Also opening this weekend in limited release is a trio of movies Walter Chaw reviewed on the festival circuit: '71, Everly, and The Duke of Burgundy, which has finally come to Toronto. Meanwhile, I covered Maps to the Stars at TIFF '14; it makes its U.S. theatrical bow today.
**/**** starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney written and directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
by Walter Chaw The world's most polite heist/caper/con-man Charade thing, which feels it's finally time to continue that death trudge towards completion of a Matchstick Men trilogy, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra's Focus is a studiedly-inoffensive star vehicle for Will Smith that's interesting only because of Will Smith's casual attitude towards miscegenation. Easy to say that in 2015 a black guy with a white girl isn't that big a deal, but I still can't think of too many examples where a superstar like Smith is willing to repeatedly cast himself opposite a cross-racial leading lady. Smith is even a producer of Will Gluck's intriguing Annie, which, in addition to being a very strange bookend to the surveillance-state nightmare of The Dark Knight, features at its centre an interracial love story between characters played by Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne. I'm spending a lot of time on this, because Focus, aside from the sexy shenanigans of Smith's expert con-man Nicky and his ingénue protégé Jess (Margot Robbie) and the fact of their race-mixing in a mainstream, medium-big studio flick, isn't about anything and isn't otherwise that interesting about it.
by Walter Chaw Unsentimental and terrifying and set against lovely, John Constable-esque watercolour backgrounds, Martin Rosen's adaptation of the Richard Adams novel Watership Down arose in that extended lull between Disney's heyday and its late-Eighties resurrection. (This period also saw, in addition to Rosen's film of Adams's The Plague Dogs, Rankin & Bass's The Last Unicorn and Ralph Bakshi's most productive period, which included 1978's The Lord of the Rings.) Watership Down points to the dwindled potential for American animation to evolve into what anime has become: a mature medium for artistic expression of serious issues. A shame that this flawed piece is possibly the pinnacle of animation's ambition on these shores, Richard Linklater's Waking Life notwithstanding.
by Jefferson RobbinsThe Palm Beach Story is lesser candy from a master confectioner--so it's still worth a taste. Preston Sturges's screwball portrait of a marriage upending itself braids together multiple comedic forms: road trip, Elizabethan comedy of errors, have-nots infiltrating the haves, and a distinct and strange but intriguing touch of fairytale. For instance, the yacht on which jillionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) absconds with disenchanted young wife Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) is christened The Erl King. Sure, Hackensacker is an obvious gloss on Rockefeller and there's the play on "oil king," but the Erl King of legend is a kidnapper of innocents. (Goethe's poem casts him as a child murderer.) Gerry's scratching a five-year itch, taking flight from glum husband Tom (Joel McCrea), partly on the advice of another "king." "Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young," warns the millionaire Wienie King (Robert Dudley), after moseying into the Park Avenue duplex Gerry and Tom are about to lose. (A Tiresias who's deaf rather than blind, he can't hear anything anybody says, so he might as well be talking to himself.) Although "adventuress" Gerry, abandoning her marriage without money or clothing, can still wield youth and beauty as sword and shield, she pays a price for the attempt, first charming and then dodging the heavily-armed, dangerously inebriated Ale & Quail Club as it pursues her throughout a southbound train. They're a Wild Hunt straight out of pagan lore.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians ***½/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras A story by Bill Peet, based on the book The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi
by Bill Chambers 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (hereafter 101 Dalmatians) make for an illuminating double-bill; the latter could even be construed as a Godardian rejoinder to the former. An anti-auteur of these movies, Walt Disney determined their outcome by divesting resources from their development--including his own expertise--and pouring them into his personal Taj Mahal, Disneyland. This deprived the expensive Sleeping Beauty of the talent that may have been able to crack its deceptively-simple fairytale formula and transcend the limitations of a graphical style inspired by medieval tapestries. When the film barely broke even, Disney decided his next animated feature would adapt a property with some grounding in contemporary prose and cost a lot less, leading to the shuttering of the ink-and-paint department and a vigorous embrace of Xerography, whereby the animators' pencil drawings were photocopied directly onto acetate rather than delicately retraced and refined by hand.
*/**** starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book "The Secret Service" by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons directed by Matthew Vaughn
by Walter Chaw Whatever surface similarities they might share, the difference between something great like John Wick and something like Kingsman: The Secret Service (hereafter Kingsman) is that Kingsman is smug and misanthropic. It's a self-knowing ape of the James Bond franchise, literally name-dropping both it and Jason Bourne with a kind of Cabin in the Woods smirk as it goes through the comic-book, Mark Millar-ugly motions of gadgets, high espionage, and a plot by lisping supervillain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) that involves the cell-phone triggered, rage-fuelled annihilation of billions. (Yes, it's also a weird rip on third-rate Stephen King novel Cell.) Gone mostly unexamined by critics for fear of "spoiling" the film, I guess, it features a scene in which Barack Obama commits treason and is then rewarded with an explosive decapitation--which is, itself, a form of treason, I think, although I admit the modern political landscape has made the limits of treasonous disrespect of the office somewhat murky to me. It's a jaw-dropping moment in a film that has not only a foreign head of state offer anal sex as a reward to our sprightly young protagonist, but also our Bond-ish hero, Harry (Colin Firth), slaughter a few dozen unlikeable yet innocent civilians in a church. Edgy, non?
**/**** starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jennifer Ehle screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
by Walter Chaw In an age of post-satire, where Sarah Palin has a cognitive episode on every channel and prints the take, where it's actually become impossible to mock something that's constantly in the process of taking itself down, enter E. L. James's radioactively-popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, which creeps under the low bar set by key inspiration Stephenie Meyer. It all sets the stage of course for Idiocracy's most popular movie in the land being a continuous loop of an ass, sometimes farting. That's what makes the first hour of Sam Taylor-Johnson's film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey actually something like a revelation. She, along with screenwriter Kelly Marcel, has somehow managed to turn the excrescent source material--excrescent not for its eroticism (I like me a good Henry Miller any day of the week), but for its illiteracy--into a satire of that section in the used bookstore where you can buy a grocery-bagful for a $1.00, trade-ins welcome. The picture does the impossible: It makes fun of something so stupid and anti-lovely it was already making fun of itself, and for at least that first hour, I understood completely the camp/communal value of Fifty Shades of Grey. And then there's another hour.
Image A Sound A Extras C "Looking for Now," "Looking for Uncut," "Looking at Your Browser History," "Looking for $220/Hour," "Looking for the Future," "Looking in the Mirror," "Looking for a Plus-One," "Looking Glass"
by Jefferson Robbins Not fair to call it a gay "Girls", in part because it dodges the character grotesques of that show in favour of...a less provocative mix of personality types, shall we say. That's a polite way of calling Michael Lannan's HBO dramedy "Looking" boring by comparison--and finally, prettily, boring on its own merits, however better-lensed and more grounded in real personal motivations it might be than Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow's zeitgeister. Handsome gay men abroad in San Francisco's fully actuated sexual culture is a fine launchpad; Lannan and collaborator Andrew Haigh treat their core trio of characters with respect and care; and the cast is all-pro, managing the mini-crises thrown their way as if they actually matter. But while there's no there there in either "Looking" or "Girls", at least the latter goes big and madcap enough to tempt continued viewing; it's not afraid to entertain, or to anger. The curtainfall on "Looking"'s first season incites little hunger for the second.
by Bryant Frazer First, let's be clear about what kind of movie A Walk Among the Tombstones is. The film's signature image is that of a blonde woman, nude or nearly nude, atop a white bed. A man caresses her slowly, runs his fingers through her hair, and nuzzles her face. If we watch closely, we eventually notice that she cringes at his touch. As new camera angles afford us a better look at the tableau, we notice the bed is covered in plastic. Two men are watching the woman. And her mouth is taped closed. The newly-disturbing scene is photographed with a luxe aesthetic--soft light, lush bokeh, off-axis shot compositions--that suggests a commercial for pharmaceuticals, if not early-'90s Playboy Channel programming. The intended irony is clear enough, but the coyness makes the scene ugly. After a close-up on the woman's dirty feet, the camera cuts to a view of her face, looking directly into the camera, as her body is being pushed at, rhythmically, from just outside the frame. The question, then, is whether she's being raped, dismembered, or eviscerated.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne written and directed by The Wachowskis
by Walter Chaw "Call me Jupe!" pipes Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) in her breathy, little-girl Lauren Bacall voice, and the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending in the same moment announces itself as the siblings' latest insufferable piece of shit about being born with a secret and embracing the real you. With mascara. Jupiter Jones is not the oldest of the Three Investigators, but she is the reincarnated Mina Murray, space queen of a clan of Atriedes/Harkonnen industrialists, and she has a special way with honeybees. That's good, since there's a scene where she visits a guy (Sean Bean) living in a house infested with honeybees. The guy has a daughter who is sick, which we know because she coughs a little before disappearing into the editing-bay ether with the rest of the connective tissue of a film too terrible to waste a summer slot on. Jupiter Ascending is kind of the Radio Shack of movies in that it's too expensive to not open, though it desperately needs to close. Just the fact that this reference will be completely obsolete in six months or so says everything that could be said about this trainwreck. And yet I persist.
by Walter Chaw Stop-motion animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman) continues its winning streak with the perverse, lovingly-detailed The Boxtrolls, which nails the company's developing penchant for inserting a sting of relevance on the trailing end of assorted Nick Park-ian silliness. It's basically the usual kid-flick moral of not judging lovable books by their horrible, green, warty covers, but there's also a little bit about the danger of starting wars based on black pretense for unsavoury purposes. Likewise buried in the puns and gross-out gags are a class melodrama, a deep criticism of the ruling class, and a fairly disturbing aside about anti-intellectualism and the misuse of technology. It's Schindler's List in the sense that even that film was Spielberg's own remake of E.T., substituting the industrious, wizened space goblin for Ben Kingsley; The Boxtrolls isn't as effective a Holocaust/Łódź ghetto allegory as the hotel-clearing in Babe: Pig in the City, but no question the aim of its villains is ultimately genocide.
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti screenplay by Liliana Cavani and Italo Moscati directed by Liliana Cavani
by Bryant FrazerThe Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the "little girl" (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn't Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani's first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie's sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby's pan deriding it as "romantic pornography" was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image--Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer's cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.
by Bill Chambers When Bob Clampett left Termite Terrace in 1946, his unit was assigned to Arthur Davis, who had years of experience behind him as the industry's first in-betweener (the person who draws the steps that get a pose from point A to point B) as well as a director in his own right, having helmed a number of cartoons for Screen Gems, where he worked closely with the great Frank Tashlin. (The two migrated to Warner Bros. together.) But Davis's name never became synonymous with Looney Tunes like so many of his colleagues' did, perhaps because his style is so unorthodox as to seem discontinuous with, even supplemental to, the studio's general output. Comparing Dough Ray Me-ow to the previously-reviewed Porky Chops also suggests that it's because Davis did better with characters denied immortality by their one-and-done status. Louie the Parrot and the gloriously stupid Heathcliff the Cat, who has to be reminded to breathe, are like Tweety and Sylvester reconfigured as Of Mice and Men's George and Lenny--a familiar-enough trope/dynamic, unconventionally applied to natural enemies and almost immediately upset by the intervention of a will that makes Louie next in line for a big inheritance in the event of poor, dumb Heathcliff's "disappearance." A clever running joke has Louie's fiendish murder plots inadvertently prevent Heathcliff from committing certain suicide, while the grand finale must be the ne plus ultra of dynamite-as-birthday-cake-candle gags, as the fuse stays lit for two whole minutes--a Hitchcockian eternity. Only the cynical button Davis and writer Lloyd Turner put on it feels rote; from its bulbous, anti-cute figures to its frequent dusting-off of the z-axis, Dough Ray Me-ow is a restless tweaking of the form that explains at once the brevity of Davis's stint as as a Warner director and his current cult reputation. Alternate Audio (Blu-ray/DVD): In a research-dense commentary, CARTOONRESEARCH.COM editor Jerry Beck credits specific animators with specific gestures, trainspots the musical references, and discusses the audition process by which Turner became a writer for Looney Tunes. Available on:Looney Tunes: Platinum Collection, Volume Two [Blu-ray]|Looney Tunes: Golden Collection Volume Four(Running Time: 7:04)
by Walter Chaw I recall Luc Besson confessing that his The Fifth Element was based on an idea he'd had as a child; I'm going to wager the same is true of his dreadful Lucy. It's a pre-pubescent boy's fantasy of cool: a mash of silly pop-science buoying a beautiful woman's mutation from impossible party girl into deity through the agency of stem-cell-related drug abuse. The good news is that South Korean superstar Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) gets a mainstream American debut in a juicy role that nonetheless feels like a wasted opportunity (see: Beat Takeshi in Johnny Mnemonic). The bad news is Lucy is prurient pap that pup-critics will declare proof of "vulgar auteurism," no matter the redundancy and ignorance of the term itself. Perhaps fitting, then, that the only defense of a movie this obnoxious and wilfully dumb is a term and movement founded on the same principles. I've defended Besson in the past--I'm an unapologetic admirer of Leon/The Professional and The Messenger (and Danny the Dog, which he produced, is a peerless statement on the relationship between Western and Asian action stars). But Lucy is reductive, sub-La femme Nikita effluvia that takes a premise niftily played-with in Ted Chiang's beyond-brilliant 1991 short story "Understand" and grinds it into a grey paste.