Thursday, February 29, 2024

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

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