A brief but self-indulgent post to notify that "Bunga," the latest episode of my (poorly) animated side-project "The Monster Show", recently went up on YouTube--in 1080p!--if you feel like checking it out. You can also catch up with previous instalments here.
***½/**** starring Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke written and directed by Richard Linklater
by Angelo Muredda "I was somebody's daughter, and then I was somebody's fucking mother," Patricia Arquette's Olivia complains early on in Richard Linklater's uncommonly rich, deceptively titled Boyhood. Though it's been rightly celebrated for its guerrilla shoots and nomadic production history--depicting an adolescent's maturation from six to eighteen by reassembling the cast once a year, more or less in secret, for a few days at a time--Boyhood might be most impressive as a reflection on the impossibility of fully capturing what happens in all those "and thens" that constitute a life. An impressionistic masterwork, Boyhood is arguably both Linklater's most ambitious project and his most easygoing, revelling in the amorphousness of his conceit as well as the freedom it allows him to putter around in the unformed material of his characters' still-unfolding lives.
La Vénus à la fourrure ***½/**** starring Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric screenplay by David Ives, based on his play directed by Roman Polanski
by Walter Chaw If it's stagebound, Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur, an adaptation of David Ives's play that is itself an adaptation in part of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel, is at least not stagebound without a purpose. It reminds of Adaptation. in its awareness of itself as an object open to deconstruction (and Derrida is mentioned in the text to make it metacritical in that sense as well); the fact that it's a play captured on film only underscores its conceit. Venus in Fur is also a career summary for the octogenarian director at a point where his contemporaries are declining steeply in their dotage. Spry and clever, surprisingly funny at times, and at all times indisputably alive, it finds Polanski's themes of gender subversion in high dunder, opening with a quote from the Apocryphal Book of Judith where the titular heroine seduces enemy general Holofrenes and decapitates (read: emasculates/castrates) him as he reclines in post-coital bliss. Polanski casts an actor who could be his younger doppelgänger, Mathieu Amalric, and opposite him in this two-person drama Polanski's own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner--transparent, vulnerable, courageous casting that reminds very much of Hitchcock in his late masterpiece period. Venus in Fur is Polanski's Marnie: a grand survey of all of his sexual peccadilloes that works as apologia, confession, and explication, eventually conveying Polanski's acceptance of himself as deeply flawed, but better for the wisdom.
***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A- starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins screenplay by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel directed by Darren Aronofsky
by Walter Chaw Unapologetic, curious, atavistic in its single-mindedness and simplicity, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is more impactful in the rearview than in the moment. It's got a hell of a wake. The film is beautiful to look at, it almost goes without saying--as grand and ambitious as its ideas, with one sequence depicting what appears to be the case for intelligent design. It's truly audacious. In many ways the movie The Fountain wanted to be in terms of scale (and featuring another Clint Mansell score that sounds every bit like a continuation of themes), Noah is a deeply insane interpretation of one of the Bible's briefest (essentially Genesis 5:32-10:1), most contentious, most instantly-relatable and hence most-beloved of all Old Testament stories. I can only speculate what the Christian response will be (somewhere between mine and Glenn Beck's assignation of it as the "Babylonian Chainsaw Massacre" is my guess), but for an atheist who counts many strong Christians among his friends, this interpretation is full of the menace and wonder that scripture must hold for the devout. It's a stirring creation mythology in that it makes no bones about the interference in the affairs of men by a vengeful God. Likewise, it makes no apologies for the atrocities it represents in its visions of suffering and sin. (I can only imagine what Aronofsky's Sodom would look like.) Noah even finds time for a dialogue about religious fundamentalism and what happens when absolute faith becomes rationale for atrocity. It's a story about the annihilation of 99.9% of human life on the planet that's ultimately about the value of compassion, and it's a critical read of divine texts that skew in that direction. After a series of films attempting to explain the ways of the divine to the mundane, here's hoping for an Aronofsky adaptation at last of "Paradise Lost": a most comfortable marriage of material and artist.
****/**** starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback directed by Matt Reeves
by Walter Chaw Matt Reeves's remarkable Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter Dawn) isn't the best sequel since The Empire Strikes Back, but it is the best sequel since The Dark Knight. It's uncomplicated but beautifully executed--so pure and genuinely-felt that its conclusions about the unavoidable zero-sum game of tribalism land as not didactic but poetic. That certain sense of Tennyson bleeds into the overgrown post-apocalyptic landscape, all torpid acedia in its human ruins and in a tree-bound ape village that represents a sort of circular hopelessness. We recognize it as the beginning of a successor civilization that is unfortunately exactly like the beginnings of the civilization on which it's being built. Dawn's best trick is in balancing our sympathies in this way. We cast our lot with heroic Caesar (Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture performance that is one of the great silent-movie turns, ever), who's pushing against a Cheney-manqué in Koba (Toby Kebbell). Caesar gratifies our instinct for the underdog: it's easier to identify with Adam than with Nero. And then Reeves shifts to a human refuge and populates it with people, specifically Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), working on a peaceful solution against the more bellicose and paranoid of their number (Kirk Acevedo and Gary Oldman). No fair guessing which philosophy wins out--it's the only one that ever seems to.
*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras D+ starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, Russell Crowe screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin directed by Akiva Goldsman
by Walter ChawCloud Atlas for the early buffet crowd, Akiva Goldsman's unsurprisingly dreadful Winter's Tale hits every single number in the legendary shipwreck lotto, vacillating wildly between unwatchable dreck and oddly-compelling unwatchable dreck. That it's badly-written is no shocker, given that it's Goldsman; the treat this time is that the awful script is matched by a horrific first-time director (Goldsman, too) whose dream it was to adapt an essentially unadaptable magic-realist novel by Mark Helprin that offers the again not-shocking glad-handing Carlos Castenada philosophy of healing light and Manifest Destiny. Just like Cloud Atlas, it's killed most any desire I may have held to read the source material (which I'm sure is a pity), but unlike Cloud Atlas it resists employing yellowface to make its point. That's an improvement. Not an improvement is casting Will Smith as a monologue-delivering Lucifer--yes, that Lucifer; Eva Marie Saint as a 110-year-old woman; and young Jessica Brown Findlay, a casualty of "Downton Abbey", who boasts the sucking void of the vacuous and the genuinely uncharismatic. To be fair, she doesn't get a lot to work with.
*½**** Image B- Sound B- Extras C starring Cecile Bagdadi, Joel Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins written and directed by Jimmy Huston
by Bryant Frazer Beware the toothless horror film--it's no fun being gummed to death. That's how you feel, more or less, by the climax of Final Exam, a low-budget Halloween knock-off crossed with a dopey frat-boy comedy. Written and directed by Jimmy Huston, who had made a series of southern-fried features for the drive-in circuit with North Carolina-based actor-producer Earl Owensby, Final Exam is a vintage programmer about a handful of students on a mostly-deserted college campus and a serial killer slicing his way through them, essentially at random.
COBRA (1986) */**** Image C+ Sound C Extras D starring Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Andrew Robinson screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, based on the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling directed by George P. Cosmatos
THE SPECIALIST (1994) */**** Image B+ Sound B+ starring Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Eric Roberts screenplay by Alexandra Seros directed by Luis Llosa
ASSASSINS (1995) *½/**** Image A- Sound B starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore, Anatoly Davydov screenplay by Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski and Brian Helgeland directed by Richard Donner
by Walter Chaw As easy as it is to dismiss Sylvester Stallone as your everyday, run-of-the-mill swinging dick, another in the pantheon of Eighties-into-Nineties box-office meatsticks assembled anew by Sly in his Expendables franchise, it becomes clear in retrospect that Stallone has his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist in his most personal projects, if not always in his contract jobs. Although an obvious and atrocious failure whose Stallone-authored screenplay, the end-product of a series of rewrites Stallone took it upon himself to inflict on Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra manages still to deliver a few smart genre mash-up moments, a few topical reflections of late-'80s crime-wave paranoia. Sandwiched in there right between his second and third Rambo films and fourth and fifth Rockys, Cobra is the kind of vanity piece that appears now and again in Stallone's repertoire to distract attention away from all the other stuff that only looks like a vanity project. Stallone is sneaky in a very particular way. As a sociologist, intentional or not, he is absolutely brilliant, and just on the strength of his Rocky and Rambo pictures, he's managed as good a diary of the fears and hopes of the last twenty years as any other body of work from any other single artist. He's the Bruce Springsteen of popular cinema. Bruce produced a lot of crap, too.
Image A Sound A+ Extras B- "The Long Bright Dark," "Seeing Things," "The Locked Room," "Who Goes There," The Secret Fate of All Life," "Haunted Houses," "After You've Gone," "Form and Void"
by Jefferson Robbins SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. On the original 2003 recording of The Handsome Family's "Far from Any Road," husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks intertwine their voices sinuously, trading the song's lonesome-death verses on equal footing. Her part pared down for the mesmeric opening credits of HBO's "True Detective", Rennie's whisper becomes a sudden intrusion, jarring both the lyrical and visual narrative. It's a hint of what's to come in the eight-episode series itself. When a woman character exerts an active pull upon the story of tormented Louisiana State Police detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), it's an interruption, a vitriolic hiccup. Prompted by Marty's stalking and volcanic abuse, his much younger mistress Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) reveals his serial infidelity to his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). To poison Marty for his adulteries, Maggie seduces a drunken Cohle. The two cops have no female peers, only suspects, victims, bereaved mothers, hookers, and strippers to be interrogated, rescued, or ignored.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, robutts screenplay by Ehren Kruger directed by Michael Bay
by Walter Chaw Early on in Transformers: Age of Extinction (hereafter Trans4), director Michael Bay seems to be equating the unjust hunt for our noble robot allies the Autobots with the Tea Party's persecution of immigrants, and then it goes to shit. It's a meaningless, impossible-to-follow trainwreck in the patented Michael Bay style that, also in the Michael Bay style, is deeply hateful of women and difference. What's new this time out is that the central object of violation for our lascivious appreciation is 17-year-old Tessa (19-year-old Nicola Peltz), who, upon introduction, is leered at by an assortment of older gentlemen before Bay whips out a (no-kidding) legal justification for our statutory interest. It reminds of the Tony Danza vehicle She's Out of Control not only in that its father figure, Cade YEAGER-because-it's-America-fuck-yeah (Mark Wahlberg), is over-interested in his daughter's budding sexuality, but also in that Trans4 is awful. Awful in its misogyny, sure, and awful because, in what has become a tradition in Bay's Transformers franchise, the only African-American character is comic relief...and a slave. Never mind. Oh, and it hates the infirm and misses no opportunity to mock their infirmity. Again, never mind.
**½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+ starring Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Jonathan Tiersten written and directed by Robert Hiltzik
by Bryant Frazer Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela's parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak's kitchen. There's a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There's a bit of business with a curling iron that's probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher's hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?
*/**** starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken screenplay by Marshall Brickman & Rock Elice directed by Clint Eastwood
by Angelo Muredda Clint Eastwood has never been the most self-referential filmmaker, preferring shopworn competence to flashy displays of idiosyncrasy. But it's hard to imagine he's not at least slightly gaming his audience throughout Jersey Boys, an otherwise limp tour through the Four Seasons' early discography. What else are we to make of the gag where baby-faced songwriter Bob Gaudio (Chris Klein dead ringer Erich Bergen) catches an image of his director's grizzled mug in "Rawhide" on a hotel TV? While that feels like a pretty straightforward joke on Eastwood's uncanny endurance all the way from "Sherry" (1962) to Jersey Boys the Broadway musical (2005), it's a bit harder to read an equally surreal moment like the dispute between producer and sometime lyricist Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and wise-guy guitarist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) over the band's sound. "I'm hearing it in sky blue," Crewe whines in the middle of a recording session, "and you're giving me brown." On the one hand, it's not like Eastwood to take the piss out of his own work, but on the other, what better analogy for his adaptation process can there be than the conversion of a sky-blue all-American songbook to a shit-brown sung résumé, rendered all in blacks and greys save for the odd splash of salmon and the occasional scrap of tweed?
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C+ screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Emmet is the platonic Everyman who becomes embroiled in adventure and intrigue after stumbling on a fabled MacGuffin called the Piece of Resistance. It's Hitchcock with a dash of Star Wars or The Matrix, or maybe vice-versa, as Emmet is designated "the Special" (a.k.a., the Chosen One), the saviour who will lead a band of rebel misfits to victory against the nefarious Lord Business. Oh, and Emmet's a little Lego dude with the voice of Chris Pratt. His predicament takes him on a globe-trotting journey through Legoland (not the theme park but a realm where Lego characters bloom to life à la Toy Story), not quite north by northwest but with a pit stop in the Wild West, where he picks up a wizardly black mentor named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman--one wants to type "natch"). Lacking obvious talent and vision, Emmet is doubted and doubts himself but eventually rallies the troops and, when Lord Business finally unleashes his liquid freeze-ray known as the Kragle, voluntarily sacrifices himself for the greater good. It helps that he's desperate to impress the sultry, resourceful Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who considers Emmet hopelessly uncool--especially compared to her boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett).
**/**** Image B Sound B Extras B starring Clint Howard, R.G. Armstrong, Joseph Cortese, Claude Earl Jones screenplay by Joseph Garofalo and Eric Weston directed by Eric Weston
by Bryant Frazer Consider the pig. Pork is damned near a gourmet food these days. Celebrity chefs will serve you layers of pork belly wrapped around potatoes, figs, even pineapple. They'll dip bacon in chocolate, infuse it in vodka, or drape it across an ice-cream sundae, resplendent in its brown glory. Your local organic market probably sells artisanal bacon cured with dark, fine-grained muscovado imported from Mauritius and flavoured with angel farts and faerie dust. The recent cinema has also celebrated the pig, via two excellent Babe movies and a decent adaptation of Charlotte's Web. It wasn't always that way, though. No less an authority than God Himself went Old Testament on pork back in the day, and it took the famous and completely disingenuous "Pork: The Other White Meat" campaign to rehabilitate swine for the U.S. market. What I mean to say is that the 1982 horror movie Evilspeak, in which a trio of crazed, Satan-possessed porkers burst into a bathroom and disembowel a nude woman taking a shower, couldn't have done the humble pig's reputation any favours.