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

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

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

Desolation

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

Super Dark Times

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

Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 4

Capsule Reviews: Get Out; Dunkirk; Good Time

Get Out

Get Out

Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stansfield, Stephen Root.

One of the reasons I find the present so exciting when it comes to genre films is the growing recognition that there is no distinction between “genre” films and “quality” films (or at least there shouldn’t be). This is nothing against the year’s crop of “quality” films such as Three BillboardsCall Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, and Lady Bird, but I’m not seeing them dominate other critics’ rankings to the extent I’d expected. I think I’ve seen Baby DriverWonder Woman and even It on more best-of lists than The Square. And then there’s Get Out, which was not a film I’d expect any critic to name as the year’s best-of.

Not because Get Out isn’t a good film; by all metrics, it is, in fact, every bit deserving of the hype it’s received. Jordan Peele has managed to pull off a masterful juggling act, interpolating Carpenter-esque suspense sequences with the surreal artsiness of the Sunken Place. Daniel Kaluuya lives up to the promise I first saw in “Fifteen Million Merits,” his episode of Black Mirror, and he heads a brilliant cast that ranges from dependable character-actors like Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Stephen Root, to “where have you been hiding all these years?” revelations like LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, and Betty Gabriel. Get Out is scary when it needs to be scary, funny when it needs to be funny, and balances the two modes with a deftness I’ve not seen since The Cabin in the Woods.

And then, of course, there’s the social commentary. I doubt the conversation surrounding Get Out would be much improved by more white-guy-splaining, but I do want to say that this sort of commentary is the exact thing that horror, as a genre, is uniquely positioned to deliver. In fact, I believe that delivering uncomfortable truths with a dollop of entertainment value—especially, in the case of this film, to white audiences—is what horror entirely exists to do. Get Out inherits from a long tradition of horror-with-social-subtext that includes films such as Dawn of the Dead and They Live and The People Under the Stairs, films that critics and “serious” audiences overlooked because they were genre efforts. But our culture has changed since then, to the point where Get Out is recognized as one of the finest films of the year. And that’s all for the better.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

May 21, 1940. Eleven days into the Battle of France, and Nazi forces have the British Expeditionary Force, along with three French field armies and the remains of the Belgian and Dutch forces, trapped along the northern coast of France, near the port city of Dunkirk. The best course of action is to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk across the English Channel to Dover, a distance of about fifty nautical miles. That is, if they can make it past the German Luftwaffe (air force).

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, then, is less about heroism at wartime and more about simply not getting killed. The narrative follows the evacuation on three fronts: on the ground, a trio of British privates desperately try to make it off the beach; in the air, a pair of Spitfire pilots engage the Luftwaffe; at sea, a civilian sailor, his son, and his son’s friend sail from Weymouth in a civilian vessel. The Axis soldiers and pilots are almost never seen; the only markers of their presence are the bullets and bombs raining from the sky. Fighting can only effectively be done in the air. If you’re on land or in the water, your only option is to run or swim and pray to God the projectiles don’t follow you.

This is Nolan at his most straightforward and concise. While the three stories don’t all play out at the same pace, Nolan eschews the narrative trickery he’s become associated with. In terms of putting the audience in the middle of the action (such as it is), Dunkirk is perhaps the most effective war film since Saving Private Ryan. With so much going on, there’s very little room for character development. The civilian sailors—Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney—are the only characters with time to register as people. And even at a comparatively breezy 106 minutes—the shortest running time Nolan’s delivered since his début, Following—too many scenes stretch on for too long.

Still, there’s an important lesson here. On the last day of the evacuation, Winston Churchill delivered his celebrated “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, rallying the British people and preparing them for the long road ahead. The Allies did, of course, eventually triumph over the Axis, proof positive that Nazis can be defeated…something it may help us to keep in mind in the near future.

Good Time

Good Time

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Lennice Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

There are movies that have to pull off delicate balancing acts, and then there’s Good Time. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a small-time hood who takes a trip through the seedy underbelly of New York culture to come up with bail money for his developmentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed with his brother Josh), recently arrested for participating in a bank robbery Connie masterminded. Imagine a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Of Mice and Men, and you’re not far off.

Good Time shifts from exciting to disturbing to funny in turn, as Connie’s adventures draw in a motley gang of allies and antagonists, including Ray (Buddy Duress), a parolee who finds himself in trouble within hours of release, and Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), a rebellious and bored sixteen-year-old. The plot shifts into a rollicking new gear once the McGuffin—a 16-ounce bottle of Sprite, spiked with LSD—is established; a propulsive score by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) keeps the pace quick and steady.

Through it all, Pattinson keeps everything grounded. If you’ve managed to miss everything he’s done that doesn’t have the word Twilight in the title, prepare to be blown away—this is not the mumbly “hero” of the Cullen saga. Connie isn’t always a sympathetic or even likable protagonist, and he’s capable of some vicious scumbaggery. But his (admittedly unhealthly) love for his brother shines through in every inch of Pattinson’s electrifying performance and gives the film a heart you wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a New York crime drama.

Papillon

I Also Watched…

Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973). I’m on a Steve McQueen kick lately. Papillon is apparently a true story about a French safecracker who was framed for murder and sent to a brutal prison camp in French Guiana that he then spent the next decade attempting to escape from. It’s engaging for about the first hour and a half or so, but after that it becomes a bit of a pointless drag. The thing I find really interesting about it, though, is the fact that the screenplay was co-written by blacklist target Dalton Trumbo; while I don’t know for sure that Trumbo drew parallels between his own struggle and Papillon’s bloody-minded obsession (even after being retired from the prison camp and moved to a comparatively comfortable colony for exiles, he continues to plot escape, because he’s not really free), but I like to think that.

The Best of 2017

Because I got such a late start on my 2017 movies I’m deferring my Year in Movies post until the end of January. I still have a lot of 2017 movies to see (just to name a few: Atomic Blonde, Logan, Logan Lucky, Untamed, Nocturama, ColossalThor: RagnarokThe Post…). I don’t want to close out my list without seeing the two year’s two big non-genre critical hits, Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, even though neither film could really be described as “my type of thing.” And I want to revisit a few films from Fantastic Fest 2016 (Buster’s Mal HeartA Dark SongRaw) and even 2015 (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, once known as February) that finally saw release in 2017.

However, as of right now my top ten films of 2017 are:

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Get Out
  5. It Comes at Night
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It: Chapter One
Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 3

Capsule Reviews: Kedi; A Ghost Story; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Marjorie Prime

Kedi

Kedi

Turkey. Directed by Ceyda Torun.

I knew that Islam reveres cats, but Istanbul takes that reverence to a whole ‘nother level.

The documentary Kedi portrays the stray cats of that ancient capital as a dominating force. Director Ceyda Torun ostensibly focuses on seven such cats—Aslan Parçasi, Bengü, Deniz, Duman, Gamsiz, Psikopat, Sari—to keep things easy to follow, but they stand in for the city’s entire feline population as a whole. The cats’ influence on the day-to-day life of Istanbul seems to equal that of their human compatriots, and Torun gets some remarkable footage (much of it shot at cat level) as they beg for food at restaurants, steal fish from outdoor market stalls, commune with people at cafés and street-corners, come and go as they please, and generally be, well, cats. I’m in awe of the patience Torun must have exhibited during filming. “Like herding cats” became a cliché for a reason.

But, as enchanting as an eighty-minute-long cat video or a visual travelogue of Istanbul would be, Kedi isn’t merely these things. It occurred to me that in an American city, a population of strays this large and visible would be considered a public nuisance. Torun interviews a number of people whose lives intersect with the cats’ in various ways—phrases like “owners” or “masters” or even “human companions” lack accuracy when describing these relationships—and it seems like Istanbul’s residents (these residents, at least) regard the felines almost as fellow-citizens whose claim to the streets of the city is as valid as the humans’ own.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

United States. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.

Casey Affleck dies and then becomes a cartoon-style ghost (a white sheet with two eyes painted on it) and stares at the changing world around him for an hour and a half.

About half this movie is really, really good. Mostly these are the bits where things actually happen. Unfortunately the other half is as dull as dirt, unless you’re the sort of person who fetishizes on spending five minutes watching Rooney Mara eat pie.

Also, I’m glad that Will Oldham showed up at the end of the second act to lecture the audience on the themes of the film, because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what the movie’s about otherwise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

United States. Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau.

The Marvel creative team took an odd approach to Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU: they made it as much about the Avengers (specifically, Iron Man) as it is about the friendly neighborhood web-head. The screenplay roots the origins of Michael Keaton’s villainous Adrian “Vulture” Toomes in the aftermath of the first Avengers film. The dominant relationship of the narrative is between Peter Parker and Tony Stark. In fact, Stark spends so much time in RJD’s patented “alpha-male-douchebag” mode that he effectively serves as the antagonist of the first half of the film.

It really doesn’t help that director Jon Watts doesn’t bring anything to Homecoming’s action and effects scenes that I haven’t already seen in a bunch of other superhero movies. Lots of herky-jerky camera work, incoherent CGI fight sequences, and the requisite footage of recognizable landmarks being destroyed. I hope everybody learns from Patty Jenkins’ work on Wonder Woman that it is indeed possible to construct an action sequence that’s both exciting and easy to follow.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of nitpicks that don’t really matter much. Tom Holland is the perfect Peter Parker—he’s Hollywood handsome but able to pull off geeky awkwardness; unfortunately the script places Parker at a STEM-oriented specialty school (even Flash freaking Thompson is a nerd here!), thus undercutting his outsider status. Was it really necessary to point out how hot Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is more than, say, zero times? Did the screenwriters really not realize how lame a certain supporting character’s last-five-minutes-of-the-film twist was?

The good news is enough works to make Homecoming worth watching even if it doesn’t exactly transcend its issues. I already mentioned Tom Holland. Michael Keaton delivers one of the year’s best performances, and I loved how the screenplay entwined his motivation with social commentary. Best of all, they got the tone of the non-effects and action sequences exactly right. Spider-Man works best as a local hero, keeping the streets of New York safe, and having a blast while doing it. Leave the world-saving to those whose powers, resources, and experience are more suited to the task. You know, people like Tony Stark.

Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime

United States. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.

One of the programs I had for my Commodore 64 when I was a kid was “Eliza.” It was a conversation simulator, kind of like a chatterbot: you’d type in sentences, it would respond. The conceit was that Eliza was a “Rogerian psychotherapist” and you were its patient. “I am dissatisfied with my life,” you’d tell it, and it would respond “Why are you dissatisfied with your life?” It wasn’t really artificial intelligence; it just spat whatever you said back at you.

I kept thinking about Eliza while watching Marjorie Prime. The titular “Prime” is an AI and hologram set up to simulate a specific person—for example, your dead husband Walter, who when he was 40 looked exactly like Jon Hamm. The thing about Walter Prime is that he has the real Walter’s voice and good looks, but you actually have to teach Walter Prime how to be Walter, by telling him what Walter was like. This can be quite helpful if you’re Walter’s 85-year-old widow Marjorie and you’re suffering from dementia.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” and although Marjorie Prime isn’t as dystopian as “Be Right Back” it still exhibits a certain ambiguity as to whether the interactions Marjorie, her daughter Tess, and son-in-law Jon (respectively Lois Smith, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins) have with various Primes are indeed healthy. How creepy is it to watch an elderly parent talk with a simulation of a younger version of another parent? And while our experiences and memories make us who we are, how can someone recreate us when they don’t know the things we wouldn’t talk about? (That’s quite apart from the theory, discussed early in the film, that when we remember something we don’t remember the actual event but the way the memory went the last time we remembered it, which is why memory is so wonky.)

Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, to be sure. However, the movie itself comes off as very actory and talky. I didn’t find this a problem, because Davis and Robbins put in career-best performances; I’m less familiar with Smith and Hamm, but they are excellent here as well. But Michael Almeryeda’s direction betrays the film’s roots as a stage play, which could alienate some viewers. Still, if you’re in the mood for a science-fiction film whose fantastical elements are so subtle you don’t realize you’re watching SF until someone throws a drink through Jon Hamm, give Marjorie Prime a try.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I also watched…

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017). Two more times!

Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) And why is the floor all wet, Todd?

Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 2

Capsule Reviews: Personal Shopper; Hounds of Love; Okja; What Happened to Monday; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

France. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lee, Nora von Waldstätten.

In case It Comes at Night didn’t slake your thirst for ambiguity, might I recommend Personal Shopper? Starring Kristen Stewart as a young American bumming around Paris, working as a PA to an obnoxious celebrity and waiting for her recently-deceased twin brother to contact her from beyond the veil—oops, I probably should have mentioned that the sibs are mediums—this film is harder to interpret than phone poll data for a special election in Alabama.

Stewart’s generally subdued approach to her craft serves her well here, manifesting in-character as disaffection and cynicism, and she particularly shines during a series of second-act sequences in which her primary co-star is an iPhone. This is actually a lot more gripping that it might sound. Indeed, without the supernatural element Olivier Assays (who previously collaborated with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria) has crafted a canny and effective thriller. But the ghosts add an extra dimension, and their presence makes Stewart feel haunted in more ways than one.

I do have to say that the final act presents a puzzle that continues to confound well after the film ends, and that while I like the interpretation that seems to prevail among the film’s fans, there is something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s not something that bugs me a lot in the end, however.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love

Australia. Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Currie, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas.

The tendency for male filmmakers to draw a line between “feminine empowerment” and “cheap exploitation” probably existed before I Spit on Your Grave. Ben Young’s nasty psych-thriller Hounds of Love works squarely in that tradition but the feminism just about overpowers the prurience. The setup is very basic: a serial-killing married couple, John (Stephen Currie) and Evie (Emma Booth, of Netflix’s excellent Aussie import Glitch), operate out of Perth in the late ’80s (the setting allowing for a montage set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” one of the weirdest clichés to manifest overt the past couple of years). Their latest victim is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teen with separated parents, who quickly realizes she needs to play her captors off each other to survive.

While several elements didn’t work for me—it seemed very weird that the killers would choose to target victims in their own neighborhood (they literally live two or streets away from Vicki’s mum)—what made the film was Evie’s characterization and Booth’s performance in the role. Evie is clearly damaged and disturbed but she’s also clearly a victim of John’s emotional and physical abuse. Vicki may be the film’s nominal Final Girl, but Evie is the character the audience roots for. I also liked how the relationship between John and Evie reflected dynamic between Vicki’s parents (note how much of an ass her father is).

Okja

Okja

United States/South Korea. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Ahn Seo-huyn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In theory, any director could make a film about a young girl’s quest to save her genetically engineered pet superpig from the evil multinational globalcorp that created her (the pig, obviously, not the girl). But only Bong Joon-ho could make that film in this particular way. By turns adorable and cynical, idealistic and fatalistic, Okja is a damn-near-perfect examination of life under predatory capitalism, where the difference between life and death can be found in the margin between profit and loss.

Bong pulls off a truly awe-inspiring juggling act. Tilda Swinton slips easily into the villain position, a dual role as a ruthless yet charming corporate CEO and the less-charismatic twin sister she overthrew, backed up by an opportunistic corporate weasel (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and a washed-up, alcoholic TV presenter (Jake Gyllenhaal). On the side of Good, Paul Dano leads a team of animal-rights activists who mean well but don’t always end up doing the right thing. But Ahn Seo-huyn provides the film’s heart and soul as Mija, whose bond with the superpig carries her through a whirlwind of exhilarating set pieces.

This is a lot for a film to take in, even a two-hour one, and it’s to Bong’s credit that he’s able to keep most of the pins in the air with grace. Gyllenhaal’s performance, an ugly mess of unnecessary hamming and funny voices, is the major flaw here, and yet he succeeds in lending genuine menace to the film’s most horrifying and heartbreaking sequence.

What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday

United Kingdom/France/Belgium. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pål Sverre Hagen, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe.

It would be hard to say no to seven Noomi Rapaces even in the worst of circumstances, and What Happened to Monday is surprisingly good. Set in a dystopian near-future where multiple pregnancies become more common, leading to rampant overpopulation, leading to laws limiting families to one child per, the film places Rapace in the roles of identical septuplets. Each named after a day of the week, the septs share a single legal identity (each one goes out into the world on her namesake day while the other six remain in hiding), a workable scheme until, as you can probably guess from the title, Monday goes missing.

It’s a lot of fun watching Rapace kick ass in seven different wigs, but what sets Monday apart is its commitment to its setting. Too many science-fiction actioners use their fantastical elements as little more than excuses to set up fights, chases, and explosions. Monday actually considers the difficult questions it poses. The Child Allocation Bureau and its supporters are evil, no doubt about that, with its policies bordering on eugenics. Yet the film consistently reminds the viewer about the overpopulation problem, and the final sequences explicitly address the consequences of nobody willing to make difficult decisions.

If all of that seems a bit heavy, you can always sit back and watch the characters hit each other, shoot each other, and blow stuff up. Rapace gets a number of impressive action sequences while never coming off as a superhero (or septet of them), the villains are suitably nasty, and Willem Dafoe gets some tender moments in flashbacks. Pity director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t convince Glenn Close to pick an accent and stick with it for the entire film; she’s been on a roll lately.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

United States. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

The transition is complete. The Force Awakens reset the franchise, back to basics; Rogue One tested the boundaries of what a Star Wars film could do and be outside the framework of the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi progresses from these, in many ways inventing a new kind of Star Wars movie, one that acknowledges the Campbellian principles of the George Lucas films (and of Force Awakens by extension) while forging a new, modern mythic path, one more morally complex than we’ve seen in the series proper.

That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Everything you expect from this movie, it provides: exhilarating space battles, thrilling acts of derring-do, explorations of the outer space and inner spaces of that galaxy far, far away. Poe Dameron remains the hotheaded wisecracker, Rey the plucky, determined seeker, General Organa the grave tactician, Finn the reluctant hero, Kylo Ren the uncontrollable villain, General Hux the rabid ranter. Nor does the film neglect to riff on the series’ classic set-pieces, most effectively when it places Luke Skywalker in the role of reluctant teacher, the very position he thrust Yoda into in 1980.

But the film also challenges (an observation I must attribute to Channel Awesome’s Rob Walker). New character Rose Tico serves as the Resistance’s conscience. Luke has become a tragic figure in the classical sense. Fan complaints about the hypocrisy of the Jedi become canon. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in Canto Bight becomes an indictment of the Star Wars class system.

To observe that The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect film feels like dredging up cliché, but it must be admitted. Rian Johnson doesn’t integrate his visual style as seamlessly with the series’ visual grammar as J.J. Abrams did. Benicio del Toro needs to reign in his twitchier tendencies. And, of course, like every other tentpole picture of the last couple years, it’s just too damn long.

Yet ultimately The Last Jedi is a triumph: for Johnson; for the cast, especially Mark Hammill and the late Carrie Fisher; for Kathleen Kennedy and Disney/Lucasfilm as a whole. It will likely stand as the apex of the new trilogy, as it’s hard to believe the Abrams-helmed Episode IX will surpass it. My heart will always lie with The Empire Strikes Back, but in realistic terms, The Last Jedi is as good as a Star Wars movie can get.

Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 1

Capsule Reviews: The Dinner; The Shape of Water; A Cure for Wellness; Death Note; It Comes at Night

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.

The Dinner

The Dinner

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

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

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).

Death Note

Death Note

United States. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam, Willem Dafoe.

Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe 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

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?

Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Capsule Reviews: November 2017

Justice League

Justice League

United States. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds.

I like grim, dark cinema as much as the next guy. Hell, probably more. But when your antagonist is named Steppenwolf, your monsters are called Parademons, and your McGuffins are the Mother Boxes…maybe you want to make sure you’re not taking things too seriously. Especially if your design is so ugly you’ve somehow managed to turn Amber Heard into an H.R. Giger sculpture.

Still, that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. The big issue is that the arrival of Steppenwolf should be an awesome event, yet for all the film’s ponderousness, the stakes don’t feel any greater than a bunch of motion-captured CGI constructs punching each other in front of a green screen. And it goes on like this forever, until Superman finally gets his act together and joins the fray.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. The last-minute drafting of Joss Whedon provides the proceedings with a much-needed injection of levity. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman steals most of the action sequences, while Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash steal most of the dialog scenes. Most crucially, when Bruce Wayne states that Superman is “more human than I am,” one gets the sense that someone on the creative team has finally figured out what all these characters mean. Sadly, it’s all too little, too late.

But at least we’re inching toward the DC Comics crossover movie the characters deserve and the fans have been clamoring for.

Bitch

Bitch

United States. Directed by Marianna Palka. Starring Jason Ritter, Jamie King, Marianna Palka.

“Mothers are people too” shouldn’t really be a radical, subversive statement…not at all, especially not in 2017. But we have literal Nazis in the government and the President retweeting white nationalist groups, so we’re clearly living in Evan Dorkin’s Fuckworld (an alternate universe exactly like the one we used to live in, with the only difference being that everything’s totally fucked). So maybe it’s a good time to remind ourselves of things that are basically common sense.

Sadly, Bitch turns out to be less subversive than I’d hoped. I love the basic premise: Jill, a put-upon stay-at-home-mom to four adorable but unruly kids, whose philandering husband Bill refuses to let her take any other role in their relationship, finally snaps and takes on the personality of a wild dog. I had a great time watching the clueless Bill, who does not even know where his children go to school, flail (and fail) at the most basic tasks of child-raising.

Unfortunately, that’s just a series of jokes, not an actual narrative. When the story does develop, it coagulates around Bill instead of Jill; I understand why—the sudden absence of the glue that holds the household together is a great source of drama. This culminates in a redemption plot for Bill (which I felt he hadn’t earned) and something of a jarring happy ending. I, personally, would have found a comeuppance more satisfying.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver

United States. Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González.

The bad news is that Edgar Wright’s latest film is a classic example of style over substance; the good news is, when you have style like this, you don’t need substance.

Baby Driver is probably the best car movie I have ever seen not directed by George Miller (although I must confess I have never seen any of the Fast and Furious series), with Wright staging his chase scenes like parkour with autos, set to the best assortment of vintage and retro-sounding classics this side of Quentin Tarantino. There’s also a story—a young driving prodigy (Ansel Elgort) seeks to get out from under the thumb of a controlling crime boss and abscond with the waitress he loves—but it’s little more than an excuse for the stunt sequences and a series of amazing performances from some awesome actors, such as Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, and yes, Kevin Spacey.

That’s not saying that Baby Driver is perfect. For example, Lily James (who plays the love interest) has charm to spare, but it takes more than charm to cover up the fact that her character is little more than a plot device. But Baby Driver is so awesome that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Probably my favorite film of the year, so far.

The Square

The Square

Sweden. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary.

The titular Square is an art installation, a square set into the floor with a nearby plaque explaining: The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligationsThe Square‘s writer-director, Ruben Östlund (who’s actually installed Squares in real life), describes it as “a symbolic place where you’re reminded of our common responsibility and the social contract,” and he’s populated his film with personalities who could use such reminders.

Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a Swedish museum who’s just acquired the Square, is one such individual. A friend of mine once told me that it was possible for a very likable person to be “nice” without necessarily being “good,” and that distinction fits Christian. He’s not an unpleasant man, and he certainly seems to mean well, but he also easily falls prey to the sort of selfishness that its practitioners find very easily to rationalize; they don’t even realize they’re not doing the right thing.

Östlund uses Christian’s moral fractures and his journey through the world of bleeding-edge modern art to explore one of my favorite themes, the difference between who we believe ourselves to be and who we actually are. The Square has a tendency to meander through its picaresque structure; for example, none of the main characters figure heavily in the film’s most widely-discussed scene (a performance artist doing an uncomfortably accurate impression of a monkey at a fancy-dress party). Put bluntly, there’s too much seemingly aimless drifting during the film’s two-and-a-half hours. In compensation, The Square offers up several moments of sublime absurdity that make the overall experience worthwhile.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

United States. Directed by Macon Blair. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, Devon Graye, Jane Levy, David Yow.

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin represented a breakthrough not just for Saulnier, but also for his lead actor and longtime buddy, Macon Blair. I found Blair’s own directorial début, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, heavily reminiscent of Blue Ruin, albeit not in a bad way: they both take place in similar environments and feature similar characters. Blair’s film, while somewhat dark, doesn’t borrow Blue Ruin’s bleakness, opting instead for a gallows humor not entirely removed from the Coen brothers’ dark crime-dramedies.

World-weary nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) and lonely weapons enthusiast Tony (Elijah Wood) experience the world’s weirdest meet-cute when the former takes the latter to task for allowing his dog to shit on her lawn. But they end up forging a surprisingly strong relationship when she asks him to help her track down the thieves (led by Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) who burgled her house. To say they end up over their heads is an understatement.

Blair doesn’t always keep the tone on the right side of the humor-serious line, and Wood has trouble distinguishing between “endearingly awkward” and “creepily awkward.” But the milieu works, with the backwater setting serving as a character unto itself, a run-down slice of Americana that still possesses enough hope to get its inhabitants through the day.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

United States. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell.

If Three Billboards only consisted of Frances McDormand (as a mother frustrated with the lack of interest the police show in solving her daughter’s murder) squaring off against Woody Harrelson (as a popular sheriff whose force has been beset with allegations of racially-oriented brutality), it would be worth the ticket price.

But writer/director Martin McDonagh isn’t content with mere thespian fireworks. Three Billboards is an unflinching examination of rural Middle America, a community as familiar as the small Midwestern towns many of us hail from. Here, nobody likes change and the first rule is “don’t rock the boat.” McDonagh wears his themes a bit too obviously on his sleeve—Sam Rockwell’s character, a drunken, racist deputy and Harrelson’s Number Two, is named “Jason Dixon.” The subtext should be obvious.

But it’s ultimately all in a good cause, as the film forces the viewer to confront the possibility that the bad guy just might be as human as you are. And yes, McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all on fire, as are John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin (here playing a character not entirely removed from her signature role as Mrs. Mac on Always Sunny), and a dozen others.

The film cuts quick, and cuts deep, and it hurts more than we expect, because we recognize we’re looking at ourselves. Hands down, one of the top films of 2017.

The Girl with All the Gifts

I Also Watched…

The Girl with All the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy, 2016). It’s rare enough that a year gives us one good zombie movie, but 2016 gave us two great ones. While Train to Busan took a back-to-basics, balls-to-the-wall attitude to zombie mayhem, The Girl with All the Gifts is more thoughtful and less action-oriented. It takes the time to consider what might cause zombie outbreaks (although here they’re called “hungries” and they have more in common with 28 Days Later’s rage-zombies) and whether such unfortunates have a right to exist. Plus, it’s stacked with powerful performances, particularly Sennia Nenua as the titular Girl, whose biology may hold the key to defeating the “hungries,” and Glenn Close as a scientist willing to go to any length to find that key. Overall, a great film that wants to scare you and make you think in equal measure.

Blood in the Snow 2017

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

Animals

Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent