Roald Dahl's The BFG **½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B- starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement screenplay by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl directed by Steven Spielberg
PETE'S DRAGON ***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+ starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Robert Redford screenplay by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks directed by David Lowery
by Bill Chambers An inverse E.T. written by that film's screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, The BFG is in some ways archetypal Spielberg. It's another child-led picture to follow E.T., Empire of the Sun, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and The Adventures of Tintin, featuring more of Spielberg's weird hallmark of colourful food and drink (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hook, Jurassic Park). But Spielberg just isn't that guy anymore, even if he always will be in the public imagination (it happens to actors...and it happens to directors, too), and The BFG has the same 'you can't go home again' quality that plagued Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It would be inexplicable within the recent arc of his career if not for the precedent of Tintin, which gave him an appetite for impossible camera moves that can really only be sated when the sets are virtual, as they are for much of The BFG. I can't help thinking of Spielberg's story about how the alien-abduction sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn't working until he went back and added shots of the screws on a vent cover turning by themselves; he thrives in that margin of error, like when he let a sick Harrison Ford shoot the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark and stumbled upon one of the most iconic moments in cinema. The amount of previsualizing necessary to make something like The BFG shrinks that margin considerably, and all foresight and no hindsight makes Steve a dull boy.
**½/**** starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson screenplay by Tom Ford, based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright directed by Tom Ford
by Walter Chaw It opens with an already-notorious slow-motion consideration of a gallery of morbidly-obese women in tiny cowboy hats, naked and holding sparklers while gyrating to Abel Korzeniowski's moody, derivative score. Not long after, someone will comment how, as an art installation, it's a withering indictment of junk culture, in response to which our ostensible heroine Susan (Amy Adams) intones, "Junk. It's all junk." As self-awareness goes, this is as hollow as the rest of Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, a dirge of shallow introspection and sanctified ugliness that is, as it happens, a pretty trenchant critique of the landscape that would normalize a Trump presidency. Consider that the installation isn't "junk" so much as the kind of conversation people of a certain intuition might have about the limitations of media to sell something biology rejects. It's a tentative salvo into the nature/nurture debate and the extent to which popular culture can influence the innate. The answer? It can, a little. More often, it merely gratifies/reflects the base. Calling it "junk" reveals a specific attitude that the only thing obese women are capable of representing is over-consumption and, in the sparklers and hats, a sad sort of patriotism. Tom Ford has a message. I get it. It's gotten away from you. The signifier is greater than the sign.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana De Armas, Bradley Cooper screenplay by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic, based on the ROLLING STONE article "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson directed by Todd Phillips
by Walter Chaw Like The Big Short before it, Todd Phillips's War Dogs is a breezy, loose, "for dummies" gloss on recent history that says for all the things you thought were going to hell in the world, you don't know the fucking half of it, buddy. It details how W.'s administration, after being accused of cronyism in making Dick Cheney's Haliburton wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of wealth with the gift of bid-free defense contracts, opened the floodgates by essentially giving every unscrupulous asshole on the planet the opportunity to bid on defense contracts. In that pursuit, our government set up an "eBay" list where major arms dealers could pick off the larger contracts, and dilettantes and arms "day-traders" could, from the comfort of their basements, sell the United States military a few thousand handguns. War Dogs adapts a magazine article about two assholes in particular, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who made a fortune, then made a terrible mistake when they decided to traffic a hundred million rounds of defective Chinese AK-47 ammo by disguising it as Albanian stock. Actually, their mistake is that Efraim is a psychotic loser so pathological in his incompetence that even the U.S. government had no choice but to do something about it. It's a level of obviousness matched by the film in moments like one in the middle of the game where Efraim screams "fuck the American taxpayer!" OK, yes, we get it.
*/**** starring Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening screenplay by Warren Beatty directed by Warren Beatty
by Walter Chaw The title refers to Howard Hughes, I think, and becomes a song its ingénue sings a couple of times over the course of the film. Moreover, it refers to Warren Beatty at this point in an extraordinary career that began in the New American Cinema and that wave of Method actors filling in the spaces left behind by the Golden Age. He was impossibly beautiful, and played against it whenever he could. He was whip-smart. Unabashedly political. Unapologetically a legendary philanderer who made perhaps his greatest single impression on my generation with a surprise cameo in then-girlfriend Madonna's documentary monument to herself, Truth or Dare. Any investigation, though, finds that Beatty is a definitive voice of a definitive moment in the cinematic history of the United States. It's been fifteen years since his last film as an actor, twenty as a director. In the meantime: rumours and speculation about this long-gestating production--his dream project, the culmination of a storied career behind and in front of the camera. And now here it is, Rules Don't Apply, and it's exceedingly uncomfortable, a film that leaves Beatty, acting here as co-star, director, producer, and credited screenwriter, exceptionally vulnerable. As capstones go, it's an interesting one.
**/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Chris Makepeace, Sandy Baron, Robert Rusler, Grace Jones screenplay by Richard Wenk directed by Richard Wenk
by Bryant Frazer In concept a little bit After Hours and a little bit An American Werewolf in London, Vamp attempts to transplant some New York cool into a story set in the L.A. underground, where a downtown strip club is staffed by lithesome vampires who prey on losers and outsiders yearning for companionship in the lonesome city. Vamp isn't scary, though it's fairly stylish, thanks in large part to Grace Jones, who flew into Hollywood with an entourage (including artists Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Richard Bernstein) to play Katrina, an exotic dancer with an appetite for flesh. While the film is pleasantly weird whenever she's on screen, that's not much of the time. The bulk of it is a laid-back assemblage of moderately clever ideas--a bunch of clockwork gears that never mesh into anything much.
**½/**** screenplay by Jared Bush directed by Ron Clements & John Musker (co-directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams)
by Walter Chaw Arguably, the only place it really matters in terms of the diversity tango in Disney's new animated musical Moana is in the songwriting and voice-acting, and so although there are only white people directing (four credited directors) and writing (eight credited scenarists), find Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel Miranda behind the music and Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho behind the Pacific Islander characters. This is progress. Also progress is what seems, to this non-Polynesian, like a real effort to not appropriate a culture so much as represent its mythology, tied as it must be to a narrative about a young woman, Moana (Cravalho), a stout Disney heroine of that certain mold for whom adventure calls, declaring her independence from the patriarchy. We've seen her before, is what I'm saying, but she's neither sexualized nor given an aspirational mate/therapeutic marriage. Progress. I'll take it. There's even a moment where demigod Maui (Johnson) makes a crack about Moana being in the Disney canon. Progress? Self-awareness, at least. I'll take that, too. What's unfortunate is that for everything that's very good about the film, there's something very familiar. The argument should probably be made that familiarity is the sugar that helps the medicine of its progressive elements go down. It worked for The Force Awakens.
****/**** BD - Image A Sound A+ Extras B+ DVD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C+ starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
by Walter Chaw Indicated by spacious compositions and a bracing unpredictability, Paul Thomas Anderson's romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love is a marriage, if you will, between Claire Denis's audacious Trouble Every Day and Steven Shainberg's sadomasochism fairytale Secretary. Here's a trio of films that announce 2002 as a year perhaps best defined by its aggressively non-traditional, hopelessly romantic love stories (toss Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, Cronenberg's Spider, and Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction into that mix).
**/**** starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell written by J.K. Rowling directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw J.K. Rowling is more plotter than writer or editor, more rambling fantasist than disciplined storyteller--explanation there as to why her Harry Potter novels aren't classics so much as very popular stories for children. This also explains why Rowling flinched at the prospect of Harry martyring himself at the end, something the entire series leads up to. Rowling betrays, too, heroine Hermione, the logical successor to Dumbledore's seat, not wife to Harry's drippy buddy. She didn't have the heart, she says, to do the things she should have done, and so produced books you'll grow out of. And quickly. The film adaptations (like Beethoven's Symphonies, only the odd ones are good, and you should skip the first) are uneven largely because they're best when the folks doing the adapting take Rowling's ideas and craft narratives and narrative subtext from/for them--and worst when they try to pack in all those volumes of blandly discursive blather to please a massive fanbase. Asking Rowling herself to write the screenplay for David Yates's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (hereafter Fantastic Beasts), then, has yielded exactly the expected result: the film is bloated, boring at times, rambling most others; and it's rich with genuine ideas and an honest-to-goodness progressive heartbeat. It's topical, boasts of an extremely able cast it squanders mostly, and acts as a glossy coat sheening over the "real" story, pulsing but drowned, at its centre.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse directed by Andrew Stanton (co-directed by Angus MacLane)
by Walter Chaw Credit is due Pixar and writer-director Andrew Stanton (co-directing here with Angus MacLane) for wanting to right what I don't know anybody really perceived as a wrong. I remember thinking when I first saw Finding Nemo that Dory's inability to retain short-term memories was a product of her species. In the new Finding Dory, it's revealed to indeed be a mental disability, one that her parents (voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) worry over a great deal in a series of flashbacks. They create coping mechanisms for their daughter. They devise a literal shell game so that when Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) inevitably gets lost, she can find her way back home. It's an interesting tactic to take, this mild scolding that what was funny at first is in fact a debilitating, dangerous disorder. And a good portion of the film looks for ways to valorize Dory's condition, to avoid making her the butt of jokes or an object of pity. For the most part, it does this by surrounding her with characters who also have a disability: Hank (Ed O'Neill), an octopus that's lost an arm ("Septipus!" says Dory, "I can't remember, but I can count!"); and Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a hopelessly myopic whale shark. Lest we forget, Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over from Alexander Gould) has a deformed fin, something he flaps at dad Marlin (Albert Brooks) after Marlin says something disparaging about Dory's memory issue.
Apologies for the radio silence this week. Honestly? No will. We have plenty of stuff on the horizon, though, and in the meantime here are links to our festival reviews of Arrival and Elle, which open in theatres today.