Thursday, February 29, 2024

Fantasia Movie in a Theater This Weekend: Hundreds of Beavers

I didn't actually have to move this review up out of order because it was the next thing to come out in theaters - Hundreds of Beavers was next on my list of Fantasia reviews - but finishing the Film Rolls is taking longer than expected, so I'm just going to put this first entry in the next post up right now. Hundreds of Beavers is at the Somerville Theatre this weekend - including a midnight show in the big room on Saturday that I'm sure will be a blast if a bunch of people show up.

Anyway: I'll probably delete this and replace it with something that includes everything else I saw in Montreal on 31 July 2023 (good lord!) sometime in the next week, maybe updated a little with thoughts from a second viewing, but for now - Hundreds of Beavers is at the Somerville Theatre this weekend. It's probably the most purely hilarious movie you'll see all year. Buy tickets, and support it!

Hundreds of Beavers

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Underground, DCP)

When I saw this at Fantasia, I immediately thought that I wanted a major studio to pick this up and use it to fill some Covid/strike-related holes in their schedule with a big flashy, release, just so that every major movie critic in America would have to write a half-dozen paragraphs like this is some kind of sensible movie. Of course, it wound up going the self-distributed route, because large companie are by and large run by cowards, but no matter how you see it, it's a delightfully bonkers live-action cartoon that absolutely commits to the bit.

Said bit is the misadventures of Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), who is drinking all much as much applejack as he is serving fur-trappers in the 19th Century upper midwest, only to have everything fall apart when beavers gnawing at logs cause a snowball effect that wipes out his house, business, and everything, forcing him to get into beaver trapping himself, both for funds and revenge! Unfortunately, he is not very bright, and the beavers and other woodland creatures are likely not just smarter, but have numbers on their side.

When director Mike Cheslik and his friends set out to make a live-action cartoon, they don't mess around - the beavers, dogs, raccoons, wabbits, etc., are all folks in suits, the characters mainly communicate through pantomime and body language, and the mostly-white background of snowy, overcast Wisconsin means that they can fill it with simple props and effects that often place it right on the edge of the uncanny valley, using that unreality in a way that lets the audience now that any sort of ridiculous mayhem might happen at any second. It's clearly done on a budget, which isn't to say cheap: Cheslik has a very good idea of where things need to be perfect and where you just need to know they're crazy instead of lazy.

It's the sort of thing that could probably wear an audience out quickly, reminding them that there's a reason most cartoons run about five or ten minutes while this hits the hundred mark. It is, fortunately, able to change things up every once in a while; it may be almost 100% pure slapstick, but it occasionally takes a break from Looney Tunes to do Buster Keaton, and then for a while the gag is basically playing things out like a Super Nintendo game. It's all more or less of a piece but at least feels like it's switching gears every once in a while, rather than seeing just how much of the exact same thing different members of the audience can endure. And, thankfully, the jokes are good, from the opening musical number to the dogs playing poker to the giant gaudy bits of slapstick that had me writing things like "beaver Voltron!" in my notebook.

It somehow works, keeping the energy level up in a way the team's Lake Michigan Monster never quite managed for me, in part because it's never arch. It just goes for the best joke available every minute or so, hits far more often than not, and never forgets that doing the silly thing is almost always funnier than winking at the audience about what a silly thing they're doing. .

This Week in Tickets: 19 February 2024 - 25 February 2024 (Annoyingly Good Programming)

Sure, I said, I'll just get the Alamo Drafthouse membership because it'll pay for itself with two movies or so a month, but probably won't use it for much more, especially since they're all the way down in the Seaport.

This Week in Tickets
Moviegoing kicked off on Tuesday when I finally got around to Pegasus 2, which may be the biggest Lunar New Year movie for the Year of the Dragon. It's not bad, although also not great, weirdly non-melodramatic for a fast-car movie!

Wednesday night I hit Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which turns out to be the only thing I went to as part of the Alamo's Time Capsule '99 shows, in part because a lot show elsewhere semi-regularly and 25th anniversary stuff, well, that'll be at the Brattle during reunion weekend and just kind of shows up regularly. Still, this was one I've not crossed paths with yet - I think it might have felt too weird for me when it came out - and I dug it. Speaking of 25 years ago, the next night was Drive-Away Dolls, which takes place in 1999, and is pretty decent, if not quite up to what the folks involved maybe could have managed.

Friday night, it was back to Lunar New Year stuff with Article 20, the latest from Zhang Yimou (who is making movies at a pace that suggests gambling debts or the like these days), although perhaps the most grounded and contemporary thing he's ever done. Surprisingly fun and quippy for the subject matter. Just kind of odd for Zhang.

Saturday was the first of two days heading down to the Seaport for stuff where the only/best show was at 12:15pm on the weekend, which isn't ideal even if the Red Line is working, which it wasn't this weekend. That got me there for Stopmotion, a decent-enough horror movie for a while that eventually diverges from what I tend to like about the genre. After that, I walked back across the bridge for Perfect Days, which is pretty much as great as people say, even if it's kind of odd for Wim Wenders to be directing Japan's submission for the Oscars.

The next day started the same way, with movie in question being The Invisible Fight, and, wow, I feel like it was just a few weeks ago that I was grumbling about how it was impossible to go to that place spur of the moment because between limited showtimes and seating, everything sold out a week in advance. When I got on the train Sunday morning, it looked like I might be alone in this show. Admittedly, it's a weird one at a weird time, but has the novelty worn off? Or is it just not enough in cases like this?

And, finally, speaking of novelty (sort of), we end the week back near home at the Somerville Theatre, which had one of the 70mm prints of Tenet that Warner was pushing out to promote Dune Part Two on large-format film next week, which is kind of odd - they're not exactly related beyond having a WB logo up front! - but we'll take it.

Those two-movie days get my Letterboxd account, closer to 1 film/day, which is either a bit much or a goal.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2024 in Alamo Seaport #3 (Time Capsule: 1999, laser DCP)
Available to stream/rent/purcase on Prime and elsewhere, or on Blu-ray at Amazon

So many movies with this basic story - an assassin's assignment goes sideways and he must ultimately kill the whole organization before it kills him - are visibly working so hard to be off-kilter and cool without achieving half of the genuine eccentricity that Jim Jarmusch seems to manage effortlessly here. I'm not sure why that is - maybe it's that Jarmusch conceived Ghost Dog and his world more holistically than others; maybe he's just got an odd way of looking at things - but it makes the movie memorable in a way that others of its ilk aren't.

The assassin in question (Forest Whitaker) goes by "Ghost Dog", and after having been rescued from a beating by gangster Louie (John Tormey) some years ago, he's modeled himself on samurai retainers and pledged his loyalty. He and Louie communicate by pigeon, and that's where he got the orders to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), who has been hooking up with his boss's daughter Louise (Tricia Vessey). Trouble is, Louise was supposed to be on a bus as opposed to Frank's apartment, which means the gang can't say they don't know who to look for.

Of course, part of why this characterization works is that Jarmusch knows the price of such eccentricity; underneath Ghost Dog's cool is a man trying his damnedest to create some sense of stability by following a Way, even if his employers clearly have no code. Forest Whitaker never seems about to crack in the role, but always lets you see that this persona, real though it may be, has been carefully constructed. He may not be entirely aware that this whole situation is the result of how both he and the gangsters he serves are trying to live by genre tropes - in this case, the honorable man being used by those that change their minds capriciously, though he certainly is by the end, and is somehow at peace with that. It is, perhaps, a Way itself.

Jarmusch is aware it's a bit ridiculous,, and doesn't entirely play it straight, but his winking at the audience before the final High Noon reference is mostly having gangsters watching cartoons whenever there's a TV nearby, as if that's the highest level of sophistication these tough guys can muster about the violence they use. Instead, he makes the movie very funny in a certain way, deadpan absurdity where sometimes one finds oneself the only person in the theater laughing at a joke and sometimes one is a bit surprised to hear others. Somehow, every bit with Ghost Dog and his francophone best friend Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) saying the same thing in different languages lands despite it always being the same joke because there's something earnest about understanding each other if not each other's words there.

By the end, Ghost Dog does not feel like it has vanished into its sort of meta-ness, but that is where it has wound up, with most characters accepting their parts in these genre narrative and the ones who haven't rather alarmed by it.

Drive-Away Dolls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2024 in AMC Causeway #9 (first-run, laser DCP)
Not streaming yet, but where to watch when it is

I hope all three movies in Ethan Coen & Tricia Cooke''s B-movie project honor their origins by coming in comfortably under 90 minutes. Not in a "man, even 1:24 is too much" way but because they seem well aware that there's potential for bloat in trying to get their zany ideas to not look dinky next to other listings and resist, moving things along instead.

The plot, such as it is, works as pure road-trip hijinks fuel, as buttoned up Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) winds up having her recently-broken-up hot mess of a friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley) tag along on her trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, suggesting they can save some money by using a "drive-away" for folks who want to get a car from one place to another. A misunderstanding has them taking one with a MacGuffin in the spare tire well, so a couple of goons (C.J. Wilson & Joey Slotnick) are sent to make sure they don't accidentally find it - which, of course, they do.

It's one of the sturdiest foundations you can build a movie upon, and the filmmakers don't get too cute trying to twist it beyond some unusual details. That said, the movie often feels like it could have used a joke or two more, or maybe some better ones at times. It's never terribly serious, and doesn't seem particularly clueless in the way an older straight white dude and his wife making a movie about young gay women could be, but it's a movie that provides a steady stream of chuckles that leaves the audience maybe a bit impatient for the huge laughs that its goofy premise and impressive pedigree promise. There are a few, especially toward the beginning and end, but it still feels like the film is underachieving just a bit - they kind of know what has to happen for Jamie and Marion on the road, but don't really come up with characters to encounter that are able to steal their scenes, and there's maybe a little "I forget, was this transgressive then?" going on.

That's not true of the dolls themselves, thankfully; Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan are introduced in a couple scenes that seem a bit overdone but quickly find a groove, like Coen & Cooke figured the language could be extra-screwball for a moment to establish them before pulling back. They're really great together as an odd couple one immediately believes as friends despite opposing personalities, and if there's romance in store, sure, that'll work too. Qualley gets the obviously funny stuff, but Viswanathan kind of had the hard part playing the more uptight half without getting anywhere close to being an annoying killjoy. Joey Slotnick & C.J. Wilson have a similar sort of vibe - Slotnick plays the chatty movie goon and Wilson the hulking one - but they're better off with Colman Domingo annoyed with the pair of them.

It should have been better, but it at least moves quick enough to never actually live out its welcome. The question, given that the filmmakers talked about doing three, is whether they've got jokes enough for two more movies like this given how thin they occasionally were here.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 February 2024 in Alamo Seaport #3 (first-run, DCP)
Not streaming yet, but where to watch when it is

Horror movie life hack: As soon as the kid who looks an awful lot like a young version of yourself and never seems to have parents around shows up, talk to a licensed mental health care professional and enquire about medication. It's never a good sign.

Of course, Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi) was destined to have issues anyway; the daughter of a stop-motion animation legend (Stella Gonet) whose arthritis as left her unable to manipulate her maquettes directly, Ella is serving as Suzanne's hands on what is to be her final project, even though her mother doesn't see her as a true artist. When Suzanne has a stroke, Ella attempts to finish the work in a new space her boyfriend Tom (Tom York) finds for her, but, just as Suzanne claimed, Ella has a difficult time coming up with an idea when placed on the spot - although a kid running around the building (Caolinn Springall) has a few.

That audiences are certainly going to recognize that, not only does Caolinn Springall look an awful lot like Aisling Franciosi, but her character never gives a name, is not necessarily bad for the movie, since it's not like the filmmakers are being particularly cute about it; it certainly lets Ella's mini-me just jump straight to being a very weird little girl without a lot of messing around. We are here for a movie about the animator who has to plunge so deeply into her creations and worries that there's not much of herself anyway, right? And when the film is about that, it's kind of great, retaining the magic of the technique while still satisfying curiosity about how it works. The puppet imagery is terrific, and the moments when it spills over into the real world land very well.

Unfortunately, at least for me, the finale is the sort of horror movie climax where it gets gnarly and meaner, but there's not a whole lot that compels me beyond the blood and guts. I didn't feel a sense of doomed inevitability, or the discomfort of knowing it could have been avoided, or the forlorn hope that things could be turned around. It's just kind of time to escalate, as opposed to truly feeling like the inevitable next step of what's troubling Emma, despite the fact that we're pretty invested in that, for all it's been haphazardly presented.

That's the thing that separates a great horror movie from a decent one, often, that all the little details reinforce each other and prevent any way out. It's a bit disappointing that Ella's film doesn't tell us much about her, especially when there's such good material about her actually being a good technician but thinking she should be a genius like her mother; it could have even made the genericness of her monster and need to transgress sharper. Instead, it plays more like "this is kind of nasty, let's throw it in" than something really horrifying.

Perfect Days

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 February 2024 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)
Not streaming yet, but where to watch when it is

So, I was kind of at "this is really good, maybe something special, and there ain't nothing wrong with that" until the last shot of all the complex emotions going across Koji Yakusho's face basically destroyed me.

Which, basically, seemed what he and director Wim Wenders are going for, in a kind of sneaky way, spending the first half of the movie or so sort of playing up this thing outsiders low-key fetishize about Japan, the pride in how even ordinary things can be beautiful and there's dignity in doing necessary work. Then, though, he starts quietly not-quite-upending this, but maybe making one get a little fidgety about it. A camera angle we haven't quite seen before reveals a pile of paperbacks finished and set aside, then something similar with the photographs he's been taking. Then his toilet cleaner Hirayama's Niko (Arisa Nakano) shows up and it's very clear that he's built himself a life with little room for more than it has.

Wenders's movie isn't the sort to scold him for this. The beauty found here is real, but it's got a cost, especially for a man like Yakusho's Hirayama who's not getting any younger, and there's a sort of realization that being able to live like this is something of an illusion. Your life may be a story of perfect stasis, but change will come, probably in the form of some small piece of this structure you take for granted disappearing.

Yakusho plays that well, even beyond that incredible final shot; for all that Perfect Days and Hirayama aren't entirely what they appear to be on the surface, it has to work as that portrait of a humble worker who sees joy all over despite a small apartment and a job cleaning Tokyo's art-installation-quality public toilets, but there's also got to be things about him that are a bit stunted: His lack of conversation gets abrasive, he's abrasive when a co-worker quite, and his response to a friend of a friend having terrible news is on the one hand cheering but on the other, maybe a bit childish. This isn't a big man-child, but he's maybe missed some of the development that usually comes before settling into this sort of serene engagement with life. That hits home with me a bit, to be honest, and it's interesting to watch the film weigh that.

Nähtamatu võitlus (The Invisible Fight)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2024 in Alamo Seaport #3 (first-run/Fantastic Fest Presents, DCP)
Not streaming yet, but where to watch when it is

The clever thing about The Invisible Fight is that a viewer is quite like to start this movie kind of delighted at the idea of a genre-poisoned mind looking at this Orthodox monastery and seeing the Shaolin Temple, but by the end, it's pretty clear that the cool things that the Soviet Union has banned are not just kung fu or rock & roll, but religion. Underneath all the slapstick and silliness, these filmmakers are genuinely fond of their monks, and see the part that they and their institution have to play.

First, though, we see three rock & roll Chinese bandits (Eddie Tsai Chia-Yuan, Kyro Wavebourne, Johnny X. Wang) practically fly into a fort on the USSR/China border in 1973, seemingly killing everyone but one guard. When Rafael (Ursel Tilk) returns home to Estonia, it's clearly made an impression on him - he wears his hair long, adores Bruce Lee, and listens to Black Sabbath, presumably smuggled in, because "everything cool is banned by the Soviet Union". His mother (Maria Avdjushko) despairs, but Rtia (Ester Kuntu) notices him one night at the bar; alas, she's already engaged, to Rudolf (Ekke Märten Hekles). Soon, though, Rafel finds a hidden monastery where the monks practice martial arts, and while most want nothing to do with him, Father Nafanail (Indrek Sammul) takes him on as a student, a blow to his current protégé Irinei (Kaarel Pogga).

There is a lot of goofy physical comedy as Rafael, dismissed as a clown by most of the monks, plows through certain of his destiny and his desire to learn kung fu with little on his mind beyond that. Writer/director Rainer Sarnet riffs on everything from silent comedy to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, seldom letting the opportunity for a physical gag go by but having a great eye for when a gag is both kind of silly and cartoonish and when it's based on something cool that's got to look cool. That high-energy enthusiasm carries the movie a long way. It's relentless and silly enough to keep the audience hooked even if the story is a bit thin, and the odd couple chemistry between Ursel Tilk and Kaarel Pogga as Rafael & Irinei is kept at a very enjoyable simmer, as these guys never actually grow to like each other but at constantly able to turn that into comedic tension. If you're going to build a movie around someone as brash and dumb as Rafael, it helps to have someone exasperated with his own flaws as a balance.

It does sort of start to stretch once one realizes that this isn't quite the martial-arts spoof it's sold itself as, or at least not entirely so and there's probably not going to be another big wire-fu set piece to bookend the film at the end; neither Rudolf nor the State Security guy they cross paths with is that formidable or even the right sort of character. It feels, a bit, like Sarnet maybe intended to go that direction, but eventually found his way to the spirituality being the thing - the confidence and trust and sense of belonging more than the supernatural or a demand of devotion - and there was some casting about while writing the script without removing the dead ends once the final direction became clear. It finishes satisfyingly, though, and I suppose that's a reasonable result for a movie tackling this sort of subject: One seldom ends a spiritual journey at their initial intended destination, after all.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2024 in Somerville Theatre #1 (re-release, 70mm)
Available to rent/purcase on Prime and elsewhere, or on DVD/Blu-ray/4K disc at Amazon

This random-seeming re-release to promote Dune Part Two playing on large-format film next week highlights just how great this plays with an audience and makes me think that the pandemic screwing up its intended release has allowed it to become a sort of cult film. I know, it's too expensive and filled with movie stars to be a traditional cult film, but it's weird, benefits from multiple viewings, and a lot of folks are going to discover how much they truly enjoy it because they saw it at a special show in the one place in town that can still run 70mm film, as opposed to it just being this week's blockbuster. It's a film where there's a narrative to seeing it.

And, on top of that, it's a better movie than I thought when I first saw it during its delayed initial release, and not just because there were more of us digging Nolan's amazing action sequences at a time than there were then, with everyone scattered throughout theaters that could only hold 10% or so. As with Ghost Dog (how's that for some fortunate/found bookending!), you can sort of see Nolan examining genre and moviemaking, how you may wind up building a movie both forward from the initial concept but also backward from the climactic action finale, an unseen hand putting everything in place but the story still needing to live and breathe on its own. I like the performances a bit more, with John David Washington's Protagonist dutiful but chafing at being put into a box, Robert Pattinson charmingly ostentatious, Elizabeth Debicki gaining a spine after being so thoroughly cowed. There are little bits I really love - Debicki racing back to look casual after her Kat hides a gun from her husband, Washington casually mentioning that one of the large vehicles he wants for the impossible heist he's planning has to be a fire truck, or a bit where he sarcastically asks Kenneth Branagh's Sator whether a line comes from Walt Whitman that I will believe is a Dead Again reference until Nolan personally tells me otherwise.

It is, for a movie so intent on making sure one appreciates the clockwork of it, awfully lively and emotional. It's currently lodged atop my list of most-rewatched films at Letterboxd, and although that only includes a few years, I think it will stay up there. It's enough fun to catch again when a local theater hauls it out, and I think enough folks are starting to realize that to get theaters to book it every couple years or so.

Initial Letterboxd entry from October 2020 Pegasus 2 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Drive-Away Dolls Article 20 Stopmotion Perfect Days The Invisible Fight Tenet

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Article 20

And, with this in theaters, I think that we're probably through with Lunar New Year movies for a bit. Sony Pictures Classics apparently has the right to YOLO, the new comedy from the director and star of Hi Mom!, which was a massive hit in the People's Republic a few years back but never made it here. I'm curious as to what Sony's plan is with that - it doesn't scream art-house sleeper or sound like a movie that makes the leap to mainstream audiences - but I presume there are a fair amount of smart folks there. It may be as much about getting remake rights as anything, or they may just think it will do better in North America once the other LNY releases have cleared out a bit, especially with some locally-focused advertising.

Interestingly enough, no distributor really specializing in the North American market picked up Article 20, the fifth film in a row from a director who is still probably the best-known mainland Chinese filmmaker in boutique-house circles, with one of those (Snipers, made with daughter Zhang Mo)) not having made it here at all. It's perhaps not terribly surprising for this particular film - it's contemporary, aimed at a middlebrow Chinese audience, probably not that much more propagandic than the average American crime movie but more obvious about it, and not elaborate in the way much of Zhang's best-remembered stuff is - but it's certainly another data point in showing how this person who was often thought of as courting Western acclaim in China has become a mainstream filmmaker there, to the extent that foreign releases which once might have been quite lucrative are now pretty minor.

They do still draw an expat crowd, though; it was a pretty packed house on opening night, so it might stick around for another week, especially with not a lot but Dune 2 coming out. It's kind of interesting to see Zhang do something relatively stripped down - it's not surprising that he's a pretty good filmmaker without the eye-popping production design and grandiose action scenes, but you don't necessarily often see guys like him scale back unless they have to, and with Cliff Walkers getting a sequel and both Full River Red and Under the Light big hits last year, he probably doesn't have to.

Di er shi tiao (Article 20)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2024 in AMC Causeway Street #10 (first-run, laser DCP)

Truth be told, I would not have pegged Article 20 as being from Zhang Yimou at all if I'd gone in cold. After all, even his previous contemporary film, Under the Light, had a certain style to it, while this is almost aggressively... plain? Unadorned? It's the first thing he's done that feels like anyone could have made it, at least on the surface, that I can recall. It winds up solid and surprisingly entertaining, just not necessarily what you'd expect from a guy who can probably still swing getting a lavish production made.

This opens with a protest, as the associates of Liu Wenjing (Alan Aruna) block the local procurator's office, demanding the case against attacker Wang Yongqiang (Pan Binlong) move forward, as Liu being in a coma means nobody at his business is working or getting paid. Temporary staffer Han Ming (Lei Jiayin) manages to de-escalate the situation, and as a reward he's placed on the case, working under chief prosecutor Lyu Lingling (Gao Ye), who just happens to be his college girlfriend. The case is nasty - Liu was a piece of work, and the only witness who can testify that Liu was threatening Wang, the accused's deaf-mute wife Hao Xiuping (Zhao Liying), has gone into hiding. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Han's son Yuchen (Liu Yaowen) is in trouble at middle school because he broke the nose of a bully and won't apologize, leading the bully's father (Yu Hewei), to press charges, and Han's wife Li Maojuan (Li Ma) is not looking to compromise.

Of course, it's probably not the case that anybody could have made this movie. The story is very straightforward, almost to a fault, but Zhang and writers Li Meng and Wang Tianyi are good at jumping forward without a lot of fuss when need be and making what could be twists meant to shock play as something closer to the inevitable result of an ongoing investigation. Individual scenes are snappy and entertaining in a way that lubricates what could be a deathly-earnest mediation on justice, filed with characters trading rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and dealing with silly misunderstandings so that the clear parallels between every strand where people standing up against bulging and abuse being held accountable for the rules they technically violated are background music rather than a speech. Zhang and company are good at using reactions to make fine points - consider how Ming being sort of comically put-upon as his wife and her brother steamroll him at the dinner table plays very differently from the men in a briefing talking over Lingling.

The cast is also quite strong, enough that you can spend a lot of the film feeling at ease with them and then let that comfort steel your back a bit once the film focuses a bit more. It's strange to watch a movie about miscarriages of justice and think just how much you'd like to see the actors in a broad comedy, but that's what they manage here, with Lei Jiayin able to take character traits that are often kind of obnoxious - Ming is a reflexive compromiser who is lying about working with Lingling to try and avoid trouble - and make him seem pretty reasonable until he can reveal his better self. Of course, he's able to do that in part by playing off Ma Li, one of China's best comic actors who plays Maojuan with such a sharp edge to her affection for her husband that it's not surprising he still gets flustered by her after all this time; if banter is a tennis-match, she's returning every serve effortlessly while Lei Jiayin gives a good impression of watching them go past helplessly. On the other side there's Gao Ye, whose confidence as Lingling seems smoother (although she's clearly used to having to be aggressive because not everyone treats her as well as Ming) and whose teasing is kinder. The movie changes a great deal when Zhao Liying surfaces - for all that the audience gets used to all this being fun, her Xiuping never lets the audience forget that this is life and death for her.

All of this being so execution-dependent leaves it kind of vulnerable to the audience not quite being on the right wavelength when they watch it or slight misjudgments. I suspect that even the things which rubbed me the wrong way for much of the film - the seemingly cavalier treatment of Xiuping's rape for much of the running time as an example - were carefully considered and done with purpose, so that they could perhaps be exposed as taken for granted and part of a clear progression without overwhelming the rest of the story early on. A viewer's mileage may certainly vary on the ending, which features swelling music, an impassioned speech, and people bursting into applause - it's a bit of a cliché to call out a systematic injustice and then immediately assert that this will be handled better going forward, and maybe hits a bit differently in a contemporary Chinese film than, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or other Capras.

It's an odd film, really, both in how utterly Zhang Yimou's involvement is reflected less in visual style than understated (almost invisible) competence and in how a movie with this story is seldom this funny. If it's odd, though, it's also oddly satisfying, the sort of movie a viewer often feels too cynical to believe in that actually works the way it's supposed to.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Pegasus x2

Pegasus 2 appears to be one of the two big Chinese hits for Lunar New Year, heading into its third weekend at Boston Common, after pretty decent crowds during weekend #2. I don't recall how well the first did back in 2019, when it was also a LNY release. Not quite so well, I don't think - it seems to have come and gone before I got to the theater to see it - but Boston is not Beijing, and it wouldn't be the first movie to have found enough of an audience at home (during the pandemic) to trigger a bigger sequel.

That it happens strikes me as a bit odd, as I mention below; these are capably-enough made movies, so when I'm tempted to say that as a director, Han Han makes a good racecar driver, it's not so much a question of technical competence as priorities; he's really about the how of a lot of things, including putting together a team and car behind the scenes, without making it terribly dramatic. Which is not necessarily a bad thing - I'm kind of fond of movies where people do things that they are good at - but sometimes he seems to be familiar enough with the everything that he doesn't go into detail where that could be useful, or finding ways to make this a part of the drama.

But, then again, I'm not Chinese, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if some of the business situations and acceptance of certain social structures are closer to the default there than they would be here. It's obviously a success at the box office! It just seems strange to me that a lot of these movies seem smoothed out in the very places a Western filmmaker would probably heighten tension.

Fei chi ren sheng (Pegasus)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2024 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Prime Video HD stream)
Available to stream/rent/purcase on Prime and elsewhere elsewhere

I did a "watch the first before the sequel" thing here, and it clearly didn't result in me skipping Pegasus 2, but I wound up watching that as much out of curiosity about how one does a sequel or maybe makes the second go at something a little better with a little more money and practice. Pegasus isn't a bad movie, really, but it's very slight, always moving straight to the next step when it could dig in a little deeper.

Zhang Chi (Shen Teng) knew he wanted to race ever since he was a kid, and grew up to be a fantastic rally car driver, winning the Bayanbulak Rally a number of times, but in 2014, he got involved in a spectacularly ill-advised street race and lost his license to drive for five years. His suspension over, he intends to show foster son Fei (Li Qingyu) that he was, indeed, the best. Times have changed, though - Bayanbulak is now dominated by a team led by rich kid Lin Zhendong (Johnny Huang Jingyu), longtime navigator Sun Yuqiang (Yin Zheng) has been working in a theme park, and none of his old sponsors want to come near him. If he's to return to Bayanbulak, he's going to have to start completely from scratch.

While I try not to call productions that involved hundreds of people over months the result of laziness, there's a real sense that writer/director Han Han did not exactly put max effort into certain parts of this. Throughout the film, problems are raised and quickly disposed of or ignored, there's no sense of any sort of conflict or friction between characters (Zhang Chi hasn't been in jail, so why hasn't he been talking to Yuqiang? Is there supposed to be any sort of rivalry between him and Zhendong?), and to the extent that it's a comedy, the jokes aren't really much beyond "one male character has long hair". It's a movie made almost entirely out of the capable pieces that fill in the little gaps between the bits of a better movie where something important happens or a character's actions are revealing rather than those bits themselves.

Perhaps there's some intent to say something about Zhang Chi's singular focus, but Han han doesn't really give the audience much reason to consider that before the finale; but there's really no foreshadowing that, nor anything in Shen Teng's performance to suggest that there's something closer to obsession than enthusiasm here. Maybe you don't always see something like that, but if so, it's not an interesting sort of realism.

It's also a movie about rally-car racing that not only contains very little racing, but doesn't do a whole lot to demonstrate what makes the sport exciting or dramatic. The film is a bit hampered a bit by the way that this particular sort of race works: All the racers going at once but deliberately separated, so there's little chance for head-to-head action or direct comparisons of how their different approaches reflect their characters. If there were any sort of stakes or conflict between disgraced racer making a comeback and the wealthy young frontrunner, and there's really not that much, you're deliberately pushed a step back. The film is built to show you the course - which is impressively dangerous, full of switchbacks, changes of altitude, and dirt roads of variable traction - and closeups of a driver executing one piece, but not the competition.

All in all, it feels like a J.J. Abrams movie - Han Han knows all the pieces that work, and how to smoothly transition from one to another, but not really how to build an actual movie out of those pieces that earns a reaction rather than getting a sort of response from recognizing the technique and shape of the film.

Fei chi ren sheng 2 (Pegasus 2)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2024 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

There are lots of different sorts of sequels, and Pegasus 2 has a go at several: There's the straight "do it again" type, the "coping with the fallout from the last" type, the "hero becomes mentor" type. As with the first, though, director Han Han Is less focused on drama than on how you get to and compete in a race. And as was the case the first time around, that's more or less fine, although it keeps the film from being as thrilling as it could be.

Despite the seemingly tragic finale to the first, Zhang Chi (Shen Teng) is still alive, rescued from the car that flew off the cliff and into the sea after passing the finish line, but it messed up his right hand and left leg, and pieces being missing from the recovered wreckage meant that his winning time could not be certified. Five years later, he, navigator Sun Yuqiang (Yin Zheng), and mechanic Ji Xing (Zhang Benyu) are running a driving school and garage, facing eviction when Xin Di (Jia Bing), the director of a mobility-scooter factory looking to expand into full-sized electric vehicles, approaches the group about sponsoring a rally team for the forthcoming final Bayanbulak Rally (climate change is rendering the course too dangerous). He doesn't really have the funds for it, but does have a natural driver in Li Xiaohai (Fan Chengcheng). They don't stand much chance of beating the hybrid-powered Lightlife team, run by their former manager Ye (Wei Xiang), but just placing would be the boost both businesses need.

I didn't know Han Han was a former driver before setting the first Pegasus, but looking at the two movies together, it tracks. The movies don't necessarily get lost in minutia, but they've got a sort of familiarity with the material that isn't distancing but is occasionally a bit dry. It also sometimes seems the case that he doesn't see a deeper meaning in all of this as opposed to this just being the protagonist's sport, what he does because it's fun and he loves nothing better - not all athletes see poetry in their endeavor. There's something approaching a theme in the end, about running your car/body into ruin over the course of the race or life, but it's not that deep. It's not quite just a race, but it's not that much more.

Indeed, the film is oddly slimmed down from last time, not much more than these guys doing things with cars. Chang Chi's foster son has apparently been reclaimed by his birth parents, Yuqiang's wife isn't even mentioned, and Ye becomes a villain because, I dunno, the actor was available and the movie needed a villain (kind of a shame, because there could be something interesting in examining how desire to win has blotted out his easygoing nature from the first movie, or how the others apparently have nothing but racing left, but Han doesn't give that much time). The father-son relationship between Xiaohai and Xin gets one or two scenes, and they basically work, even if they're not enough to hang the movie on. There are also fewer feints in the direction of comedy. I'm not sure whether to appreciate the focus on what they can do well or wish it was more ambitious.

The racing is pretty darn good, though. It's the same legendary course as the previous movie, but it kind of doesn't matter, given how this sort of race works and there's no particular symbolism other to the course's nature other than that being the legendary course that has captured the imagination of Chinese racers for decades, not even to consider how this is the end of an era. Han does make it a bit more obviously exciting this go-round, though - there is more direct competition between the racers, as well as confrontations between Ye and Ji Xing off the track, and a sudden hailstorm that makes Zhang Chi and Sun Yuqiang have to work more closely than they ever have before

To a certain extent, these movies are what they are, and execute well enough, and this one is a bit of an improvement. They're odd ducks as big event movies, at least as such things are often built in Hollywood with a big emotional story that can be mapped to the final event, but this one works more often than not.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 February 2024 - 29 February 2024

Man, you can really feel the studios and theaters stretching to fill screens right now. I hope it will be better next year when we're further past the plagues and strikes and all, but we could also be down to like two or three major studios by then.
  • The latest Coen Brothers solo project, Ethan's Drive-Away Dolls, opens at the Somerville, the Coolidge, Fresh Pond, CinemasSalem, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Kendall Square, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. It's a fairly enjoyable comic road trip with Margaret Qualley & Geraldine Viswanathan as lesbian best friends who wind up accidentally transporting the sort of bizarre cargo that men will kill for, and happily clocks in at a quick 84 minutes.

    Ordinary Angels looks to be going for "inspirational drama", with Hilary Swank as a small-town woman who helps a single father pay for his daughter's medical care. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Causeway Street, Assembly Row, and Chestnut Hill.

    The Sarajevo-in-the-Balkan-war documentary Kiss the Future begins a regular run at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row after what I guess were preview shows last week.

    A Hip-Hop Story, a comedy featuring writer Alfron Crockett and director Damaine Radcliff as two rap pioneers trying to save the genre, plays South Bay.

    Les Misérables is getting a re-release on the Dolby screens at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row; doesn't seem to be any particular significance to it. Soul returns to Boston Common and South Bay after last month's first-time-in-theaters release.

    Dune: Part Two has "Fan First" Imax shows at Jordan's Furniture, Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Sunday. The Kung Fu Panda movies play Boston Common ahead of the upcoming fourth entry (#1 Friday, #2 Saturday, #3 Sunday). The Wednesday A24 selection at Boston Common and Causeway Street is The Lighthouse.
  • Japan's submission for Best Foreign Language film, Perfect Days, opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, the Embassy, the Lexington Venue, Boston Common, and the Seaport. It's one of those foreign-film cross-fertilizations, directed by Wim Wenders, and starring Koji Yakusho as a man who cleans public toilets but still manages to find beauty in his routine, including a visit from his niece.

    The weekend's midnights at the Coolidge include The Book of Eli on Friday and Foxy Brown on Saturday. Monday's Big Screen Classic is Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up. "Destination Romance" concludes with Titanic on Tuesday; The Lives of Others is the Big Screen Debut show on Wednesday, and there's a "Shakespeare Reimagined" presentation of A Midwinter's Tale on Thursday. All of the Coolidge's special presentations this week are on 35mm film.
  • Oscar-nominated Io Capitano, an odyssey tracing the path from Senegal to Europe through the Sahara and Mediterranean for two young boys, opens at Landmark Kendall Square.

    The Kendall also has Spaceman, a Netflix film with Adam Sandler as an astronaut on a year-long mission coming to realize that his wife (Carey Mulligan) may not be waiting for him when he returns. It's directed by Johan Renck, who helmed a good chunk of Chernobyl, and has apparently been sitting on the shelf for a couple years.

    Combining the two, they also bring back two Netflix awards contenders, Society of the Snow and Maestro, for those of us who still may want to catch them on the big screen before the ceremony. The Tuesday New Hollywood selection is Dirty Harry.
  • The big anime release this week is Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba - To the Hashira Training, is apparently not really a feature like Mugen Train but a special premiere event which combines the finale of the previous TV season with the premiere of the new on ahead of its premiere later this spring. This plays Boston Common (including Imax Xenon), Causeway Street, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row (including Imax Laser), Arsenal Yards (including CWX); check showtimes for dubbed versus subtitled, The Boy and the Heron is still at Fresh Pond, the Embassy, and West Newton.

    The last of the Lunar New Year movies to arrive in North America, Article 20, plays Causeway Street; it's from Zhang Yimou and has him doing a contemporary movie for the second time in a year (sort of, as Under the LIght had been delayed), this time focusing on a veteran prosecutor on his last case. Pegasus 2 continues at Boston Common.

    Big Indian-movie turnover at Apple Fresh Pond: Crakk: Jeetaga… Toh Jiyegaa, also at Boston Common, has Arjun Rampal & Vidyut Jammwal in a Hindi-language story of climbing from the slums of Mumbai to elite extreme sports; controversial Hindi-language political thriller Political War; Article 370, an action film starring Yami Gautam; "eccentric" Telugu-language romance Siddharth Roy; Telugu-language comedy Masthu Shades Unnai Ra (through Sunday); Telugu-language inspirational-teacher story Sundaram Master (through Sunday); and Malayalam-language comedy Manjummel Boys. Black-and-white period Malayalam-language horror film Bramayugam and Malayalam-language romantic comedy Premalu are held over at Fresh Pond, while Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya continues at Boston Common.
  • The Alamo Seaport has indie horror Stopmotion.Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, which probably makes it more rep than new release. Their calendar is also has Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Friday/Tuesday); Fences (Saturday); Estonian kung fu adventure The Invisible FIght; 1999 Time Capsules Cruel Intentions (Monday), In the Mood for Love (Monday/Tuesday), Sleepy Hollow (Tuesday), and American Movie (Wednesday); a preview with livestreamed Q&A for Problemista; and one last show of Amélie (Tuesday).
  • The Brattle Theatre opens Brazilian Oscar submission Pictures of Ghosts, a documentary that examines the city of Recife through the lens of its mostly-empty movie houses; it plays Friday to Tuesday. The Bugs Bunny Film Festival continues to play matinees (on 35mm film) through Sunday.

    On top of that, there's the monthly Stop Making Sense screening on Saturday (marked sold out), a free "Elements of Cinema" show of Silent Running with post-film discussion led by Matthew Nash, and IFFBoston presentation of Spaceman on Tuesday (passes required but don't guarantee entry), plus a Grrl Haus Cinema package of local shorts & videos on Wednesday. On Thursday the 29th, they have the two winners of the "Leap Day" polls for two movies that have never screened at the Brattle, Little Miss Sunshine and Perfect Blue.
  • Warner Brothers is re-releasing Tenet on 70mm film with a special prelude for Dune: Part Two attached, and you know that The Somerville Theatre is all over that, running it on the big film all week.

    Over at The Capitol, they should be having the monthly VHS Disasterpiece Theater on Monday
  • The Embassy picks up Frederick Wiseman's four-course meal of a documentary Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, timed to play along with The Taste of Things for those who like the idea of nearly seven-hours of French cuisine on screen; they also open Perfect Days and continue The Boy and the Heron.
  • Bright Lights has Bad Press upstairs at the Paramount on Thursday. I liked this one, about a Muscogee journalist trying to maintain her independence as one of the few Native nations to have a free press act attempts to push against her reporting, when it played IFFBoston last year. Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, plus subject Angel Ellis, will be on-hand for most-film discussion. Free and not just for Emerson students! Per Joe's Free Films, Peeler and Ellis will also be at the Harvard Art Museum for a screening on Tuesday evening (RSVP required).

    ArtsEmerson/the Boston Asian-American Film Festival/RoxFIlm/Cinefest Latino Boston continue streaming the "Shared Stories" program through Sunday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has encores of the latest two by Hong Sang-soo, with In Our Day Friday and in water on Sunday. The "Afterimage" screening on Saturday evening, "Hapax Legomena" gets started a bit early at 6pm to accommodate over three hours of 16mm shorts from the early 1970s. Guelwaar, screening on 35mm film, wraps the Ousmane Sembène series on Sunday afternoon. And on Monday, they show a 35mm print of Cotton Comes to Harlem with Matthew Whitman introducing the film to celebrate its star Godfrey Cambridge's papers being added to the Houghton Library.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has two films from its "Uniqlo Festival of Films from Japan" this week: Nobuhiko Obayashi's classic House (also part of "Bloody Gorgeous: The Art of Horror" and.Hirokazu Kore-Eda's lates, Monster.
  • The Museum of Science has a special presentation of The Space Race, a documentary highlighting the first Black astronauts, on Wednesday evening. They also get an early start on their weekend screenings of Dune: Part Two on the Omni screen with a Thursday night show (so does everywhere else, but it's kind of unusual for the HFA!.
  • The Regent Theatre has three programs of the Banff Mountain Film Festival this weekend, with "Paintbrush" showing Friday, "Arnica" on Saturday, and "Yarrow" on Sunday. On Sunday, they also have The Black Mass, a thriller following the victims of a spree killer in the last 24 hours before his rampage, with producer Michelle Romano on hand for a post-film Q&A.
  • The GlobeDocs Black History Month Film Festival is in-person this week, with The Mural Master screening at the Capital One Cafe on Wednesday night, including a post-film panel discussion featuring director Andrew Eldridge, producer Jessica Estelle Huggins, and the Globe's Kris Hooks.
  • Oscar-Nominated Shorts continue, with The Coolidge, the Kendall, West Newton, and Boston Common showing Animation and Live Action more or less all week, with West Newton also haveing the docs Friday-Sunday. The Seaport has Animation (Friday/Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday) and Live Action (Saturday/Sunday/Monday/Wednesday); The ICA has Documentary (2 programs Sunday) and Live Action (Thursday); The Capitol has animation (Friday/Saturday/Tuesday), Live-Action (Friday/Monday/Thursday), and Documentary (Sunday/Wednesday); the Somerville has Animation (Friday/Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday), Live Action (Friday/Saturday/Tuesday), and Documentary (Sunday/Tuesday); the Lexington Venue has Live Action (Friday-Sunday); Animation (Friday/Saturday/Thursday), and Documentary (Sunday); Luna Lowell has Animation (Saturday/Sunday), Live Action (Friday-Sunday), and Documentary (Saturday/Sunday); Cinema Salem has Animation, Live Action, and Documentary Friday to Monday.
  • The Lexington Venue is open Friday to Sunday plus Thursday with the Oscar shorts (see above), The Taste of Things, and Perfect Days.

    The West Newton Cinema opens Drive-Away Dolls and hangs onto the Oscar Shorts, One Love, Driving Madeleine (Friday-Sunday), American Fiction, Migration, The Boys in the Boat, Wonka (Friday-Sunday), The Boy and the Heron (no show Thursday), and The Holdovers (no show Saturday). Documentary Baltic Truth plays Sunday morning, with filmmaker Eugene Levin on-hand to discuss his look at the Holocaust in Latvia and Lithuania.

    The Luna Theater looks to be all Oscar shorts this weekend.

    Cinema Salem has the Oscar Shorts, Drive-Away Dolls and One Love from Friday to Monday. Friday's Night LIght show is The Watermelon Woman. Saturday has a free (with donations encouraged) afternoon screening of Ukrainian feature The Guide and a late show homebrew horror HeBGB TV.
Already have tickets to Stopmotion and The Invisible Fight at the Seaport, and will probably try to find ways to fit in Perfect Days, Tenet, Article 20, Pictures of Ghosts, Spaceman, and Cotton Comes to Harlem, A Midwinter's Tale, and, gee, there's a lot of Oscar catch-up to do!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 12 February 2024 - 18 February 2024 (Getting Ready)

Quite the odd week for movie-watching; not so much a deliberate attempt to slow down after the previous week, although it worked out that way.
This Week in Tickets
The week splits into two parts easily enough. During the week, I was getting ready for a couple of Part IIs. First up was streaming Pegasus, shockingly very available ahead of the sequel arriving in theaters for the Lunar New Year. This never happens with Chinese movies - as I mentioned when looking at If You Are the One 3 a month ago, I wasn't able to see the first before either one!

Not that it was necessarily easy; it was streaming on Amazon Prime, but the search made it hard enough to find at the time that I had to get there via JustWatch, and then opted to rent rather than use the stream included with Prime because the rental was $2 and adding ad-free streaming would be $3, and I didn't feel like giving them the satisfaction. The movie itself didn't quite put me off seeing the sequel - I'll probably be doing that in the next day or so - but it is a bit of a head-scratcher that it led to a sequel that seems to be doing pretty well.

On Thursday, I gave Dune a rewatch ahead of Part 2 coming out. Because I dawdled, the only place left showing it was the Majestic 7 out in Watertown, although I didn't much mind that - I was kind of surprised that I hadn't yet found an excuse to get out there in the roughly five years (minus a plague) that it's been open! I figured it would make the bus out to Best Buy or the big Target worth it, but that hasn't actually happened yet, and on top of that, I used to go by that place every day on the 70A bus when I lived in Cambridge and worked in Waltham, so there's a timeline where I'm not renovicted and my employers don't move where I'm seeing a movie there practically every night.

Nice little multiplex, though. I should do a thing where I visit every theater you can get to via the T, sort of look at the state of Boston moviegoing. Maybe when the Coolidge opens its expansion. I'm sure someone will announce they're reopening Fenway just as I finish.

Anyway, it was a quiet couple days after that, and then I opted to do a cruddy-movie twin bill on Sunday. The first part was a brunch screening of Argylle at the Seaport Alamo and, eh, I don't think I'll be doing that again. Certain parts of their menu are the sort of thing that makes me really anxious in restaurants - the burger, for instance, that has half a dozen toppings when I really just want cheese and bacon, and I don't want to be trying to pick out what I don't want in a darkened theater - and all three of the items on the special brunch menu are like that. On top of that, all the beverages were alcoholic, which meant there was a mimosa on the menu but not "glass of orange juice".

(Look, I know I'm a picky eater upon whom your carefully-constructed medley of flavors is wasted, but I don't like it when a menu makes me feel like that, y'know? Just offer the ability to build up from plain rather than deal with all the hassles of subtracting!)

Anyway, after that I killed a bit of time shopping and headed to the Common for Madame Webb on the Imax screen, and, eh, I've seen worse. I kind of feel like Sony will sort of quietly not greenlight any more of these Spider-adjacent movies after Venom 3 comes out this fall. It wasn't the worst idea given that Sony had rights to a roster of more characters than they could possibly use given how long movies take to make, but if Kraven flops, I think you've just got to look at Venom as an anomaly.

More coming on my Letterboxd account, then here.

Dune '21

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2024 in Majestic Arsenal Yards #2 (return engagement, laser DCP)
Available to rent/purchase digitally on Prime or elsewhere, and to purchase on DVD/Blu-ray/3D/4K at Amazon

I liked this a bit more on my third go-through, and sort of half-wonder if that's at all a function of this being the first time I saw it in "normal" fashion - my first viewing was in 3D, which isn't particularly missed even though there are stereo guys beyond conversion in the credits; my second was on the Omnimax dome at the Museum of Science from way too close; and this was on a regular 2D screen. Amusingly, I'll probably see the sequel on 70mm film, and wonder if there's any other way to do this. Are there D-Box screenings anywhere in New England?

Still, I'm not sure that this is a great movie or adaptation, although it's been long enough since I've read the books (I was way too young/ignorant to know half of what Frank Herbert was trying to get at) that I couldn't really say on the latter. It's very much half a movie, still, but a good half-movie, impeccably staged with a pretty terrific cast doing everything they can to turn Herbert's words into something that at least feels like human beings might say them. You still only sort of start to get the shape of what the filmmakers are getting at here, but it certainly seems to lay a strong foundation for what's coming next week.

Letterboxd post from October 2021


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2024 in Alamo Seaport #8 (first-run, DCP)

Silly question: Do you think Samuel L. Jackson told director/producer Matthew Vaughn "look, MFer, I'm gonna take your money for three days of work in the south of France, but are you seriously giving her the same damn makeover?" when he saw the script or, given that he was probably only on set for a few days, after the premiere?

Even if you don't immediately recognize the movie I'm not being particularly coy about(*), I suspect that most folks will feel like Argylle was copied from something. It's got all the pieces of a twisty movie plot that has worked in the past, a terrific cast that should be able to make them work again, but none of the inspiration. Writer Jason Fuchs has come up with this story that could be a fun meta-commentary on James Bond-style espionage versus actual spy work, or what actually makes someone who they are, or whether attachments that have been manufactured in this way can be real, but there's no emotion behind it except in fairly rare instances - Bryce Dallas Howard does a few perfectly believable freak-outs, but Fuchs and Vaghn never seem to recognize that this could be interesting and dig in a bit; it's just time to pull the next reversal

All these folks should be able to get something out of the material, but the moments when they do are few and far between. Why do you even have Bryan Cranston playing his part if he's not going to do something interesting with it? It's funny/ironic, I suppose, that Bruce Dallas Howard's character is a spy-fi writer said to be beloved by actual spies for getting things right when the script is kind of precise but hollow; you might think that this sort of a script written by a guy who has spent a lot of time as an actor might have something to say about disappearing into a character, but it doesn't.

It's pretty, occasionally, but the sort of pretty where one can see the action being pushed to the image rather than the two fitting together. I also kind of wonder how much better the film would be if you switched Henry Cavill's role with John Cena's, because even if they aren't in the film much, there's something about Cavill that makes his scenes land with a thud in the gap between fun spy stuff and an enjoyably deadpan spoof of them. Make pro-wrestler Cena the cartoonish super-spy and Cavill the surprisingly-nerdy partner, and they probably click into place easily


(*) I refer, of course, the The Long Kiss Goodnight, and how when Howard's Elly is revealed to actually be "Rachel Gylle"(**), she is given the same short haircut/platinum-blonde dye job that Geena Davis got in that movie when she regained her memories, Unfortunately, it makes her look disturbingly like Amy Schumer as opposed to someone folks would think was a super-spy.

(**) Man, this feels like a place where filmmakers who were actually trying would come up with some sort of silly anagram, especially with spelling of "Argylle", but I'm not seeing one.


Madame Web

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2024 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)

Meh. Folks have been pumping this up as some sort of disaster all week when it's only below average, and even that in a way that highlights how much we expect more from these movies than we used to than any sort of fundamental misguidedness. The pieces of a decent mid-tier superhero movie are here, but it's like the filmmakers hit a wall when they have to put those pieces together in a way that makes it click for the audience, and wind up flailing. Just when the movie should be getting into a groove, gliding forward with a head of steam behind it, it keeps hitting bump where the audience wonders why you'd do that.

And it really should have that, because the circular nature of the story that involves folks seeing the future could be cool! Paramedic Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) can't do that when the audience first meets her in 2003, at least not until her partner Ben Parker (Adam Scott) restarts her heart after she falls in the Hudson River, but Ezekial Sims (Tahar Ramin), who shot Cassandra's mother when they were seeking a semi-mythical super-power-bestowing spider in Peru thirty years earlier can, and he's tormented by the fact that three young women with spider-like abilities (Isabela Merced, Celeste O'Connor, Sydney Sweeney) will kill him at some point in the future. So he figures out how to find them, but they all wind up on the same train as Cassandra, and she has a vision of him about to attack…

Add a bit in where the girls only get their powers because Ezekial is trying to kill them - that would be a logical way for them to get the magic spider-bites - and that would be kind of clever, or could be, if the five credited writers were taking more care to have all this stuff nailed down. Instead, there's a weird sort of tug of war between when they come up with something weird and screwy but in such a way that it feels like something an awkward person not used to superhero-related stuff would do and stuff that is just dumb. Sometimes the former seems to cause the latter, in that Cassandra and the girls have so little reason to make the leap to spider-powers that you've got to do something crazy to get them to the right exposition.

There's actually a little bit of weird relatable charm to Dakota Johnson's bafflement, at least, right up to the point where the need for explanation gets painful; there's something genuinely abnormal about how there's a bit of "what do you mean, natal trauma and a lifetime without roots has messed me up, I'm fine!" to pretty much everything she does. The cast is really not bad at all - I'd watch more movies with the Spider-Girls, while Adam Scott and Emma Roberts are quite likable as folks named Parker you can buy into. Tahar Rahim's Ezekial is more underwritten than anything. The action isn't massively-scaled, but works, and if the "hey, let's include something in a shot that's kind of like a spiderweb" stuff is trying too hard, it's in a way that usually feels like it would make a good comic panel. This would be pretty decent, if it came out 25 years ago, just before its 2003 setting.

Unfortunately, it comes out in 2024, with a studio throwing every lesser Spider-character they have at the wall in hoping something sticks as well as Venom, but in this case with nobody behind the scenes seeming to have the affinity for the genre that the MCU guys do or the Tom Hardy insanity that somehow worked. Perhaps most importantly, though, Ezekiel and the Spider-Girl characters are all close enough to Spider-Man in design and abilities that they remind the viewer that Sam Raimi and the Marvel Studios folks made a half-dozen Spider-Man movies better than this, and having them all exist before Spidey seems to make him incompatible with these movies, and who wants that?

Pegasus Dune Argylle Madame Web

Saturday, February 17, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 5 February 2024 - 11 February 2024 (Jean Arthur Week, Part II)

What a "living at the Brattle" week looks like, if you don't remember.

This Week in Tickets
So, yes, as was the plan last week, I did that whole Jean Arthur series, and was kind of amused when I saw a review on Letterboxd for More Than a Secretary that read "Jean Arthur was gay, PERIODT!" because one looks at her biography and wonders if she wasn't somehow queer: One annulled marriage, one that produced no children, intensely private, died in the care of a female longtime friend/companion. More or less finished in Hollywood after her Columbia contract ended, though she'd work on the stage and teach.

And then there are the movies, where The Talk of the Town wasn't the only one that seemed to like a happy polycule was closer to the ideal conclusion than a couple. Obviously, you can't really tell much about an studio-period actor from the movies they're in, because they can't really choose projects, but sometimes it seems like the queer-coding and apparent comfort with it piles up - the best takes with her roommate being better than the best ones with her boyfriend, her biggest movies being the ones with unconventional chemistry.

No way to know, obviously, since if this was the case, she maintained her privacy very well during her life. More likely than not, she just lived a private life, wasn't nearly as romance-focused as the characters she played, and had a roommate when she was older. She definitely made some good movies during her time at Columbia, though, and the post-weekend portion of the Brattle's program got to some of the more offbeat ones: If You Could Only Cook, The Whole Town's Talking, More Than a Secretary, Too Many Husbands, You Can't Take It with You, The More the Merrier, and Adventure in Manhattan.

(Somewhere in there, there was a re-watch of Piranha for Film Rolls, but we'll just maybe link to that when that post is ready actually.)

After that came the Lunar New Year weekend, which is kind of a weird one here because it's big mainstream movies, but few have ever had a trailer, some of them come out day-of and some get picked up by North American distributors and wind up coming out months later, and some just disappear because the Chinese distributor doesn't figure there's enough audience in the USA to care. This year, it's backed up right up against Valentine's Day, too. Some years they take over the Imax screen with something huge like The Wandering Earth, other years, not so much I liked both Table for Six 2 (Friday) and The Movie Emperor (Sunday), but they're not "hey, they've got blockbusters in China too!" things.

(It looks we're missing two big ones - YOLO, from the director of Hi, Mom, and Zhang Yimou's Article 20, which will probably show up later.)

Also on Sunday: The first "Silents, Please!" of the year, the 1924 Peter Pan, which was quite fun. Given the mention of the next one tying to MGM's and Columbia's 100th anniversaries, I wonder if 1924 is going to be the theme for the year. The pandemic really screwed over what could potentially have been a good long celebration of silent centennials!

Sorry this showed up kind of late, but it's kind of a beast, and the next Film Rolls is looking like a beast too. My Letterboxd account continues to update if this is too long between missives.

If You Could Only Cook

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Available to purchase on DVD on Amazon; not steaming elsewhere at this moment

So here's the thing about If You Could Only Cook, in which a self-made millionaire (Herbert Marshall), having given an unemployed woman he meets (Jean Arthur) the impression that he, too, is out of work (rather than taking a week off before his wedding to a woman from a respected family he doesn't particularly love), agrees to pose as her husband so that they can take jobs as a butler & cook, only to discover that they were hired by a gangster: It seldom has the absolute best joke possible in a given situation, and it's got a bunch of set-ups it barely mines, but it rarely stumbles, while also packing everything into 74 minutes and fading to black at the very moment its business is done. This is how comedy B-movies are done. Solid as heck work all around.

Indeed, the filmmakers are often content to run off little more than the chemistry between Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall for long stretches, letting them be pleasant company so that you needn't have reservations about pairing them up despite the deception at the center, while a bunch of nutty folks around them escalate things. Arthur and Marshall play off each other so well that it's pretty easy to believe that Jim and Joan go out on limbs for each other. Meanwhile, we see just enough of Jim's best man cuddling with the bride-to-be to casually dispose of that as an issue, while Leo Carrillo and Lionel Stander are mobsters divorced enough from violent crime to be entertaining goofs.

There's a kind of temptation to let things get completely crazy, as they do during an entertaining final chase, but it's not that movie; as frantic and full of screwball misunderstandings as it is, it's pretty gentle. In some ways, it means that this is a comedy B movie that maybe could have been an A picture with 10 more minutes spent running down all the other things going on, and I'd kind of like to see the movie where they knock down everything they set up.

On the other hand, it works pretty darn well at this scale, and can you imagine remaking it? So much is positively quaint today that you'd have to spend time explaining couples' jobs and the like.

(Fun if surprising fact: F. Hugh Herbert, credited with the story, was not a one-off alias that one might use during the Great Depression! His career spanned 30-plus years!)

The Whole Town's Talking

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime or elsewhere, and to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

The first character we meet in this movie is named Seaver, and he survives to the end despite being kidnapped. Five stars.

Well, not quite, but it is tremendous fun to watch Edward G. Robinson not only spend a lot of the movie playing a sweet little nebbish but, as the word gets out that there is an escaped convict who looks just like him, seemingly have difficulty contorting his face into that of the gangster he sees in the paper. I'm not sure of the extent to which he'd really established his gangster persona at this early point, but it's a kick when the Robinson we know and love does show up. Joan Arthur is a fun foil, giving Miss Clark aggressive but honest-seeming charm that quickly wipes away how she initially comes off as a bullying opportunist.

John Ford directs, and it makes for a snappier movie than the ones with Frank Capra that started this Jean Arthur series, even as he's marshaling scenes that play big or tossing both the gags and the bits that move the story ahead around quickly. The parts with Robinson playing off himself work well, too, especially a couple that must be done with rear protection or quality matte work because the smoke from Killer Mannion's cigar wafts behind Arthur Jones rather than disappearing as it passes a central line.

i do, eventually, get a sense of what's kind of too much at points; the chaotic first half doesn't make a whole lot more sense than the second, when Mannion is setting things in motion, but it's quick and lots of fun.

More Than a Secretary

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Not currently streaming; available to purchase on DVD at Amazon.

It's the old, old story - the co-owner of a secretarial school (Jean Arthur) tries to give the demanding client (George Brent) who has fired a number of girls placed at his magazine a piece of her mind, but is mistaken mistaken for the new hire. He's handsome and charismatic, though, so she takes the job, even as she and her partner have lamented the extent to which their students see their training as a path to matrimony rather than independence.

There is some darn good screwball in here, especially as Arthur's Carol is initially thrown by just how peculiar Fred's healthy lifestyle and the workings of the magazine he uses to spread the gospel thereof are, with Lionel Stander especially fun as Fred's trainer and best buddy (he was also a scene-stealer in If You Could Only Cook and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, just a terrific character actor). The film loses a bit of momentum when the health-magazine goofiness starts to fall by the wayside, because Carol finding the whole thing weird is generally more entertaining than her being part of it. I do want to know what percentage of Dorothea Kent's lines as Maizie are double entendres that just aren't so well known 90 years later; she's a hussy and given that so many of her lines are clear come-ons or ones where you can see where she's going, I suspect the rest are just the same.

It's a slight movie, for sure, and at times feels like it's been cut to the bone to get down to its trim 77-minute running time: If the fact that Jean Arthur's character was actually the owner of the school was supposed to be something she was hiding, it's never brought up, and if the best friends are pairing off, it's just out of sight, a fuzzy piece of the background. But it's cute.

Too Many Husbands

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Not currently streaming; available to purchase on DVD at Amazon.

I wonder what the original stage play of this is like, because it certainly feels like the filmmakers took a look at the premise, saw the jokes, and decided that any attempt to make it go anywhere or say anything with even the slightest bit of weight would be working against their purposes, so they tossed it out. This is actually more than fine; it's 80 minutes of flustered absurdity as Jean Arthur's Vicky tries to figure out what to do now that her missing-presumed-dead first husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) has been rescued from a deserted island and found her married to his best friend and business partner Henry (Melvyn Douglas).

There's maybe the hint of something weightier here in Bill's realization that he took Vicky for granted or Henry's inferiority complex, but then something clicks with Vicky, and the look on Jean Arthur's face she realizes that she can make this work for her is delightful. Her glee at realizing that these two men will fight over her, and not because they see her as a prize but because she's obviously the best thing in their lives - kind of important, that! - seems like a chance for the movie to go in on how these two men have neglected her in different ways, but it's having way too much fun with the banter and bouncing around the apartment to slow down and talk about that.

Screenwriter Claude Binyon could maybe do with making a stronger argument for Melvyn Douglas's Henry; the film is almost all ping-ponging and banter, and while Douglas fills this sort of slot quite well, Fred MacMurray is really good at that sort of comedy, and I suspect that the guy who is quick on the draw is going to do better with audiences on top of the girl. MacMurray seems a lot like Arthur in that he was in a classic or two but didn't have iconic pairings or a body of work that became where he was the best thing in legendary pictures. But even if they didn't achieve places in the canon of their own, you can see why they're stars in movies like this as MacMurray in particular is giving you reason to enjoy it at even the silliest moments.

You Can't Take It with You

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Artthur, DCP)
Available to rent/purchase digitally on Prime and elsewhere, or to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

Can you imagine if the internet had been around in Frank Capra's day? The level of snark at his seemingly facile earnestness, the immediate "let people like things" backlash, the attempt to parse whether he was actually kind of great at directing actors or if he was lucky to have James Stewart in parts calibrated to his strengths? The truth of it is probably somewhere in the middle, but you can picture the shouting over it, right, especially in a movie like this which doesn't always hit.

In it, banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is trying to acquire a group of properties in New York on which he'll build a factory that corners the munitions business; the holdout, "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) barely recognizes the attempt; he and his family and other oddballs he's collected have a sort of creative commune. Unbeknownst to either, Kirby's idler son Tony (Stewart), a do-nothing Vice President has Grandpa's granddaughter Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) for a secretary and girlfriend, and she would like their families to meet.

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would have described the clan of eccentrics in this movie as worse than the banking family, although these days I'd mark the former as just annoying and inconsiderate while the bankers looking to build a monopoly on munitions manufacture are closer to evil. Progress, but, man, do I still get annoyed by all these guys working so hard to be zany. Capra fetishizes his misfits as much as he loves them, so the avalanche of screwiness seems a bit forced.

Some of the situations are pretty entertaining, at least, well-executed free-floating gags. Alice is a perfect fit for Jean Arthur, who throughout this series has been shown as good at being charming and elegant and then peeling that back to show something more brash and playful not far underneath, and that's often the center of her character here. Jimmy Stewart's do-nothing rich kind doesn't deserve her, really, and Stewart is at his best when he's letting the audience see how empty his rebellion is for most of the movie. There's a lot of charm to most of the cast, though, especially Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold: Barrymore runs a sort of brute-force assault to get the audience to see him as sincere, while Arnold convincingly lets his decency get dragged out.

85 years later, I must admit that a big part of what sours it for me is Grandpa's little rant against paying his taxes and how ready he is to abandon the neighborhood he'd told not to worry about selling as soon as things get a bit uncomfortable for him. You don't have to make these movies "balanced", but you should perhaps reckon with Grandpa's happy life coming from a place of privilege, even before getting to the Black servants who keep this little commune fed!

The More the Merrier

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, DCP)
Available to rent/purchase digitally on Prime and elsewhere, or to purchase on DVD at Amazon

I wonder how many more movies like The More the Merrier got made quickly at some point and then sank into relative obscurity because they were so of the moment or local that their inspiration would seem alien just a few years later. Here, that's Washington DC as America enters World War II, beset by a housing crunch where Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) opts to rent out her spare bedroom out of patriotism, not planning on winding up with Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), who arrived a couple days before his hotel room was free, and who subsequently sub-sublets half of his bedroom to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), with the intention of playing matchmaker.

It's a kind of unnerving little premise that requires one find Dingle whimsical and charming rather than, say, dangerously presumptuous about invading a young woman's space, and it's on Arthur and Coburn, and later McCrea, to sell that they can size one another up quickly and see more than irritants, enough so that they can go through bunch of clockwork physical comedy and being flustered because of how they've defaulted to farce rules where something is a secret to be kept rather than something to broach right away, with director George Stevens orchestrating things nicely.

Things really come alive when, after a few tossed-off comments about DC having eight women for every man, what with the draft and all the clerical work, the movie makes a sharp shift from cute to horny, like they shot the scene of everybody sunbathing on the roof and decided that was what the film was missing up to that point. The film is certainly at its most fun during that period, with Connie suddenly tiring of the milquetoast fiancé that one might be forgiven for thinking was a lie and rooms full of women eying JOe appreciatively. Admittedly, Joe needs to be pushed out of the way to really let the movie achieve its ready-to-go potential, but it doesn't really need him at that point any more.

It's kind of screwy for the rest of the time, but cute, with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea a very nice potential pair. They're something of an "inevitable, because they're the young and single characters we see the most" match, but filled with enough charm to make one believe it. Throw in Coburn, and the group has nice screwball energy even as they stop just short of frantic.

The whole thing can make you scratch your head a bit - I'm not sure I've seen this sort of movie so specifically built around so narrow a certain time and place before - but it's certainly genial enough for most of the time to be a charmer.

Adventure in Manhattan

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Available to purchase on DVD at Amazon

Adventure in Manhattan is just about complete nonsense as a mystery, really, the sort that either completely misses that a big part of what makes master detectives and criminals fun is the audience getting to see how the machinery in their brains works or realizes that there is absolutely no way for it to make sense and just pushes through anyway. The film all too often just asserts that these guys are brilliant and has them make random leaps, which keeps the movie moving but doesn't make the hero and villain much more than insufferable.

(The story involves a paper hiring "criminologist" writer George Melville (Joel McCrea) to investigate a series of daring robberies which he believes are the work of a presumed-dead European thief (Reginald Owen), while at the same time he crosses paths with unemployed waif Claire Peyton (Jean Arthur), who turns out to be an actress his fellow reporters have hired to prank him because he's obnoxious as hell and needs to be taken down a peg)

Of course, you don't necessarily need much more than that in a 72-minute movie, especially with Joel McCrea as the too-brilliant sleuth and Jean Arthur as the smitten sidekick. They bring sheer movie-star power to the very silly script and make the time passing pleasant. You might like and want more - a really clever heist, or brilliant detective work that falls into place as Melville explains it - but for movies as disposable as this was intended to be, sometimes you've just got to be satisfied with the vibe, and the vibe from McCrea and Arthur is pretty good.

Peter Pan (1924)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2024 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm with accompaniment)
Available to stream/rent digitally, or to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

This is the first official/authorized/known film version (although I wouldn't be shocked if someone had made one earlier), made with the direct input/control from J.M. Barrie, and it turns out to be really darn solid. Betty Bronsan & Mary Brian make a genuinely appealing Peter & Wendy, with Bronsan giving Peter the right sort of chaotic energy and Brian capturing Wendy being on the verge of growing up in a way that makes the end, where Peter can't join her, just the right amount of sad. Ernest Torrence really seems to set the standard for Captain Hook over the next century. Anna May Wong shows up, but, um, let's not get into that too much.

The set designers, art directors, and the like (or whatever they were called in those days) seem to have a field day as well, creating a great-looking Never Never Land that sometimes plays like a really spiffy stage production but also never feels bound by that medium; there's room to do special effects or zoom in to show Virginia Browne Faire's Tinker Bell interacting with oversized props. The pantomime animals have a perfect level of unreality considering this, too, in that their acknowledged artifice allows the audience to accept them rather than look for the flaws, with George Ali performing Nana the dog (and possibly the Croc). It's his only film credit, per IMDB, but he's listed first, making me wonder if he was a well-known specialist in this sort of role.

If it trips up at all, it's near the end, although (given Barrie's insistence that few liberties be taken), maybe that's inherent to the material, with things moving fast enough that you wonder how the implication that it's been some time works. It's also a bit of a shame that the only surviving print was a localized-to-America one, but all in all, this is a whole lot better than one might have expected. If You Could Only Cook & The Whole Town's Talking More Than a Secretary & Too Many Husbands You Can't Take It with You The More The Merrier & Adventure in Manhattan Table for Six 2 Peter Pan (1924) The Movie Emperor