****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A story adaptation Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia supervising directors 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 missing (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.
by Bill ChambersThe reason film and physical media are prematurely pronounced dead every few weeks is that the mainstream keeps narrowing, limiting the visible spectrum of both industries. Studios remain halfheartedly committed to Blu-ray Disc but, as this Top 10 list incidentally shows, it's really become the domain of boutique labels restoring and annotating studio-neglected fare, capitalizing on streaming's short-term memory and populist leanings while inspiring devotion among connoisseurs. Please note that I limited my selection process to titles I've personally audited and would endorse anyway, with or without frills. Some of these may be reviewed in full at a later date.
*/**** starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson screenplay by August Wilson, based on his play directed by Denzel Washington
by Walter Chaw Denzel Washington's Fences is movies as medicine. Not the sugar-coated, easy-to-swallow kind--the castor oil/barium enema kind. The toxic-herbal-brew kind my mom used to try to make me drink but, you know, I'd rather be sick. Fences is based on August Wilson's venerated, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, which has been in the works as a feature since 1987, when Eddie Murphy bought the rights and then couldn't bring it to fruition after Wilson publicly pronounced that he would be displeased if the material found its way into the hands of anyone but a black director. Paramount was given a list of names that included the person who should have directed this movie, Spike Lee, but ultimately they offered it to a white guy, Barry Levinson. Levinson passed because, among other things, Wilson's own adaptation of his play did not seem to him to successfully bridge the gulf between theatre and cinema. If Levinson was smart enough to pass because the script was ponderous and stagebound, that explains why Lee was never attached to the project: Lee is way smarter than Levinson. It's the impossible errand, this Fences thing. Wilson, being the figure he is, was not the sort of person whose opinion you ignored, nor the sort of person whose work you rewrote. So the project died. And then Denzel Washington was brought on board, insisted on doing a Broadway run to live inside the play for a while, and now, five years after that, here's his Fences. And it's just exactly as godawful as you'd expect it to be.
Rogue One ***½/**** starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy directed by Gareth Edwards
by Walter Chaw A deep cut for Star Wars fanatics, Gareth Edwards's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also happens to be the single most topical fiction of 2016, talking as it does--in bold, melodramatic strokes befitting a space opera--about the importance of rebellion in the face of fascism. "Order," says Empirical stooge Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). "Terror," corrects brilliant weapons engineer Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). And the representative of the fascist regime smiles, as though it were all just a matter of semantics, this idea that terror and order are opposite sides of the same devalued coin. He's engaged in a kind of political double-speak, in gaslighting--things that until this year were the scourge of banana republics and other backwards backwaters. The Empire that Krennic represents needs Galen to help them complete their Death Star superweapon, with the '80s-era Reagan/Thatcher rationale that overwhelming destructive deterrents are the only way to truly keep the peace. Galen is compelled to cooperate to keep his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), safe and anonymous in the protection of violent revolutionary Saw (Forest Whitaker). The rest is Jyn's quest to clear her father's name by stealing plans for the Death Star and delivering them to a fractured resistance that isn't entirely sure if it wouldn't be a good idea to give the Empire a chance. You know, maybe they won't do all the things they said they were going to do?
Roald Dahl's The BFG **½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B- starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement screenplay by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl directed by Steven Spielberg
PETE'S DRAGON ***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+ starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Robert Redford screenplay by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks directed by David Lowery
by Bill Chambers An inverse E.T. written by that film's screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, The BFG is in some ways archetypal Spielberg. It's another child-led picture to follow E.T., Empire of the Sun, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and The Adventures of Tintin, featuring more of Spielberg's weird hallmark of colourful food and drink (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hook, Jurassic Park). But Spielberg just isn't that guy anymore, even if he always will be in the public imagination (it happens to actors...and it happens to directors, too), and The BFG has the same 'you can't go home again' quality that plagued Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It would be inexplicable within the recent arc of his career if not for the precedent of Tintin, which gave him an appetite for impossible camera moves that can really only be sated when the sets are virtual, as they are for much of The BFG. I can't help thinking of Spielberg's story about how the alien-abduction sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn't working until he went back and added shots of the screws on a vent cover turning by themselves; he thrives in that margin of error, like when he let a sick Harrison Ford shoot the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark and stumbled upon one of the most iconic moments in cinema. The amount of previsualizing necessary to make something like The BFG shrinks that margin considerably, and all foresight and no hindsight makes Steve a dull boy.
**½/**** starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson screenplay by Tom Ford, based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright directed by Tom Ford
by Walter Chaw It opens with an already-notorious slow-motion consideration of a gallery of morbidly-obese women in tiny cowboy hats, naked and holding sparklers while gyrating to Abel Korzeniowski's moody, derivative score. Not long after, someone will comment how, as an art installation, it's a withering indictment of junk culture, in response to which our ostensible heroine Susan (Amy Adams) intones, "Junk. It's all junk." As self-awareness goes, this is as hollow as the rest of Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, a dirge of shallow introspection and sanctified ugliness that is, as it happens, a pretty trenchant critique of the landscape that would normalize a Trump presidency. Consider that the installation isn't "junk" so much as the kind of conversation people of a certain intuition might have about the limitations of media to sell something biology rejects. It's a tentative salvo into the nature/nurture debate and the extent to which popular culture can influence the innate. The answer? It can, a little. More often, it merely gratifies/reflects the base. Calling it "junk" reveals a specific attitude that the only thing obese women are capable of representing is over-consumption and, in the sparklers and hats, a sad sort of patriotism. Tom Ford has a message. I get it. It's gotten away from you. The signifier is greater than the sign.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana De Armas, Bradley Cooper screenplay by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic, based on the ROLLING STONE article "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson directed by Todd Phillips
by Walter Chaw Like The Big Short before it, Todd Phillips's War Dogs is a breezy, loose, "for dummies" gloss on recent history that says for all the things you thought were going to hell in the world, you don't know the fucking half of it, buddy. It details how W.'s administration, after being accused of cronyism in making Dick Cheney's Haliburton wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of wealth with the gift of bid-free defense contracts, opened the floodgates by essentially giving every unscrupulous asshole on the planet the opportunity to bid on defense contracts. In that pursuit, our government set up an "eBay" list where major arms dealers could pick off the larger contracts, and dilettantes and arms "day-traders" could, from the comfort of their basements, sell the United States military a few thousand handguns. War Dogs adapts a magazine article about two assholes in particular, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who made a fortune, then made a terrible mistake when they decided to traffic a hundred million rounds of defective Chinese AK-47 ammo by disguising it as Albanian stock. Actually, their mistake is that Efraim is a psychotic loser so pathological in his incompetence that even the U.S. government had no choice but to do something about it. It's a level of obviousness matched by the film in moments like one in the middle of the game where Efraim screams "fuck the American taxpayer!" OK, yes, we get it.