One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.
There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.
There’s a fine line between paying homage to classic horror-movie conventions and outright theft. Let’s take a checklist to Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a kind of Carrie re-imagined through a Scandinavian lens. Bird flying fatally into a window? Check. Dream about a snake slithering through the grass? Check. Spooky old photographs of weird people? You bet. These devices can work like crazy (I’m a sucker for the creepy-old-photo routine), but the chilly efficiency with which Trier deploys them in Thelma feels a little by-the-numbers. This movie—Norway’s official submission in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes—is expertly made, but only intermittently moving.
The title character is a teenager (played by Eilie Harboe), off to college in Oslo and away from home for the first time. A lonely soul, she experiences seizures that can’t be medically explained. Also, strange things happen around her.
If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.
When The Secret of Kells opened in 2010 it garnered respectful-to-gushing reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination in the animated feature category—a neat trick for a film from a small Irish production company, Cartoon Saloon. I liked the film too, and applauded its ambitious visual design. Still, one thing nagged a little: the suspicion, present in every minute of the movie, that it was supposed to be good for you. When Cartoon Saloon brought forth Song of the Sea in 2014, another Oscar nomination followed, and once again I couldn’t shake the feeling that with all the glittering imagery on display, the point of it was to lecture us, not least on the subject of the sacred art of storytelling. The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.
Cartoon Saloon has a new one, The Breadwinner, which is about a little girl in Afghanistan who must shirk the misogyny of the Taliban and bravely find her way through a war-torn world.
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Great movie dialogue is at its funniest when you can quote a line that brings down the house but won’t mean a thing out of context. For instance, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Peter Dinklage utters these words in the middle of a dinner conversation: “Penelope said ‘begets’?” Not funny out of context, but in the movie it is preceded by certain other lines, and delivered with a certain throwaway intonation, and seen from a certain camera angle, and followed by certain reactions. It is glorious. This is because writer-director Martin McDonagh is a craftsman who places each word with wicked precision, a talent he has previously displayed in his career as a playwright, and in two films: the great In Bruges, and the rather sour Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh is so besotted with language that a large portion of the dialogue actually concerns itself with how people use words, or misuse them.
Three Billboards finds the Irish filmmaker conjuring up a fictional American town in the Midwest.
I once interviewed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on stage in front of an audience that included one person who occasionally made canine barking sounds that resounded through the hall. This was only mildly distracting, and if it were a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or something, I’m glad he came and took in the event. It did make me wonder, sitting there on stage, what I should do if things got actually disruptive.
Things get disruptive under similar circumstances in The Square, and—typically for this wicked film—nobody’s reactions help anything.
Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.
He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved.
In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.
A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character
You’ve got to hand it to a movie that introduces its main character as aggressively unpleasant right from the start. We might suspect that redemption will come, but the prospect of spending a lot of time with an obnoxious protagonist can be dispiriting when you’re just sitting down to a night at the movies.
Such is the case with God’s Own Country, or at least it was for me. My spirits sank a little when it became clear that Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who works long days at his family’s small, grubby Yorkshire farm, would be the hero of this tale.
Over the years the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh have been acquired by Disney, so the muscle of the world’s savviest media corporation stands behind the winsome cartoon bear. If that doesn’t already seem like a mismatch, it will after you see Goodbye Christopher Robin, a British film about the origins of Pooh. This gentle movie examines what happens when a cartoon character becomes a media phenomenon.
Human Flow is not a documentary by a journalist, or a traditional activist. If it were, it might be 25 hours long, with abundant background on the history of the world’s current refugee disasters and a guidebook on how these terrible problems—the worst since the end of World War II, with 65 million people displaced—can be addressed. Instead, Human Flow is a film by an artist, albeit one famous for his dissidence against his country’s government. This is Ai Weiwei, whose art-world celebrity has only been enhanced by his battles with Chinese officials (he’s now based in Berlin). With Human Flow, Ai does something that has recently ignited debate in documentary circles: He takes a terrible subject and makes it beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh’s life has been fodder for many movies, and it’s easy to understand the appeal: The painter embodies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist, and the subject offers meaty visual possibilities. Plus, the drama! How many biopics build to a scene where the hero slices off part of his own ear? Not many actors can pass up the chance to play that, and the role has served strong performers such as Kirk Douglas (in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life) and Tim Roth (in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo). I will argue that the cinema’s best Van Gogh was not seen but heard; in Paul Cox’s lovely 1987 film Vincent, John Hurt recites Vincent’s letters while images of the paintings fill the screen. Yes, everybody’s letters would sound magnificent read aloud by Hurt, but he really brings out the intelligence and sensitivity within Vincent’s raging spirit.
The painter is again little-seen in the animated Loving Vincent, which attempts a unique approach.
Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.
No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.