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.
Spy movies come preloaded with expectations, promising many scenes of shadowy people doing shadowy things. The historical thriller Anthropoid thankfully knows the trappings of its genre well, telling a compelling, unexpectedly moving story that’s rife with secret knocks, signal mirrors, and hastily decoded messages.
Based on true events (the ungainly mouthful of a title is explained early), the plot follows two soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who air-drop into Czechoslovakia in 1941 with orders to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the aptly nicknamed Butcher of Prague. As they make contact with the local resistance and attempt to shadow their target’s movements, they must also come to grips with the fact that their various plans are distinctly lacking in exit strategies.
Dear Lord, that voice. Any proper appreciation of Michael Ironside should begin with that voice, which fashions an entire Home Depot’s worth of gravel into something iconic and shivery, on-camera or off. (If DC doesn’t get him to reprise his animated role as Darkseid for live action, they’ll be making, well, yet another huge mistake.) Ironside’s supreme command of that infernal timbre makes him an invaluable character actor: Even when the movie is dreck—stand up and wave hello to the nice people, Highlander 2: The Quickening—Ironside can always be counted on to bring it. Just as he can be counted on to bring it to Portland this Saturday, for a screening of Scanners, with the Man Himself in attendance.
YouTube is bursting at the seams with horror shorts, the vast majority of which traffic in the same old jump scares and photoshopped demon faces. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, however, managed to distinguish itself from the lurching masses, brilliantly capitalizing on its limitations to present one indelibly shivery concept: namely, a silhouette that creeps closer whenever the lights go off. The James Wan-produced feature-length expansion can’t match the compressed primal frisson of the original, but it contains more than enough flickeringly lit yelps to justify its existence. How many variations can be successfully run on the same gag? Quite a few, as it turns out.
It may be impossible to completely screw up an undercover cop movie, with the very nature of the premise guaranteeing some vicarious hopscotching over the morality line. Judged on plot alone, The Infiltrator is a solid, mid-level walk on the seedy side, with enough based-on-fact dirty business to hold the interest. When you factor in a terrific-even-for-him lead performance by Bryan Cranston, however, it zooms up the ranks into something well worth leaving the couch for.
Few filmmakers had a more direct line to the viewer’s gag reflex than the late Lucio Fulci, who spent his entire career devising new ways to show people being taken apart. A Cat in the Brain (1990) may not be Fulci’s defining work—that most likely remains the Lovecraftian brain muncher The Beyond (1981)—but it may well be his most interesting. An ersatz 8½ with chain saws, it takes a deeply ambivalent look at the director’s films and methods, without skimping on any of the grody stuff that made him famous. Warning: The title is not just a metaphor.
Spelunking through the films that have inspired Quentin Tarantino is no easy task, with gallons of Z-grade dross surrounding the few genuine exploitation gems. And 1973’s Lady Snowblood, thankfully, falls firmly in the latter category. Stylized to the nth degree, it somehow manages to be both ridiculously over the top and serenely beautiful, often in the very same shot.
At a time when more and more promising directors are quickly swallowed up by the remorseless blockbuster machine, there’s something admirable about a filmmaker like Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night), who is seemingly content to stay a rung or two down on the respectability ladder and continue refining his chops. The Shallows, Collet-Serra’s new primal screamer, may not be his best work—that honor still falls to the wonderfully sick Orphan—but its single-minded devotion to getting viewers to grip their armrests is really something to see. Clocking in at a lean and mean 86 minutes, it takes its deliberately simple premise and comes close to knocking the damn cover off of it.
The problem with writing about Jeff Goldblum’s speech patterns is that the things that make them so distinctive—the spoken italics, the stutter-step changes in pitch, the sense that he’s parodying his own line readings, sometimes in the middle of said line—are almost impossible to replicate in print. Consider this valiant effort to transcribe Goldblum’s Goldblumisms, taken from Independence Day: Crucible, a novel that serves as a prequel to Independence Day: Resurgence.
“I’m not—clearly not—the leader type. Evil counselor, I can do, you know, the guy plotting in the shadows, Cardinal Richelieu and so forth—”
Almost. Almost, but no.
“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.