Todd Haynes has been in the zone for quite some time now, creating a remarkable streak of films that establish glorious illusions, and then burrow deeper for the real, messy deal. Wonderstruck, the director’s first movie for a younger audience, feels like an anomaly in other, less intriguing ways—including an atypically slack narrative and an occasional case of the cutes. But then the third act kicks in, and everything gets terrific.
The once-vibrant South Korean action movie movement has slowed. What was a steady wave of semi-righteous vengeance sagas has reduced down to a trickle of straight-to-video exports. On the bright side, when one of them does still manage to make it to American theaters, they’re usually worth the ticket price.
The absurdly flashy The Villainess takes a sure-fire exploitation premise—a female assassin attempts to start a new life, while also reluctantly continuing to thin out the world’s thug population—and goes for absolute, ridiculously overt broke.
Movies that worm their way into a disturbed character’s head can be a discomfiting experience, especially when they’re done really well. (I firmly believe that Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is a great film. I also believe that you’d have to work pretty hard to get me to ever watch it again.) The British import The Ghoul is a clever, deceptively chilly example of narrative unreliability, presenting an increasingly askew perspective in a way that’s somehow both off-putting and absorbing. It lingers.
Writer/director Gareth Tunley wastes no time in establishing the basis for an intriguing psychological thriller: As a favor to his former partner, an off-duty cop (Tom Meeten) poses as a depressed patient in order to covertly gather information on a murder suspect from a psychiatrist.
Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)
Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.
Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s exploration of Adolf Hitler’s final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject’s unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel’s return to the time frame, unfortunately can’t quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character’s defining moment.
No subject should be off-limits for filmmakers willing to take a plunge. The degree of difficulty, however, tends to increase sharply with the weightiness of the premise. Dark Night takes an extremely provocative topic—a seemingly random mass shooting—and applies a heavy layer of arty artlessness to the material. Despite a number of striking images (Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is never less than severely beautiful), it rarely feels like it’s been thought through enough to really jell.
Okay, quick show of hands: Has sitting in the dark and temporarily saying goodbye to reality ever seemed like a better idea? Whatever your leanings may be, the Northwest Film Center’s 40th Annual Portland International Film Festival has you more than covered. Featuring over 160 features and shorts, this year’s PIFF lineup offers healthy, yuge doses of compelling fiction, strange facts, and pure escapism.
The positives begin on opening tight, with the terrific Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
In movies about relationships, the small details need to ring true. Emily, the feature length debut from director Ryan Graves, takes a tiny-by-design story and earnestly goes deep, exploring the destructive impulses, badly timed stabs at nobility, and increasingly mixed signals of a couple on the brink. Without showy declarations of intent or roof-raising histrionics, it captures how people can be perfect together, until they aren’t.
Visually depicting sightlessness is a tough task for even the most inventive of moviemakers. (Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, in which Tilda Swinton and others talk over a hypnotically static shade of the title color, remains the experimental gold standard.) The re-created documentary Notes on Blindness takes a distinctly proactive approach to this dilemma, utilizing a steady array of clever effects to depict the rapidly deteriorating vision of its subject. While the film’s other device of having actors lip-synch from existing tape recordings may seem clunky in theory, the sounds and images come together beautifully in practice.
Paul Verhoeven’s American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director’s weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven’s films outside of the states, however, tend to swap the 2×4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments.
Watching people simply go about their business can somehow be one of the most fascinating things in the movies. The Berlin Award–winning Ixcanul (Volcano), Guatemala’s entry for last year’s Oscars, is an absorbing, unpretentious look at a culture not often shown, whether capturing how the characters can carry a forest’s worth of firewood on their heads without missing a step, or witnessing them getting their pigs drunk on rum in hopes of speeding up the mating season. By the time someone nonchalantly remarks on the unpleasant smell of their snake repellant, the sense of transportation is complete.
Watching another culture’s horror movies can provide a fascinating glimpse into what makes them collectively tick. The Polish Demon offers an intriguing, deceptively comedic spin on the dybbuk legend, while also exploring an unthinkable whopper of a party foul. While the second half’s tendency towards small-scale conversations may occasionally betray the script’s origin on the stage, late director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s talent for whipping up barely contained group hysteria is really something special.
American Honey, the first movie set in the States by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), finds the director working with some fairly ludicrous self-imposed hindrances: a largely untrained cast, Shia LaBeouf at his most methody-bedraggled, and a nearly three-hour running time. That she makes these all meld together beautifully feels like some kind of weird alchemy, really.
As we slide into the late-summer multiplex doldrums, movies with neurons to spare are especially welcome. The clinical cautionary tale Morgan happily fits into the latter category, moving past some early familiarity to become a smart, sneakily ambitious thriller.
Set in the not too distant future, the story follows a no-nonsense corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) sent to a secluded forest compound to assess the status of a rapidly developing artificial humanoid (The Witch’s terrifically spooky Anya Taylor-Joy). As she and the swiftly dwindling team of scientists—including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a perfectly assholish Paul Giamatti—soon discover, the experiment has some significant gray areas.
The trend towards perpetual remakes and reboots is a growing pox upon Hollywood. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, someone taking another crack at Ben-Hur isn’t the worst idea in the world. Although William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar magnet (itself a remake) certainly has its gargantuan virtues, it also features more padding than any unimpeachable classic can be expected to bear.
While this new version tightens things up, it unfortunately suffers from both a curiously passive central character and the faith-based dramatic flattening that seems to be a hallmark of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. (Jesus, a compellingly enigmatic, barely glimpsed agent of change in other versions of the story, is a bit of a screen hog here.) The plot still has enough juice to work, but only just.