A biopic of Emily Dickinson sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would be if it unfolded along conventional lines. But what if it were as unconventional as Dickinson’s poetry? I don’t mean a movie that is la-di-dah “poetic,” with out-of-focus shots of blossoms falling as classical music plays. What if the cinematic approach to the poet’s life could approximate her eccentric punctuation—full of dashes where commas usually roam—her abrupt shifts in focus, and her piercing gaze at eternity? If you could do that you’d have A Quiet Passion, an appropriately odd film from the British director Terence Davies.
Alongside the woven objects and 16th-century painted tiles in the Seattle Art Museum’s Islamic Collection hang a series of entirely modern artifacts. Iraqi artist Qasim Sabti’s “Book Cover Collage” pieces are rendered from the remains of books retrieved from Baghdad libraries in the wake of the 2003 bombings. They stand as proof of the ability of art to travel: These pieces have come all the way from a Baghdad street to a well-manicured Seattle art museum to testify. Before that, the books themselves came from all over the world to bring beauty, history, or subversive ideas to Iraq. The isolated word “Gulliver” peeks out from one collage, indicating the presence of literature’s most famous traveler.
Movies are also great travelers, and the global reach of cinematic art gets a boost in May through a national project organized partly by the Northwest Film Forum and the New York distributor Abramorama. The Seventh Art Stand is an initiative, hosted by dozens of U.S. independent theaters and film societies, to make “an act of cinematic solidarity against Islamophobia.”
Roughly 90 percent of Free Fire is set inside a rundown warehouse, the location for a big shoot-out between warring outlaw factions. It’s as though director Ben Wheatley decided—either embracing or spoofing a tired cliché—to stage an entire movie in the spot where action pictures invariably end up anyway. We get to know this place reasonably well in the course of the 85-minute film, and you might expect the layout to be precisely oriented for the audience. If Kathryn Bigelow had directed, we would know exactly where everybody was, how far the distance between shooting perches, and the location of the exits. That kind of geographical approach gives the audience clarity.
With Wheatley’s film, it’s a free-for-all.
The big concept within Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is clever enough that the movie might’ve rested on it alone. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about a woman who steps into a kiddie park in her hometown and causes a giant reptilian monster to emerge in South Korea. So it’s got that going for it. But once Colossal sets its conceptual hook, it pushes its zany premise into authentically uncomfortable territory. It’s actually about something.
The woman in question is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a frazzled millennial at loose ends. Scolded by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) about her incorrigible partying, she moves out of their New York apartment and back to her parents’ house in a town upstate.
I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.
A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude.
The last time I had a barf bag handed to me at a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s Martin, probably in 1979. I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick. This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters in order to collect the ailing and garner press interest. John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that even one report of viewers becoming physically sick at his movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.
The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around Raw demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly, this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see. Sure enough, when the movie opened in L.A. last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.
Danny Boyle loves his bag of tricks: the split-second cuts and the techno-pop and the crazy, strobing light show. Like a director of TV commercials who has only 30 seconds to sell a story, Boyle hypes everything. Take the gimmicky Who Wants to Be a Millionaire structure of Slumdog Millionaire, or Leonardo DiCaprio night-swimming through phosphorescent plankton in The Beach. Or, most notable, take Trainspotting, Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough. In bringing to life the junkies and reprobates of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle devised a carnival of jokes and pop anthems and sudden sadism. It might have been a wee bit soulless, but it hit a nerve—or certainly a vein.
Boyle’s career has been predictably restless since then, jumping from sci-fi (Sunshine) to Bollywood lite (Slumdog) to overbearing kiddie cuteness (Millions). Oddly enough, or maybe not, his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was possibly his most impressive achievement, a dazzling exercise in cramming all of British popular culture in a giant blender and spewing it back at an overstimulated yet grateful audience. Given his wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a little surprising that Boyle embraced a sequel. But here’s the hopelessly titled T2 Trainspotting, and a chance to see what’s happened to characters who held little promise of evolving much from the first film.
The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.
The winners of the Best Animated Feature Oscar tend to be the big hits of the year: Inside Out and Frozen received Academy gold in recent years, for instance. Since the category was added in 2001, only Spirited Away, by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit interrupted the series of top-grossing multiplex smashes. What’s interesting about the category is that every year one or two outliers get nominated, just because the slots have to get filled. So usually a couple of teeny-tiny films get much, much more attention than they otherwise might have, thanks to the million-watt glare of the Oscar spotlight.
This year’s Oscar went to Zootopia, a breezy and lightweight Disney outing that had some hilarious moments and the expected ration of schoolhouse lessons about tolerance. One did not really expect the small fry to win, so it was reward enough that the New Agey parable The Red Turtle and the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini got their moment in the computer-generated sun.
Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.
I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.
As variations on “We can’t see each other anymore” go, this film’s plot has novelty: After enjoying a wonderful first date in postwar London, the young woman makes it clear to the young man that she would like to see him again. He hesitates, clearly preparing to tell her the truth about something. The sad thing is, he explains, his grandfather was a royal personage and his parents died young, so he really must return to his native country and be—you know—the king. This is not the beginning of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy from the 1930s, but a slice of history based on the story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from Selma), the royal heir of Bechuanaland—now called Botswana—and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the Englishwoman he married.
In A United Kingdom, the marriage of a black African man and a white British woman is an important part of the plot, and for the first half-hour or so it appears this is what the film will be about.
It is always exciting when a filmmaker comes out of nowhere with a fully formed and distinctively new way of seeing the world. It adds intrigue, and a certain amount of wonder, when that filmmaker is in his 60s. Actually, Eugène Green was a youthful 50-something when he made his first feature in 2001, but it’s his two most recent pictures that have garnered international exposure: La Sapienza, a 2014 look at a married couple against a backdrop of architectural history, and his latest, The Son of Joseph. Green’s style is formal, almost stilted: Characters pose in front of luscious European settings, reciting their lines with sincerity but little melodrama; when the conversation becomes especially intimate, the people speak directly at the camera. Most movies use naturalism as a way of getting to something real. Green goes the opposite direction, with the same goal.
Movie comedy lacks a wild streak. We get funny films occasionally, and certainly there are performers who can get nutsy in short spurts—as Melissa McCarthy’s instant-classic White House press-briefing sketch on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live proved. But the storytelling in most comedies now is tame and tidy, or merely a framework in which comedians can improvise. It’s so rare that a modern comedy takes off in the style of a His Girl Friday or Some Like It Hot, where the story devices accelerate and the whole thing goes aloft in a dizzying and demented trajectory. Silver Linings Playbook is a notable recent example of that kind of glorious madness.
The German film Toni Erdmann, Oscar-nominated in this year’s Best Foreign Language category, is a true wild one. It doesn’t achieve craziness in the rocketing manner of a Hollywood screwball comedy, but by its own slowly zany method.
Public intellectuals,” as a species, once roamed the American airwaves. If you flipped on a talk show in 1963 or 1971, you might easily have heard Norman Mailer or Lillian Hellman or William F. Buckley orating at great length and with enormous erudition on the issues of the day, whether the subject was modern art, baseball, or the Vietnam War. There was the presumption that some people were so learned they could spout off on just about anything and come up with penetrating thoughts.
We’ve pretty well demonized the term “intellectual” in America since then—certainly no political candidate would ever dream of using the word as a self-description.
He is now 68, but in recent years Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t been making films like an old master. His astonishing The Skin I Live In (2011) blended identity politics with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, in a mix that apparently disturbed even his ardent fans (I think it may be one of his greatest films). I’m So Excited (2013) was either too silly or not silly enough in its embrace of zany comedy. But then who wants Almodóvar, once the bad boy of international cinema, to behave like an old master?
Like it or not, Julieta has an unmistakably masterly touch. This is a controlled, sure-handed drama, made so that every scene is in place. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design impeccable. Almodóvar’s expressive use of color is wonderful to watch—he might be making a Technicolor Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s. I wonder if this mastery itself could explain why the movie, strong in many ways, also feels just a bit vacuum-sealed.