Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Brutal, bloody, and just plain bizarre, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is the strangest period cannibal horror comedy to head out west since Antonia Bird’s Ravenous did precisely that in 1999. That film featured a sextet of American-Mexican War vets holed up for the winter in the Sierra Nevadas, who ill-advisedly welcome a disheveled—and peckish—stranger into their midst. In Bone Tomahawk, four doomed men ride out to rescue some settlers who have been captured by troglodytes, unaware of the horrors that await them. What gives Zahler’s film a lot of its oomph is the dialogue, by turns lyrical, absurd, odd, and inventive. For example, Chicory, the posse’s aging back-up deputy (played by Richard Jenkins) complains of the endless scrubland, “You know, I know the world’s supposed to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part.” And Samantha (Lili Simmons), Patrick Wilson’s injured rancher’s wife, among those taken by the cannibalistic cave dwellers: “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.” The film also stars Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt and Lost‘s Matthew Fox as “an armed gentleman.” Be warned though: the carnage, when it comes, is relentlessly savage and not for the weak of stomach.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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From its surreal opening credits, a sequence of slow-motion images, acres upon acres of female pulchritude from which you cannot avert your prurient gaze, you know you’re not dealing with any ordinary filmmaker. Who knew that a fashion designer could have an eye for such a lack of fashion? Tom Ford’s edgy Nocturnal Animals doesn’t quite live up to the power of its artistic beginnings, but it’s an interesting and complex thriller that reminds us that Ford—following his fine directing debut in 2009 with A Single Man—is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. In the film, Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal play a divorced couple reunited after 19 years, perhaps, when the latter sends the former a draft of the novel he’s written, the “Nocturnal Animals” of the title. The book is violent and disturbing, setting forth a story within a story (with Gyllenhaal again the unfortunate protagonist) and blurring lines between the real and the surreal. Ford crafts a visually rich narrative that bobs and weaves and overlaps with some regularity. Both Adams and Gyllenhaal are solid here, as is Michael Shannon (99 Homes) as the terminally-ill cop assigned to the fictional case and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as its Deliverance-styled lowlife. Ambiguous and absorbing, Nocturnal Animals is a worthwhile sophomore essay from the artsy, enigmatic Ford. Well done that man.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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“Where d’you get your ideas from, Mr. Kowalski?” asks a curious bakery customer, admiring a creative display of delicately-crafted pastries. “I don’t know. I don’t know. They just come.” Truth is, the former canning factory worker turned pastry chef models his fantastic creations on the magical creatures he encountered after bumping into one Newt Scamander while seeking a loan at the bank—nifflers and erumpents and murtlaps, oh my!
     The same question—where d’you get your ideas from?—might well be asked of J. K. Rowling.
     In 2001, about halfway through writing her Harry Potter saga-thon, Rowling published Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a fictitious textbook said to have been written by Scamander. It’s also on the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s required reading list—Harry first refers to the book in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when he and Hagrid are en route to Diagon Alley for some back-to-school shopping.  After the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise, Rowling has now written an original screenplay based on the characters and the fantastic beasts in Newt’s illustrated tome, which also includes bowtruckles, mooncalves, demiguises, occamies, billywigs, and graphorns.
     I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe she needed a coupla extra mill. to pay the lawn service that month….
     While Fantastic Beasts inhabits the same vibrant world as Harry Potter, it’s its own animal, fantastically so. There are witches and wizards, goblins and house elves, squibs and no-majs (the American equivalent of muggles; the film takes place in 1926 New York), as well as references to Hogwarts and Dumbledore and all manner of Potter-morés. It’s fantastic looking, fully realized, and thoroughly absorbing.
     Plot-wise, Brit wizard and researcher Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, effectively affected) arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase fit to bursting with illegal imports, the fantastic beasts of the title. They’re being destroyed back home in Old Blighty and he plans to set a large one, a thunderbird, free in Arizona. Sooner than you can say What’s Up, Doc?, his case gets accidentally switched with Jacob Kowalski’s similar valise filled with flakey patisseries and the chase is on! Jacob is played by Dan Fogler and both are wonderful. Rounding out our protagonists are an over-invested investigator, Tina (Kathleen Waterston), and her lovely bohemian sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), giving us a charming quartet to root for.
     Rowling concocts such a complete and vibrant world, with family trees that go back decades, that she’ll never be at a loss for material (Fantastic Beasts already has two sequels in the pipeline). Potter regular David Yates directs, conjuring up a magical blend of action and humor supported by impressive fantasy sequences. In its darker, more malevolent passages, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller are all stellar.
     With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s as if one franchise has morphed into another without skipping a beat. My expectations were exponentially surpassed by this first installment, a real bolt from the blue.  Here’s hoping 2018’s follow-up is even more fantastic.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Allied (2016)

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As children—and sometimes uncomfortably into adulthood—me and the sibs were repeatedly told “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
     Here endeth my review of Allied.
     But seriously…
     The new Brad Pitt/Marion Cotillard WWII “action” drama is not a bad film per se, but it’s not the “gripping, powerful, and epic!” (Scott Mantz, Access Hollywood) cinematic creation it might have been given the $85 million budget and Robert Back to the Future Zemeckis’ name on the director’s chair. It certainly shoots for those adjectives, but delivers a lot closer to “pedestrian, uninvolving, and blah!” And despite the combined talents that Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard bring to the table, they are not “sensational” (Mantz again). In all honesty, they’re never really given the opportunity to be anything but “adequate,” mostly due to a lackluster script (by Eastern Promises‘ scribe Steven Knight) and Zemeckis’ workmanlike yet one-note direction, which focuses more on period detail (1942) than emotional resonance (about 19.42).
     Oh, it’s a lovely looking costumer of course—Brad’s right dapper in his military flyboy duds and Marion’s super fetching in her clingy chiffon negligees—but they don’t “burn up the screen” (Butterworth) as they ought. It’s partly a lack of chemistry, understandably hard to generate when the script asks our leads to mistrust each other for over half the picture, but it’s also the plot contrivances over which they’re required to skate.
     Mr. Mantz might be a singularly fine writer but why are quotes from his review the only ones that adorn the Paramount DVD? Fair’s fair—there are a couple of outtakes from two more critics buried deep in its rear cover plot synopsis (which amounts to “Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) is informed that his wife, former French Resistance operative Marianne Bousejour (Cotillard), is a German spy. Or is she?”). ABC-TV’s Mark S. Allen calls Allied “a romantic thriller not to be missed.” That is not true. You can miss it. And Athenia Veliz-Dunn of Hollywood Today Live dubs it “the best movie of the year.” That’s also not true. Well, since I haven’t read Ms. Veliz-Dunn’s review she might well have written “the best movie of the year… to feature Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard,” which it undoubtedly was. Otherwise, no. It wasn’t. (And if you’re curious, neither was La La Land!)
     No, this is more glossy, good-looking people going through the motions stuff than any kind of grandiose emotional drama with Nazis stuff. Again, not bad, just not worth $685,484 per minute of anyone’s time.
     With its play it (again), Sam ultimatum, Allied regularly reminds us we’re not in Casablanca any more. It certainly tried my English patience.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Sunrise (1927)

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Many have dubbed it the greatest film of the silent era. Others have lauded it as one of the finest films ever made. And in a recent interview, Richard Gere, star of many similarly-appointed modern-day melodramas (e.g., An Officer and a Gentleman, American Gigolo, and this year’s The Dinner), lists F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans among his favorite films of all time, referring to it as “one of the most beautifully shot movies you’ll ever, ever see—a ‘wow’ experience.”
     Without a doubt, cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss do put some pretty impressive images up on the screen. So much so that for their fine monochromatic work they won the very first Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1927. Sunrise holds up even today with its reliance on moody lighting, dramatic framing, and inventive in-camera techniques. Its narrative, however, with its larger than life emotions and emoting, is a smidge OTT: humble farmer (George O’Brien) is seduced by siren from the big city (Margaret Livingston) into an evil plot to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor, who also won an Oscar), only to fall in love with her all over again after realizing he can’t go through with it.
     Working in Hollywood for the first time, Murnau maintains the same level of dedication he brought to his German Expressionist films Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926), all now considered classics in their own rights. The camera techniques on display in Sunrise are remarkably inventive, with an unnervingly anachronistic Steadicam-like maneuver through a marsh some fifteen years before its inventor, Garrett Brown, was even born. There are also equally smooth crane and dolly shots throughout, most notably as The Woman approaches the farmhouse to lure The Man away, as well as some wonderfully creative superimpositions–the seductress appears to wrap her arms around her willing confidante, The Man and The Wife are encircled by angry motorists in the midst of a busy street, and scenes in which foreground models are paired with background matte paintings with the actors milling around somewhere in the middle.
     This visual experimentation sets Sunrise apart, and might have moved the medium along considerably had not The Jazz Singer (Al Johnson moves his lips and actual words come out!) debuted that same year, focusing filmmakers’ attentions on sound rather than image, at least for the short term.
     Gere was clearly talking about the look and the construction of Murnau’s film and in that regard his one word summation—wow—isn’t far off the mark.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com