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/etc.room, 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

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