***/**** starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth screenplay by Justin Haythe directed by Gore Verbinski
by Walter Chaw Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is lurid unto beautiful, exquisite pulp, just barmy enough to attract a cult and just smart enough to deserve it. The central conceit is that humans are only really good as biological filters for pollutants; in place of the batteries of The Matrix, the film sees people as distilleries for some sort of immortality potion. The process kills them. I learned when I was young that rabies is a kind of fear of water: its sufferers die of thirst even surrounded by water. The old, rich, white/white-collar victims of A Cure for Wellness entomb themselves in an alpine sanatorium invested in hydrotherapy in hopes of feeling, you know, better. Their sickness is of the soul, alas. The irony of the water cure offered by their ostensible saviours is that the patients become desiccated, mortally. There seems to be a message in there about how the illness of soulless acquisition is self-inflicted, and the amount expended in solution only exacerbates it. Money is bad. The making of it is incestuous, perverse, and insatiable. It's a strange thing to say in a movie that cost a lot of money, but the point is well taken. Especially now.
*½/**** starring Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, Sadie Frost screenplay by Mark Rogers directed by Ate de Jong
by Alice Stoehr "You cannot fight," explains the villain to his rope-bound prisoner. "Your only chance of survival comes from compliance." This lecture is the starting point for Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey. [sic], an erotic cat-and-mouse thriller that takes place over a long weekend in a suburban English home. Said villain is Aaron, an intruder played by handsome French actor Edward Akrout. He has a sparse moustache and a head of unkempt hair, locks of which fall dashingly across his forehead. The camera adores him. Megan Maczko, playing Aaron's prisoner Alison, receives far less flattering treatment. She spends much of her screentime tied up and in some degree of undress, her face contorted with faint disgust, eyes averting her captor's gaze. Like Akrout, she has to look hot, but hers must be a hotness coloured by mixed emotions and performed under duress. As her co-star murmurs the lion's share of the dialogue, Maczko needs to indicate reluctant arousal blossoming into full-on emotional liberation. She fails, but so would any actress, because the film's greasy sexual politics set her up to fail. Meanwhile, the third member of the cast--Matt Barber, as Alison's husband Tom--has to squirm in a bathtub and howl as Aaron mutilates Tom. He acquits himself adequately, especially given paltry lines like, "Did you touch my wife?" and, "I can't have anyone else inside you."
***½/**** starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane written by Derek Kolstad directed by Chad Stahelski
by Walter Chaw There's something of Highlander in John Wick: Chapter 2, this idea that there are people-looking things walking among us, wrestling for control of something, jockeying for arcane positions in mysterious hierarchies. It's disturbing in the best way; dislocating, world-building. It's what makes stuff like The Matrix work, the suggestion that there's a reality underlying ours--and in a scene among pigeons on top of a New York tenement, the film features a Matrix reunion where Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) greets Neo (Keanu Reeves) with a "been a long time" nod. John Wick: Chapter 2 is meta in a way that fits exactly right into the feeling of a picture that spends most of its time building on the alternate universe introduced in the original. It's aligned right there with M. Night Shyamalan's Split and the possibility that there are comic-book worlds outside of DC and Marvel and they're, what's the word? They're amazing.
*½/**** screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Jared Stern & John Whittington directed by Chris McKay
by Walter Chaw Ugly, loud, twenty minutes too long, and half as clever as it thinks it is, Cartoon Network stalwart Chris McKay's The Lego Batman Movie is saved from becoming something other than Shrek: Longform Commercial by a single scene that demonstrates a genuine emotional knowledge of the Batman character: Batman (a returning Will Arnett), after a long day of antic motion, stays up by himself in his immense, empty home, gazing at a picture of his dead parents and wishing they could have seen how he turned out. It happens early, though, and the rest of the picture's content to make fun of DC lore ("It's worth a Google!" says Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), having listed a few of the stupider villains in Batman's rogue's gallery) while attempting occasional earnestness here and there along the long road to the standard kid-fare message of "family is where you find it." The Lego Batman Movie is both fan-pleasing and self-loathing, placing it in the company of the wave of faux-nostalgia garbage millennials wear now like that tenth-generation McGinty claiming Irish heritage on St. Patrick's Day. A low bar for inauthenticity, and by the third or fourth joke about how corny the old TV show is, you remember the old TV show had more meta intelligence in any ten minutes of a given episode than the whole of this exhausting exercise.
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A starring Eiji Okada, Kyōko Kishida, Kōji Mitsui, Hiroko Itō screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his novel The Woman in the Dunes directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
by Walter Chaw The first morning amateur entomologist Niki (Eiji Okada) wakes in a house at the bottom of a hole carved into a sand dune, he finds his lessor--the titular, nameless Woman (Kyoko Kishida)--asleep in the nude, with sand crusted over her body like a thin, granular mantle. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara sweeps over her body with a sculptor's attention. It's intensely erotic, though for all its voyeuristic intention, it's not prurient. No, there's a sense of intimacy in this: it's the attention you give a lover when her skin is near your eye and you love her and desire her: you want to touch her, to taste her, to consume her. There's much talk of "the flesh" in David Cronenberg's The Fly; flesh makes you crazy. The way Teshigahara shoots surfaces in Woman in the Dunes makes you crazy. When they finally make love, Niki and the Woman, each individual grain of sand on Niki's skin stands out like a monument. When the Woman bathes him, rubbing suds between her hands and running them down his legs and back, you can feel her hands play across your own calves, and you can feel him beneath your hands. Not just flesh, but the textures and tides of the dunes over which Niki practices his minor distractions from the day-to-day of whatever it is he does in the city, where he's nothing, accomplishes nothing of note, and will not be missed but for the missing-person's report we see at the end as the film's pithy epilogue. Based on Kōbō Abe's novel of the same name, Woman in the Dunes is in one way the best, most insightful and evocative adaptation of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" there ever was, from Eliot's winsome protagonist looking to escape regret into experience to, literally, these lines about entomology as a metaphor for being seen clearly and judged wanting:
****/**** Image B- Sound D Extras B starring Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi Von Palleske, Stephen Lack written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland directed by David Cronenberg
by Bryant FrazerDead Ringers begins and ends extraordinarily, with the soft swelling of Howard Shore's title music. It starts with the slow emergence of strings, which are eventually layered with harp and woodwinds, mining uncommon veins of sadness in a major key. Set against on-screen illustrations of an anatomical and explicitly gynecological nature, the music serves the obvious function of undercutting the film's pointedly unsettling subject matter with unalloyed lyricism. It's like a statement of purpose. But Shore's melody goes farther than that, somehow. It's remarkably haunting, for one thing--the theme is one of the most potent sensory triggers I know, instantly evoking both beauty and despair. Just the first four bars are enough to set me weeping. And it's penetrating. More than elegiac, it's specifically regretful, and bittersweet. According to Royal S. Brown's liner notes on the first CD release of the movie's score, the director knew it right away. "That's suicide music," Cronenberg told Shore when he first heard the theme. "You've got it."
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+ starring Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton directed by John McNaughton
by Walter Chaw John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (hereafter Henry) is one of the great black comedies. At its heart is the basis of Judd Apatow's gross-out flicks: body horror, deviant sexuality, deep ignorance-unto-actual stupidity, questionable decisions and their consequences, and brilliant bits of deadpan humour dependent upon timing and situation. Similarly, it derives its effectiveness from a keen observation of male heterosexual relationships and the peril implicit therein. The sole distinction, really, is that Apatow and his followers believe in conservative, family-values resolutions whereas Henry ends in essential, sucking nihilism. It's a distinction that draws the line between something that's considered to be a comedy and something that's widely discussed as possibly the most unpleasant American film ever made. What most have identified as pessimistic, however, I would just call vérité, now more than ever. At least for me, Henry had about it an almost palpable air of taboo. Though shot in 1986, it was released in Denver in 1990, when I was 17. I read Roger Ebert's cautionary, celebratory review of it, which made me afraid. When I saw it, I saw it alone. For its wisdom, it's never quite left me.
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A story adaptation Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia supervising directors Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske
by Bill ChambersBambi was supposed to be Walt Disney's second feature film, but the phenomenal success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs1 had thrown his fledgling empire into such chaos--most of it created by Walt's manic spending and multitasking--that it got swapped out for Pinocchio, ostensibly the easier to animate as well as the more commercial of the two. It's not that Disney was playing it safe, it's that he thought he could bank some time and audience good will for experimentation in the years ahead. But before Pinocchio even opened, Disney was apologizing for falling into a sophomore slump, and the film wound up being a box-office disappointment, grossing less than Bambi eventually would.2 It's interesting to try to watch Pinocchio from a contemporary perspective and determine what's lacking (the crude sentimentality of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for starters), having grown up with it as a brand classic. Is it possible this idiosyncratic motion picture--more of a dry run for Fantasia than Walt maybe realized or intended--was ahead of its time, and time caught up? It's possible, though Pinocchio undoubtedly benefited from Disney's practice of cyclically reissuing their animated features: people started to appreciate that it had in abundance what modern Disney movies lacked, chiefly, personality, inspiration, and ambition.
****/**** starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo directed by Martin Scorsese
by Walter Chaw Martin Scorsese's Silence is Martin Scorsese's Silence. Not Shusaku Endo's Silence. Not Masahiro Shinoda's Chinmoku. Rather than a Japanese perspective, it's told from the perspective of our most notoriously Catholic filmmaker (next to Mel Gibson, but he went to a different church), who, at the end of his life, has found this cap to a trilogy about faith and doubt begun in The Last Temptation of Christ (an adaptation of a novel by Greek author) and Kundun (about the life of the Dalai Lama)--films, each, that explore mystery and land somewhere personal and inherently unknowable, as faith is and should be. It's an essentially Romanticist text, not Humanist like Endo's or doom-laden and progressive like Shinoda's. It's the closest Scorsese's come to truly contemplative since Kundun, and it shares with that film a sense of wonder at the Natural: this Romanticist conceit that the first testament of God is, as it always has been, Nature. Silence is almost a Terrence Malick film in that sense. In every other, it's Scorsese coming to terms with the idea that grace is made manifest only through the actions of its proponents. The title refers not just to the Christian God's notable state when confronted with the unimaginable suffering of His children, but also to Scorsese's own idea of what God wants from His followers. It's not thoughts and prayers in the face of tragedy. Maybe it's humility. Maybe it's service. Or maybe it's just silence..
**/**** starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper screenplay by Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane directed by Ben affleck
by Walter Chaw I like Ben Affleck. I like him better as a director than an actor, but I like him in both roles. Live by Night is his The Postman. I mean that with affection, and I suspect the film will likely gain some critical and cult momentum in a few years' time--but not too much, because Live by Night is not quite stupid enough, strange enough, rough-around-the-corners enough, to really latch onto. What it is, instead, is a throwback to the kinds of movies Taylor Hackford likes to make: glossy, edgeless, overheated prestige entertainments that are sometimes, as was the case with his Proof of Life, more interesting for the publicity drama they create than for the films themselves. If you doubt the Hackford-ness of it, consider the embarrassing amount of time Affleck devotes to "steamy" '80s-era sex scenes, which are made unbearable by the soulful softcore thrusting. For Live by Night, the external mess is the hubbub over whether or not Affleck will direct an anticipated standalone Batman movie to rescue DC and Warner Bros. from their own curious tone-deafness. The spectre of Batman tends to distract from whatever's going on in the film, especially as Affleck continues to evolve physically into a perfect cube. Since you're asking, Live by Night's earnest corniness does suggest that he is probably the right man to guide a rebooted Batman franchise.
by Walter ChawThere are conundrums presented by what I do now for a day job and this moonlight I won't quit. Let me get at that by telling you an old, old story about filmmaker Peter Hedges that is sort of current again because he's acting in a good film out this year called Little Sister. (His son, meanwhile, co-stars in Manchester by the Sea.) When I met Mr. Hedges, it was to interview him for Pieces of April. As per my usual process, I saw and reviewed the movie first, logging it with Bill before going to meet him. The idea behind this is that I never want my work to be coloured by any personal feelings I might develop for the artist over the course of a conversation--for good or for ill. It's not that I don't trust myself to be fair, it's that I don't know how knowing someone changes the environment in my head. I will be fair, but I'm not the same person before I meet someone and after. The world essentially changes when you meet someone.
*/**** starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly directed by Theodore Melfi
by Walter Chaw Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures is so inextricably bonded to the rote motions of awards-season biographical uplift melodrama that it functions as proof of a template studios give to directors who won't kick too much about art and individuality and expression and all that high-falutin' stuff. Better, it's proof of an attachment that fits onto the Studio sausage press ensuring that all the mashed and salted discards are extruded in the proper proportion into the collective cow gut. Hidden Figures is the story of three African-American women in the 1960s who go to work for NASA's Mercury program in the days after the Sputnik launch. It talks about how they're brilliant but forced to pee in segregated bathrooms; how they're proud family women but treated like second-class citizens or worse. It positions a white man of power who sees their value all the way through to letting one of the ladies be a co-author on a report she seems to have written herself. It has the end-credits thing where pictures of the real women whose stories the movie ostensibly tells are shown with titles detailing the horrific shit they endured to get their names on a building. Well, one of them anyway. It even has that thing in movies about numbers where there's a lot of running to try to make math exciting to watch. What it doesn't have is any lingering impact whatsoever: no gravitas, no surprise, no interest, nothing. The only thing to say about Hidden Figures, really, is that if you spend time praising it, you're being patronizing--and that is the very definition of irony.
****/**** starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup written and directed by Mike Mills
by Walter Chaw Mike Mills's 20th Century Women is beautiful for the way that it listens. It hears how people talk, and it lets them. It watches the way people interact and allows that to speak volumes for them. It's a film, like so many lately, about communication. There's a moment, late, where a young man--a boy, really--says to his mother that he's an individual: "I'm not all men, I'm just me." And she says, "Well... yes and no." It's a beautiful exchange, performed exquisitely, timed perfectly. It's sublime, not the least for being smart and dead-on. Kind and pointed and impossibly eloquent about certain uncomfortable truths, 20th Century Women is an invitation to have ultimate conversations about how we ruin our children with our best intentions and how that has always been so and will always be so. In multiple interludes, Mills speeds up the film, blurring the action with lighting effects and throwing in archival images while including narration like "the world is very big." It is. The picture holds to the idea that the world is incomprehensible and that we're acted on by forces we cannot control--and at the end of it, after we're gone, it goes on without having known we were there. There's a certain piquancy to that that needs to be earned, and is earned.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B- starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw An elderly film by an elderly filmmaker for an elderly audience, everybody's favourite says-appalling-things old bastard Clint Eastwood directs the guy everyone can agree on, Tom Hanks, in a rah-rah hagiography of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most uncomplicatedly heroic figure in the United States in the last...how long ago was Abraham Lincoln? 151 years? If you don't know, Sully landed an airplane with 155 passengers on it in the Hudson River when bird strikes disabled both of the plane's engines. Multiple dream sequences have Sully imagining what would've happened had he turned his plane over populated areas. 9/11 is referenced often--explicitly and obliquely. An applause-geeking closing title card informs that lots of New Yorkers helped rescue the passengers from the water after the splashdown because New Yorkers are good and America is great, raising the question, Mr. Eastwood, if it needs to be "great again." Maybe it's all gone to hell since 2009. The timing is interesting. Let's call it that.
****/**** starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Masatoshi Nagase written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
by Walter Chaw My Pocket Poets edition of William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell: Improvisations has the worn, faded, ineffably-dusty feeling of a paperback printed on low stock from a certain period. The back cover tells me there was once a day it could be had for $1.25. I've read it probably a hundred times, though I can't say I ever read it sequentially. This was the first year, as it happens, that I read The Art of War sequentially. I regard both texts as reference books: for the winning, for the existing. The kind you open to a page and read carefully, and then you put the book down next to you and look at the world differently for a moment. I have favourite passages from each. This is one of them from the Williams:
**/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B+ starring Michael Garfield, Kim Terry, Philip MacHale, Concha Cuetos screenplay by Ron Gantman, based on the novel by Shaun Hutson directed by J.P. Simon
by Bryant Frazer "I recognize terror as the finest emotion," Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre, his 1981 book-length rumination on horror and storytelling, "and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." That's where the late Juan Piquer Simón (or J.P. Simon, as it became anglicized) must have found himself on the set of Slugs. The native Spaniard was only so-so as a director: He was technically competent, with a decent eye for composition, but he wasn't so adept with English-speaking actors and had no real knack for generating suspense or escalating tension. Fortunately, Simón is pretty good with the gory stuff. And that's why, decades later, his Slugs still crawls tall as a minor classic for creature-feature completists.
**½/**** starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson screenplay by Patrick Ness, based on his novel directed by J.A. Bayona
by Walter Chaw Tears are easy when the subject is the loss of a loved one. They come even when you don't particularly like the vehicle that inspires them. In the case of J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls, the tears are for the most part earned by its generally uncompromising nature and the elegance of its animated interludes. They're so good, in fact, that I spent much of the movie's remainder wishing it were all animated in the same style, which is cribbed from artist Jim Kay's watercolour illustrations for the Patrick Ness novel upon which the film is based. The animated sequences are representations of the titular monster's stories. Voiced by Liam Neeson, he has three of them to tell little Conor (though only two are animated), with the expectation that when he's through, the boy will tell one back to him. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has summoned the monster (a cross between Groot and an Ent), he thinks, so that the monster can heal Conor's ailing mother (Felicity Jones). Alas, the monster serves a different purpose. The animated portions remind in feeling and abstraction of Brad Bird's incomparable The Iron Giant--a film that is itself based around the death of a loved one and the need for the survivors to recover. The live-action portions, the best of them, remind of Bernard Rose's melancholic Paperhouse, but the sum is a bit less than its parts.
*/**** starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne written by Jon Spaights directed by Morten Tyldum
by Walter Chaw The problem with Passengers isn't that it's appalling. The problem with Passengers is that it doesn't have anything to say about being appalling and so proceeds to do stuff with levers and buttons while the lockstep narrative soldiers through to a weird cameo and a happy ending, sort of. Think The Wizard of Oz if it never pulled back the curtain, leaving Dorothy dead and her friends vivisected by an army of newly under-employed flying monkeys on their next impossible mission. It's an artifact that's more interesting, in other words, as an example of corporate groupthink in matters of consumer art--of how Kathleen Kennedy talked about women being "unready" to direct her blockbusters when Morten Tyldum gets the keys to the kingdom for directing mathematicians running around in The Imitation Game (actually, Passengers kind of makes her point), and how retrograde sexual attitudes are still and always the default panic position. Watching it, I was reminded of a brilliant Nell Scovell article published right before the election about how Trump Tower is in a strange state of disrepair: a broken elevator, empty trophy cases, a public garden eternally under construction. There's something about immense hubris we like to see take on water. It's the premise for Douglas Adams's prehistoric PC game "Starship Titanic", where you find yourself the lone entity on a malfunctioning passenger liner. Adams, needless to say, handled it better.