Dirt */**** (d. Darius Clark Monroe) One of those time-loop conceits that opens with a guy burying a body and ends with...no, not telling. Dirt has an issue with editing and looping, the fallout being that image overlaps noise, confusing function. It's possible to do this meaningfully; it's also possible to junk it up so completely that every transition begins with unnecessary obfuscation. That's what's happened here. Dirt isn't promising, but it is brief.
by Walter Chaw Towards the end of Errol Morris's fitfully-fascinating portrait of legendary large-format Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, Dorfman, looking at one of the dozens of snapshots she's taken of the late Alan Ginsberg, says that maybe the true life of a photo isn't revealed until the subject has died. It's the emotional fulcrum of this brief piece, as the now-79-year-old Dorfman looks back on a lifetime of pictures taken while she went from being a single "New York Jew" without direction to a hob-nobber among the Greenwich Village crowd. Ensconced at Morris's bequest in her studio's backroom, she's dwarfed by a cluttered drafting table on the one side and rows and stacks of archived portraits on the other. As she opens each cabinet, Morris captures the delight and surprise of her rediscovering the "discards" of her customers (they pick one to keep; the other she dubs "the B-side" and ferrets away), reading the detailed captions she's left on them.
½*/**** starring Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the story by E.L. Doctorow directed by Robin Swicord
by Walter Chaw Angry businessman Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) tunes in and drops out when, after chasing a raccoon into the unused attic of his garage, he decides to live there for a few months, spying on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their twin "budding adolescent" girls (as E.L. Doctorow, author of the story upon which this is based, calls them). There's a 1990 Jan Egleson film called A Shock to the System that sees a Howard Wakefield type played by Michael Caine mordantly, hilariously deciding to take control of his life through a series of carefully-planned murders. Robin Swicord's Wakefield aspires to be an updating of this but is hampered by the fact of Robin Swicord. Take the moment where Howard watches his long-suffering spouse dump his dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Cut to the next day, with Howard opening the lid and looking down at it. Flashback to Diana dumping the dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Yes, Swicord is so literal-minded and inept that she has offered gaffed viewers a flashback to a scene that just happened.
****/**** starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
by Walter Chaw Kenneth Lonergan is a brilliant writer who specializes in small interpersonal moments. His plays are extraordinary. The two previous films he directed, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, are masterful portraits of human failure and weakness. He is a poet of imperfection and imperfect resolution. Margaret gained attention for the lengths to which Lonergan fought for a cut that exceeded a contracted-upon two-and-a-half-hour running time. Martin Scorsese, with whom Lonergan collaborated on the script for Gangs of New York, helped facilitate a 165-minute cut that to my knowledge has never been screened. When Margaret finally hit home video after a swell of support from online advocates, the long version had inflated to 186 minutes. I've only seen the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. I love them both. I rarely wish movies were longer; Lonergan's are the exception. That has something to do with his writing, of course, and something to do with his casts, who, to a one, have contributed extraordinary work--perhaps the best work of their careers. Crucially, Lonergan trusts them to deliver his words. He doesn't garnish them with gaudy camera angles, or underscore them with expository soundtrack cues. Mark Ruffalo once said of Lonergan, affectionately, that the playwright was only playing at being humble. For me, however Lonergan is with other people, his humility comes through in the extent to which he allows his actors to do their job.
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes of Werner Herzog's 104-minute Into the Inferno is recycled footage from his own Encounters at the End of the World. Another 20 is a strange diversion into the discovery of a hominid skeleton in Africa featuring a particularly excitable paleoanthropologist. This leaves roughly an hour for the cultural/anthropological examination of cults sprung up around active volcanoes the movie promises, and at least a portion of that is devoted to the amazing footage captured by the late Katia and Maurice Krafft, who, like Kilgore on the beach, never thought they could be killed by the fire. They were. It's the kind of gallows revelation that is the purview of Herzog's mordant documentaries. He is at least as good at this as he is at his more traditional fictions. But Into the Inferno seems tossed-off and unfocused, and not even a partnership with affable British vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer can help Herzog ground this material. A previous incarnation of the filmmaker would find him stealthily building a profile of a man who spends his life staring into magma pools, perched at the edge of pyroclasmic calamity. This Herzog interviews a few chiefs of island cultures, the most fascinating of whom has decided that an American airman lives in the lava and will one day emerge to shower the villagers with a bounty of consumer goods.
**/**** starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald screenplay by David Harrower, based on his play "Blackbird" directed by Benedict Andrews
by Walter Chaw Theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his feature-film debut with the best Patrick Marber stage adaptation that isn't from a Patrick Marber play, Una. (The play is actually David Harrower's "Blackbird", adapted for the screen by Harrower.) It's kind of a low bar, let's be honest. Una is about Una, who, as a 13-year-old child, is raped by Ray. But young Una (Ruby Stokes) thinks that she loves Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and Ray, a sick fuck, is sure that he loves Una. This is Lolita told from the point-of-view of Controversial Playwright: Harrower stirs the shit and Andrews does his best to expand what's probably a one-room drama into a warren of warehouse offices, an apartment, a dinner party, and lots of flashbacks. The strategy appears to be a lot of walking around and then stopping to exchange twenty pages of gravid dialogue. The best things about Una (and they're fantastic) are Rooney Mara, who plays the title character as an adult, and Mendelsohn. Mara is growing on me, and if Mendelsohn has ever given a bad performance, I can't remember it. These two have a genuine fission in their interplay that makes it all feel dangerous. When Ray turns tender at the end, smoothing 28-year-old Una's hair and telling her she was the only 13-year-old he's ever been attracted to, there's a beat--maybe two--before you hear what he's saying.
****/**** starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Walter Chaw Based on a humdinger of a Ted Chiang short story called "Story of Your Life," Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, while changing a detail here and there, distils the emotionality of the story, honours the science of it, and goes places the premise naturally indicates that it might. It clarifies without simplifying. It posits as its hero Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, who has never been better), a brilliant linguistics professor enlisted by the military to try to communicate with the things in the giant spacecraft that have appeared in twelve different locations around the planet. Not all of them, mind--just the ones in Montana. The others are their problem. Arrival suggests that the first complication of this story of our lives is that there are pronouns other than "us" in matters of international import. It reminds of The Abyss in its tale of an alien arrival that requires human cooperation, but whose purpose doesn't appear to be to coerce a response through a show of force. They just hang there, waiting for us to learn their language. That's an important point. It's something to think about.
*/**** starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Finn Wittrock, J.K. Simmons written and directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's La La Land is sort of like Down with Love and also sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, derivative in the way that things are derivative when they have no real knowledge of or even maybe affection for the things from which they ostensibly derive. At the least, the picture demonstrates no real knowledge of the Hollywood musical. It's homage in the same way that "Stranger Things" is homage. It's beard oil, suspenders, and craft beer: The Movie. It's homage the way that putting a tutu on a dog pays homage to ballet. When something is this familiar, its set-pieces need to be extraordinary. Howard Hawks understood this. Vincente Minnelli, of course. Stanley Donen? Stop yourself. Yes. When Chazelle does the two or three blow-out sequences meant to dazzle, all they do is seem psychotic. The best thing about his Whiplash is arguably its editing. (It won the Oscar.) Now imagine Brigadoon cut like that. Consider the scene in La La Land that ends in a swimming pool, camera spinning deliriously around in a circle like something drowning or getting death-rolled by an alligator. It's intended to be ebullient; it feels panicky and hallucinogenic. It feels like that scene in Seconds where Rock Hudson joins a bacchanal in a grape-stomping vat. Seconds wasn't a good musical, either.
***/**** starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali screenplay by Barry Jenkins directed by Barry Jenkins
by Walter Chaw Barry Jenkins's sophomore feature is lovely. It deals with ideas of masculinity and black culture with sensitivity and a dedicated Romanticism. It's buoyed by a trio of remarkable performers--all playing the same character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life: troubled child, troubled teen, and troubled adult. They share mannerisms. They have the same vulnerable quiver to their lip. I don't know how Jenkins and his team put that together, but there it is and it's among the most affecting things I've seen in a film. It's overwhelming. Visually, Moonlight reminds me a lot of David Gordon Green's similarly lyrical George Washington. It captures a certain reflective poetry in the poverty and privation it depicts. There's a moment in the second section, "ii. Chiron," that finds the teen incarnation (Ashton Sanders), all elbows and gawkiness, alone on a beach with his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), looking up at the stars and discovering for a second who it is that he really is. Jenkins demonstrates patience with medium shots. He frames the boys against the water before them and the city behind them like Eliot's hero, in liminal spaces, experiencing catastrophic change.
by Walter Chaw Telluride rests in a valley on the Western side of Colorado. It sits at 8,750 feet. You have to cross Monarch Pass (elevation approximately 12,000 feet) to get there from where I live, a six-and-a-half hour drive away. If you're doing it right, you walk everywhere in Telluride, taking the free gondola service over the longer stretches up and down the mountain, and feeling the sharp constriction in your chest when your body, even one acclimated to a mile above sea level, discovers there's noticeably less oxygen to breathe at such great heights. I wonder if mild hypoxia has something to do with my euphoria while I'm here. I am the best version of myself at the Telluride Film Festival, even as the festival itself continues to subtly decline by inevitably becoming more beholden to middlebrow interests and tastes at the same pace it now sells out the highest level of ticket package they make available. Not the ones you can buy off the website, the ones you secure through $100,000 donations.