Critic Adam Nayman knows how to start an argument. The Toronto-based writer, whose work has appeared in such journals as Cinema Scope, Slant and AV Club, made a stir in film critic circles a few years back with his book "It Doesn't Suck," which argued that Paul Verhoeven's widely reviled "Showgirls" was, in fact, rather interesting, and in some ways marvelous. His new book about writer/director Ben Wheatley, titled "Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage," treats its titular subject, who is barely known outside of art houses, as an artist who's on the cusp of greatness. I talked with Nayman about his book, which is in stores now and can be ordered here.
Why write a book about Ben Wheatley at this point in his career? There's something very exciting about trying to write a book about a director before he or she has reached the finish line, and it seemed to me like Ben Wheatley was a filmmaker who could be interesting from two angles at once. On the one hand, he's done some very distinctive, substantial work in a very short period of time. On the other, he's possibly on the verge of moving on to bigger and more elaborate projects. So there's something open and provisional about taking stock less than a decade in.
Loud, trashy, sweet and weird, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers reboot “Power Rangers” is not merely an ideal film for rambunctious and undemanding 12-year olds, it actually sees the world through their eyes.
In theory, the heroes are high school students. But they’re actually a Disney Channel-styled fantasy of the splendors that await kids when they finally become full-fledged teenagers and can Do Whatever They Want. These heroes are misfits. They gather in detention in their high school, a scenario that promises to turn into “The Mighty Morphin Breakfast Club Rangers.” Lo and behold, that’s what you get: a mix of shenanigans, heart-to-heart talks and widescreen punch-outs between monster battles.
I'm in the tank for Terrence Malick. I don't believe that the Austin-based director has ever made a bad movie, just ones that were too fragmented, mysterious and intuitive to connect with a wide audience. I thought "Knight of Cups" was one of last year’s most daring features, but I realize this is a minority opinion. Mention the director to a movie buff these days and you’re likely to get jokes about voice-overs and perfume ads and twirling in fields, plus complaints that Malick is too much of this and not enough of that, and not what he used to be.
I don't care. I love that after 44 years of feature filmmaking, his style is still an issue. Even at its most obtuse, Malick’s work never plays by commercial cinema's rules, coming at characterization and story from odd angles when it isn’t chasing the ineffable, as his camera chased a butterfly in “The Tree of Life.” The actor and filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson, who had a small role in Malick's epic 1998 war poem "The Thin Red Line," said the difference between Malick and most other filmmakers is "the difference between [Georges] Seurat painting with dots and [Paul] Cezanne, who's a more painterly painter."
The American college fraternity experience has birthed a growing subgenre of films, with Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!" and Andrew Neel's "Goat" sparking recent discussion for the way they use Greek organizations' obsession with male bonding rituals and tradition as a way to criticize the world beyond college. The tale of an "Everyman" college student being drafted into a fraternity as a pledge and sticking with it through Hell Week and beyond is inherently dramatic, and not just because it comes with a handy built-in time frame, one semester or year of higher education. Almost every pledge story told on film seems to end up becoming the story of innocence lost or ignorance reinforced. The young man seeking fraternity initiation goes into the experience in search of abstract ideas like "brotherhood" and "oneness," and emerges on the other side cynical and disillusioned or radicalized and awake. The journey can be played at any emotional pitch, and because the main characters are young men living in the zone between adolescence and true adulthood, the filmmaker can play it all sorts of ways, from slapstick comedy ("Old School") to horror ("The Brotherhood")
"Burning Sands," Gerald McMurray's feature filmmaking debut, is one of the fresher entries, thanks mainly to its setting: a historically black fraternity on a historically black campus like Howard, the university where the co-writer and director got his degree. Spike Lee's second feature "School Daze" had a subplot set in a black frat and showcased a lot of hazing, but the scenes were played mainly for very grim laughs. "Sands" presents itself in trailers as a comedy along those lines, but it's no joke. McMurray's strongest virtue is his ability to thread that comedy-drama needle while he tells the story of Zurich (Trevor Jackson), aka Z, into Lambda Phi, a prestigious Greek organization once attended by the school's dean (Steve Harris), who proposes the young man for membership.
All monster films fall into one of two categories: the kind that takes its time revealing the monster, and the kind that shows you the monster right away and never leaves it for long. Think “Jaws” (fins and scary music for the first hour) as opposed to “Deep Blue Sea” or “Sharknado” (Shark-o-Rama pretty much throughout). Most versions of the King Kong story have fallen into the first category: the 1933 original, the 1976 remake, and Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 version unveiled the big ape gradually. “Kong: Skull Island,” on the other hand, introduces Kong after less than half an hour, then keeps him (and lots of other big, scary creatures) front and center throughout the film’s 118-minute running time. There’s even a moment where another character tells a story about Kong battling creatures and the movie cuts to images of Kong battling the creatures, in case you weren’t getting your fill of monster-on-monster action.
I’m not mentioning the difference in approach to condemn the new Kong: quite the contrary. This one—about a team of soldiers and scientists that gets stranded on Skull Island during a mission to map the island’s geological interior with explosive charges, which you absolutely should not do when visiting a place called Skull Island—is a half-magnificent, half-misguided example of a “show me the monster” movie. At its best it reminded me of “The Mysterious Island” and “The Land that Time Forgot,” films that were little more than collections of monster-driven action scenes hitched to a perfunctory story about explorers wandering a jungle, doing stuff they were warned not to do, and getting eaten.
My grandfather lived eighteen months after my grandmother died of bone cancer. He spent the last 18 months of his life wasting away in the Retirement Inn in Dallas, Texas. My mother used to drop me off there to spend the day with him every Saturday and sometimes on Sunday. I was a sophomore in high school. I don't know if my mother really understood how bad things were getting or how much care he required. I used to help him take a shower. First I'd help him take his clothes off, then I'd walk him to the shower, then I'd stand there while he stood under the water, and then finally I'd help him towel off. He needed help with all this because he'd had a stroke and couldn't really lift his arms above his shoulders. I helped him to to the bathroom, too. Sometimes if he was really tired or was having issues with his arms, I'd wipe him.
I don't remember when, exactly, that the dementia hit him. But it got steadily worse during his last six months. Sometimes he couldn't remember my name. Other times he'd call me Jake, which was the name of one of his brothers. And there were a few times when I knew that he had totally forgotten who I was, and was pretending he remembered because he didn't want to be rude. Grandpa was a gentleman that way.
"Table 19" is a movie for everyone who has ever felt deeply uncomfortable at another person's wedding reception. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement—in fact it would make one of the least appetizing DVD box quotes of all time—but there is such a thing as a under-served market, and this movie serves it. Maybe too well, as we'll see.
The title refers to the number of a table at a wedding reception. It's far away from the bride's and groom's family tables. In fact it's about as far back as you can get and not be out on the street. It takes a while for everyone at the table to figure out the common element that resulted in all of them being placed at this particular table. Suffice to say that they all have a problematic relationship with somebody in the wedding party, and that's how they ended up seated in a corner near a restroom.
You can honestly say of this film by writer/director Macon Blair that they don't make 'em like they used to. "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" is an American independent film from the 1990s that just happens to have been released this year.
The stakes are small compared to what tends to happen in American movies now; the story is rather slight; the filmmakers pay closer attention to the small details of character interaction than to the fine points of plot. The whole thing is mainly situational: we get to watch the heroine, Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey) as she reacts to having her house broken into and follow along as she decides to locate and punish the people who did it with help from an oddball neighbor (Elijah Wood's Tony), who's enamored with morning stars and nunchucks.
Toward the end of "John Wick: Chapter Two," a supporting character states that the hero, an emotionally tortured assassin, is addicted to vengeance. Well, yeah—now that you mention it; he’s only been killing people by the bushel for nearly four hours’ of screen time, first to avenge the murder of his dog and the theft of his car, then to redress a betrayal by a crime lord who helped him in the first film and now calls in a favor that Wick can’t refuse.
But the act of mentioning Wick’s revenge addiction makes it funny, and it turns what might've been a somewhat full-of-itself sequel into something faintly mysterious, at once kidding and not-kidding. That’s the Wick trick in a nutshell: making a combination drive-in exploitation flick and arthouse deconstruction of same, while handing academics literary and aesthetic cues like trays of canapes at one of those fancy parties that the hero always transforms into a bloodbath. This sequel to the sleeper hit "John Wick" is the kind of movie that turns subtext into text constantly, blatantly yet playfully, stopping just short of winking at the audience (although on at least one occasion a character actually does wink, at such an angle that the gesture nearly seems directed at us). As Wick gets drawn out of retirement again, coerced into taking one last job and then double crossed and set up as a target, others compare him to the Grim Reaper, describe him as the devil's emissary and the boogeyman, and contextualize him in mythology. At one point another retired assassin who now tends pigeons on a roof—a la Forest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch's beguiling yet inexplicably almost-forgotten Zen action flick "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"—gives Wick a gun with exactly seven bullets before leading him to an “Angel Heart”-looking elevator and telling him he's starting his descent into hell. (The retired assassin is played by Sir Laurence Fishburne, star Keanu Reeves' mentor from the "Matrix" films, so of course he savors every line like brandy.)
Devotees of David Brent, the foot-in-mouth comic antihero of the original BBC version of "The Office," will watch the quasi-musical road film "David Brent: Life on the Road" no matter what this review has to say about it. But it's still a bit of a shame that this movie doesn't have more to offer than one more go-round for a great character, a bigoted twit who has delusions of musical grandeur but knows deep down how limited he is.
David, of course, is the creation of writer/director/actor Ricky Gervais, who memorably portrayed him on the original series and a follow-up TV movie and has continued to bring him back around occasionally since then, to make guest appearances on the American TV spinoff of "The Office," on concert stages, and in the popular YouTube series "Play Guitar with David Brent." This film, which premiered last year, doesn't have much to add beyond a few biographical details.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Film critic and filmmaker.