by Walter Chaw I've been better now for a long time. I get depressed. I'm in recovery, and it's going well. There's a line in a new song by The National that makes me cry every time I hear it. It goes:
*/**** written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
by Walter Chaw I love stop-motion animation. William Blake referred to the "infernal method," talking about etching plates with acid and how each print of his work would be touched by him, the artist, to better imbue it with life. Stop-motion animation to me is evidence that there's something to the idea of a transference of vitality through human contact. It's why I was curious about Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's insane Loving Vincent, a feature-length film composed of over 65,000 hand-painted oil paintings, animating Van Gogh's most famous paintings and making characters of his subjects. It's a fascinating experiment, the product of one of those late-night bull sessions fuelled by cigarettes and whiskey where aspiring artist-types and freshman cosmology students get profound with one another. Consider Loving Vincent to be the cold reality of the morning after. Over 100 artists laboured over 10 years to essentially make a tedious rotoscope cartoon held together, barely, by an embarrassing screenplay dependent on loads of exposition and a repetitive flashback device. It's an endurance test of rare sadism.
****/**** starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill written and directed by Paul Schrader
by Walter Chaw The title character of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is consumed by his inconsequence. Determined to make a difference, he can't even make an impression on the vile inhabitants of the little town that is his parish. It consumes him. It kills him. No one notices. There's nothing to notice. Bresson doesn't even bother to show it. The priest's voiceovers become more urgent, though his faith never flags. He develops terrible stomach pains he seeks to soothe with an austere diet of bread soaked in wine: the Host, I guess, that nourishes communion with the holy spirit, but also the cancer in his gut that consumes him. His last words? "All is grace." Paul Schrader, raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, which basically believes that Christians don't earn their salvation but rather receive it as a gift they don't deserve, has made it his life's work to react against his faith--and to live it, too, when reaction fails. Towards the end of his new film, First Reformed, the priest, Toller (Ethan Hawke), writes on his church's whiteboard "Will God Forgive Us?," which is less Calvinist--God already has forgiven us--than a sign of a faith in severe crisis. Schrader's riffed on Bresson's film before with his script for Taxi Driver, still his best-known work despite a career littered with masterpieces of individual fears, men in isolation from God, and spiritual self-loathing. In Taxi Driver, the Priest is a sociopath driving through a Times Square hellscape, praying for the apocalypse to come as a purifying, obliterating rain. He tries to kill himself, but becomes a hero instead. First Reformed is either less cynical or more cynical than that. It's complicated.
**½/**** starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Greta Gerwig
by Walter Chaw Greta Gerwig's hyphenate debut bears the influence of erstwhile collaborator Noah Baumbach's urbane micro-comedies--Hal Hartley's, too, along with some DNA borrowed from Ghost World and Welcome to the Dollhouse for spice. It's a talky domestic drama featuring a precocious, strong-willed iconoclast who has named herself "Lady Bird" (Saoirse Ronan) and is, as a character, the best description of the film that houses her. She's smart but not book-smart and, in the end, not smart enough to avoid having her heart broken by a couple of bad decisions on her way out of senior year in high-school and the great grey beast Sacramento. She tells her first boyfriend, Danny (the already-great Lucas Hedges), that she's from the "wrong side of the tracks," which, when he lets it slip in front of Lady Bird's mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), obviously hurts Marion's feelings a lot, but she bites her lip. When he does it, he's there to pick up Lady Bird for Thanksgiving at his grandmother's place. His grandmother lives in the nicest house on the other side of the tracks and, to feel better about her life, Lady Bird tells her shallow new "bestie" Jenna (Odeya Rush) that it's Lady Bird's own house. A miserabilist story about the horror of adolescence that is obviously helmed by a first-timer, Lady Bird is redeemed by a cast so sterling that I actually wished the film were longer. It's that kind of movie.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers ***½/**** starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng screenplay by Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie directed by Angelina Jolie
by Walter Chaw Angelina Jolie gets a lot of shit for being Angelina Jolie. She's mocked for adopting children from places in the world that need more kindness and attention. Her behaviour as a young woman is brought up constantly to shame her. Her recent separation from Brad Pitt is held up as proof of...something. I haven't liked her previous films as director, but I saw no malice in them. I suggested after Unbroken that she should stop making movies, maybe focus on her philanthropy. It's a good thing I don't know what I'm talking about. First They Killed My Father, adapted from Loung Ung's memoir by Ung herself (with Jolie), is a beautiful, elliptical, child's-eye war film that lands somewhere between Empire of the Sun and Come and See. Jolie is the prime example of a child of extreme privilege who has awakened to that privilege, who still stumbles now and again in her more self-aggrandizing moments but for all that hasn't started a weird product catalogue and advised women to steam their vagina. It's galling to hear about sensitivity from someone who's new to it, I think; easier to go after her for an acting exercise reported in VANITY FAIR where she had auditioning Cambodian children hold money, ask them what they would use the money for, and then ask them to react to the money being taken away from them. Who could defend that sort of cruelty? No one could. I'm doubtful it happened that way.
***/**** starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn screenplay by Anthony McCarten directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw Joe Wright's propulsive, compelling, awards-season prestige biopic Darkest Hour finds Gary Oldman in fine fettle, delivering a rousing performance as WWII-era Winston Churchill, from the moment of his usurpation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for the Prime Minister-ship through to the beginning of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It's a film about the suddenly-controversial position of not appeasing Nazis and the importance of rhetoric as a skill in our leadership. (Churchill uses Cicero as reference material.) It's about principles and erudition. A shame that both seem suddenly in such short supply. When Churchill addresses Parliament in his famous "We will never surrender" speech, chief political rival Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) mutters that Winston's just mobilized the English language. Trapped as we are now as a nation under an illiterate, sub-human moron and Nazi sympathizer who is some combination of demented and narcissistic, I confess I got emotional a time or two imagining there were once leaders in the world of whom we could be proud and behind whom we could rally. A shame that it seems so much like quaint science-fiction as we work through our forever-war scenarios and jockey for battle against Southeast Asia again. Darkest Hour, in other words, feels aspirational rather than historical, finding its greatest tensions in the disagreement within Churchill's war council over whether or not the British Empire should "hear out" the Nazis in order to avoid conflict, or whether they should make a stand and, should they be defeated, at least be defeated knowing the empire stood for something. Churchill says that great civilizations that fought and were conquered tend to rise again--but civilizations that capitulate tend to be swallowed by history. Call Darkest Hour a warning about the poison diminishing the United States, though I doubt we're listening.
**½/**** starring Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds screenplay by Brian Selznick, based on his book directed by Todd Haynes
by Walter Chaw I like the way Todd Haynes's Wonderstruck moves. It glides from one vignette to the next, one setting to another, one era to a previous one. It shifts from a 1977-set Times Square scored by that Deodato disco remix of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the one Hal Ashby used for Chauncey's first stroll in Being There) to a silent movie where a deaf/mute girl (Millicent Simonds) looks for her mother (Julianne Moore), a silent film star who's apparently left her behind for the bright lights, big city. Based on Brian Selznick's children's novel, just like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Wonderstruck suffers from the same problem as Scorsese's film: mainly, that it's based on a kid's book that's mostly pictures and therefore plotted around a central twist neither surprising nor instructive. It is simultaneously too much for what it is, and not enough. I still like the way Wonderstruck moves, though, as Haynes stakes his claim again as the king of winsome nostalgia, telling the story of poor little Ben (Oakes Fegley), who's just lost his mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), but not before (in flashback) she's refused to tell Ben who his father is. She does, however, make him interested in David Bowie before she goes, so it could be worse.
***/**** starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw I watched Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water in a packed auditorium in Telluride, CO as a torrential rainstorm pounded the roof of what is, outside of the festival, an ice-skating rink, perched there with a park in front of it, the headwaters of the San Miguel to one side and the mountains to the other and all around. As the main character, cleaning lady Eliza (Sally Hawkins), turned on water for her bath, the cascading cacophony in the theatre joined in with a warm insularity I always equate with the Mandarin term for "cozy": two words that mean, or at least sound like they mean, "warm" and "noisy." The Shape of Water is like that, too, a gothic romance in the new del Toro style (after Crimson Peak, which, for me, was more noisy than warm, but mileage varies), which del Toro introduced as the evocation of a fantasy he had as a child upon watching Creature from the Black Lagoon in which the Creature falls in love with the girl and they live happily ever after. That's it, and were that truly it, The Shape of Water would be an instant classic rather than an acquired taste, perhaps--a future cult classic, certainly, that is forgiven for its odd digressions while justly-celebrated for its audacity. It's a triumph when it focuses in on the essential loneliness of misfits (the melancholic, Romanticist engine that drives del Toro's Hellboy movies), but in a subplot involving Russian spies, it becomes for long minutes time spent away from what works in favour of time spent with what doesn't. When del Toro has allowed intrusions like this in the past (see: his early masterpieces The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth), it's been up to us to infer the connection between his dark fables and his political concerns. Here he brings the subtext into text at a cost to the "warm/noisy" coziness of his work. For del Toro, insularity is a strength.
½*/**** starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman written by Simon Beaufoy directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
by Walter Chaw A movie that will make no one uncomfortable while reassuring the most blinkered that they've given at the office, Battle of the Sexes could be directed by anyone, star anyone, and it would still be exactly the same edgeless, meaningless, obsequious, instantly-obsolete artifact, desperate to be loved, expecting to be feted come awards season. It's the casserole recipe that won in 1950, and Emma Stone continues her terrifying run as Audrey Hepburn's career by ticking off her Children's Hour/LGBTQ-sensitivity check-box. Stone's blank, not "effortless" but rather "not trying" and "under-written" performance, is essentially a black wig, glasses, and a half-open pucker. Her Billie Jean King is a cipher who mouths platitudes about "equality" when what she really means is that she's a vacuous narcissist who steamrolls everyone trying to help her in a movie that is in fact as woman-hating as the men it sets up as straw...well, men. To be clear, Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match does not mean that women and men are "equal." It doesn't mean they're unequal, either. It actually means nothing. Indeed, that King, at the age of 29, in peak condition and at the pinnacle of her profession and training hard, beat a 55-year-old former world champion whom the film takes pains to reassure is not only not training, but also drinking and womanizing and popping mysterious pills while doing a full-blitz promotional campaign (he played the entire first set in a branded windbreaker), says the opposite, I think, of the intended message. Understand that at this point in the sport, in 2017, it's not controversial that women and men do not compete at the same level. You're getting mad, I can tell. This is Serena Williams, the undisputedly greatest woman tennis player in the history of the sport, in 2013 on "Late Night with David Letterman":
ZERO STARS/**** starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw Imagine if Tracy Flick, the energetic, demonic high-school overachiever in Alexander Payne's brilliant Election, were a Vietnamese exchange student, heavily and hilariously accented. That's one of the things wrong with Payne's excruciating downsizing, a film that takes his now-trademark twee misanthropy and mashes it up against this pretense of Swiftian social satire that sets the Sisyphus-like struggle of the bedraggled Everyman against a fatalistic backdrop of environmental apocalypse. It's a broad discourse on a lot of things: poverty and the failure of capitalism; the United States tearing itself apart along arbitrary class distinctions politicized into dramas of dominance and oppression. It's also about a filmmaker using science-fiction as a cudgel, swinging it about as disrespectfully as he does extreme racial caricaturing and destined to hold it up as a shield when whatever opposition comes rolling in to protest a film that mainstream publications out of Venice are already proclaiming some kind of contemporary masterpiece. It's like George Lucas all over again, but imagine if it were like Charlie Kaufman instead. For me, when you have an Asian character as problematic as Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a figure set up as both an object of derision and a holy relic, everything else is drowned out in that noise.
Go to the thrift store on the main street. There's always something there--old festival gear, glass-framed posters, sweatshirts (because it's never not colder here than you expect it to be). Especially go there at night after the trams stop running and you're walking in the pitch black on the side of a mountain. I've done this without a flashlight and with a dead cell phone and it's terrifying. Also, there's no air. Also, there are bears.
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.