth checking out if you're up for something different!

She Is Conann (or just Conann)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2024 in Alamo Drafthouse Seaport #1 (preview, DCP)

It's not saying a lot that She Is Conann is probably my favorite of Bertrand Mandico's three features - the others fall solidly into the "I'm glad someone's making this sort of weird movie" category more than "I really enjoyed that". This one, though, feels like something closer to a real movie, if a very weird one: It's got the same lo-fi, installation-art weirdness of the others, but there seems to be a point to its envelope pushing.

It opens, as such films do, in Limbo, or perhaps Hell, as a recently-deceased woman (Françoise Brion) is confronted by Rainer (Elina Löwensohn), a dog-faced demon who claims they have known each other for a long time, though the new arrival's memory is spotty. So, too, is that of Conann, who has apparently risen to be queen of Hell, though intrigued by Rainer's claim that this person is more fearsome and evil than her. And so, we hear the tales of Conann's life across six eras: When she was a sickly 15-year-old (Claire Duburcq) captured by Barbarian queen Sanja (Julia Riedler), a 25-year-old warrior (Christa Théret) seeking revenge, a 35-year-old amnesiac (Sandra Parfait) transported to the Bronx of 1998, a fearsome general of 45 (Agata Buzek), and, finally, a wealthy patron of the arts (Nathalie Richard). Rainer is a constant across all those lives, often placing Conann face-to-face with her future self to force her evolution.

This usually involves some sort of impalement, the sort that in a more obviously polished film would lead to squawking about causality, continuity, and paradoxes, but Mandico's high concepts and homemade aesthetic are built to keep one from taking things literally and looking for the metaphors underneath. You do not necessarily, have to look terribly deep, sure, as he more or less has his characters underline said metaphors: Conann's violent reinventions may initially be presented as a shortcut to becoming the person she needs to be, but they're only forward-looking for so long before she is seemingly trying to purge lingering guilt about how she has evolved. It's a nifty conceit, depicting a descent into evil not as a slow slide that offers hopes for redemption via a nagging conscience, but a series of affirmative choices that require repudiating one's previous standards, but keeps the viewer engaged with its shifting cast and settings compared to a steady, hopeless decline.

And the cannibalistic consumption that bookends the movie? In some ways even more clear - at first, a literal gaining of strength from one's parents, but, eventually, Conann is either misunderstanding the lesson or weaponizing it as she talks about making herself "a digestible barbarian", suggesting that decades of evil and violence can be laundered through the arts, and that the artists involved thing that there's a way to do so without tainting themselves. It's effective, especially because Mandico makes it so grotesque as to be impossible to dismiss. It ain't subtle, but, honestly, I kind of prefer this to previous films where what he was doing often seemed a bit out of reach, or cleverly-constructed satire that can be easily taken for the thing being ridiculed.

Those well-formed ideas are executed by a strong cast, as the six women to play Conann are sometimes connected by little more than the scars accumulated over the course of adventures seen and unseen, but there is some commonality to the character that one can feel. One can especially see the connection between Claire Duburcq's teenager and Christa Théret as the woman she hopes to become (or thinks she does); there's a similar strength but also a hardening that doesn't necessarily do her any favors; similarly, Nathalie Richard finds just enough of the unleashed monstrousness of Agata Buzek's version to serve as a disingenuous core to her rehabilitated version. Sandra Parfait is deliberately sort of an outlier, portraying a Conann seemingly freed by her amnesia and displacement but still, at heart, the same person. Or maybe that's from how the characters that persist across eras treat them as the same person, with Elina Löwensohn and Julia Riedler not quite adjusting themselves to the new actor or seeming off like their performances are calibrated to one or the other.

It also gives a sense of how a figure like Conan changes with times and contexts, but has something specific that resonates underneath. I suspect it's why Mandico used an established name, even if it requires some winking to get past copyright and trademark law - it's a bit of a meta-commentary on how one can make Conan female, black, or modern and still remain faithful to the core of the character. Indeed, being able to do this is vital, that even someone making movies that at least look amateurish and cheap can have access to these distilled ideas.

Of course, there's also plenty of straight Bertrand Mandico weirdness, from the dog-people to the horned nipples. More than a few bits apart to be half-formed ideas that got away from him. Some artists can sift through the ideas that arrive together to find the jewels among the mud, but Mandico probably feels that the rough material enhances what he's doing elsewhere. The bare, cheap-looking stuff is still general great design, and the grainy black-and-white is a great aesthetic, especially as it periodically shifts to color where the bloody red can be emphasized.

The movie works, more or less, at least in ways his previous films don't work for me in any sort of reliable fashion. It's rough, but I don't necessarily want Mandico to refine his technique, even if his films continue to be hit or miss or individually-acquired tastes.

Sometimes I Think About Dying

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I am, I must admit, nervous about seeing other reviews for Sometimes I Think About Dying; my first reaction to the feature was something along the lines of "I feel seen and not disrespected!" while others seemed to run along the lines of "look how sad a case Fran is". Interestingly, I don't seem to have felt quite the same connection when I saw the original short from 2019, so I'm not sure whether the feature version does better or has a different focus. Or, perhaps, I'm just more able to recognize myself in this story than I was before, for good or ill, because it winds up focusing less on the death imagery and more on life of the person imagining it.

That would be Fran (Daisy Ridley), a nondescript woman who works on spreadsheets for what appears to be a small shipping concern in a Northwestern port city. She's polite and capable, precisely but not fashionably attired, but is not the type to hang around the water cooler or spend time with her co-workers outside of office hours, and she doesn't seem to have much of a life outside work, either, as one glimpse of her weekend seems to be her working her way through a book of sudoku puzzles. She does, in fact, occasionally think not so much about dying but of her body decaying afterward, although it's not necessarily clear that she's pleased or disturbed by the idea. Meanwhile, one of her co-workers (Megan Stalter) is retiring, with her replacement Robert (Dave Merheje) told to go to Fran for any help with office supplies, procedures, and the like. He seems to take a shine to her, and to her surprise, she finds herself thinking of him during her off-hours, and she is really not good at things like talking to people, sharing interests, or anything like that. At all.

Typing that out, I wonder a bit if the filmmakers were specifically intending to draw a line between Fran's fantasies focusing on her tissues breaking down and returning to nature and a change in her life coming from someone new at the workplace, fresh off a divorce. In both cases, the end of something is potentially an infusion of necessary nutrients that will cause something else to grow. Isobel's last appearance in the film hints at this, a bit; for all that her send-off was presented as a happy embrace of the next phase of her life, the reality isn't quite that, and as Fran leaves her, it at least seems possible that we may be about to see her truly blossom.

Of course, the moment when Fran just feels stumped trying to write something personal on Isobel's retirement card is probably the most I've related to a movie character in a long time. Director Rachel Lambert, the various writers, star Daisy Ridley, and editor Ryan Kendrick (among others) let the scene linger as Fran stares at an empty space and her eyes flick from one friendly note to another and her face says writing something like that feels beyond her. It fully communicates not feeling like there's just not as much to you as people expect from each other. It's not entirely despairing - there's some earnest confusion in there - even if it's often portrayed that way, or as a pathology.

It makes for a quiet film, admittedly, one frequently punctuated by observations of the small northwestern city where Fan lives and works in quiet moments , or the macabre imagery of her not yet rotting corpse, though seldom as a direct response to what else is going on as a scene, but more an idle musing. The moments when it stops being quiet are often more wrenching because they show how thoroughly the characters don't understand each other at all. It's also, at times, very funny, whether that be from the discomfort of being around people who are gregarious in all the ways Fran is not or her deadpan responses to straightforward situations.

For much of the film, it's easy to wonder if this is a terribly difficult performance on Ridley's part - gaze downward, move with precision but not necessarily purpose, think a couple seconds before doing anything but get annoyed when people act like you're some sort of weirdo. It is, at least, not just an assembly of off-putting tics, and she makes it a base for more, especially in the moments where she finds she likes something and isn't necessarily used to that experience. The rest of the cast often plays maybe a notch more energetic than the situation necessarily calls for in contrast, although Dave Merheje adds a note of earnest self-deprecation and Megan Stalter a bit more empathy, as if she respects Fran's quietness without needing to make her uncomfortable by commenting on it.

All this together makes Sometimes a charming, well-made movie that still makes me wonder if I'm supposed to feel the level of affection for Fran that I do even if I don't always identify with her (she doesn't particularly like movies!), or if others will lose patience with the film for the things that seemed well-observed to me. It's a nice look at folks who don't fit in, but in a way that's less abrasive than films usually go for.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 22 January 2024 - 28 January 2024 (Ow, My Back)

Heh, fun thing below: You can pretty clearly tell that the AMC in Boston Common is still using rolls of printer paper from a marketing campaign that's at least five years old (may be closer to ten), with all the morphing little balls, while the new-to-them place in Causeway Street has newer ones that just use the logo.

(Note: Both places have just started their fifth year of celebrating 100 years of AMC. I know 2020 got wiped out, but it's starting to look kind of weird!)

This Week in Tickets
One of the fun parts of turning 50 is when your back just suddenly starts hurting for no apparent reason and it lasts a week. The best part of that is when the ibuprofen you take before going to bed wears off before you wake up and you wonder if getting up is even possible before you start keeping a bill bottle and some water on the nightstand.

Anyway, that made for a weird week, the oddest part of which is that, somehow, my back actually felt pretty good after sitting in the Brattle's seats for Beau Is Afraid for three hours! Which is funny, because there weren't quite points where I was looking for an excuse to bail, but might have taken one.

Same the next day for the more the more obviously-comfortable seats in Causeway where I caught Johnny Keep Walking!, a fun little Chinese comedy that seems to be doing surprisingly well here - though it opened effectively splitting a screen's showtimes with Time Still Turns the Pages, it had a full slate by Monday, and got picked up for second and third weeks. It'll probably go to make room for Lunar New Year releases sometime next weekend, but it's done pretty well in China and it's not like the themes don't work everywhere, although the upbeat ending which flies in the face of capitalism probably seems much more possible there than here.

The next couple days, I wasn't even walking to the T station after work, so I stayed home and watched Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper, which was a tiny bit surreal because he's a friend of a friend, though definitely an arm's-length acquaintance. He's delightfully excited at discovering new birds in six corners of the United States. My late grandfather would have loved it.

Friday night, I headed downtown to catch the big Bollywood action movie, Fighter, in Imax 3D; it's pretty decent, though I was hoping for a bit better. Slick-looking, though; I sometimes wonder if all those FX and 3D conversion companies you see at the end of the credits where 75% of the names are South Asian naturally work a tiny bit harder for the local stuff.

The continuing "let's just not run the Green Line north of Kenmore at all" situation messed up my plans for Saturday, so they got pushed to Sunday, when I took in Rob N Roll & The Storm, and AMC didn't even try to make it difficult as a double feature! Not a bad afternoon, and I wonder if someone like GKids might pick up The Storm for video or the like; it's too nifty to vanish almost completely into some hole as often seems to be the case.

As always, watch my Letterboxd account for first drafts! Maybe follow me. Or just stick around here, because it's a little better than what I do on the subway ride home.

Beau is Afraid

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2024 in the Brattle Theatre ((Some of) The Best of 2023, DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on Blu-ray on Amazon

While trying to decide what to catch on what seemed like a Monday night unusually stacked with good rep-cinema options (Forbidden Planet at the Coolidge, Miike's Audition in the Seaport), I figured on seeing this because it wasn't out of the question that Joaquin Phoenix would have an Oscar nomination announced the next morning, but paused when I saw the runtime on the Brattle's website. Oh, that's right - I didn't see in last spring because 179 minutes seemed like an awful lot of any movie that had its trailer.

And it is. Writer/director Ari Aster is a guy who, over his first few features, has not exactly been worried about efficiency, and has also been fortunate enough that he could indulge himself, just really getting into whatever particular part of the story drew his attention and being able to make sharp turns into different territory if that's what he figured would be the most interesting way to go about a segment. And, truth be told, he is better at that than a lot of people, and you can see it in Beau Is Afraid. At its most heightened and absurd, it's brilliantly funny, and in the moments where you can see the kernel of something genuine underneath the seemingly impossible surface, it's plain brilliant. The opening segment, where we're not quite sure whether Beau's perception of New York City outside his window as a warzone is meant to be literal or not, is electric.

It just keeps going, though, and once Beau is stumbling through other off-kilter stories, it gets too unbalanced. There's maybe an idea there about how the world in general is full of people who can't quite see the world as it is in different ways but everybody treats everyone else like they've got a common point of reference, but that concept is inherently slippery, and Aster can't quite get a grip on it if that's what he's going for. It means much of the movie ends up ping-ponging almost randomly, and never feels like it's getting closer to anything particularly interesting. Aster has all these ideas for weird, darkly comic bits and an order to place them in, but each individual one plays out a little longer than need be until it's three hours.

There are worse movies that seem like the same kind of personal indulgence, of course, and given the state of the industry, filmmakers should do these things whenever an opportunity presents itself, because they might not get another. The cast is actually kind of incredible at finding the spot where they're playing cartoon characters but have to an individual zeroed in on what makes each one of them tick. I laughed more than a few times. But, man, I never felt what he was trying to get out there, and was just glad to be done at the end. Beau Is Afraid Johnny Keep Walking! Fighter Rob N Roll The Storm

Chinese Double Feature: Rob N Roll & The Storm

I've joked before about how I'm pretty sure that the local multiplexes deliberately schedule things to make people hanging around for a double feature difficult, because folks aren't likely to visit the concession stand, where a theater's real money is made, twice in a single afternoon. Heck, since most places let you pour your own Coke, customers can pretty easily get a refill even if you're not supposed to top off a small soda. They aren't putting guys near the Freestyle machines to explain how they work and watch out for that any more!

But sometimes something slips through:

Look at that - two movies running about 100 minutes, plus the 20 minutes of trailers AMC sticks to the front, so when you get out of one, hit the bathroom, and then make your way back to the lobby, you're not faced with the other thing you want to see having already started or having an hour-plus to kill. It's a beautiful thing.

It's also just enough time to get a snack and soda if you do want one, say because large portions of the Green Line have been shut down all month and it takes a little longer to get where you're going as a result. Although the soda was a weird situation today; Causeway Street doesn't have Freestyle machines because they really haven't re-arranged the way Arclight set the place up at all (the seats and signage are all the same as they were in 2019-2020), but the taps in the concession stand must have been busted or something, because they were just giving people cups with some ice and telling us to go to the bar to get it filled.

Anyway, kind of an odd afternoon at the movies aside from that; Rob N Roll effectively replaced another crime movie co-starring Lam Ka-Tung and Lam Suet (I Did It My Way), which effectively replaced another crime movie starring Andy Lau (The Goldfinger), and my eyebrows went up when I saw "Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee" in the credits. Maggie Cheung doing her first Hong Kong movie in 20 years (and her first film of any kind in ten) would be something you'd have heard about, right? But, no, there are apparently two Maggie Cheungs, much like there are multiple Tony Leungs who were active at the same time. Cheung Man-Yuk is the one most folks have heard about, while Cheung Ho-Yee has had a less prominent career.

Meanwhile, as much as I was kind of bitter at The Storm for grabbing screens at two downtown theaters when one of those could have been showing Alienoid: Return to the Future, I was intrigued when I looked up director Yang Zhigang and discovered I had seen his previous film, but it was an unusual experience. Sadly, I haven't had any chance to revisit Da Hu Fa in the past 5+ years; JustWatch doesn't even recognize its existence. Absolutely crazy to me that movies can play major genre festivals and you just never have a chance to see them again, even when the folks involved make a new one.

Still, if you like animation, The Storm is one to catch; it's visually terrific and based on my almost-review of the other, it looks like Yang has really stepped up his storytelling since then. And, well, maybe you'll be able to find it if you dig around IQIYI in a few months, but maybe you won't. You really never know these days!

Rob N Roll

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

You know, it feels like I haven't seen this sort of movie - the 97-minute crime story that somehow has 4,097 moving parts - in some time. They were especially popular after Pulp Fiction, as you might expect, although seldom hitting that height, because the clockwork involved is tricky enough without getting something resonant. Rob N Roll has trouble with that; it's chaos from the start more than a well-oiled machine that descends into chaos when something gums it up, but it's still kind of fun at times.

It starts with three things going down in a Hong Kong neighborhood: A major money-exchange robbery led by Mai Lam Tin (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing); a smaller holdup at knifepoint by Nam (John Chiang Jr.), and the thing the brings out veteran detective Ginger (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee) and her young partner Fisher (Leung Chung-Hang), the report from retirement-home owner Mo Yung Fai (Richie Jen XIan-Qi) that one of his patients has gone missing, the father of Yung-fai's cabbie friend Robbie (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung). The old man is found soon enough, but Yung-fai gets the idea of executing a robbery to cover expenses, so he has Robbie contact one of his shady fares (Lam Suet) to get a hand on a gun, but he's also supposed to arrange for new passports and a boat for Tin's gang. Also, Nam spots the much larger score which is temporarily dropped in the trunk of Robby's cab while it's getting new tires at a garage, and the folks at the garage have a racket where they steal from the lockers where "Fatty" sets up his exchanges, and…

So, that's a lot, especially toward the start, where you might be trying to file away all the names of the various folks in the retirement home because you'd read a description that suggested "a couple old folks" disrupted a heist led by Kwok's character, and Jen & Lam are not only a year or two younger than Kwok, but there's pretty much equal levels of wear on their characters. And while the filmmakers cannot control that promotion, it's still kind of an awful lot to introduce in a little time, with Nam at least wearing a mask, and a number of paths crossing in ways that don't necessarily make sense as coincidence or something with intent. It mostly fits together - it's actually a pretty impressively edited movie, considering how doggedly it moves forward despite a lot going on - but there are a lot of decisions that seem to come out of nowhere, like the writers were coming up with them on-set.

The thing about movies like this is that even when the story ultimately holds up, it becomes hard to make them more than a series of "and then this happened" unless you've got something really clever, and this one really doesn't: There's never the surprising connection, the random event that sends everything in a new direction, or the performance that makes you care about some loser more than you expected. It's a bunch of odd characters with weird tics bouncing off each other until the machine finally winds down, but even the friendship between these middle-aged two guys trying to provide for their families, which sort of serves as the reason Tin sees them as somewhat kindred spirits, never quite materializes. Stuff just happens, and while that doesn't quite make Rob N Roll mere"content" (ptui!), it really needs that X factor which never quite arrives.

Admittedly, Aaron Kwok is trying, chewing some scenery as a downright crazy gunman from An Nam, but it's not quite the thing you can hang a movie on. That said, it's worth noting that the audience laughed hard at his antics, and I wonder if it's from the longtime Canto-pop star was playing very far against type (I've seen him play parts from villains to the Monkey King, but this seems out there). Few of the other bits even have that much energy, though you can see something in a couple of the supporting characters: Lam Suet's Fatty (I believe this is at least the dozenth time he has played a character named "Fatty") feels like he's been around a few other crimes that got out of control and just wants to stay out of the way, while Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee's Ginger is eager to jump into the sort of case that gets a cop noticed. There's probably a fun spoof of the five-overlapping-crime-stories movie to be made pairing them off, but this isn't quite it.

It's Albert Mak Kai-Kwong's first time in the main director's chair in 13 years or so, although he's spent the interim working as an executive or assistant director on a number of noteworthy films, including a half-dozen or so for Johnnie To, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of rust: He and the action team kick things off with a nifty robbery and as mentioned, he and the rest of the team do an impressive job of making sure the audience gets what it needs. The shell game at the public pool's locker room, for instance, could either be a mess or could slow down out of fear of losing the audience, but it mostly works. I believe he's one of the credited writers, so he may responsible for the mess as much as presenting it as cleanly as possible, but there's a certain old-school Hong Kong appeal to that, reminding me a bit of the crime flicks from previous decades when the level of craft fought with the fact that there wasn't time or budget to be perfectionist.

It's thoroughly okay, from my perch up front trying to follow action and subtitles and take notes on plot threads to help them stick. The Chinese and Chinese-American folks behind me seemed to dig it a lot more,and maybe it works better if you can just relax.

Da Yu (The Storm)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

I occasionally wonder, watching a fantasy from outside my Anglo-American field of reference like The Storm, exactly how much is traditional, how much is referencing other works, and how much is made up of whole cloth. In some ways, it doesn't much matter; the end result is the end result, and Yang Zhigang's storytelling here is impressive. On the other hand, I kind of want to know just how good a job he's doing: This movie does a fair-sized lore dump and then stays running straight to the end, and I suspect that if I saw this under the same circumstances as the director's previous film (with subtitles that were more or less incomprehensible), I'd either have been worse off than someone trying to watch it as a silent or still able to grasp what was happening.

As it starts, young Bun and his foster father Biggie appear to be the only people left in an abandoned village near Dragon Bay. Biggie has told Bun tales of the Big Black Boat which sank containing various treasures, including the Necturlumin Satin, along with an opera troupe; he's been seeking it for years. But a pair of new faces - Liu Ziyan, the chief inspector of her father's army, and her "Uncle Big Hat", healer Liu Hade - arrive just as the Big Black Boat resurfaces, and along with it parasitic Jellieels that eventually make those they come into contact Jellieelsters. Ziyan's father, Liu Duhuan, is obsessed with the Satin, but much more is at stake, as the bird-masked Necturlumin tribe has arrived to counter the Insect Awakening, which could revive the Jellieel King with apocalyptic results. Through all this, though, Bun just wants to try and save Biggie; both were bitten by Jellieels, but while Hade was able to treat Bun quickly, all that Biggie is tangled up in can only make his situation worse.

It sounds like utter nonsense, laid out like that, but Yang lays it out so confidently and with such little fanfare that It's kind of great, a great big fantasy that spends the first chunk adding new bits but never really buckles as backstory gets revealed. The balance between the simple relationship at the heart of the film and the full roster of crazy fantasy stuff never gets out of whack, as Yang does fine work in making sure that every revelation about Biggie's past and present circles back around to how this is going to affect the life he's built with Bun, as well as using the way a kid like Bun can sort of accept new, scary things to keep the story going as more gets added in.

The relatively uncomplicated art style that feels like it exists somewhere between Hayao Miyazaki's and Ralph Bakshi's fantasies reinforces that. The basics are elemental enough that the details need little explanation, and those details are kind of fun, especially the spherical pet bird that nests in the spot where a horn apparently broke off from the oversized helmet Bun wears everywhere, a set of little things that all make sense together. Ziyan has a particularly nice design, hitting a spot that is strict and military but which doesn't have to melt or relax in order to show interest in the little kid. The "umbrellas" which threaten to swallow Biggie and Bun early especially feel like trippy animated fantasy from an earlier decade in how they move from background to foreground, in that one's brain being unable to calculate distance from perspective makes them a bit more dangerous, and the design of the soldiers seem to go from impressive and disciplined to bloated and chaotic as they get in way over their head, especially once they enter a boat that reveals a ton of fun ornamentation inside its almost abstracted exterior.

It also means that when the finale gets weird - which it does! - it sort of works that everything gets a bit lost. It's unabashedly like those sequences in 1990s Disney movies where they're suddenly using the computers for more than coloring and it doesn't quite mesh, only with enough horror influence to harness the uncanny nature of that effect. It's eye-popping, a roller-coaster that keeps finding Bun as the camera swoops around the boat, watching huge supernatural forces crash into each other. It's the one bit where I wondered if this was 3D in China, but finishes up with just enough room for the film to resolve its main business.

All in all, a movie firmly in the category of those where I don't know who in my circle I would recommend it to, but I want to show it to someone.

Sunday, January 28, 2024


It's not unusual for Indian movies to start with a wall of disclaimers to let you know that no offense was intended or harm was done - recall, for instance, the very specific list of animals we are assured were CGI-created in RRR - but the one before Fighter was absolutely crazy, in English but too much to take in even for those of for whom it is our first language. Some of it, I suspect, is things that I really don't know how to parse, like how the one character in a turban is portrayed as a gullible goofball, though I've got no idea if that's a common thing to do with Sikhs (or if I'm wrong to assume he's a Sikh), and that's why there's something about no disrespect meant to any ethnicity/religion/caste, while others seem to be trying to do a little cover on how the movie kind of progresses from the villains being "Jaish" terrorists (which I took as "not-quite-Da'esh") with many Pakistani officials kind of nervous about associating with them to a more nationalistic finale.

Some of it was just weird to me, though, like a mention that there was no exploitation of children involved or endorsed, and considering that there aren't any kids in the movie, what is up with that?

One thing I find interesting after watching a number of these Indian action movies over the past few years, though I really can't guess as to its significance, is that every time the stakes escalate enough that the Prime Minister is involved in a decision, he's played by an actor who kind of looks like Narendra Modi if you squint, and we don't generally do that when portraying the President in the USA: Depending on the movie, we'll go for some genetically capable-looking upper-middle-aged guy (a William Sadler type) or someone aspirational (Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact), or make him/her a specific character. It could be entirely practical; by the time a movie finishes production, we may have a new President, given the four-year election cycle, while parliamentary systems may have more stable leadership. But it is something I noticed this time!


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2024 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon 3D)

I wonder if, at any point, filmmaker Siddarth Anand and the rest of the people involved with Fighter asked how close the music could get to Top Gun without infringing, before realizing Viacom18 and Paramount were related companies. It's an association that does this decent-enough military action flick no favors, as it's not going to get anywhere near the weird horniness of the original nor is it going to go to the insane lengths the sequel did for realism. It's entertaining enough, but is also the kind of blockbuster that isn't going to do something interesting or surprising with its big budget.

It introduces the audience the the "Air Dragons", an elite unit in the Indian Air Force that includes the IAF's top pilot, Shamsheer Patania (Hrithik Roshan), call sign "Patty"; old classmate and wingman Sartaj "Taj" Gill (Karan Singh Grover) and his back-seater Basheer "Bash" Khan (Akshay Oberoi); veteran pilot "Rocky" Rakishi (Anil Kapoor); and rescue helicopter pilot Minal "Minni" Rathore (Deepika Padukone), among others. Patty is cocky enough to get on Minni's nerves but she can't help but be drawn to him, although it's clear Rocky wants no part of him in his unit. Meanwhile, Pakistan-based "Jaish" terrorist Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney) is planning an crippling attack on the air force base at which they are headquartered, which would leave India vulnerable to an attack by Pakistani ace "Red Nose".

As Top Gun knockoffs go, it's not bad, although there are plenty of times when it doesn't seem like Anand, Ramon Chibb, and the other writers started from "air force movie" and never really came up with a more specific hook. You can set your watch by when certain bits of the plot will happen, and the relationship between Patty and Minni never really seems based on more than Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone being the biggest stars/most attractive people in the movie than anything else (I'm not saying that Anand should have made a detour into Vertigo territory, but Patty's dead fiancée was a helicopter pilot in his unit - this should be something people comment on!). The patriotism/nationalism is laid on very thick, to the point of literal flag-waving. Also, by the end you've got to kind of wonder if this was really the whole "Jiash" master plan, because a great deal of time is spent talking about what a menace Akhtar is compared to him doing stuff that seems particularly clever and dangerous.

The aerial action obviously isn't exactly going to be on the same level as what we got in Maverick, but it can nevertheless be a lot of fun, especially when Anand is translating the let-us-say-heightened slo-mo craziness Indian action has become known for to something you might do with fighter jets, with physics-defying spins, zooming through explosions, and unlikely angles of attack, with the FX and 3D work being awfully darn solid, if one is not going out of one's way to compare it to a movie that a Hollywood studio would drop a couple hundred million dollars on. Akhtar not being a fighter pilot means that they're eventually going to have to get things down on the ground, which is maybe not necessarily the climax one might hope for.

The film manages to get further than it might on a pretty nice cast, even if Hritak Roshan and Deepika Padukone kind of seem like they're on parallel movies rather than one where they're supposed to be falling in love. Roshan is pretty good at giving the movie what it's asking for, though; he's aged into a guy whose wear projects both confidence and vulnerability. Less seems to be asked of Padukone, which is a shame. Anil Kapoor winds up the MVP, projecting restrained anger even when he's erupting, hitting the spot where one buys him as a grizzled veteran who can still step into a plane and show the others a thing or two, even if one maybe looks askance when told another character is his younger sister rather than his daughter. Rishabh Sawhney gets an "introducing" credit as Akhtar, but could maybe grow into being part of the next generation of Indian action stars, although it's kind of comical how muscular he is here.

It's not a bad flick, if not quite as jaw-dropping in either realism or the lack thereof as similar movies. Between Anand, Roshan, Padukone, and Kapoor, there's a lot of top-level blockbuster talent here, enough that they could have gotten away with doing something a little more unexpected with the basic premise.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 26 January 2024 - 1 February 2024

A movie whose release was built around the Oscars gets no nominations, enough nominees were released early enough that they have to get brought back, and that squeezes the movie I most wanted this weekend out. It's a goofy weekend!
  • That big release is Origin, which looks to be something between Ava Duvernay adapting Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste and making a film about the research and writing of it, starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkinson, and the trailers certainly had the look of something meant to be more grand and ambitious than usual. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, Boston Common, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row..

    The Coolidge's midnights this weekend feature two cases of weird satellite dishes linking the televised and real worlds, with a 35mm print of TerrorVision on Friday and Stay Tuned on Saturday, plus one last January Giallo with StageFright on Saturday. There are also Saturday & Sunday matinees of the 2023 NYICFF Kid Flicks One program, a Big Screen Classics show of Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion on Monday, an "Projections" wrapping up with the original Westworld on 35mm Tuesday and Metropolis with the Anvil Orchestra on Wednesday. February's program, "Destination Romance", kicks off Thursday with An American in Paris on 35mm.
  • Most of the action at the multiplexes is Oscar Nominees expanding or returning. The Zone of Interest is the one picking up screens as it adds The Somerville Theatre and Assembly Row to the Coolidge, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and the Seaport. Oppenheimer had a re-release planned, playing at the Somerville (70mm), Jordan's Furniture (Imax), West Newton, Boston Common (Imax Xenon), the Seaport, South Bay (Imax Xenon), Assembly Row (Imax Laser), and Chestnut Hill.

    Among the returnees are The Holdovers at the Capitol, Kendall Square, the Embassy, West Newton, Boston Common, Causeway Street, and the Seaport; Barbie at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill; Anatomy of a Fall at Kendall Square, the Embassy, CinemaSalem, Boston Common, and the Seaport (with single shows at the MFA and Brattle); Past Lives at Kendall Square, Boston Common; Maestro at the Embassy (on and off); and Godzilla Minus One was already slated for a return before its surprise nomination for Best Visual Effects, in a special black & white "Godzilla Minus One Minus Color" edition; that's at Boston Common, Causeway Street, the Seaport, South Bay, and Assembly Row (where the color version never left!).

    Thanksgiving is not nominated for any Oscars, but also returns to Boston Common, but apparently this sort of thing is good for promoting Tuesday's disc release.

    In terms of genuine new releases, there's Miller's Girl, a comedy starring Martin Freeman as a teacher and Jenna Ortega as his student, whose relationship gets tricky due to a creative writing assignment. It's at Boston Common.

    The Wizard of Oz plays 85th anniversary shows Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday at Boston Common, South Bay, and Arsenal Yards (no Wednesday show). There's an "AMC Screen Unseen" preview at Boston Common, Causeway Street, and Assembly Row on Monday. Concert film Pet Shop Boys "Dreamworld": The Hits Live plays Boston Common and Kendall Square on Wednesday.
  • The biggest blockbuster opening this weekend is Bollywood action film Fighter, which features Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone, and Anil Kapoor as members of an elite "Air Dragons" unit of the Indian Air Force directed by Siddharth Anand, who recently made War and Pathaan and tied them together in a "spy universe" that this film is not connected to. It's at Fresh Pond and Boston Common, with both Imax 3D and RealD 3D showtimes at the latter.

    Also opening at Apple Fresh Pond for Republic Weekend are Malayalam-language historic action drama Malaikottai Vaaliban, plus Tamil comedies Singapore Saloon (about an ambitious hairstylist) and Blue Star (about rival cricket players). Telugu-language adventure Hanu Man is held over at Fresh Pond.

    The new film from mainland China this week is The Storm, an animated adventure from the director of The Guardian, which was if nothing else eye-popping when I saw it at Fantasia six years ago. That plays at Boston Common and Causeway Street. The new one from Hong Kong is Rob N Roll, an action-comedy starring Richie Jen and Aaron Kwok. Johnny Keep Walking! is also held over at Causeway Street (and in fact has more showtimes than it had last weekend).

    The Boy and the Heron is still at West Newton, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and returns to the Embassy and CinemaSalem.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a special event on Friday evening with Nightingale Vocal Ensemble - Photoplay, in which a 9-person chorus will improvise soundtracks to short films from early silence to recent contest winners. Stop Making Sense has a special screening Saturday night, RPM Fest welcomes Kelly Sears on Sunday for a collection of ten shorts titled "We Were Given These Instructions", and there's a free Elements of Cinema show of Wim Wenders's Alice in the Cities on Monday.

    Otherwise, "(Some of) The Best of 2023" continues with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (Friday/Saturday), Asteroid City (Saturday), Scrapper & Polite Society (Sunday), How to Blow Up a Pipeline (Monday), Orlando, My Political Biography & Mutt (Tuesday), Anatomy of a Fall & Passages (Wednesday), Joan Baez: I Am a Noise (Thursday), and Infinity Pool (Thursday).
  • The Alamo Seaport rep calendar has 1999 Time Capsules of The Matrix (Friday/Monday), The Talented Mr. Ripley (Saturday), Jawbreaker (Monday). There's also a Clueless movie party on Sunday and a preview for She Is Conann on Tuesday.
  • The Capitol brings back Priscilla. They also have their monthly VHS trading/"Disasterpiece Theater" night on Monday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive begins the program "Victor Erice, Full Circle", with The Spirit of the Beehive on 35mm film Friday and Sunday, plus his new film, Close Your Eyes, on Saturday. "Ousmane Sembène, Cinematic Revolutionary" continues with the newly-restored Ceddo on Sunday evening, and Wind from the East, one of a number of screenings paying tribute to the journal Afterimage, plays Monday night.

    Joe's Free Films also shows three films at various other spots on the Harvard campus this week: Plan 75 on the Longwood Campus on Monday, Oqlanmagan - The Unexonerated in Tsai Auditorium on Tuesday, and Afghan Dreamers at the Kennedy School on Thursday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has Anatomy of a Fall on Friday night, and two art documentaries during the weekend afternoons: Klimt and the Kiss on Saturday and Art for Everybody, covering the life of Thomas Kinkade, on Sunday.
  • In addition to Origin and the returning nominees Landmark Kendall Square also has a 50th anniversary show of Amarcord on Tuesday.
  • This week's Bright Lights presentation upstairs at the Paramount is Israelism, a documentary about/by two young Jewish Americans raised to be staunch supporters of Israel whose perspective is shaken when they learn more about the country's treatment of Palestinians. It was originally scheduled for October but pushed for the obvious reasons, but will be showing free for all on Thursday, with a post-film Q&A with directors Erin Axelman and Sam Eilersten.
  • The Lexington Venue is open Friday to Sunday with Driving Madeleine and American Fiction.

    The West Newton Cinema brings back Oppenheimer to join The Boys in the Boat (Friday-Sunday) American Fiction, The Boy and the Heron (subtitled all week, dubbed matinees Friday to Sunday), Migration, Poor Things, and The Holdovers (no show Wednesday).

    The Luna Theater has The Iron Claw Friday to Sunday and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem is open through Monday with All of Us Strangers, Mean Girls, The Boys and the Heron, Anatomy of a Fall, American Fiction, and Poor Things. The Friday "Night Light" show is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
I'm seeing Fighter in Imax 3D tonight, and I'll probably catch the Chinese movies, Anatomy of a Fall, and maybe Origin as well, on top of seeing what's playing at a good time when I finish work. And, of course, trying to resist the temptation to fume at Boston not getting Alienoid: Return to the Future when there's clearly room and I've been waiting for a resolution to that cliffhanger for a year and a half!

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Johnny Keep Walking!

Not the same Asian Film Corner as the last few times, but when all your posters are actually HDTVs, you can throw up "current Chinese movies playing, plus the one opening Friday" for a half-hour on either side of the movie's start time, and then change it up, as they were showing something different when I left.

Interesting thing: AMC definitely added more showtimes for Johnny Keep Walking! at some point; it was basically half a screen, alternating slots with Time Still Turns the Pages and apparently getting the bad end during the week when showtimes shifted to get rid of the 9pm screenings, but it wound up getting expanded to a full day's slate and held over for a second weekend, with pretty decent turn-out in the show I went to (which was admittedly a not-huge theater). I've occasionally wondered how much flexibility theaters have in adjusting showtimes now that people are reserving specific seats online a week in advance, and it seems AMC at least has a little here.

It's warranted here, too, because this one's pretty fun. Also, I apparently saw director Runnian Dong's previous film, Gone with the Light, but have zero memory or record of it aside from logging it on Letterboxd during 2020's virtual NYAFF (the one with the terrible streaming platform). I should maybe circle back to that sometime.

Nian hui bu neng ting! (Johnny Keep Walking!)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #12 (first-run, laser DCP)

A thing I often wonder about while watching imported comedies like Johnny Keep Walking! is to what extent the rest of the audience is really digging the whole thing while I'm just enjoying the jokes good enough to punch through the language and cultural barriers. There are long stretches to this movie where I kind of see what kind of earnest silliness it's striving for, but don't quite laugh, which can make for a long-ish evening. On the other hand, when it does do so, it's kind of sublimely ridiculous, and I bit the expats, students, and Chinese-American folks behind me are having a really great time.

It starts out in 1998, with Hu Jianlin (Dong "Da Peng" Chengpeng) repairing a mirrorball at the new year's party for the factory where he works, eager to sing for his co-workers and the future looking bright. Fast forward twenty-one years, and he's more or less in the same place, right down to living with his mother, but the plant is now the Standard Component Factory for the Zhonghe group, a massive corporation with a big-city headquarters and investments in almost every business sector in China. His ambitions still don't extend much further than performing in the company gala, although co-worker Zhuang Zhengzhi (Wang Xun) is angling for a promotion to headquarters, and has in fact paid a substantial bribe and participated in some off-the-books scheming to make it happen. Unfortunately, Jianlin's application to perform and Zhuang's for a promotion get switched, so now Jianlin has a position in Human Resources that he doesn't understand, and his put-upon supervisor Ma Jie (Bai "White-K" Ke) - or "Magic", as everyone at headquarters uses an English nickname - realizes that he's been promoted by mistake. Fearing that exposing "Johnny" to his superiors will lead to him taking the fall, Ma enlists bitter six-year temp Pan "Penny" Yiran (Zhuang Dafei) to get his work done. The question is, will Johnny's country-bumpkin good nature make him the perfect patsy to execute a massive round of layoffs, or will it throw a wrench into the execs' plans?

Folks have been making comedies about less sophisticated folks crashing big business - Safety Last! with Harold Lloyd is hardly the first - though there are a lot of different templates. Johnny Keep Walking! tries most every variation at one point or another (although, oddly, there's no romantic subplot). Sometimes the pieces don't quite match up, as Jianlin can occasionally seem dim rather than just out of his element. It's hard, I think, to come up with jokes about corporate culture that haven't been done before, but the filmmakers handle their own goofy ideas well, whether it be the screwy way Zhuang winds up losing his contact in the company to the employees of this Chinese company choosing English names. I must admit to being kind of curious how the joke about Ma Jie not daring to go .with "Jack Ma" as a name lands with Chinese viewers.

Star Da Peng seems to handle this sort of thing a bit better in the films he writes and directs himself - finding the zany/deadpan overlap is tricky - and it kind of makes his "Johnny" fuzzy enough that the jokes aren't really about him, and the trio at the center never works as well as a unit as they do anchoring jokes about individual types and positions - Zhuang Dafei makes Penny enjoyably snarky without being abrasive and White-K is enjoyably frazzled. They're a likable enough set, at least, easy enough to root for, and certainly more fleshed-out than the scheming executives.

It's messy at times - the sequence where Jianlin seems to sell out really doesn't work at all - but it builds surprisingly well, doing a nifty job of getting weirder as Zhuang hides out in the city headquarters (minus pants) while driving toward a conclusion. The film ends on a fun musical number that works even for those of us that don't speak a word of Mandarin, and that's some solid execution!

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 15 January 2024 - 21 January 2024 (Bonus Weekend Day!)

I always feel unsure as to whether or not I'm going to get Martin Luther King Day off. I don't think my employers try to minimize it, but since people don't travel for it, they don't let us go 2 hours early the day before the long weekend, it's not really something where you will end a meeting by saying "have a happy MLK Day", and I don't know that any traditions have developed around it (or at least, not ones that make sense for middle-class white folks like me). So I spend that Friday poking around the company intranet, seeing if there's some sort of announcement, aware that I could wind up working for half the day before realizing there weren't meetings rather than, say, taking in a couple of matinees.
This Week in Tickets
(Oops, small scrapbooking error there!)

Anyway, I took that day off and did a sort of unintentional "fighting internet crime" double feature split across two AMC theaters - I Did It My Way at Causeway Street, because that's where it was playing, and The Beekeeper at Assembly Row because that was the next time it was playing in Imax and AMC doesn't advertise any one screen at Causeway street as being fancier than another. Screen #15 was the deluxe "WideScreen" back when it was an ArcLight, but doesn't get tagged as anything in particular now. And, yes, it's still screen #15 even though it's a 13-screen theater and I only count 11 in use looking at the site. I suspect the old screens #13 & #14 will eventually be opened as an Imax/Dolby/, but for now the numbering is screwy.

Tuesday night I rewatched EXIT ahead of writing up a Film Rolls post. Sometimes I'll do this because it's been months and I remember nothing about a movie; this time I remembered it as a ton of fun.

Wednesday night, the place in the Seaport was showing Blood Tea and Red String, which has been playing a lot of Alamo Drafthouse locations in recent weeks, which I'm hoping is a prelude to a Blu-ray release and maybe even Christiane Cegavske's new film Seed in the Sand being ready to hit the genre festival circuit in a couple months.

Friday night, headed to the Brattle for the only night The Unknown Country, which I really liked. I was intending to head back their the next night for Bottoms, but, well, sometimes you make decisions on what to watch based on not wanting to hang around Harvard Square in the cold for two hours when you finish shopping at 7:15pm (some folks can milk a meal for a couple hours; I feel weird about it when I'm on my own). So it was downtown to catch Time Still Turns the Pages, one of the few recent Chinese movies to open at Boston Common, right outside Chinatown, since the Causeway Street location re-opened.

Kind of a good crowd, to, especially considering how Mainland movies usually do much better here than ones from Hong Kong. I've got a bit of a theory on that - it's not so much the location so much that Mainland movies have tended to skew younger until recently, while a lot of HK stuff that gets distributed here still kind of leans on folks who were popular in the 1990s, but when you get something like this with a new voice coming out of the area, it lands pretty well. Might be worth watching to see how the next few ones do.

Sunday, it was back to Boston Common for The End We Start From, although its weird 5:05pm start time meant it didn't really play well with seeing another movie that day. I'm always kind of impressed by how multiplexes schedule things so people aren't likely to see two movies in a row, in a "that's kind of difficult with 19 screens" way more than a "good job!" way, likely because folks like me are probably only visiting the concession stand once even on a three-movie day, but it's kind of a bummer when the movie winds up a dud.

We'll see what Oscar announcements do to this and my Letterboxd account as they come out! Meanwhile, I'll be refreshing Fandango repeatedly to see where Alienoid 2 opens.

(Also, you may note that I've started putting some "available on Amazon text bits"; which are probably more useful on Film Rolls than this, but, hey, click through if the movie interests you, even if there's no longer images to break up the wall-o-text!)

The Beekeeper

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2024 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax Laser)

When this type of movie has one person who has done bigger and better things, say Jeremy Irons as a villain, it probably goes straight to VOD. Two (add David Ayer as director), it's a streaming premiere and maybe sneaks into theaters for a weekend. Script by Kurt Wimmer and Minnie Driver shows up, and maybe it's more interesting than it looks.

Not that much more interesting, sure, but it's a little better than it could be. Jason Statham (who, to my surprise, has never really had his releases dip down to VOD level for two movies in a row) bluntly telling a woman whose mother just committed suicide about how awful preying on the elderly is because nobody cares comes off as someone bad at human interaction rather than bad writing; and indeed highlights why Statham movies can be unusually fun: He's able to play "Adam Clay" as kind of a weirdo here without really making weirdo his thing. Everyone else is on the same page; it's not really an "action comedy", but you couldn't really drop the FBI agents played by Emmy Raver-Lampman and Bobby Naderi into a standard flick that's played earnest .

It lets the whole movie be a bit off-kilter without the audience realizing it's cock-eyed until they're into it. The bee metaphors are made very literal, and there's enough action-movie skill bouncing around the set that you can roll with a ridiculous level of escalation. Kind of a shame that the tagline on the trailer (funnier in its red-band alliterative form) didn't make it into the movie, though.

And so, this becomes a fun January diversion as a ridiculously overcapable avenger rips his way through easily disliked goons, impressively shooting around honest law enforcement types to take out the private security bastards, while supporting characters banter enough to support the silliness without making it a comedy. Statham hits a good spot between stoical and a guy with a weird sense of humor. The Boston-set pieces are likably authentic. It's the sort of movie monthly pass programs are made for, but also the sort where I wouldn't necessarily mind seeing them do two or three more, even if I'm not sure they could capture the same sort-of-off vibe again now that folks know it's coming.

Blood Tea and Red String

* * * (out of four) Seen 17 January 2024 in Alamo Drafthouse Seaport #5 (first-run, DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime

I don't know that anything in this movie means much of anything - there's a fable about greed eventually destroying what gave the puppet the illusion of life (which perhaps plays a bit meta in a stop-motion film), but that's broad strokes as opposed to particularly direct symbolism - but there's a slow-motion life to it. Everything moves just enough to seem animated but not quite enough to be magical or make one wonder how Christiane Cegavski did that; the storyteller is very much present. And yet, something about the deliberate pace emphasizes that there is, in fact, some kind of logic to all the surreal and grotesque imagery and action, even if it's just beyond one's grasp, while the storytelling, with its creation, death, and abstraction, feels mythic. We understand why all this is happening even if the film has no words to explain anything.

Archived eFilmCritic review from 2006

The Unknown Country

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2024 in the Brattle Theatre ((Some of) The Best of 2023, DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on Blu-ray on Amazon

Despite its title, The Unknown Country doesn't lean too hard into the idea of Lily Gladstone's Tana traveling straight down the center of the United States even though that can't exactly be unseen once you make the connection. It tells the stories of people in that oft-overlooked middle in little bits, letting them be small but varied, using a lot of folks who are presumably non-actors. It's not necessarily a unique approach - it happens often enough that I suspect filmmakers don't trust themselves to avoid being inauthentic or looking down on folks - but it mostly works The film will often spend a minute or so letting them narrate and showing their home life as Tana starts moving to the next stop.

An interesting thing that does is that it allows writer/director Morrisa Maltz to fade in on Tana's story rather than presenting the first couple of these things as detours. It's easy to take the first time we see Tana as her fleeing something as opposed to just getting an early start in a place/season where the sun takes a while to rise (though there's maybe something metaphorically accurate to the first impression), but it also sort of prepares the viewer for how where she goes is surprisingly upbeat but has some underlying tension. Lily Gladstone does some really nice work there, looking frazzled and worn down but able to bounce back a bit, revealing Tana in pieces but not as revelations; more as realizing you don't really know a person from first impressions.

I'm impressed by how the filmmakers avoid romanticizing the environment she travels through. There are wide shots of the land's beauty, but on the road, it's dark and empty, a Native woman has to be on her guard, and the air is filled with AM radio which amplifies the reasons why but is often unintelligible and fragmentary. Some family is a warm embrace, but even that's divided with grudges lurking just out of reach. Tana loves them, but you get why she and her grandmother before her find some relief when they get far away.

Throughout, there's great moments . A woman who has probably been waiting tables at the same dinner for 50 years tells customers passing through not to forget her, and it's a little sad but not as much as it could be. At the end, Tana recreates a picture of her grandmother that she's carried throughout the film, and a wide drone shot tells you that her life was bigger than that image could show, and maybe Tana's can be, too.

Ninsiu Yatgei (Time Still Turns the Pages)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2024 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Time Still Turns the Pages appears to have taken the old-fashioned art-house route to American theaters rather than arriving just a week or two later the way Chinese genre films often do (though that's still pretty quick compared to how long foreign dramas have historically taken), and I kind of wonder if that's why it played both Causeway Street, which is now tending to get the Chinese-language movies, and Boston Common, which is getting more art-house releases these days Indeed, it probably belongs more with the group of young filmmakers emerging in Hong Kong over the past ten years trying to make stories which aren't necessarily subversive but which are local and feel like they come from the artists' recent experiences, rather than looking to play on the mainland but placing anything dramatic in the past.

It does start some twenty-odd years ago, though with a fake-out where ten-year-old Eli Cheng (Sean Wong Tsz-Lok) initially seems to be jumping off a building, though there is plenty more roof on the other side of the half wall he leaps from, where he yells he will get accepted into Hong Kong University and become a great teacher. Not that he doesn't have motivation; father Chi-Hung (Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei) is abusive toward both wife Heidi (Rosa Maria Velasco) and Eli, angry he's not the prodigy his 8-year-old brother Alan (Curtis Ho Pak-Kim) is. In the present, Mr. Cheng (Lo Chin-Yip) is maybe not a great teacher, and his personal life is a mess - he still hasn't removed his wedding ring since the divorce - but he bends over backwards to help his students. When a janitor finds a note that looks like someone contemplating suicide, it shakes him to the core, and while the obvious writer is bullied student Vincent (Henick Chou), he asks another trusted student, Betheny, to see if she sees signs of this in any of her classmates.

For a while, it looks like Cheuk is going to be running these two stories in parallel with roughly equal weight, but that's not the actual play. Instead, what this movie does is to set up what seems like a mystery plot, more or less sideline it in order to concentrate on the backstory that one assumed was only going to be half the movie, but still have a surprise or two that one might not have expected. It's a smart way to use a hook but not necessarily be in service to it. It is, probably, more satisfying this way; the film is about Cheung not being free of his past more than cycles of abuse, and spending relatively little time on the student's issues implies a lot is happening off-screen, rather than just using them to motivate Cheung.

The movie itself is very earnest, perhaps more straightforward than someone looking for a certain type of drama may want, like director Cheuk saved all his nuance for a bit of misdirection and a couple interesting storytelling bits, but there isn't a lot of moral gray area on this sort of story, and the attempt to find some doors is victims a disservice. Abuse is abuse. Still, the telling of the story is often interesting; there's a nifty scene early on where Cheung imagines the note in each of his students' voices, and presents various pieces of the story in a way that makes one wonder how they can fit together until they do.

The cast is good, too. Lo Chin-Yip gives Cheuk a take on Cheung that suggests someone damaged enough to potentially fall apart without ever quite getting to the level of "should he be teaching", and Ronald Cheng is pretty terrific in essaying a very specific sort of monster, the sort that puffs himself up and lashes out at anyone who might undermine that supposed sophistication, maybe not even able to escape it at the end. A whole lot of the film rests on the tiny shoulders of Sean Wong, who gives the performance of a great kid who will keep trying even as it's breaking him despite his being just perceptive enough to see what's happening. The way Curtis Ho mirrors that as Alan is good, too, his head in his own thing, but feeling like Eli's brother.

I don't know that Time Still Turns the Pages is a life-changing movie, or one that gives us a look at the new wave of Hong Kong film, but it's a solid little indie drama with good performances from kids, and those are nice to see from anywhere.

The End We Start From

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2024 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

Find something you love as much as the people making this movie love putting Jodie Comer's character in a difficult situation and then cutting to her not being in it. I know the arc of her growing from this pretty but kind of vacant-looking piece of fluff to determined mama bear wouldn't work as well if we saw her getting from a flooded house to a hospital in the first ten minutes, but instead it sets up a different pattern that no amount of with/without-makeup match shots in and out of flashbacks can make up for.

It doesn't feel like a particularly deliberate choice to emphasize what fits the film's thesis, though; mostly, it just seems like the filmmakers had a lot of ideas for scenes where the actors can do character stuff, maybe the ones that most stuck with them from Megan Hunter's novel, but there is neither interest nor resources to do the more active material that must come between those pieces. Comer, Katherine Waterston, and a few others are good in their scenes, but you can feel the void where the bits where we usually learn something about characters by what they do and how they do it are. Consider the whole thing with the "folks in the communes just want to pretend things are normal" thread: It's outright spoken before we ever get near them, and then once they do, there's no time where we see how those setting work and how Comer's character doesn't fit in because she's so worried about her husband; she's just "this is not for me" as soon as they arrive and it's time to go back to the mainland.

So much of it doesn't make any sense because it mostly works as an actors' showcase but there's not a lot of awareness or attention to what creates the situations these characters are in. It's a movie about internal climate refugees that has nothing to say about the climate crisis, even off-handedly. It's full of decisions that are immediately reversed because it needs to get to the next sequence and there's no clear path between them. The End We Start From is not quite so aggressively stupid as Leave the World Behind, but it feels emptier, a major catastrophe where people die played as a massive inconvenience.

Also, this is yet another movie where everything goes to hell and people have cars and boats with fuel in them six months later but nobody has found and made use of a bicycle as they walk across the country. I Did It My Way The Beekeeper EXIT Blood Tea and Red String The Unknown Country The End We Start From Time Still Turns the Pages

Friday, January 19, 2024

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 January 2024 - 25 January 2024

Oscar nominations this week, so I wouldn't be surprised if we get things returning or gaining screens/shows come Wednesday. For now, it's another week of small/odd openings. Or not-openings; I'm seeing some ads online for Which Brings Me to You, and saw a trailer a week or so ago, but nope!
  • Sci-fi thriller I.S.S. offers up Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina as two American astronauts aboard the International Space Station when nuclear war erupts on Earth, with both American and Russian crew members ordered to seize the station. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Causeway Street, the Seaport, and South Bay.

    Queen Rock Montreal, which upgrades a 1981 concert to Imax specs, plays Imax screens Friday to Sunday at Jordan's Furniture, Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Sharing space on those screens are Oppenheimer (Boston Common & Assembly Row), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (South Bay & Jordan's), André 3000: New Blue Sun (Tuesday at Boston Common), and a reissue of Dune: Part One (Wednesday at Boston Common).

    The End We Start From, with Jodie Comer as a mother trying to navigate a flooded London with her newborn, opens at Boston Common. Slasher movie Founders Day plays Fresh Pond.

    Beautiful Wedding, a romantic comedy starring Dylan Sprouse and Virginia Gardner, plays Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Two imports from Europe arrive at Landmark Kendall Square. Driving Madeleine features Dany Boon as a taxi driver who finds his day upended when a 92-year-old woman (Line Renaud) has him take her across town to visit old haunts before she takes up residence in an assisted-living home; it also plays at The Embassy in Waltham. From Germany comes The Teachers' Lounge, featuring Leonie Benesch as a middle-school teacher trying to navigate a rash of thefts sets everyone at each other's throats.

    Tuesday's 50th Anniversary screening at the Kendall is Terrence Malick's Badlands, $5 for loyalty members.
  • Four new Indian films open at Apple Fresh Pond on Friday: Mission: Chapter 1, is a Tamil-language thriller about a man imprisoned while his daughter is getting medical care in London; Main Atal Hoon, a Hindi-language biography of poet and statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Pankaj Tripathi)' Qalb, a Malayalam-language romance; and Abraham Ozler, a Malayalam-language serial killer movie. Kabuliwala, a Bengali historical drama, plays Saturday and Sunday.

    Continuing are Hanu Man (Hindi & Telugu); also at Boston Common in Telugu, Guntur Kaaram (Telugu), Ayalaan (Tamil), Captain Miller (Tamil), and Merry Christmas (Hindi).

    Two new Chinese movies this week: Hong Kong drama Time Still Turns the Pages is the feature directorial debut of SPL: Paradox writer Nick Cheuk, starring Lo Chun-yip as a teacher who must confront the memories of his own traumatic childhood to help one of his students; it plays Boston Common and Causeway Street. Mainland comedy Johnny Keep Walking! stars Da Peng as a small-town employee of a large company given a promotion in the midst of layoffs; it's at Causeway Street. Hong Kong crime flick I Did It My Way also sticks around at Causeway Street.

    Boston Common has Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for special AXCN shows on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. What is apparently a different Gurren Lagann movie from last week - Gurren Lagann The Movie: The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, plays Boston Common, South Bay and Assembly Row on Tuesday (subtitled) and Wednesday (dubbed). Also from Japan, Godzilla Minus One continues at Assembly Row, with a "Minus Color" version opening Thursday (and returning to Boston Common and Causeway Street). The Boy and the Heron is still at the Coolidge, West Newton, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Causeway Street.

    Vietnamese horror movie The Soul Reaper plays South Bay.
  • The Brattle Theatre presents "(Some of) The Best of 2023" all week, with The Unknown Country (Friday), Talk to Me (Friday), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (Saturday & Sunday matinees), Barbie & Bottoms (Saturday), Showing Up & Afire (Sunday), Beau Is Afraid (Monday), May December (Tuesday), Earth Mama & A Thousand and One (Wednesday), and The Royal Hotel (Thursday).
  • The Zone of Interest expands to The Coolidge Corner Theatre after opening at Kendall Square, Boston Common, and the Seaport last week, with more expansion on tap for next.

    The midnights at the Coolidge the weekend feature Poltergeist on 35mm film Friday with Ringu and giallo Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key on Saturday. .Saturday morning features a kids' show of Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon" & Stowaway in the Sky. Sunday morning's Geothe-Institut German film is Black Box, a thriller about an apartment building on lockdown after an unknown event. Sunday afternoon, they have the month's marathon screenings, with all three chapters of the original Matrix trilogy on 35mm. The "Projections" science fiction series also features Forbidden Planet with a post-screening discussion of how it was inspired by The Tempest on Monday, and Alien on Wednesday; they also begin a Tuesday-morning lecture series on science fiction films of the 1950s. This Is Spinal Tap plays Tuesday.
  • The Alamo Seaport rep calendar has them finishing up their weekly Tolkein stuff with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Expanded Edition) on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday The 1999 Time Capsules series continues with The Limey (Saturday), Galaxy Quest (Monday/Tuesday), Audition (Monday). There's a "Movie Party" screening of The Goonies on Sunday, plus Weird Science on Wednesday.
  • The Capitol has Mark of the Werebeard, a crowdfunded horror-comedy B movie, Saturday evening.

    The Somerville Theatre has a "Monster Gallery" burlesque show on Saturday night, followed by a screening of Death Becomes Her (they don't seem to be selling tickets separately for this one). Also, though they aren't listed on the website, there are exclusive shows for Somerville/Capitol members on Sunday and Thursday; check your email if you've got a card.
  • The Harvard Film Archive re-opens for the new semester with "Ousmane Sembène, Cinematic Revolutionary", a survey of the Senegalese auteur's work including several new restorations. Xala (with short "Borom Sarret" plays Friday and Sunday, Camp de Thiaroye on 35mm Saturday, Mandabi with short "Tauw" (the short on 16mm) on Sunday, and Black Girl with short Niaye (the short on 35mm) on Monday. They also continue to stream "Cinema Before 1300" through mid-March.
  • Boston Palestine Film Festival presents three films they were planning to play back in October at The Museum of Fine Arts this weekend, with The Flag on Friday and A House in Jerusalem and Mediterranean Fever on Saturday.
  • Belmont World Film's Family Film Festival has a second weekend this year with four short film programs and four feature films streaming via Eventive on Saturday and Sunday, plus a full day of films at the Regent in Arlington on Sunday.
  • Aside from the Family Film Festival, The Regent Theatre has documentary A Father's Promise, which relates the work of musician Mark Barden to create a foundation that seeks to educate people of the warning signs of violence like the school shoting that took his son's life at Sandy Hook. It plays Wednesday.
  • Bright Lights kicks off their spring season with Saltburn upstairs at Emerson's Paramount Theater on Thursday, with Emerson professor Ken Feil leading discussion afterward. Free and open to the public!
  • The Lexington Venue is open Friday to Sunday with The Boys in the Boat and American Fiction.

    The West Newton Cinema cuts down to American Fiction, The Boy and the Heron (subtitled all week, dubbed matinees Saturday/Sunday), Migration, Poor Things, and The Holdovers (no show Wednesday).

    The Luna Theater has Monty Python and the Holy Grail Friday and Saturday, The Thing on Sunday, and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem is open through Monday with All of Us Strangers, Mean Girls, The Boys in the Boat, and Poor Things.

    If you can make it out to the Showcase in Dedham, they have Dominican comedy Colao 2.
That Monday night choice between Beau Is Afraid, Audition, and Forbidden Planet is just mean and could be determined by how much I want to mess with the T. Otherwise, the Chinese movies, I.S.S., The Unknown Country, Bottoms, and some lingering end-of-year things.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Film Rolls, Round 22: Exit and Lucky Chan-Sil

The boys' time in South Korea last year was quick, but eventful!
First up, we get Mookie rolling a 14 and finally getting out of John Woo territory to hop right over Johnnie To and almost, but not quite, blow right past South Korea. Of course, the South Korean film he lands on, Exit, is a disc I imported from Hong Kong when it was probably at a crazy sale price. Interestingly, the disc defaults to neither Chinese nor English subtitles, though I don't know how many people in Hong Kong speak Korean.
Bruce, meanwhile, rolls a seven and lands on a really gorgeous box for Lucky Chan-Sil, which puts him in a dead heat, position-wise, with Mookie. I really wish more South Korean films got Blu-ray releases, and kind of wonder if the format just never took off over there (even though my first player was a Samsung). As mentioned last time around, there don't seem to be many releases, even for the seemingly mainstream stuff that plays Fantasia or North American theaters, to the point where I wonder how many folks in South Korea are importing discs of their own cinema from Japan, Hong Kong, and the USA. This one appears to have gotten a nice disc because the director is Hong Sang-soo adjacent, and Hong is something they can export. Weird situation.

Anyway, we kind of hit the extremes of Korean cinema between the breezy, lightweight genre materia and the films that appeal to art-house die-hards. How'd that work out?

Eksiteu (EXIT)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)
Seen 16 January 2024 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon

EXIT gives Premium Rush vibes right from the start, and there really should be more movies like this: Fast-paced, exciting, full of characters that are fun to spend time with and tricky spots for them to escape, and plenty of action and adventure but relatively little violence. It is close to pure fun; it's a shame (at least from my perspective) that it missed Boston during its brief North American release because I bet it would be a gas on the big screen with a crowd.

It starts broad, introducing Lee Yong-nam (Cho Jung-seok) as a loser who has not only been unable to find a job since graduating from college, but can't even bring himself to go back to his favorite bouldering spot since crush Eui-ju (Lim Yoona) dropped "let's just be friends" on him. And yet, he books his mother's 70th birthday party at the event space where Eui-ju is assistant manager, even though it's way on the other side of Seoul. That goes about as well for him as one might imagine, but just as they're about to leave, a madman sets off a poison gas attack near Central Station that quickly fills the city at ground level. The door for roof access is locked. What to do?

There was an interview with comic-book writer Christopher Priest a while ago, as he was kicking off a Hawkman project, where he said that the character was that he's a flying guy with a mace, so the trick is to figure out problems that could be solved with a mace. It seems that writer/director Lee Sang-geun took a similar tack here, coming up with a couple climbing centerpieces and then working backwards to create a problem that could be solved with climbing, and then another, then ways to make the initial problem worse, and so on. It is, as Roger Ebert used to say, a classic "one damn thing on top of another" action/adventure, and it works because director Lee and his crew are really good at making sure that the audience can see how all this stuff is working on the one hand while giving Yong-nam and Eui-ju just enough time to show this situation wearing them down as they run to the next challenge.

It requires a lot of acting on the run from Cho Jung-seok and Lim Yoona (or just "Yoona" from K-pop group Girls Generation), and they make a nice pair: Yong-nam can be a bit of a self-pitying sad sack, especially in the broadly comedic first half-hour of the film, but both Cho and Yoona are good at making their characters feel less unimpressive than not having a chance to meet their full potential, and when they show signs of being able to improvise in a crisis from building a makeshift stretcher to dangling from a construction crane, it's easy to buy into it, especially since they're believably frazzled and able to show sparks without stopping what they're doing to do so. They play well off a bunch of well-utilized supporting characters, from Yong-nam's extended family to Eui-ju's smarmy boss.

The big thing, of course, is the action, which is well-staged and shot, especially in the first big piece where Yong-nam tries to climb a building that could really use a few more handholds. It's almost certainly all done on green screens, but the compositing is good enough to work in HD even if the end result isn't quite vertigo-inducing in the living room the way it may have been in theaters.

It's a genuine blast; I'm looking forward to director Lee's forthcoming romantic comedy, hoping it'll be the same sort of crowd-pleaser this seems to be.

Chansilineun bokdo manhji (Llucky Chan-sil)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon

I confess, I came into Lucky Chan-sil expecting and, yes, hoping for, a more directly satiric piece that aimed a few more barbs in the direction of filmmaker Kim Cho-hee's former employer Hong Sang-soo, but that was probably a silly thing to expect, not really knowing anything about her or even enough about Hong except that he seems to have a good racket going. Instead, it goes for something smaller and a bit eccentric, which works out well enough for it.

Kim, as you may have gathered, was a producer for film festival favorite Hong Sang-soo during the early 2010s; in the film, Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) has been doing the same job for director Ji (Seo Sang-won), only to have the man stroke out over his post-meeting soju. Seen as tied to Ji but not particularly essential (would they say that to a man?), she winds up moving out of the city and renting a room from an old lady (Youn Yuh-jung) on the top of a hill, with a scatterbrained actress friend (Yoon Seung-ah) hiring her to clean her apartment. That's how she meets Kim-yeong (Bae Yoo-ram), Sophie's French tutor who is an aspiring filmmaker himself. Oh, and there's a locked room in the old lady's home haunted by a ghost (Kim Young-min) who claims to be late Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung.

It strikes me, writing that synopsis, that I should give this another look, as the work that I've done for nearly twenty years was shut down in the time since I watched this, and I certainly felt some "well, crap, now what?" anxiety as a result; it's a good time for coming-of-middle-age stories that involve that leave folks stranded in that way. I suspect that this one plays better in some ways if you are closer to its target audience and are familiar enough with how insular the communities of Korean auteur cinema are and what's being referenced in the details, though it's amusingly a decent pairing with Exit in terms of having protagonists who have seemingly worked hard to find that there's just no job for them.

There's more than a whiff of despair to Chan-sil's situation, and Kim kind of breaks it down into other pieces to make it more digestible: Kim-yeong wanting to make movies but teaching French to pay the rent (and maybe not being quite the kindred spirit and potential partner Chan-sil imagines); the ghost of an actor who committed suicide; the old lady who carries a fair amount of disappointment and baggage but is still trying to make up for some lost time. What she doesn't do is establish a big, central goal that will mark Chan-sil's rebounds as complete, like a film project that will pull her out from under Ji's shadow or show that she was more of factor in his success than she'd been given credit for, instead opting for small steps and revelations that, maybe, add up to something more.

And while the film occasionally gets maudlin, Kim and star Kang Mal-geum don't let it get mired in that sort of feeling: After all, as a producer of low-budget independent films, she's naturally practical and quick-thinking when it comes to immediate problems, even if she's sort of let her skills at interacting with people in non-professional ways atrophy, and Kang keeps the part of Chan-sil that moves forward and gets things done visible even at low points, although whether that buoying her or despairing because there's no clear direction to move changes. It's her show, but there's a nice cast around her, from the always-dependable Youn Yuh-jung to Yoon Seung-ah, who is tremendously valuable popping in to deliver comic relief while the script has her flakiness pushing the film in a new direction.

I didn't particularly love this one when I saw it, but I suspect it would benefit from a rewatch. It's the sort of indie that those of who prefer Christopher Nolan to Yasujiro Ozu, like Kim-yeong, will perhaps fidget over as we look for a goal, but hits the exact feeling somebody has experienced fairly well.

So where does out "2019 South Korea" double feature land the guys?

Mookie: 76 ¼ stars
Bruce: 75 ½ stars

As you can see, that leaves them tied on the gameboard, if not quite the scoreboard, and ready to wrap around to western movies again.