****/**** written by Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, based on the poem by Harry Martinson directed by Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja
by Bill Chambers The opening credits of Aniara, the debut feature from short-film hyphenates Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, scroll like closing credits over images of earthly disasters, because of course they do: this is the end. Mars is the new West, and what's left of humanity--many of those faces scarred or deformed without comment--is packed aboard a new Noah's Ark bound for the red planet. It will take three weeks, but in the meantime enjoy all the amenities and luxuries of a high-end spa, and be sure to take advantage of the Mima lounge, where a digital godhead will tap into your memories and provide a soothing mental escape to Earth as you once knew it. Unfortunately for the colonists, a rogue screw strikes the ship's hull and Aniara is forced to empty its fuel tank. The captain, Chefone (Arvin Kananian), claims they just need to catch the orbit of a celestial body to get back on course, something that will take two years, max; the captain lies. MR (Isabelle Huppert-esque Emelie Jonsson) is a "mimarobe," sort of a combination tech support/apostle for Mima, which becomes a very popular attraction over time. So much so that it gets overwhelmed by all the despair it's having to tranquilize, and self-destructs. Although MR warned him of this outcome, Chefone disciplines her for it, because Mima was the opiate for Aniara's masses. Not their god, though--he, in his unchecked power, his command of his own "planet," is God, and he's decided to be the Old Testament kind.
***½/**** starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox directed by Claire Denis
by Angelo Muredda If you took Twitter's word for it after the gala premiere of Claire Denis's High Life, which was apparently conceived in an off-the-cuff conversation with Vincent Gallo about life at the end of the world and briefly tinkered-with in the earliest days of its inception by Zadie Smith, you'd think the singular French filmmaker abandoned all her instincts to make an edgy sci-fi sex farce with the dildo chair from Burn After Reading. What a relief, then, to discover that High Life is indeed a Claire Denis film. A step removed from the spoiler-saturated breathlessness of the first hot takes, one finds something every bit as rattled and mournful a late work as Paul Schrader's First Reformed, and, like Trouble Every Day, no less structurally elusive or visceral than the rest of her oeuvre for being a work of genre.
by Bill Chambers Pity about Teen Spirit, since it opens so well. Elle Fanning scrolls through her MP3 player to find the perfect song to start things off. A beat drops, and then we get the usual assortment of corporate logos. There's another great moment early on, where Fanning, having turned down a ride home from a slurring stranger who comes on like a dirty old man, is waiting at a bus stop late at night when she spies a group of young hooligans heading in her direction. The camera swipes across Fanning from one potential threat to the other: a clever visual that shows she's between a rock and a hard place. She chooses the dirty old man, Vlad (Zlatko Buric). He's a bear, but at least she wouldn't be outnumbered. Director Max Minghella clearly inherited some filmmaking chops from his old man, the late Anthony Minghella, though he asserts his individuality by shooting in anamorphic widescreen (something Anthony eschewed despite specializing in epics), and his overall style is relatively spastic; I waited in vein for Minghella to resist a gratuitous edit or camera movement. Fanning, by the way, plays a teenage chanteuse named Violet, forced to hide her passion from her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), a proud, stern Polish immigrant who just wants her daughter to wait tables with her and stop these pop-star pipe dreams. It's a cold, cruel world out there where men abandon their families, after all, so you need a job you can depend on.
by Walter Chaw Michael Moore is an often-terrible filmmaker and a repugnant human being. His films are scattershot and on the whole unhelpful. In a few meandering minutes of his new film, Fahrenheit 11/9, he notes that members of Trump's inner circle have invested in his films and that when given the opportunity to hold Trump's feet to the fire in a public forum, he played the Jimmy Fallon. He appears to be owning that he's part of this disaster, but it's not clear, ultimately, what the fuck he's on about. Moore also spends time with the teen survivors of the Parkland, FL shooting, in what seems like an attempt to borrow the glow of their youthful activism; with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for probably the same purpose; and then he spends some time doing his stunt bullshit by spraying a tanker full of Flint water onto the governor of Flint's lawn. What works in the film is his focus in on how the DNC actively betrayed the will of the people by overriding primary results in states like West Virginia, Michigan, and Montana in throwing the presidential nomination to the legendarily unpopular Hillary Clinton. He reminds that during the heat of the Flint crisis, President Obama flew in, performed the stunt of drinking Flint water (he didn't), then told a folksy story of how he probably ate some lead when he was a little kid and, shucks, he turned out fine. These moments are vital because they show why thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of devoted Democrat voters decided their votes didn't matter and, indeed, that Democrats cared about the poor exactly as much as Republicans do. The problem isn't that Trump is who he has always obviously been, right there out in the open (and proud of his vulgarity and ugliness); the problem is that the entrenched political establishment on every side had fallen into complacency and lost interest in any class other than their own. Outside of that thread, the rest of it, including an extended comparison of Trump to Hitler, is just Moore being the Left's Rush Limbaugh. When preaching to the choir, best to turn the camera on the choir: Fahrenheit 11/9 is gold when it's shaming the Left. I wish he'd spent more time doing that. Programme: TIFF Docs
**/**** starring Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Michael Gambon written and directed by Xavier Dolan
by Angelo MureddaEx-wunderkind, now regular old late-twentysomething Xavier Dolan follows up the Cannes-awarded It's Only the End of the World with his long-awaited English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Though he has from the start been a confessional filmmaker who, for better or worse, pours himself into his work--revisiting fraught relationships between bratty teen boys and their high-strung mothers and peppering in idiosyncratic song cues from Céline Dion and Oasis--his newest feels even more concretely anchored in his pet interests, telling the story of Rupert Turner, a young, queer child actor (Jacob Tremblay) who strikes up a long-standing epistolary friendship with the eponymous not-out TV star (Kit Harington) that sets the former on a path to adulthood and tanks the latter's career.
*½/**** written by Joel Edgerton, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley directed by Joel Edgerton
by Bill Chambers Even though it doesn't quite stick the landing, Joel Edgerton's The Gift was one of the more promising directorial debuts from an actor in recent years, but alas his sophomore feature barely ascends to heights from which to fall. Based on the memoir by Garrard "Jared" Conley, Boy Erased opens in the unpleasant dark of dawn as only-child Jared (Lucas Hedges, who either won or lost a coin toss with Timothy Chalamet) shares a deafeningly silent breakfast with his parents, Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall (Russell Crowe, swollen to the proportions of a Charmin bear), before his first day at the ex-gay ministry Love In Action--a branding that oozes grim irony. Marshall is a Baptist preacher who owns a car dealership in the heartland; he is, in other words, awful, and when Jared returns from college less confident in his heterosexuality than ever, Marshall, scrambling to pre-empt any damage to his standing in the community, invites a couple of snake-oil salesmen into his home in the middle of the night to fix the problem. (As H.L. Mencken put it, "Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.") At this rehab centre, the residents are stripped of their possessions and their identities are tamped down in sexless white shirts. Activities include charting the sinners on one's family tree and, despite the place being co-ed, sorting the boys on a descending scale of manliness. It's all presided over by Victor Sykes (Edgerton himself; what does it say that Jared's three biggest adversaries are played by Australians?), a tacit closet case who strives for avuncular beneath the harsh judgments, leaving the dirty work to the visiting "success story" Flea inhabits with impressive rancour.
**½/**** starring Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key written by Fred Dekker & Shane Black directed by Shane Black
by Walter Chaw Shane Black's The Predator is about cultures built around, predicated upon, and interested in the deification of violence and dominance. It talks about how an entire alien civilization owes its technical and biological evolution to the refinement of tools used explicitly on big game, not unlike how our own technologies owe their evolution to porn and forever war. One running joke has a scientist--an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Munn), natch--saying that the things aren't so much "predators" as they are sports trophy hunters, like bass fishermen, say, but of course calling them "predators" is "cooler." All the men in the room agree. The only ones who don't are the woman and a suicidal black soldier (Trevante Rhodes)--not coincidentally, the characters most likely to be predated upon (woman, black, mentally-ill, even veterans) by their own culture. Being in a life-and-death struggle with a predator is cool because it's a question of survival for both; being the victim of one of Donald Trump's inbred children is not cool because it's some rich douchenozzle armed to the teeth hunting you for something to mount in the den of their third mistress's second winter home. The Predator, in other words, has much on its mind, despite that its execution is a trainwreck--a trainwreck overwhelmed by an eve-of-premiere scandal whereby Munn revealed that Black had enlisted one of his buddies, a convicted pederast, to play a scene with Munn as a perv who harasses her while jogging, without informing the production of his past. The layers of irony to this thing are like unpacking an onion.
**½/**** starring Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub written and directed by Gaspar Noé
by Angelo Muredda It's hard out here for a Gaspar Noé hater. The France-based Argentine arthouse trickster surprised even himself at Cannes when his latest, Climax, got positive notices from some who had previously written him off as a snotty provocateur. (Noé has reliably yielded some of the finest mean criticism out there: Consider Mark Peranson likening Enter the Void, in his Cannes dispatch from 2009 for CINEMA SCOPE, to "Entering the void of the cavity that is Gaspar's brain.") Climax, by contrast, was supposed to be as innovative, fun, and watchable as his previous attempts at in-your-face fuckery were punishing.
***½/**** screenplay by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen, based on the novel by Lynda LaPlante directed by Steve McQueen
by Bill Chambers Sorry, Psycho. Killing off one movie star halfway through isn't cool. You know what's cool? Killing off three movie stars in the first five minutes. Widows casts Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the husbands, and while the title would seem to give away that they aren't long for this film's world, watching established leading men bite it so soon still creates an undeniable moment of cognitive dissonance. It's thrilling to see co-writer/director Steve McQueen use his cachet to these subversive ends, not to mention apply his formal sophistication to the crime movie. Which isn't to say he elevates it (we're talking about a genre that counts Anthony Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville among its pioneers)--more that Widows offers respite from a glut of John Wick wannabes and Neeson's own assembly-line thrillers. So, Widows. Viola Davis plays the rich one, Veronica. She lives in a swank condo overlooking Chicago that seems to have taken on the icy gleam of the bachelor pad from McQueen's Shame in the absence of Neeson's Harry, an idealized vision of whom haunts Veronica's imagination. (These scenes play like the distaff version of Neeson's The Grey.) Harry's partners were not as well off, and their wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), need money desperately enough that Alice's own mother (Jacki Weaver, perhaps inevitably) tells her to become a paid escort. Harry, it turns out, owed money to a crime lord, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who's now running for city council against golden child Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning wants Veronica to pay up, so she commits to robbing Mulligan and thus finishing what Harry started, enlisting Linda and Alice as her partners. None of them are career criminals, yet Veronica figures that if she can tailor the heist to their individual strengths, they just might pull it off.
by Angelo Muredda Pawel Pawlikowski follows up on the airless perfection of Ida with the ostensibly warmer but equally over-manicured and emotionally distant Cold War, a more historically trenchant La La Land for postwar Poland. Leave it to Pawlikowski, who never met a compelling, age-lined face he didn't want to frame in an artfully-arranged tableau, to mute even the potentially energizing opening montage of folk performers doing their bits before his ethnographic camera and its onscreen extension, the extended mic of pianist and recruiter Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, whose passing resemblance to Will Forte makes one yearn for the free comic pleasures of MacGruber). Wiktor's been tasked with putting together a nationalist throwback performance that as another, more committed officer of the state puts it, a bit ironically, should tap into the music of these rural folks' grandparents--that is to say, a culture "of pain and humiliation." It's in that process of, as MacGruber might say, putting together a team, that Wiktor meets his soon-to-be-star-crossed lover Zula (Joanna Kulig), a live-wire who auditions not with a humble song from the fields but a boisterous one from the movies. Zula's energy, alas, doesn't do much to raise the film's own temperature. To be sure, Wiktor and Zula's sad, state-crossing, decades-spanning affair, modelled after Pawlikowski's own parents' romantic history against the backdrop of the iron curtain, is intermittently moving. There is some allure in Cold War's elliptical, set-piece-based structure, which leaves its characters in, say, East Berlin only to pick them up in Paris or Yugoslavia years later, either refining their Communist anthems (now for Stalin!), performing in a jazz bar, or composing music for films. And, as expected, the deep black-and-white photography is never less than fetching--the cramped 4:3 frame an ideal if at this point too familiar canvas for a filmmaker who seems to love nothing more than to gently nudge his characters into off-kilter compositions that speak to the way they either come together or fall apart. But as in Ida, for all the effort on display, it's hard to shake the feeling that this isn't a little too easy for Pawlikowski, who, despite his personal connection to this material, ultimately delivers a desaturated version of The English Patient's more hard-won story of the violence wrought by the arbitrariness of state lines, populated by ciphers named after Mom and Dad. Programme: Special Presentations
by Walter Chaw About four scenes into Matteo Garrone's Dogman, I wondered if he was going to be able to keep it up: the invention, the escalating tension, the breathless feat of being something entirely novel. I've never seen anything like Dogman. It's a crime film, a tender picture about a father and his daughter, a look at poverty, a look at addiction and maybe mental illness, a critique of masculinity at its terminal extremities, and a withering conversation about what friendship can look like between two men. It's a film that feels like a fable sometimes; like neorealism at others. It's shockingly violent and then surpassingly tender. There's a monster in Dogman, too, and while it's easy to hate and fear him, there are moments where I felt myself hoping that someone could reach him. I could even feel myself wanting his approval. The picture is unusually smart about the human condition, even though its intelligence appears to be alien in nature. It's impossible to know from one minute to the next what's going to happen in Dogman, which isn't to say it makes no sense but rather that it makes perfect sense, once it happens. It's brilliant.
TRANSIT *½/**** starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman screenplay by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers directed by Christian Petzold
Ying **/**** starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan screenplay by Li Wei & Zhang Yimou directed by Zhang Yimou
by Bill Chambers If Christian Petzold's previous film, Phoenix, felt like a joke reverse-engineered with the slightest of pretexts to get us to a killer payoff, Transit feels more like his version of "The Aristocrats!", a shaggy-dog story intoxicated with its own brutal rambling--here almost literalized by third-person narration from a bartender (Matthias Brandt), who paraphrases conversations he had with our hero that are comically steeped in minutiae--on its way to a glib punchline. In Paris during the Occupation, Georg (Franz Rogowski, a downmarket Joaquin Phoenix) is entrusted with delivering two pieces of mail to a renowned novelist squirrelled away in a hotel: a letter from the man's estranged wife, and papers that will help him escape to freedom. The writer, alas, is but a stain when Georg gets there, and soon after he agrees to smuggle a dying man (Grégoire Monsaingeon) into Marseilles, where he can kill two birds with one stone by taking care of the author's unfinished business. Transit generates a moment of real frisson when Georg hops off the train in Marseilles: everything is modern, or at least postwar, including the melting-pot citizenry. I'm sure there's a definitive answer as to whether this is WWII as modern-dress Shakespeare, but for the rest of the movie, whenever something as benign as a contemporary bus advertisement appears, the film briefly and instantly becomes a "Man in the High Castle"-esque work of speculative fiction that curdles the blood, given how frighteningly close we are to resurrecting Hitler with the rise of nationalism on the world stage. One might ask why the characters are still dealing with "letters of transit" like they're in Casablanca (i.e., where are the computers?), but I took that as commentary on the dinosaur ideals of fascism itself. If fascism does one thing well, it's "rolling back" progress, currently the Republican party's favourite pastime.
Blindsone ***/**** written and directed by Tuva Novotny
by Bill Chambers I'm dense; I hadn't read anything about Blind Spot in advance, and it was a while before I realized I was watching a film that not only hadn't cut yet but was likely never going to. The picture opens with two adolescent girls getting dressed after gym class, scrolling through apps ("Look!" Thea (Nora Mathea Øien) says, waving her phone at her friend, who distantly acknowledges whatever it is she's supposed to see), and walking home from school together, which involves 11 uninterrupted minutes of mindless chatter. While admiring the awesome banality of it all, I somehow failed to notice that the film's form was dictating its commitment to verisimilitude. Maybe that's one of the blind spots to which the title refers--it seems to have a few meanings, both within the story being told and more metatextually. For instance, Thea returns to her family's apartment, has a little supper in front of the teevee while her stepmother, Maria (Pia Tjelta), tends to her baby brother, brushes her teeth, jots something in her diary, checks her phone, and then, for the first time, escapes our gaze, stepping out of frame into a literal blind spot, manufacturing a mystery out of those pivotal seconds before Thea, evidently, tries to kill herself by jumping out the window.
***½/**** starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón
by Walter Chaw Alfonso Cuarón retreats from the noisy silliness of Gravity to produce something more in line with his A Little Princess--a touch of Children of Men thrown in for topical relevance and actual gravity. It's all in black-and-white, no less, with a non-professional lead and Cuarón himself operating the camera, shooting in 65mm. What results is the slow but dulcet, small but sometimes impossibly large Roma, capturing the microcosm of the immigration question in one wealthy family's interactions with their native servants, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia), and what happens when the small tragedies of the day-to-day intersect with the larger tragedies of a world that doesn't care about them. The mistress of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her inconstant husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and the couple's four small children live in a posh house in Mexico City sometime in the late-1960s. (An event in the film that is probably the Tlateloco Massacre sets the events somewhere around October of 1968.) Cuarón has called Roma his most personal film, and so it is as he continually directs attention away from the larger events at play, back to the intimate upsets of this upper-class family and their subsistence-class help. The largest scene of the film, a riot that led to a deadly confrontation between students and the military, immediately reverts to Cleo and Sofia's aged mother-in-law, Teresa (Veronica Garcia), interrupted in the middle of a shopping trip.
**½/**** starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott screenplay by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters directed by Bradley Cooper
by Angelo Muredda It says a lot about A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper's directorial debut, that the most emotionally cathartic stuff pours out as freely in the incredible trailer and its savviest meme offspring, where diva Pokémon Jigglypuff croons the entrancing opening bars of Lady Gaga's big stage debut for a rapt audience, than it does in the actual film, a polished first-act pitch in search of a payoff. That everything after the titular birth seems like apocrypha, weirdly playing both too long and as if it's running at 1.5x speed, is disappointing given the first act's charm offensive, though you can't put the blame squarely on the multi-hyphenate's already-overtaxed shoulders. It's probably asking too much of this third official crack at material first made into a vehicle for Janet Gaynor in 1937 to expect it to offer a wholly fresh take on a vaguely eugenic premise about how one half of a creative power couple can only thrive while the other languishes in obscurity. A first-time helmer with a stake in how his character's tragic narrative trajectory plays out, Cooper seems at once fired up by the meet-cute potential of the premise, which he nails, and stuck at a creative crossroads with the more melancholy, sepia-toned stuff that probably first drew the previously-attached Clint Eastwood's attention.
Tuntematon mestari **½/**** written by Anna Heinämaa directed by Klaus Härö
by Bill Chambers Olavi (Heikki Nousiainen) looks like Michael Haneke and projects about the same cuddly warmth as an art dealer whose basement shop has never done better than break even. One day at the auction house he frequently trolls, Olavi is caught in the tractor beam of an unsigned portrait of Christ by an unidentified artist, perhaps seeing a vision of his younger self in the bearded figure. He has a hunch the piece is a bigger deal than the viperous auctioneer (Jakob Öhrman) knows, and decides to bid on it with money he'd get from a big resale in a Hail Mary for both his business and his legacy. There's no small irony in that, as he's just allowed his teenage grandson, Otto (Amos Brotherus), to intern for him and in his preoccupation with the painting--attributed, somewhat bewilderingly, to Russian master Ilya Repin despite bearing little resemblance to Repin's actual 1884 portrait of Christ--doesn't quite see the potentially lasting impact he's having on a directionless kid, which is far more profound than scoring "one last deal." Olavi has been estranged from Otto's mother, Lea (Pirjo Lonka), since his wife died. There's a scene where Olavi accepts a longstanding dinner invitation from his daughter just so he can hit her up for a loan and she tries not to show how shattered she is by his obliviousness to her struggles, financial and otherwise, as a single mother while simultaneously impressing upon him that this was the official last straw. The actors are credibly at cross-purposes here and their performances are lovely, but their characters' dynamic is frankly overfamiliar, if not tired; the moment Olavi is stopped short by Lea's voice on his answering machine early on in the picture, this subplot is already over. Surprisingly sentimental for a Finnish movie, One Last Deal is at its most gratifying when it's less "Death of a Salesman", more Roger Dodger, with Olavi teaching Otto unorthodox lessons in survival all but guaranteed to mold him into a miserable and penniless old man possessed of a few arcane skills. It's a relatively engrossing film when it's about a weird job that really didn't need to be dramatically embellished to land as soft tragedy. Programme: Contemporary World Cinema
by Angelo MureddaTo anyone who might still be labouring under the delusion that Frederick Wiseman's method is simply to point a camera at a bunch of bureaucrats and watch the policy talk and human foibles fly, there's now Monrovia, Indiana, one of the nonfiction master's fleetest, funniest, and most conspicuously structured films in some time. Though you could read it as a purposefully timely attempt to dig deep into the earth of a so-called flyover state that the so-called coastal elites attending slam-poetry readings at the New York Public Library might deride, the film more accurately suggests a minor B-side to the loftier work of its predecessor, Ex Libris, which, among other things, considered the library as a necessary and all-too-vulnerable point of contact between the working poor and a wider world that grows increasingly out of their reach. Monrovia, Indiana revels instead in the earthier pleasures of local institutions like Hot Rod's Barber Shop, where everyone gets the same military-grade haircut, and the surreal space of a grocery store that stocks Donald Duck's orange juice and lights its lemons, limes, and tomatoes like pop art.
Posledice **/**** written and directed by Darko Štante
by Bill Chambers A young woman escorts Andrej (Matej Zemljič) into the bedroom at a party but when the layers of clothing start coming off, he balks. She calls his manhood into question, and the next thing you know she's running out the door with a bloody mouth while he wraps his knuckles in a towel. Andrej, who looks mature but is apparently still a minor, appears in court, where his mother (Rosana Hribar) throws him spectacularly under the bus for his recent history of delinquency, emasculating him yet again. Back at home awaiting sentencing, he seethes; but hey, you do bad things, you gotta face the--smash-cut to the title in giant block letters--CONSEQUENCES (or POSLEDICE in the film's native Slovene). I don't know that I've ever encountered a movie so beset by its title, which feels like it should also be read aloud by Percy Rodriguez when it appears. It turns the picture into an after-school special, if not an alarmist educational reel from the '50s, in a way that calling it, say, "Karma," would not have. Andrej winds up at the Centre, a school for troubled kids that sounds rehabilitative on paper, yet the staff are too easily cowed by their feral charges, who are far more impressed with student gang leader Željko (Timon Šturbej). That goes double for the closeted Andrej, a good person deep down--we know because he dotes on a pet rat--drawn towards trouble by his attraction to bad boys. Actually, in this prison culture it seems that everyone is queer on the down-low, and Andrej falls into bed easily with Željko and his minions during their curfew-breaking evenings of debauchery. (The one woman on their crew is left largely to her own devices.) What Andrej fails or maybe refuses to see is that Željko doesn't share his yearning so much as he's an opportunist preying on it--that this is the tale of the scorpion and the frog and he, Andrej, is most definitely not the scorpion. In other words, if he dares defy Željko, there will be CONSEQUENCES. The film at least attempts to earn its scare-caps by showing that sometimes someone else will pay the price for your actions, in which case courting your comeuppance is no longer just self-flagellation, but I think it takes the wrong tack in punishing a confused gay teen for, ultimately, being a confused gay teen. (Again, take away that preachy title and Consequences gains considerable moral complexity.) Zemljič is very good, however, and smouldering even with the dickhead haircut of the alt right neo-Nazis. He seems poised for stardom, though I don't know how these things work in Slovenia. Programme: Discovery
****/**** starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
by Walter Chaw Imagine, if you can, that the leader of the country is ineffectual at best--an invalid, maybe, surrounded by vipers and sharks who do the real business of leading, feeding forever wars to enrich themselves, beholden to the monied upper classes who dictate advantageous-only-to-them policies around taxation. Imagine that this ruling class were devoted to nothing except their own leisure: besotted by firearms and obscure pastimes, throwing lavish parties, while the less fortunate (everyone else) died in wars that could be stopped if only they weren't so profitable. Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite is hilarious, but it would be even funnier if it weren't so absolutely spot-on about this mess we're in here in the United States--which is, apparently, spreading. The only comfort Lanthimos offers is that we're probably not in much worse shape than mankind has ever been. Cold comfort, indeed. The Favourite is not just one of the best movies of the year, it's the most topical, too, and the most hopeless as a result.
WHITE BOY RICK ***/**** starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jonathan Majors, Richie Merritt written by Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller directed by Yann Demange
Manbiki kazoku ****/**** starring Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Walter Chaw Yann Demange's follow-up to his bruising, brilliant '71 is this ersatz Donnie Brasco true-crime epic. White Boy Rick details the rise and fall of underage drug kingpin/FBI informant Richard Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt--excellent), dubbed "white boy" by the black Detroit gang into which he inculcates himself as first a sort of mascot, then trusted lieutenant, then deep-cover betrayer, then ultimate usurper. White Boy Rick establishes Demange firmly as a formidable technical director. A scene set in a roller disco circa 1984 is as beautiful, lyrical, and effortless an evocation (and affectionate amplification) of time and space as the Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose dance sequence from BlacKkKlansman. A sudden spinout on an icy road later on carries with it the harsh kinetic immediacy and strong knowledge of space of Demange's '71. The film looks right and feels right. There's a scene at a drive-in where Rick takes a date to watch Footloose: a film that couldn't possibly be more alien to Rick's reality. Crucially, White Boy Rick behaves in the right way, too, demonstrating restraint when appropriate, naturalism where appropriate, and expressionism, especially in a sequence where Rick's junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley, also excellent) is taken from a crackhouse against her will down a red-lit corridor strobed with shadows.
***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A- starring Ken Ogata, Kenji Sawada, Yasosuke Bando, Toshiyuki Nagashima written by Paul Schrader and Leonard Schrader (Japanese screenplay by Cheiko Schrader) directed by Paul Schrader
by Bryant Frazer A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. "The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22," Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. "Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful." Like the rest of the film's narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima's published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. "When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully," Mishima continues. "No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live." In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982's Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn't a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People's disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That's where Mishima came in.
**/**** starring Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi directed by Karyn Kusama
by Walter Chaw A laconic noir that promises for a while to be fierce before settling into being familiar, Karyn Kusama's Destroyer drips with style and atmosphere even if its destined-to-be-lauded central performance by Nicole Kidman lacks the same mystique. She plays LA Detective Erin Bell, a woman beset by demons of alcohol and regret that have left her looking cadaverous: rotted gums and hollow eyes. Most of the performance is fright make-up, the rest Kidman speaking breathily, heavily, and maybe overdoing the drunk swaying and slurring a tad. Erin's daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) hates her, of course, and has taken to hanging out with much-older street tough Jay (Beau Knapp), probably just to piss her off. Erin's estranged husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) seems nice, though, if scarred by her ferocious temper and penchant for vomiting and passing out, usually in that order. Kidman has been extraordinary in small, personal films like this. Her work in Birth is generational; Dogville, too. But Destroyer is too programmatic to make much of an impact. This kind of image-slumming is too familiar by now, and there's not one moment where it's not Nicole Kidman doing a performance up there. Pity.
**½/**** starring Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi written and directed by Olivier Assayas
by Walter Chaw The questions asked in and by Olivier Assayas's Non-Fiction are slippery and at times satisfying for that. This is his Hong Sang-Soo following a pair of Apichatpong Weerasethakuls (though he would say his films owe a bigger debt to Bresson)--a movie, in other words, involving the intricacies of relational dynamics, shot on what appears to be a shoestring and a lark over a long weekend among friends. Probably it's what one of his characters calls "auto-fiction," a blurred line between memoir and pure fiction, with the tension being that maybe there's not much of a difference after all between what's true and what's made up in the pursuit of truth. It's one of those movies that seems like a defense of concept, a response or an invitation to conversation for critics. (Assayas himself was one, once upon a time.) Even more, the picture suggests an auto-critical confession of sorts, yet I'm not sure of what. Past or present infidelities? A declaration that he's found peace at last? An apologia for indiscretions and a pathway to a more authentic life? Whatever Non-Fiction is, it's maybe just a little too clever for its own good.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina written by Matt Bai & Jay Carson & Jason Reitman directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw In 1988, Gary Hart, the democratic former senator from my home state of Colorado, was the front runner for the Presidency of the United States. About a week before the primary, which would have cemented his ascendancy to a post seemingly all but preordained, this guy--classically handsome, tall, masculine, progressive--did what powerful men in privileged positions sometimes do: he slept with a young woman who wanted a job with his campaign. That's a problem, but the problem is he dared the WASHINGTON POST to follow him; he touted his ethics and morals as a foundational plank to his platform, and when the MIAMI HERALD took him up on his dare, they discovered that he was maybe a serial philanderer who in those last halcyon days before the Internet, hadn't learned the voracious appetite the public has for a good, sleazy story concerning the tragic fall of kings. It's hardly ever the crime--it's almost always the cover-up. And in 1988, Jason Reitman's The Front Runner says, politicians weren't very good at the cover-up. Largely because the press was complicit in helping politicians, athletes, and other powerful men in powerful spheres keep sexual dalliances and abuses quiet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, after all.
½*/**** starring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Sissy Spacek written and directed by David Lowery
by Walter Chaw David Lowery follows up his enigmatic A Ghost Story with this slobbery, open-mouthed kiss to Robert Redford, in his alleged swan song to screen acting. Redford plays real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, who, in a blue suit and stupid hat, resumes his long career of traumatizing tellers and imparting folksy aphorisms after escaping from San Quentin. Seeing this life as his calling, Tucker was oft-described as seeming "happy," and so that's the tactic Lowery and Redford take towards this material, presenting everything as this bucolic Americana bullshit of the variety the elderly and the elderly-at-heart, especially, get off on and which Redford has made his stock-in-trade in his dotage. The only thing missing is an early-bird buffet as patrons enter the theatre. Tom Waits and Danny Glover play Tucker's sometime-partners in crime and poor Sissy Spacek is enlisted as his gal Jewel ("Well, y'sure look it!") to deliver "good-natured" to the assembled. Yes, Redford, one of the most exceptional and brilliant actors in film history, is now delivering the patented Robert Duvall elderly performance: repeating phrases, smiling in a non-specific way, and patting people's hands as they talk, complete with a wired hearing aid dangling from his ear.
***/**** starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott screenplay by Josh Singer directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's First Man is the Super 8 shrine for Terrence Malick that Oscar voters never knew they needed. It's a mutant clumping-together of The Tree of Life (all the sad Texas scenes) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (all the astronaut stuff), mixed in with a few scenes that are gritty and true (most of them involving a frankly extraordinary Claire Foy), even if Chazelle remains overly fond of snap zooms and the handheld aesthetic in long shots. It's best, even exceptional, when it's not hagiography and passing fine when it's doing what it "ought" to be doing. Like playing a classical music waltz when stoic-to-the-point-of-deranged astronaut/engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) initiates the first-ever orbital docking manoeuvre, because 2001: A Space Odyssey; or doing a little riff on Bill Conti's amazing score for The Right Stuff right before the first closed-cabin testing. Could be homage. Could be the movie just doing what seems right as a shorthand for emotional engagement. If that's the case, more's the pity, as Chazelle proves in the first thirty minutes or so of his film--which revolve around an orbital "bounce" for a test plane and the death of Armstrong's toddler daughter to cancer--that he's capable of evoking real emotion, and employing smart contrasts in style and action, if he would only let go of the desire to impress.
by Walter Chaw After a decade's absence, give or take, I started coming up to the Telluride Film Festival again six years ago at the urging of good friends whom I otherwise hardly see. I was in a bad place and they knew it. They didn't offer platitudes, they offered a challenge, and so one year I accepted it. The hardest thing to do for someone who's depressed sometimes is to accept help. I have come to find that the best gift you can give your friends who worry about you is to ask for help. The problem with depression is it tells you that you are a burden. It's exhausting.
***/**** starring Adam Ild Rohweder, Paulina Galazka, Pit Bukowski, Amanda Plummer written by Anna de Paoli & Linus de Paoli directed by Linus de Paoli
by Walter Chaw The storyline goes like this: Rey, the young woman in the new Star Wars trilogy, is a "Mary Sue"--a term used to describe a female character who is born fully-formed and, therefore, undeserving of her status as the hero of the story, any story. It's an argument made by mediocre men, usually mediocre white men, who have gathered together over social media to share their frustrations about how, essentially, their own worthiness has never been recognized by a world designed, now, to overlook and disdain them. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The parallel storyline is that women are usually murdered by men they know--ex-lovers or spurned would-be lovers--and that the best indicator for murderous gun violence is a history of domestic violence. We hold these truths now to be self-evident. And suddenly these mediocre men who used to get pushed into lockers and demeaned for their solitary interests are the masters of our culture, our industry, our government. There were warnings about this in films like The Last American Virgin and Revenge of the Nerds, remembering that the triumphant happy ending of the latter entailed one of the nerd heroes raping the girlfriend of the lead jock...and the girlfriend liking it a lot. Masculinity has always been this mash of the tragic and the toxic. It's irresolvable, though at least there can be better awareness.
by Walter ChawThe Night Sitter is awesome indeed. Partially crowdfunded via Kickstarter, it represents the feature debut of writing-directing duo Abiel Bruhn and John Rocco and their filmmaking collective Roller Disco Massacre. Just a couple of guys who love '80s horror and know how to use it in a sentence, Bruhn and Rocco were kind enough in the heat of this year's FrightFest to answer a few pressing questions. We started off talking about practical details of shooting The Night Sitter:
***/**** starring Elyse Dufour, Jack Champion, Jermaine Rivers, Amber Neukum written and directed by John Rocco and Abiel Bruhn
by Walter Chaw From the first synth chords of Rob Himebaugh's awesome '80s-inspired score; from the first glimpse of DP Scotty G. Field's gorgeous, neon-soaked lighting schemes; from the first look at world-weary heroine Amber (Elyse Dufour), herself a feat of lighting and colour coordination, The Night Sitter announces itself to be a major player. Filmmakers Abiel Bruhn and John Rocco's feature debut, it covers one really bad night in the life of poor, terrified Kevin (Jack Champion). His dad (Joe Walz) a wannabe reality-show host of one of those paranormal shows, hires Amber to sit for him and his girlfriend's (Deanna Meske) horrible kid, Ronnie (Bailey Campbell), leaving them alone with a locked door, behind which are all the demonic artifacts dad's been hoarding throughout his misspent career. That he's a loser is never a question (he times his reel to "accidentally" play for the benefit of pretty Amber), but he's a rich loser--meaning that as soon as dad is gone on his date, Amber calls her friends (Jermaine Rivers, Amber Neukum, J. Benedict Larmore) to come help her loot the place. Unfortunately, Ronnie has found where dad keeps the key to the demon room.
***½/**** starring Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich written by Ariel Cohen directed by Doron Paz & Yoav Paz
by Walter Chaw Hanna (Hani Furstenberg, The Loneliest Planet) is listening in while a council of elders gives her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) the option of leaving her for being unable to provide a son for years after the loss of their child. It's 1673 Lithuania. There's a plague, so there's a lot of death, and there's palpable fear in the air. Fear, among the other things it attracts, is irresistible to religion, and one day in this small Jewish community in the middle of a wilderness, the villagers discover that the plague has returned to the countryside and is encroaching on their isolation. Naturally, they retreat into religion. Ted Chiang has a short story called "The Seventy-Two Letters". It takes Hebrew mythology and wonders what it would be like if religion were treated as science. (And maybe, you know, it is.) The seventy-two letters are the name of God. You write them on a small piece of paper and roll that tightly into a little scroll. Insert it in the mouth of a mud effigy to infuse it with life. What materializes is a guardian, a protector, a golem that can be guided to the extent your id can be guided. Dario Argento played with a version of this in Phenomena; George Romero did, too, with Monkey Shines. The Golem is the true fana.
*/**** screenplay by Adam Marcus & Debra Sullivan directed by Adam Marcus
by Walter Chaw There's a line between homage and rip-off and I think you cross it when you quote lines in their entirety, without a lot of irony, from better movies. The "insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" from Raising Arizona, the entreaty to be untied from a chair lest they spend the winter there from Carpenter's The Thing, dropped from the mouths of a terrible family drugged with an id-freeing cocktail during Christmas dinner as punchlines and, I think, probably, in-jokes for the everyones who catch them. It's a Shrek thing--instant gratification for a basic grasp of common cultural references. And it's still not the worst thing about Adam Marcus's Secret Santa. No, the worst thing is probably how even the most mundane dialogue sequences are overcut--to a reaction from the listener, to a reaction from a non-listener, to a closer shot of the speaker, to an arm, to the table, now the camera's moving in a slow arc, now it's revolving. Also bad is how much time the movie spends establishing itself to be woke about body issues, race, and sexuality, only to have the fat sister (Ryan Leigh Seaton) be first comic relief when she chokes on the food she's forking into her mouth, then the aggrieved monster likely responsible for the whole mess. Said mess being that the family is a disaster and during the course of an awful evening, they decide to kill each other in obnoxious ways. Co-screenwriter Debra Sullivan is very good as the matriarch of the clan, suggesting that between her performance and the (sadly) wasted idea that everything seems to be getting really hot, there's an interesting film in here somewhere. As is, Secret Santa is just Noises Off! with stabbings, shovel decapitations (The Evil Dead!), skull-fucking, a trio of blowjobs, a funny reference to Jocasta that is alas instantly explained, and about fifty thousand edits.
Ghostland **½/**** starring Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Emilia Jones written and directed by Pascal Laugier
by Walter Chaw Pascal Laugier, if he had made no other film than Martyrs, would still have made Martyrs: the cornerstone picture of the short-lived New French Extremity and one of the most startling (and nigh-unwatchable) films about faith ever made. It would be remarkable as the second half of a double-feature with Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc--maybe as part of a trilogy with Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Mad Mel's Passion of the Christ would fit in there, too. Make a weekend of it with Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew--martyrdom and ecstasy and the cinematic arts. Laugier's follow-up, The Tall Man, failed in comparison to Martyrs, as it must. He was briefly attached to a Hellraiser reboot with Clive Barker's blessing (of course with Barker's blessing: Martyrs is a film made by a Cenobite), but the franchise is cursed and it fell through. Folks have been waiting for Laugier to make another masterpiece. Incident in a Ghostland isn't it, but like The Tall Man it's a strong, technically-proficient genre exercise that deals in an interesting space with at-times striking images. Laugier is one of the only filmmakers who makes me queasy. His films aren't kidding around.
by Walter Chaw What Justin P. Lange's hyphenate debut The Dark, a variation on Let the Right One In, lacks in freshness it makes up for in look and vibe. Better, probably, as a short film, it opens strong with a bad man on the run, Josef (Karl Markovics), stopping at a convenience store, where he gets the usual warning about going into the woods. Lange subverts convention immediately, and then goes to the remote house in the wood where the monster lives. Said monster, a little-girl ghoul named Mina (Nadia Alexander), has been murdering the wayward and eating them for some time--but she stops short of harvesting Josef's young ward, Alex (Toby Nichols), whom Josef has kidnapped, groomed, and, naturally, abused. What follows is the relationship between Mina and Alex as it develops into a kind of twilit co-dependency based on the confluence of their respective traumas. The problem with expanding shorts to feature-length is that it's often done on the premise that what worked well in shorthand would work better with extended narratives and backstories. What's murky is sometimes best left that way. The Dark is elegant, even beautiful, when it regards Alex and Mina silently in their brief space together. Doom hangs over them and it's understood that there's no future for them, but the film captures those delirious moments in a child's emotional life when it seems like forever is possible. Yet whenever it leaves that space, be it through flashback or some other external contrivance, its deficiencies in script and performance become clear. Still, even with a bit too much fat left on the bone, The Dark is a promising debut for Lange.
by Walter ChawLife as a House as a different kind of horror movie, Andy Milton's The Witch in the Window is an allegory for marriage, attachment, fatherhood tied up with restoring an old house in the country that appears to be haunted by a witch. Half of it is pretty scary, half of it is an overwritten, mawkishly-sentimental, and slow-moving drama between estranged dad Simon (Alex Draper) and his delinquent son, Finn (Charlie Tacker). It seems that Simon has bought a flipper and invited Finn to come over to help restore it, the secret being that this is all a ploy on Simon's part to get the family back together. Complicating things is the ghost of neighbourhood witch, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), who in a few effective scenes scares the ever-living crap out of Simon and Finn. It's a head-scratcher, though, because Lydia apparently wants Simon and Finn to stay with her. She sure has a funny way of showing it. There's a fine sequence where Simon talks with Lydia in the house for a while without knowing it's Lydia, but the rest of it is wildly uneven and, in the picture's more dire dialogues, unintentionally funny. Tacker is almost entirely not up to the task presented him to engage in complex, emotional exchanges, making Draper's calm, guidance-counsellor reaction to Tacker inexplicable, even hilarious. Straightforward with a coda so telegraphed that it loses whatever emotional epiphany it was meant to deliver, The Witch in the Window is obvious, predictable, and stilted in its worst moments. But it's maybe worth a look for that one scene where it all suddenly goes wrong.
La nuit a dévoré le monde ***½/**** starring Anders Danielsen Lie, Golshifteh Farahani, Denis Lavant, Sigrid Bouaziz screenplay by Guillaume Lemans, Jérémie Guez, Dominique Rocher, based on the novel by Pit Agarmen directed by Dominique Rocher
by Walter Chaw A spiritual companion piece to "The Twilight Zone"'s "Time Enough at Last," in which a bookish, harried loner survives a nuclear holocaust (to his delight), gathers all the books he wants to read, and then accidentally breaks his glasses, Dominique Rocher's The Night Eats the World has angry, awkward loner Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie, who broke my heart in Oslo, August 31) find a little safe space only to discover that the zombie apocalypse has happened. It opens at a party thrown by his ex-girlfriend Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz), where he's come to collect a box of tapes she's accidentally taken with her upon her departure. He's irritated that her attention's divided and that she's invited him to get his stuff during a party. Her public displays of affection with a new, aggressive boyfriend (David Kammenos) seem calculated, too, to make him uncomfortable, small. The first ten minutes of the film see Sam floating through the party, nursing his drink, trying to get Fanny's attention. Hours pass with Sam on the periphery of every interaction. In a very real, visceral way, The Night Eats the World is a character study of introversion and depression. Fanny, frustrated instantly, asks Sam why he can't just mingle, meet some new people, "try for a change." It's clear why they've broken up. She doesn't understand what it's like to be depressed. He doesn't understand what it's like not to be. She tells Sam to go in a back bedroom for his things and stay there because it's quiet. They'll talk later. She does understand at least that Sam might have some audio processing issues related to his overlapping conditions. Yeah, don't we all.
*/**** written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Fletcher, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
by Walter Chaw The title music announces a debt to Rosemary's Baby and indeed Mary (Sabrina Kern) is with child and at the mercy of a religious cult. Her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles), however, is a decent fellow for 1957, nothing like Rosemary's husband. The only hint he's a beatnik is that he likes to blow that horn. There are a few problems with St. Agatha: it's overly familiar, it's tame as nunsploitation goes, and its twist is obvious and unimaginative. Before long, Mary's torment at the wayward girl's home to which she's run after getting knocked-up starts to feel like sadism for its own sake, with the solution to the piece already clear to everyone the second there's mention of the girls looking nice for "the donors" coming on visiting day. It's death for a horror film to only be smarter than the segment of the audience that has never seen a horror film. Carolyn Hennesy rolls her lines around in her mouth as the evil Mother Superior, counting money and renaming Mary for the titular sainted martyr after making her "Fear Factor" some pre-chewed food and spend the night in a coffin. Never frightening, St. Agatha makes a bad mistake in weaving in an extended flashback (which calls out to Antichrist, of all things), so that Mary and the other girls imprisoned at the home never feel truly imprisoned there. Every time you leave a claustrophobic setting like this, it lets the audience off the hook; imagine Suspiria, but with periodic flashbacks to Suzy's childhood as a ballerina. Needing a few more passes at the typewriter--despite a telephone book's worth of credited screenwriters--as well as couple more on the Avid, St. Agatha at least looks and, overbearing score notwithstanding, sounds pretty good.
**/**** written and directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman
by Walter Chaw A throwback anthology film that alas plays more like a Cat's Eye or a Trick 'r Treat than a Dead of Night or a Black Sabbath, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's Ghost Stories is a handsome, safe-feeling prestige-horror production that trods no new ground, though it trods old ground pretty well. Paranormal debunker Professor Goodman (Nyman) needs a good knocking off his high horse and gets it in the form of three supernatural occurrences he's tasked with explaining. Three tales--the first a haunted hospital/factory thing, the second an incident on a remote forest road, the third involving a poltergeist (complete with deformed baby)--lead to the resolution of the framing story, in which our Goodman discovers that the real demons are the ones we carry with us from childhood. Despite a concession to cheap jump-scares, it's all stately in mounting and sterling in performance, from co-writer/co-director Nyman in the central role all the way through to young Alex Lawther as the nervous driver and stalwart Martin Freeman as an officious little prick who happens to have suffered an unendurable loss. At the end of the day, Ghost Stories feels like something famous people have done as favours for one another. If you gravitate towards little-girl figures appearing suddenly in flashlight beams and invisible somethings shaking a stalled car in the middle of the night, well, have I got the campfire for you. It's all fine and, more than that, agreeable as something you can watch with your parents. There's room for slumber-party horror films for youngsters, of course, and this one moves somewhere to the middle of that pack.
Vuelven ***½/**** starring Paola Lara, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero written and directed by Issa López
by Walter Chaw Estrella (Paola Laura) is just a little girl. Her mother's been disappeared by a local drug cartel and she's living by herself in their tiny apartment. She has three pieces of chalk that a teacher's given her to represent the three wishes little girls without mothers sometimes get in fairy tales about abandonment in times of great evil. She uses the first one to wish for her mother to return, and so her mother does. But her mother's dead, of course, and now Estrella is living on the roof with a small band of other young orphans led by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) in hopes that the gangster from whom Shine has lifted a gun and cell phone don't find them. It's W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" set against the backdrop of the troubles plaguing modern Mexico, and while it's not entirely clear to the children if Estrella's wishes are actually coming true, it's never really a question for writer-director Issa López, who manifests the subjects of the kids' hopes and fears as animated street graffiti and the sudden animation of a stuffed animal. There are echoes of a lot of things: of Stephen King's short story "Here There Be Tygers", of Isabel Allende's City of the Beasts, and most of all of Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, to which it owes its structure and allegorical strategy. But Tigers Are Not Afraid is most of all its own lyrical thing.
***/**** written by Roberto Marinas directed by Evan Cecil
by Walter Chaw Trish is the star of Lasso. Ostensibly a secondary character, she's played by trans activist Skyler Cooper (who identifies with masculine pronouns) with confidence, beauty, and strength. After the initial "is she a boy or a girl?" question asked by congenital screw-up Simon (Andrew Jacobs), Trish is just accepted as this embodiment of strength and empathy. When Simon beats himself up for causing the death of a few of his buddies, it's Trish who recognizes the importance of preserving his confidence for the long night ahead. She takes the lead. It's not even a question that the others follow. Lasso is about a rodeo run by cannibal cowboys and how one night a tour bus full of yokels makes the bad mistake of staying past closing time. There's a connection drawn between the cruelty with which rodeo animals are treated and the torture our victims endure, from hog-tying to branding, electric prodding to the titular lassoing. The band is divided in two: the one led by Trish, once one-armed hero Ennis (Sean Patrick Flanery) gets calved off; the other by plucky Kit (Lindsey Morgan), who tries to get a few of the older folks to safety in their broken-down bus. Lasso is also about modes of masculinity and how it's possible to be macho and disabled--and transgender, and young. Old, too. The traditional he-man cowboy archetype is the one indicted here and I'd argue that there's more to the moment where Ennis crawls through a killing field without the use of either of his arms than just a feat of endurance. He tells Simon later that it isn't what you're born with, it's what you make of it, and it's corny, sure, but there's something laudable about it showing up in exactly this movie. Lasso reminds in some ways of the gay slasher Hellbent, sharing with it an unusual social awareness while also being a credible entry in the genre. It runs a little long at 97 minutes, but there are enough smart moments to deserve a careful consideration. This is director Evan Cecil's feature debut. Respect.
*½/**** written and directed by Robert D. Krzykowski
by Walter Chaw Sort of like The Age of Adeline where the gimmick isn't immortality, but rather a guy who killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot, Robert D. Krzykowski's The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is ultimately an elegy for a certain kind of heroism embodied by Sam Elliott, arguably the only actor who could perform the high-wire act of this high-concept movie. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot has a definite Bubba Ho-Tep vibe, especially in the moments where it uses a sting like Bill Withers's "Use Me" to convey a specific type of weary resignation. But then it cribs the work-shed sequence from Evil Dead II, complete with whip-pans and seesaw, and betrays that what it really wants to be is liked more than anything else. It's desperate for cult acceptance; and equally desperate for critical respect. It's desperate. Elliott has a keystone moment where he talks about how murdering Hitler was Pyrrhic at best, given that his ideology had already taken hold. He's the physical manifestation of regret and the Greek idea that knowledge brings no profit to the wise. His titular hero is asked to kill a world-killing, plague-bearing Sasquatch because a quirk of his physiology and his unusual skill-set make him the only person capable of doing it. The line blurs, then, as Elliott is also the only person who could give something this rudderless a theme that doesn't feel contrived, and a throughline that doesn't feel forced. The seams show and so does the strain; what's left is mostly exhausted from all that effort. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot isn't a product of a vision, it's the product of wanting attention without upsetting anyone. It's a little like that Ezra Pound poem "In a Station of the Metro," in that sense, except there's no poem, just the amazing promise of that title.
**½/**** written by Ben Kent & Joel Wilenius directed by Ben Kent
by Walter Chaw A lark, and often a good one, in the Very Bad Things vein where murder spoils an evening of debauchery, Ben Kent's feature debut F.U.B.A.R. offers up a twist by setting its shenanigans at one of those paintball courses where people pretend to be zombies for the pleasure of the armed guests. It's a bachelor party for nebbish Sam (Sean Verey), who, saddled with his obnoxious chums, hopes the weekend goes well so he can impress his future father-in-law, Gerald (Mark Heap)--Gerald being an ex-Navy special ops guy who did classified things at Her Majesty's discretion. Eric (Danny Kirrane) is the Zach Galifianakis of the group, the loser holding onto past glory who takes it all a little too seriously; Toby is the Ed Helms family man who's outgrown these idiots; and Miles is the unctuous Bradley Cooper figure in charge of making inappropriate jokes at other peoples' expense. These archetypes stretch over essentially every film of this kind, fascinatingly leapfrogging gender barriers in the process (see: Rough Night--rather, don't). The best of the bunch is probably Edgar Wright's The World's End, and F.U.B.A.R. owes perhaps its greatest debt to that film's sense of humour and timing. Essentially, the boys accidentally kill one of the zombie cosplayers--who are, unfortunately for the boys, insane paramilitary types who don't take kindly to the death, accidental or otherwise, of one of their mates. What follows is the usual over-the-top violence and unfortunate escalation, leading up to a final punchline that crosses over into the pleasantly surreal. It's a solid diversion and Kent demonstrates a nice way with his cast, as well as a strong ear for comedy.
****/**** starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie written and directed by Leigh Whannell
by Walter Chaw I can't imagine I'll ever see a better Venom movie than Leigh Whannell's Upgrade, the story of a mild-mannered Luddite mechanic named Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who one day, after delivering a tricked-out antique ride to cyber-genius Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), is paralyzed in a terrible accident and forced to watch his girlfriend, tech-company functionary Asha (Melanie Vallejo), get assassinated by modded-out thugs led by psychopath Fisk (Benedict Hardie). In the film's near-future, there are limited Tetsuo: The Iron Man body modifications like guns embedded in gunsel's palms and enhanced limbs and vision alongside more common advances like self-driving cars and A.I. assistants. The tech, in other words, is entirely credible at first, as the film eases us into nanotechnology and an A.I., STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), implanted in Grey to not just "cure" his paralysis but also, when allowed to operate independently, turn Grey into a one-man vengeance puppet. The first scene of STEM's emancipation is a glorious invention of fight choreography and performance philosophy: Grey is literally possessed, doesn't really "invest" in what his body's doing to other bodies, and, at the end of the sequence, begs with the last not-dismembered bad guy to please not get up off the floor. It's a Buster Keaton gag, really--the stone-faced centre of a violent storm. Marshall-Green's performance reminded me of both Steve Martin's in All of Me and Jeff Fahey's in Body Parts. In a year that saw another instalment in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series, this here is the year's best action scene.
**½/**** written by Bomani J. Story directed by Trevor Stevens
by Walter Chaw The latest remake of Yojimbo finds warring frats in some near-future dystopia holding a college campus controlled by feckless, disinterested administrators hostage with their stealing and fencing of bikes. Yes, it's extreme high-concept schlock played with whip-pans and wipe-cuts meant to evoke the showier aspects of the Spaghetti Western while self-consciously making a hard play for instant cult status. It reminded me a lot of Six String Samurai, for what it's worth, and like that film, the mileage one gets from Rock Steady Row may vary. Lester (Hester Horwin) is a freshman with great hair who has his bike stolen on the first day of school. His roomie, Piper (Diamond White), founder/writer/editor of the school paper, tells him he hasn't just lost his only means of transportation--there's no mechanism for getting it back, either. So Lester takes things into his own hands, infiltrating one frat and then the other, and ultimately playing them against each other from the inside. If you've seen it, you've seen it. The dorms, by the way, are co-ed as a cost-saving measure, part of the picture's "satire" of the dire educational debt culture of the United States. There's also a little bit sending up rape culture and the empowerment narrative, but Rock Steady Row is about finding a way to make a sexy-looking movie that moves in sexy ways; when it touches on larger issues, it's without much interest or depth. Technically proficient in every way, it should be enjoyed with an audience and is, in the end, only what a movie shouldering its way into a category that films generally grow into over time can be. That is: obvious and kind of tedious, but, you know, what the hell.
***/**** starring Simone Buchanan, John Jarratt, Melissa Tkautz, Bill Moseley written and directed by Chris Sun
by Walter Chaw Chris Sun doesn't appear to have any boundaries, at least when it comes to violence and gore in his movies; over the course of four films, he's proven himself to be a vital voice in splatter/exploitation. He dealt with cultures of masculine toxicity in Come and Get Me and pedophilia and vengeance in Daddy's Little Girl, before hewing closer to the genre line with a straight inexorable-killer slasher flick (the ferocious Charlie's Farm) and, now, eco-horror, with his really fun Boar. An odd, mostly inappropriate comparison can be made to the Coens' early career, in which it seemed like they were trying to cover every genre in turn: Here's this guy knocking off horror subgenres with films tied to each other only by their grisly extremes. Eco-horror was popular in the United States in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, because films like Grizzly and John Frankenheimer's Prophecy could be pitched simply as "Jaws in the..." The trend peaked with Australian Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, featuring almost impressionistic work from The Road Warrior DP Dean Semler. Mulcahy's film is unexpectedly artful, almost lyrical in parts, until the end when it pays out in nihilism. For my money, of the two mid-Eighties releases inspired by the death of Azaria Chamberlain, the infant who was carried off by dingoes, it's better than the one that sticks to the facts (A Cry in the Dark).
***/**** starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, Shayna McHale written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
by Angelo Muredda A relaxed, low-stakes counterpart of sorts to Boots Riley's more amped-up Sorry To Bother You, Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls is about as good as movies about labour, power, and empathy for one's fellow worker get. The marketing materials have emphasized the ostensible hijinks wrought by the film's Hooters knockoff setting, pitching Support the Girls as a more conventionally satisfying ensemble comedy than the rambling micro-budget indies with which Bujalski made his mark--a natural next step, after Results, in his post-Computer Chess evolution into the mid-budget range. Its uncharacteristically glossier colour palette and hooky premise aside, though, Support the Girls is a refreshingly rumpled affair that's squarely in the Bujalski tradition, more than earning its cathartic closing moments of a trio of exploited bar workers' collective rooftop scream into the abyss by taking every opportunity available to be the anti-Garden State: a film that prizes character over manufactured quirk and genuine workaday ennui over dopey existentialism.
½*/**** written by S. Craig Zahler directed by Tommy Wiklund & Sonny Laguna
by Walter Chaw The thirteenth instalment in Charles Band's "Puppet Master" epic is the first real reboot of the series, one that transforms titular master Toulon (now played by Udo Kier, of screenwriter S. Craig Zahler's own Brawl in Cell Block 99) from a Holocaust survivor into a full-on Nazi. It's a dangerous creative decision that, I think, fatally misunderstands the appeal of the previous twelve films in this VHS-quickie-born series, which was mainly an opportunity for cheer-worthy cheap-o practical effects work and a loose mythology about some guy who made enchanted killer puppets once upon a time--a sort of amok-time "Transformers" with toys called "Leech Woman, Decapitron, Tunneler, and Shredder Khan" doing the mad toymaker's murderous bidding. What becomes clear early on in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is that because they're now the product of a deformed Nazi, the puppets' targets will primarily be the same minorities targeted for extermination by the Nazis. If the aim of the piece is still to offer cheer-worthy practical effects, celebrating the ultra-gory eradication of the LGBTQ, black, and Jewish population--yarmulkes and all--takes on, you know, an uncomfortable cast. It's like the bomb's-eye view of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor in Pearl Harbor that was greeted with loud opening-night appreciation: What is it, exactly, that we're cheering here? Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is arguably worth it for the moment an exhausted Michael Paré says "[this] incident is turning into a happening," but really there's no amount of forced levity that can make this movie seem all right. There's plenty of nudity, plenty of (PLENTY OF) gore, but once a line is crossed from fun to vile in this picture, and it's crossed right around the time a pregnant black woman is killed in just the worst possible way, there's no going back.
Summer of 84 **½/**** starring Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Rich Sommer written by Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell
by Walter Chaw From the first strains of Le Matos' Tangerine Dream-influenced score (borrowed most heavily from Risky Business, for some reason), even before the Class of 1984 title font tells it to you raw, you know that Summer of '84, from Turbo Kid helmers Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell (collectively known as RKSS), is going to be another '80s throwback flick. That's not bad in and of itself, but it comes with some built-in pitfalls. "Stranger Things", for instance, the setting is all it has going for it and it doesn't even get the vernacular right, whereas something like It well and truly knows the notes and hears the music, too. Summer of '84 falls somewhere between these two contemporary touchstones. It spends most of its time as a high-concept movie that rumbles along with cozy familiarity and an exceptional cast, and then in its last five minutes, it discovers its purpose and nails the landing. Pity that it didn't find its feet sooner. A greater pity, perhaps, that it didn't get another pass through the typewriter.
Our FrightFest 2018 coverage launched today in conjunction with the start of the festival and will be updated frequently with reviews and interviews over the next several days. In the meantime, a handful of titles screening there we covered previously, and those reviews are linked below.