Opening nationally this week are Steve Jobs, about a guy named Steve who's given personalized tasks; and Suffragette, about a T-shirt campaign gone horribly wrong. In case you missed these reviews the first time around, Walter Chaw covered both at Telluride.
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Katharine Ross, Sam Elliott, Roger Daltrey, John Standing screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Patrick Tilley and Paul Wheeler from a story by Sangster directed by Richard Marquand
by Bryant Frazer One in a spate of post-The Exorcist, post-Rosemary's Baby potboilers about ordinary people confronting ancient evil in the modern world, The Legacy has an enduring reputation as a big slice of horror cheese and not much else. Certainly, it's derivative--just another old-dark-house yarn set in the English countryside, spiced up in '70s fashion with a sinister, Satanic backstory that never quite clicks together. It's one of the last horror movies to come out in the handsomely-mounted classic style favoured by Hammer before contemporary slashers and body-horror changed the game completely in the 1980s, but what it lacks in originality and coherence it makes up for in comfy genre atmosphere. Co-scriptor Jimmy Sangster was one of the top dogs at Hammer Film Productions (his writing credits include Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein) and Welsh director Richard Marquand was a BBC documentarian making his fiction debut (he would go on to direct Return of the Jedi). That's not a world-beating combination, but if you like your occult thrillers played straight, The Legacy's workmanlike style is an asset.
****/**** written by Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto, based on the novel La sorcière by Jules Michelet directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
by Walter Chaw The completion of Osamu Tezuka's "Animerama," a trilogy of early-'70s erotica initially imagined as a tie-in to that era's "pink films" that eventually applied their boundary-testing to its own form and function, Belladonna of Sadness is the only one of the three pictures to, ironically, feature no direct involvement from Tezuka. Instead, longtime collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto takes the reins and, in this loose adaptation of a non-fiction tract on witchcraft and Satanism, produces the headwaters for everything from hentai to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. It's a template that parallels Ralph Bakshi's dabbling in ani-porn, a thing that runs on evocations of Roman Polanski in not just its function and form, but also the drawing of its heroine, Jeanne, as the very image of Sharon Tate. The fate of pretty blondes is a primary concern of Polanski's in this period--no less so enacted through this saga of a woman, raped and humiliated before, in the end, like Yeats's Leda, she takes on the power of her patriarchal tormentors to exact precise, poetic vengeance.
The Babysitter Murders ****/**** (d. Ryan Spindell) For certain artists working in the short-film format, I don't have any idea how or why it is they haven't been called up to the big leagues yet. This speaks as much to my prejudice, obviously: there's nothing wrong with the short form. In literature, many of my favourite writers are best in the short form. In film, though, there's so little real opportunity for distribution that it seems a particular shame when guys like Ryan Spindell have only produced shorts. I'm not complaining (his work is excellent), merely hoping he has the means to continue. Spindell's latest, The Babysitter Murders, is so expertly composited that it would be kind of a shame to dissect it at all. Sufficed to say that it unearths a new place to take Wes Craven's Scream meta funhouse, and does it without a hint of smugness or show-off-y insecurity. It's beautifully paced, conceived, and executed. Look at a cooking scene early on, set to "Fast & Sweet" by Mondo Boys feat. Kestrin Pantera--the way it's shot and edited, the way Elie Smolkin's camera stalks and Eric Ekman cuts it all together. The movie's premise--a babysitter alone on a stormy night when a psycho escapes from an asylum--is as rote as they come, but Spindell, as he did with The Root of the Problem and dentists, finds something new to say. The performances are to a one pitch-perfect and the gore is appropriately horrifying; it's a film balanced in that space between hilarity for its excess and hilarity for its brilliance. I'm out of superlatives. Spindell is one of the finest voices working in genre right now, carving out a niche that's neither self-serious nor self-abnegating. He's full of joy, this one, and his movies are treasures.
In case you missed them, Walter Chaw has covered three of this weekend's biggest theatrical releases--the new Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), the new del Toro (Crimson Peak), and the new Give Brie Larson an Oscar (Room)--as well as the first major motion picture to debut on Netflix, Beasts of No Nation. Happy reading!
by Walter Chaw Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a mess and it knows it. It's unruly, barely contained, just this side of completely falling apart. There are many and distracting continuity errors, and though it makes a joke of it, it's clear immediately that the movie doesn't know how to start, much less end. It has an engaging, irrepressible heroine it strands at the moment she should be doing something ("Am I supposed to be...doing something?" she actually asks), and it has a visit to a memorabilia/collectibles store run by unusual proprietors that is packed to the girders with Brad Bird ephemera of the Iron Giant and Incredibles variety. Tomorrowland has hanging about it, in other words, all the elements of disaster: winky meta references, lack of narrative cohesion, desperation-born mistakes, bad screenwriter/Nick-Riviera-bad script doctor Damon Lindelof as Bird's co-author...and yet it's good somehow. Credit Bird, who knows his way around spatial relationships, and credit a simple, plaintive idea that the world can be better if we believe that it can be better. If the sign of a great filmmaker is his ability to make a bad actor seem good, Bird is a frickin' genius for making something Lindelof worked on not an utter catastrophe. It's big and simple and corny in a Lone Ranger, Captain America, Silver Age Superman kind of way--the kind of big and simple and corny I can get behind.
*/**** starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Jim Beaver written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw I love Guillermo del Toro. I love the ethic driving Cronos and The Devil's Backbone and the Frankenstein and Pinocchio myths driving Mimic. I love the Prodigal Son of Blade II, the ferocity, of course, and vision of Pan's Labyrinth, and all of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, my favourite of his films; every frame is wonder. I didn't like Pacific Rim but I did think it was at least all-in and there's something to be said for that. And now here's Crimson Peak, which is just, you know, really bad and for no one. I have a friend who referred to del Toro's book version of The Strain (I've never read it) as arrogant. I didn't understand that, but it tickled during Pacific Rim and has found full flower now in Crimson Peak. There's a point at which someone who is an expert in something can go from teacher to pedant. What begins as a conversation, nurturing and full of joy, becomes patronizing and solipsistic. I myself probably crossed over years ago. Now I have company. Del Toro at his best shares what he loves. At his worst (and Crimson Peak is del Toro at his worst, by a long shot), he believes that he's talking over your head. You couldn't possibly understand. You'll never catch all his references, he says. And suddenly the party's over and he's all by himself in his self-aggrandizing echo chamber of curiosities.
*/**** starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Steven Spielberg is the great Hollywood pastry tube. He's packed to the brim with sugary, awards-season sweetness, and he extrudes little nuggets of prestige with the greased regularity of a lifelong prune-eater. In his latest bit of machine-tooled calculation, Bridge of Spies, he makes the unintentional statement during his patented unforgivable epilogue that the American public is a disgusting, moronic, animalistic mob ruled by prejudices and the media (which is the foundation of a different, good movie on the subject of Bridge of Spies)--ironic, because it's those very deficiencies in critical discernment, moral certitude, and sophistication that Spielberg has made a cottage career of taking advantage of. If it's true that all films manipulate but we only complain when they do it poorly (and it's more true than not), then let me complain that Spielberg is an absolute visual savant--proof of it in the first ten, wordless minutes of Bridge of Spies (compare it to the wordless section of Amistad)--and an absolute pandering whore in his inability to deliver an ambiguous ending. He's said as much. He's the only living director who could turn out a masterpiece from a Philip K. Dick short story and ruin it with a sunshine double-happiness lollipop of a ridiculous Hollywood ending. But have no fear: Bridge of Spies never threatens to be a masterpiece for even a moment. It's no Munich or Saving Private Ryan--more like The Terminal. Bridge of Spies is decrepit, highly-polished garbage from almost the beginning, with no relief from its elderly ministrations all the way through to the end.
by Walter Chaw Swede Christian Hallman's first feature, Sensoria, sports a couple of nice, creepy moments but ultimately adds little to the "we have always been here" subgenre of haunted-house movies. In this iteration, Caroline (Lanna Ohlsson), freshly single and lamenting that her circle of friends consists largely of digital phantoms offering ephemeral support through social media, discovers that her new bachelorette pad is maybe haunted by the ghost of a little dead girl, My (Norah Anderson). Not helping her isolation and increasing paranoia are a pervy landlord and a dotty old lady of the kind that Ruth Gordon would have played once upon a time. Sensoria touches base with films as diverse as Don't Look Now and Dark Water (especially the Walter Salles version--the superior one, in my unpopular view), finding some traction in Caroline's frequent trips to the attic and basement but losing it in plotting so familiar that the only audience for the film has already lapped it a couple of times once it's ready for its revelations. Though Ohlsson is fantastic in a role that demands her centre-screen for the majority of it, Caroline feels curiously underwritten. I never really grokked her loneliness; and then I never felt anything like the maternal warmth that would make sense of the picture's "be careful what you ask for" ending. At the end of the day, it's a fine debut for a director who demonstrates a nice touch with certain closed-room scenarios, yet seems lost when presented with a feature's length worth of space and its attendant requirements.
***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+ screenplay by John Musker & Ron Clements and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Portions of this review, including the first four paragraphs, were originally published on October 5, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Jeffrey Katzenberg may have revived the American animated feature while he was at Disney, but only one of the hits his reign yielded is worth a second viewing. Where 1989's The Little Mermaid and especially 1991's nauseating Beauty and the Beast tried to pass themselves off as Golden Age Disney (1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)-1950 (Cinderella), for argument's sake), before a certain stateliness loosened its grip on the house style, 1992's Aladdin took its cue from Uncle Walt's twilight years, the Sixties, when he was interested in telling--as he geared up to pass the torch, perhaps--mentor stories (The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book) and pop culture had finally caught up with his incongruous predilections for psychedelia and bohemianism. It's a risk to emulate the period considered the birth of the studio's Dark Ages, and Aladdin is the least spurious movie of Disney's renaissance because of it.
***½/**** 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.
GHOULIES **½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B- starring Peter Liapis, Lisa Pelikan, Michael Des Barres, Jack Nance screenplay by Luca Bercovici and Jefery Levy directed by Luca Bercovici
GHOULIES II ***/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B- starring Damon Martin, Royal Dano, Phil Fondacaro, J. Downing screenplay by Charlie Dolan and Dennis Paoli directed by Albert Band
by Jefferson Robbins Not rip-off, not homage, but something in the water. Luca Bercovici's 1985 Ghoulies, from the lo-fi film factory of Charles Band, felt on release like a ploy to frack cash out of Joe Dante's Gremlins from the year before. In fact it had a parallel development, launching pre-production in 1983 under the working title Beasties and formally premiering in Britain in November of 1984. It also boasts a far weirder strain of presentation than Dante's peak, something Lynchian that goes beyond the mere presence of Jack Nance. It has its passel of '80s "teen" types harassed by horrors, sure: the stoner(s), the ladykiller, the nerd--not to mention their attendant ladies, none of whom are given much personality, resulting in a deeply uninteresting film debut for young Mariska Hargitay. But their mannerisms in large part are so outré and alienating, it's at times like watching an underfinanced dinner-theatre preview of 1986's Blue Velvet. And then the dead warlock bursts out of the ground to be attended by a clutch of grody puppets.
X+Y ½*/**** starring Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan screenplay by James Graham directed by Morgan Matthews
by Walter Chaw Reminding most of Camp in that it's ultimately more of a zoo for curiosities than an invitation for empathy, here's A Brilliant Young Mind, which posits, among all the Rain Man things it posits about autism, that the Chinese, besides being good at backflips, are very good at math. For the Chinese, you see, math is like art. It says so in this book that was written over the course of a thousand years. For the type of audience that gets off on those Olympics puff pieces where the Chinese are portrayed as opportunistic monsters who sell their children to the national team, it's a special sort of Eurocentric auto-flattery. The implication, see, is that although you're about to lose to the Chinese, they're still morally inferior to you. The Chinese, you understand, don't love their children. And they're good at math. Also, they're sexually naive, you know, because it's not like Asia is horrifically over-populated or anything. Later, a British guy quotes Keats in relation to how if truth is beauty and beauty is truth, then math must be the most beautiful thing of all. It's that kind of movie. The kind of movie with a score of industrious violin pulls and ambitious, then sad, keyboards. It has a moment where the evil dragon uncle of the Chinese mathlympians shouts, in perfect Mandarin, "What are you two doing?" and the film translates it as, "Are you in a relationship?" It's that kind of movie. You'll like it if you're that kind of person.
A la recherche de l'Ultra-Sex ½*/**** directed by Nicolas Charlet & Bruno Lavaine
by Walter Chaw I saw a hacked anime once--pre-Adult Swim and projects of that ilk--that took place on a flying aircraft carrier and had been re-dubbed so that all the characters were offering different euphemisms for flatulence. My favourite was, "I can't seem to take a step without introducing Mr. Wetty." It lasted about four minutes and I enjoyed a good three-and-a-half of it. Nicholas Charlet and Bruno Lavaine's In Search of the Ultra-Sex is a full hour of R-rated excerpts from classic porn, dubbed to be a Plan 9 from Outer Space thing involving alien plots and the contagion that's made everyone on Earth randy as shit and humping helplessly. It's a way to address the arbitrary madness of porn set-ups, I guess--or it could be, but all the filmmakers do is act silly and hope that we'll want to indulge in that silliness with them. Even if it successfully skewered the arbitrary inanity of porn plots, I mean...to what end? There aren't a lot of fish more sluggish nor barrels much smaller. I went into it hoping for a "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?" and was disappointed but managed to enjoy a portion of it from a purely nostalgic perspective--the same nostalgia I could indulge with the right Google search, as it happens. To its credit, it isn't long. To its detriment, it's longer than three-and-a-half minutes.
*½/**** starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
by Walter Chaw Completely adequate from start to finish, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Mississippi Grind is essentially California Split without the stylistic innovation or sense of sadness and danger. In it, down-on-his luck gambling addict and self-proclaimed "not a good guy" Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) runs into bon vivant gambling addict Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who Cheap Thrills Gerry into a series of escalating gambles before whisking him away on a journey to the Big Game. There's a tremendous scene right in the middle with a loan shark played by the great Alfre Woodard that showcases both her immense warmth and her sudden steel. There's also a whore with a heart of gold (Sienna Miller) and a winsome epilogue that suggests, The Wrestler-like, that this big, lovable, broken-down lug just can't get out of his own way, gosh darn it--isn't that a shame? It is. It's a terrible shame.