Steven Spielberg’s attempts at whimsy have historically paid low dividends. The impulse has been responsible for weaker elements in films like the otherwise under-appreciated Always, or the more notorious crime of cinema, Hook. So while it probably seemed like a good idea at the time, Spielberg may not have been the best choice to adapt the slippery, often macabre childrens’ work of Roald Dahl—whose beloved late novel The BFG pinwheels through sweet flights of fancy, as a young girl is taken on a fantastic journey with a giant, and descriptions of the big guy’s even larger cohorts, who abduct and munch on little kids like they were chicken tenders. Spielberg has mostly yanked that last part, leaving endless sequences of his trademarked wonder and awe as little Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (a mo-capped Mark Rylance) dance through a magical land catching “dreams” in nets, little glowing balls of light that they stick in jars and mix together in special potions. Combined with the giant’s goofy language (Dahl was a great lover of silly talk), peppered as it is with nonsense words like “snozzcumbers” and “gobblefunk,” large chunks of this become eye-rollingly cloying. Only in the third act does Dahl’s sticky weirdness (not to mention his fondness for scat0logical humor) come through, specifically during an extended sequence at Buckingham Palace and a massive interventionist military raid on the Land of the Giants. Spielberg’s formal elegance can’t be denied throughout; he’s one of only a few filmmakers (James Cameron is another) to make largely virtual spaces feel like they have physical dimension (see also The Adventures of Tintin). And despite being a 20-foot-tall cartoon monster, Rylance’s work is typically subtle, relying on the tiniest fluctuations in facial expression and a lilting accent to cement the BFG’s quiet melancholy. It’s a frequently lovely film, not necessarily unsuccessful working with simple ideas like the power of fantasy to overcome loneliness. But maybe Dahl shouldn’t be translated into something quite so innocuous.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music kicked off its 2016 “cinemafest” this week, and as per usual it’s an eclectic showcase of international and domestic indies with an underdog spirit. This year especially seemed like a festival of gambles, from horror luminary Ti West trying his hand at the western to Tim Sutton taking on the Aurora shootings. Inevitably, some pan out better than others, but even failures at this fest often seem more admirable for following the ambitions that got them there. Our writers recommend Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (9:00PM on Friday, June 24th), Zach Clark’s Little Sister (9:45PM on Friday, June 17th with Jack Dunphy’s Chekov), Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (4:15PM on Sunday, June 19th), and Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America (6:45PM on Friday, June 24th). We’ve written about some of these, and some others, below.
Ti West has repeatedly demonstrated himself capable of a certain kind of virtuosic genre craft, enough at least for it to seem like he could one day be a formidable filmmaker—that is, if he could ever come up with material worth actually expending his creative energies on. In a Valley of Violence, finally, has a genuinely interesting concept: It’s a gruff western infused with the strain of a PTSD narrative, and all the heavier questions of conscience that come with it. But suddenly, West finds himself lacking the formal chops to do anything with it. It could be that the director’s horror facility just doesn’t port over so well to the western, but it seems more likely that the muted nature of the violence and action that crop up throughout In a Valley of Violence is actually a reflection of the morally-burdened, ex-Union soldier (Ethan Hawke) at its center. And that is interesting, but it also doesn’t make for an especially engaging form for an old west thriller. Sam C. Mac
Ever since Quentin Tarantino arrived, and especially since his Kill Bill and Grindhouse films, the market has seen a deluge of faux-exploitation garbage—from high profile stuff like Robert Rodriguez’s Machete all the way down to meaningless, so-bad-it’s-good(?) junk like Sharknado. These movies either double down on ironic winking or merely throw a “distressed film” filter on in Aftereffects. Nobody else, it seems, has been able to actually make a true exploitation film/homage, one that simultaneously provides cheap trashy thrills and a dose of social politics while remaining—and this is crucial—a formally exact recreation of the films being referenced. Until now, that is. Anna Biller‘s very funny second feature The Love Witch is an absolutely perfect recreation/conflagration of three distinct forms: ’60s Technicolor melodramas, Radley Metzger’s arty sexploitation, and mid-period John Waters-directed satire. As with her previous film, 2007’s Viva, Biller controls nearly every aspect here: Not only did she write, direct, produce, and edit The Love Witch, she also designed (or found) the costumes, sets, and props, and wrote all the music (including a piece for the harp). Her formal confidence is absolutely astounding, not only meticulously reproducing this vintage Hollywood aesthetic but stirring in shots that hang a beat too long, awkward pauses in dialogue, and goofy flourishes like obvious process photography and sudden snap-zooms. The whole thing is laced with not just overt feminism, but much sharper critiques of prescribed gender traps and the act of mistaking sex for love. This is a perfect exploitation film, and Anna Biller is the most promising voice to hit the genre in 20 years. Matt Lynch
Kate Plays Christine offers an intriguing setup at the expense of an ultimately unjustified exploitation. Director Robert Greene invites actress Kate Lyn Sheil to perform a series of dramatic recreations in the life of the late news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who’s known to some, if known at all, for committing suicide before a live TV audience in 1974—an act which inspired Sidney Lumet’s seminal news media satire Network. Much of Greene’s film involves Sheil’s preparation process: she gets a spray tan, tries on wigs, reads aloud from the script she’s been given, and generally spends a lot of time bemoaning her limited access to any material that might give her an idea of who Chubbuck actually was (no video footage at all of the woman is available online, let alone footage of her infamous suicide). Later, Sheil routinely challenges Greene, and the various other actors he’s hired for the project, as she struggles to find any meaning in what he’s doing—and, ultimately, in the life of Chubbuck herself. It’s important to remember, though, that Chubbuck was a real person, one who really committed suicide. This becomes problematic when we realize that Greene seems uninterested in engaging her legacy, but rather with using it as a springboard for exploring Sheil’s and his own agendas. That preference leads to scenes like Kate Plays Christine‘s egregious finale—which is Network by way of Michael Haneke. While the truth or fiction behind that scene and many others here is up for some debate, an earlier one of Sheil seems earnest and to be taken as intended. Detailing her attraction to the ambitions of Greene’s film, Sheil explains that she’s sick of being praised as an actress for her “subtlety.” This admission in turn serves as something of a tell: Kate Plays Christine is a work of substantial effort, but it’s also one that seems less interested in the actual provocation of thought than in earning due recognition for inciting it. SCM
Werner Herzog‘s latest documentary demonstrates the master’s ability to both simulate an evenhanded exploration of multiple view points and assert his own, unwavering allegiances with those figures and ideologies he most identifies. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World gathers experts and statistics on the modern uses of the World Wide Web to show first society’s impressive advancements, and later the baser human instincts that belie that progression. Along the way, Herzog finds friends among robotics students and hermits alike; he empathizes with eccentric scientists and philosophers but isn’t averse to rebuking their findings (sometimes subtly, like the shot that elides the solved half of a fervent mathematician’s chalk board equation). Whatever the opinion, he always gets his subjects thinking about broader meanings and implications. And while flourishes of Herzogian irreverence are in danger of becoming more obligatory than surprising, the sequence of monks on smartphones and an otherwise deserted Chicago skyline set to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is a latter day highlight. SCM
An aesthetic tour-de-force if also an empty and unfailingly derivative one, actor Brady Corbet‘s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story, but pares down its psychologically complex source to essentially a gothic bad seed horror flick. Posing as a grander exploration of European society after the Great War, and its responsibility for the rise of fascism in World War II, Corbet’s film is closer in its depth (or lack of it) to Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin in that the kid here seems to possess an inherent evil that his intolerant parents merely exasperate. Corbet gets the Kubrick-by-way-of-Glazer atmosphere just right, in no small part thanks to Scott Walker’s tremendous score (half classical symphony, half avant-garde industrial noise—and wholly one of the greatest pieces of original music composed for a film this century), but he’s content to largely just mope around in it through five titled sections of no real distinction. The film merely feels like an undeveloped wasted opportunity—until the last section jumps into the future, straining for a heavy historical context it doesn’t even begin to earn. SCM
Comprised of almost nothing but movie clips and interview footage, De Palma features none of its subject’s formal innovation, and so it’d be easy to write off as a glorified bonus feature. Very few of those, however, are as wildly entertaining as this one. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have leveraged their long friendship with Brian De Palma into something that could have quite easily been a bunch of bland making-of info but instead is a still-lively filmmaker reflecting on his process and inspirations. How you feel about it may largely depend on your affinity for De Palma’s films, but like them or not he’s a consistently funny and engaging interview subject. He fascinatingly brushes off the many controversies over the often violent (and many would say misogynistic) content in his movies as merely the result of the conventions of the genres he prefers to explore and the natural trajectory of the stories he chooses to tell, which may or may not ping your bullshit meter, but the fact remains that he’s insistent on his position as primarily a visual storyteller. The chief flaw here is mostly a lack of thoroughness, partly as a function of keeping things rolling, partly because it’s obvious that De Palma doesn’t particularly care for some of his own work. If you’re a fan, be prepared to see some of your favorites get short shrift (personally I’d have liked more on Mission to Mars and Passion, neither of which merit nary a mention). But on the other hand we get to see the original deleted ending of Snake Eyes (also under-appreciated in this critic’s opinion). It’s really a shame this film isn’t twice as long—that way we’d get to hear the man’s favorite exclamation (“Holy mackerel!”) a few dozen more times.
With Lethal Weapon, almost thirty years ago now, Shane Black practically invented the mismatched buddy formula that’s stood ever since. He infused the oblique conspiracies and terse dialogue of someone like Chandler with modern doses of vulnerable masculinity, elaborate profanity, and ugly violence, all of which he uses to redeem his lovable but seriously damaged and occasionally borderline incompetent losers. The Nice Guys shows that along with his many imitators, Black’s not too interested in meddling with that formula. Aside from the 1977 setting and the simple details of the mystery, this is a very pleasing recapitulation of all of his thematic and narrative tics, and basically a do-over on 1991’s The Last Boy Scout only, well, nicer. Swap out that film’s corrupt sports industry for this one’s corrupt auto industry and you still have two washed up heroes getting the shit beat out of them as they try to avenge a dead girl. Guy falling into a swimming pool? Check. Precocious daughter along for the ride? Yep. Scary bad guy henchman? Matt Bomer. Nice Guys amiably dials down Scout‘s rampant misogyny for a slightly sweeter (or at least more palatable) brand of paternalistic sexism, and the violence isn’t quite so nasty, but they’re essentially the same wildly entertaining film, bemoaning a world increasingly poisoned by modernism and a lack of simple (well, relative anyway) moral goodness. Black’s scripts are heavily dependent on the chemistry of their leads, and here you’ve got Russell Crowe in his funny fat mode, playing a total psychopath who breaks peoples’ arms for a living, and Ryan Gosling doing his hot weirdo thing as a shitty PI drowning in booze. And though it lacks the constant autocritique of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s still full of hilarious motormouths and shot through with doses of bizarro humor (look out for the Nixon cameo). The Nice Guys is probably a richer experience for an audience familiar with Black’s idiosyncrasies, but on the other hand they don’t appear in danger of going out of style.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe steamrolls into its thirteenth entry, it’s seeming to be less and less constructive to bemoan the super-franchise’s apparent inevitability. Sure, Captain America: Civil War pretends at ambiguity when its reactionary politics couldn’t be clearer (these superheroes are the ultimate “good guys with guns”). Yes, the film is bloated, with endless Cuisinart-edited shaky-cam fight scenes and a villain so non-threatening you might even forget he’s in the movie.
As in his own Take Shelter and Mud, director Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special laces a story of filial and marital angst with sudden violence and off-kilter genre trappings, creating, as many have noted, a strange mix of early Spielberg, golden age John Carpenter, and maybe a little vintage Stephen King. Nichols’s primary stroke of genius is an almost ruthless lack of exposition: We’re thrown in with Roy (Michael Shannon), his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and State trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), all apparently on the run from a shady religious concern and a canny NSA agent (Adam Driver).
Eighteen months after the leveling of Metropolis at the conclusion of 2013’s Man of Steel, the world must come to grips with Superman (Henry Cavill), a seemingly benevolent but nevertheless godlike being with the ability to destroy the planet. Meanwhile two billionaire technocrats—Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), both infatuated with their own wills to power—compete to either subdue or destroy him. Superman busies himself with being a rather objectivist version of Earth’s savior
When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to the wall in an underground doomsday bunker after a car accident, she finds herself the captive of obvious lunatic Howard (John Goodman), a conspiracy nut who, along with his other “guest,” Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to convince her that he is not a serial murderer but in fact her rescuer. Supposedly there’s been some sort of catastrophic attack, and the poisoned air will liquefy anyone unlucky enough to still be outside. Like a classic Twilight Zone installment, 10 Cloverfield Lane is simultaneously tersely
London Has Fallen is objectively a trash fire. It’s gleefully violent, front-to-back idiotic, desperately crummy-looking despite a reported budget of over one-hundred million, and politically reprehensible. You’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s a secret parody, formally indistinguishable from the real thing and otherwise so slightly exaggerated that you might not notice. Don’t worry, it’s not, but its mercenary commitment to insidious cheap thrill
So unreconstructed that it barely registers, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is a slickly crafted, but almost ruthlessly conventional crime thriller, winding up a handful of cops and crooks like little toys (all played to the hilt by a prestige cast) and watching them stumble into each other in a bloody climax. There’s almost nothing in it that doesn’t feel prescribed. You’ve got your young cop in a new department (Casey Affleck), the hyper-competent thief with a conscience and an estranged kid (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his loyal crew of dirty cops scrambling to cover up a heist gone bad (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus), and the dangerous mob boss that ties them all together (Kate Winslet, maybe the only novel element here, still sadly underused). Perhaps the most unexpected occurrence is that nothing unexpected occurs. Slowly the characters cannibalize each other in scenes filled with well-researched street lingo and snappy, bloody violence until almost all of them are dead and the film…stops. Hillcoat has even abandoned the precise compositions and deliberate pacing of his earlier features like The Proposition and The Road, adopting instead the obligatory handheld of cop procedurals. The Atlanta location shooting is a nice change of pace from the cities these stories usually take place in, but it never lends lived-in atmosphere—unlike the Boston of The Town or the L.A. of Heat, just two films Triple 9 strains to imitate even while it inexplicably declines to reach for their more operatic tendencies. Hillcoat can’t even manage the absurd bro swagger of something like David Ayer’s stupid, thrilling Sabotage. You could draw a straight line from Training Day to The Shield to this, a sturdy but unmemorable “B” picture.
Sticking to a reliable and remarkably elastic formula, the Coen brothers’ 1950s Hollywood farce Hail, Caesar! is, like Burn After Reading or Raising Arizona, another deceptively fluffy screwball comedy belying a search for deeper meaning. Josh Brolin stars as Harry Mannix, head of production and fixer for Capitol Studios (certainly not coincidentally the same studio that tormented Barton Fink), who spends his days sweeping minor scandals under the rug and keeping the studio machine well-oiled, a business he often finds unseemly. He bounces between many hilarious, often briefly glimpsed characters here, from a clueless cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) pressed incongruously into service on a prestige picture to a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped by communists, and even twin gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton). You’d be quite welcome to ignore any greater theme in favor all this craziness. Go ahead, bask in the simple pleasures of, say, a perfectly choreographed and hilariously homoerotic dance number starring Channing Tatum, or a studio editor (Frances McDormand) and her brush with death (destined to be one of the funniest scenes of 2016). But it’s hard to ignore the obvious parallel in the commie abductors’ rhetoric about the “means of production,” let alone that everyone is in one way or another a servant of, um, Capitol. Couple this with Mannix’s sincerely anguished yearning for grace and the studio’s attempts to finish a biblical epic about a Roman soldier enlightened by the sight of Christ, and Hail, Caesar! begins to reveal itself as a more universal story of people seeking their place in an intricate system, one that often absurdly (sometimes seemingly deliberately) repels their quests for concrete truth.
Despite admonitions in the press materials and interviews with the principals, Michael Bay’s (maybe appropriately) dreaded Benghazi movie can’t possibly read as completely apolitical. Non-partisan, sure, fine: President Obama’s voice is only heard briefly, Secretary Clinton isn’t even mentioned. But no American film about military power in the last decade-plus has been able to ween itself away from depictions of groups of Arabs as either dangerous mobs or encroaching hordes, and it may