Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

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Capsule Reviews: Happy Death Day; Moon; The Childhood of a Leader

Brief reviews of: Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day, plus Moon and The Childhood of a Leader

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day doesn’t look particularly promising on paper; it’s basically Groundhog Day for the Blumhouse set, and even cops to the influence in the dialog. But it actually works despite its script being a pile of college-dorm-life clichés. Christopher Landon keeps the pace brisk enough to outrun the script’s copious plot holes without exhausting the audience. Meanwhile, Jessica Rothe provides an exuberant and affable performance in the lead role of Tree (not kidding), a sorority queen-bee who finds herself reliving the day of her murder over and over again. I would have liked a bit more edginess and satire and a bit less predictability, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Special props to Phi Vu for delivering the line “So did you tap that fine vagine?” as if it were something someone somewhere would actually say.

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken. Directed by Christopher Landon. 96 minutes.

Moon

Older Films

Moon

Sam Rockwell gets an entire movie to himself and the result is Moon, in which he plays an engineer and the lone crewmember of a lunar helium refinery. I felt director Duncan Jones could have done more with the script’s central twist (no spoilers but it’s very similar to a film released around the same time as Moon, that starred Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling as schoolteachers), but he does a great job of communicating the vast, awesome emptiness and solitude of the Moon, and I haven’t seen a better performance from Rockwell than this one. Also, Kevin Spacey gets to play the voice of the base’s controlling AI, a performance delightfully reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s outings as HAL.

Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry. Directed by Duncan Jones. 97 minutes, 2009.

The Childhood of a Leader

For his feature début in the director’s chair, American actor Brady Corbet—still probably best known for playing Peter to Michael Pitt’s Paul in the Funny Games remake—takes a Jean-Paul Sartre story and turns it into a two-hour-long temper tantrum…literally. British child actor Tom Sweet (apparently seven years old at the time this film was made) plays Prescott, the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Bérniéce Bejo) living in France during the waning days of World War I. For the most part, it plays as a typical dark family study about unpleasant parents raising an unpleasant child, until the film’s final fifteen minutes take everything to a bizarre yet logical extreme. Featuring gorgeous cinematography courtesy Lol Crawley and a frightening disjointed score by pop star-turned-avant garde legend Scott Walker, it’s bloated and pretentious, but not easily forgotten.

Starring Tom Sweet, Bérniéce Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Brady Corbet. 115 minutes, 2015.

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci takes the end of a bloody historical era and makes farce of it… ★★★★

The 1953 stroke that ended the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin left the country without a leader. There was an obvious (if not official) successor in Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov, but Moscow was full of ambitious men plotting to bring stability while carving out the largest slice of power for themselves. Chief among them were Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentiy Beria and Moscow party leader Nikita Khruschev. Vyacheslav Molotov, a former diplomat on the outs with Stalin, saw a chance to claw his way back to relevance. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily proved to be paranoid and erratic, and others struggled to control him. Loyalties turned on a kopek coin, and yesterday’s patriot could be tomorrow’s traitor. One false move—a mistake as simple or random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and you could be denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and shot. Even history could be rewritten, if you could convincingly deny that past events never happened.

Pretty funny, huh? Science fiction author Aaron Allston once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist responsible for The Thick of It and Veep, puts this principle to work in his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin. Iannucci interprets these historical figures as comical characters and makes farce of the lengths they’ll go to avoid being killed.

To wit: on the last day of his life, Stalin “requests” a recording of a Mozart recital broadcast on Radio Moscow. The problem: Radio Moscow didn’t actually record it. So the producer goes great lengths to stage a second performance—pressing a new conductor into service, bribing the pianist, and filling empty seats in the concert hall with citizens literally grabbed off the street. The result: a recording of what the producer assures Stalin’s men is the performance as broadcast.

Iannucci doubles down on the absurdity by casting identifiable actors (often comedians) in the roles who don’t transform into famous men of history. Indeed, three of the leading actors play their characters as variations of what they’ve been doing their entire careers. Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev is brittle, high-strung, and Brooklyn-accented. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a neurotic buffoon not far removed from the dozens of similar characters he played as a member of a certain Flying Circus. And nothing would have surprised me less than if Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov started spouting random George Bluth Sr. quotes.

Despite these and other remarkable performances—Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Jason Isaacs as the cocky Field Marshal Zukhov, and strongest of all, Simon Russell Beale as the crafty, canny, and psychotic Beria—the main draw isn’t any one actor or actress but Iannucci himself, choreographing historical events as if they were scenes in Clue and writing deft, sharp zingers for his cast to lob off each other. While none of the characters prove as quotable as Iannucci’s most endearing creations, Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker, we do at least get Buscemi responding “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly” to Vasily’s request to deliver a eulogy at his father’s funeral, and Tambor inviting his rivals to kiss his Russian ass, and those are moments worth having.

Now, is it funny? I laughed quite a bit, but all comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this specific kind of comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I do assert that one of art’s most important roles in culture is to help us make sense of the senseless, and The Death of Stalin uses comedy to transform the end of an unthinkably large tragedy (this will be the last time that losers in Soviet power struggles will pay with their lives) into something that can be held in the mind and understood—and if we understand it, perhaps we can prevent it from happening again.

Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko. Directed by Armando Iannucci. 107 minutes.

The Open House

A clichéd thriller for people who like to yell at characters when they do something stupid… ★½

“Have you thought about how weird open houses are?” teenaged Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette) asks his mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton) about a third of the way through The Open House. “You give your keys to someone you hardly know, they stand in one room and welcome in a bunch of complete strangers, and those people just roam around the house. And the realtor doesn’t check the house when it’s done? They just turn the lights off and go?” All things considered, open-housing is one of the odder human rituals, but the Netflix thriller The Open House fails to make a case for it as the basis of a horror movie.

The titular open house is a McMansion in the mountains owned by Naomi’s sister. It’s on the market, but Naomi and Logan are staying there until they get back on their feet after the death of their husband/father and the loss of their rented home. Weird stuff starts to happen to the Wallaces as soon as they move in: the water heater develops a habit of getting turned off every time Naomi takes a shower, while Logan’s glasses and cellphone disappear and reappear seemingly at random. Disquieting, but easily explained away; it’s not like some psycho could have slipped in during an open house and is able to remain hidden from the Wallaces while fucking with them, right? Right?

I would think material like this would inherently be creepy, but writer/directors Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel work hard to drain each situation of all possible menace, usually by deploying the most obvious cliché possible at any given moment. Naomi and Logan driving at night along a winding road through a forest? How much you wanna bet they’ll nearly hit a mysterious figure who will just as mysteriously disappear when our heroes look back? Anything you can bet will happen, based on the standard cinematic grammar of thrillers and your own experience as a filmgoer, does. Which is a shame, considering how much work Coote and Angel put into constantly trying to fake out the audience (and it’s also a shame how little work they put into fig-leafing those fake outs).

You can’t help but feel bad for Minnette, who’s finally garnered notice as the star of Thirteen Reasons Why after spending most of a decade mining “sullen teenager” territory, and Dalton, an apparent relative newcomer. They’re saddled with factory-standard “overstressed single mom” and “withdrawn, introverted teen” characters completely incapable of seeing obvious things in front of their faces. Yet the one thing in this movie that works is the relationship between Naomi and Logan, and it’s almost entirely due to the actors. They deserve so, so much better than this.

Still, there’s one audience that might be able to eke some enjoyment out of The Open House: people who enjoy making fun of bad horror movies, especially screaming at the characters when they do stupid things. Everyone else should take the opportunity to catch up on Black Mirror or Everything Sucks or something.

Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins, Aaron Abrams. Directed by Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel. 94 minutes.

Capsule Reviews: Black Panther; Annihilation; Red Sparrow

Quick looks at: the latest MCU blockbuster; Alex Garland’s SF-horror mindbender; Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller

Black Panther

Black Panther

Nothing—not even the Second Coming or a collaboration between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye and Kid A-era Radiohead—could live up to the hype Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was subjected to. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. While it has the standard MCU flaws (too long, overly familiar plot, hero boring in comparison to the villain), it’s an exhilarating superhero-action spectacle.

The two secrets to its success are its fictional setting of Wakanda and the performance of Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, as antagonist N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The former is a vibrant Afrofuturist utopia so breathtaking that any scene not set there (such as a trip to Busan, South Korea, for a James Bond-ian caper) might as well be accompanied with a timer indicating how many more minutes we have to spend before we go back to Wakanda.

As for Jordan, a personality so charismatic he makes Tom Hiddleston look like Elmer Fudd, he brings extra dimension to a character already hailed as the MCU’s most complex and interesting villain. He owns this picture, which is nothing against this cast of thousands. A dream team like this is the only way Coogler could get away with relegating Daniel Kaluuya (Oscar nominee for Get Out), Sterling K. Brown (Emmy winner for This Is Us), and Danai “Fucking Michonne!!!!!!” Gurira to glorified bit roles. Let’s put it like this: when you have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the same movie, and they’re the two actors you’re least excited to see in it, you’re in for something special.

Unfortunate, then, that the cast’s weak link is T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman—a decent actor in what I’ve seen him in, but here he finds himself outclassed by Jordan (no wonder “Killmonger Was Right” was such a popular meme in the week following Black Panther’s release) and Lupita Nyong’o. Then again, everyone seemed in awe of her CGI avatar in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, so maybe she’s always like that. One can hope.

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. 134 minutes.

Annihilation

Annihilation

Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland takes the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, mashes it up with Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” and produces the most psychedelically disturbing head-trip since Under the Skin. Natalie Portman plays a solider-turned-biologist who joins a four-woman expedition into “Area X,” a patch of land taken over by a supernatural “Shimmer” from which no one except Portman’s dying husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned. Inside the Shimmer they find a crocodile with the teeth of a shark, a hideous predator that howls with a heartbreakingly familiar voice, and all other manner of creepy imagery that would haunt my nightmares if I still possessed the ability to dream. Just don’t ask me to describe what’s in the swimming pool.

Garland has received a certain amount of flak for being less interested in the particulars of character and relationships than he is in the special effects. I don’t agree; I feel the dynamic between Portman and Isaac gets the exact amount of development it deserves. (Then again, I’m not entirely sure I accept the premise that one must necessarily be psychologically broken in order to want to take a potentially one-way trip to witness the unknown—but I freely admit I’m weird.) The supposed lack of character doesn’t hurt Portman, or Isaac, or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the expedition leader in a career-best performance.

Awesome in the literal sense—as in, “it filled me with awe”—I can’t imagine it won’t have a high place on my “best of 2018” list at the end of the year.

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong. Directed by Alex Garland. 115 minutes.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence reteams with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for Red Sparrow, a spy thriller that’s short on thrills or suspense but at least manages to be amusing in an over-the-top way…at least for a while. Sporting a tip-top Russian accent, Lawrence (Jen, not Francis) plays a prima ballerina who loses her livelihood in a fall but whose scummy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, cosplaying as the Mads Mikkelsen version of Hannibal Lecter) finds work for her as a secret-service seductress. This involves a term at what Lawrence euphemistically calls “whore school”—sadly, it’s located in Sibera, not on Mallory Archer’s Whore Island—because apparently in Russia, giving a dispassionate blow job is a trade skill you need training for. It’s the sort of place where, if one of your classmates attempted to rape you and you fought the bastard off, Charlotte Rampling would show up and chide you for prioritizing your fantasies of bourgeois virtue over the needs of the Great Russian State. (Rampling doesn’t actually say bourgeois but you can see her almost literally choking the word down.)

Unfortunately, things get a lot less interesting once the action shifts from Whore School to Belgrade, where Jen is tasked with seducing an American case officer—Joel Edgerton at his Joel Edgerton-iest—into revealing the name of his mole in the Russian government. While the second half of the film has its charm—particularly performances by Sergej Onopko as a particularly vicious cleaner and Mary-Louise Parker as a half-drunk McGuffin—most of it isn’t stuff you haven’t already seen before in Atomic Blonde, with better music, and Bill Camp instead of John Goodman. It’s the sort of movie where you can see every twist coming at least five minutes before it happens. Indeed, you should be able to figure out who Edgerton’s mole is about halfway through the film—just use the Law of Conservation of Character.

It’s not an entire waste of time, but it is the espionage-thriller equivalent of empty calories, if you catch my drift.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence. 139 minutes.

Retro Review: The Astrologer

An accidental amateur masterpiece… Rating N/A

Some bad movies are just, well, bad. Others are bad, but fun to watch. Then there is that special category of film which exhibits such disregard for the conventions of cinema that it falls down a metaphorical rabbit-hole and comes out the other side as, if not exactly a good movie, then the sort of cinematic experience which is uniquely compelling, drawing certain cult-like swarms of weirdoes to seek them out. You know the kinds of movies I’m talking about: The RoomManos: The Hands of Fate, After Last SeasonTroll 2. Add to that Craig Denney’s 1976 magnum opus and sole filmmaking effort, The Astrologer.

The film stars Denney as one “Craig Marcus Alexander,” following him through his youth as a street urchin and pickpocket, to his young adulthood as a fortune-teller at a carnival, to his eventual recruitment by a ring of jewel thieves. After two stints as a guest of the Kenyan correctional system, he smuggles a small fortune in gemstones out of Africa. Once he shakes the shady characters vying to relieve him of his bounty, he returns to California a millionaire, ready to pursue his lifelong dream: build a reputation as the world’s foremost astrologer and build a media empire. And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the film.

No written synopsis of The Astrologer can prepare the viewer for the sheer disregard for the basic fundamentals of film grammar Denney exhibits. He ruthlessly repeals the laws of cause and effect. Alexander’s rise and fall takes place over the course of months, but exposition fails to clarify which months, or what order they go in. Mood, tone, and even genre conventions change seemingly at whim: one minute, the film presents a Papillon-style examination of brutal prison conditions; the next, it’s high adventure in the jungle, like an Indiana Jones movie directed by Christopher Mihm. Denney crassly presses two songs and most of the orchestral bits from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed into service as incidental music. “I’m going to put those tropicalists where they belong: out of business!” Alexander says at one point, as if that were a thing a real person would actually say, even in the mid-’70s.

Sure, I can describe in mere words the restaurant argument scene—the slow motion, the cuts perfectly timed to match the dramatic bits of Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel”—but I can’t ever come close to conveying the actual emotional resonance of that sequence.

It becomes clear that The Astrologer is the work of a man who has no idea what the hell he’s doing, other than taking money and turning it into whatever he thought the movie was going to be. Yet Denney’s amateur status makes the film more, not less, riveting. Is it good or bad? The question’s moot.

Sadly, it has never seen a home-video release in any format and is unlikely to ever do so, apparently due to music-licensing costs. Your only option is to pray that the American Genre Film Archive brings it to a theater near you sometime during your lifetime. If it does, I sincerely urge you not to miss it.

Starring Craig Denney, Darrien Earle, Arthyr Chadbourne. Directed by Craig Denney. 96 minutes, 1976.

My Year in Film: 2017

My favorite things in film in 2017

The Top Films of 2017

Yes, I know I’m late with my lists. So sue me.

Favorite Film of 2017: The Last Jedi

Favorite Movie of 2017 — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

14 Runners-Up: The Shape of Water

Fourteen Runners-Up

Yes, there were good movies released in 2017 whose titles did not involve the words Star and Wars.

  1. The Shape of Water
  2. Baby Driver
  3. Get Out
  4. It Comes at Night
  5. The Post
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It
  11. Colossal
  12. Marjorie Prime
  13. Dunkirk
  14. Super Dark Times

The Blackcoat's Daughter

Five Honorable Mentions

The Blackcoat’s Daughter worked the festival circuit in 2015 (when I saw it under its original title, February) and 2016, but A24 didn’t release it until early this year. I tried very hard to justify it as a 2017 film, but ultimately, I just couldn’t. If I could, these lists would look very different.

When I first wrote about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a couple of months ago, I declared it one of the best films of the year. Since then, I’ve given it some reconsideration and it turns out I don’t like it as much as I initially did. I’d hoped to do a full piece on it, but I never had time to write it. Oh well.

I wanted to rewatch Buster’s Mal Heartmother!, and Raw before finalizing this list, but ultimately couldn’t make the time.

Sicilian Ghost Story

The Five Best Non-Qualifying Films

I tend to find film festival programs work at odds with best-of-year lists. What’s the point of naming such-and-such a movie one of the best of the year if it played only a handful of film festivals? Here are the five best 2017 films I saw at festivals that didn’t see wider release.

  1. Sicilian Ghost Story (Chicago International Film Festival)
  2. Mohawk (Cinepocalypse)
  3. Trench 11 (Cinepocalypse)
  4. The Endless (CIFF)
  5. The Crescent (Cinepocalypse)

Individual Acheivements

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro

Best Director — Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Jordan Peele, Get Out
  • Trey Edward Schulte, It Comes At Night
  • Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
  • Edgar Wright, Baby Driver

Best Leading Actress: Sally Hawkins

Best Actress in a Leading Role — Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Nicole Kidman as Dr. Anna Murphy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Noomi Rapace as Monday et alWhat Happened to Monday
  • Daisy Ridley as Rey, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, The Post

Best Supporting Actress: Carrie Fisher

Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Carmen Ejogo as Sarah, It Comes at Night
  • Marianna Palka as Jill Hart, Bitch
  • Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller, The Shape of Water
  • Lois Smith as Marjorie, Marjorie Prime
  • Allison Williams as Rose Armitage, Get Out

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya

Best Actor in a Leading Role — Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, Get Out

Runners-Up:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb et alSplit
  • Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour
  • Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Good Time

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Hamill

Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Armie Hammer as Oliver, Call Me by Your Name
  • Richard Jenkins as Giles, The Shape of Water
  • Patrick Stewart as Charles, Logan
  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Jason Sudeikis as Oscar, Colossal

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

(Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, LilRel Howery)

Runners-Up:

  • Call Me by Your Name (Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garell)
  • It (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton)
  • The Post (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracey Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross)
  • The Shape of Water (Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Frank Oz, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotamo, Jimmy Vee)

Best Screenplay: Jordan Peele

Best Screenplay — Get Out, written by Jordan Peele

Runners-Up:

  • Colossal, written by Nacho Vigalondo
  • Good Time, written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie
  • Marjorie Prime, screenplay by Michael Almereyda, based on the stage play by Jordan Harrison
  • The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
  • The Shape of Water, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo del Toro

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Best Cinematography — Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049

Runners-Up:

  • Drew Daniels, It Comes at Night
  • Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me by Your Name
  • Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story
  • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Sean Price Williams, Good Time

Best Original Score — Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Good Time

Runners-Up:

  • Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
  • Daniel Hart, A Ghost Story
  • Kira Fontana, Kedi
  • Brian McOmber, It Comes at Night
  • Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

Best Original Song — “Mystery of Love,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by Sufjan Stevens)

Runners-Up:

  • “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story (performed by Dark Rooms)
  • “The Pure and the Damned,” Good Time (performed by Oneohtrix Point Never featuring Iggy Pop)
  • “To Be Human,” Wonder Woman (performed by Sia featuring Labrinth)

Best Use of Non-Original Music: "Love My Way" from Call Me by Your Name

Best Use of Non-Original Music — “Love My Way,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by the Psychedelic Furs)

Runners-Up:

  • “Bellbottoms,” Baby Driver (performed by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion)
  • “Dear God,” It (performed by XTC)
  • “Hocus Pocus,” Baby Driver (performed by Focus)
  • “Mr. Blue Sky,” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (performed by the Electric Light Orchestra)
  • “Voices Carry,” Atomic Blonde (performed by ‘Til Tuesday)

PORG

Breakout Star of 2017 — The Porg in the co-pilot’s seat on the Millennium Falcon, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule Reviews: Logan; Darkest Hour; The Post; Call Me by Your Name

Logan, Call Me by Your Name, The Post, and more

Logan

Logan

Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant.

In retrospect, a 6-foot-3 Australian stage actor might not have been the most intuitive choice to play a 5-foot-3 Canadian mutant antihero. But the X-Men movie franchise turns 18 this year, which means we’ve been watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine for 18 years, and as strong as some of the franchise’s casting has been, this seems to be the actor/character pairing that has endured best. Logan, the third in a series of unimaginatively-titled solo outings (it follows X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine), retires the Jackman version of Wolverine and it’s hard to see any other actor picking up the baton.

Logan takes place in the near future, its title characrter alcoholic and slowly being poisoned to death by the metal in his reinforced skeleton (I’m not clear on how that works), works as a limo driver in Texas. He stashed his former mentor Charles Xavier, now senile and suffering from seizures that can kill other people (kinda like Scanners, I guess), across the border in an abandoned factory, under the watchful eye of another mutant named Caliban. No new mutant has been born in decades, and the other X-Men are dead (victims of one of Xavier’s seizures, apparently), so these three might be the last mutants left in the entire world. That’s when Laura, an eleven-year-old Mexican girl who shares Wolverine’s mutant powers, enters the picture.

Of course, it falls to Logan and the intermittently lucid Xavier to protect Laura from the evil biocorp that created her, because an X-Men film just isn’t an X-Men film without amoral scientists who haven’t figured out that creating biological killing machines is not a good idea. Have none of these people seen the Alien movies?

This is one of those rare superhero movies where the talky bits are actually better than the action bits. Watching Wolvie impale faceless mercenaries in the face is fun for the first fight or two, but it seems to be the only maneuver in his arsenal. And for that matter, how is it that nobody’s figured out not to get within reaching distance of Logan anyway? But I could watch two and a half hours of Jackman sparring verbally with Patrick Stewart, who portrayal of Xavier is a career-best performance. Stephen Merchant, who plays Caliban, is similarly terrific, and even the kid (Dafne Keen) isn’t bad. I do, however, wish they’d done more with Richard E. Grant.

Overall, a fairly good superhero movie of the “gritty action” type.

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn.

Darkest Hour serves as a sort of unofficial companion to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, portraying the Whitehall politicking that led up to the Dunkirk evacuation, and which coincided with the unlikely rise to power of Winston Churchhill, a widely-disliked bumbler and drunkard who was seen as having squandered his chances at greatness, and was only offered the post of prime minister because Chamberlain’s natural successor didn’t want it. (This is how it happened according to the film, anyway. The historical record is more complex.)

Unfortunately, Darkest Hour follows the pattern of most films of its ilk, delivering scene after scene of Churchill crushing the opposition (albeit in a distinctly genteel, upper-class way) with his pure overwhelming awesomeness. He suffers from only the occasional bout of emotional weakness, something easily cured by a trip down the Victoria Line, and in the end he emerges triumphant, Britain’s boys come home from Dunkirk, and the Allies defeat Hitler four years later. Only rarely does the film touch on the fact that Churchill was privately pessimistic about the country’s chances, even when using his fantastic oratory skills to boost the country’s spirits. (I did appreciate, however, that the film was more sympathetic to Chamberlain and those who desired peace than most films of this kind are. The First World War nearly wiped out an entire generation of young British men, for almost no real reason at all, leaving many with the feeling that future war was to be avoided at any cost.)

That being said, Darkest Hour functions very well as an actor’s showcase, with an almost-unrecognizeable Gary Oldman shining as Churchill, along with impressive performances from Kristin-Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife Clementine and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his personal secretary; and character actors Ronald Pickup (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), and the always-awesome Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline and Rogue One) bringing up the rear as, respectively, Neville Chamberlain, Viscount Halifax, and King George VI.

The Post

The Post

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys.

With a pair of timely political themes—feminism and the importance of the First Amendment—up his sleeve, Steven Spielberg delivers a rousing, unabashedly liberal message movie in The Post. Making the decision to publish Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” after the Nixon administration smacked down the New York Times for doing so would have been a risky move for any newspaper publisher. For Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, the first woman to hold that position at any major American paper (and who never expected to), the stakes were even higher, not least because the papers landed on executive editor Ben Bradlee’s desk on the eve of the paper going public.

Spielberg keeps the pace brisk and the tension high, achieving the rare feat of making journalism look exciting and—dare I say it?—a bit sexy. (2015’s Spotlight, which shares a screenwriter with The Post, also succeeded at that.) Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks deliver excellent performances (Hanks, in particular, looks more invigorated than he has in years), anchoring a staggeringly impressive cast that also includes the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, David Cross, Jesse Plemons, and even a glorified cameo from Michael Stuhlbarg.

Like any “message movie” there are bits where proceedings get a bit heavy-handed, but for the most part the lectures never detract from the entertainment. Plus…well, I shouldn’t have to tell you why we need a movie like this at a time like this.

 

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Cesar, Esther Garrel.

Stephen King once dismissed Joan Didion’s  The White Album as “the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii.” I had initially dismissed Call Me by Your Name on similar grounds—it looked like the story of a privileged white kid whose parents could afford to let him fall in love for the first time in the north of Italy.

The film turned out to be more than that, of course, largely due to the performances of Timothée Chalamet (as the kid, Elio, a 17-year-old prodigious polymath), Michael Stuhlbarg (as Elio’s father, an archaeologist), and Armie Hammer (as Oliver, Elio’s dad’s glorified summer intern and the object of Elio’s desire). The original music—a few new pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto and two heartbreaking songs by Sufjan Stevens—certainly help, as does the lush cinematography.

Unfortunately, those strong points never offset the fact that I saw the environment as being as alien as any world in the Star Wars universe. It’s not just the physical environment, even if the days do seem to last longer than they should. Elio’s parents are almost comically permissive—I counted a grand total of three moments where they actually acted like parents instead of middle-aged roommates. Everybody’s dialog is overly poetic, something I couldn’t help but notice even if Stuhlbarg can deliver lines like “there’s not a straight line in any of these statues, they’re all curved, like they’re daring you to desire them” and make them sound like casual conversation. For me, these elements created an awareness of artifice that kept the film from ever totally casting a spell over me.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it a lot. It has at least three great scenes (including that wonderful, wonderful dance scene) and no bad ones (although I have to admit the “if only you knew how little I know about the things that really matter” conversation irritated me), so I call that a net positive. Also, I have a bit more faith in the Suspiria remake now, as Luca Guadagnino is behind that as well.

The Blackcoat's Daughter

Rewatches

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Osgood Perkins, 2015)

Also Watched in January

Colossal and Atomic Blonde—Never got around to writing these up, sorry. I really liked Colossal and mostly liked Atomic Blonde.

The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)—Steve McQueen binge continues

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Ishirô Honda and Terry Morse, 1954/1956)Godzilla Raids Again (Motoyoshi Oda, 1955)Mothra vs. Godzilla aka Godzilla vs. the Thing (Ishirô Honda, 1964)—Svelgoolie has been doing Godzilla movies lately

Starcrash (Luigi Cozzi, 1979)

Desolation

An entertaining survival-horror flick with an awesome antagonist… ★★★

Desolation

United States: Directed by Sam Patton, 2017. Starring Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols, Claude Duhamel. 78 minutes. ★★★

I don’t have any statistical evidence that more films about getting over loss have come my way since October than normally do, but it sure seems like it, to the extent that I’ve called 2017 “the year of grief” somewhat facetiously, if not entirely disrespectfully. It rears its head again in Sam Patton’s Desolation. Recently widowed Abby (Jaimi Paige) sets off on a hiking trip with her thirteen-year-old son Sam (Toby Nicholas) and best friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse) to scatter the ashes of her late husband and Sam’s father. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a creepy stranger (Claude Duhamel) who starts stalking them.

This is Patton’s first feature as director and his keen eye, use of location work, and control of mood impressed me. There are a few flaws with the story and characters. The plot develops in a largely predictable way; ordinarily, I’d find this a problem, but since it looks like Patton’s going for suspense over shock or surprise, I didn’t really mind here. That could bug some viewers, though; and since it’s pretty clear from the outset which characters will live and die, the film never quite sells the danger. I appreciated how the theme of grief manifested itself in the film’s climax, but I also felt the script could have tied the themes and plot points together a bit more tightly. In keeping with the focus on suspense, Patton uses blood and gore sparingly, although it is present.

Similarly, Abby, Sam, and Jenn fall into familiar, standard-issue character roles. When the ladies discover a joint in a geocache, you just know Jenn (the mildly hedonistic bestie who brings two bottled of Cabernet on a hiking trip) will eventually suggest smoking it. Thankfully, Paige and Nichols have enough skill as actresses to add extra dimension; while Nichols’ performance doesn’t transcend the surly-teenager clichés, I didn’t find him outright annoying. Which is something.

However, Claude Duhamel provides the most compelling reason to watch Desolation. It’s not just the long hair, beard, hoodie, or ’80s-style mirrorshades that make the stranger such a menacing character. Duhamel conjures up a physical presence just oozing with menace, almost more of a force of nature than a human being. His performance kept reminding me of the big looming evil truck from Duel and the better Shapes of the Halloween franchises. He’s the sort of guy who can make you crap your pants with a slight tilt of his head.

Desolation is an entertaining survival-horror flick; while it has some flaws, it also has some strong strengths to compensate.

Desolation poster

Super Dark Times

A fascinating and chilling portrayal of doomed youth… ★★★★

Super Dark Times

United States: Directed by Kevin Phillips, 2017. Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves. 100 minutes. ★★★★

Super Dark Times opens with a death. In a high school classroom, a deer lies dying in a pool of its own blood. We don’t see how it got there—we only see the shattered window—and it probably isn’t important. What does matter is that it must be put out of its misery. The deer could be an omen that presages the tragic events to come. Or it could be the sacrifice that starts a ritual.

The characters of Super Dark Times are young teenage boys navigating the middle 1990s, the gap between the Cold War and the War, a time when we didn’t realize we still had things to fear. High school freshmen Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) spend their time doing teenage boy stuff: playing video games, discussing which of their female classmates (and teachers) they’d like to get it on with, spending hours tuned to scrambled cable channels, hoping to get a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Their younger acquaintances, eighth-graders Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), are on the road to becoming “bad kids.” Daryl dares his friends to do gross things, boasts about masturbation, and exhibits an interest in drugs and weapons: an interest which will ultimately cost one of the boys his life in a senseless accident.

If it weren’t for the 1996 setting (which allows for the soundtrack to feature songs like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth”, and explains the absence of mobile phones) I’d call Super Dark TimesRiver’s Edge for the 2010s. Both films take place in small towns where the sun hasn’t shined in years, with streets laid out in such a way to prevent escape. Both films center on kids living under the specter of benign neglect at best, outright abuse at worst. Both films work largely because they see the teenagers that don’t fit into the easy high-school stereotypes—nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, preppies, so on—and understand how they relate to each other. Chances are, you knew kids like this during your school days—or you were one of them.

Zack and Josh’s shared secret festers and rots like discarded meat, manifesting as paranoia; when Zack’s classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) reveals she reciprocates his crush, he proves too distracted to respond. Campbell and Tahan, both of whom have prior experience playing troubled teens (on the TV series The Americans and Gotham, respectively), deliver excellent performances—I could easily imagine the mental strain turning like metal gears in their heads, waiting for something, anything, to jam up the works and bring everything crashing down. These performances, as well as director Kevin Phillips’ commitment to cultivating a doom-laden, damn near apocalyptic mood—make up for a number of flaws, particularly a not-particularly-well foreshadowed twist in character development in the third act and a hard-to-follow action sequence near the end of the film.

Super Dark Times provides a fascinating and chilling portrait of characters cinema often struggles mightily to get right. One of the essential films of 2017, even if it’s not particularly comfortable.

Super Dark Times poster