W.E.

One positive thing to be said about Madonna’s new movie, W.E., is that it is leagues better than her first directing effort, the 2008 Filth and Wisdom. But then many things are, periodontal surgery among them. Unlike that earlier film, this one is beautifully photographed (by Hagen Bogdanski, who also shot The Lives of Others), and so the endlessly shuttling Grand Tour locations—London, Paris, Cannes—glide by in preening detail, and the deluxe interiors speak softly of serious money.

That’s the good part. The picture’s problem—well, one of its problems—is that it presents for our appreciative contemplation two of the most worthless jet-setting parasites of the last century: Edward, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson, the American clothes-horse divorcee for whom he abdicated the Throne of England. In 1937, directly after stepping down, Edward married his brittle inamorata, and together they spent the next 35 years doing absolutely nothing but spending epic amounts of his hand-me-down royal fortune in the gaudiest possible ways. Having no other purpose, they became style icons among the international idle rich—he in his tailored tweeds, she in pricey Dior and Vionnet and the emeralds and pearls with which he continually showered her. Unsurprisingly, Madonna excavates this aspect of her subjects with gusto.

To focus on fashion in depicting a couple who once had dinner with Hitler, and are widely attested to have maintained a chummy relationship with the Nazis well into the war, is an appalling decision. (Madonna’s take on this is: Hey, lots of people had dinner with Hitler—and indeed we can picture the Führer in his Berghof, sitting down with Goebbels and Göring for a hearty Bavarian repast.) She also attempts to present Edward as a man of conscience—a man of the people, even. (At one point we see him rousing a crowd of miserable jobless Welshmen with a cry of “Something must be done!”) These feeble rehabilitative strategies are too unpersuasive to maintain, however.

Apart from the gaping vacancy at the center of the film, Madonna chose, for some reason, to write the script with Alek Keshishian, heretofore best-known for directing her 1991 tour documentary, Truth or Dare. The result is a garble of scattershot incidents strewn with clots of overripe dialogue. In one scene, set in a drafty mansion, Wallis (played by Andrea Riseborough in the movie’s only lively performance) tells Edward (James D’Arcy) that she’s cold; his reply: “Maybe you need someone to keep you warm.” Later, when Edward tells Wallis that he has decided to quit the monarchy in order to marry her, her prescient response is, “I will be the most despised woman in the world.”

Even more debilitating is the movie’s structure, which defies sustained comprehension. Madonna cuts back and forth between the duke and his consort as they go about their trivial lives—from the 1930s into the early ’70s—and a separate story, set in New York in 1998, in which a fictitious young woman named Wally (Abbie Cornish), obsessed with her deceased namesake, moons around among a display of the Windsors’ possessions, which are being offered up for auction at Sotheby’s. Like Wallis, in one of her earlier marriages, Wally is burdened with an abusive husband; and like Wallis, she yearns for true love. That she eventually finds it in the arms of a lowly Ukrainian security guard (Oscar Isaac) who plays classical piano in his shabby loft is a conceit ridiculous beyond the call of implausibility.  

There are moments in this movie of such honking absurdity that one can only slump in wonder. A decadent party scene, for instance, presumably set in the 1960s, in which the wealthy revelers writhe about to the strains of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” And a later scene in which Edward, on his deathbed, asks the similarly elderly Wallis to dance for him, and she totters over to a record player and cranks up the Chubby Checker version of “The Twist”—and then proceeds to actually do the dance, for rather longer than any other director might feel it wise to show. Of a special silliness are the moments when Wally and Wallis somehow interpenetrate their separate eras to spend time together – sitting side by side on a park bench, encountering each other on a Paris street (“Get a life!” Wallis hisses). Our amazement is unending.

A lot of time and effort has gone into the making of this movie, particularly in the areas of art direction and costume design. But the purportedly grand love story of Wallis and Edward is a puny thing in the context of their deplorable lives. The actors here are ill-served, the sometimes impressive visual textures are squandered, and a bout of desperate reediting following the movie’s disastrous premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival has been in vain. W.E. remains at the end what it was at the beginning and continues to be throughout: a flamboyantly misconceived mess.

Chronicle

With Chronicle, the shaky-cam “real footage” movie, on the cusp of propelling some viewers into face-clawing lamentation, finally grows up. The picture has a rousing spirit and an unexpected emotional warmth. It features good (if little-known) actors, a solid genre plot, and surprisingly slick effects that are especially impressive for being so seamlessly woven into the film’s low-budget look. The movie hustles by in less than 90 minutes, and it’s a lot of fun. 

The story, by director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis—both feature-film first-timers—is a clever riff on the superhero theme. Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan, a True Blood alumnus) is the kid with the video cam—a lonely nerd documenting his miserable homelife with an abusive father (Michael Kelly) and bedridden, dying mother (Bo Petersen). Andrew is a high-school senior, shunned by the cool kids and tormented by the usual crew of varsity troglodytes—all the more so after he starts bringing his new camera to school. His only semi-friends are his amiable cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and, for reasons unclear, the gleamingly popular Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan, of Friday Night Lights).

One day, out in the woods, these three happen across a large hole that leads deep underground. Descending into it, they find something very strange, and soon after clambering back up to the surface discover that they’ve suddenly developed nifty new telekinetic powers. At first they use this gift for fun and pranks—floating little Lego bricks up into the air, baffling car owners by shuffling their vehicles around in parking lots. Then, with continued practice, they discover that they can rise up into the air themselves, and soon they’re swooping around through the clouds.

As an early reference to Schopenhauer (!) suggests, such lighthearted enjoyment can’t last. Andrew is a young man gnawed by teen trauma, and his hunger for payback—now entirely possible—festers darkly. He starts small—levitating a spider and then pulling it apart in midair with his mind (a striking effect)—but quickly moves on, dispensing rough justice to highway tailgaters and settling scores with his loudmouth dad. As his taste for mayhem mounts, we marvel that some of the film’s elaborate havoc could be covered by its reported $15-million budget.

The basic challenge in pulling off a movie like this is camera POV. Here, an antidote for hand-held visual monotony is built into the concept: among the many things Andrew can levitate is his vidcam, thus enabling plausible overhead shots and traveling side views. And the introduction of a pretty blonde video blogger named Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) allows for the recording of scenes in which Andrew plays no part. You still wonder how feasible it would be to descend a crowded school staircase with your eyes glued to a viewfinder (and at the end you wonder how all the footage we’re seeing was somehow assembled), but genre fans will accept that you have to roll with this sort of thing. At its conclusion, the picture leaves open the possibility of a sequel—on the evidence of this film, possibly a not-bad idea.

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black reaches back into the horror-movie past, long before mad slashers and crazed gore frenzies infested the genre, to present us with an unapologetically old-fashioned haunted-house exercise. The picture pays vivid tribute to the fog-choked byways and richly decorated interiors of the old Hammer horror films (and is in fact the first release by that newly resurrected studio after some 30 years of commercial hibernation). But it also partakes of the narcoleptic pacing that hobbled some of those old pictures, and so despite this movie’s stylish design and agreeably vintage frights, it is also, sad to report, kind of boring.

The story is derived from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill that was previously adapted for British TV and radio, and has been running in a London stage version for more than 20 years. Clearly there’s an audience for this time-tested material; it only remains to be seen whether it’s an audience that also goes to the movies.

The setting is vaguely Victorian (although a briefly glimpsed newspaper story about Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism would place it closer to the 1920s). Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter film role, plays Arthur Kipps, a morose young lawyer still shattered by the death of his wife in childbirth four years earlier. He is dispatched by his London office to the faraway village of Crythin Gifford, there to organize the estate of a recently deceased old woman. Arriving by train in the grim, unwelcoming village, he makes his way to her even grimmer residence—a dismal stone mansion situated in nearby marshlands at the end of a long road that’s submerged by high tides for many hours of each day.

Thus isolated, Kipps gets right to work. Sorting through records and letters, he eventually learns that the dead woman once had a young son; he died at an early age and ever since, a large number of local children have mysteriously followed suit. If it need be said, these dead kids are not really gone—nor is another notionally departed figure, a black-veiled woman who lurks in the surrounding forest, staring up through the rain and sometimes, alarmingly, making her way inside the house, where she peers out of high windows to spectral effect.

Considerable stretches of this 95-minute movie are devoted to Kipps creeping through spooky corridors with candle held high, summoned by strange knocks and rumblings and sudden shrieks, and unsettled by bloody footprints, dangling corpses and pallid children who clearly mean him no good. The picture is thick with decrepit atmosphere, and director James Watkins (Eden Lake) clearly savors it. He has a tight, cleanly fashioned script to follow (by Jane Goldman, who also worked on Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class), and some effective actors (especially Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer as a local landowner and his dotty wife). But the story’s unvarying predictability, additionally lumbered by Radcliffe’s glum and inexpressive performance, becalms the proceedings. Viewers new to this venerable genre may find its quaintness refreshing; those with longer memories might not. Two guys filing out of the screening I saw were divided. “That was really scary,” one of them said. To which his companion replied: “I fell asleep.” 

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.