Penthouse and Pavement


High Rise (2016)

J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel "High Rise" famously cold-opens with a hot sentence about a dead dog; Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump's film adaptation opts to cut directly from the urbane sophisticate Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) glancing at the animal to the spit-roasting aftermath. The elision makes for a decent cinematic effect, showing not telling; but also sounds a warning shot about conventionality, a distilling down of Ballard's haunted prose into nothing more adventurous than good old black humor. Mr. Wheatley's taste for unsympathetic British grotesques also starts to crop up early before running rampant across the narrative by the end, joining a handful of Ballard's dots about the inhabitants of the island without getting much of a grip on his social science.

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Live. Let Die. Repeat.

Columbia Pictures

Spectre (2015)

Consistent screen universes are a mixed blessing — as proved by the smell of burnt wiring hanging over the film called "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — and it might have been better in the long run if James Bond had not caught the history bug. "Spectre" ties Daniel Craig's four Bond movies into a final fixed alignment, concluding the chain of events initiated in 2006 when Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) walked into "Casino Royale" and commented on his ass; and also gives the guy yet another layer of familial pain for the ongoing motivational pot. But in the process the film has a mild personality crisis, scared rigid at the prospect of there being any corner of Bond fandom not addressed by the current product and trying to build a machine that could appeal to every single vested interest in existence. A crazy, ambitious, expensive quest. And doomed.

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Minimum Overdrive

Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

Learning to Drive (2015)

In the same way that the feel of an average Sundance festival film is usually apparent before the opening credits have wound up, Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" wears its origins as a New Yorker article on its sleeve. A gentle meander through the social and emotional lives of two decent middle-aged adults in a multicultural New York, it's a soft-centered comedy of manners in which understanding your wayward spouse might be less tough than grappling with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but more likely to lead to a quiet life.

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Bernd Schuller/Thimfilm

13 Minutes (2015)

A lone individual assembling his bombs without obvious radicalization or a network of coconspirators tests the character of all nations, even when that nation is Nazi Germany and has already thrown its character into the trash. Oliver Hirschbiegel's willingness to look the Third Reich in the eye — proven in "Downfall" — carries over into "13 Minutes," the less showy story of Georg Elser's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler motivated by nothing more complex than basic unease: no allies, mania or contingency plans involved. No wonder the gentlemen poking hot wires under Elser's fingernails can't figure him out.

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Holy Family Business

Gilles Bruno Mingasson

Last Days in the Desert (2015)

The weathered figure emerging from the wilderness after five weeks of contemplation and fasting in "Last Days in the Desert" is referred to either as Yeshua or by the all-purpose epithet of Holy Man; but there's no ambiguity in Rodrigo Garcia's film about who he actually is. And he's also clearly Ewan McGregor, an actor whose skills at underplaying inner conflicts don't get much of a run out these days but which potentially suit the son of God and his inklings of an appointment at Calvary pretty well. If you happen to think that a hyperbolic screen Jesus is the wrong approach, then Mr. Garcia's sober and sedate film may be right up your aisle.

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That's Amour

Agatha A. Nitecka

45 Years (2015)

After "Weekend" cast a nonjudgmental eye over the couplings of people savoring their early decades on Earth, "45 Years" looks with equal tolerance at a married couple hovering around their seventh — in the process confirming Andrew Haigh as one of current British cinema's rarely-spotted authentic humanists. With the domestic industry's choices too often amounting to use of the heritage card, indulgence in histrionic aggro or a swing the other way into micromanaged oxygen starvation, Mr. Haigh once again proves to be one of those searching for a fourth way.

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Bad Hair Day

Graeme Hunter

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Robert Carlyle gets a bad case of the accidental serial-killer blues in "The Legend of Barney Thomson," playing a sad-sack Glasgow barber with an unfortunate tendency to stab people with the styling shears. Poorly suited to employment burnishing other mens' self-image and tied to the apron strings of a potty-mouth mother whose manner could alarm the horses, Barney's impotent frustration with life's unfairness leads him into a new sideline as what looks like Scotland's least ingenious murderer. Unfortunately for him, another — rather more skillful — one of those is on the prowl already, sending victims' severed body parts through the post and confounding a police force of Keystone-level uselessness.

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The Italian Mob

Concorde Filmverleih

The Face of an Angel (2015)

With daunting synchronicity, Michael Winterbottom's sideways meditation on the Meredith Kercher murder trial arrives just as Italian justice passes another milestone on its lengthy process of failing to get to the bottom of the case. Mr. Winterbottom and writer Paul Viragh aren't heading in that direction either, since "The Face of an Angel" has more abstract fish to fry than who precisely stabbed whom. Its business is the male heart and ego; specifically the ones inside Thomas (Daniel Brühl), whose efforts to navigate the fallout from a very similar legal case are derailed by neuroses, heartbreak, an inability to keep his pants on and a prodigious intake of gak. He is, needless to say, in the movie business.

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Modern Life Is Rubbish

Universal Pictures

Trash (2015)

Depictions of child poverty in well-meaning screen entertainments are bound to end up fudging the heart of the matter, since catching even five percent of the true grinding horror would bring an audience to its knees. "Trash" can't really do anything about that, substituting instead a YA tone of earnest adolescent adventuring in a landscape of adult corruption and violence — ultimately the easier option.

Although Andy Mulligan's source novel described a slum of imprecise location, Stephen Daldry's film plants its flag in Rio de Janeiro, giving the greedy politicians and murderous cops an imminent Olympic bonanza as extra rationale for lining their own pockets and ignoring the kids rummaging through their garbage mountains. Three of those — Raphael (Rickson Tevez), Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) — find evidence of high-level corruption in a discarded wallet somewhere in there, and the chase is on.

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Suffer Little Children

Film Movement

Stations of the Cross (2014)

Dietrich Brüggemann's deftly moving film about the dire consequences of religious devotion teeters between black satire and blacker comedy, but settles in the end on simple tragedy. "Stations of the Cross" adapts the stages of the Via Dolorosa into 14 extended scenes of staged formal rigor, an ongoing domestic calamity regarded almost entirely from a stationary camera at roughly eye level.

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