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.