Please note that all framegrabs are from the 1080p version
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- starring Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. If he wants two hard-boiled eggs for his breakfast, they must be the same size or he can't eat them. It's how he is. He steps in shit and then has to step in it with his other foot so his feet don't feel uneven. He has an illness, some rage for order and symmetry, you see, and while it makes him alone and miserable (though not unpleasant), it also makes him the best detective in the world. Agatha Christie's enduring creation Hercule Poirot, when portrayed in the past by actors like David Suchet, Albert Finney, and, most famously, Peter Ustinov, has been a figure of some mirth: a cheery hedonist, someone at home in books by a legendary (and all-time best-selling) author mostly legendary for being an artifact of another generation. Christie's books were already growing elderly, I imagine, as they were being written. Her Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, has about it the musty upright fortitude of something from the 19th century. It should be no surprise that Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespeare adaptations represent the first time I understood those plays completely (that "Hamlet" is a political drama, for instance, or that "Henry V" is a coming-of-age piece triggered in part by the tragedy of a mentor relationship long lamented), has interpreted Poirot as a man tortured by the chaos of modernity, and made him ultimately relatable not as a hedonist, but as a man who recognizes that the wellspring of great art is also the mother of justice. "I can only see the world as it should be... It makes most of life unbearable, but it is useful in the detection of crime." Teleos. Balance. And nothing in between.
Please note that all framegrabs are from the 1080p version
*/**** 4K UHD - Image A- Sound A- Extras B Blu-ray 3D - Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw Marrying the worst parts of Zack Snyder with the worst parts of Joss Whedon (who stepped in to complete the film after Snyder had a family tragedy), DC's superhero team-up dirge Justice League shambles into unnatural half-life with a message of apocalyptic doomsaying presented now without puke filters, so that it looks like a movie my mom watches on her television with the motion-smoothing turned on. The same trick has been attempted with a script burdened by Whedon's patented hipster-ese, which went stale about halfway through "Buffy"'s run, let's face it. The Flash's non sequiturs (Whedon's suggesting he's autistic (which isn't funny)), Aquaman's hearty, get-a-haircut bro-clamations ("I dig it!" and "Whoa!" and so on)--all of it is so poorly timed that it's possible to become clinical about what happens when a punchline is grafted onto a piece at the eleventh hour, and it doesn't help that no one in this cast is known for being even remotely funny or glib. Jason Momoa is a lot of things; Noël Coward ain't one of them. When Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shakes her head bemusedly (I think) and says warmly (I guess), "Children. I work with children," you get that sick, embarrassed feeling that happens when you're watching a person you want to like succumb to flop sweat and overrehearsal.
*/**** starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L'Engle directed by Ava DuVernay
by Walter Chaw In Beyond the Lights, another, much better film featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (directed by another woman of colour, Gina Prince-Bythewood), there is a moment where her character decides to un-straighten her hair and own who she is, damn the torpedoes, and it lands like what a revolution feels like. Or, at least, it lands like what a personal epiphany feels like. In Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle In Time, a little white boy named Calvin (Pan's Levi Miller), with whom heroine Meg (Storm Reid) is creepily smitten, tells her, twice (twice), that he likes her hair, getting an awkward brush off the first time and a shy "thanks" the second. This is what passes for empowerment in a film fixated on empowerment. I think it's probably a mistake to have Meg's sense of self-worth hinge on the approval--at least in this cultural moment--of a white dude. There are fraught politics around a black woman's hair and A Wrinkle In Time uses it as a cruel tease again when there's talk by the evil IT (voiced by David Oyelowo) of Meg straightening her locks before being presented with a "perfect" doppelgänger, free of her nerd glasses, glammed up, hair un-kinked, as one possible outcome for her. It's the key visual metaphor in a film garnering some measure of praise mainly for how it's not for anyone who is "cynical" (or an adult). That, and its visual audacity--which in any other context would be derided for its overreliance on the same, along with the picture's anachronistic amateurishness. Turning Reese Witherspoon into a smug piece of salad is probably not the best use of all those millions of dollars.
Please note that all framegrabs are from the 1080p version
**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost directed by Taika Waititi
by Walter Chaw I've reached a limit with facility, I think--a point at which things that are professionally-executed and entirely meaningless just slide off into a kind of instant nothingness. I'm talking about machine-tooled product, a brand like Kleenex or Kellogg's, where the only time there's any awareness of consumption is when the experience of it is unexpected in some way. There's a reason people see the Virgin Mary in potato chips sometimes. Variation in extruded products is so exceedingly rare that it's akin to holy visitation: some accidental proof of the supernatural; a glitch in the Matrix. Marvel films are akin now to your daily lunch. You can remember the stray meal. Mostly, it's something you do knowing you've had one yesterday and are likely to have one tomorrow. If you're like most of us, you could probably eat better.
*/**** starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews directed by Francis Lawrence
by Walter Chaw "Degenerate," a young woman says during class in self-described Russian Whore School, turning away from a surveillance image in which a middle-aged diplomat is seen snuggling a younger man in a car. "Why do you say that," asks her teacher, a frightening harridan out of a Wertmüller fandango played by Charlotte Rampling (who else?), "is it because he's homosexual?" It is. And here he is, dragged into the classroom by scary Soviet guards. The young woman is brought to the front of the class and instructed to fellate him, since what's "between [her] legs" is obviously of no interest to the degenerate homosexual. For his part, the prisoner grunts like an animal as he wrestles his dick out of his pants and does his best to force the girl's mouth onto it. Let's take a moment to consider that Francis Lawrence's ugly, punishingly violent, ultimately despairing Red Sparrow has characterized this gay guy as a sub-vocal animal interested in getting a hummer from this barely-adult woman--and the Russians as subhuman operators interested in training their youth in the art of fucking for the Motherland. It's not despicable to depict bigotry; it's despicable to be bigoted.
ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (1968) ***/**** Image A- Sound B- Extras B starring Maria Lease, Sue Akers, Cherie Winters written and directed by Joe Sarno
VIBRATIONS (1968) **½/**** Image B+ Sound C Extras B+ starring Maria Lease, Marianne Prevost written and directed by Joe Sarno
by Bryant Frazer Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience--and, often, commercially exploitative gestures--but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it's also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory--the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic--was Sarno's turf. Sarno's arrival on the exploitation circuit came during the 1960s, at a time when sex movies were becoming more bold and explicit but before hardcore pornography destroyed the market for simulated sex on screen. A former World War II airman who learned his trade directing training films for the U.S. Navy, Sarno made a name for himself with films purporting to reveal how suburban New York housewives responded to the sexual revolution. By 1967, he had travelled to Sweden to make the first in a series of titles that influenced the direction of that country's erotic film market. Shortly after his debut on the Swedish scene, he made All the Sins of Sodom, Vibrations, and The Wall of Flesh, which were shot back-to-back in the New York studio of photographer Morris Kaplan, whose generosity earned him a producer credit. The first two of those films are included on the Blu-ray release reviewed herein.
***½/**** starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac written by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer directed by Alex Garland
by Walter Chaw
'But when we sit together, close,' said Bernard, 'we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.' --Virginia Woolf, The Waves
This is what I said. I said, "If you survive, you are this rare thing. We are members of an endangered species, you and I, born with this romance for self-destruction. Most of us don't survive, or survive as something else. But if you do survive, in thirty years, maybe you find yourself across from someone your age now, telling them that there's more to their story if they choose to read on. And it's the most wonderful thing and it's worth the pain of getting there."
***/**** starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Arvo Kukumägi, Katariina Unt screenplay by Rainer Sarnet, based on the novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk directed by Rainer Sarnet
by Alice Stoehr A propeller-shaped demon drags a cow into the sky. An elder bargains with the plague, which is incarnate as a large and ornery pig. A lovesick girl changes into a wolf and back again. Such is the occult world of November. Adapted from Andrus Kivirähk's Rehepapp, a blockbuster novel published in 2000, Rainer Sarnet's film takes place a century or two ago, in an Estonian village where the boundary between life and death is porous. A procession of ghosts files through the woods at night. The raucous devil, his voice echoing, arises at a crossroads to barter for blood. Dirt-smudged townsfolk heed their every superstition, even when it means donning trousers on their torsos. The episodic narrative meanders through these folkloric scenarios, expanding its impressions of rustic life across a single late-autumn month. Insofar as the film tells any overarching story, it's that of a love triangle between Liina (Rea Lest), the sometime-werewolf, unwillingly betrothed to a friend of her father; intense local boy Hans (Jörgen Liik), all scruff and tousled hair; and the young baroness Hans moons over as she sleepwalks through a manor house. The three of them have their hearts vexed and hexed over the course of November. Imagery takes precedence over plotting, though, and the latter often gives way to cryptic allegory. The film returns now and again to elemental motifs: barren trees, ripples in a river, a damp and leaf-strewn forest floor. It's an environment where civilization holds little sway.
Please note that all framegrabs are from the 1080p version
***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham written by Taylor Sheridan directed by David Mackenzie
by Bryant Frazer Cops and criminals may clash on desolate West Texas landscapes, but late capitalism is the real enemy in Hell or High Water. The film declares its intentions in an elaborate opening shot that follows a weary-looking woman arriving for work in the morning as a 1987 Chevy Camaro circles the parking lot in the background. (Her right wrist is in a brace, probably to fend off carpal-tunnel syndrome, that occupational hazard of retail clerks and bank tellers everywhere.) The camera catches three lines of graffiti on the side of a building--"3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US"--as it dollies past before panning around more than 270 degrees to the left and pushing forward as our working woman heads towards the front of the Texas Midland Bank. Clearly visible through an architectural frame-with-a-frame created by the camera move are inlaid brick patterns in the shape of three crosses on a wall across the street. Just like that, director David Mackenzie establishes, first, the idea that the men in that blue Camaro are up to no good; second, the current of economic desperation driving screenwriter Taylor Sheridan's story; and third, the religious posturing that offers an alternative to existential despair, with roadside churches, TV evangelists, and Christian radio offering a relentless white-noise stream of piety on demand to an American underclass with nowhere left to turn.
***/**** starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Mahiro Takasugi, Hiroki Hasegawa screenplay by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
by Angelo Muredda The apocalypse becomes an occasion for everything from learning what makes humans tick to getting to know the distant alien who is your significant other in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's genre-defying twentieth feature Before We Vanish, which might be most firmly characterized as a black comedy if it weren't so puckishly sunny. A return to form of sorts after Creepy and Daguerreotype, neither of which were without their charms but did feel at times like a master's idle wheel-spinning, Before We Vanish works best as a high-concept sampler platter of the wildly divergent tones Kurosawa is uncommonly good at mixing up. That isn't to say the alien-invasion framework and neatly-bifurcated dystopian road movie/romcom structure are purely excuses to see how much mileage Kurosawa can get out of his generic indeterminacy. Still, one would be hard-pressed to deny that half the fun lies in taking the film in as the strange sum of its many seemingly ill-fitting parts.
**½/**** starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole directed by Ryan Coogler
by Walter Chaw There are issues Black Panther raises that I'm not equipped to discuss. I don't understand them. I do understand that its closest analogues are Wonder Woman and Rogue One, in that these are deeply-flawed films that, for particular audiences, hold a near-totemic value as representative artifacts. I can't possibly express the joy and immense satisfaction I felt seeing Asian faces in a Star Wars film. I can't possibly share in the same joy and sense of satisfaction that women got from Wonder Woman and that African-Americans will likely experience with Black Panther. They are all three films that you only really dislike from a position of privilege, and such is the conundrum of our current discourse. I will say that there are a handful of scenes in Black Panther that are as powerful statements of racial outrage as anything I've ever seen in mainstream cinema--that is, in a film that is not otherwise directly about slavery and the African-American experience. During its prologue/creation myth, I gasped at a scene of slaves, chained together, being led onto a slaver's galley. There are moments so bold (if not reductive) that they're genuinely breathtaking in their audacious impoliteness. Bold enough that some of my more conservative peers left the screening soon after a particular pronouncement about the legacy of slavery poisoning race relations into the modern day. At the end of it, a character proclaims they'd rather die than live in chains. It couldn't get balder than that, nor more revolutionary. Yeah, man.
There's Always Vanilla/The Affair (1972) *½/**** Image B- Sound C+ Extras A- starring Ray Laine, Judith Streiner (née Ridley), Johanna Lawrence, Richard Ricci written by R. J. Ricci directed by George A. Romero
Season of the Witch/George A. Romero's Season of the Witch/Hungry Wives/Jack's Wife (1973) ***/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Jan White, Ray Laine, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunhurst written & directed by George A. Romero
The Crazies/Code Name: Trixie (1973) ***/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B- starring Lane Carroll, W.G. McMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar screenplay by Paul McCollough & George A. Romero directed by George A. Romero
by Bryant Frazer George A. Romero, one of the unquestioned masters of American horror cinema, never intended to be a horror filmmaker. It's one of the great ironies in film history. When the Pittsburgh-based writer and director ventured from industrial filmmaking (via his production company, The Latent Image) into features, he made a horror movie not out of any claimed interest in or affinity with the genre, but simply because exploitation pictures were considered the safest investments. And for years after its release, the man who made the epochal Night of the Living Dead (1968)--not just the blueprint for the modern zombie movie, but also a metaphor for U.S. misadventures in Vietnam and a disturbing allegory for inhuman behavior among the living--was still apologizing for what he perceived as its shortcomings. "There's so much terrible dialogue, and there are several really poor performances," Romero said in a 1972 CINEFANTASTIQUE interview conducted by local actor Sam Nicotero, who was playing the role of a sheriff's deputy in Romero's then-in-production sci-fi/disaster hybrid, The Crazies. "Technically, the film is not that bad--but, Christ, our commercial work is better than that."
**/**** Image B Sound B Extras C+ starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams screenplay by Frederick Knott, as adapted from his play directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw I've never seen Dial M for Murder in 3-D, but I can imagine how, in that format, Hitchcock's slow push-ins and dolly-outs would create a habitable space, perhaps a sense of looming menace in his flower vases and teapots and of course the scissors with which poor Margot (Grace Kelly) manages to save herself late one night. In 2-D, Dial M for Murder is literally and figuratively flat: an adaptation of a smash stage play that Hitchcock transplanted without much "opening up"--a dry run for sister film Rear Window, a more polite rounding off of Rope, and what I have to believe was another visual/tonal experiment in a different format. How else to explain its complete airlessness in the middle of the Master's masterpiece period? Maybe it was, as Hitch described it to Truffaut, a piffle, a contract film peeled off to appease Warner Bros.: "Coasting, playing it safe." His own words about it comprise a good chunk of the total scholarship on the picture, but in that brief, three-page section in Truffaut's book-length interview with him, Hitch admits that he hollowed out a pit in the floor of the soundstage, the better to create relief in low-angle shots. In 3-D, the sense of forced intimacy as we as an audience engage eye-level with, body-level with, betwixt our urbane plotters and murderers could be both suffocating and grand. I had a dream once that I attended a screening of this film in 3-D in a large, velvet-lined auditorium. Freudians, take note.
**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Michael Palin, Max Wall, Harry H. Corbett, John Le Mesurier screenplay by Charles Alverson and Terry Gilliam, from the Lewis Carroll poem directed by Terry Gilliam
by Bryant Frazer The pre-credits sequence of Jabberwocky features director Terry Gilliam's ex-Python troupemate Terry Jones portraying a hunter collecting trapped wild animals from a pastoral forest as shafts of sunlight stab through tree branches and featherlight moths flit among the leaves. The natural beauty is subverted, ominously, by point-of-view shots taken from far overhead, accompanied by boomy, creature-feature sound design (think Jaws, released a couple years previous), suggesting the hunter is also the hunted. Jones glances around quizzically, a dopey, open-mouthed expression plastered across his face. With a jump cut, he turns suddenly towards the camera, wide-eyed and screaming in extreme close-up. The camera pulls back from the ground and carries Jones with it, still yelling and beating his arms frantically in the air. He jerks his head this way and that, his tongue lolling about in and around his mouth, delivering a death scene of such unexpected intensity that it's hard for an audience to know how to respond. Is it scary, or hilarious? Or just...goofy?
½*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+ starring Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Andy Garcia screenplay by Dean Devlin & Paul Guyot directed by Dean Devlin
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It's the near future. Not much has changed, except the President is conspicuously not repulsive, "HoloFrames" have supplanted cell phones, and climate change is no longer an immediate threat, thanks to the creation of a global weather-management system called Dutch Boy, after the story of the little Dutch boy who plugs a leak in a dike with his finger. (Like all those movie scientists who've named their game-changer "Icarus," the christeners of Dutch Boy should've read to the end of the story.) Gerard Butler's Jake Lawson scienced Dutch Boy together but got kicked off the project when he switched it on ahead of schedule. Now, with the damn thing turning miles of Afghanistan desert into frozen tundra, White House lackey Max (Jim Sturgess with inexplicable hair) knows there is only one man who can get to the bottom of this glitch: his estranged brother Jake, who reticently returns to the International Climate Space Station (ICSS), leaving young daughter Hannah (Talitha Bateman) to fret for his safety and narrate the film for that soupçon of folksiness. More incidents accumulate both on the ground and miles above the earth, including a terrifying ordeal for a lady in a bikini who's cornered by a flash-freeze wave, leading Jake and Max to believe that President Palma (Andy Garcia) might be plotting a planet-wide attack of hellish weather--a "geostorm," if you will--in order to impede Dutch Boy's upcoming transfer of ownership from America to "the world."
by Bill Chambers In the interest of full disclosure, I've yet to see three of the major Academy Award™ contenders, Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, or Phantom Thread. Fortunately, they've all been discussed on Twitter with the fanatical zeal of that machine that stuffs corn down a duck's gullet to make foie gras, so I felt I could bluff my way through this year's scorecard. I for one look forward to enjoying Michael Stuhlbarg's Call Me By Your Name monologue once I've forgotten how good it's supposed to be.
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B- starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan screenplay by David Marconi, based on the novel The Chinaman by Stephen Leather directed by Martin Campbell
by Walter Chaw Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, based on Stephen Leather's novel The Chinaman, showcases the great, the incomparable, Jackie Chan as a grief-stricken man with a Special Forces past, galvanized into action when an IRA bomb kills his only, and last, daughter in a chichi London retail block. Having failed in his attempts to bribe London officials for names, Chan's Quan, restaurateur/owner of The Happy Peacock, focuses his attentions on former IRA/Sinn Fein leader Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). Quan terrorizes the terrorists, stakes them out at Hennessy's farmhouse/fortress, and generally makes life miserable for everyone until he finds the people responsible for his daughter's death. It's a role that Liam Neeson would have played had there not been a recent hue and cry over yellowface and whitewashing, and so Chan, in the twilight of his action career, is forced into somewhat thankless service in a film that wants to be more like The Fourth Protocol than like Police Story. The Foreigner isn't a great film, but it's an interesting one for all its mediocrity.