Is she or isn’t she? This is the question, and the tantalizing draw, of My Cousin Rachel, a new adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel. The story is the sort of genteel-gothic potboiler that du Maurier mastered in Rebecca, and like that novel it features a woman arriving at a mansion where mystery awaits. But this forceful new arrival is far from the meek, unnamed bride of Rebecca—she herself is the source of the mystery.
In the notes I jotted down while watching Paris Can Wait, I find these words scribbled: “Everything is off.” I don’t remember what specific scene or moment I was referring to, but I know what I meant. The timing is awkward, the camera doesn’t seem to know how to frame people for anything other than scenic effect, the actors sound uncertain. Odd shifts in tone are randomly distributed throughout the action. But wait, you might be asking, isn’t that “technical” stuff that only critics care about? To which I would say (if we can carry this imaginary conversation a little longer) that these shortcomings are not technical stuff, they are the movie itself, and they are the reason Paris Can Wait feels baggy and unoriginal. Everything is off, at the granular level.
Having said that, I get that Paris Can Wait might be liked by some viewers, in the same way you might like a bad painting of cheese because you just really love cheese.
Almost everything worth anything in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is geared toward spectacle. You want to see ghost sharks? We have great whites and hammerheads, rotted away but still capable of taking a bite out of Captain Jack Sparrow’s dinghy. Want to see Sparrow escape from a guillotine? A rescue sends our drunken hero somersaulting while still strapped into the contraption, the blade sliding up and down toward his neck as it tumbles head over heels. Want to see an entire building dragged through the streets of a Saint Martin town while Sparrow rides it? It’s here. This movie doesn’t have much in the way of plot or character, but maybe this franchise has simply returned to its origins as a Disneyland ride: disconnected sensations, strung together at regular intervals.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a very expensive gamble on the continued life of this series, which seemed exhausted with the ho-hum On Stranger Tides in 2011.
At some point the numbers are overwhelming. This is the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, a marathon that lasts 25 days across 15 venues (Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline included), with around 400 feature-length and short films from 80 countries. There are gobs of panels and festivities and visiting filmmakers.
It seems churlish to be a movie lover and complain that SIFF is too big, especially when the city seems to love it so much. It is, undeniably, a vast and glittery party, and every year it brings necessary gems and some lovely out-of-left-field experiences. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a splendid 10-day festival to be carved out of this unfocused sprawl.
It’s easy to pick on something like a celebrity cameo to measure a movie’s hollowness. So if I tell you that soccer god-turned-style icon David Beckham pops up halfway through the new King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I trust it will stir plenty of anticipatory ridicule. Beckham submits to uglifying makeup scars for his role as some kind of medieval taskmaster here. (Same 21st-century Eurotrash haircut, though.) The thing is, Beckham’s brief appearance is actually one of the livelier moments in King Arthur, especially because it accompanies the celebrated—you might say legendary—moment when Arthur royally yanks a sword from a stone.
If a celeb cameo supplies a highlight in a movie, the movie is probably in trouble. Such is the case with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. Ritchie does something unexpected here: Although he broke through to the blockbuster arena by blanding out his style in a couple of Sherlock Holmes movies, he’s gone back to his roots. The bro-centric camaraderie and Brit-lingo of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch is attempted here, as though the knights of the Round Table were just another group of lads deciding where to get the next pint.
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.