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. The Devil’s Candy
Sean Byrne’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2009 debut The Loved Ones forsakes the copious bloodletting and pitch-black humor of the earlier film for a haunted-house and devil-possession mash-up that focuses more on psychological terrors than merely physical ones. More than just a clever genre mash-up, however, The Devil’s Candy turns out to be a surprisingly potent allegory for artistic obsession. The demons haunting heavy-metal-loving painter patriarch Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) lead him to create grotesque canvases that he barely remembers working on until they’re finished. Jesse may be driven by the perverse psychic connection he forms with the previous inhabitant of his and his family’s new home, a child murderer named Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), but Byrne makes clear that darkness was always inside him, hidden behind the veneer of domesticity and the comparably innocuous artworks he’s forced to create for money. Though The Devil’s Candy is full of impressively feverish imagery, Byrne’s film is helped immensely by Embry’s excellent lead performance, lending soul to the film’s metaphorical framework.
Though it grapples with issues of morality and mortality with welcome seriousness, Logan isn’t quite the great leap forward in maturity for the superhero genre that many have hailed it to be. Director/co-writer James Mangold may draw from Westerns like Shane—which Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Laura (Dafne Keen) are seen watching in a hotel room in one scene—but the violence, though more extreme than what you’d normally see in a modern-day superhero movie (necessarily so, given the nature of Logan’s mutant power), remains as weightless as they tend to be in most recent comic-book films, rarely achieving the tragic gravity of which great Westerns by the likes Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher were capable back in the genre’s heyday. Nevertheless, as a chronicle of a self-hating, guilt-ridden man not only rediscovering familial bonds he thought he’d lost, but also struggling to find his own path toward personal grace and redemption in his twilight years, Logan is often quite moving. Here’s a rare superhero movie in which I actually left feeling something for its people rather than just clutching my head at all the special effects and noise.
3. Song to Song
Those who haven’t been on board with Terrence Malick’s recent work as he’s ramped up his productivity tremendously in the past few years will probably not find much in his latest film to covert them. The camera still swirls around characters and settings, the editing still restlessly flits from image to image, and the characters still whisper contemplatively and philosophically in voiceover narration on the soundtrack. Buried within the first hour of Song to Song, however, is a stealth clarification of Malick’s vision when Faye (Rooney Mara), in voiceover, says, “Any experience is better than no experience.” That’s the closest Malick has come to directly explaining the rationale behind his aesthetic, one that prizes privileged moments and sensations above conventional narratives and characterizations. Such a method aligns beautifully with the young people at the heart of Song to Song, its formal qualities perfectly complementing their drive to seek out new adventures, risk failure, find their own place in the world—to live, simply. Song to Song is Terrence Malick’s own ode to youth, and what a gloriously romantic and unpredictable hymn it is.
The first time one encounters Olivier Assayas’s latest film, one is bound to be simply caught up in its strange mélange of genres and styles: its mix of ghost story, paranormal mystery, and character drama, of naturalism and surrealism. Upon a second viewing, however, it’s a feeling of melancholy that dominates: Maureen Cartwright’s (Kristen Stewart) sadness over the death of her twin brother, one that defines her current purgatorial existence in France, working as a personal shopper for a movie star while waiting for a sign from her brother in an afterlife that she’s not quite sure she believes in. Personal Shopper lingers most as a portrait of grief as experienced by a character who, as its ambiguous yet haunting gut-punch of a final dialogue line suggests, may be forever saying goodbye to a sibling she refuses to let go of. Also, the film contains the first Kristen Stewart performance I’ve seen that led me, even more than her work opposite Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, to finally understand the critical hosannahs she’s garnered in certain quarters.
Hirokazu Kore-eda has been focusing on quiet domestic dramas of late, Ozu- and Naruse-like in their simplicity and wisdom. His latest, After the Storm, ranks as not only one of the Japanese filmmaker’s best, but a work fully worthy of those aforementioned forbears. If his last film, Our Little Sister, arguably was a bit too much of a low-stakes affair, this one has tensions aplenty among its cast of characters: chiefly, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a struggling novelist and overall deadbeat dad who is filled with regrets about the path his life has taken and the choices he has made to tear his family apart. The film follows his attempts to try to make amends with his wife and son, but melodrama isn’t in Kore-eda’s bag: Quiet confrontations rather than shouting matches dominate, in keeping with the director’s meditative serenity. Nor is the director interested in easy, sugary uplift. The ending of After the Storm suggests not a drastic reversal of fortune, but a more honest yet also more inspiring sense of incremental yet valuable progress. Kore-eda’s patient humanism feels like a very soothing, very necessary balm in a real-world landscape direly bereft of such sensitivity.
Best New Old Movie: Ghost in the Shell
Just in time for the release of Rupert Sanders’ American remake, Metrograph programmed a week-long revival run of Mamoru Oshii’s original 1995 anime classic, thus giving someone like me, who had never seen it before, a golden opportunity to finally catch up with it. I’m glad I did, especially before seeing Sanders’s shallower and more conventional live-action take. Beyond the headiness of its mix of hand-drawn and computer imagery and its combination of technological dread and existential philosophy, the most startling quality of the original Ghost in the Shell is its sheer moodiness. Even in its big action set pieces, Oshii manages to sustain a tone of reflection, as if all those pyrotechnics were merely a conduit for the deeper human concerns he, drawing from Masamune Shirow’s manga, had in mind. Naturally, Sanders dispenses with much of that contemplative quality in his version—but though it’s hardly a patch on the original, overall it’s a reasonably enjoyable piece of big-budget eye candy. Oshii’s original, however, remains a truly visionary sci-fi work impressive not only for its dazzling spectacle, but for the richness of its ideas about identity, humanity and technology.
Dud of the Month: Beauty and the Beast
I get it: Walt Disney is a corporation, so it’s no surprise that, seeing one live-action remake of an animated classic of theirs score big at the box office, they’re going to try to make that kind of financial magic happen again and again until the formula wears itself out. That’s just the way big corporations like this one works. But couldn’t the makers of the new live-action Beauty and the Beast have bothered to do any sort of fresh re-imagining of the material? Sure, there are a couple new songs (none of them worth a damn), a few negligible new lines of dialogue, some tweaked characterizations, and that extraordinarily overhyped “gay” moment at the end. Otherwise, whole sections of Bill Condon’s version play as if everyone involved simply felt transposing the animated version into live-action was all that needed to be done—because why mess with everyone’s cherished memories of the 1991 animated classic? Except what came off as magical in animated form—chiefly, all those singing-and-dancing housewares in Beast’s (Dan Stevens) castle—looks skin-crawlingly creepy as CGI live-action. So slavishly faithful is this film to its animated precursor that I found myself sitting through this soulless and artistically bankrupt enterprise thinking of little more than dollars and cents, as well as the deadening limits of nostalgia, especially when sold this blatantly to the public (an apparently quite receptive one, judging by how well this has been doing at the box office so far).