BEST PICTURE The Big Short = sure Bridge of Spies = um... Brooklyn = yay Mad Max: Fury Road = yay The Martian = always nice to see a musical comedy get nominated The Revenant = sometimes you eat the bear... Room = whatevs Spotlight = yay
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages ****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+ starring Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Sepp Bierbichler, Ona Lu Yenke written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Bryant Frazer In the vignette that opens Code Unknown, a young girl in pigtails, maybe 9 or 10 years old, cowers against a plain wall, trembling before director Michael Haneke's static camera. If you know Haneke's work--his previous film at the time, Funny Games, had depicted the torture and murder of a bourgeois French mom and dad plus their fair-haired moppet--the image is more than a little disturbing. But Haneke immediately pulls the rug out. Rather than cry, the girl suddenly stands and smiles, looking expectantly towards the camera. Haneke then cuts to reverse angles on different children, in close-up, also looking towards the camera. The girl has an audience, and so we understand that she was giving a performance. In this case, it's a game of charades among deaf children, with the spectators attempting to guess, using sign language, what the girl was trying to convey. "Alone?" one girl signs. The girl in pigtails shakes her head. Another signs, "Hiding place?" No. Nor is she trying to convey "guilty conscience," "gangster," "sad," or even "locked up." In the face of so many impassive classmates, the girl in pigtails finally looks weary and maybe on the verge of tears for real. With that, the screen goes black, and the title appears: Code Unknown.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME: A MEMOIR FFC rating: 6/10 by Burt Reynolds and Jon Winokur
DROPPED NAMES: FAMOUS MEN AND WOMEN AS I KNEW THEM FFC rating: 10/10 by Frank Langella
by Bill Chambers Burt Reynolds and Frank Langella are very different actors (Burt could not have pulled off Dracula, nor would Langella have ever looked at home behind the wheel of a Trans-Am) and, as it happens, very different writers, yet in 2015's But Enough About Me: A Memoir and 2012's Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, respectively, they've taken a similar approach to memoir by reminiscing about, in Langella's words, "the transient company of many remarkable people." Langella sticks to the rich and famous while Reynolds broadens his repertoire to encompass his father, various civilian friends, and a horse, but a more significant distinction is that, with one exception, everyone Langella writes about is dead, whereas quite a few of Burt's players are still alive. It sometimes makes But Enough About Me read like an open letter--one with decidedly Nixonian overtones in a passage listing every person who stood by Reynolds when it was rumoured he had AIDS. (If you're not on it, fuck you is the subtext.) If Langella is by definition the more vulturous of the pair, he's also the superior anthropologist, a keener observer, and, comparatively-speaking, a born humorist, vividly caricaturing his subjects so that even the most reviled of them (Anthony Quinn, Lee Strasberg) will seem worthy of the contempt. Here's how Langella introduces his chapter on Strasberg:
*/**** starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks written and directed by Peter Landesman
by Walter Chaw Peter Landesman's deeply compromised Concussion so shockingly exposes and excoriates the negligence of the NFL in protecting its players that it's constantly advertised during NFL games. The whole thing feels like a redacted security document: It's choppy, skips over entire plot points, short-sells the issues, and gives equal time to celebrating the beauty and the glory of football as it does to how football turns a scary percentage of its players into confused, manic, suicidal zombies. Save for a few minutes spent with Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster (David Morse), living in a truck and gluing his teeth into his head with superglue, we don't get much of a glimpse at the symptomatology of "CTE," the repeated-trauma disease discovered by Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who's introduced listing off his accomplishments to declare himself the "smartest person you've ever probably met or will probably ever meet." Concussion is what Spotlight would have looked like had it been made by Cardinal Law: you know, some stuff happened, but the Catholic Church is MAJESTIC. To be fair, we don't get much of a glimpse of anything--not even the romance between Omalu and his ward-cum-lover-cum-spouse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so astonishing in Belle and Beyond the Lights; welcome to the mainstream, Gugu!), which is treated in a curious, epileptic shorthand. She's a homeless refugee. She's very religious. Oh, now they're dancing and, um, fucking, and married and, wait, pregnant and married. Wait, now she's doing that wife-in-Bridge of Spies thing where she's protecting the family and... And Concussion is terrible.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Bradley Cooper screenplay by David O. Russell directed by David O. Russell
by Walter Chaw After demonstrating with his last few movies that he's not Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell has decided to kill two birds with one stone by demonstrating that he is neither Wes nor P.T. Anderson, either. In Joy, he proves that marrying Wes Anderson's whimsical solipsism with P.T. Anderson's Pynchon-esque biographical sketches is an amazingly stupid thing to do--one of those science experiments in '50s B-movies that everyone knows is a bad idea except for the idiot doing the splicing. Yes, Joy is that bad. When it's not being unbearably twee, it's perving on Jennifer Lawrence like von Sternberg on Dietrich. But Joy ain't no Blue Angel, and while I like Lawrence fine, I guess, Russell is sure as hell no von Sternberg. What I'm saying is that Russell is a terrible, glitchy director with a thing for Lawrence that he manifests by shooting her walking towards the camera with sunglasses, without sunglasses, with a wig and without a wig, in slow-motion or at normal speed, in daytime, nighttime; he lights her with the sun, with spots, with discretes, from below, and especially from behind--all in a kind of PENTHOUSE glamour. The only part of Joy that isn't unwatchable is a sequence shot precisely like identical sequences in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, where an obviously tense Bradley Cooper, playing QVC programming director Neil Walker, shows the titular domestic goddess Joy (Lawrence) around the studio. I take it back, those were pretty bad, too. The only thing preventing Joy from being the worst movie of the year is that Pixels happened.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR ***/**** screenplay by Meg LeFauve directed by Peter Sohn and Bob Peterson
THE REVENANT ***½/**** starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, a bear, angry junketeers screenplay by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
THE HATEFUL EIGHT **/**** starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is the runt in a frontier family of stylized dinosaur herbivores who struggles to live up to the example of towering Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) on the family farmstead. He's clumsy, though, and easily frightened, and when he finds himself incapable of killing a mammalian vermin (Jack Bright), he unwittingly causes the death of his father. Arlo joins forces with the vermin, eventually, dubbing him "Spot" (he's a little orphaned human boy) and relying on him to forage sustenance for him in the wild world outside. Spot, in return, relies upon Arlo for protection in the film's final set-piece as Spot is set upon by a flock of fundamentalist pterodactyls. Pixar's The Good Dinosaur is, in other words, a horror western about a frontier bespotted with monsters and monstrous ideologies, set right there at the liminal space--as all great westerns are--between the old ways and the encroaching new. It's far more disturbing than has generally been acknowledged and, in being disturbing, it offers a tremendous amount of subtext layered onto a deceptively simple story. It posits an Earth where the dinosaur-ending comet misses impact, leading to millions of years of evolved adaptations and ending, as the film begins, with the emergence of homo sapiens on schedule, but skittering around on all fours and howling at their saurian masters. The Good Dinosaur is an existential horrorshow.
***½/**** Image B Sound A Extras C starring Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Levi Miller screenplay by Jason Fuchs directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw Paired with Hanna, his take on the Little Red Riding Hood story, Joe Wright's Pan suggests that the director's closest career analogue is that of J.J. Abrams. Wright's askew take on Anna Karenina hints at a sympathetic penchant for ebullient reinterpretation--no less so his adaptations of Atonement (by an author essentially making a career of taking a piss) and Pride & Prejudice, which, in its sparseness and emotional economy, could stand alongside Andrea Arnold's magnificent Wuthering Heights. Hanna, his best film, achieves at least a portion of its greatness through its bull-headed perversity. No premise is too fanciful to be presented seriously by Wright. In Pan, when we're introduced to the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a Fury Road's collection of orphan miners sing-chants "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in obeisance to their monstrous overlord. It's something born of Brian Helgeland's anachronistic A Knight's Tale and of Terry Gilliam in its antic set design and costuming and of David Lynch, even, in a sequence where Blackbeard dons a mask aboard his flying ship to breathe deep something that resembles the Spice. There's another sequence in which a pirate ship, a 16th-century galleon, engages in midair with a trio of British Hawker Hurricanes (I think) defending Mother England against the German blitz before breaking through the clouds for a brief, weightless moment.
***½/**** starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Max Von Sydow written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt directed by J.J. Abrams
by Walter Chaw I was four when I saw Star Wars. It was the first time I'd seen a film in a theatre; it was the first film I'd seen, period. I didn't speak a word of English. It was overwhelming, and I'm discovering, after watching J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens (hereafter Star Wars 7), that it imprinted itself on my DNA. Thirty-eight years later, I collect the toys my parents couldn't afford to buy me when I was a kid--the ones I played with at friends' houses, when I pretended to be Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as a child of immigrants doing his best to fit into a society that promised blond and blue-eyed messiahs. My office is full of these toys. They are fetishized relics for me. I hold them and they possess a totemic value. The curve of a molded plastic stormtrooper's helmet reminds me of the department store where I looked at it through the packaging--and of my delight at my mom one day buying me one, which I opened on the way home in the backseat of the family car.
Przypadek ***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B- starring Boguslaw Linda, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Marzena Trybala, Monika Goździk written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
by Bryant Frazer Before Krzysztof Kieslowski became the standard-bearer for the latter-day European art film with ravishing portraits of unspeakably beautiful women living their lives under unutterably mysterious circumstances, he was a gruff but adventurous chronicler, in both documentary and narrative films, of lives lived in the rather more drab surroundings of communist Poland. Well, money changes everything. It was the arrival of funding from Western sources that bestowed the gift of abstraction: Beginning with the internationally-celebrated The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, it made Kieslowski's expressions of ennui beautiful. But in the 1980s, Kieslowski had less time for beauty.
***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+ starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie directed by Christopher McQuarrie
by Walter Chaw At some point, sneakily, wonderfully, Tom Cruise became our Jackie Chan. It happened when the storyline shifted away from his essential ickiness--the Scientology thing, the Katie Holmes thing, and all the attendant nightmare gossip--and onto his fearlessness and absolute willingness to perform his own stunts wherever possible. (I realize of course that said storyline may never shift for some.) There were murmurs when he did the rock-climbing in the second Mission: Impossible flick--the one where he recruited John Woo, who was at the time the best action director on the planet. Those murmurs turned to grudging admiration once it was revealed that Cruise let himself be suspended for real outside the Burj Khalifa in Brad Bird's superior Ghost Protocol; and now, with Christopher McQuarrie's fleet, intelligent, immanently professional Rogue Nation, for which Cruise hung from an airplane in flight and held his breath for six minutes, Cruise's bravado is a big part of the draw.
***½/**** starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis screenplay by Todd Louiso & Jacob Kokoff and Michael Leslie directed by Justin Kurzel
by Walter Chaw In a season awash in Terrence Malick shrines, Justin Kurzel's Macbeth has the temerity to evoke Andrei Tarkovsky instead. Maybe certain moments from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, married to the saturated minimalism of Tarkovsky's Stalker. It's beautiful, in other words. Stunning enough that its self-consciousness is just another approach to centuries-old material, and a comfortable part of the whole. There are two approaches left to Shakespeare, I think: to acknowledge the centuries of intense scholarship around the canon that has uncovered the archetype (mostly Jungian, sometimes Freudian) mooring the tales, or to ignore them. This Macbeth understands that the Scottish Play is splashed red--all passion and portent and looming storms flashing low on the horizon. Every incident is portent. I mumbled along with the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech that I memorized for extra credit in eighth grade and marvelled at how Kurzel rolled it into a greater thematic conversation about the lust between these two people, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard). It's as interesting an interpretation as Ethan Hawke's Melancholy Dane pondering choices in the aisles of Blockbuster Video. Muting the dialogue, swallowing it as Fassbender does here (or burying it, as in the various battleground sequences--Banquo (Paddy Considine) calls out his warning choking on blood and dirt), has the effect of placing the words of the story as secondary to its indelible images. It's Macbeth as mythology, seeking to explain how eternity metastasizes in the space between a couple who have lost a child.
**/**** starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Krista Stadler written by Todd Casey & Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields directed by Michael Dougherty
by Walter Chaw I used to have a collection of short stories edited by Isaac Asimov, The Twelve Frights of Christmas. Ramsey Campbell's "The Chimney" is anthologized therein, and though it's not directly a Krampus story, it's sort of a Krampus story and was, at least, the first time I'd been introduced to the concept of something like an anti-Santa. It's a great story. Michael Dougherty's Krampus is not great, but with all the lulls and jokes misfiring, it does give you plenty of time to think about other things. (I didn't like his Trick 'r Treat either.) What works about the film are its first twenty minutes or so, where Dougherty seems to be setting up an unpleasant, nasty little commentary on the commodification of Christmas. There's trouble, though, when the parts of your movie that work are the parts that compare best to Jingle All the Way. I'll say, too, that there's genuine delight in the appearance of weird snowmen on the lawn during a blizzard blackout, stranding a shitty family alone with their thoughts while a German alpine demon lurks about outside--as well as hope, however self-deluding and fleet, that Dougherty's going to pay off the early abduction of the second-most sympathetic child of six. Alas, it's ultimately as compromised as Trick 'r Treat. The last five minutes are a masterpiece of playing both sides against the middle and pandering to an intended middlebrow audience. Like its PG-13 rating, Krampus is a devil's bargain between horror film and family film. It's the kind of thing that only really worked when it was Gremlins.
Demon Knight ***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A starring Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Bakke written by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris & Mark Bishop directed by Ernest Dickerson
Bordello of Blood */**** Image B Sound C+ Extras A starring Dennis Miller, Erika Eleniak, Angie Everhart, John Kassir screenplay by A.L. Katz & Gilbert Adler directed by Gilbert Adler
by Walter Chaw I didn't have HBO as a kid. Didn't even have cable. When I went over to friends' houses, I would spend a lot of time wanting to watch MTV to try to catch up on all the popular culture I was missing. "Remote Control", the first Jon Stewart show, "Dream On", "The Kids in the Hall"--each of them represent gaping holes in my pop education. Lump in the Walter Hill-produced "Tales from the Crypt" anthology program with that group of things I knew about but only by title and reputation. My first exposure to the EC Comics-inspired/adapted-from show was through reprints of "Tales from the Crypt" and "Strange Tales" comics during the early-'90s industry boom. Then Ernest Dickerson's fantastic Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight (hereafter Demon Knight) satisfied every single expectation I had of something seeking to honour the ghoulish, sometimes puerile depravity of William Gaines's seminal source material. It's as gory as it is corny and smart as hell for recognizing that those were the only requirements. Doesn't hurt that the practical-effects work is goopy and inventive. Oh, and the cast is exceptional.
**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti screenplay by Carlton Cuse directed by Brad Peyton
by Bryant Frazer Back in the 1970s, Hollywood thrillers broke a sweat trying to depict a single terrible event--just one burning building, overturned luxury liner, or airship disaster. These days, the imagery has gotten a lot more freewheeling. Armed with powerful computer algorithms that generate cartoonish eruptions of earth, fire, wind, and water, today's VFX supervisors have a mandate to make bad things happen on screen--all of the bad things, preferably at the same time. In San Andreas, the terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day includes a disintegrating Hoover Dam and a container ship that cartwheels end-over-end into the Golden Gate Bridge. Skyscrapers collapse in on themselves, generating 9/11 flashback clouds of dust and debris that blast through city streets. A tsunami and its attendant flooding sends murky water pulsing through the floors of submerged high-rises, trapping helpless victims inside like goldfish behind glass. It would all be a little hard to take if the visual effects were more convincing (they're cartoonish) or the action scenes at all naturalistic (ditto), but director Brad Peyton isn't especially ambitious. His operative aesthetic is purely Theme Park.