Safar e Ghandehar **/**** starring Niloufar Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
by Walter ChawKandahar is a science-fiction film about a terrifying and unknowable alien culture and the human anthropologist who must disguise herself to gain entry into its Byzantine infrastructure (thus often reminding me of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow), and it is the recipient of perhaps the most serendipitous release in film history. Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar is either a stunningly incompetent film or an amazingly evocative one. Perhaps best described as both, the piece alternates between sledgehammer images and awful didactic exposition. An argument can be made, and a good one, that the plight of Afghani women under the medieval rule of The Taliban deserves to be treated as a medieval passion play, with all the implied attendant allegorical characters (the pilgrim, the fallen child, the doctor, the thief) and mannered execution.
½*/**** starring Cuba Gooding Jr., James Coburn, Randy Birch, Joanna Bacalso screenplay by Jim Kouf and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin, based on the book Winterdance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen directed by Brian Levant
by Walter Chaw Brian Levant's Snow Dogs counts on adult audiences rationalizing that although it was terrible, at least their kids liked it. Why is it that the standards we hold for our children are substantially lower when it comes to the movies? (And if kids will probably like anything, why not expose them to something a little less offensive than Snow Dogs?) It isn't so much that Snow Dogs finds its humour in a black man getting humiliated by a pack of dogs who are smarter than him, nor that it also mines for yuks by placing a black man in mortal peril because of his suicidal stupidity. No, the moment that Snow Dogs crossed a line for me was when Cuba Gooding Jr., an Oscar-winning African-American actor (one of, what, six?), gets comically treed by a ferocious dog.
*/**** Image D Sound D+ starring Dolph Lundgren, Gina Bellman, George Jenesky, Christopher Heyerdahl screenplay by Sergio Altieri directed by Russell Mulcahy
by Walter Chaw There was a time, 'round about the cheap thrills of Razorback, that I thought director Russell Mulcahy had a future as an action director. Seventeen years later, the Aussie has proven me wrong by peaking with the intentionally campy The Shadow and the unintentionally campy Highlander. And while Silent Trigger isn't the worst of Mulcahy's missteps (Highlander II: The Quickening has a hammerlock on several "worst" titles), it's not for lack of trying. Still, I can't completely dislike both Dolph Lundgren and Mulcahy's latest direct-to-video disaster because I feel as though watching it has taught me a few things.
*½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A starring Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht screenplay by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers directed by Les Mayfield
by Walter Chaw Thinking that Oscar-winner Kathy Bates had reached a career nadir as a Bible-thumpin' mama in Adam Sandler's deplorable The Waterboy, colour me surprised to note that Ms. Bates actually plumbs a new depth in reprising that performance for Les Mayfield's painful American Outlaws. The "Dawson's Creek" Western also marks the second time that Terry O'Quinn has been in Young Guns and Timothy Dalton in The Rocketeer, leading me to conclude that I have wasted altogether too much of my life watching terrible movies.
*/**** starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks written and directed by Peter Landesman
by Walter Chaw Peter Landesman's deeply compromised Concussion so shockingly exposes and excoriates the negligence of the NFL in protecting its players that it's constantly advertised during NFL games. The whole thing feels like a redacted security document: It's choppy, skips over entire plot points, short-sells the issues, and gives equal time to celebrating the beauty and the glory of football as it does to how football turns a scary percentage of its players into confused, manic, suicidal zombies. Save for a few minutes spent with Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster (David Morse), living in a truck and gluing his teeth into his head with superglue, we don't get much of a glimpse at the symptomatology of "CTE," the repeated-trauma disease discovered by Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who's introduced listing off his accomplishments to declare himself the "smartest person you've ever probably met or will probably ever meet." Concussion is what Spotlight would have looked like had it been made by Cardinal Law: you know, some stuff happened, but the Catholic Church is MAJESTIC. To be fair, we don't get much of a glimpse of anything--not even the romance between Omalu and his ward-cum-lover-cum-spouse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so astonishing in Belle and Beyond the Lights; welcome to the mainstream, Gugu!), which is treated in a curious, epileptic shorthand. She's a homeless refugee. She's very religious. Oh, now they're dancing and, um, fucking, and married and, wait, pregnant and married. Wait, now she's doing that wife-in-Bridge of Spies thing where she's protecting the family and... And Concussion is terrible.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Bradley Cooper screenplay by David O. Russell directed by David O. Russell
by Walter Chaw After demonstrating with his last few movies that he's not Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell has decided to kill two birds with one stone by demonstrating that he is neither Wes nor P.T. Anderson, either. In Joy, he proves that marrying Wes Anderson's whimsical solipsism with P.T. Anderson's Pynchon-esque biographical sketches is an amazingly stupid thing to do--one of those science experiments in '50s B-movies that everyone knows is a bad idea except for the idiot doing the splicing. Yes, Joy is that bad. When it's not being unbearably twee, it's perving on Jennifer Lawrence like von Sternberg on Dietrich. But Joy ain't no Blue Angel, and while I like Lawrence fine, I guess, Russell is sure as hell no von Sternberg. What I'm saying is that Russell is a terrible, glitchy director with a thing for Lawrence that he manifests by shooting her walking towards the camera with sunglasses, without sunglasses, with a wig and without a wig, in slow-motion or at normal speed, in daytime, nighttime; he lights her with the sun, with spots, with discretes, from below, and especially from behind--all in a kind of PENTHOUSE glamour. The only part of Joy that isn't unwatchable is a sequence shot precisely like identical sequences in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, where an obviously tense Bradley Cooper, playing QVC programming director Neil Walker, shows the titular domestic goddess Joy (Lawrence) around the studio. I take it back, those were pretty bad, too. The only thing preventing Joy from being the worst movie of the year is that Pixels happened.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR ***/**** screenplay by Meg LeFauve directed by Peter Sohn and Bob Peterson
THE REVENANT ***½/**** starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, a bear, angry junketeers screenplay by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
THE HATEFUL EIGHT **/**** starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is the runt in a frontier family of stylized dinosaur herbivores who struggles to live up to the example of towering Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) on the family farmstead. He's clumsy, though, and easily frightened, and when he finds himself incapable of killing a mammalian vermin (Jack Bright), he unwittingly causes the death of his father. Arlo joins forces with the vermin, eventually, dubbing him "Spot" (he's a little orphaned human boy) and relying on him to forage sustenance for him in the wild world outside. Spot, in return, relies upon Arlo for protection in the film's final set-piece as Spot is set upon by a flock of fundamentalist pterodactyls. Pixar's The Good Dinosaur is, in other words, a horror western about a frontier bespotted with monsters and monstrous ideologies, set right there at the liminal space--as all great westerns are--between the old ways and the encroaching new. It's far more disturbing than has generally been acknowledged and, in being disturbing, it offers a tremendous amount of subtext layered onto a deceptively simple story. It posits an Earth where the dinosaur-ending comet misses impact, leading to millions of years of evolved adaptations and ending, as the film begins, with the emergence of homo sapiens on schedule, but skittering around on all fours and howling at their saurian masters. The Good Dinosaur is an existential horrorshow.
***½/**** Image B Sound A Extras C starring Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Levi Miller screenplay by Jason Fuchs directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw Paired with Hanna, his take on the Little Red Riding Hood story, Joe Wright's Pan suggests that the director's closest career analogue is that of J.J. Abrams. Wright's askew take on Anna Karenina hints at a sympathetic penchant for ebullient reinterpretation--no less so his adaptations of Atonement (by an author essentially making a career of taking a piss) and Pride & Prejudice, which, in its sparseness and emotional economy, could stand alongside Andrea Arnold's magnificent Wuthering Heights. Hanna, his best film, achieves at least a portion of its greatness through its bull-headed perversity. No premise is too fanciful to be presented seriously by Wright. In Pan, when we're introduced to the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a Fury Road's collection of orphan miners sing-chants "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in obeisance to their monstrous overlord. It's something born of Brian Helgeland's anachronistic A Knight's Tale and of Terry Gilliam in its antic set design and costuming and of David Lynch, even, in a sequence where Blackbeard dons a mask aboard his flying ship to breathe deep something that resembles the Spice. There's another sequence in which a pirate ship, a 16th-century galleon, engages in midair with a trio of British Hawker Hurricanes (I think) defending Mother England against the German blitz before breaking through the clouds for a brief, weightless moment.
*/**** starring Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy screenplay by Grant Nieporte directed by Gabriele Muccino
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I'm gonna take a stab at the title: Seven pounds is how much an Oscar weighs, am I right? Will Smith reunites with his Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino to fashion another awards-season failure that proves every bit as icky and misguided. An extended episode of "Secret Millionaire", Seven Pounds transforms a Melvin and Howard conceit into the story of an undercover Samaritan intent on changing the lives of seven worthy strangers. Why? It doesn't really matter, does it? Not when Smith, as Ben Thomas, a guilt-wracked IRS agent/aerospace engineer trying to atone for the tragedy that is his life, turns on the red-rims and the waterworks, all quivery lips like the box jellyfish Ben keeps as a pet. There's poor little Emily (Rosario Dawson), with a rare blood type and an enlarged heart (four sizes too big!); and poor little Ezra (Woody Harrelson), who can't get a second look from a truck-stop waitress because, eww, he's blind!; and poor Connie Tepos (Elpidia Carrillo), who's afraid to leave her abusive boyfriend even though her two small children are in peril. Enter Bagger Vance--er, Ben Thomas--to sweep Emily off her feet, insult Ezra to see if he has a temper (or a spine), and give Connie his house. Throughout, we're treated to flashes of the calamity that's brought Ben so low as Smith's charisma and innate likeability remain the only things keeping the film remotely compelling to the extent that it is. It's an old-timey melodrama at its heart, nothing on its mind except tugging at the heartstrings and bothering awards-season viewers with the irritating tickle that they're being diddled without their consent by another smooth-talking, empty-headed bit of unforgivable--and gross--treacle.
*/**** starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal screenplay by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal directed by Mike Newell
by Walter Chaw Julia Roberts films, by and large, seem to hate men. In a real way, her pictures are as objectionable as those films regularly pilloried for objectifying women (and those like the unforgivable Love Actually that somehow slip under the radar for doing the same), functioning as something of a reactionary version of feminism that seeks to denigrate the opposite gender as the sole means toward gender equality. The big secret about films like Mona Lisa Smile is that they're every bit the big-budget Hollywood spectacle film derided by a goodly portion of its audience as puerile, predictable, and thematically reprehensible. Because Mona Lisa Smile is so much the child of formula, it's difficult to muster much energy in condemning the film by itself--by itself, after all, it's handsomely mounted and well-performed. But as a symptom of that facile societal desire for superficial uplifts and comforting negative stereotypes, the smoothness of the coating for this bitter pill deserves some measure of profound distaste.
***½/**** starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Max Von Sydow written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt directed by J.J. Abrams
by Walter Chaw I was four when I saw Star Wars. It was the first time I'd seen a film in a theatre; it was the first film I'd seen, period. I didn't speak a word of English. It was overwhelming, and I'm discovering, after watching J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens (hereafter Star Wars 7), that it imprinted itself on my DNA. Thirty-eight years later, I collect the toys my parents couldn't afford to buy me when I was a kid--the ones I played with at friends' houses, when I pretended to be Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as a child of immigrants doing his best to fit into a society that promised blond and blue-eyed messiahs. My office is full of these toys. They are fetishized relics for me. I hold them and they possess a totemic value. The curve of a molded plastic stormtrooper's helmet reminds me of the department store where I looked at it through the packaging--and of my delight at my mom one day buying me one, which I opened on the way home in the backseat of the family car.
*½/**** DVD - Image B- Sound A- Extras B BD - Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Rob Corddry screenplay by Scot Armstrong and Leslie Dixon and Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly & Kevin Barnett, based on the short story "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman directed by Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
by Walter Chaw Elaine May used to be the comedy writing and performing partner of Mike Nichols, and because I like her 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid so much, I've always wondered how much better The Graduate would have been had May directed it. Indeed, a May-helmed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be excruciating--well, more so. For a while, anyway, May was the brave one, ethnically and otherwise, and I don't know of many people who could've turned the premise that drives the original The Heartbreak Kid into such a delicate, even sensitive (certainly human) piece. If it were going to be remade (and it has, with Ben Stiller in the Charles Grodin role and Malin Akerman in the Jeannie Berlin role), Peter and Bobby Farrelly would seem to be the right ones for the job.
½*/**** Image A Sound A starring F. Murray Abraham, Gabriel Byrne, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert De Niro screenplay by Mary McGuckian, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder directed by Mary McGuckian
by Walter Chaw Given its cast as well as its presumption to chart the hazy intersection between predestination and circumstance, Mary McGuckian's excruciatingly dull The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the third adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, might be the biggest miscalculation of the year. Start with Robert De Niro as the corrupt Archbishop of Lima, presiding over the inquisition of Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne). Six years previous Juniper witnessed the unceremonious snapping of the titular bridge, which sent five random people to their howling doom. Had they known how boring our good brown-robed pilgrim would make them out to be, I wouldn't wonder why they didn't try to float. No, Brother Juniper has decided that he's going to write the world's dullest book about this quintet of unfortunates so as to perhaps accidentally ken the mysterious workings of the Almighty in the small lives of small people.
***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+ starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie directed by Christopher McQuarrie
by Walter Chaw At some point, sneakily, wonderfully, Tom Cruise became our Jackie Chan. It happened when the storyline shifted away from his essential ickiness--the Scientology thing, the Katie Holmes thing, and all the attendant nightmare gossip--and onto his fearlessness and absolute willingness to perform his own stunts wherever possible. (I realize of course that said storyline may never shift for some.) There were murmurs when he did the rock-climbing in the second Mission: Impossible flick--the one where he recruited John Woo, who was at the time the best action director on the planet. Those murmurs turned to grudging admiration once it was revealed that Cruise let himself be suspended for real outside the Burj Khalifa in Brad Bird's superior Ghost Protocol; and now, with Christopher McQuarrie's fleet, intelligent, immanently professional Rogue Nation, for which Cruise hung from an airplane in flight and held his breath for six minutes, Cruise's bravado is a big part of the draw.