“When you put people in extreme situations,” says Jeremy Saulnier, “it can be scary, or tragically pathetic, or even funny to watch them flail and try to acclimate.”
Blue Ruin, Saulnier’s Kickstarter-aided 2013 calling card, managed to ring the cherries on all of the options above, fashioning a diabolically inventive revenge movie that repeatedly headed down unpredictably satisfying avenues. The writer/director’s larger-budgeted follow-up, Green Room, gathers up that earlier promise and just goes sick with it, taking an intentionally stripped-down premise and jacking it up to ferocious speeds. As ruthlessly pedal-through-the-floor efficient as it is, the narrative also manages to find space for the director’s growing assortment of decidedly unheroic heroes—who somehow remain weirdly endearing while their hastily thought-out plans fall to bloody pieces. “What I do,” says Saulnier, “is revel in the details and minutia that bog people down. I account for ineptitude.”
Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.
Some movies let you know you’re in good hands with the very first shot. The latest mystery wrapped in an enigma from producer J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane takes an instantly fraught premise and never stops stripping the screws. Within its narrow self-imposed parameters, it’s just about perfect.
Related to the original Cloverfield by mood and background references only (check your nearest message board for exhaustive details), the film follows a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who suffers a horrendous car accident. When she comes to, she finds herself locked down in an underground shelter…
Even when judged on a generous B-movie curve, 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen counts as a whiff, with its base, Die Hard-ish pleasures and hilariously overqualified supporting cast (Morgan Freeman! Melissa Leo!) terminally undercut by shoddy technique. While London Has Fallen is a quantum improvement over its predecessor in most regards—for one thing, it doesn’t appear to have been lit by a single, five-gallon aquarium bulb—the Spirit of Ugly Americanism has, if anything, intensified. Even viewers who are fully able to engage their reptile brains may find themselves taken aback by the pure sociopathic glee with which the hero stabbily dispatches the various villains from Fuckheadistan. Yes, that is an actual term from the movie.
“In the early modern period,” begins Robert Eggers, writer and director of the deeply unsettling The Witch, “the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing.” It’s an appropriately Once Upon a Time preamble for discussing the film, in which a devouter-than-thou family of New England Puritans venture past the outskirts of civilization, only to attract the attention of a primal—and terrifyingly implacable—force. “These days, the evil witch is more of a Halloween decoration,” Eggers says, “so we have to go back to the 17th century and be in that mindset to believe again. In that time, the idea of an evil witch was a given, like, a tree is a tree, a rock is a rock.”
Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds’ second crack at Marvel’s most in-your-face character (following a forgotten appearance in the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a terrifically faithful adaptation of some awfully obnoxious source material. If you’re a pre-existing devotee, the film’s nonstop assortment of cartoony assholes and elbows to the ribs might very well make your head pop off in a paroxysm of joy. (Seriously, the employees at the crammed preview screening I attended probably wished they had put down plastic beforehand.)
Many things can be said about Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a filmmaker, but that he’s timid isn’t one of them. The Revenant, the director’s follow-up to Birdman, is as far from a cushy post-Oscar victory lap as one can possibly get, featuring extended takes in hellish locations, stunts seemingly lifted from a snuff film, and well-documented reports of tormented extras. Judged on a scene-by-scene basis, it often feels like one of the most amazing movies ever made, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography capturing every vivid facet of nature’s teeth and claws.
Out of all of Shakespeare’s back catalog, Macbeth has perhaps been the best cinematically served, with such Hall of Famers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski applying their distinctive worldviews to the material. (Polanski’s 1971 version, his first film following the death of Sharon Tate, is still an amazingly tangible, all-encompassing ode to mud and blood and smoke and shit.) From the first frames of relative newcomer Justin Kurzel’s adaptation, it becomes apparent that his method of putting his stamp on the prose is to, well, ruthlessly pare away much of the prose. While the Big Scenes are rendered with a ravishing starkness, the connective tissue that’s allowed to remain tends to fall away into a low-toned dirge. Even those viewers unfamiliar with the source material may sometimes feel like they’re flipping through a brutally gorgeous set of CliffsNotes.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s most famous creation has withstood all manner of affronts to its dignity over the years, ranging from Abbott & Costello to nuclear pink cereal to Robert De Niro seemingly doing an impression of Curley from the Three Stooges. This one, though, boy, I dunno.
Despite a lively titular performance from James McAvoy, Victor Frankensteincomes off as sloppily paced, overly knowing, and mostly inadvertently hilarious in its naked attempts to shape the source material to appeal to the kids these days, with their origin stories and shared cinematic universes and whatnot. This Dr. Frankenstein knows parkour.
The farther he moves away from temples of doom, altered suburbs, and shooting stars, the easier it is to somehow underestimate Steven Spielberg. (Yes, yes, Crystal Skull, I know.) Even at his most earthbound, though, the filmmaker’s basic chops still reside somewhere in the realm of the freakily supernatural. When he’s cooking, there’s nobody else who can do quite what he does.
Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s first film since 2012’s Lincoln, is an exceptional job of work—a deliberately old-fashioned hybrid of courtroom drama and Cold War skullduggery that’s so expertly put together that you may not realize the beauty of its construction until after the fact.
Even among the legions of characters in long underwear, the Fantastic Four have always stood apart, both for their squabbling family dynamics and an endearingly retro squareness. The latest attempt to move the team to the big screen captures, well, exactly neither of those aspects, with results that are too bloody and dour for kids (heads start popping off toward the end, GWAR-style), too laissez faire for continuity geeks, and too uninspired for everybody else.
Amid the gumshoed masses of fictional detectives, author Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder looms large and wounded, an unlicensed private eye who continually takes the weight of the world on his shoulders in an attempt to quiet his inner demons. Adapting the 10th book in Block’s Scudder series, A Walk Among the Tombstones nails the mournful cynicism of the source material. If the sight of a man in a trenchcoat doggedly chasing down leads dings your particular pleasure centers, get to the theater as soon as you can.
Beginning with a tragic flashback, the story follows Scudder (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop who divvies up his time between doing paid favors for acquaintances and attending AA meetings.
La Notte (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the second film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation” (it’s bracketed by L’avventura, 1961, and L’eclisse, 1962, both on Criterion DVD), stars Marcello Mastroianni as a celebrated novelist in Milan who has nothing left to say and Jeanne Moreau as his quietly unsettled wife who can’t seem to express all the disappointment building up behind her unfazed expression. Their marriage is inert at best but they seem resigned to their roles, at least until a hospital visit to a friend dying of cancer (he has champagne delivered by the nurse for the visit – but of course) shakes up Moreau.
The film covers just under 24 hours of their life together, not that they ever seem “together” even when they go out to a nightclub and, finally, an all-night party at the mansion of an industrialist who wants to hire Mastroianni to write his biography and run the public relations of his company. It all plays out in sculpted landscapes and creamy, austere modern spaces filled with reflective surfaces, but these rarified oases of affluence are no less alienating than the crush of traffic in downtown Milan. Mastroianni is so at home in the crowds that he just flows with the current like driftwood in a slow stream while Moreau, shaken by the visit to their terminal friend, wanders away from the crowds, braving the current in the streets or simply watching the rituals from afar. Just like Antonioni, who dispassionately records every nuance of the rituals and flirtations and seductions and watches Mastroianni’s fascination with an enigmatic beauty played by Monica Vitti, a jaded-before-her-time young brunette who see-saws between childish playfulness and world-weary commentary.
This was one of the films that inspired Pauline Kael’s “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” essay, a portrait heavy on the Antoni-ennui of beautiful people narcotizing themselves on small talk and cocktails and sex. Antonioni strips Mastroianni of the winking charm he brings to even his most rakish characters and turns him into an empty shell (“I know longer have ideas, only memories,” he tosses off with a self-effacing half-grin) with a self-awareness that suggests a desperation to lose himself in meaningless activity. Moreau is more haunting and less passive, her eyes and signature frown carrying a disappointment she shrugs away with a flash of a smile. It’s a portrait of lives disconnected from feeling or passion and a marriage that has slipped into mere routine, and you may find it mesmerizing and sophisticated, or merely elegantly-sculpted tedium amidst the idle rich and empty intelligentsia. I’m not an Antonioni fan – give me the strangled yearnings and corrupted societies of Visconti any day – and I find this among his more mannered and calculated films, so take my complaints as you will. I dare say it won’t convert any new fans, but if you love the sick soul of Europe in sixties cinema, this is quite the modernist contemplation of abstracted lives in the new urban world.Mastered from a new digital restoration from a 4k film transfer and it looks beautiful, clear and clean and sharp. You’ll notes stray hairs present in a couple of shots; I don’t believe they are print issues but artifacts from the camera negative or the editing process. Both Blu-ray and DVD editions include two original interview featurettes (one with film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo Di Carlo, the other with professor Giuliana Bruno discussing the role of architecture in the film) and a booklet with an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Beauty of the Devil (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend, which stirs whimsy into the tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles, but fear not. To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything his missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as the bearish Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye.
Easily bored/excessively nauseous audiences bemoaning the rise of shakycam scary movies were thrown a monster bone with 2007â€™s [REC], a relentlessly inspired mash-up which successfully married the slow burn hallmarks of the POV genre with the fast twitch scares of more traditional horror. (The American remake/carbon copy Quarantine was not nearly as resonant, despite the presence of an ingenious sequence where the camera itself is used as a bludgeon.) The effective, perhaps not entirely necessary sequel[REC] 2 is clearly following the Alien/Aliens model, ditching much of the Blair Witchian atmospherics in favor of a steady stream of pop-out-and-go-boo shocks. Jacked up as it is, though, it still manages to bring on the goosebumps.
Sincere Question: During this, Pixarâ€™s Golden Age of Animation, is it somehow ungrateful to wish for an occasional decent deviation from Masterpiece after Masterpiece, in the way that Bugs Bunny and Co. served as a hellzapoppinâ€™ corrective to Disneyâ€™s dignified heft? (Despite the repeated efforts of Dreamworks, the mere presence of pop culture references and â€™70s songs on the soundtrack just doesnâ€™t scratch the itch, somehow.) Call me Looney, but the more resonant and spectacular Pixarâ€™s output becomes, the greater the risk of reducing the surface pleasures of watching drawings (or renderings or whatever) do things that real people canâ€™t.
Despicable Me would likely be enjoyable on any terms, but in the wake of the heart-wrenching Toy Story 3, its emphasis on Rube Goldbergian pratfalls and spittakes seems almost heroic. Much like last yearâ€™s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it recognizes the virtues of letting a cartoon be, well, cartoony, no matter how newfangled the technology.