VAMPIRE'S KISS ***½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A starring Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley screenplay by Joseph Minion directed by Robert Bierman
HIGH SPIRITS **/**** Image B Sound B+ starring Daryl Hannah, Peter O'Toole, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D'Angelo written and directed by Neil Jordan
by Walter Chaw Delightfully, extravagantly bizarre, Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss houses arguably Nicolas Cage's most peculiar performance in the service of a piece the contemporary in every way of Oliver Stone's Wall Street and the precursor, in every way, to Mary Harron's American Psycho. It excoriates the boy's club of the executive boardroom, treats sexual harassment and assault like real things with real consequences, and has something to say on the subjects of race and the economic caste. It's a canny satire of the vampire genre even as it's an honourable addition to it, exploring those metaphorical elements that transformed vampirism in the '80s into the equivalent of being the "cool kid" (The Lost Boys), the rock star (The Hunger), and the eternally demon lover (Fright Night). Working from a script by Joseph Minion, who not only wrote Martin Scorsese's brilliant (and in some ways similar) After Hours but also the Scorsese-helmed episode of "Amazing Stories" called "Mirror, Mirror" (itself an antecedent to David Robert Mitchell's It Follows), Bierman proves himself an able navigator of Minion's liminal cartography. Vampire's Kiss is about the spaces between and the things that fall in there.
by Bill Chambers Every once in a while, the absence of Roger Ebert becomes piercingly clear--like when J-Lo is gifted with a "first edition" of The Iliad in The Boy Next Door, a moment of Hollywood illiteracy so quintessential that it might've once seemed contrived for the sake of an Ebert quip. But whether or not the filmmakers realized how inapt their choice of Homer was (screenwriter Barbara Curry has disavowed any credit), this is an effective bit of characterization. The gifter is the titular boy next door, Noah (Ryan Guzman); the giftee is Jennifer Lopez's Mrs. Claire Petersen, an English teacher at his new school. Noah, although capable of bluffing his way through a conversation about Classics, can't be expected to know the publishing history of The Iliad--it's a nice, antiquey copy he thought would impress her, though he plays it cool, claiming he found it at a yard sale when he probably shoplifted it from a vintage bookstore. Claire should correct him, given her vocation, but why spoil a thoughtful gesture? And besides, that sort of pedantry bespeaks age, ultimately, and the generation gap between them is not something she wants underscored, because she's a middle-aged single mother enjoying the attentions of a younger man. Far from being the picture's nadir, it's really as elegant as its writing ever gets.
*/**** starring Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson written and directed by Joss Whedon
by Walter Chaw It's pointless to recap this edition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's endless cycling through decades of storylines, melodramas, loves and blood feuds, deaths and resurrections--this Möbius strip of punching and quipping and punching and quipping and punching and... It's an ouroborosian worm devouring itself into eternity, if you let it, and the sanction that a few billion dollars confers suggests it'll keep devouring itself for a while longer. Still, it's a cripplingly expensive endeavour, meaning that surprise and individuality are crushed in its logarithmic march towards solvency--and the human collateral caught in its gears is the tragedy that the place we get to see Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson (the two best, most interesting actors in the United States right now) share an emotionally complex scene is in this vacuous light show-cum-cash register, Avengers: Age of Ultron (hereafter Avengers II). You could say that at least it happened--you could also say that you wish it had happened in a vehicle that actually cared about them, and it wouldn't be too much to ask.
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C- starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
by Walter Chaw Paul Thomas Anderson's maybe-second, arguably third Thomas Pynchon adaptation after There Will Be Blood and The Master, Inherent Vice is the first official one, as well as the truest. It provides a Rosetta stone for Anderson's career to this point, Pynchon's work serving as a template for an artist crossing genres while holding true to a certain standard of intellectual rigor, a certain florid prosody, a specific interest in telling true the story of whatever the times may be. Inherent Vice also offers a framework for Anderson's intimidating film craft, his particular way of marrying image with sound, and the extraordinary shots--unbroken literally or rhythmically--that have made his movies as much pop poetry and music as narrative. Consider the reunion sequence in Punch-Drunk Love that finds Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nilsson on the soundtrack while Anderson rocks the camera like a baby in a cradle, or the wordless opening sequence of There Will Be Blood, with Jonny Greenwood's terrifying, Kubrick-ian Dawn of Man overture rattling the soundscape. Or the Gravity's Rainbow opening of The Master as our hero, on a boat, sways in another swaddle far above his madding crowd. Remarkable stuff. Cinema as high art, doing things that only cinema can do.
**½/**** starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac written and directed by Alex Garland
by Angelo Muredda Say this much for Alex Garland: there's an early stretch in Ex Machina, his auspicious directorial debut, where one wonders if one is seeing something relatively new. That's meant not as a backhanded compliment but as an acknowledgement that good sci-fi is hard to come by, and that impressive world-building rarely segues into sophisticated storytelling grounded in novel ideas. For probably long enough to give it a decent shelf-life, Ex Machina passes the genre sniff test about as well as its android heroine--an artificially intelligent being with the body of a European rising star--clears her own trial, a personal variation on the Turing test. If the film dips from there into a familiar, smart-alecky noir about bad men and the women they can't control, at least credit it for deferring the inevitable.
by Bill Chambers I don't socialize with director Matt Sadowski, but I appeared in his John Hughes tribute documentary Don't You Forget About Me (seventh-billed, thanks to the alphabet!), and the damned if you do/don't scenario of reviewing a movie by someone you know IRL, as the kids say, is that any praise is met with skepticism and any negativity becomes personal. But since Sadowski and I haven't kept in touch in the nine (!) years since that interview, and since new Canadian films and filmmakers never get enough attention, least of all from me, a few words about his fiction-feature debut, Pretend We're Kissing, which has actually become something of a minor sensation in its city of origin by outlasting its indie-release lifespan at the Carlton in Toronto. (It's currently wrapping up its third week there.) I will be as objective as I know how.
*/**** starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios directed by Russell Crowe
by Walter ChawThe Water Diviner is premium schmaltz. Connoisseurs of such will find its top-shelf qualities to include a Witness-like star-cross'd pas de deux; dead wives and sons; surrogate wives and sons; surrogate father figures fighting, Footloose-like, against oppressive cultures; a Fisher King rescue from insanity; and enough war-movie boilerplate to choke a War Horse. Its direct antecedent is of course Peter Weir's Gallipoli, except that Gallipoli is something of a masterpiece that balances its war journal with strong characters and a tragic ending in keeping with its grim subject matter. The Water Diviner, on the contrary, is a bodice-ripper chock-a-block with hole-digging and sky-beseeching, along with an Outback dust-storm that points, if the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road are any indication, to this year's most inexplicable evidence of zeitgeist.
a.k.a. StageFright: Aquarius, Deliria, Bloody Bird ***/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras A- starring David Brandon, Barbara Cupisti, Robert Gligorov, John Morghen screenplay by George Eastman directed by Michele Soavi
by Walter Chaw After years spent working alongside such luminaries as Joe D'Amato, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento, Michele Soavi made his directorial debut with 1987's StageFright (onscreen title: StageFright: Aquarius)--not an update of Hitchcock's underestimated Jane Wyman vehicle, but a carrying of the giallo torch from one generation ostensibly into the next. For the uninitiated, giallo, when done right, is a perpetual-motion machine that runs off its own mysterious energy. Taking its name from the yellow covers of lurid Italian paperbacks, films in this genre split, broadly, into two sub-categories: the ones that give a passing nod to ratiocination; and the ones that don't bother to make any rational sense at all. StageFright is of the latter school, aligning it with stuff like Argento's Three Mothers trilogy over something like his Tenebrae (on which Soavi served as second assistant director). Sense is antithetical to StageFright. It's a vehicle for atmosphere and delivers it in spades.
John Carpenter's Escape from New York ***½/**** DVD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras B+ BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras A starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence screenplay by John Carpenter & Nick Castle directed by John Carpenter
The below was written a dozen years ago, definitely in a crunch (I remember being among the first to receive a review copy of that DVD and wanting to scoop other sites) and, consequently, probably in a crabby mood. New reviews of John Carpenter movies, particularly the early ones, tend to read like fetishism as opposed to criticism. Indeed, over the years, Carpenter's aesthetics have become a shorthand for cool, such that some modern horror filmmakers seem to believe that by co-opting them they'll gain instant credibility. Still, I think I resisted the pleasures of Escape from New York a little too vehemently--this must be the most negative 3.5-star review I've ever written. Yes, that rape scene, or would-be rape scene, is troublesome, but for Snake to intervene would've been even more offensive, because it would mean the situation was cynically contrived to give him a moment of glory. Snake's heroism isn't pandering, and while his laconic machismo fits a certain Eastwood mold, he finally emerges as more of a countercultural badass who uses his carte blanche audience with the President to ask him the kind of impertinent rhetorical question one wants to say to every bureaucrat valued more than the soldiers doing his bidding: "We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. I just wondered how you felt about it." The President's ineffectual condolences, phrased as boilerplate and expressed with squirm-inducing hesitation as he mentally scans for a lifeline (then and there, Donald Pleasence exonerates his miscasting), justify Snake's final act in a way that makes me regret ascribing the "moral evasion" of The Thing--say what?--to this picture as well. Carpenter isn't ducking anything here: Snake sees that this world is rotten from the head down and so he lights the proverbial fuse. God bless him, he's an asshole. (But not a dick.)
K-Stew, J-Bin, and C-More star in the new-to-U.S. theatres Clouds of Sils Maria; click here for Angelo Muredda's review from last year's TIFF. Meanwhile, playing at Toronto's Royal after making its online debut is Ned Rifle, the conclusion to Hal Hartley's Henry Fool trilogy, which yours truly also covered during TIFF '14.
BLACULA **½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+ starring William Marshall, Denise Nicholas, Vonetta McGee, Charles Macaulay screenplay by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig directed by William Crain
SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM *½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras D starring William Marshall, Don Mitchell, Pam Grier, Richard Lawson screenplay by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig and Maurice Jules directed by Bob Kelljan
by Bryant Frazer It takes some nerve to turn an exploitative, possibly racist script treatment from a low-budget movie-manufacturing plant like Samuel Z. Arkoff's American Independent Pictures (AIP) into a tragic meditation on the legacy of slavery in contemporary urban society, but that's what director William Crain and actor William Marshall damn near pulled off with Blacula. Originally conceived as a blaxploitation programmer with the ersatz jive-talking title Count Brown Is in Town, the project that would become Blacula took on some gravity when Crain cast Marshall, a trained Shakespearean actor, in the title role. Marshall insisted on alterations to the script that gave the film a subtext: he would play the lead as an 18th-century African noble who, while touring Europe in an attempt to persuade the aristocracy to oppose the slave trade, was turned into a vampire and imprisoned for more than 100 years by the rabidly racist Count Dracula. In Marshall's imagining of the story, it was Dracula who, seeking to demean the uppity foreigner, saddled him with the dismissive, derivative moniker Blacula.
****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A starring Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier directed by Nicolas Roeg
by Walter Chaw Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is about looking, about ways of seeing and layers of understanding. It's about memory and its intrusion into and influence on current states of being. It's about the impossibility of faith or love or human relationships to illuminate truth; or it's about how faith and love and human relationships are the only truth. It shows images out of order, presenting them in ways that will only make sense once the gestalt in which the images exist comes clear. In every way, Don't Look Now is designed for multiple viewings. The film warns that a life spent unexamined will end brutally and nonsensically. Without context, there is nothing, but context is nigh impossible before the end. It's something William Carlos Williams would understand.
Furious Seven **/**** starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell screenplay by Chris Morgan directed by James Wan
by Walter Chaw There's a death culture surrounding car enthusiasts. Whereas in football if a player dies their memorabilia tends to go dormant, in NASCAR, the sport's victims are elevated to sainted martyr: Their bits and pieces become as holy relics, sacrifices to thundering machine gods. Predictably, then, Furious 7 (hereafter F7) will enjoy a lavish critical and popular processional, as freshly-dead Paul Walker (the worst semi-successful American actor, living or deceased) haunts every frame with either his digital ghost or his patented expressionless reaction shots. Finished with a combination of camera trickery, CGI grafts, and Walker's brothers as ghoulish body-doubles, F7 if nothing else proves that Walker is distractingly lifeless in every scenario, but nobly so in this one.
½*/**** starring Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson screenplay by Jay Martel & Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen directed by Etan Cohen
by Walter Chaw The title pretty much says it all, as screenwriter Etan Cohen's gay-panic directorial debut Get Hard works as the exact antidote to his own work on the smart, occasionally vital Tropic Thunder. It's puerile and indelicate--that much to be expected, I suppose, but it's laboured, too, and flat as a pancake. If Get Hard were a middle-aged man, you'd be calling an ambulance for all the wheezing. Two scenes: in the first, Wall Street wolf James King (Will Ferrell) does a patented Will Ferrell freak-out, mistaking attendant Darnell (Kevin Hart) for a carjacker, ending with Darnell saying, "I didn't mean to freak you out, man;" in the second, two scary-looking Boyz N the Hood-era gangbangers say, "Wall Street is where the real criminals at!" The former demonstrates how poorly-matched are the improvisational styles of the leads, with Ferrell needing a deadpan straight world to his shenanigans; one wonders at the wisdom of casting two alpha-comedians in a film--with no one setting up the jokes, there's never anything to pay off. (It's why Jeff Daniels is Jim Carrey's counterpart in the Dumb and Dumber movies and not Robin Williams.) The latter demonstrates how desperate the film is in trying to be smart and relevant. What could be more sophisticated and racially sensitive, after all, than a screenplay written by a bunch of identical-looking white guys imagining a Los Angeles street gang called the Crenshaw Kings transitioning their drive-by and street-smart jive business into day-trading?