Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
5. Train To Busan
Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie action film has more stage presence that most American thrillers. Gong Yoo plays a deadbeat dad with enough money to pretend he’s the responsible parent. His mettle, responsibility and love are all put to the test when he takes his daughter (Kim Soo-ahn) to Busan to be with her mother and a zombie outbreak hits the rear car. As the train peels through Korea looking for a safe harbor, the carriages are overrun by zombies and the passengers fall to pieces trying to keep themselves safe, with Yoo stuck in the middle trying to protect a child while learning to be a person again. Yeon’s script could stand to loosen its grip on stock character behavior, but he’s got a way with a setpiece that’ll make you sit up in your chair. Zombie brawls, stealth crawls through dark compartments and various zombie footraces and train chases are this film’s specialty and it dolls them out with just the right frequency. As close to literally 40 miles of bad road as possible.
Laura Israel makes a stab at No Wave attitude in her portrait of the last living Beat persona, photographer Robert Frank, and mostly hits her mark. The jagged rock music, the moody black and white photography, the aggressive, cool editing, the air of sadness that can’t help but escape its hermetic cinematic environment… Israel admirably sticks to her stylistic guns even when dealing with someone who changed the way we look at ourselves through his images. Frank’s pictures and films were a mirror of American life, the evolution of its identity as a nation of artists and subjects. The film provides a fleeting glimpse at this enigmatic teddy bear and his tragic life and important work, and still only scratches the surface. That’s not Israel’s fault; Frank lived enough life for five or six people, and she does her damndest to show them all off. His sarcasm, his loneliness, his regrets, his pride, it’s all there, and it’s all beautiful. Also worth checking out: Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, another film on a complicated artist’s complicated legacy.
Assembled from hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, Clay Tweel’s heartrending Gleason has real, raw power. New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason became a real saint when he was diagnosed with ALS and fought for the rights of the disabled, helping create a law that provides care for people afflicted with the ghastly infirmity. But it was a long uphill climb before he became the public face of his condition. Gleason showcases Steve’s slow loss of speech and mobility, documented in confessional personal videos he insisted on making. He and wife Michel prep for a child while Steve contemplates existence, his place in the universe, his relationship to his father and friends, and what life will mean without the things that used to define him, including, but obviously not limited to, his athletic prowess. Gleason is exactly the kind of film you hope it will be, and Steve Gleason is exactly the kind of humble, human hero we need right now.
2. Homo Sapiens
Viennese documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter finds movement and honesty in stillness. His subject in his latest film is abandoned structures and the absent creators who left them to ruin and overgrowth. The more he tours the graveyard of our stunted ambition and our lazy idea of progress, the more the film begins to feel like silent science fiction. Who are these alien lifeforms who’d let all this work go to waste? Where else did we have to be that was so important that so much human effort could be allowed to fester? Homo Sapiens finds us fascinating, if enervating. Self-appointed gods with too much time on our hands and no capacity for reflection, writing our epitaph in every step we take away from our past, every brick we lay in every house we’ll never set foot inside again.
Like The Beguiled on a steady diet of PBR and gluten-free pizza, Men Go To Battle is a hilarious revision of traditional approaches to cinematic Civil War stories. Its mumblecore dialogue is purposefully a little too idiomatically modern, all the more to highlight the lack of anything worth talking about (a conversation about the weather is as funny as anything in Ghostbusters) during a time when any accident could mean a long, painful death and a longing glance could end in marriage. Director Zachary Treitz and his co-writer Kate Lyn Sheil take advantage of the accidental beauty of life before electricity but don’t forget the monstrous attitudes and colossal idiocy of every man living. When these simpletons, living life on the frontier during the Civil War, open their mouths, charming folly spills out. When they shut them, the softly noisy digital images of a bygone era speak volumes about what we hope endures.
Best New Old Movie: On The Silver Globe
A film taken from its creator by power-hungry authorities, about men who accidentally create and fall victim to power-hungry authorities, On The Silver Globe is the nightmare you need to seek out. Finally playing in a beautiful restoration at Lincoln Center, this epic, this gorgeous monstrosity must be seen to believed, and seen twice to be fully digested. A sister planet is discovered and astronauts from a ravaged Earth are sent to colonize it. The civilization they create has become a cave-dwelling kakistocracy by the time a one-man rescue mission is finally sent to dope out their progress. The grandness, the unchained ambition of director Andrzej Żuławski, who asks more pertinent philosophical questions in ten minutes than Slavoj Žižek has in 67 years of rambling, is impressive and overwhelming but the human ache that prompts them is human-sized. The noise dies down and a man realizes what it means to die on another planet, and the behemoth is tamed. Worlds are built and destroyed and rebuilt in On The Silver Globe‘s nearly three hours, but all you need to understand is the pain of shouting at the cosmos for answers that will never come. Żuławski spent his life doing just that, and this is his finest cry.
Dud of the Month: Lights Out
It’s almost hard to settle on the worst film of the month as every week provided a bounty of underachievers and dunces vying for the title. There’s the endearingly cheap and stupid Cell, the vacant and vacuous Equals, the empty and ideologically counterfeit Childhood of a Leader, the Tarantino-worshipping Carnage Park… Don’t make me choose! As I’ve already written about the apocalyptically precious Captain Fantastic, I’ll go with David F. Sandberg’s insultingly dim and laughably earnest Lights Out. If you got Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook drunk and pushed it out of a moving car, that’s about the level of insight we’re dealing with, cinematically and morally. A woman (a never-worse Maria Bello) is powerless to stop her depression from killing her husbands, but when it goes for her kids (Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer, last seen in a Terrence Malick movie for crying out loud) she kinda sorta draws a line. By then Sandberg’s committed so many sins against subtlety it hardly matters what his stupid film wants to say about mental illness. Like a feature-length Xanga entry, Lights Out suggests that people with depression really ought to kill themselves before burdening their families with their moods. Shame too because the scary parts involving the gangly depression shadow monster are quite scary.