***/**** starring Vince Colosimo, Maria Theodorakis, Judi Farr, Nicholas Bishop screenplay by Roger Monk directed by Tony Ayres
by Bill Chambers Last year's admirable ode to grief Moonlight Mile was given an injection of freshness by the cruelly luminous Ellen Pompeo, but in the end, the chaos the film depicted seemed too straightforwardly resolved. Australia's Walking on Water, which likewise explores the aftermath of an untimely death (thus finding itself plum in a new niche market with Moonlight Mile and the cable phenom "Six Feet Under"), isn't as entertaining as Moonlight Mile, but nobody in it can say one thing that will fix everything, and, boy, is it well observed. The picture is little more than--yet sufficiently--a medley of grief gestures (as screenwriter Roger Monk has remarked, "No two people react [to the death of a loved one] in the same way"): some joshing (praying for reincarnation to spare the departed from coming back as a "poof"), others piercing (kicking a mourner out of the wake for crying too loud), all coalescing into a gripping and mildly devastating viewing experience.
Apocalypse Now ****/**** starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest screenplay by John Milius and Francis Coppola, narration by Michael Herr directed by Francis Coppola
by Walter Chaw Taking his cue from Orson Welles's aborted screen translation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now sought to transplant Marlow's journey down the Congo in pursuit of mad ivory trader Kurtz to Vietnam during the war. America's involvement in Southeast Asia is, of course, a good fit with what Conrad calls "one of the dark places of the world," and Apocalypse Now, easily one of the most literary big-budget blockbusters of the modern era, is utterly faithful to the intellectual and visceral impact of Conrad's vision. Apocalypse Now is so overheated and pretentious, in fact, that the best way to explain its thematic core might be through an examination of the ways it uses three T.S. Eliot poems (The Wasteland, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men) and nods obliquely towards a fourth (The Dry Salvages, which refers to the animalism of rivers as the "brown god").
Pane e tulipani **/**** starring Felice Andreasi, Vitalba Andrea, Tatiana Lepore, Ludovico Paladin screenplay by Silvio Soldini & Doriana Leondeff directed by Silvio Soldini
by Walter Chaw There are great chunks missing from Bread and Tulips, story transitions that appear inconsequential until one finds them neglected. An action is announced and several scenes later we are left to presume that the action has been performed; an event occurs and several scenes later we give up waiting for the reaction. Nowhere is that discrepancy more jarring than at the conclusion, when our heroine is spirited away from her family and loved ones and deposited in the middle of a different movie. There is a considerable problem with a film that insists on holding your hand through score or ham-handed direction; on the flipside, there is a considerable problem with one that discards basic narrative cohesion in favour of a calculated whimsy. A film like Bread and Tulips.
OPEN RANGE **½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A- starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon screenplay by Craig Storper, based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine directed by Kevin Costner
NORTHFORK **½/**** starring James Woods, Nick Nolte, Claire Forlani, Duel Farnes screenplay by Mark Polish & Michael Polish directed by Michael Polish
by Walter Chaw A little like Neil Diamond, Kevin Costner is an anachronism whose earnestness has landed him in Squaresville when the tragedy is that with a little tweaking in perspective, his peculiar brand of old-school earnestness might have his contemporaries looking upon him with more admiration than mirth. Costner is also the great American Gary Cooper hero archetype: tall, good-looking, dim-witted, and dull as dishwater--working almost exclusively in the realm of the sort of guileless red-blooded manifest determinism that loves mom, apple pie, horses, dogs, and guns. And why not? Costner has never stricken me, at least with his own projects, as the slightest bit condescending, his gift the reality or illusion that America's favourite simpleton is learning things at the same pace as his screenplays. His films, from Waterworld to Dances with Wolves to The Postman, are lovable for their complete lack of irony and self-reflection.
STARDUST ***½/**** starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Robert De Niro screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman directed by Matthew Vaughn
INTERVIEW */**** starring Sienna Miller, Steve Buscemi screenplay by David Schecter and Steve Buscemi, based on the film by Theo Van Gogh directed by Steve Buscemi
by Walter Chaw I do wonder about films that don't seem to be about anything, but I'll say this at the outset: Matthew Vaughn's Stardust, based on a book by Neil Gaiman, isn't about anything at all--and it's wonderful. Far from empty-headed, though, Stardust is a deeply meaningful series of sweet-nothings, wholly apolitical even in a macho supporting character revealed as a cross-dresser and hair stylist; and by its end, it wins not in spite of being so exuberant in its indulgence of flamboyant clichés, but because it is. It's so much better than the trailers and Gaiman's track record as a novelist (his métier is decidedly rooted in the comics) would lead you to believe, while the inevitable comparisons to The Princess Bride are misleading because The Princess Bride is a piece of shit. A beloved piece of shit, but a piece of shit just the same. On the contrary, Stardust is extremely well-made despite an opening half-hour that boasts of a few too many long establishing shots, directed with real snap by Guy Ritchie's former producer Matthew Vaughn (who did the same with Layer Cake) and executed by a stellar cast that includes a literally incandescent Claire Danes as a fallen star named Yvaine and Michelle Pfeiffer as a hideous bitch goddess, which, given that Stardust follows on the heels of Hairspray, appears to be the vehicle of her late-career comeback. More difficult to embrace is Robert De Niro as the film's Dread Pirate Roberts, a fencing mentor who happens, in this incarnation, to be a ballroom-dancing guru as well. The instinct is to recoil, but damned if it isn't the first De Niro performance in his self-parodic period that's both spot-on in its auto-satire and funny to boot.
La Meglio gioventù ****/**** starring Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Adriana Asti, Sonia Bergamasco screenplay by Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli directed by Marco Tullio Giordana
SARABAND **½/**** starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
by Walter Chaw Television is the great bogey of the modern era. Newton Minnow's vast wasteland. Marshall McLuhan's "massage." The corruptor of youth and the opiate of the people. The glass teat. Although it's been excoriated as the prime example of what happens to art when commerce intrudes upon it, when the moneymen at the gates break through to undermine the best intentions of television artists yearning to break free, I think it's more complicated than that. I think that television, like any other popular medium, is a cathode stethoscope held against the chest of the spirit of the world--a conduit to both what's good and what's venal in any culture. There are as many, maybe more, classics being produced for television now as there were during its Golden Age (and the good old days weren't always good, besides), it's just that we have more chaff to sift through before we get to the wheat nowadays--but more wheat, too. Say this for TV: it seems more capable of recognizing a hunger for quality than film does. Credit the smaller budgets and quicker turnarounds--something that's put cinema in the catch-up position in the early years of the new millennium.
½*/**** starring Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville screenplay by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and Evan Daugherty directed by Jonathan Liebesman
by Walter Chaw Jonathan Liebesman's brutally awful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a Michael Bay co-production in conjunction with kid's basic-cable network Nickelodeon, meaning it's a PG-13 piece of shit aimed at preteens that packs a payload of sexual objectification, mild torture, and assorted grotesquerie. That's really all there is to say about it. It implies bestiality in the constant come-ons aimed at Bay's favourite target (Megan Fox) by a foul-looking monster, then makes a joke out of a human counterpart staring at her ass while she's dangling out a car window. Best is the moment where one of the monsters declares Ms. Fox to be "so hot I can feel my shell tightening," which comes just after she's equated with a "sexy bird," because birds are slim animals as opposed to fat animals like pigs and cows. Later, Whoopi Goldberg appears as that Cabbage Patch doll you didn't get for Christmas because you're going to a Michael Bay-produced movie advertised on a children's cartoon channel, and one of the bad guys instructs his henchmen to "drain every last drop of blood" from our heroes, "even if it kills them."
***½/**** starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo screenplay by Stuart Beattie directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw To hear Michael Mann tell it, you'd think he'd found a new way to film Los Angeles, the most-filmed city in the world. To watch Collateral is to discover that he has. I wish that there were some meat to Collateral, because even without it, it's hands-down this year's most gorgeously-directed film. If there was ever any question to Michael Mann's genius after Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, or Heat, it must be laid to rest now--he's pushing Spielberg in terms of visual gift, trumping him in terms of maturity (and courage, of course), and he's moving into an upper echelon of cinematic directors (Stanley Kubrick, for example) who, when they're on, produce tapestries so pure that you feel as though if you tapped them they'd ring like crystal.
REIGN OVER ME **/**** starring Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler written and directed by Mike Binder
TMNT */**** written and directed by Kevin Munroe
by Walter Chaw In response to the charge that critics are "downers" because they're too judgmental, a colleague and friend said on a panel that I participated in that some films only deserve judgment. It's a wonderfully bleak declaration, and dead on--think of it as an expansion of Pauline Kael's belief that no one ever takes the time to bash terrible pictures. But there's more to it than simply that brittle shattering of cinema's impregnable mythic mystique. I think certain movies deflect even judgment--movies that are the exact equivalent of, say, Michael Bolton and Kenny G collaborating on a cover of a Richard Marx song. Rail against them if you must, but there's no sport in it, and definitely no swaying of the assembled masses. There are films that are what they are, deserving neither praise nor condemnation in providing precisely the comfort of a tattered terry cloth robe worn ritualistically until disintegration. It's possible to meticulously, ruthlessly, intellectually deconstruct the aesthetic and functional properties of a favourite pair of sneakers, you know, but it's masturbatory and redundant and like swatting a fly with a Buick. I suspect that deep down everyone knows films like Reign Over Me and TMNT are as worthless as a plug nickel, that their appeal lies entirely in the fact that they'll present no surprises along with their usual meek payload of cheap emotional prattle and pocket uplift. And I'm not saying there's nothing wrong with that, either--I'm just saying I feel like I don't have much more to say after reviewing the same fucking movie about a dozen times a year.
**/**** starring Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater written and directed by Woody Allen
by Angelo Muredda There's a scene late in Woody Allen's mostly forgotten You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger that briefly complicates its status as one of the prolific filmmaker's lighter doodles. Swept away by her feelings for her boss (Antonio Banderas), Naomi Watts's normally buttoned-up Sally takes a chance and confesses. In turn, she is swiftly rejected, and summarily dismissed as a partner, a colleague, and a person in one cruel wave of the arm. It's a scene Allen has indulged in before: he's always liked to see his onscreen women suffer a little, whether in Isaac's callous it's-not-me-it's-you dumping of Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan or the unceremonious jilting of poor Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in The Purple Rose of Cairo. But it's a sharp sting in a film as innocuous as Stranger, a reminder that for all the comforts of settling into his aesthetic of Windsor typeface and big-band music, Allen is not an especially warm filmmaker, not even in his comedies. Even with that in mind, his newest, Magic in the Moonlight, is an especially baffling thing--a dry, mean-spirited essay about that old romantic-comedy staple: the inevitability of death and decay.
***/**** starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Benicio Del Toro written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman directed by James Gunn
by Walter Chaw After years of looking for a Star Wars for my son (too little for Lord of the Rings; nothing to attach to in Pacific Rim), here's James Gunn's awesome Guardians of the Galaxy to fit the bill. It's science-fiction in exactly the same way that Star Wars is science-fiction--essentially a serial western, with Chris Pratt as both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, green Zoe Saldana as Princess Leia, and a raccoon and a tree subbing for Wookiee and droid. It has a secret history for our hero, a scary baddie in a black cloak, and an entire universe of wonders it treats like an amusement park. It's also fun in the same way Star Wars was fun, and fresh in the same way, too: heedlessly, carefree, even bratty, which explains the post-credits cut-scene that's easily the best of them. Furthermore, it has a soundtrack packed with AM Gold that lends the picture camp and hipster cred simultaneously. Heavy on exposition at times, squandering a few opportunities to demonstrate a better team action dynamic, and not about anything at the end of the day, Guardians of the Galaxy's sword and shield is that its irreverence and self-awareness land as self-deprecating and warm. Doesn't hurt that it's a blast.
The Child **½/**** starring Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON **/**** directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
by Walter Chaw I believe the title is meant to indicate the arrested protagonist more than it is the baby he tries to sell on the black market, thus The Child (L'Enfant)--another of Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's mild, allegorical subversions of Robert Bresson and incrementally more violent subversions of the French New Wave--takes on Pickpocket via Breathless. In so doing, it conjures up this odd chimera of a stylistically backward-looking, formalist deconstruction, the first film of the Brothers (after La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son) to feel this much like a knowing satire, to come so perilously close to being smug and post-modern that its style begins to become confused with its message. It could be a product of overfamiliarity with a fine and distinct sensibility (the last thing this kind of innovation can afford is to be outrun and second-guessed), or it could be that the Brothers are getting either bored of their shtick or fond of their reputation.
*/**** starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-Sik written and directed by Luc Besson
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.
***½/**** starring Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke written and directed by Richard Linklater
by Angelo Muredda "I was somebody's daughter, and then I was somebody's fucking mother," Patricia Arquette's Olivia complains early on in Richard Linklater's uncommonly rich, deceptively titled Boyhood. Though it's been rightly celebrated for its guerrilla shoots and nomadic production history--depicting an adolescent's maturation from six to eighteen by reassembling the cast once a year, more or less in secret, for a few days at a time--Boyhood might be most impressive as a reflection on the impossibility of fully capturing what happens in all those "and thens" that constitute a life. An impressionistic masterwork, Boyhood is arguably both Linklater's most ambitious project and his most easygoing, revelling in the amorphousness of his conceit as well as the freedom it allows him to putter around in the unformed material of his characters' still-unfolding lives.
La Vénus à la fourrure ***½/**** starring Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric screenplay by David Ives, based on his play directed by Roman Polanski
by Walter Chaw If it's stagebound, Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur, an adaptation of David Ives's play that is itself an adaptation in part of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel, is at least not stagebound without a purpose. It reminds of Adaptation. in its awareness of itself as an object open to deconstruction (and Derrida is mentioned in the text to make it metacritical in that sense as well); the fact that it's a play captured on film only underscores its conceit. Venus in Fur is also a career summary for the octogenarian director at a point where his contemporaries are declining steeply in their dotage. Spry and clever, surprisingly funny at times, and at all times indisputably alive, it finds Polanski's themes of gender subversion in high dunder, opening with a quote from the Apocryphal Book of Judith where the titular heroine seduces enemy general Holofrenes and decapitates (read: emasculates/castrates) him as he reclines in post-coital bliss. Polanski casts an actor who could be his younger doppelgänger, Mathieu Amalric, and opposite him in this two-person drama Polanski's own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner--transparent, vulnerable, courageous casting that reminds very much of Hitchcock in his late masterpiece period. Venus in Fur is Polanski's Marnie: a grand survey of all of his sexual peccadilloes that works as apologia, confession, and explication, eventually conveying Polanski's acceptance of himself as deeply flawed, but better for the wisdom.