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.
***/**** starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight directed by Mel Gibson
by Walter Chaw Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson are our two most prominent plainly and explicitly Catholic directors. Because Scorsese is the kind of Catholic he is, his films are about questioning faith. Because Mel Gibson is insane, his films aren't. As a result of that, and somewhat unexpectedly, Gibson is the single best case for the auteur theory working in the United States. As the originator and chief benefactor of The Passion of the Christ (the best and worst film of 2004), he can officially make whatever movie he wants, and with Hacksaw Ridge (and Apocalypto before that) he's gone ahead and done just that. Mel Gibson is the single best case for a lot of things. In Hacksaw Ridge, he tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a troubled, severely-abused young Virginian who enlists in WWII as a conscientious objector, refusing to touch a gun, dedicating himself to saving folks as a combat medic. It's essentially a superhero origin story opening the same weekend as another (Dr. Strange)--both films dealing with faith and the consequences of betraying said faith. In Dr. Strange, directed by openly Christian Scott Derrickson, bargaining with morality results in dreadful and unforeseen consequences. In Hacksaw Ridge, because Gibson's religious fervour burns so bright and erratic, all such niceties and ambiguity burn away in allegorical hellfire and literal rains of blood. He's long threatened a sequel to Passion. Here, he's delivered one.
***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras C starring Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, based on the "Tarzan" stories created by Edgar Rice Burroughs directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw David Yates's The Legend of Tarzan is at once a long-overdue, if massively-fictionalized, biopic of George Washington Williams's time in the Congo observing colonial Belgium's abuses of the rubber, ivory, and diamond trades; and it's an adaptation, nay, updating of Edgar Rice Burroughs's first five Tarzan books, with heavy creative license taken but the spirit kept largely intact. Although it's more successful as the latter than as the former, both endeavours are carried through with seriousness and intelligence. It's not a perfect film: the editing is terrible, particularly during the action sequences, suggesting this was probably a longer movie truncated out of fear of diluting the "good" bits. I also don't love the washed-out colour palette that paints everything in a blue gloom--at least not as much as Yates seems to, between this and the last four Harry Potter films. And it bears mentioning that Samuel L. Jackson isn't really an actor anymore and that Margot Robbie arguably never has been. Yeah, The Legend of Tarzan is hard to defend objectively. It does, however, understand the appeal of the Tarzan mythos, answering in grand moments why it is that he's found his way into over 200 motion pictures and dozens more serials and television series (live-action and animated). I should disclaim, too, that I read (re-read, in some cases) all 24 original Burroughs Tarzan novels in the weeks leading up to the picture's release. In other words, I'm a big, giant pulp nerd.
**/**** Image B Sound A- Extras B+ starring Rick Burks, Carl Crew, Roger Dauer, LaNette La France written by Michael Sonye directed by Jackie Kong
by Bryant Frazer So bad it's good? I wouldn't go that far. But Blood Diner is definitely something--a no-frills pastiche of 1950s disembodied-brain sci-fi potboiler, 1960s Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, 1970s cannibal-cuisine flick, and early-1980s buddy-cop movie. I'm tempted to say it stitches together a Frankenstein's patchwork of genre movies because it has no vision of its own, but that's too glib. If nothing else, 20-something Asian-American director Jackie Kong (Night Patrol) loves L.A.: she wrapped all of those genre influences around a love letter to the city's underground music scene circa 1987, casting punk rockers and rockabilly singers as extras, bit players, and movie stars in a story about a pair of pretty-boy sibling serial killers who run a popular foodie destination on Hollywood Boulevard where the vegetarian dishes are, unbeknownst to patrons, boosted by the presence of human flesh in the recipe.
*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras D+ starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by David F. Sandberg directed by David F. Sandberg
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. This year's Brian Helgeland Award, named in honour of the man who wrote the Oscar- and Golden Raspberry-winning L.A. Confidential and The Postman, respectively, in the same year, goes to Eric Heisserer, who has somehow written one of the year's best movies about motherhood, Arrival, and one of its worst, Lights Out. Lights Out is not a good movie about anything, really (save perhaps the value of crank flashlights); as with the Heisserer-penned remakes of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Lights Out screenplay is joylessly aspirational in the way of a personal assistant doing menial chores to accumulate credit--the thankless task in this case adapting David F. Sandberg's simple but effective micro-short of the same name. That director Sandberg opted not to write it himself implies the short was intended as a calling-card rather than a proof-of-concept, and his direction of the feature hardly evolves its meat-and-potatoes style. He created a monster and now he's riding its coattails; what Lights Out desperately needs is someone with a vision for the film, not just a career.
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B+ starring Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, John Terlesky, Dick Miller written by Jim Wynorski & Steve Mitchell directed by Jim Wynorski
by Bryant FrazerChopping Mall is not the shopping-centre slasher-movie its title suggests. Here's what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from "Doctor Who" and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke.
***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
by Walter Chaw Bridging the gap between Charlie Kaufman movies, the Daniels' Swiss Army Man is one high-concept conceit carried through to every possible ontological end. It veers, dizzily, between slapstick scatalogical comedy and poignant existential philosophy, doing so with the sort of invention generally credited to silent-film clowns. Open with Hank (Paul Dano), shipwrecked, about to hang himself when he notices the corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore. He looks for signs of life. There aren't any, save the rapid decomposition that's causing Manny to fart. A lot. Manny's farts carry Hank back to civilization, in fact, in a trailer-spoiled motorboat sequence that would be indescribable were it not right there. Like so many things in the film, it's not clear that this is "actually" happening or just a fantasy of Hank's before dying. By the middle of the picture, it's apparent that challenging the border between the cinema real and the cinema imagined is the point. If it destroys that conversation, it allows for a better one about the nature of friendship and honesty, whether it's possible to ever truly be open with another human being and, if it is, whether it would be something welcomed or rejected. Unconditional acceptance is a charming romantic fantasy, but that's all it is.
***½/**** starring Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas written by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard directed by Mike Flanagan
by Walter Chaw Because distribution is the ridiculous trash fire it is sometimes, Mike Flanagan, through circumstance, misadventure, and good old-fashioned industriousness, had three films ready for release in 2016: Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil (hereafter Ouija 2). I've only seen Hush and Ouija 2 thus far--it looks like Before I Wake has been delayed yet again--but I can say that when taken with his first two films, the moody Absentia and the excellent Oculus, Flanagan is already at the forefront of the new American horror revolution. His movies are drum-tight. He isn't afraid of the high-concept. He makes smart use of minimal exposition and narrative ellipsis, and he embraces the inexplicable and the uncanny. Better, there is at work in Flanagan's pictures this undercurrent of grief, tied together with the thought that perhaps these intimations of immortality are bound snug with the dementing tortures of unimaginable loss. The supernatural is mainly considered, after all, upon the death of loved ones, and so it is that Ouija 2's Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) makes a living with her two young daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), as a fake spirit medium giving succour to the recently bereaved.
*/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras D starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Morgan Freeman screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt and Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John directed by Babak Najafi
by Walter Chaw It's a corker. Playing exactly like another instalment in the "Call of Duty" FPS videogame franchise, Iranian-born Babak Najafi's London Has Fallen is a gobsmacking, jingoistic, political exploitation horror-thriller that traffics in contemporary paranoia with unusually exuberant brutality. It loves killing people. Loves it. The picture's packed full of xenophobia and all the other insidious forms of fear infecting our modern apocalypse: hatred of the Other, terror of invasion, terror of the self. It fashions what is essentially another 28 Days Later sequel by recasting the rage zombies as Islamic Fundamentalists, simultaneously creating in the process a recruitment video for bellicose young men in the West wanting to kill Arabs--and one for bellicose young men in the Middle-East wanting to kill Americans. Tidy. London Has Fallen is propaganda with a budget, a few recognizable faces, and some directing chops to boot. I'm equally glad and appalled it exists. I wish I were more surprised that it does.
Histoire immortelle ***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+ starring Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, Orson Welles written by Orson Welles, from a short story by Karen Blixen directed by Orson Welles
by Bryant Frazer It's one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man's obsession with storytelling. It's not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there's a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it's intermittently remarkable despite its modesty.
*/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A+ starring Ted Vernon, Michael Simms, Victoria Christian, Richard Vidan written by Richard Jefferies and William Wesley directed by William Wesley
by Walter Chaw Terrible in that plucky way that earnest shoestring products can be terrible, William Wesley's Scarecrows has a few memorable gore moments and a lot of bad dialogue, execrable performances, and senseless exposition. I saw this movie on VHS in high school as part of my weekend ritual of renting a shelf and staying up all night shotgunning the dregs. This led to a few remarkable discoveries, of course--and it led to discoveries like this as well. The hook of Scarecrows is a strong one, taking the somehow-underutilized image of the scarecrow in the horror genre and making a grand bogey of it, but the result is essentially a zombie-cum-spam-in-a-cabin flick featuring a paramilitary group fresh off a heist engaged in a supernatural backcountry rigmarole. Still, the film's greatest crime isn't a bad premise but that it's boring. Really boring. Mainly it's boring because every character acts like an idiot at all times, making it hard to muster much in the way of stakes. That's also why Scarecrows isn't scary or tense, and because I think it wasn't long enough and they ran out of money, there are tons of filler close-ups of scarecrows just sort of, you know, hanging there. Kuleshov or something.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras F starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively written and directed by Woody Allen
by Angelo Muredda Woody Allen can't seem to make two consecutive films worth thinking about. Despite an abysmal trailer, pre-emptively dismantled online as insensitive or worse amidst revelations about his personal crimes, 2015's Irrational Man proved a surprisingly gritty respite from Allen's nostalgic euro-tourist cinema of the Aughts. True to its maker's aversion to progress, though, its follow-up Café Society is practically a jukebox-musical treatment of Allen's old (which is to say tired) hits, from the ennui L.A. inspires in native (which is to say white) New Yorkers to the beauty of other periods that aren't the present to romances strained under the weight of vast age discrepancies. Beautifully-lensed and defiantly dumb, it's another testament to Allen's surprisingly incremental growth as a filmmaker in his seventies, at the same time as he continues to atrophy as a writer.
Givertaker **½/**** (d. Paul Gandersman) A nice, compact cautionary tale featuring a novice witch who takes vengeance on her buddies only to find there are Shadowmen living under other people's beds. I wish the lore were better developed, but it's paced beautifully and the young cast is game and lively. I wanted more, and I don't often feel that way.
THE BAD BATCH **½/**** starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
COLOSSAL **/**** starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo
JACKIE ***½/**** starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt screenplay by Noah Oppenheim directed by Pablo Larrain
by Bill Chambers Three very different #TIFF16 films--a postapocalyptic cannibal western (The Bad Batch), a modestly-scaled kaiju eiga (Colossal), and a period docudrama (Jackie)--form a trilogy in my mind thematically linked by crestfallen female protagonists who discover reserves of strength in dire situations. The Bad Batch is the only one of these movies directed by a woman, though, and dare I say you can tell, not only in how the camera softly caresses Jason Momoa's Olympian contours, but also in the way the framing and blocking of the heroine imply the constant peril of being a woman. Working through the neophyte filmmaker's genre playbook, director Ana Lily Amirpour follows up her vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with this dystopian flick most reminiscent of the Australian strain in terms of vibe/aesthetics, what with its shantytown sets, symbolic names, and obligatory feral child. (The only thing missing is a car fetish.) Winsome Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is exiled to the other side of some Trumpian fence in Texas with only the clothes on her back and a tattoo that identifies her as an undesirable (or bad batch). Almost immediately she's dragged away to a cannibal camp, where they chop off her right arm. Missing a leg, too, by the time she escapes, she finds refuge--and prosthetic limbs--in the village of Comfort, whose denizens mostly give her space. Time and body-image issues stoke her desire for revenge, however, putting her on a collision course with Momoa's Miami Man, a brilliant sketch artist who's also a fearsome, unsympathetic consumer of human flesh.
Ah-ga-ssi ****/**** starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Moon So-ri screenplay by Chung Seo-Kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters directed by Park Chan-wook
by Walter Chaw I love Stoker, Korean master Park Chan-wook's updating of Shadow of a Doubt that centres on "young Charlie's" sexual awakening and all the perverse tensions attending that moment in a brittle upper-middle-class Nashville. Married to the swooning, hypnotic camerawork that has been the hallmark of Park's collaboration with DP Chung Chung since Oldboy, it has about it the perversity of a Victorian chamber drama squeezed through the filter of a very Korean take on class and sex--attitudes partly shaped by living in the shadow of one of the two or three most unstable regimes in the world. Stoker is a haunted-house movie without ghosts; a vampire movie without vampires. Its hero is a young woman who dons the raiment of the patriarchy at the end, lets blood on a field of flowers (one of a series of literal and metaphorical deflowerings), and stalks into the world fully-formed and dangerous. Park is best known for his "Vengeance Trilogy," of course, but it's the last film of that cycle, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, that finds itself faced with the kind of moral dilemma that has marked Park's work since. It's arguable that before it, Park was an exploitation filmmaker. A conversant, brilliant exploitation filmmaker, but an exploitation filmmaker just the same. Lady Vengeance, however, deals with the ethics of violence and the toll of retribution on the avengers. It's smart as hell, beautiful to look at, nigh unwatchable. I mean that as praise, for it should be.