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.
Italiensk for begyndere ***/**** starring Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen written and directed by Lone Scherfig
by Walter Chaw Dogme 95 is a naïve and self-gratifying cinematic movement founded by Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring. Between them they drafted a(n oft-betrayed) manifesto dedicated to "rescuing" motion pictures from artifice by forbidding special lighting and props brought in from off-site, by advocating handheld camerawork, and by urging an avoidance of recognizable genre definitions. Too often that obsession with bypassing convention plays a little like convention; over the course of eleven films, it has defined a disquieting genre all its own.
*/**** 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.
*/**** starring Scarlett Johansson, Erika Christensen, Chris Evans, Darius Miles screenplay by Mark Schwahn and Marc Hyman & Jon Zack directed by Brian Robbins
by Walter Chaw A remake in quality and spirit of the "what were they thinking" classic Hackers, Brian Robbins's The Perfect Score is one of those stunted adolescent teensploitation flicks that makes one pine for the suddenly-glory days of Fresh Horses and The Breakfast Club--which, as it happens, seems to serve as this flick's carbuncular muse. A band of five disparate high school washouts meet in detention--errr, during a PSAT test--and plot to steal the answers from SAT headquarters. The Jock is played by real-life jock Darius Miles; the basket case is Roy (Leonardo Nam); the princess is Anna (an even more zombie-like than usual Erika Christensen); the brain is Francesca (Scarlett Johansson); and the punk is Kyle (Chris Evans). It takes some doing, it goes without saying, to cause one to reassess the acting acumen of the Brat Pack.
½*/**** starring Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Sara Foster, Charlie Sheen screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard directed by George Armitage
by Walter Chaw By the end of The Big Bounce, I was mildly surprised that it was still the same day I sat down to watch it. The film is aspiring to give Owen Wilson the role of the breezy, insouciant rake popularized by authors like Gregory MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen, and, more to the point, Elmore Leonard (who I guess wrote the source material, previously adapted into a vehicle for Ryan O'Neal), but succeeds mainly in making the likable Wilson tedious. More a mood piece than a heist flick, The Big Bounce also casts ex-MTV news anchorperson Sara Foster as some kind of femme fatale so vacuous, so bad an actress, that although she's stunning in a Nicolette Sheridan sort of way, she fails to convince that there's enough going on upstairs to be even vaguely dangerous. Foster's entire performance is a yellow bikini and a variety of lucky sheets used as impromptu wraps--an object who never convinces that she's an object on purpose.
Innocence ****/**** written and directed by Mamoru Oshii
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW **½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi written and directed by Kerry Conran
Le Temps du loup ****/**** starring Isabelle Huppert, Béatrice Dalle, Patrice Chéreau, Rona Hartner written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Walter Chaw For me, the most intoxicating visions of the future are those in which we're drowning in an ocean of our past--garbage, wreckage, Romes burned to a cinder and heaped against the new Meccas of our collective tomorrows. Star Wars proffered a kind of aesthetic of dirt that appealed: a wonderland where the spaceships looked like they'd been flown and there were places like Mos Eisley that reeked of stale liquor, sawdust, and cigarettes. (The distance that George Lucas has gone to disinfect his grubby vision of the future is the same distance that esteem for the franchise has fallen amongst all but the most die-hard chattel.) Among the spearhead of a group of artists who redefined the science-fiction genre in film the same way that Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah scuffed-up the western in the Sixties, Ridley Scott evolved the idea of a functional future, with his Alien and Blade Runner serving as visual echoes of T.S. Eliot's broken stones and fragments shored against our ruins. Terry Gilliam defined the aesthetic when describing his rationale for the look of Brazil (1985): he wanted it to seem as though the whole century had been compacted into a single moment. The timeless "someday soon" that is always just around a corner that never comes.
TRANSAMERICA **/**** starring Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene written and directed by Duncan Tucker
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS *½/**** starring Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Christopher Guest screenplay by Martin Sherman directed by Stephen Frears
by Walter Chaw Duncan Tucker makes his hyphenate debut with Transamerica, one of the first pictures distributed by the Weinsteins under their new aegis. Predictably, all the earmarks of the earnest indie genre Miramax blazed are cemented into place: it's over-written when it's not overreliant on a soundtrack of ethnically-cued melodies (the wood flute marks the appearance of an Indian, for instance) and folksy ballads (I challenge you not to 'pit up when a tune about a rose blooming accompanies our hero swapping his "outie" for an "innie"); narratively creaky; and hangs its hopes on its star, Felicity Huffman, to impose nuance where there is none. Huffman's performance being the sort of stunt in a minor independent film that plays fast and loose with smug liberal paternalism should guarantee her an Oscar nomination--and it can't hurt that another Leonardo DiCaprio doppelgänger arrives post-Michael Pitt in the form of Kevin Zegers, trailing a little pathos and a little inappropriate titillation on his thin shoulders.
***/**** starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle directed by Clint Eastwood
by Angelo Muredda After delivering the first funereal jukebox musical in Jersey Boys just last summer, Clint Eastwood returns to better-fitting material with American Sniper, his most muscular and dramatically charged work in years, for whatever that's worth. The common thinking about Eastwood these days--at least, outside the critical circle that deems his every tasteful composition and mild camera movement a classical masterstroke--is that his internal compass for choosing projects has been off for a while, making him susceptible to the bad taste of undistinguished screenwriters. What's interesting about American Sniper, which works from a dicey script by Jason Hall that's always in danger of becoming either a rote action thriller meted out in shootouts or a rote antiwar melodrama about how veterans never quite make it back home, is how obstinately it resists this narrative. Contrary to the vision of Eastwood as an efficient director prone to gliding on autopilot, American Sniper shows him forging something tough and difficult to grasp out of what might have been on-the-nose material.
½*/**** starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bryan Brown written and directed by John Hamburg
by Walter Chaw A half-baked, underfed comedy of body function that doesn't even manage the wit to successfully honour the threadbare conventions of its idiot slapstick sub-genre, Along Came Polly isn't offensive so much as apocalyptically tiresome. Even at an anaemic eighty-five minutes, the film drags somehow, limping across the finish line with an ass rimshot that isn't funny at the beginning of the picture with Hank Azaria and hasn't gotten any funnier by the end of it with Ben Stiller. How something so indebted to dozens upon dozens of other films can't get the imitation right buggers the imagination, providing a nation of yearning hacks that dulcet feeling of hope that results in a few more horrifically inept screenplays (produced and directed with commensurate incompetence) just like this one probably in the first half of 2004 alone. Bleak doesn't even begin to describe it.
GLORY ROAD ½*/**** starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Emily Deschanel, Jon Voight screenplay by Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois and Gregory Allen Howard directed by James Gartner
LAST HOLIDAY */**** starring Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Gérard Depardieu screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, based on the screenplay by J.B. Priestley directed by Wayne Wang
by Walter Chaw There are two big laughs in Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer's African-American Hoosiers, Glory Road. The first comes when some white guy says derisively, "Can you imagine what basketball dominated by Negroes would look like?", while the sight of defeated Kentucky coaching legend Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight), vilified by history perhaps unfairly (though there's no question that he's vilified unfairly by this film), mourning the loss of the National Championship Game to an upstart team prompts the second. Both moments speak to the biggest problems in a film riddled with little ones: the former because it makes the audience complicit in--and comfortable with--the picture's callousness and casual blanket racism, and the latter because everything that happens in the film is already a foregone conclusion. The only appeal left is rooted in seeing the black players put on exactly the kind of degrading sideshow the picture suggests they're too human for. Glory Road is smug, offensive, and ignorant in the way that films with no self-awareness are ignorant--wrapped in a story designed specifically to make people cheer and believe that this one game in 1966 changed peoples' attitudes towards African-Americans in sports instead of simply bolstering the idea that the black athlete was advantageous and alien rather than just merely alien.
The point illustrates itself early on as Coach Haskins (Josh Lucas) moves his ornamental reaction shot of a wife (Emily Deschanel) and kid (kids? Who knows) to the men's dorm of little Texas Western University in taking over the school's moribund men's basketball program. With no recruiting budget, resourceful Haskins resorts to acquiring seven young black men from across the country (out of his own pocket, it's suggested--so much is suggested and so little demonstrated that the picture's narrative outline must've looked like an ink blot) to institutional asides of "we don't want no nigger ball here," referring to the undisciplined playground style of basketball believed to be played by a race too stupid to learn the nuances of Dr. Naismith's game. Soon enough, after the requisite training montage that includes a lot of running and very little instruction, point guard Bobby (Derek Luke) says, "C'mon coach, you gotta let us play our game." Said "game," of course, proved to be superior and is augmented in true Jerry Bruckheimer-style (producer of this and the identically muddy Remember the Titans) by Magic Johnson/"Showtime" Lakers-era alley-oops off the glass, in-your-face theatrics, and reverse slam-dunks. It's the equivalent in knuckle-headedness of the heroine in the simultaneously-opening Tristan & Isolde somehow channelling John Donne poetry from hundreds of years into the future. These films don't know any other way to give their characters currency and figure that their targeted audiences won't know or care about the difference.
Supporters of Glory Road are interested in history insofar as it can be ground up and shoved into a sausage skin for ease of consumption, orally or otherwise. It suggests that once Haskins arrived at the El Paso campus, he brought with him the first black folks these crackers (other epithets used by the black heroes for their white teammates include "honkey" and "Green Acres" and "Jethro, Ellie May, and Uncle Jed" before their victims protest that at least on the team, they're the minorities) ever laid eyes on when the school had not only tentatively integrated in the Fifties, but had already featured three black players on the basketball team, too. (The team that evil, monolithic Kentucky (which itself tried to recruit legendary, and black, Wes Unseld in 1964, two years prior to the events of the film) beat to play Western Texas in the finals, in fact, featured four-out-of-five black players in the starting line-up.) Important to few, Haskins won the title in his sixth year as coach, not his first--but important to me is a fictional pre-game pep talk that has Haskins expounding at length about how "everyone" thinks the team is a bunch of monkeys. That's pretty risky stuff in a film that itself skirts along the edge of being patronizing exploitation. Soft-sold is the way that the players were essentially imprisoned in their dorms so as not to disturb the rest of the campus: forward Dave Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr in the film), a year removed from the Big Game, offered that "it's a funny place. On the basketball court you're groovy people, but off the court you're animals. Even the Mexicans look down on you." (Jack Olsen, "The Black Athlete," SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 15, 1968, pp. 30-43). (And speaking of Mexicans, there's one on the team so marginalized that he functions as befuddled wallpaper. Power to the people, my brothers.) The requisite ball-breaking earth mama figure is here, too, pushing her son to become a student athlete and scholar. In truth, Haskins received a lot of heat for the academic performance of his recruits:
Winning the title focused national attention on the school, and what was discovered embarrassed Haskins. Most of the Texas Western players were either failing academically, or worse, being carried by the school to keep them eligible. Haskins was publicly accused of exploiting his Black recruits for his own glory. For the first time the question of the intellectual cost of athletic integration was being raised. Yes, a basketball scholarship got these brothers into college. But what good did it do them if they made no progress to a degree? (Nelson George, Elevating the Game, Harper Collins, 1992, pg. 137)
The problems solved by Glory Road are problems still. The NBA instituted a dress code this year in an unspoken effort to align the "thug" culture of modern basketball with the expectations of its largely white upper-middle-to-upper class audience. Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, tattooed, 'do-ragged, and the bane of conservative white culture, told the PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS that "just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn't mean he's a good guy." But more central to the issue are comments made by Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labour relations and human resources for Major League Baseball, when asked whether the MLB was considering following suit: "Because of the nature of our travel and the makeup of our employees, it has never been an issue that we had to centrally regulate." (Italics ours.) What Glory Road does is exacerbate difficult issues by blowing them into a sugared bauble of underdog sports clichés and, more damning, race caricatures and slapstick, sitcom misunderstandings and rapprochements, all excused as artifacts of some distant past. Whites are soulless and stiff, blacks are soulful and groovy; a scene on a bus where the whites compare music with the blacks is paid off with Lattin pulling out a giant speaker to demonstrate, what, that blacks liked their boomboxes even in the '60s? Between its wall-to-wall soundtrack of Motown-for-happy/Gospel-for-serious, its tacked-on love affair, its stock, gloriously-underwritten performances, and its badly-shot and context-less game re-creations, Glory Road is a mostly-fabricated feel-good flick about bigotry and the painful integration of America's public institutions.
Evil in a different way, Queen Latifah's latest turn as champion of the underclass is a remake of a little-known Alec Guinness starrer from 1950, Last Holiday. In it, find Guinness's George Bird transformed into sass-dispenser Georgia Byrd (Latifah), a house wares clerk in a department store (at least she's not wearing her house-mammy uniform from Bringing Down the House) who discovers that she has three weeks to live and proceeds to blow her savings at an exclusive resort in the Czech Republic, where everyone on the street speaks French. (French equals class and expense, Czech equals kidnapping and ransom, I guess.) The early part of the film is shot in pre-deluge New Orleans, lending the piece a good deal of gloomy irony as the very religious Byrd (she has a running monologue with God, throughout) thanks her maker at the end for allowing her to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant in the Big Easy. The message of the piece is less Marxist, though, than it is confirmation that the best things in life aren't free, but in fact very, very expensive--and, moreover, worth it, baby. Byrd's initial repressed spinster-ism (she cooks a gourmet meal...well, an Emeril meal, takes a picture, and then pops in a Lean Cuisine instead) mutates into a sort of Bagger Vance font of down-home wisdom post-diagnosis, using her temporary wealth as the means through which to tug the ears of congressmen and business magnates with her brand of chicken soup for the soul. Georgia saves the world one Abramoff at a time.
It's a remake of not only the Guinness original, then, but also Joe vs. the Volcano and Short Time. A series of wailing protestations sees Georgia taking on the church, the government, the airlines, the broken healthcare system, and, curiously, the proletariat afflictions of having to wait in line. Last Holiday is one part self-defeating social commentary and one part Being There naïf tomfoolery as Latifah, her body-shape often the only punchline, snowboards and base-jumps for the purposes of inspiring rich people. Money can't buy love, except that it can--the picture's self-righteous message concerning the evils of capitalism in its palm-crossed politicos deflated utterly by its message that spending great amounts of cash on yourself is guaranteed happiness. After a night at the roulette table leaves Georgia one-hundred grand richer, the intention of the film is brought home with force as one remembers that she's at a charity event and that this hundred grand, especially in the hands of a terminally-ill woman about to die, would certainly benefit the less-fortunate more than another dress-up montage will. Last Holiday is the filmic equivalent of getting people to vote against their own fiscal self-interests--and if I can't be bothered to discuss the huge crush that co-wage slave Sean (LL Cool J) nurses for Georgia, leading to a weird climax wherein Sean appears to have frozen to death on a glacier, count yourself lucky. It doesn't make any sense (and neither does Gérard Depardieu as a smitten chef or poor Susan Kellerman as Frau Blücher), though what does strike a chord is the idea that to change the world, you gotta be loaded--and that once you're loaded, you're probably loath to change the system that got you there. Isn't that right, Ms. Latifah? You go girl. Originally published: January 13, 2006.
Janghwa, Hongryeon ****/**** starring Kim Kap-su, Jum Jung-ah, Lim Su-jeong, Mun Geun-yeong written and directed by Kim Ji-woon
by Walter Chaw Every frame of Kim Ji-Woon's A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) is like taking a dip in the violet pools of A Place in the Sun-era Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. It's sensuous--and the characters that inhabit the velvet, silk, and wood environments put out their hands to touch, dangle their feet off the end of a wharf in the soft green water below, lay their faces against cool blue sheets touched by crepuscular shadows. This is filmmaking as tactile exercise, and the atmosphere in which Kim houses his debauched delights is something like smothering beneath the tender insistence of a satin glove. A Tale of Two Sisters is based on an old Korean folktale of two sisters so abused by the capriciousness of the world that they're forced to take refuge in one another and within themselves. In tone and execution, it feels like Heavenly Creatures; in its tale of an evil stepmother and a haunted castle by the lake in the woods, it has the heft of classic German fairytales.
****/**** starring Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw Brutal and ignoble, the antithesis of romantic, the violence in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth slaps metal against flesh like the flat of a hand against a steel table. It's the only element of the picture that isn't lush, that isn't laden with the burnished archetype of Catholic superstition as it exists in eternal suspension with the pagan mythologies it cannibalized. By itself, this seems a metaphor for the pain and the magic of how fable turns the inevitability of coming-of-age into ritual. An early scene where hero girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)--a storyteller equal parts experientially innocent and allegorically savvy, making her the manifestation of del Toro's ideal avatar--tells her prenatal brother a story about a rose that blooms nightly on a mountain of thorns touches in one ineffably graceful movement all the picture's themes of immortality, aspiration, isolation, and the promise of escape held, sadistically, just out of reach. There's something of the myth of Tantalus in Ofelia's tale, as much as there is of Lewis Carroll's Alice and the sagas of parental absence by the Brothers Grimm, which surface in the premise of a young girl traveling, as the film opens, with her pregnant mother into the war-torn Spanish countryside during Franco's rule to join her wicked stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López) at his remote outpost. Ofelia will be reminded repeatedly throughout the film that there's no such thing as justice or innocence left in the world, and that the best intentions are crushed by cynicism and rage. The question left as the picture closes has to do with whether Ofelia's taken the lesson to heart, to say nothing of del Toro--or us.
**/**** starring Meryl Streep Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Eileen Atkins screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham directed by Stephen Daldry
by Walter Chaw Nicole Kidman is a wonderful Virginia Woolf--a distracted mess in a film that is a literalization of that description. The only real problem with Kidman's performance is her prosthetic nose--it's a no-win situation in which The Hours finds itself: allow Kidman to look like Kidman as Woolf and there will arise such a clamour of voices; make Kidman look like Woolf and not only is it impossible to stop looking for the line at the bridge, there will still arise such a clamour of voices. The problematical manipulations and presumptions of the rest of the film are as difficult to overlook as the nose stuck on Nicole's face: The Hours is mannered to no good purpose, glowering with no good justification, and the sort of artificial construct that presents life lessons writ large by a cadre of talented performers who recognize a mainstream prestige piece when it presents itself. The only thing that separates The Hours from garbage like A Beautiful Mind (last year's odds-on favourite to disappoint people who care while pleasing people who don't really give a damn and don't remember the morning after anyway) is that its marquee disability is being a woman and, apparently, being a lesbian.