Opening nationally this week are Steve Jobs, about a guy named Steve who's given personalized tasks; and Suffragette, about a T-shirt campaign gone horribly wrong. In case you missed these reviews the first time around, Walter Chaw covered both at Telluride.
*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras D starring Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts, Robin Wright Penn, Sissy Spacek screenplay by Michael Cunningham, based on his novel directed by Michael Mayer
by Walter Chaw Glib, facile, essentially misguided, and exhibiting a kind of misunderstanding about film craft that sends exactly the opposite of the intended message in every scene, Michael Mayer's directorial debut A Home at the End of the World is a trial from start to finish. It makes appalling soundtrack choices first in establishing period, then in demolishing mood, and finally in screwing up the chronology enough so that the viewer is left completely unmoored. If you're using a jovial Seventies soundtrack to place your film in the Seventies, it's a really bad idea to start using a classic Motown soundtrack when your picture actually moves forward in time. (Not even mentioning what a perverse boner it is to accompany the discovery of a dead father with "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.") Add to that a screenplay by The Hours scribe Michael Cunningham that displays the same kind of top-heavy, more or less off-base pretension and disdain for such outmoded values as loyalty and generosity, and what you have is a recipe for a very particular kind of disaster.
****/**** R-RATED Image B+ Sound A Extras B+ NC-17 Image A- Sound A Extras A- starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones screenplay by David Veloz & Richard Rutowski & Oliver Stone directed by Oliver Stone
by Walter Chaw Lodged in there like the apple in Gregor Samsa's back next to the spine of the American character is this corrupt speck of frontier spirit, transmogrified in the heat of late-'50s cynicism and irony by heartland bogies Ed Gein and Charles Starkweather--the veneration of them in our collective heart of darkness stoked by a long tradition of outlaw worship from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde. The cinematic children of Gein and Starkweather, erupting from the Eisenhower Eden of rocket ships and Cadillacs, range from epoch-shaking pictures like Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to New American Cinema masterpieces like Badlands and Take the Money and Run. The heartbeat of the zeitgeist can be kenned in this finger to this pulse, in the individualism we celebrate and the establishment against which we secretly nurse these little serpentine malignancies. Enter Oliver Stone, not so much the provocateur as a perverse, self-indulgent chronicler of that American disease--and why not Stone, who's only ever good when he's talking about the United States and only ever talking about the United States when he's talking about anything else. He takes the Starkweather case and fashions it, from a story by Quentin Tarantino, into a work of extreme, fanatical patriotism: Natural Born Killers.
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C starring Paul Gross, Molly Parker, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Outerbridge written and directed by Paul Gross
by Walter Chaw Closer in spirit to Mystery, Alaska than to the similarly Olympics-inspired Cool Runnings, Men with Brooms is an underdog sports intrigue mashed together with a bedroom farce--and neither dog-eared formula is handled with very much originality, while uncomfortable subplots concerning adultery, alcoholism, and healing father/son rifts (see also Hoosiers) vie for a level of pathos that always feels out of place in what is essentially The Bad News Bears (or The Replacements, or Slap Shot) for curling. Though it's extremely tempting to lay out an endless stream of titles for films that are essentially identical to Men with Brooms, time is better served just saying that the picture, the directorial debut of Canuck star Paul Gross, is a low-aspiring bit of nonsense that fits as comfortably as a cozy pair of ratty sneakers while stinking a little all the same.
In case you missed them, Walter Chaw has covered three of this weekend's biggest theatrical releases--the new Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), the new del Toro (Crimson Peak), and the new Give Brie Larson an Oscar (Room)--as well as the first major motion picture to debut on Netflix, Beasts of No Nation. Happy reading!
by Walter Chaw Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a mess and it knows it. It's unruly, barely contained, just this side of completely falling apart. There are many and distracting continuity errors, and though it makes a joke of it, it's clear immediately that the movie doesn't know how to start, much less end. It has an engaging, irrepressible heroine it strands at the moment she should be doing something ("Am I supposed to be...doing something?" she actually asks), and it has a visit to a memorabilia/collectibles store run by unusual proprietors that is packed to the girders with Brad Bird ephemera of the Iron Giant and Incredibles variety. Tomorrowland has hanging about it, in other words, all the elements of disaster: winky meta references, lack of narrative cohesion, desperation-born mistakes, bad screenwriter/Nick-Riviera-bad script doctor Damon Lindelof as Bird's co-author...and yet it's good somehow. Credit Bird, who knows his way around spatial relationships, and credit a simple, plaintive idea that the world can be better if we believe that it can be better. If the sign of a great filmmaker is his ability to make a bad actor seem good, Bird is a frickin' genius for making something Lindelof worked on not an utter catastrophe. It's big and simple and corny in a Lone Ranger, Captain America, Silver Age Superman kind of way--the kind of big and simple and corny I can get behind.
***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+ screenplay by John Musker & Ron Clements and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Portions of this review, including the first four paragraphs, were originally published on October 5, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Jeffrey Katzenberg may have revived the American animated feature while he was at Disney, but only one of the hits his reign yielded is worth a second viewing. Where 1989's The Little Mermaid and especially 1991's nauseating Beauty and the Beast tried to pass themselves off as Golden Age Disney (1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)-1950 (Cinderella), for argument's sake), before a certain stateliness loosened its grip on the house style, 1992's Aladdin took its cue from Uncle Walt's twilight years, the Sixties, when he was interested in telling--as he geared up to pass the torch, perhaps--mentor stories (The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book) and pop culture had finally caught up with his incongruous predilections for psychedelia and bohemianism. It's a risk to emulate the period considered the birth of the studio's Dark Ages, and Aladdin is the least spurious movie of Disney's renaissance because of it.
by Bill Chambers David Lindsay-Abaire is the poor man's Tom Stoppard and Jason Bateman smothered whatever vulgar charms his directorial debut Bad Words may have possessed in an incongruous autumnal burnish, but they have a neutralizing effect on each other: Together, the strained seriousness of the former and the preposterous seriousness of the latter (Bateman shoots this one like The Godfather) create a curiously palatable harmony. The Family Fang is every inch The Skeleton Twins or some other brother-sister Sundance yarn but with a wonderfully specific source for the siblings' dysfunction: raised by performance artists, they were from a young age incorporated into their parents' notorious act, which tended to prey upon the sympathies of innocent bystanders. (In a very funny early flashback, for example, they stage a mock bank robbery that ends in the alleged shooting death of matriarch Camille Fang (Kathryn Hahn here, Maryann Plunkett in present day).) As adults, Buster (Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman, looking supernaturally restored to her Peacemaker days) have distanced themselves from their past and channelled any lingering impulses towards exhibitionism into the more legitimate avenues of writing and acting, respectively. When Buster is shot in the head with a potato (don't ask), he is summoned home and drags Annie with him to serve as a buffer. Back in the family nest, father Caleb (Christopher Walken) immediately tries to rope them into a "piece," but not only have they moved on--so has society at large, now too insular to be a viable canvas for the Fangs' art. Walken's fury as he quits a prank involving counterfeit coupons is poignant; one senses a touch of the actor's own frustration with the world no longer appreciating his unique genius.
by Bill Chambers Based on the Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name, Freeheld is the true story of policewoman Laurel Hester and mechanic Stacie Andree, who in the recent past, before the legalization of gay marriage, waged a public battle against Ocean County, NJ legislature when it denied the dying Hester the right to leave her pension to domestic partner Andree. Julianne Moore, enduring a protracted screen death for the second year in a row, plays Laurel beneath a cloche of Farrah Fawcett hair and Ellen Page, who produced, plays Stacie, and, um...when Back to the Future recast Marty McFly's love interest after recasting Marty McFly himself, this is the sort of aesthetic mismatch they were trying to avoid. (When we see the real Hester and Andree at the end of the picture (I know, I know), they interlock in a way that Page and Moore simply do not.) Laurel catches Stacie's eye during a volleyball game and they begin dating. Within a year, they've bought a house together, though Laurel's personal life remains a closely-guarded secret at work and it is only with some reluctance that she comes out to partner Dane (Michael Shannon). Laurel's fears of being ostracized seem justified once her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer is met with hollow sympathy by the county's Republican freeholders, who give more weight to her sexual orientation than to her years of service on the force in refusing to recognize Stacie as the lawful heir to Laurel's benefits. Soon the LGBT activist group Garden State Equality, led by the very gay, very Jewish Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell, in a likely polarizing, Michael Scott-ish turn), rallies around Laurel, and Dane defies his homophobic colleagues in doing same, because putting your life on the line for your partner is after all part of the job. The crux of the picture is that Laurel and Stacie are as authentic a couple as any heterosexual marrieds, but the bowdlerization of their relationship with that "One Year Later" intertitle--its essential distillation into two poles (meet-cute and cancer)--slams shut a pivotal window of opportunity to really demonstrate this. They're abstractions here, and consequently one gets out of the film about what one would from a broad retelling of the facts--which Freeheld kind of is, owing to Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner's cowboys-and-Indians style of dramatization. (His portrayal of prejudice is still so quaintly direct.) A long way from the vérité sensitivity of his Raising Victor Vargas, director Peter Sollett nevertheless gives good Capra; the film is deliriously entertaining and almost, with some relief, a comedy, as it finds joy in the friction between opposites. Programme: Gala Presentations
by Bill Chambers Max Landis follows up his American Ultra script with another action comedy about slick killing machines but abandons the Manchurian Candidate backstory in a grotesquely cynical fashion: When Sam Rockwell throws knives at new girlfriend Anna Kendrick to prove she can catch them, his conviction is based on nothing more substantial than her being the star of this particular show. Over and over, Mr. Right acknowledges that it's a cartoon, and not in an enjoyably meta, Duck Amuck sort of way--more in a "you don't care, so why should we?" sort of way. If American Ultra was The Bourne Identity meets take-your-pick-of-stoner-comedies, incidentally, then this is Grosse Pointe Blank with the quirk dialled up to toxic, nay, radioactive levels. Kendrick's on-the-rebound Martha, introduced in a childhood flashback making T-Rex gestures that prove her sole defining trait, meets-cute Rockwell's Francis over a super-slo-mo spill in the condom aisle. (Should the title not stick, may I suggest We Rented a Phantom Camera as one alternative?) Francis is a quasi-reformed hitman in a Patch Adams clown nose who's trying to set the cosmos straight by offing his former clients; Tim Roth, James Ransone, Anson Mount, the RZA, and others are the Dan Aykroyds hot on his trail and from whose clutches he will inevitably have to rescue Martha. Rockwell looks young for 47, but his nearly thirty-year career in film creates--for me, at least--an insurmountable age gap when casting him as the star of Pitch Perfect's love interest. They have decent chemistry, mostly thanks to Kendrick's enveloping charisma, yet it feels like just another example of Mr. Right presuming no real discernment on the part of the viewer. Every scene is glibly cute and throbbing with misanthropy, with Roth's "oof, that had to hurt!"-style colour commentary as Francis effortlessly wipes out an entire tactical team an early low point. If this doesn't disabuse any notion that Landis is the next Tarantino, hack lines like "I'm here all week, try the veal" ought to do the trick. Programme: Gala Presentations
by Bill Chambers Written by the son of Norman Bates and directed by a protégé of the late Wes Craven, The Girl in the Photographs is an illusorily-pedigreed resurrection of the slasher genre featuring scattered compositional glories courtesy of legendary DP Dean Cundey, returning to horror for the first time since, what, Psycho II? The picture opens with its Janet Leigh (horror muse Katharine Isabelle)--literally named Janet--being abducted from her home by a pair of masked fiends (one's a harlequin, the other a Trash Humper) who eventually leave a photo of her corpse on the bulletin board of a Piggly Wiggly-type store in the real but barely-capitalized-on town of Spearfish, South Dakota, which according to this film has a police force so lame that aspiring murderers might consider moving there. Cute if morose checkout girl Colleen (Claudia Lee) finds the pic and recognizes in it an American Apparel homage (they don't call it American Apparel, though--this is the kind of movie where THE NEW YORKER becomes "The Manhattan," i.e., a cheap one), leading somehow to the intervention of a would-be Terry Richardson (Kal Penn, first unrecognizable, then insufferable) and his travelling band of dead-eyed models. The identity of the young villains (played by Luke Baines and Corey Schmitt) isn't a mystery--their motive, arguably less so. They are dime-store boogeymen who keep most of their victims caged, feeding them cans of generic cat food purchased right under Colleen's nose. The Girl in the Photographs appears to have a bee in its bonnet about the ease and ubiquity of photography in contemporary society, since it's all but created yin yang sociopaths in the killers and Penn's Peter Hemmings; but the usual hypocrisies of exploitation get in the way. The final third is a downmarket Scream (it even seems to be shot in the Scream 4 house), squandering Cundey on an imitation of a film that heavily bore his influence while denying him the technical and collaborative resources to get out from beneath his own shadow. Programme: Midnight Madness
Where to Invade Next. (pictured) **½/**** written and directed by Michael Moore
NINTH FLOOR **/**** written and directed by Mina Shum
by Bill Chambers The narrative pretext for Michael Moore's globetrotting that lends Where to Invade Next its title is so low-concept, jokey, and finally immaterial as to be the documentary equivalent of the cable repairman arriving at the beginning of a porno. After a solid five minutes of trolling the Right with an inventory of recent conflicts that makes the United States look at once war-happy and, despite its exorbitant military spending, not very good at the whole war thing, Moore satirically sets off on a mission--shabby haircut, gummy smile, and Tigers cap (sometimes in camo green) intact--to find a good place for America's next big skirmish. What he's really doing is touring the world in search of proven ideologies his own tailspinning country would do well to adopt. In Italy and Germany, he discovers a happy, fruitful middle class in factories, of all places. In France, he encounters a gradeschool cafeteria where the chef opts for fruit-and-cheese platters over burgers and fries and the children regard Moore's can of Coke dubiously. In Slovenia, he can't find a single university student in debt until he happens on an American transplant who owes money back home. In Iceland, he becomes enamoured of an emergent matriarchy, which might be why he recedes as an on-camera presence: to curb the irony of his film mansplaining women in leadership to us.
***/**** starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Vincent Rottiers, Claudine Vinasithamby screenplay by Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard directed Jacques Audiard
by Bill Chambers "Well, not exactly," a critic acquaintance gently scoffed after I shrugged that Dheepan was "y'know, Taxi Driver." ("So Dheepan is basically the second time Taxi Driver's won the Palme d'or," I snarked on the Twitter.) He's a grinder, and I respect the hell out of grinders--the ones who see everything and interview everybody and indefatigably churn out coverage: They are the heavyweight champions of the film-festival circuit. But they are a literalminded bunch (they have to be, for efficiency's sake), and the Taxi Driver parallels are admittedly by no means 1:1. In Dheepan, three refugees of a Sri Lankan military conflict form a makeshift family out of stolen identities in order to start a new life abroad. They land in France, where "Dheepan" (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) scores a job as the caretaker of an apartment complex, finds "wife" Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) work as a housekeeper to one of the building's tenants, and enrols 9-year-old "daughter" Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) in public school. Yalini, still in the prime of her youth, bristles at having to maintain the charade, particularly the fact that she's become an insta-mom, with Dheepan direly overestimating her maternal instincts and capacity for sentiment. Of all the women he could've been paired with, he got Kelly Kapoor.
BLACK */**** directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
Wir Monster, a.k.a. Cold Days **/**** directed by Sebastian Ko
KEEPER (pictured) ***/**** directed by Guillaume Senez
by Bill Chambers My random sampling of #TIFF15's Discovery programme yielded a loose trilogy of bildungsromane. The most 'problematic' of these, as the kids say, is Black, a West Side Story redux set on the surprisingly mean streets of Brussels, where rival gangs of Moroccan and (I think) Congolese immigrants antagonize the locals and each other. Marwan (charming Aboubakr Bensaihi) and Mavela (gorgeous Martha Canga Antonio) meet-cute in police custody. He's Moroccan, she hangs with "the Black Bronx," whose name very purposely evokes American ghettos for that soupçon of danger. When he hits on her, she asks him how he'd feel if his sister brought a black man home; Marwan admits there's a double standard, then reassuringly points out they're both African. Within days they're a couple on the DL, whispering dreams of an honest future together. Alas, Mavela becomes inextricably tethered to the Black Bronx when she baits a female member of Marwan's posse to their clubhouse to be gangraped, then endures the same torment herself after they find out about her affair with Marwan. Note that the first rape happens offscreen while Mavela's does not, and though I don't condone any rape scene, there is something ultra-nauseating about graphically violating the Maria/Juliet figure, like when Edith Bunker endured a rape attempt: It breaks some socio-artistic contract we have with our most wholesome archetypes. It didn't make me hate her attackers so much as it made me hate the filmmakers.
by Walter Chaw The best parts of Mad Max: Fury Road (hereafter Fury Road) are, as it happens, those that are most like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The parts about civilization rising from the ruins of an atomic war; the parts about misplaced hope and how unlikely alliances can sometimes speak to the human tendency towards faith and the possibility of eternity. The series was always about the myth of the lone hero, striding into whatever situation and facilitating a return to a prelapsarian (pre-poc-y-clypse?) state before disappearing again. Shane, for instance, where a child's development--or in the case of Thunderdome, a great many children's development--has been mythologized as the intervention of a mysterious stranger who appears from nowhere and returns there. Max is a metaphor. For courage, heart, intelligence, the yearning for home; he touches in turn each of The Wizard of Oz's quartet of self-actualization while keeping the Wizard behind the curtain. If there's a specific modern mythology to which this series most obviously hews, it's the Arthur myth, and in Thunderdome, when asked if he's the return of the fabled Captain Walker, Max responds that he isn't. But we know that he is.