by Walter Chaw I've been better now for a long time. I get depressed. I'm in recovery, and it's going well. There's a line in a new song by The National that makes me cry every time I hear it. It goes:
*/**** written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
by Walter Chaw I love stop-motion animation. William Blake referred to the "infernal method," talking about etching plates with acid and how each print of his work would be touched by him, the artist, to better imbue it with life. Stop-motion animation to me is evidence that there's something to the idea of a transference of vitality through human contact. It's why I was curious about Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's insane Loving Vincent, a feature-length film composed of over 65,000 hand-painted oil paintings, animating Van Gogh's most famous paintings and making characters of his subjects. It's a fascinating experiment, the product of one of those late-night bull sessions fuelled by cigarettes and whiskey where aspiring artist-types and freshman cosmology students get profound with one another. Consider Loving Vincent to be the cold reality of the morning after. Over 100 artists laboured over 10 years to essentially make a tedious rotoscope cartoon held together, barely, by an embarrassing screenplay dependent on loads of exposition and a repetitive flashback device. It's an endurance test of rare sadism.
****/**** starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill written and directed by Paul Schrader
by Walter Chaw The title character of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is consumed by his inconsequence. Determined to make a difference, he can't even make an impression on the vile inhabitants of the little town that is his parish. It consumes him. It kills him. No one notices. There's nothing to notice. Bresson doesn't even bother to show it. The priest's voiceovers become more urgent, though his faith never flags. He develops terrible stomach pains he seeks to soothe with an austere diet of bread soaked in wine: the Host, I guess, that nourishes communion with the holy spirit, but also the cancer in his gut that consumes him. His last words? "All is grace." Paul Schrader, raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, which basically believes that Christians don't earn their salvation but rather receive it as a gift they don't deserve, has made it his life's work to react against his faith--and to live it, too, when reaction fails. Towards the end of his new film, First Reformed, the priest, Toller (Ethan Hawke), writes on his church's whiteboard "Will God Forgive Us?," which is less Calvinist--God already has forgiven us--than a sign of a faith in severe crisis. Schrader's riffed on Bresson's film before with his script for Taxi Driver, still his best-known work despite a career littered with masterpieces of individual fears, men in isolation from God, and spiritual self-loathing. In Taxi Driver, the Priest is a sociopath driving through a Times Square hellscape, praying for the apocalypse to come as a purifying, obliterating rain. He tries to kill himself, but becomes a hero instead. First Reformed is either less cynical or more cynical than that. It's complicated.
Man Hunt **/**** starring Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama, Qi Wei, Ha Jiwon screenplay by John Woo, based on the book by Jukô Nishimura directed by John Woo
HAPPY END **/**** starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Toby Jones written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Bill Chambers About five seconds into John Woo's Man Hunt (no relation to that Fritz Lang movie with George Sanders in a cave), there's a freeze-frame. Followed shortly by another. It's glorious. Digital filmmaking has no doubt made it easier for Woo to be himself, as has being back in Asia: Hollywood never did warm to his Peckinpah flourishes, nor his melodramatic flair. But something is off in Man Hunt, which finds Woo returning, a touch desperately, to the Heroic Bloodshed genre in the form of a gloss on The Fugitive. (Officially, it's a remake of a Ken Takakura vehicle variously known as Manhunt and Hot Pursuit.) Chinese Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a hotshot lawyer for a pharmaceutical company that frames him for the murder of an alleged lover (Tao Okamoto, bestowing her iconic look on a role that doesn't thank her in return) to protect its secrets; Japanese Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) is the hotshot Inspector sent after Du when he escapes custody. Du repeatedly eludes Yamura's clutches, but over the course of the chase they build a rapport that transcends lawful and cultural barriers and, à la Hard-Boiled, unite against a common enemy, corrupt CEO Yoshihiro Sakai (Jun Kunimura). I should mention the two female super-assassins hot on Du's trail, since Woo's daughter Angeles plays one of them. For better or worse, this is personal filmmaking.
**½/**** starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen written and directed by Mike White
by Angelo Muredda Nobody captures the insidiousness and pervasiveness of depressive thinking quite like Mike White, who returns to the middle-aged professional anxiety and panic-inducing Impostor Syndrome of "Enlightened" with Brad's Status, a quiet, obstinately minor film that largely unfolds through the emotionally-stunted protagonist's daydreaming voiceover critiques of his own minimal actions onscreen. Brad's Status positions itself as a lower-middle-class American B-side to Éric Rohmer in its focus on one man's interrogation of his own moral failings, a modest goal it mostly pulls off.
**½/**** starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Greta Gerwig
by Walter Chaw Greta Gerwig's hyphenate debut bears the influence of erstwhile collaborator Noah Baumbach's urbane micro-comedies--Hal Hartley's, too, along with some DNA borrowed from Ghost World and Welcome to the Dollhouse for spice. It's a talky domestic drama featuring a precocious, strong-willed iconoclast who has named herself "Lady Bird" (Saoirse Ronan) and is, as a character, the best description of the film that houses her. She's smart but not book-smart and, in the end, not smart enough to avoid having her heart broken by a couple of bad decisions on her way out of senior year in high-school and the great grey beast Sacramento. She tells her first boyfriend, Danny (the already-great Lucas Hedges), that she's from the "wrong side of the tracks," which, when he lets it slip in front of Lady Bird's mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), obviously hurts Marion's feelings a lot, but she bites her lip. When he does it, he's there to pick up Lady Bird for Thanksgiving at his grandmother's place. His grandmother lives in the nicest house on the other side of the tracks and, to feel better about her life, Lady Bird tells her shallow new "bestie" Jenna (Odeya Rush) that it's Lady Bird's own house. A miserabilist story about the horror of adolescence that is obviously helmed by a first-timer, Lady Bird is redeemed by a cast so sterling that I actually wished the film were longer. It's that kind of movie.
***/**** starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch directed by Sean Baker
by Angelo Muredda "Stay in the future today," a motel sign ironically beams early in The Florida Project, Sean Baker's gorgeous, ebullient, and, as the kids say, problematic follow-up to his profile-raising Tangerine. The film is a contemporary fable about a cast of poor people, mostly kids, whose transient lives are lived in Kissimmee, Florida against the looming backdrop of Disney World. Their cheap motel rooms, hosted in a purple monstrosity semi-teasingly named The Magic Castle and negotiated week-to-week at best, serve as a temporary respite from homelessness, their inability to invest in a more permanent future rubbed in their faces daily by the tourists just passing through on their way to somewhere better. Dire as that might seem, Baker turns this downbeat 'America today' premise into the stuff of everyday beauty and wonder by lining up his brightly-lit but cool pastel aesthetic with the way his 6-year-old protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), sees the run-down souvenir shops, ice-cream parlours, and rival motels around her as a kind of raggedy jungle gym.
*½/**** starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Kevin Costner screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the memoir by Molly Bloom directed by Aaron Sorkin
by Angelo Muredda You can thank anyone who came out of Steve Jobs yearning for Aaron Sorkin's take on a sociopathic female protagonist with quixotic interests for Molly's Game, the loquacious screenwriter/producer/playwright's rancid directorial debut. Apart from some questionable onscreen graphics and stats that turn the film's opening set-piece--a breakneck tour through the early history of subject Molly Bloom (not the one you're probably thinking of)--into a gaudy arcade game, Sorkin the director shows some rare restraint, playing some seriously-overwritten material straight. That isn't to say he's an especially promising filmmaker, only that he mostly stays out of his cast's way as actors like Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba stomp through mic-drop punchlines about money--Wall Street bro fist-pumpers like "I had just made three thousand dollars in one night"--and hyper-stylized speeches that tell us what their maestro really thinks about feminism, gossip, and overcharging prosecutors.
****/**** starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
by Walter Chaw Darren Aronofsky's mother! seeks to explain the ways of God to Man in an allegory of the monstrousness of the creative impulse that plays at once as apologia and barbaric yawp-cum-mission statement; imagine if Aronofsky adapted Paradise Lost. It's The Giving Tree and Harlan Ellison's "Try a Dull Knife" as told by Buñuel and Ken Russell: a marriage of essential truth with exceptional excess--a work of genuine arrogance and pretension. The picture aspires to answer large questions, to lay bare the heart of the artist, and it has as few apologies to offer as it does fucks to give. It's unpleasant to the point of unwatchability--an instant entry into the films maudit hall of fame, predicting a popular failure and critical evisceration that are at least in part something Aronofsky must have expected, given how dedicated mother! is to destroying pleasure, to refusing the breast that its unnamed female protagonist (we'll call her X, in honour of Joan Fontaine's similarly anonymous heroine from Rebecca), played by Jennifer Lawrence, offers her infant in one of the multifarious religious tableaux that litter the piece. In fact, were the film a river to be crossed, the stones you'd step on would all be depictions of holy martyrs and Madonnas. In this way, it resembles Children of Men--even through to its long urban war and siege sequence, which mother! replicates during its feverish conclusion. It resembles Viridiana, of course, and The Exterminating Angel. It resembles all the great symbolist films because it's one of them.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers ***½/**** starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng screenplay by Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie directed by Angelina Jolie
by Walter Chaw Angelina Jolie gets a lot of shit for being Angelina Jolie. She's mocked for adopting children from places in the world that need more kindness and attention. Her behaviour as a young woman is brought up constantly to shame her. Her recent separation from Brad Pitt is held up as proof of...something. I haven't liked her previous films as director, but I saw no malice in them. I suggested after Unbroken that she should stop making movies, maybe focus on her philanthropy. It's a good thing I don't know what I'm talking about. First They Killed My Father, adapted from Loung Ung's memoir by Ung herself (with Jolie), is a beautiful, elliptical, child's-eye war film that lands somewhere between Empire of the Sun and Come and See. Jolie is the prime example of a child of extreme privilege who has awakened to that privilege, who still stumbles now and again in her more self-aggrandizing moments but for all that hasn't started a weird product catalogue and advised women to steam their vagina. It's galling to hear about sensitivity from someone who's new to it, I think; easier to go after her for an acting exercise reported in VANITY FAIR where she had auditioning Cambodian children hold money, ask them what they would use the money for, and then ask them to react to the money being taken away from them. Who could defend that sort of cruelty? No one could. I'm doubtful it happened that way.
**/**** screenplay by L.G. Bayão directed by Vincente Amorim
by Bill Chambers There is a whole subtext, nay, context begging to be unpacked in Motorrad, yet the filmmaking never inspires much curiosity about it, and it's all too easy to substitute the legacy of George Miller's Mad Max movies for table-setting. Shaggy Hugo (Guilherme Prates) breaks into a seemingly-abandoned garage and sees a carburetor he would like. The proprietor chases him with a shotgun, but an alluring, tomboyish woman (Carla Salle) intervenes, like the farmer's daughter convincing daddy not to shoot the stranger climbing out her bedroom window. Instead, they brand Hugo, which is curiously obfuscated by elliptical cutting for how meaningful it becomes later on. Hugo rushes off to install his new carburetor and meet up with older brother Ricardo (Emílio de Mello), the leader of a makeshift motorcycle gang that seems pretty wholesome, even though they act like having someone slightly younger in Hugo tag along is cramping their style. At the same time, they seem like people at once liberated from the shackles of society and bound by the rules of a new world order forcing Man out onto the open road, and so their joy-riding inspires a certain amount of dread even before bikers in identity-obscuring masks show up to turn Motorrad into The Hills Have Eyes. Still, I know of at least one individual inured to the slow-burn of slasher cinema who gave up on it well before the machetes were drawn, and I can't say I really blame him. Our heroes are all sandy blondes whose names are their defining traits--only puppyish Vincent, the "farmer's daughter" (who resurfaces on the trail, possibly as bait), and the token girlfriend in the gang (Juliana Lohmann) inspire a measure of attachment, by virtue of sticking out like sore thumbs physically. That the killers are equally albeit literally faceless suggests commentary of a sort, but also a deep cynicism; the violence in the film is vicious because it has to be to make an impact. But stunt coordinator Javier Lambert, an old pro who got his start on Licence to Kill, devises some white-knuckle motorcycle chases, and director Vicente Amorim deserves credit for both capturing a Brazil unfamiliar to filmgoers (Kubrick-like, he finds the wasteland in his notoriously verdant backyard) and rushing headlong towards an existential finish, even if it feels like he just ran out of gas. Programme: Contemporary World Cinema
***/**** starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn screenplay by Anthony McCarten directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw Joe Wright's propulsive, compelling, awards-season prestige biopic Darkest Hour finds Gary Oldman in fine fettle, delivering a rousing performance as WWII-era Winston Churchill, from the moment of his usurpation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for the Prime Minister-ship through to the beginning of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It's a film about the suddenly-controversial position of not appeasing Nazis and the importance of rhetoric as a skill in our leadership. (Churchill uses Cicero as reference material.) It's about principles and erudition. A shame that both seem suddenly in such short supply. When Churchill addresses Parliament in his famous "We will never surrender" speech, chief political rival Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) mutters that Winston's just mobilized the English language. Trapped as we are now as a nation under an illiterate, sub-human moron and Nazi sympathizer who is some combination of demented and narcissistic, I confess I got emotional a time or two imagining there were once leaders in the world of whom we could be proud and behind whom we could rally. A shame that it seems so much like quaint science-fiction as we work through our forever-war scenarios and jockey for battle against Southeast Asia again. Darkest Hour, in other words, feels aspirational rather than historical, finding its greatest tensions in the disagreement within Churchill's war council over whether or not the British Empire should "hear out" the Nazis in order to avoid conflict, or whether they should make a stand and, should they be defeated, at least be defeated knowing the empire stood for something. Churchill says that great civilizations that fought and were conquered tend to rise again--but civilizations that capitulate tend to be swallowed by history. Call Darkest Hour a warning about the poison diminishing the United States, though I doubt we're listening.
SUBURBICON *½/**** starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and George Clooney & Grant Heslov directed by George Clooney
BODIED *½/**** starring Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Charlamagne Tha God, Anthony Michael Hall written by Joseph Kahn & Alex Larsen directed by Joseph Kahn
by Bill Chambers The best parts are obviously the Coens' and the worst parts are obviously director George Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov's. Trouble is, the best parts aren't that great and the worst parts...yikes. A period piece set in the Eisenhower era, Suburbicon centres around the eponymous suburban development (that the title isn't just a pun unto itself is the first red flag, to borrow one of the movie's pet phrases), which has controversially allowed a black family to breach this all-white neighbourhood. Next door, horn-rimmed patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives a pleasant life with his little-leaguer son (Noah Jupe), wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore), and sister-in-law Margaret (also Moore). (One of them's blonde, like the other Elvis in Kissin' Cousins.) One night, while Jupe's Nicky is lying in bed listening to the radio, a pair of thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) breaks in and holds the family hostage. Everyone is chloroformed, but Mrs. Lodge's system can't handle it, and Gardner is left a widower. When the home-invaders are caught and put in a police line-up, Nicky can't figure out why his father won't positively ID them. They have very recognizable faces, after all. Using the Coen Brothers' casting director, Ellen Chenoweth, Clooney populates the frame with the sort of memorable oddballs you see in their films, actors who seem like they're always being looked at through a wide-angle lens.
**½/**** starring Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds screenplay by Brian Selznick, based on his book directed by Todd Haynes
by Walter Chaw I like the way Todd Haynes's Wonderstruck moves. It glides from one vignette to the next, one setting to another, one era to a previous one. It shifts from a 1977-set Times Square scored by that Deodato disco remix of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the one Hal Ashby used for Chauncey's first stroll in Being There) to a silent movie where a deaf/mute girl (Millicent Simonds) looks for her mother (Julianne Moore), a silent film star who's apparently left her behind for the bright lights, big city. Based on Brian Selznick's children's novel, just like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Wonderstruck suffers from the same problem as Scorsese's film: mainly, that it's based on a kid's book that's mostly pictures and therefore plotted around a central twist neither surprising nor instructive. It is simultaneously too much for what it is, and not enough. I still like the way Wonderstruck moves, though, as Haynes stakes his claim again as the king of winsome nostalgia, telling the story of poor little Ben (Oakes Fegley), who's just lost his mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), but not before (in flashback) she's refused to tell Ben who his father is. She does, however, make him interested in David Bowie before she goes, so it could be worse.
****/**** starring Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis screenplay by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King directed by Andy Muschietti
by Walter Chaw There's a girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), she must be around thirteen or so, she's standing in front of a wall of tampons at the drugstore, trying to make a decision on her own because her dad (Stephen Bogaert) is alone, and a creep, you know, a little scary in how he keeps asking her if she's still his "little girl." So she has to do this by herself, even though it's embarrassing--but she's doing it. The next aisle over, a few boys, they call themselves "The Losers" because why not, everyone else does, are gathering medical supplies to help the new kid, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who's been cut up pretty bad by bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton). They need a distraction because they don't have enough money to pay, so Bevvie provides one, and now she's a "Loser," too. I read Stephen King's It in September of 1986, when I was thirteen. Thirteen exactly the age of its heroes in the "past" of the book, the flashback portion that's paralleled with the kids, as adults, called back to the Derry, ME of their youth, where they had forgotten that, once upon a time, they fought a thing and won. There is nothing better when you're thirteen than Stephen King. It was my favourite book for a while, although I didn't entirely understand why. I think I might now. Better, I believe Andy Muschietti, director of the underestimated Mama, and his team of three screenwriters, Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, understand that what works about It isn't the monster, but the fear of childhood as it metastasizes into the fear of adulthood--and how those two things are maybe not so different after all.
Armomurhaaja **½/**** written and directed by Teemu Nikki
by Bill Chambers Veijo (Matti Onnismaa) kills pets for people who can't afford to have them euthanized by a vet: Gas for the small ones, a bullet for the larger varieties. He feigns a mystical connection with animals to exact a steep price, though, shaming owners for being the potential cause of their furry friend's misery, like the young woman he chides for keeping her cat locked up in a tiny apartment. This doesn't stop some of his clients from using him as a glorified hitman, and when his dying father's nurse (Hannamaija Nikander) brings him a dog she "found" (i.e., liberated from its post outside a building) to contrive a reason to see him do his thing, his principles seem to take a backseat to indulging her kink. ("What did you see?" she asks him after he communes with the canine. "Enough," he replies. For the record, I think he's highly intuitive but not any kind of psychic.) Nevertheless, Veijo's sanctimony and desire to see animals shown mercy and humanity--when a veterinarian (Pihla Penttinen) questions the 'rightness' of his methods, he accuses her of prioritizing the maintenance of her lifestyle over the welfare of her patients--go a long way towards making palatable the endless stream of euthanasia (which, if it's any consolation, happens offscreen), and Onnismaa, a veteran character actor in his first lead role, summons real moral authority in playing him. Euthanizer finds a surprising amount of story in the cloistered milieu of a shop that's not bound to get a lot of repeat business, with Veijo earning the enmity of a small-time criminal whose dog he spares (and adopts), starting a sadomasochistic fling with the nurse, and torturing his father (Heikki Nousiainen) for past misdeeds by refusing to let him go gently into the night. It's ultimately the ruthless triangulation of a character who becomes suicidal over his own frailties when his righteous sense of justice eventually turns inwards. I think I've been starved for something like this, that presents a protagonist both unconventional and insightfully-developed--you get these kinds of antiheroes on TV but rarely in film, where the path to catharsis doesn't have to be agonizingly drawn out. (You get them even more rarely in American film, unless they're draped in capes.) But, not being possessed of that weather-beaten Finnish irony, I felt at a distinct disadvantage when confronted with the movie's grimy sense of humour, which is often borderline if not outright misogynistic. Some part of me couldn't wait to forget Euthanizer, and the film, for all the ghoulish residue of its subject matter, hasn't put up much of a fight. Programme: Contemporary World Cinema
***/**** starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw I watched Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water in a packed auditorium in Telluride, CO as a torrential rainstorm pounded the roof of what is, outside of the festival, an ice-skating rink, perched there with a park in front of it, the headwaters of the San Miguel to one side and the mountains to the other and all around. As the main character, cleaning lady Eliza (Sally Hawkins), turned on water for her bath, the cascading cacophony in the theatre joined in with a warm insularity I always equate with the Mandarin term for "cozy": two words that mean, or at least sound like they mean, "warm" and "noisy." The Shape of Water is like that, too, a gothic romance in the new del Toro style (after Crimson Peak, which, for me, was more noisy than warm, but mileage varies), which del Toro introduced as the evocation of a fantasy he had as a child upon watching Creature from the Black Lagoon in which the Creature falls in love with the girl and they live happily ever after. That's it, and were that truly it, The Shape of Water would be an instant classic rather than an acquired taste, perhaps--a future cult classic, certainly, that is forgiven for its odd digressions while justly-celebrated for its audacity. It's a triumph when it focuses in on the essential loneliness of misfits (the melancholic, Romanticist engine that drives del Toro's Hellboy movies), but in a subplot involving Russian spies, it becomes for long minutes time spent away from what works in favour of time spent with what doesn't. When del Toro has allowed intrusions like this in the past (see: his early masterpieces The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth), it's been up to us to infer the connection between his dark fables and his political concerns. Here he brings the subtext into text at a cost to the "warm/noisy" coziness of his work. For del Toro, insularity is a strength.
½*/**** starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman written by Simon Beaufoy directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
by Walter Chaw A movie that will make no one uncomfortable while reassuring the most blinkered that they've given at the office, Battle of the Sexes could be directed by anyone, star anyone, and it would still be exactly the same edgeless, meaningless, obsequious, instantly-obsolete artifact, desperate to be loved, expecting to be feted come awards season. It's the casserole recipe that won in 1950, and Emma Stone continues her terrifying run as Audrey Hepburn's career by ticking off her Children's Hour/LGBTQ-sensitivity check-box. Stone's blank, not "effortless" but rather "not trying" and "under-written" performance, is essentially a black wig, glasses, and a half-open pucker. Her Billie Jean King is a cipher who mouths platitudes about "equality" when what she really means is that she's a vacuous narcissist who steamrolls everyone trying to help her in a movie that is in fact as woman-hating as the men it sets up as straw...well, men. To be clear, Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match does not mean that women and men are "equal." It doesn't mean they're unequal, either. It actually means nothing. Indeed, that King, at the age of 29, in peak condition and at the pinnacle of her profession and training hard, beat a 55-year-old former world champion whom the film takes pains to reassure is not only not training, but also drinking and womanizing and popping mysterious pills while doing a full-blitz promotional campaign (he played the entire first set in a branded windbreaker), says the opposite, I think, of the intended message. Understand that at this point in the sport, in 2017, it's not controversial that women and men do not compete at the same level. You're getting mad, I can tell. This is Serena Williams, the undisputedly greatest woman tennis player in the history of the sport, in 2013 on "Late Night with David Letterman":
ZERO STARS/**** starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw Imagine if Tracy Flick, the energetic, demonic high-school overachiever in Alexander Payne's brilliant Election, were a Vietnamese exchange student, heavily and hilariously accented. That's one of the things wrong with Payne's excruciating downsizing, a film that takes his now-trademark twee misanthropy and mashes it up against this pretense of Swiftian social satire that sets the Sisyphus-like struggle of the bedraggled Everyman against a fatalistic backdrop of environmental apocalypse. It's a broad discourse on a lot of things: poverty and the failure of capitalism; the United States tearing itself apart along arbitrary class distinctions politicized into dramas of dominance and oppression. It's also about a filmmaker using science-fiction as a cudgel, swinging it about as disrespectfully as he does extreme racial caricaturing and destined to hold it up as a shield when whatever opposition comes rolling in to protest a film that mainstream publications out of Venice are already proclaiming some kind of contemporary masterpiece. It's like George Lucas all over again, but imagine if it were like Charlie Kaufman instead. For me, when you have an Asian character as problematic as Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a figure set up as both an object of derision and a holy relic, everything else is drowned out in that noise.
Go to the thrift store on the main street. There's always something there--old festival gear, glass-framed posters, sweatshirts (because it's never not colder here than you expect it to be). Especially go there at night after the trams stop running and you're walking in the pitch black on the side of a mountain. I've done this without a flashlight and with a dead cell phone and it's terrifying. Also, there's no air. Also, there are bears.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+ starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper directed by Ridley Scott
by Bryant Frazer It's rare that a perfect film is also financially lucrative. Ridley Scott's Alien is one such title--a scary movie that really cuts across demographic boundaries. Think of it as a science-fiction slasher flick or a deep-space old-dark-house thriller with a crew of likeably blue-collar mopes facing off against a shape-changing menace that's part axe murderer, part wild grizzly, and part serial rapist. It works because it's non-specific. But in the space of its 117 minutes, it finds what frightens you. Alien stands as a singular achievement. Still, because it was released in the age of the sequel, studio 20th Century Fox eagerly founded a franchise on it, and the series immediately begin deconstructing itself. James Cameron's Aliens was downright reactionary, replacing the first film's working-class heroes with a bunch of Heinlein-esque space marines, transforming its boogeyman into an opposing army of boogeymen, and saddling Ripley with motherly duties, blithely undoing Alien's celebrated subversion of such tropes. In Alien3, the game was truly on: Director David Fincher straight-up murdered Ripley's new nuclear family before powering the film's narrative towards a climactic conflagration depicting a Christ-like sacrifice and unalloyed abortion metaphor. This was much more in keeping with the subtextually-rich original--but it was decidedly audience-unfriendly. It took another five years for Joss Whedon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to stick a fork in the franchise; Alien: Resurrection was the first Alien movie that genuinely didn't seem to give a shit about Alien movies.
Seven Sisters **½/**** starring Noomi Rapace, Glenn Close, Pål Sverre Hagen, Willem Dafoe screenplay by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson directed by Tommy Wirkola
by Alice Stoehr The bad news manifests itself in a flurry of stock footage and newscasters' voices. "Too many people, not enough food," declares one near-future pundit. "It is the biggest crisis in human history," adds another. Dr. Nicolette Cayman, a politician so Thatcher-esque that Glenn Close plays her in pearls and a navy blue suit, helps Europe's now-federalized government institute a strict one-child policy. Her Gestapo-like Child Allocation Bureau (or "CAB") patrols city streets, threatening hidden siblings with indefinite cryogenic stasis. So far, so familiar. It's much like Soylent Green or Children of Men or any of a dozen other dystopian thrillers. But What Happened to Monday's knotty premise continues: What if, say, seven identical sisters grew up in this political climate? They could each leave the house exactly one day a week, each time assuming the same collective identity. And what if one of these sisters, while out and about, happened to disappear?
***/**** starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Daniel Craig written by Rebecca Blunt directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Angelo Muredda Steven Soderbergh returns from a self-imposed retirement of all of four years with Logan Lucky, a heist movie so steeped in its maker's creative and commercial history that it casually makes time in its climactic moments for a newscaster to dub its working-class heroes' shenanigans "Ocean's 7/11." Begging to be read as an unnecessary but enjoyable victory lap from a filmmaker who hasn't gone away so much as temporarily opted out of the rat race of alternating between formalist exercises, crowd-pleasers, and prestige pictures, Logan Lucky sees Soderbergh working in his most amiable register--and for the most part doffing his aesthetic predilection for piss-yellow lighting--while still cycling through his pet interests of late. A polymath by nature, as evidenced by his annual viewing logs, Soderbergh more or less successfully wields Logan Lucky into a charming sampler platter of his tastes, from hitting genre story beats faithfully to realizing the smallest procedural details and celebrating sincere Americana while bemoaning its toxic corporatization.
**½/**** starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie written by Mark Boal directed by Kathryn Bigelow
by Alex Jackson Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is painfully afraid of controversy. It's as though Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were given the assignment to make a film about the 1967 Algiers Motel incident and cringed their way through it, trying their best to alienate neither black nor white audiences. Hilariously, the end result has now become one of the most controversial films of the year. An essay by Jeanne Theoharis, Say Burgin, and Mary Phillips (a trio of academics in political science, history, and African American studies, respectively) recently published on the HUFFINGTON POST denounced it as "the most irresponsible and dangerous movie of the year." Angelica Jade Bastien of ROGEREBERT.COM states that she left the theatre in tears, not because of the violence so much as the "emptiness" behind the violence. And, of course, Armond White had to get his licks in, concluding, "Watching black people being brutalized seems to satisfy some warped liberal need to feel sorry." Looks like I was wrong! Black film critics, at least, seem to fucking hate this movie.
**/**** starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley screenplay by Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel directed by Nikolaj Arcel
by Walter Chaw If I cared or knew one thing about Stephen King's revered Dark Tower series, I'd probably really hate this movie in exactly the same way I initially hated Francis Lawrence's Constantine. I was a devotee of the Vertigo sub-line of DC comics through the early-'90s--the one that produced titles like Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman", Jamie Delano's "Animal Man", Grant Morrison's "Doom Patrol", and Delano/Garth Ennis's "Hellblazer", which of course formed the basis for Lawrence's picture. But I don't. Care about The Dark Tower, that is. For all that King once meant to me as a kid, it and The Stand were two of his epics I could never get into. I missed the window on Tolkien, too. And in not caring and in my complete ignorance, I like Nikolaj Arcel's The Dark Tower about as much as I like Constantine now, not needing the four or five years to come to terms with how it doesn't jibe with images and rhythms I'd conjured in my jealous nerd-dom. (I maintain, however, that if they were going to make Constantine a Yank, they should've cast Denis Leary.) In The Dark Tower, the main hero is a kid named Jake (Tom Taylor) who, one day, discovers that all those crazy dreams he's been having, which have led to all those creepy-kid drawings plastering his bedroom walls, are TRUE. Why won't you listen to Jake, adults? Obviously modelled after the kid in Last Action Hero, Jake dreams of a dark tower that is not Idris Elba that is under attack by the evil Man in Black, who is not Johnny Cash but is named Walter and is played by Matthew McConaughey. My favourite moment in the film is when Walter shows up in Jake's parents' kitchen, frying something on the stove, explaining apologetically that where he's from, there's no chicken.
*½/**** starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones screenplay Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnson and illustrated by Sam Hart directed by David Leitch
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Essentially No Way Out with less hot sex but better action sequences, David Leitch's Atomic Blonde is a lot of truly dreary Cold War spy intrigue interrupted periodically, but not often enough, by the good stuff. It proposes the antiquated notion that collusion with the Russians is treason in having heroic MI6 agent Lorraine (Charlize Theron--Mr. F after all, all this time) take ice baths and try to figure out who mysterious mole "Satchel" is in the last days of East Berlin. Her contact there is skeezy Percival (James McAvoy) whose handlers fear has gone a bit "feral" in the field. We're introduced to him trading Jim Beam and blue jeans for information and waking up with two girls (two!) to pick up Lorraine at the airport. There's also a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) who offers up a Sapphic love interest for Lorraine and ends up the way that lovers end up in spy movies. Leitch, an uncredited co-director on John Wick, brings the same style of kinetic, close-in martial arts and, eventually, gunplay of that film, but missteps badly by, among other things, making this about more than avenging a dead dog. Without an emotional charge--and there isn't enough of one generated by the loss of two of Lorraine's lovers--there's no real sense of emotion or energy in the action scenes. They're super cool, don't get me wrong (at least they are until Leitch decides at the very end to overuse slow motion), but they lack motivation and investment. But that's the least of Atomic Blonde's problems.
There Was a Little Girl **½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B- starring Trish Everly, Michael Macrae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Hart screenplay by Stephen Blakley, Ovidio G. Assonitis, Peter Shepherd and Robert Gandus directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis
by Sydney Wegner The final frames of Madhouse are a title card with a George Bernard Shaw quote: "...life differs from the play only in this...it has no plot, all is vague, desultory, unconnected till the curtain drops with the mystery unsolved." In that instant, in one of the most beautifully-executed "middle finger to my haters" moves in cinema, criticism of Ovidio G. Assonitis's 1981 clusterfuck is rendered irrelevant. Sneaking that in at the end rather than putting it at the beginning is doubly hilarious, as you've just spent an hour-and-a-half trying to grasp onto this ungraspable thing, only to have all your hard work flushed away in a second. If your movie doesn't make sense, it's because living doesn't make sense; case closed. Our own plots are never resolved, people flit in and out of our lives without us ever truly knowing them, our familial relationships are tangled and it's sometimes impossible to figure out where any animosity began, we think we understand people but it's rare that we truly do.
**½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C+ starring Scarlett Johansson, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche screenplay by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic "The Ghost in the Shell" by Shirow Masamune directed by Rupert Sanders
by Walter Chaw Emily Yoshida, in an article for THE VERGE addressing the outcry over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, has the last word on the topic as it pertains to anime in general and Mamoru Oshii's seminal original in particular (an adaptation of a popular manga to which most casual fans in the West won't have been exposed). She provides a stunning, succinct historical context for Japanese self-denial and the country's post-bellum relationship with technology, then writes a review of this film in which she systematically destroys it for its essential misunderstanding of the source material. I agree with every word. I learned a lot. And I still like the new film, anyway. I think Ghost in the Shell is probably fascinating in spite of itself and because the environment has made it dangerous for pretty much anyone to discuss what its critics (not Yoshida, per se) wish it did. I like it because its production design is beautiful and I like it even though it's basically a RoboCop port that takes the American attitude of being horrified by technology rather than the Japanese one of being largely defined by it. It's puritanical. It was interpreted, after all, by a country founded by Pilgrims. Ghost in the Shell often doesn't know what to do with the images it's appropriating, and when push comes to shove, the dialogue falls somewhere between noodling and empty exposition. Still, there's something worth excavating here.