I’m planning on seeing a lot of movies in December, so instead of dropping 20 capsule reviews on you on New Year’s Day, I’ll break them up into more manageable groups.
United States. Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny.
If esteemed actors screaming at each other for two hours is your idea of a good time, The Dinner should make for a satisfying experience. Gubernatorial candidate Richard Gere and his wife Rebecca Hall (sporting a bob causing her to uncannily resemble political strategist Liz Mair) invites his depressed brother Steve Coogan and sister-in-law Laura Linney out for the sort of meal which is more art than food. Theoretically, they’re there to discuss an important family issue—no spoilers, but let’s just say that awful parents make for awful children—but mainly they spend the first two acts sniping at each other, both at the restaurant and in many, many flashbacks.
Cut through the thick misanthropy, heavy-handed comparisons between family arguments and the American Civil War, and the awkward flashbacks—The Dinner has more “hey, remember the time when…” moments than an entire season of Family Guy—what you’re left with is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of white privilege, using the characters’ apparent liberalism to cut deeper. It speaks volumes that the politician turns out the most sympathetic of the lot (although I found Coogan easier to empathize with once I understood the depth of the character’s mental illness, which doesn’t mean he isn’t an ass). While the film undoubtedly focuses on the relationship between the two brothers, I would have liked to have a better understanding of the women of the story, especially Gere’s first wife (played by Chloë Sevigny) who turns up in a couple of flashbacks.
The format requires a main cast fit comfortably into their roles, and these four do. The performances impress, but you’re not likely to walk away from the film with a new respect for any of the actors unless you’ve somehow managed to miss every Richard Gere movie since the early ’00s. The closest anyone gets to “stretching” is Coogan, who does his reliably Steve Coogan thing in an understated New York accent instead of his regular northern English one.
The Shape of Water
United States. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones.
“A Cold War fairy tale about a mute woman who falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a pitch only Guillermo del Toro would make, for a movie that only he could make. It’s my favorite film of the year (Baby Driver coming in a close second), and it might even be my favorite Del Toro, period—and considering that would put it above The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, that’s saying a lot.
It’s damn rare for me to find a film I can find nothing I dislike about—I think the only other films I can say that about are Audition and Oldboy—and I don’t like to gush endlessly, so this will be short. I’ll just say that Del Toro, his cast and crew have put together something that hits just about every sweet spot I have. Immersive world-building, gorgeous design, brilliant actors inhabiting fully-realized characters. If this doesn’t get Sally Hawkins her Oscar, there’s no justice in the world (sorry, Saorise; you’ve already got one, Frances). Nobody plays villainous like Michael Shannon, although among the supporting performances, it’s Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins who really steal the show.
What else? An awesome story about outsiders kicking against the pricks, and a dark, dreamy atmosphere. I even love the score, and I’m usually not a fan of Alexandre Desplat.
Seriously, go see this movie.
A Cure for Wellness
United States. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth.
Gore Verbinski scared the pants off a generation with The Ring; he parlayed that good will into what we hope was a lucrative career as the world’s second- or third-leading peddler of Johnny Depp vehicles. Now, he returns to the horror genre with A Cure for Wellness. When the founder of a major financial firm refuses to return from a sinister Swiss health spa to sign off on an important merger, do they hire a P.I. or bounty hunter to retrieve him? No, they do not. They blackmail Dane DeHaan, a sickly-looking junior executive, to bring the wayward founder back.
That’s just the first problem with this heavily flawed film, but it’s by no means the most important one. The three primary problems with Cure are first, that it’s too long; second, that it would be immeasurably improved by being cut by at least forty-five minutes; and third, that there’s no real reason for it to go on for two and a half damn hours. Especially since there’s not enough incident to fill the second act, and Verbinski doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the major themes the plot brings up, such as “we’re all a bunch of brainwashed corporate clones.” Eventually the movie plows through at least three false endings before finally grinding to a halt.
That’s the insult; the injury is that the project otherwise shows such promise. In a visual sense—both cinematography and design—it stands alongside Blade Runner 2049 and Shape of Water as one of the year’s most gorgeous films. Dane DeHaan has finally found a leading role he’s suited for (okay, maybe he’s suited to play the lead in Valerian but I doubt that for some reason), Jason Isaacs has rarely secreted such effective menace, and Mia Goth nails the “otherworldly waif” archetype so solidly I think she might actually be one in real life. And have I mentioned the design? I have? It’s stunning.
Sadly, it’s also stunningly broken, a great example of a film so determined to shoot itself in the foot. This should have been one of the year’s best, but I walked away from it only hoping that Verbinski does better with the Gambit movie (as long as Johnny Depp isn’t in it).
United States. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam, Willem Dafoe.
Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) is the latest to take up the tale of the titular Death Note. Write a name in the Death Note and that person will die (conditions apply), courtesy the “death god” Ryuk. It falls into the hands of the improbably-named high school student Light Turner, who uses it to kill evildoers across the planet, attributing them to his vigilante alias “Kira.” Not only does this impress his girlfriend Mia, it also grabs the attention of “L,” an eccentric consulting detective who takes it upon himself to investigate these seemingly impossible murders.
From here, you’d expect a battle of wits to develop between Light and L, complicated by Mia’s own desire to possess the Note and Ryuk’s manipulations, and exploring complex themes such as watching the watchmen and playing God. Wingard subverts expectations by using the setup to present a series of elaborately staged and stylishly photographed death sequences. The various fanbases of the story’s previous iterations are like to get riled up by this, but I found them amusing in a shallow, “later Final Destination sequels” sort of way.
Other sources of fun in Death Note come from the performances of Lakeith Stanfield, who plays L as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, the kid from The Middle, and the sort of mumblecore characters who populated Wingard’s early films; and Willem Dafoe, who provides Ryuk’s face and voice. Sadly, the screenplay confuses plot complexity with quality, and several scenes don’t make sense even after the film goes to great lengths to explain how and why they happened. And whoever signed off on star Nat Wolff’s blond highlights should have been fired—they cause him to look too much like Milo Yiannopoulos, a person I prefer not to be reminded of, thank you very much.
It Comes at Night
United States. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough.
When the trailer for It Comes at Night dropped in January (I think), it promised a cinematic experience so terrifying I could practically feel my bowels loosening in anticipation. Now, as the year draws to a close, it seems to me to be much more than a horror movie: it’s pure 2017, in concentrated cinematic form.
I’m not saying Trey Edward Schults had any political statements in mind when developing the film. (Mind you, the decision to make the central family multi-racial takes on a certain dimension when considered in Trump’s America.) But the two main themes I took away from it are “the gulfs between us, as people, are larger than ever” and “the real terror, as always, is within ourselves, not outside” and it’s a rare day when I don’t think those things about real life as well. And then of course there’s “grief over the loss of a loved one” which seems to be part of every damn film this year, an aspect shared by popcorn flix (It: Chapter One), prestige projects (Three Billboards), avant-garde exercises (The Crescent), and festival filler (In the Fade).
But that’s just cheddar on the burger. The real meat is the smallness of the characters, symbolized by Shults’ lantern-lit nighttime scenes and shots of people running through vast expanses of forest. Much has been made of It Comes‘ supposed ambiguity, but to me, the lesson is clear: the inevitable comes for us, though we knoweth not the day nor the hour—and yet, as biblical as that sounds, it comes with no real moral reckoning. It’s perhaps the finest recent expression of the smallness of humanity in the face of a cosmos that doesn’t revolve around us. What higher praise could there possibly be?