I was five minutes late because I'm a chronic screw-up but Pete Travis couldn't have been more patient or forgiving. I'm doubly impressed by his zen calm when he tells me he starts shooting another feature in four days. I assume out loud that doing press at a film festival is the last thing he needs, but he says he's grateful for the respite from a constantly-ringing phone. Later Travis, who gives off a major Ben Mendelsohn vibe in person, will compare big-budget filmmaking to lying on the beach; if we'd ordered drinks, I would've had what he's having.
Travis came to this year's TIFF with his follow-up to the sensational Dredd, the London-set City of Tiny Lights, in tow. Starring the charming, ubiquitous Riz Ahmed, it's about a detective (Brits, including Travis, favour the term "gumshoe") whose search for a missing prostitute brings him in touch with his own tragic past. It's a conventional hard-boiled whodunit--the genre has survived by being incorruptibly formulaic, allowing it to comment on modern times by throwing into relief our changing mores and values--with one glaring exception: only one of the main characters is white. It's fascinating how deceptively fresh this makes it feel. My major complaint after the movie was over was that it retreats from those Chinatown places that would make it resonate beyond its enlightened casting (screenwriter Patrick Neale, adapting his own novel, scaled back on his book's doom and gloom considerably), but upon spending some time with Travis, I came to see the optimism of City of Tiny Lights as deeply personal to a serene and hopeful man.
We spoke on September 15, 2016 at the Azure Restaurant & Bar in the InterContinental Toronto Centre.
*/**** starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O'Dowd, Samuel L. Jackson screenplay by Jane Goldman, based upon the novel by Ransom Riggs directed by Tim Burton
by Walter Chaw The right material and collaborator can bring out the best in Tim Burton, but it's mostly a one-way street. Before it soured, his work with Johnny Depp compelled because of the pathos Depp imported into projects like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. When Burton lands the right material, as he did with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, he's capable of masterpieces. I would argue that his most personal picture by far, the only one that plumbs the exquisite gulfs of loneliness and disconnection suggested by his other pieces, is Batman Returns. There's a scene in it where Bruce Wayne drinks soup, recoils that it's cold, then digs in again without hesitation when told by his long-term keeper that it's supposed to be. Bruce is a broken clockwork and wholly dependent; it's a fascinating read of the Batman character. Burton's Catwoman is the purest representation of the gender injustice that results in her mania and rise to power. The film is a spiritual predecessor to Burton's poetry collection The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, the contents of which speak of misbegotten births, misunderstood childhoods, and unimaginable betrayals that lead to lonesome deaths. These themes are always on the periphery of Burton's films. I wonder if as he's gotten more monolithic whether they don't become commensurately more difficult to tease out.
½*/**** starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Volker Zack Michalowski written by Werner Herzog, based on the story "Aral" by Tom Bissell directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw There's an early moment in Werner Herzog's misbegotten Salt and Fire where three scientists wander through an abandoned terminal in a Bolivian airport, scored by a cacophonous, disturbing Ernst Reijseger composition, that finds Herzog on comfortable, familiar ground. His films are at their best when they combine this kind of displacing, disquieting music against scenes of the mundane. Later, as his DP Peter Zeitlinger pans across the flaking spines of an ancient book collection, and again when Zeitlinger takes in the staggering scope of Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flat, Herzog finds his rhythm as chronicler of unknowable mysteries and philosopher of intimations of immortality. The film would have been better without dialogue. A scene right around the mid-point where scientist Laura (Veronica Ferres) and mad industrialist Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) have a conversation about children in front of a crackling fire would have been transcendent silent. The planes of Shannon's and Ferres's faces, lit by flickers of orange, are suggestive of extraordinary depths and tensions. When they're forced to say things like "the tragedy is when men are afraid of the light," it tends to make it all gravid and unintentionally hilarious. When Michael Shannon is incapable of landing a weird line, imagine how the others fare.
by Walter Chaw We've decided to get rid of our comments section here at FILM FREAK CENTRAL. We kept it for longer than we should have, I think. Our world isn't getting any better. It's getting a lot worse. I stopped engaging with our commenters a while ago. I've come back a couple of times in the last few years, but for the most part it's just been this thing that festers, this thing in the basement that gibbers to itself. I've asked friends to not tell me what's being written about me in there. I'm a lot happier not knowing.
There was a time when I tried my very best to answer every comment, to engage in conversation and debate. I would defend every word, point by point. I never changed any minds, though, and I'm sure I made a few enemies. It's funny, but looking back at every time I scored a point, I got cheers from the people on my side and sullen silence or escalation from my victims. I took some pleasure in that. I guess I understand the compulsion in leading the ugly parade.
I learned about trolls before there was a term for them. They're not there to debate, they're there to shit on the carpet and then defy you to notice. The more things fell our way, the more trolls showed up here to talk about my race, my family, the state of my mind. People impersonated friends and colleagues to leave awful remarks...anything to get a rise. The deciding moment for us was when NPR announced they were closing their comments section because after conducting a few surveys, they discovered that their commenters are predominantly white males. There's nothing wrong with white males. A lot of my friends are white males. Most of them, in fact. But they're not the genre that comments in comments sections. They don't even read them because of what's in there, or might be.
They don't attend Trump rallies, either. This isn't a non sequitur, it's precisely the point. Trump is the physical manifestation of the comments section. The reason it doesn't matter what he says or does is because he's just a flag, the inciting symbol behind which a mob of angry people can gather to express their frustration, rage, and fear most of all. Just as folks don't care what the Confederate Flag hid on its taxes, they don't care that any two sentences out of Trump's mouth contradict each other. It's not about the man, it's about the catalyzing agent. That's what makes him dangerous. That's what makes comments sections dangerous, as well. They allow the absolute worst representatives of our society to find one another and join hands. Without them, they don't have the wit to organize.
So that's the main reason comments are kaput.
Another one is that when it's not a breeding ground for hateful people to agree on something, it's a place for dull people to say the same things other dull people have said for centuries. There's nothing new in being critical of critics. It's as old as criticism itself, which is as old as art. Yet here they come, film upon film, piece upon piece, with the same clichéd rejoinders and witty one-liners meant to wither the critic. They range from stuff like "tell us what you really think" to other winners like how the critic is out of touch/hates movies, how 'movies are for entertainment and I was entertained,' or, Geez, you must lead a really sad life. Most of these statements are rank with their own embedded ironies. Back in the day, an angry e-mailer gave my Episode II review a take-that! star rating that was still better than the rating I gave the movie. That one's a keeper.
In other words, the comments section is going away because it's either full of ignorance and hate, or full of boring people saying the same boring things other boring people have been saying since they started talking. It gets to the point where you look at them and think to yourself, Yeah, buddy, give it a year or so and tell me again how this is the best movie that was ever made.
I do wonder now and again how many people who died on the hill defending stuff like Episode II or Forrest Gump are feeling about their Waterloos today. Good, I hope. Hell, it's nice to have things you like.
There's one aspect of the comments section I'll miss. There was a comment that turned into an e-mail exchage a few years ago after I wrote about my depression and how it hamstrung me and how I was trying to work my way through it with film as my agency. I had before; I was going to try to again. The guy who wrote me told me I'd helped him through my writing to not kill himself. That's sobering as shit. It's a weird thing to say, but save a few pieces like this one, I never really imagine anyone's reading my work. I have an audience of one: Bill, FILM FREAK CENTRAL's founder and editor. He's among the dearest friends I have and this writing thing of ours is how we keep in contact. We live 1000 miles apart and have not, to this day, met in the flesh. It's a miracle, right? The Internet, I mean. Bill and I met through the comments section on another site.
In other words, what I'll miss is the odd time a commenter becomes a friend. It's not about agreement, it's about respect and the honest desire to engage. That's been drowned out by the din of abhorrence and rampant trolling, although I know it's still out there somewhere, even if it's buried beneath the rubbish.
Anyway. I'm still on Twitter for the time being: @mangiotto. Bill is, too: @flmfreakcentral. And Bryant Frazer: @deep_focus. And Angelo Muredda: @amuredda. And former FFCers Jefferson Robbins (@Soulsmithy), Alex Jackson (@wokelstein), and Ian Pugh (@MetaEnthusiast). I like Twitter because it lets me mute and block and prune my echo chamber to my heart's content. You can @ me if you want. Oh, and please donate to our Patreon. Every penny goes to the site's upkeep. I've been here fifteen years and running. Here's to fifteen more.
**½/**** starring Denzel Washington, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Pratt screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk directed by Antoine Fuqua
by Walter Chaw That there isn't more of a conversation around Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent 7 beyond the usual wag-talk about the relative merits of sequels and remakes speaks to something like cultural progress, for what it's worth. The popular criticism of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it's derivative and took "no chances." My response is that the heroes of the film are a young woman, a young black man, and a Guatemalan--all in a franchise that set back the racial conversation by about thirty years with its astonishingly tone-deaf prequel trilogy. The Force Awakens, in other words, took a hell of a lot of chances, particularly in consideration of the vile blowback Paul Feig's Ghostbusters suffered for having the temerity to recast a well-remembered bro-fave with women. The Magnificent 7 takes a few chances as well by recasting John Sturges's well-remembered bro-fave Kurosawa remake with Denzel Washington (in the Yul Brynner lead), Byung-hun Lee (possibly the biggest star in Asia), Tlingit/Koyukon-Athabascan actor Martin Sensmeir, and Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. The press junket made a lot of this multi-culturalism and there's a passing reference to it in most reviews of the picture, but like The Force Awakens, the prevailing attitude is that The Magnificent 7 is derivative and that's that. It is that, but that's not all it is.
Acqua e Zucchero: Carlo Di Palma, i colori della vita ***/**** diretced by Fariborz Kamkari
by Bill Chambers This is an illuminating if less than revolutionary documentary about a cinematographer who's more of a DP's DP than a consensus Great among film buffs. (Google "greatest cinematographers" and Carlo Di Palma doesn't even number among the sixty thumbnails in the banner at the top.) Perhaps the reason is because he spent so long in the weeds with Woody Allen (from 1986 until his retirement from fiction features in 1997), whose movies are statistically ephemeral; perhaps it's because Di Palma is a key figure specifically in Italian cinema, which seemed to exhaust its cultural cachet as art films became outmoded there. Inspired by an exhibit devoted to Di Palma curated by his widow, Adriana Chiesa De Palma, Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, The Colours of Life--a title derived from a late-film anecdote about Carlo as a young boy that packs an emotional punch I wasn't quite expecting--sees Adriana poring over his papers and videos, interviewing her husband's colleagues and admirers, and wistfully recalling their marriage. Surprised herself by the vitality of his contribution to the cinematic arts (it sounds like he didn't talk shop much at home), she makes for an ideal entrée into the filmmaker's oeuvre: she knows the titles and the people involved (sometimes personally), but not well enough to be disenchanted with them.
****/**** starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Keith Carradine written and directed by Terence Davies
by Walter Chaw Terence Davies doesn't make a lot of movies but he does make masterpieces fairly regularly. A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the notoriously reclusive Emily Dickinson, is his latest. His portrait of the "Belle of Amherst" captures the poet (Cynthia Nixon, transcendent) as a woman who finds no succour in the petrified pieties of her rigid New England society, turning inwards instead to the dubious pleasures of family and verse. She looks for approval from both. Her father (Keith Carradine) suffers her streak of rebellion. There's the sense that he sees in her the continuation of his own modest progressivism, indicated by the quiet approval he gives to his children's mockery of his silly sister (Annette Badland), his acceptance of Emily's rejection of a religious education, and his indulging of Emily's desire to write in the small hours of the night. One senses that these witching hours are her room of one's own. The tableaux of Emily swaddled in the purple cocoon of night is not just a romantic notion, but evocation, too, of Davies's deep consciousness of colour in his pictures, pointing to how these early, idealistic moments are contrasted by the sick yellows, whites, and browns that populate the period after her father's death. He breaks that mourning with an impressionistic interlude that opens upon a green bower, then Emily bathed in firelight in something like the physical/spiritual ecstasy that would be denied her--that she perhaps denied herself for fear and self-loathing--all her life. He closes a door on her, slowly. It's a passage that expresses the tension of the film's title: Emily finds deliverance only upon a deeper metaphysical implosion.
by Bill Chambers A professor (Masahiro Komoto) teaching a course on urban legends beseeches his class to get him a copy of the cursed video that summons Sadako, the vengeful spirit of Ringu and its sequels/prequels (this is the seventh film in the Japanese iteration of the series)...and also to buy his book. Not long after, the tape surfaces, and a young woman who watched it dies in the midst of joking with her co-workers about all the inexplicably terrifying things that have happened to her since. Needless to say, Sadako vs. Kayako has a sense of humour about itself--how could it not, given that what its title promises is like herding cats: Sadako only visits those with a working VHS player and Ju-on: The Grudge villainess Kayako never leaves the house. In parallel storylines, the professor and one of his students (Aimi Satsukawa) inherit the Sadako curse and the Grudge place beckons a teenage girl (Tina Tamashiro) who's moved in next door, although Sadako is the de facto star of this show. While the film might not be a conventional entry in either franchise, it's very much in a Japanese tradition, that of kaijū eiga movies featuring experts who sic monsters on other monsters, old-lady-who-swallowed-the-fly-like, when their other defenses prove ineffectual. No cities are levelled here, though.
Dirt */**** (d. Darius Clark Monroe) One of those time-loop conceits that opens with a guy burying a body and ends with...no, not telling. Dirt has an issue with editing and looping, the fallout being that image overlaps noise, confusing function. It's possible to do this meaningfully; it's also possible to junk it up so completely that every transition begins with unnecessary obfuscation. That's what's happened here. Dirt isn't promising, but it is brief.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) ***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Meiko Kaji, Natsuyagi Isao, Rie Yokoyama, Fumio Watanabe written by Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) ****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Eiko Yanami written by Shunya Itô, Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) ***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Koji Nanbara, Yayoi Watanabe written by Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song (1973) **½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Meiko Kaji, Masakazu Tamura, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Sanae Nakahara written by Fumio Kônami, Hirô Matsuda and Yasuharu Hasebe, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
by Bryant Frazer One of the most audacious debuts in cinematic history is rookie Shunya Itô's expressionist rape-revenge saga, the Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy. These three films, released in the 11-month period between August 1972 and July 1973, elevate Japanese studio Toei's series of "pinky violence" sexploitation films with daring, theatrical visuals reminiscent of the bold work that got Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu and a subversive sensibility that could be described as genuinely feminist. Of course, Itô's studio bosses didn't have art in mind. Loosely adapted from a popular manga, the first Scorpion was conceived as a gender-swapped take on Teruo Ishii's popular Abashiri Prison film series, on which Itô had worked as assistant director. Moving the story from a men's prison to a women's prison accommodated sensationalized images of nudity and sexual violence, which even major Japanese studios were relying on in the early 1970s as a way to compete with American imports. But Itô talked his screenwriters into throwing out their derivative original script and starting anew. He also convinced Meiko Kaji, a rising star thanks to her appearances in the popular Stray Cat Rock movies about Japanese youth street culture, to take on the title role. (Kaji arrived at Toei from Nikkatsu after the latter studio diverted its production resources to so-called "roman porno" softcore in an attempt to compete with the popularity of television.) The results are singular. Itô's flamboyant visuals created florid showcases for Kaji's riveting screen presence, especially her oft-deployed 1,000-yard stare--a stone-cold, daggers-to-your-eyeballs glare of the type seen elsewhere in only the most unnerving of horror films. Itô and Kaji turned out to be an electrifying combination.
by Bill Chambers True story: Carrie, dining alone, catches eyes with a handsome stranger across the restaurant. He confidently strides up to her table and she starts rambling on about how she's flattered but not interested, after which I said, in perfect unison with the handsome stranger on screen, "I was just going to ask if I could borrow your chair." Am I psychic? No, I'm just fluent in Sitcom. Incidentally, this cheap bit of embarrassment humour scored laughs instead of groans at my screening, which suggests that a generation throwing TV away has blinded them to its hackneyed standbys. (It also suggests these tropes are adapting to new habitats rather than dying off.) If only it were an isolated moment, but Carrie Pilby is stuck in such well-grooved territory that it's mindlessly anachronistic at times, like when the title character, a present-day 19-year-old girl with a smart phone, uses the Personals to get a date like the prototype for her New York neurotic would have once upon a time. There's old-school--which she most certainly is--and then there's, y'know, Amish. British expat Carrie (Bel Powley) is an extremely young Harvard grad living like a hermit off her father's dime in NYC. She's pretentious ("Van Goff," "Franny and Zoë"), uptight, sarcastic, entitled. Urging her to be more accommodating of people, a shrink friend of the family (Nathan Lane) prescribes a to-do list that translates to "find a boyfriend," outlining as it does a plot trajectory destined to climax on the cinema's emblem of the romantic pinnacle, New Year's Eve. Disappointing that gender-shuffling the Woody Allen and Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetypes--the charming Cy (William Moseley), conveniently situated next door to Carrie, plays the didgeridoo when he's not using it as a bong--leads to the same dead-end happy ending; that the evil suitor (Colin O'Donoghue) is just another '80s ski-movie douchebag destined to be quelled by a punch to the face; that Carrie's defenses are reduced to a lot of Freudian baggage. Looking like regional advertising (only Powley's Bette Davis eyes are of aesthetic interest), Carrie Pilby is as synthetically directed as it is written, and the performers struggle. Programme: Special Presentations
by Walter Chaw Towards the end of Errol Morris's fitfully-fascinating portrait of legendary large-format Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, Dorfman, looking at one of the dozens of snapshots she's taken of the late Alan Ginsberg, says that maybe the true life of a photo isn't revealed until the subject has died. It's the emotional fulcrum of this brief piece, as the now-79-year-old Dorfman looks back on a lifetime of pictures taken while she went from being a single "New York Jew" without direction to a hob-nobber among the Greenwich Village crowd. Ensconced at Morris's bequest in her studio's backroom, she's dwarfed by a cluttered drafting table on the one side and rows and stacks of archived portraits on the other. As she opens each cabinet, Morris captures the delight and surprise of her rediscovering the "discards" of her customers (they pick one to keep; the other she dubs "the B-side" and ferrets away), reading the detailed captions she's left on them.
by Bill Chambers The retainer, the indifferent pompadour, the Cookie Monster table manners--it's obvious that Stefie (Étienne Galloy) doesn't have an image to protect. When two older-looking teens, Martin (Alexandre Lavigne) and Jean-Se (Simon Pigeon), invite him to participate in a bit of "Jackass" performance art (they need his phone to film it), Stefie discovers something about himself, I think: that he was lonely. Joining them on subsequent pranks, he has nothing to offer creatively but does assume the voice of the group's conscience, however muted. Often he himself is persuaded to ignore it by his desire to impress Martin's girlfriend, Lea (Constance Massicotte), who indelicately soaks up the attention of the new kid. TIFF's official guide compares Prank to Harmony Korine, but it's gentler than his work despite some scatological moments and a similar elevation of mischief to a higher calling, and it's rarely surreal for surreal's sake. There is much talk of doing drugs but a lot of it is bluster, and although they're chased by police at one point, the gang's stunts are strictly of the "Just for Laughs" variety. It might appear as if Stefie's fallen in with a bad crowd, but he doesn't exactly seem like someone who was on the road to becoming valedictorian. I like that Stefie is finally so unexceptional. Average kids have to come of age, too, even in movies. Admittedly, Stefie is so unburdened by biographical details--his mother's invisible when they allegedly go to the county fair together while he's high, he freely comes and goes at all hours without any parental interference, and he betrays no pretense of a school life--that Prank often feels underwritten. This is the feature debut of a short-film director (Vincent Biron) who doesn't always see the forest for the trees, but there are some exquisite vignettes, including one long shaggy-dog of a joke with a brutally funny pay-off and a running gag where Jean-Se recounts the plots of movies like Predator and Bloodsport to an enraptured Stefie as Biron cuts to paintings, presumably by Jean-Se, lovingly depicting the scenes he's describing. I thought about how my nephew wants to hear all about my favourite films but doesn't necessarily want to watch them, and how I love to oblige; Prank gets that the true appeal of old movies for most teenagers today is as campfire mythology--in the meantime, they're content with practical jokes on YouTube. I really want those paintings, by the way. Programme: Discovery
½*/**** starring Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the story by E.L. Doctorow directed by Robin Swicord
by Walter Chaw Angry businessman Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) tunes in and drops out when, after chasing a raccoon into the unused attic of his garage, he decides to live there for a few months, spying on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their twin "budding adolescent" girls (as E.L. Doctorow, author of the story upon which this is based, calls them). There's a 1990 Jan Egleson film called A Shock to the System that sees a Howard Wakefield type played by Michael Caine mordantly, hilariously deciding to take control of his life through a series of carefully-planned murders. Robin Swicord's Wakefield aspires to be an updating of this but is hampered by the fact of Robin Swicord. Take the moment where Howard watches his long-suffering spouse dump his dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Cut to the next day, with Howard opening the lid and looking down at it. Flashback to Diana dumping the dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Yes, Swicord is so literal-minded and inept that she has offered gaffed viewers a flashback to a scene that just happened.
****/**** starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
by Walter Chaw Kenneth Lonergan is a brilliant writer who specializes in small interpersonal moments. His plays are extraordinary. The two previous films he directed, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, are masterful portraits of human failure and weakness. He is a poet of imperfection and imperfect resolution. Margaret gained attention for the lengths to which Lonergan fought for a cut that exceeded a contracted-upon two-and-a-half-hour running time. Martin Scorsese, with whom Lonergan collaborated on the script for Gangs of New York, helped facilitate a 165-minute cut that to my knowledge has never been screened. When Margaret finally hit home video after a swell of support from online advocates, the long version had inflated to 186 minutes. I've only seen the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. I love them both. I rarely wish movies were longer; Lonergan's are the exception. That has something to do with his writing, of course, and something to do with his casts, who, to a one, have contributed extraordinary work--perhaps the best work of their careers. Crucially, Lonergan trusts them to deliver his words. He doesn't garnish them with gaudy camera angles, or underscore them with expository soundtrack cues. Mark Ruffalo once said of Lonergan, affectionately, that the playwright was only playing at being humble. For me, however Lonergan is with other people, his humility comes through in the extent to which he allows his actors to do their job.
***/**** starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone screenplay by Kelly Reichardt, based on stories by Maile Meloy directed by Kelly Reichardt
by Bill Chambers I decided Kelly Reichardt wasn't for me after seeing Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and a few minutes of Meek's Cutoff, because even though they're about deeply unhappy people, their total void of humour bothered me. Relentless self-seriousness is teen angst, and incredibly unbecoming when the people on screen are adults and the filmmakers are, too. There's a moment near the beginning of Certain Women where Jared Harris sobs "Nobody understands how fucking miserable my life is!" (or something to that effect) that could be a panel from the MAD MAGAZINE parody of Reichardt's work, and I nearly fled the theatre until Laura Dern's reaction to Harris's wailing produced some titters in the audience, alerting me to the possibility that I had missed something crucial by not watching Reichardt's movies in public. Perhaps solitude blinds one to any levity in films about gloomy guses and lonesome outcasts. Be that as it may, Certain Women is definitely not as grim or hopeless as Old Joy, et al, despite its absence of anything resembling a conventional happy ending.
**/**** starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw An elderly film by an elderly filmmaker for an elderly audience, everybody's favourite says-appalling-things old bastard Clint Eastwood directs the guy everyone can agree on, Tom Hanks, in a rah-rah hagiography of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most uncomplicatedly heroic figure in the United States in the last...how long ago was Abraham Lincoln? 151 years? If you don't know, Sully landed an airplane with 155 passengers on it in the Hudson River when bird strikes disabled both of the plane's engines. Multiple dream sequences have Sully imagining what would've happened had he turned his plane over populated areas. 9/11 is referenced often--explicitly and obliquely. An applause-geeking closing title card informs that lots of New Yorkers helped rescue the passengers from the water after the splashdown because New Yorkers are good and America is great, raising the question, Mr. Eastwood, if it needs to be "great again." Maybe it's all gone to hell since 2009. The timing is interesting. Let's call it that.
by Bill Chambers The first thing you hear in Elle, after Anne Dudley's giallo-worthy (and, thus, slightly misleading) overture, are some violent sex noises, but the first thing you see is a cat, a good ol' Russian blue, who is watching his owner get violated with daunting ambivalence. Meet the director. Migrating from his native Holland to France this time, Paul Verhoeven has made a movie fascinated with rape at either the best or worst cultural moment he could have chosen. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is depicted being raped several times over the course of the film by the same ski-masked stranger; my own reaction was a complicated gnarl of disgust and desensitization that led to more disgust. Eventually, I think, Michèle's relationship with her attacker becomes S&M in all but name, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Michèle is a well-to-do Parisian with a videogame company that seems to specialize in hentai (meaning you also get to see tentacle rape, Verhoeven-style). Family members--including a mother (Judith Magre) who's into much-younger men and a layabout son (Jonas Bloquet) who's fallen under the spell of a pregnant gold digger (Alice Isaaz)--orbit in close proximity despite her abrasive candor, which at one point finds her telling her friends and puppyish ex-husband (Charles Berling) about her rape over cocktails after work. They worry, but because she's the alpha dog, they probably don't worry enough.
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes of Werner Herzog's 104-minute Into the Inferno is recycled footage from his own Encounters at the End of the World. Another 20 is a strange diversion into the discovery of a hominid skeleton in Africa featuring a particularly excitable paleoanthropologist. This leaves roughly an hour for the cultural/anthropological examination of cults sprung up around active volcanoes the movie promises, and at least a portion of that is devoted to the amazing footage captured by the late Katia and Maurice Krafft, who, like Kilgore on the beach, never thought they could be killed by the fire. They were. It's the kind of gallows revelation that is the purview of Herzog's mordant documentaries. He is at least as good at this as he is at his more traditional fictions. But Into the Inferno seems tossed-off and unfocused, and not even a partnership with affable British vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer can help Herzog ground this material. A previous incarnation of the filmmaker would find him stealthily building a profile of a man who spends his life staring into magma pools, perched at the edge of pyroclasmic calamity. This Herzog interviews a few chiefs of island cultures, the most fascinating of whom has decided that an American airman lives in the lava and will one day emerge to shower the villagers with a bounty of consumer goods.
**/**** starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald screenplay by David Harrower, based on his play "Blackbird" directed by Benedict Andrews
by Walter Chaw Theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his feature-film debut with the best Patrick Marber stage adaptation that isn't from a Patrick Marber play, Una. (The play is actually David Harrower's "Blackbird", adapted for the screen by Harrower.) It's kind of a low bar, let's be honest. Una is about Una, who, as a 13-year-old child, is raped by Ray. But young Una (Ruby Stokes) thinks that she loves Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and Ray, a sick fuck, is sure that he loves Una. This is Lolita told from the point-of-view of Controversial Playwright: Harrower stirs the shit and Andrews does his best to expand what's probably a one-room drama into a warren of warehouse offices, an apartment, a dinner party, and lots of flashbacks. The strategy appears to be a lot of walking around and then stopping to exchange twenty pages of gravid dialogue. The best things about Una (and they're fantastic) are Rooney Mara, who plays the title character as an adult, and Mendelsohn. Mara is growing on me, and if Mendelsohn has ever given a bad performance, I can't remember it. These two have a genuine fission in their interplay that makes it all feel dangerous. When Ray turns tender at the end, smoothing 28-year-old Una's hair and telling her she was the only 13-year-old he's ever been attracted to, there's a beat--maybe two--before you hear what he's saying.
****/**** starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Walter Chaw Based on a humdinger of a Ted Chiang short story called "Story of Your Life," Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, while changing a detail here and there, distils the emotionality of the story, honours the science of it, and goes places the premise naturally indicates that it might. It clarifies without simplifying. It posits as its hero Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, who has never been better), a brilliant linguistics professor enlisted by the military to try to communicate with the things in the giant spacecraft that have appeared in twelve different locations around the planet. Not all of them, mind--just the ones in Montana. The others are their problem. Arrival suggests that the first complication of this story of our lives is that there are pronouns other than "us" in matters of international import. It reminds of The Abyss in its tale of an alien arrival that requires human cooperation, but whose purpose doesn't appear to be to coerce a response through a show of force. They just hang there, waiting for us to learn their language. That's an important point. It's something to think about.
*/**** starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Finn Wittrock, J.K. Simmons written and directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's La La Land is sort of like Down With Love and also sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, derivative in the way that things are derivative when they have no real knowledge of or even maybe affection for the things from which they ostensibly derive. At the least, the picture demonstrates no real knowledge of the Hollywood musical. It's homage in the same way that "Stranger Things" is homage. It's beard oil, suspenders, and craft beer: The Movie. It's homage the way that putting a tutu on a dog pays homage to ballet. When something is this familiar, its set-pieces need to be extraordinary. Howard Hawks understood this. Vincente Minnelli, of course. Stanley Donen? Stop yourself. Yes. When Chazelle does the two or three blow-out sequences meant to dazzle, all they do is seem psychotic. The best thing about his Whiplash is arguably its editing. (It won the Oscar.) Now imagine Brigadoon cut like that. Consider the scene in La La Land that ends in a swimming pool, camera spinning deliriously around in a circle like something drowning or getting death-rolled by an alligator. It's intended to be ebullient; it feels panicky and hallucinogenic. It feels like that scene in Seconds where Rock Hudson joins a bacchanal in a grape-stomping vat. Seconds wasn't a good musical, either.
***/**** starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali screenplay by Barry Jenkins directed by Barry Jenkins
by Walter Chaw Barry Jenkins's sophomore feature is lovely. It deals with ideas of masculinity and black culture with sensitivity and a dedicated Romanticism. It's buoyed by a trio of remarkable performers--all playing the same character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life: troubled child, troubled teen, and troubled adult. They share mannerisms. They have the same vulnerable quiver to their lip. I don't know how Jenkins and his team put that together, but there it is and it's among the most affecting things I've seen in a film. It's overwhelming. Visually, Moonlight reminds me a lot of David Gordon Green's similarly lyrical George Washington. It captures a certain reflective poetry in the poverty and privation it depicts. There's a moment in the second section, "ii. Chiron," that finds the teen incarnation (Ashton Sanders), all elbows and gawkiness, alone on a beach with his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), looking up at the stars and discovering for a second who it is that he really is. Jenkins demonstrates patience with medium shots. He frames the boys against the water before them and the city behind them like Eliot's hero, in liminal spaces, experiencing catastrophic change.
by Walter Chaw Telluride rests in a valley on the Western side of Colorado. It sits at 8,750 feet. You have to cross Monarch Pass (elevation approximately 12,000 feet) to get there from where I live, a six-and-a-half hour drive away. If you're doing it right, you walk everywhere in Telluride, taking the free gondola service over the longer stretches up and down the mountain, and feeling the sharp constriction in your chest when your body, even one acclimated to a mile above sea level, discovers there's noticeably less oxygen to breathe at such great heights. I wonder if mild hypoxia has something to do with my euphoria while I'm here. I am the best version of myself at the Telluride Film Festival, even as the festival itself continues to subtly decline by inevitably becoming more beholden to middlebrow interests and tastes at the same pace it now sells out the highest level of ticket package they make available. Not the ones you can buy off the website, the ones you secure through $100,000 donations.
**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+ starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Neel Sethi screenplay by Justin Marks directed by Jon Favreau
by Bill Chambers Confession: As a child, I used to fantasize about live-action versions of the Disney animated features--especially Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, because of the design extremes in those films. Thinking back on this, I was at a loss to explain why my kid brain--which had a bottomless capacity to suspend disbelief--wanted to see a "real" purple-and-black dragon spit green flames at a "real" prince, or a "real" wooden boy sprout donkey ears, until earlier this week, when a piece of clickbait unveiling the "real" Lumière and Cogsworth from the upcoming Beauty and the Beast jogged my memory: ghoulish curiosity. "Ghoulish curiosity" is, I believe, the unspoken draw of this recent spate of live-action Disney remakes, starting with 2010's Alice in Wonderland, which doubled down by promising the Tim Burton rendition of that world. The reason Alice Through the Looking Glass tanked, Johnny Depp's recent toxicity notwithstanding, is that we've seen all the freaks in that tent; true fascination lies the way of Dumbo, another Tim Burton joint. (I have a pretty good idea of what the circus stuff will look like, but I'm dying to see that elephant fly.) Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book got us there via the truly perverse notion to remake one of Disney's animal-driven musicals in live-action. Of course it opened big ($103M, in friggin' April!), just like of course the RNC scored higher ratings than the DNC. But if the latter rewarded our cynical rubbernecking, Favreau transcended it.