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.
**/**** starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw An elderly film by an elderly filmmaker for an elderly audience, everybody's favourite says-appalling-things old bastard Clint Eastwood directs the guy everyone can agree on, Tom Hanks, in a rah-rah hagiography of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most uncomplicatedly heroic figure in the United States in the last...how long ago was Abraham Lincoln? 151 years? If you don't know, Sully landed an airplane with 155 passengers on it in the Hudson River when bird strikes disabled both of the plane's engines. Multiple dream sequences have Sully imagining what would've happened had he turned his plane over populated areas. 9/11 is referenced often--explicitly and obliquely. An applause-geeking closing title card informs that lots of New Yorkers helped rescue the passengers from the water after the splashdown because New Yorkers are good and America is great, raising the question, Mr. Eastwood, if it needs to be "great again." Maybe it's all gone to hell since 2009. The timing is interesting. Let's call it that.
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.
***½/**** starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang written by Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues directed by Fede Alvarez
by Walter Chaw Fede Alvarez is the real deal. He made a short film in 2009 called Ataque de Panico! and from it scored a gig directing the fantastic Evil Dead reboot. He has a clean style and a respect for the cinema as a narrative vehicle. What he introduces he inevitably pays off (Chekhov would approve), and he has a way with the camera that's as witty as it is wise. Consider a moment in his new film, Don't Breathe, where he introduces a workshop with a playful, loping push-in on a giant hammer, then pulls back to find one of our heroes where he was, rooting around below. Odd to say about things as extreme as Evil Dead or as unbearably tense as Don't Breathe, but Alvarez's pictures are delightful. They trigger a giddy response. They are knowing, ingratiating in that way that a secret shared between connoisseurs can be ingratiating. It's that feeling you feel when you're watching a movie by someone you trust won't make a hash of it. In just two features, Alvarez has earned that trust and more.
***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A starring Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William Cook, Steven Memel written by David Chaskin directed by Tibor Takacs
by Walter Chaw I like just about everything about I, Madman. It's a pastiche picture coming at the end of the slasher era that cobbles together bits of De Palma and "Tales from the Darkside", tosses in some wonderfully cheap stop-motion effects, and stars the incomparable '80s dreamgirl Jenny Wright. Truly, it has everything. Wright is Virginia, a used-bookstore cashier (even her job is a super-nerd's idea of a dreamgirl's job) addicted to lurid pulps (sigh!) who is, as the film begins, reading a nasty thing about a "Jackal Boy" monster created in the unwitting womb of an unfortunate victim. Virginia's cop boyfriend Richard (Clayton Rohner) disapproves of her reading habits because of the states they send her into, but, Virginia being Virginia, she persists. She becomes obsessed with tracking down a volume called I, Madman, written by a certain Malcolm Brand (Randall William Cook). It's about a nutter who gets dumped because of his displeasing features and so he cuts them off. Alas, slicer's regret has Brand attacking women in an attempt to take back the missing pieces of his face. Turns out Brand isn't writing fiction, but memoir, and Virginia's interest in him has attracted him to her through the pages of his book.
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras D starring Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Regina Hall, Nicki Minaj written by Kenya Barris & Tracy Oliver directed by Malcolm D. Lee
by Walter Chaw It's hard for me to find entry into Malcolm D. Lee's Barbershop: The Next Cut (hereafter Barbershop 3), because the topics it broaches are generally topics I only intersect with philosophically. I hear about the gun violence in Chicago, I see gang violence portrayed in films like Boyz N the Hood and Colors and more recently David Ayer's ugly End of Watch, and I do my best to be empathetic to horror stories about children shot in their beds as crossfire collateral. I see pictures of what Detroit looks like and read what I can about dystopias that make RoboCop's vision of the Motor City seem naive now. I agree entirely with the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder why it is that even video of atrocity does little to bring rogue officers to justice. I wept when Dallas policemen were ambushed while protecting Black Lives Protestors' right to rage. I felt righteous fury along with the protestors in Ferguson. Charleston, and the graceful response by the church during funerals to mourn their dead, broke me apart. One of my best friends is black; I resist saying that because it's what non-black people say to pardon their racism. I watched both O.J. Simpson miniseries. And I realize I am entirely unsuited to speak to the black experience in the United States. It's not my place. I don't know anything.