Thursday, July 20, 2017

'Dunkirk' makes fear feel real

Trapped on a beach, British soldiers scramble to survive in the early days of World War II..

In 1940, some 400,000 British troops (along with French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers) were stranded on a beach in France. The soldiers were backed into a military cul-de-sac by German forces that rapidly were moving westward. The troops had little support from the air or the sea. On this lonely stretch of beach in northern France, they were strafed by German planes. Their only way out was to be transported back across the English Channel.

That's the backdrop for Dunkirk, the latest, and perhaps most masterful, film from director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Night Rises and Inception).
Watching Dunkirk, I kept recalling a long ago conversation I had with a World War II veteran who worked at the Rocky Mountain News. We were having coffee in a room behind what was called "the backshop," the place where the printers worked when newspapers still employed printers. I was telling him about some war movie I'd seen.

"You know what war is?'' he asked.
"What?" I responded, readily conceding that his knowledge of the subject was far greater than mine since he had served with Patton's Third Army in France and Germany. For him, war wasn't a movie.

"Fear. Nothing else," he replied.

It's too early to determine whether Dunkirk is a great war movie, but I believe Nolan got one thing right. He conveys the fear of men who, minus air support or ships to transport them off the beach, became targets. The term "sitting ducks" seldom has been more appropriately employed.

Nolan uses all of his considerable cinematic skills to make us feel the explosive force of bombs, the startling eruption of bullets or the vulnerability of the few British pilots who made their way to Dunkirk in planes that, by today's standards, seem like little more than flying crates.

Nolan divides his story into several related parts. In the first, a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) escapes German gunfire that wipes out all his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He arrives on the beach, where thousands of British soldiers have assembled.

He and another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) carry a wounded soldier to a Red Cross rescue ship. They race through masses of soldiers carrying a stretcher toward the pier where the boat has docked. Their motives have a double edge. They want to board the ship themselves.

The officers on the beach are played by Kenneth Branagh (Navy) and James D'Arcy (Army). The soldiers await help, but Branagh's character knows that the British command wants to preserve its destroyers for later battles. Prospects for rescue are dim.

Another story focuses on a British civilian (Mark Rylance) who decides to sail his private boat to Dunkirk to help rescue the stranded soldiers. He's accompanied by his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local teenager (Barry Keoghan).

On their way to Dunkirk, this civilian crew saves a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose ship was sunk by a German torpedo. Cillian's shell shocked soldier wants Rylance's character to turn his boat around. He doesn't want to return to the nightmare he just left.

If you see the film in an IMAX theater with the sound cranked, you'll feel every shock and rumble -- many of them enhanced by Hans Zimmer's score, a pounding affair that rises like an adrenalized pulse. It's the musical equivalent of writing in all capital letters: DREAD. FEAR. PANIC.

Nolan's third story deals with the air war. Tom Hardy files a RAF Spitfire. Hardy's character -- his face mostly obscured by the mask that supplies him with oxygen -- engages in dogfights with German planes. These dizzying air battles rank among the best ever filmed. (Nolan shot his film with IMAX cameras on 65 mm film; he puts us in the cockpit with Hardy in ways that are disorienting and, of course, frightening.)

It's difficult to imagine that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema won't win an Oscar for his stunning work here.

Nolan shifts between all these stories in an effort to provide an encompassing view of Dunkirk. Individual stories are subordinated to the creation of an overall feeling of war chaos.

We can assume things about the characters from their behavior -- Rylance's steadfastness, Branagh's leadership, Whitehead's "ordinary-Joe" qualities, but Nolan leaves most of that work to us.

In some respects, the movie's heroism belongs mainly to its civilians. As it turns out, a small armada of private boats traveled to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers. It was a stirring moment of British unity that defined the pluck and spirit of a united people facing terrible duress. To portray it, Nolan mostly dispenses with dialogue.

If I have a beef with Dunkirk, it's this: Nolan's movie consists almost entirely of climaxes, the kind of scenes that other war movies build toward. And once, the chaos subsides, Nolan doesn't seem to know what to do. Scale overwhelms everything in ways that make sense if you acknowledge that Nolan's aim is to make us feel as if we, too, are on that beach.

That's part of the point, I think, to make us understand that once the fighting starts, thoughts about patriotism tend to give way to the urge simply to survive.

Nolan has made a movie full of fear and frenzy. It's impressive for sure but sensation-oriented films tend to fade once the sensation stops.

Judging by the inescapable sadness in the eyes of the veteran I mentioned earlier, that's not the case for those whose wars weren't fought at the movies.

'Girls Trip' offers major laughs

A raunchy comedy about four women who reunite in New Orleans.
Malcolm D. Lee, who directed the Best Man movies and Barbershop: the Next Cut, knows how to make crowd-pleasing movies -- and that's a good thing.

Girls Trip, a raunchy comedy based on the enduring bonds of black sisterhood, is Lee's latest foray into the lives of 40something black people who -- for the most part -- are leading successful lives.

In this case, four women -- former college roommates -- spend a reunion weekend in New Orleans. But where movies such as the recent -- and deeply abysmal -- Rough Night, strained to push women into the Bachelor Party/Bridesmaids oeuvre, Girls Trip leaps in with remarkable aplomb.

Lee builds the movie around big comedy scenes of the kind that make you laugh in spite of yourself. One involves torrential urination and the other, a grapefruit. No fair describing either, but you should know that they're not for those who shy away from R-rated comedy.

In addition to some funny writing (intermittent, I admit), the movie features four actresses who create appealing characters: Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish. Haddish portrays a firecracker of a woman whose profane expressions and attitude qualify as one of summer's better special effects.

The story revolves around Hall's character. Hall's Ryan is a best-selling author who espouses a you-can-have-it-all philosophy that has great appeal among women. She's married to a former NFL star (Mike Colter). Billed as an ideal couple, the two are on the verge of signing a lucrative TV contract, thanks to the efforts of Ryan's white agent (Kate Walsh).

Hall's Ryan travels to New Orleans to give the keynote speech at Essence Fest, a gathering for black women. She invites her former college pals along. They call themselves "The Flossy Posse."

Queen Latifah portrays Sasha, a journalist who has been reduced to running a celebrity gossip blog. Pinkett Smith portrays a divorced nurse and mother of two, a woman poised to reveal her wild side, and Haddish appears as the loyal member of the group, a woman whose irrepressible energy seems boundless and who's not afraid to unleash a powerful punch or get everyone drunk on absinthe.

At one point, the women drink too much absinthe and hallucinate, an occasion for Lee to bring ridiculous freshness to what could have been a giant misstep.

The absinthe symbolizes the women's goal. They're supposed to let loose, but a bit of harsh reality stands in their way. As it turns out, Ryan's life is far from perfect. Her husband philanders and his current partner (Deborah Ayorinde) happens to be in New Orleans.

To further complicate the proceedings, Ryan runs into a former classmate with whom she obviously shares an unkindly romantic spark (Larenz Tate).

As for Pinkett-Smith's Lisa, she's contending with a young man (Kofi Siriboe) with a very large ... well .... you know.

As is the case with most raunchy comedies, Lee's -- co-written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver -- is not without sentiment nor can it resist a bit of morale-boosting cheerleading for female empowerment. Oh well, those are standard ingredients in this kind of fare, as well.

All this is bolstered by brief appearances from Common, Diddy, Mike Epps and more.

Raunchy comedies aren't everyone's favorite, but for those who like them, Girls Trip will do quite nicely. It may even turn out to be one of summer's few real surprises.

This 'Ghost Story' isn't about horror

Director David Lowrey meditates on time, impermanence and the fleeting nature of our lives.

When leaving a screening of A Ghost Story, I turned the wrong way upon exiting the theater. I've been to this particular theater hundreds of times, and should have known precisely where I was. My disorientation told me that the movie had worked on me in ways that I might not fully have appreciated while I was watching.

For the record, it immediately should be stated that A Ghost Story is no conventional horror movie. It's meditative and sorrowful and it risks ridicule by having the ghost of its title walk through most of the movie in a bed sheet with eye holes that have been blackened.
This may sound Casper the Friendly Ghost. Don't be fooled. This ghost has the lonely majesty of a true wraith. The ghost put me in mind of a line from Wadsworth, the one about wandering lonely as a cloud, except this ghost doesn't wander, it's rooted to one spot.

Director David Lowrey begins the movie by introducing us to a young couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara). They're in bed in a house that's relatively isolated from any neighbors. The two cuddle, nuzzle and whisper to one another so softly, they might be characters in a Terrence Malick movie.

The next thing we know, Affleck's unnamed character is dead; we see him slumped over the wheel of his car, victim of an off-screen auto accident.

Rooney's character then views her husband's body in a hospital morgue -- or perhaps he was not a husband but the other half of two lovers living together. She gently covers his face with a shroud like sheet and walks out of the room. Lowery's camera lingers. Suddenly, the ghost of the departed character played by Affleck bolts upright. The movie's ghost is born.

Perhaps not knowing where to go, the ghost heads back to the home he shared with Mara's character, the place where they loved, argued and worked. His sheet trails behind him like the train of a wedding dress.

After arriving at his former home, the ghost watches as Mara's character eats a pie that has been dropped off by a neighbor as an offer of solace. She devours almost the entire pie, perhaps as a way of trying to digest her grief.

It's impossible to know whether the body under this sheet belongs to Affleck, but if it does, he gives a real performance, showing disturbances to the ghost's mute existence. When Mara's character shows up with another man, enough time having passed for her to consider moving on, the ghost's agitation becomes palpable.

Eventually, Mara's character leaves the home, which then is occupied by a succession of tenants, including a single mom and her two children and a group of people at a party.

In this second group, we meet a man who delivers a dour, extended monologue about the impermanence of everything -- including the entire universe. Everything in our quotidian existences, the stuff over which we fret and obsess, is of little ultimate consequence, he says. Viewed against such a vast panorama, the result of everything is nothing.

You can take this monologue seriously or you can view it as a satiric comment on a sure way to ruin a party by introducing a conversational element that's sure to lower everyone's spirits.

Perhaps to define the world that we're in, we also learn that Affleck isn't playing the movie's only ghost. Staring out a window, he sees a lonely neighbor ghost at a nearby house. They are able to communicate without speaking.

"I'm waiting for someone,'' says the other ghost.

"Who," our main ghost asks.

"I don't remember," is the reply.

This exchange suggests that even the most sharply defined purpose can vanish into the ether of time. This other ghost has forgotten its primary reason for existence, something like when a name we should know disappears into the haze of an encroaching mental miasma. We're sure it's there somewhere, but can't summon it.

More eerie than scary, Ghost Story includes a few typical ghostly activities -- books tossed off a shelf and shattered dishes, but it's not these paranormal stunts that prove unsettling. It's the feeling that we've been unmoored in the sadness of passing eons.

Eventually, Lowrey actually moves about it time, showing us scenes that have or will take place on the very ground where this otherwise nondescript home has been built.

Fair to say that the movie's ghost has something to say about all of us. We're here now. We'll die. Our spirits may cling to a familiar spot, but then we're gone -- not forgotten or forlorn. Just gone.

Viewed that way, A Ghost Story morphs into a cosmic tragedy, a requiem not for one lost soul, but for every one of us fragile beings.

A close-up view of horror in Syria

City of Ghosts tells the story of the men who are trying to inform the world about abuses in Raqqa.
Most journalists seldom -- if ever -- put their lives at risk. That statement can't be made about those brave souls who report for RBSS. You'll understand why I'm talking about danger as soon as I tell you that RBSS stands for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group formed to chronicle the human-rights atrocities committed by ISIS in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa.

Director Matt Heineman (Cartel Land) introduces us to some of the Syrians who work for RBSS in his painfully powerful documentary, City of Ghosts. Some members of RBSS work inside Raqqa and others have been forced to seek refuge in Turkey or Germany. RBSS's relocated journalists serve as the organization's dissemination arm. RBSS material has been used by major news organizations and also on the organization's Facebook page.

But leaving Syria doesn't guarantee security: ISIS has vowed to kill these impromptu journalists wherever they seek refuge. And in Germany, members of the group also have faced the antagonism of angry crowds that would like to see them deported.

To say that Heineman's film is difficult to watch understates the case. Using plenty of RBSS footage -- much of it shot with cell phones at great personal risk to the citizen photographers who wielded them -- we see point-blank murders and other horrors that will force many to turn away from the screen.

I've been calling the men who operate RBSS "journalists:" That's not exactly true -- at least they're not journalists by choice. A school teacher, for example, has found himself working for RBSS because of his convictions that his homeland must be liberated from ISIS terror.

And unlike most journalists, these citizen journalists are intimately connected to the stories they report. For example, Hamoud, a cameraman for RBSS, is shown watching images of his father being executed by an ISIS combatant. It's impossible not to think about what must be going through Hamoud's mind and equally impossible to know.

RBSS is not alone in using video. Heineman also shows how ISIS has become increasingly sophisticated in making propaganda and recruitment films.

You won't find a lot of background in City of Ghosts: ISIS moved into Syria after the Arab Spring set off civil conflict and destabilized the country. That's about it.

But a complete political picture of events in Syria isn't the point: RBSS's journalists are dedicated to making sure that the world knows what's happening in Raqqa and, by extension, so is Heineman. RBSS has taken away any opportunity for Westerners to say, "If only we had known."

I'm not sure whether City of Ghosts deserves to be called a great film, but it definitely should be seen. At a minimum, we owe the people of Raqqa our pledge not to look away from their suffering.

Errol Morris's tribute to a photographer

Director Errol Morris (The Blue Line, The Fog of War) turns his keen attention to Elsa Dorfman, a portrait photographer living in Cambridge, Mass. Set almost entirely in Dorfman's studio, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography allows the 80-year-old photographer to review her work. She discusses both the famous and ordinary people who stood before her camera of choice, a large-scale Polaroid the size of a small shed. With the special camera no longer available to her -- the original Polaroid company has been dismantled -- Dorfman decided to put the lens cap on her career. Her retirement provides Morris with occasion to review Dorfman's life as a photographer and her relationship with some of her subjects, most notably poet Allen Ginsberg. Dorfman famously photographed Ginsberg in a suit and, then, sans clothing in the same pose. Merely by focusing his attention on Dorfman, Morris honors the easy-going artistry of a career that spanned from 1965 to the present. Initially, Dorfman sold her photos on the streets of Cambridge for $25 a piece. She always made two versions of her 20X24 inch prints, allowing the subject to select one. Dorfman kept the other, marveling at the fact that subjects often selected her least favorite of the two choices. Dorfman's literary connections began when she met Ginsberg as a secretary at a New York publishing house and continued to develop through contacts made at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. B-Side may not rank with Morris' best films, but it stands as an introduction to Dorfman's approach and work. Think of it as a revealing miniature about a woman who made very large photographs.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

An inter-species fight for survival

In War for the Planet of the Apes, noble Caesar must lead the ape population to the promised land.

Has it come to this? Do we humans have so little faith in ourselves that we must look to apes for inspirational leadership? We are talking, of course, about Caesar, the ape given life by actor Andy Serkis and state-of-the-art digital effects in two previous Planet of the Apes movies.

In its latest edition -- War for the Planet of the Apes -- Caesar becomes a figure as large as Moses, a primate who must lead his fellow creatures out of the hostile wilderness created by murderous humans.

In this edition, the vile humans are represented by an American colonel, Woody Harrelson mainlining a mega helping of the same madness that gripped Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Harrelson's character holds the ape population hostage, turning them into forced laborers in what he views as a last-ditch effort to save mankind from the simian onslaught.

In case we don't get the similarities to Brando's Colonel Kurtz, the movie makes a wryly intended reference to "Ape-Pocalypse Now," but I think most audiences will have caught on without the visual prompting.

Harrelson pulls out as many stops as he can find to portray the evil Colonel who knows how to give his sadism a nearly convincing rationale, and the movie doesn't flinch when it comes to showing us the suffering inflicted on the apes that have been imprisoned in the Colonel's concentration camp.

Director Matt Reeves leaves little room for us to doubt where our rooting interests are meant to lie. The movie clearly sides with Caesar and his cohorts: an orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval) and an associate named Rocket (Terry Notary) among them.

Caesar faces the movie's greatest challenge: He must resist the call for personal vengeance against the Colonel, who's responsible for the death of Caesar's wife and his oldest son. Is Caesar a big enough personality to embrace such a noble cause?

Caesar is aided by a chimp called Bad Ape (voice by Steve Zahn), an escapee from a zoo who knows where to find the Colonel's hideous compound.

The special effects work obviously reaches superior levels, and the visual environment is convincing enough to carry a movie about the war between apes and humans. It's possible that performance capture -- the process by which an actor's motions are digitally translated into computer-generated apes -- never has been so effectively used, so much so that Reeves can include many close-ups of Caesar's saturnine countenance.

Perhaps to keep War from being entirely one-sided, we meet an orphan girl (Amiah Miller). She's taken in by the apes and cared for in a humane fashion.

Those left among the human population are devolving, losing their ability to speak. The apes, on the other hand, are progressing, beginning to master speech. For the moment, all but two of them communicate with sign language. But we know they'll soon be prattling away like the creatures already endowed with the capacity for speech.

The movie takes place 15 years after the lethal outbreak of simian flu, which has decimated humanity. No wonder Colonel is furious.

The settings -- from snow-covered landscapes to remote redoubts -- give the movie a chilled, desolate feeling. This "Ape-pocalypse" isn't exactly a ton of fun, obsessed as it is with its own seriousness. And if you don't like pounding drums, you'll hate Michael Giacchino's score.

The battle sequences are compelling enough, although Reeves's insistently grim approach tends to overwhelm the movie's small attempts at humor.

The point, of course, is that humans have disrupted the Edenic serenity of the planet. Screenwriter Mark Bomback elevates the idea of self-sacrifice in service of a worthy cause, something that human beings have trouble achieving in both the movie and in real life.

In the conclusion to this trilogy of most recent Planet of the Apes reboots, people become the last place to look for real expressions of humanity, which makes War for the Planet of the Apes either a powerful cautionary tale or one very expensive helping of misanthropy.

Two very determined women

She looks for the driver who killed her son.
A grieving mother seeks revenge against the driver who killed her son in a hit-and-run accident. That's the premise of Moka, a quietly mounted thriller from Swiss director Frederic Mermoud. Emmanuelle Devos plays Diane, a shattered mother who's determined to learn who was responsible for her son's death. With help from a private detective, Diane tracks down the mocha-colored Mercedes that struck her son. Hence, the movie's title. Devos's Diane leaves Lausanne and travels to Evian, France to stalk the owners of the car, which happens to be for sale. Nathalie Baye portrays Marlene, a beauty shop owner whose live-in lover (David Clavel) has put the car up for sale. Marlene also has a typically sullen teenage daughter (Diane Rouxel) who develops an odd friendship with Diane. Devos and Baye keep the movie afloat as a determined Mermoud raises questions about the ways in which Diane processes her grief. Tension arises less from typical cinematic ploys than from a question: What precisely will Diane do should she actually get this couple to admit their guilt? A sensible Mermoud allows two fine actresses play against each other, giving full vent to their powers of suggestion. As a result, Moka becomes a revenge story that's more interested in exploring Diane's obsessive need for clarity than in serving another up trumped up drama. The result: A small, but intriguing movie.

Six turbulent years in the life of Marie Curie

If you try to imagine a movie about Marie Curie -- the first woman to win a Noble Prize -- you might envision a stooped scientist leaning over radium-filled beakers or pondering, mind-bending equations of inordinate complexity. Director Marie Noelle takes an entirely different and more defiant approach, bringing a fevered quality to the life Curie lived between 1905 and 1911. During this period, the Warsaw-born Curie worked with her husband Pierre (Charles Berling) and later had a scandalous relationship with married mathematician Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter). Noelle seems to have taken a vow that prohibits her from getting lost in period trappings. She sometimes strains to make her movie feel urgent and alive. She barrels through events that include Pierre's death and, most importantly, Curie's battles with a scientific establishment that refused to acknowledge contributions made by a woman. Noelle concentrates on aspects of Curie's life away from the ramshackle lab she ran outside her home. I wouldn't consider that a mistake because Curie labored against a backdrop of personal distractions that no man would have had to endure. Anchored by Karolina Gruszka's vibrant performance, Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge melds a story about scientific discovery with a passionate look at the struggles of a woman whose life should have been a good deal easier than it actually was.

A ribald sex farce set in a nunnery

Inspired by Boccaccio's The Decameron, The Little Hours is an unapologetic sex farce built around a 14th Century nunnery where the sisters are anything but pious. In the hands of director Jeff Baena, Little Hours attempts to banish the shame that often surrounds repressed desire, particularly in a convent to which many of the women have been sent because their families don't know what else to do with them. Three nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci) connive under the supervision of a mother superior (Molly Shannon), who's no saint, either. The plot kicks into a higher gear when the resident priest (John C. Reilly) introduces a hunky runaway (Dave Franco) into the mix. Franco's Massetto has taken flight because a nobleman (Nick Offerman) caught him dallying with the lady of the household (Lauren Weedman). Reilly's father Tommasso deceives the nuns, telling them that Massetto is deaf and mute, a complication that adds to the movie's cleverly calculated misunderstandings. Fred Armisen plays a bishop who shows up late in the proceedings to condemn everyone's behavior. Baena makes his intentions clear from the outset with ample use of the "F" word as he pushes (perhaps too hard) toward irreverence. Avoiding period language, the movie genially embraces the all-too-human pursuit of pleasure. Put another way, Little Hours seems to be saying that, despite admonitions to the contrary, bawdy isn't necessarily bad. Amusing when it's working, which (alas) isn't all of the time.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

'Spider-Man' again. Surprise: It's OK

Tom Holland takes over Marvel's web-spinning role.

In Spider-Man: The Homecoming, Marvel pushes the reset button for Spider-Man, adding Tom Holland as the new kid from Queens, the superhero who can weave webs that snare bad guys.

Although not an origins story, Spider-Man: The Homecoming has the feel of one, mostly because Holland's Peter Parker spends much of the movie trying to figure out the parameters that govern the behavior of a super hero. He's aided in this endeavor by Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark -- a.k.a. Iron Man -- who occasionally drops in to mentor young Parker in the fine art of super-heroism.

The movie treats Spider-Man as a typically insecure teenager -- albeit one who aspires to join the Avengers, a group that needs no introductions. If it does, you can stop reading now.

This Spider-Man movie is one of the entries in the Marvel Comics universe that didn't find a home at Disney. A Sony release, The Homecoming makes an amiable addition to a series that was rebooted once before.

So is Holland a better Spider-Man than screen Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire?

Let's say Holland falls somewhere in the middle. Overdoing Spidey's youthful exuberance and naivety, Holland sometimes teetered on the edge of getting on my nerves.

Fortunately, director Jon Watts allows other characters to carry some of the movie's weight. A schoolmate, nicely played by Jacob Batalon, thinks Parker should use his burgeoning superhero status to win over female classmates who might otherwise view him as a nerd.

An underused Marisa Tomei joins the cast as Parker's Aunt May. Tomei has one of the movie's best moments in a final scene.

Think of the undeveloped potential in Tomei's character. A widowed aunt takes care of a teenage boy in a cramped and probably over-priced Queens apartment. This particular widow still has her looks and easily could be living an entirely different life. She might even feel ripples of resentment about having to spend so much time coping with a high-school kid.

OK. I know. That's another movie.

Parker's high school woes include his fumbling attempts to endear himself to the girl of his dreams (Laura Harrier). The Homecoming spends enough time in high school to earn a well-deserved teen-movie diploma.

A nicely timed piece of comic business arrives when Tony Stark's personal assistant (Jon Favreau) tries to talk to Parker in a high school bathroom.

Of course, you'll find the usual number of action set pieces, the strongest of which takes place when Parker's Academic Decathlon team visits the Washington Monument. A battle on the Staten Island Ferry isn't bad, either.

Otherwise, the screenplay -- credited to six writers -- proves an episodic affair with a minimal through line. While working on a scavenging operation, contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) purloins a powerful substance left on Earth by extra-terrestrials. The discovery becomes the basis for an illicit weapons business run by Toomes, who also has a comic-book identity. He's The Vulture.

At times, Toomes dons large, ominous-looking metal wings that allow him to defy gravity and fly about.

Ably played by Keaton, Vulture is a working-class guy whose life turns evil when the government robs him of a salvage contract he fairly won. Thus scorned, Toomes decides to take revenge on society's elites. He feels entitled to be a villain, and Keaton knows how to make him convincingly mean.

Spidey also has been given an internal conflict: Will he become a nationally renowned celebrity superhero or will he remain a hometown Queens boy, a neighborhood version of a superhero? The question gives the movie a bit of unexpected edge. Does Spidey have the self-assurance to shun the limelight?

A surprising twist adds flavor to the final act, which makes room for the multiple climaxes that Marvel movies can't seem to live without.

Given our justifiable fatigue with comic-book movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming fares better than we have any right to expect. It may not always soar, but it doesn't crash-and-burn either. Be thankful.

A topical rom-com that works

In The Big Sick, a young Pakistani aspires to be a comic and finds himself in a challenging relationship.

He's an ethnic Pakistani who's trying to make it in the world of stand-up comedy. That's a tall enough order for anybody, but Kumail also must deal with constant nagging from his family. Mom and Dad want him to marry a nice Muslim woman, have children and solidify his relationship to the Pakistani community, a group consisting largely of recent arrivals to the US.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) has other ideas. He does his best to resist the women that his mother invites over every time he shows up for dinner. He keeps photos of these possible brides in a cigar box in his apartment, claiming to have no interest in living the life his family wants for him.

But Kumail's assimilationist values are put to the test when he meets a white woman and their relationship begins to click.

In most rom-coms that might be the whole story. Not so, The Big Sick, a pleasing and provocative comedy that forces its main character to admit that he lacks the gumption to pursue a love interest that could jeopardize his relationship with his family.

When his new girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) learns that Kumail isn't willing to go the distance with her, she walks out on him.

But that's not the end of the story, either. The screenplay -- written by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani's real-life wife -- includes an ingenious plot twist. Kazan's Emily falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma.

Emily's illness brings Kumail into contact with Emily's understandably anxious parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). The irony is obvious, but still painful. Kumail was afraid to introduce Emily to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff). Suddenly, he's deeply involved with Emily's parents.

Both sets of parents are quite good. Kher and Shroff are insistent about their Pakistani roots without entirely giving way to caricature. Hunter and Romano are especially sharp as an apparently mismatched pair. She's rural; he's a city guy. Somehow, they've managed to negotiate the difficult pathways of a long marriage.

Nanjiani makes for an easy-going film presence. He can be funny without constantly resorting to shtick, and Kazan serves up a winning mixture of eccentricity and strength.

Additional color is added by real-life comics Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler; they play a trio of aspiring comedians who perform at the Chicago comedy club where Kumail, who earns his keep as an Uber driver, spends most of his spare time.

Obviously, putting a major character into a coma pushes the movie toward the dire side of things. Even so, Nanjiani doesn't overplay Emily's life-and-death drama or the agonizing ordeal her parents suffer through. He trusts us to understand the seriousness of the situation.

Co-writing the screenplay and starring in the movie must have been enough for Nanjiani who turns the directing chores over to Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris). Showalter keeps the movie humming along nicely.

Vella Lovell has a nice turn as the one woman who might well entice Kumail away from his relationship with Emily. Not only would Lovell's character satisfy Kumail's parents, she's engaging enough to make us wonder exactly why Kumail remains stuck on Emily, who may never emerge from her coma.

But love is love, and there's not much to be done about it.

At its best, The Big Sick is one of those increasingly rare movies that works the way a romantic comedy should.

Nanjiani also has his finger on a brand of ethnic and religious tribalism that feels both current and rooted in the American experience. Although no one will accuse Nanjiani of writing a treatise, he deals with identity issues that resemble those faced by numerous generations of immigrants.

In this case: How can a Pakistani-born Muslim integrate into a new country and still honor his heritage?

My only complaint about the movie involves its protracted ending -- or should I say several endings. But that doesn't diminish the credit Nanjiani deserves for having taken a genial and entertaining leap into the multicultural melting pot.

Stay for the end credits, which feature photos of the real people on whom Nanjiani has based the characters with whom we've just spent one hour and 59 minutes. Clearly, The Big Sick has its roots in autobiography -- which, after all, may be the basis of some of our best comedies.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Too restrained for its own good

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled : lost in an arty haze.
There's an alarming gap between style and substance in Sofia Coppola's new movie, The Beguiled, a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge in a Virginia school for girls during the waning days of the Civil War.

In a sense, Coppola has taken grade "B" material and given it an "A"-grade artistic gloss that sometimes threatens to suffocate the movie's dramatic life.

Not surprisingly, the soldier's presence among these women prompts turmoil as students and teachers try to adjust to a male presence. Some of the students -- notably a character played by Elle Fanning -- are just beginning to discover their sexuality, making the movie a hothouse of suppressed and overt desire, as well as of trust and mistrust.

Too often, though, The Beguiled is a hothouse in which someone forgets to turn up the heat.

Three performances stand out. Colin Farrell plays soldier John McBurney as a cagey fellow with anger simmering beneath a solicitous surface. An excellent Nicole Kidman brings subtle levels of calculation to the role of headmistress Martha Farnsworth, the woman who washes the soldier's partially naked body when he's brought to the school.

Kirsten Dunst's excels as Edwina Danny, a teacher for whom McBurney represents liberating escape from an impending spinsterhood.

Coppola eliminates one of the characters found in director Don Siegel's earlier version, an enslaved woman. That means that Coppola mostly ignores the perverse undercurrents of racism. If you wanted to push the point (and some have), you could call it an elegant form of denial.

Coppola's overly decorous approach elevates atmospherics. Her movie includes a couple of gruesome events but doesn't seem entirely committed to them. No more can said without spoilers.

Every character in The Beguiled, I suppose, must react to a war-time situation in which norms have been upset, but the movie could have used a little more of the bile that ultimately begins to flow.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A baby-faced getaway driver

Baby Driver wants to be hard-bitten, but seems trapped by its sleek style.

Thanks to an error in judgment, Baby (the main character in the new thriller Baby Driver) drives getaway cars for a soft-spoken but ruthless Atlanta crime boss who's skilled at staging robberies. When I saw the trailer for director Edgar Wright's movie, I got excited. Maybe we could add something with real kick to the summer slag heap.

But Wright (Shaun of the Dead) has made a movie that's mostly froth, a crime fantasy posing as a thriller with hard-boiled performances from a cast that includes Kevin Spacey (as a no-nonsense criminal mastermind); Jamie Foxx (as a psychopathic thief); John Hamm (as an exiled Wall Street wheeler-dealer); and Eliza Gonzalez (as the girlfriend of Hamm's character).

None of these characters show much by way of originality; Spacey's performance feels like a bit of a reiteration. As is often the case, he's playing the smartest, meanest guy in the room. Hamm actually was scarier as a ruthless ad man in Mad Men. Here, you get the feeling that he's trying too hard to pull out all the stops.

If Wright wanted a baby-faced character to play Baby, he could have done no better than Ansel Elgort, who has the kind of face that registers boyish innocence. Elgort never loses our sympathy.

So here's the gimmick: Elgort's Baby carries multiple iPods, each loaded with music to fit whatever mood or pursuit in which he happens to find himself. Music also drowns out the hum of tinnitus from which he suffers, a malady acquired in a car accident in which, as a child, he lost his parents.

Baby is devoted to the memory of his late mother, a singer by trade. He's been raised by a foster parent (CJ Jones), an aging deaf man for whom the adult Baby has become chief caretaker.

A ton of music turns Baby Driver into a juke box of a movie featuring tunes from a variety of artists, spanning numerous pop styles. We're talking Blur, R.E.M, Barry White, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Queen and more. Baby lives behind a set of earphones.

Wright leavens the proceedings with romance. Baby falls for a waitress (Lily James). Baby indulges a cornball dream in which the two of them will hit the open road with nothing but music, each other and an endless horizon of new possibilities.

Naturally, Doc opposes Baby's departure from the group of rotating felons who carry out his intricate plans. Doc sees Baby as his good-luck charm. He won't let him go.

If you like car chases, you'll get your fill, but for me, even creatively handled car chases have diminishing returns. Here's another movie in which shifting gears becomes a metaphor for assertive expression.

Of all the performances, Foxx's proves the most unsettling. His character -- named Bats -- suggests real danger, as opposed to the kind of faux, pulpy menace everyone else exudes.

If you've seen movies by Quentin Tarantino or Nicolas Winding (Drive), you may find a glib familiarity in Wright's movie, a sense of amoral hipness that, like one of the tires in this film, seems to be losing tread from wear.

For all its attempts at juxtaposing Baby's sweet dreams with the hard-core aspirations of the movie's band of miscreants, Baby Driver has no more staying power than an air kiss. The longer it goes on, the more fleeting its fleetness becomes.

'Okja:' A very big pig movie


Once you know that Okja is a pig the size of a hippopotamus, you'll understand that the movie named after her isn't going to be a typical affair. It's also worth knowing that Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer and The Host) isn't trying to turn Okja into an updated version of Babe, the endearing Australian charmer from 1995.

Ever ready to expose greed and deception, Bong has made a movie about the ways in which a callous corporation exploits both the pig and the pig's keeper, a quietly determined Korean girl named Mija (An Seo-hyun).

Early on, we learn that the Mirando company has created enormous genetically modified pigs. Wanting to keep the pigs under wraps for a decade, the company sends each animal to a far-flung keeper. The keepers are responsible for raising the pigs. Mija is one of those keepers.

It soon becomes clear that Mija, who lives in the mountains with her grandfather, has developed a strong Bond with Okja. Okja servs as Mija's constant and loyal companion. The two play together, and Mija believes that her grandfather plans to purchase the pig so that Okja can continue her idyllic life in Korea.

But even grandpa can't be trusted: He has no intention of keeping Okja from becoming someone's dinner -- or in the case of this pig, dinner for a multitude of consumers.

The company is represented by its CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton); a fading TV celebrity (Jake Gyllenhaal); and the company's smooth-talking flak (Giancarlo Esposito).

It doesn't take much italicizing by Bong for us to know that this trio -- coupled with Lucy's twin sister (also Swinton) -- represents the soulless evil of contemporary life.

An animal rights group led by the super-sincere but still conniving Jay (Paul Dano) also joins the fray, a group with its own agenda.

I can't say that the giant animated pig looks exactly like an inflated version of the real thing, but it quickly becomes apparent that Okja has a heroic, self-sacrificial streak that makes her even more of a pal to Mija. Only the motives of animal and girl show anything close to unalloyed purity.

A simple plot finds company reps traveling to Korea to bring Okja to New York for a competition to determine which of the company's many genetically modified pigs qualifies as best of the breed, a major PR stunt.

The rest of the movie follows Mija's efforts to reunite with Okja and return to the uncorrupted simplicity of mountain life.

The grown-up, non-pig performances tend toward exaggeration bordering on caricature. Gyllenhaal, for example, speaks in a distractingly odd voice. Always clad in shorts, his character looks like a demented kid who has gone off the rails at summer camp.

Don't mistake Okja for a kids' movie, though. Among other dark moments, Bong includes a harrowing trip to a slaughterhouse where Okja is supposed to meet her terrible fate.

Fat with thematic intentions, Bong's movie never quite scores a bullseye. It should be seen as a kind of irresistible oddity that hammers home its message (or messages) without much finesse but is made watchable by the bond between a girl and a pig that only the cruelest carnivore ever would want to eat.

The point: In a world dominated by commerce and self-interest, the real pigs are all walking on two legs.
Okja bows on Netflix and is available in limited theatrical settings.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A documentary about a jazz great

Chasing Trane chronicles the life and artistry of saxophonist John Coltrane.

If you were making a documentary about jazz genius John Coltrane, you'd be tempted to find a style that matched Coltrane's musical inventiveness. That might be a mistake because genius in one form doesn't necessarily translate into genius in another.

Director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) chose the opposite direction, and the result is a straightforward documentary that salutes Coltrane's talent without reaching high levels of distinction on its own.

Despite that, Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane stands as a worthy addition to the liturgy of jazz on film, as well as a movie that charts racial issues inextricably imbedded in Coltrane's story. He grew up in the Jim Crow South.

Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40. During his short life, Coltrane went long on accomplishment: He played saxophone with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and with his own band.

Chasing Trane reminds us of Coltrane's prodigious skills, a sense of musical creativity so expansive that he could make a jazz classic out of The Sound of Music song, My Favorite Things, a tune that easily could slip into triteness and often has. Coltrane's rendition of that tune is more than an interpretation, it's a re-invention.

Many regard Coltrane's Love Supreme album as a masterpiece of musical and spiritual creativity, as well as an affirmation: Coltrane cared more about honing his artistry than he did about audience acceptance.

In Love Supreme, Coltrane often can be heard playing with controlled frenzy, filling almost every second of a solo; it's almost as if he's racing against time, trying to leave no sound unexplored.

If you listen to Love Supreme don't ignore McCoy Tyner's piano, every bit the equal of Coltrane's sax, and I don't say that to slight drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, who also played on what became a landmark album.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Coltrane's two marriages, the heroin addiction that he kicked and his exploration of Eastern spirituality.

Scheinfeld interviews a variety of people about Coltrane -- his children, fellow musicians (Sonny Rollins), cultural commentators (Cornel West) and fans (Bill Clinton). Yes, that Bill Clinton, the former president whose saxophone skills never prompted anyone to call him a musical genius.

I can't say that Chasing Trane is a great film, but it's a decent film about a great artist, and, as such, deserves to be seen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'Transformers' stomps on coherence

Another helping of chaotic action from director Michael Bay.

It's fairly common for fantasy movies to ponder the imminent destruction of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Why we need outside (often alien) help to accomplish such devastation puzzles me. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of wrecking the planet ourselves.

Still, it's no surprise that Transformers: The Last Knight again puts the planet under extreme threat. Unfortunately, the movie -- directed by Michael Bay -- misses the point: We all probably should be wondering about the durability of a culture that has now produced its fifth movie based on a line of toys.

I'd like to tell you more about Last Knight, but that won't be easy because the plot stumbles its way through a variety of set pieces that span the movie's taxing two-and-a-half hour length.

If noise were art, Bay would be the Leonardo Da Vinci of movies. He specializes in a brand of visual and aural overstatement that can turn images into a form of cinematic shrapnel.

Bay tries to expand the series' reach by beginning in the Dark Ages, a time when knights fought with heavy swords and dodged streaking fireballs that were catapulted in their direction.

Having already been trashed in another summer movie, King Arthur returns to fight off a barbarous horde. On the verge of being decimated, the Knights of the Round Table only can be saved by Merlin (Stanley Tucci). Tipsy from alcohol in this telling, the fabled magician has a staff that can summon transformers to help vanquish the forces of evil -- or some such.

Don't hold me to every detail in this review because attempting to follow a movie as scattered as Last Knight can feel discombobulating, like trying to balance your checkbook while riding a rollercoaster.

After its Medieval prolog, the movie leaps ahead 1,600 years. The Earth faces grave danger. Among other things, savior robot Optimus Prime has returned to his home planet of Cybertron to search for his maker. Once he arrives home, Prime discovers that Cybertron has fallen on hard times. According to a sorceress named Quintessa, Cybertron only can be saved by sucking the life out of Earth.

If your head doesn't hurt by now, keep reading. If you'd rather stop and do something more constructive (rearrange your sock drawer, say), you have my blessing.

As part of its metallic furor, Last Knight also tells us that the US military has declared war on all robots. Not so fast, says Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor who remains loyal to his robot allies. Cade befriends Autobots, helpful to humans, as opposed to Decepticons, not helpful to humans.

Isabela Moner plays a young woman who also loves Autobots. She becomes an occasional tag-along partner for Wahlberg's Cade. She also drops out of the movie for extended periods.

I'll spare you a guided tour of the Transformer universe. Know, though, that about half way through, Wahlberg -- more or less the movie's lead -- joins forces with a British character named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). She's a Medievalist who knows how to recover Merlin's staff, which holds the key to ... well ... something or other.

Did I mention that there's also a talisman with mystical properties? Talismans are always helpful in movies because just about everyone wants to get hold of one.

The movie makes room for an extended appearance by the estimable Sir Anthony Hopkins. He portrays Sir Edmund Burton, an overly demonstrative nobleman who eventually tells us that Wahlberg's character is "the last knight" of the title.

I have to admit that the movie's final act contains some decent pulp imagery involving an attack on the Earth by what looks like a giant coral reef.

Every now and again, John Turturro, a refugee from the previous movies, makes a cameo appearance from Cuba, where his character presently is located. Turturro could be the first actor ever to have to make phone calls (really) to the main plot in order to make his presence felt.

There's also a small robot that seems to be a dilapidated, trash-can cousin of R2-D2. A late-picture underwater, submarine sequence that arrives after the movie already has sunk.

Attempts at humor are so ham-handed that they're easy to spot amid all the flying debris.

Bay doesn't whip up many edge-of-the-seat moments. Maybe that's because it's difficult to generate real suspense when the series -- like this movie -- feels as if it never will end.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The hero of 'The Hero' is Sam Elliott

A veteran actor gets his shot at a lead role.
If you find Sam Elliott's wizened face intriguing, you'll love The Hero, a slender movie about an aging Western actor who has been reduced to making commercials for barbecue sauce. Director Brett Haley has given us a movie that's all Elliott all of the time -- much of it in large close-ups of the actor's face.

No matter what role he's playing, Elliott's deep, sonorous voice seems to speak only one language: cowboy. In The Hero that's almost the entire point.

Haley directed Elliott in I'll See You in My Dreams, which teamed him with Blythe Danner. This time, he casts Elliott as Lee Hayden, an actor best known for a movie called The Hero.

When he's not working -- which is most of the time -- the 71-year-old Lee hangs out with an actor (Nick Offerman) with whom he once starred in a little-seen television series. They watch Buster Keaton movies and smoke marijuana.

The screenplay, by Haley and Marc Basch, adds a few wrinkles, one serious. Early on, Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer. Looming mortality prompts Lee to try to make amends with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). He hopes his ex-wife (Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) might be able to help.

Lee also begins an affair with a younger woman (Laura Prepon) he meets at the house of his dope-smoking pal. She's a stand-up comic. Prepon and Elliott work well together, although there's no particular reason for their May-December relationship, other than to add spice.

As it stands, The Hero showcases Elliott. The camera loves his face; it's almost as if Elliott's trademark of an overwhelming mustache mops up any of the script's loose ends.

It's arguable that The Hero is more about Elliott's iconic countenance than it is about the character he's playing. The Hero evidently was written specifically for Elliott, and if Haley wanted to honor the actor, he's done a good job of it.

Look, the estimable Elliott certainly deserves a lead role, and no one would argue that he's unable to carry The Hero, often on his own. He's a pleasure to watch, but a little more movie would have been welcome, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Rough Night' founders -- badly

A strong cast can't save this formulaic and unfunny comedy.

It doesn't matter that the raunchy comedy Rough Night was directed by a woman. It also doesn't matter that Rough Night employs a group of talented actresses that includes the fiercely funny Kate McKinnon.

And while we're on the subject of irrelevance, you should know that it's equally unimportant that Rough Night gives us a much-needed opportunity not take Scarlett Johansson seriously or that the movie makes no fuss about a gay theme with Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer playing former lovers.

Similarly, Jillian Bell's portrayal of the gal pal who Johansson's character has outgrown since the two bonded during dissolute college days is of little consequence.

It doesn't even matter that the movie follows a well-tested formula for crass comedies.

All of these things could have made a difference had this comedy about former college classmates who gather for a bachelorette party in Miami been either perceptive or funny. Maybe, Rough Night isn't funny precisely because of its inability to get close to anything that might be called incisive.

An attempt to darken the comedy -- the women accidentally kill a man they believe to be a male stripper -- isn't handled with enough wit or finesse to save the day. No Weekend at Bernie's, Rough Night arrives on screen as a painful misfire.

Any movie that resorts to cocaine snorting for one of its running gags -- as this one does -- immediately declares itself ineligible for any awards involving imagination.

Even the brilliant McKinnon, who plays an Australian visitor to the US, can't hit the necessary high notes, and the movie leaves us wondering what motivated the filmmakers to encourage McKinnon to channel her inner Naomi Watts.

Although designed as an ensemble comedy, the movie revolves around Johansson's Jess, a woman who has left her hard-partying college days behind to run for the state Senate. Once in Miami, Jess quickly sheds her sense of propriety to join what's supposed to be a fun weekend of clubbing hopping and debauchery.

Now and again, the movie offers scenes involving Jess's fiancé (Paul W. Downs). While the women are trying to be wild in Florida, Downs's character attends a sedate bachelor party. He and his buddies spend an evening at home in New York testing wines. Attendees include comedians Eric Andre, Hasan Minhaj and Bo Burnham, all mostly wasted.

Director Lucia Aniello doesn't do much to explore this bit of role reversal, and Downs's character quickly heads to Miami on a non-stop car trip involving adult diapers, stimulants and beer. Why adult diapers? So there's no need for him to make bathroom stops. A misunderstanding leads Jess's fiancé to believe his impending marriage may be endangered.

In Florida, the women stay at the upscale home of one of Jess's major donors. They also meet a couple of leering swingers played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.

Low on creativity, Rough Night at one point finds McKinnon's character feigning sex with the corpse that the women desperately are trying to hide. So, yes, this one tries everything, including a joke about necrophilia. Like the corpse, the joke dies. The movie isn't far behind.

No reason to open this book

The Book of Henry doesn't seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be and winds up abusing some serious issues.
Let me share several things that I hate to see in movies: 1. Loving but otherwise incompetent parents who are raising kids who are smarter than their elders. 2. Needlessly quirky touches -- say a house in the woods that a genius kid has assembled out of discarded household items. 3. Confusion about whether a movie wants to be kid friendly or adult serious.

Sadly, The Book of Henry commits all of these sins, the most grievous of which is its inability to encompass a variety of plot threads while also adding thriller elements about an ill-defined case of child abuse.

The Book of Henry isn't easy to write about without including spoilers, but parents who plan on taking kids should know that the movie includes the death of a child. If that ruins the movie for you, so be it. I'll say no more about it.

Director Colin Trevorrow, who wrote the screenplay for Jurassic World and who directed the well-received Safety Not Guaranteed, shifts from comedy to drama in ways that create an atmosphere that's shot through with improbabilities.

Absent much to say about the plot, I'll tell you about the characters. Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his single mom (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay) in a suburban New York town.

Mom works as a waitress. In addition to all his other talents, Henry excels at finance. He manages Mom's funds.

Not only is Henry a whiz at practical matters, he also holds his mother to a high moral standard, which he prosaically states: When others are being abused, we're obligated to intervene, Henry says.

Watts struggles to play a single mom who has turned her oldest son into a helpmate, a form of parental irresponsibility that sometimes occurs with single parents, but -- in this case -- has been carried to unbelievable extremes.

Watts's character seems to have only one friend, another waitress (Sarah Silverman), a woman who sports a large, flowery tattoo above her exposed cleavage, who may be an alcoholic and who hardly needed to be in the movie at all.

The movie's thriller component involves one of Henry's classmates (Maddie Ziegler), a girl who lives next door to Henry with her widowed stepfather (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the town's police commissioner.

In Rear-Window style, Henry observes the house next door and learns that Norris' Glenn Sickleman is abusing his stepdaughter. Henry documents his findings in a diary of sorts, the book that gives the film its title. He also authors a plan to halt the abuse.

Working from a screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz, Trevorrow fails to wring much emotion out of the story's soap-operatic elements. As a thriller, the movie comes across as absurdly twisted. Worst of all, it short-changes issues that deserve serious exploration.

Enough said.

A Kaiser in exile and a fraught love story

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicated his throne in 1918, retreating to the Netherlands, where he lived in exile for another couple of decades. Adapted from the Kaiser's Last Kiss, a novel by Alan Judd, The Exception looks at the Kaiser's life during the heyday of the Third Reich, which the Kaiser evidently hated for its boorishness. A brilliant Christopher Plummer plays the Kaiser as a character reminiscent of a Tolstoy creation, an intelligent but mildly deluded ruler who never has accepted his fall from power. The story kicks off when the Nazis assign a German captain (Jai Courtney) to watch over the Kaiser and keep an eye out for spies. Courtney's Capt. Brandt evidently has been banished himself; he's on a punishment assignment for having gotten crosswise with the SS during a stint in Poland. The Kaiser surrounds himself with a small coterie of loyalists that includes a military aide (Ben Daniels) and the empress, a fine Janet McTeer. The story of a rueful monarch in exile is muddied by Capt. Brandt's infatuation with one of the kaiser's servants (Lily James). Director David Levaux focuses much of the movie on the relationship between the captain and the servant girl, a young woman who happens to be Jewish. Questions about the meaning of loyalty arise for the smitten Capt. Brandt, but the movie's emphasis on romance costs it some hard-edged credibility. Eddie Marsan appears briefly as Heinrich Himmler.

Two strange families, one bizarre movie

French director Bruno Dumont tries his hand at comedy, but Slack Bay is no ordinary laugh machine.

It's not easy to write a capsule description for a movie that includes cannibalism, serial killing, gender confusion, slapstick, romance, incest and what may be one of the most unusual jobs ever depicted on screen, carrying people across the shallows of a marshy bay. I'm not talking about a boat trip, but about a father/son team that literally picks people up and carries them across the water in their arms.

Directed by Bruno Dumont, Slack Bay takes us to the craggy coastal area of northern France in 1910. There, we meet two very strange families, the Van Peteghems (clueless and well-to-do) and the Bruforts (poor and mean-spirited).

The Van Peteghems live in a strange, fortress of a house overlooking the bay. The Van Peteghems embody all the pretensions of the supercilious upper classes. They are summer residents of the area. The Bruforts reside year-round on the poor side of town, hauling mussels from the sea and occasionally murdering an unsuspecting tourist by using an oar as a club.

The Bruforts are a sullen lot, and they make full use of their victims, chopping their bodies into small parts and munching on what might be called human tartare. Anyone for a foot? Perhaps a big toe?

As people disappear, two detectives roam the beach trying to determine what happened to those who have vanished. One is a corpulent man (Didier Despres) who wears a bowler and makes squishing sounds when he moves. His frequent falls usually result in a roll down one of the sand dunes that dot the beach. An assistant (Cyril Rigaux) accompanies his parade-float of a boss everywhere.

One of the charms, if that's the right word, of Dumont's movie is that the characters never seem to mesh. They are, in their way, a collection of lunatics, particularly the wealthy family, which is lead by a hunchback (Fabrice Luchini) who seems to have no control over his arm movements and whose mouth seems to have settled into a permanent droop. Luchini's Andre moves with the jangled grace of a swan in the midst of a seizure.

He has arrived at the seaside with his wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Later, he's visited by his sister (Juliette Binoche). Binoche's character is less a human than a walking aria of self-dramatizing gestures.

The Van Peteghems live in a building they have named the Tymphonium, a structure modeled on their view of ancient Egyptian architecture.

At various times, the Van Peteghems are visited by the brother of Tedeschi's character. Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent) seems to be mentally challenged, but not enough to play the role of holy fool.

Meanwhile, the poor side of town is represented by a patriarch (Thierry Lavieville) who calls himself the Eternal and his oldest son, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville). Ma Loute has the defiant look of a confirmed outsider.

Add to this mix a girl who dresses like a boy but who may actually be a boy, played by an actor identified only as Raph. Raph's androgynous Billie immediately is attracted to Ma Loute. She/he is thunderstruck and so is Ma Loute.

Little in this oddball world jells, but Dumont's mixture proves funny, strange and confounding, and each of the movie's mood is enhanced by the beautiful, often painterly compositions of cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines.

Dumont mostly has made serious films (Humanite and Twentnine Palms). Though dubbed a comedy, Slack Beach has a serious substrata. Issues about class rivalry and human folly underlie the movie's bizarre whimsy. Dumont has concocted a world that exists in its own bubble-like sphere, refusing to be grounded by the confines of known realities or by customary moral proprieties. His movie is all the better for it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

'The Mummy' vanquishes Tom Cruise

A muddled helping of horror? Campy fun? Or ... maybe it's just another summer dud.

In a better world, The Mummy would be wrapped in linens, placed in a sarcophagus and buried in an obscure location where it would be unable to knock on thousands of multiplex doors.

Even with Universal's history with mummy movies, something the studio revisited with several Brendan Fraser efforts, this edition never becomes a fitting member of the comic book/fantasy universe that dominates so much of the movie landscape.

Trace elements from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Night of the Living Dead, the customary booming effects and a lead performance from Tom Cruise aren't enough to elevate a badly muddled effort. The Mummy hits screens having been embalmed of logic with a story that begins by linking the Crusades to ancient Egypt.

In some of its scenes, The Mummy travels to London to unleash torrents of mayhem, prompting thoughts about how that recently battered city deserved a better break.

Cruise plays a soldier who seems to use his time in Iraq as an excuse to steal antiquities. During a burst of heavy fighting, Cruise's Nick Morton and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover a tomb that contains the mummy of evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

An Egyptologist (Annabelle Wallis) who happens to be wandering around Iraq immediately recognizes the importance of the find, and the mummy is carted away to Britain.

Asking whether the 5,000-year-old Ahmanet will spring to life is like wondering whether temperatures in the desert are prone to rising at midday. You shouldn't have to ask.

Six credited writers are unable to make sense or add much winking humor to a movie that doesn't seem to understand that its only pathway to success involves an indulgence in camp.

And forget about horror. The Mummy is no more scary than the average amusement park fun house.

Now in the midst of all this, we learn that everything involving the mummy is being orchestrated by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Crowe's Jekyll, who takes injections to keep his Hyde side at bay, arrives in the movie like a visitor from another planet -- or at least another movie and his doesn't look as if it could be any better than the one we're watching.

The movie's best creative touch: The risen mummy has four eyeballs, which -- perhaps -- means that mummies don't need special glasses to watch 3D movies like ... well ... The Mummy.

I can't say that I've loved every movie that Tom Cruise has made, but I've never seen him give a performance quite this unconvincing. Perhaps Cruise was trying to be funny or perhaps he, like the movie, couldn't find the right tone for a story that tries to present Ahmanet as a seductress for the dark side. She inhabits Nick's mind, causes him to have visions and makes him seem as addled as the movie itself.

Whatever prompted Cruise's performance, a murky script makes The Mummy his mission impossible for the summer of 2017. Do I need to ask you to pardon the pun?

Director Alex Kurtzman serves up plenty of mediocre action as he staggers to a conclusion that suggests that sequels loom, as well as other movies from what Universal is calling its Dark Universe series, films based on rights the company owns. Maybe Universal's other monsters will fare better.

As for The Mummy, the only appropriate conclusion might be: Let the dead continue to slumber. Please.

A family fights for survival

It Comes at Night serves up a slice of narrowly focused, end-of-the-world horror -- minus a ton of gore.

Sometimes a movie benefits from a willingness not to be specific about something that, on its face, seems of paramount importance.

Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) bravely refuses to define the threat that endangers his characters in It Comes at Night. That bit of restraint determines almost everything else about his movie -- both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.

All we know is that something unseen and mysterious has caused people to contract a highly contagious disease that inflicts terrible suffering and always proves fatal.

Faced with this mass contagion, Dad (Joel Edgerton), Mom (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have withdrawn to an isolated cabin in a woods. They've sealed their home which features a corridor leading to a red door, the only way in or out.

Set in the midst of what appears to be an end-of-the-world scenario, It Comes at Night makes wise use of its limitations, focusing on how people respond to a situation that's fraught with fear and peril.

The family does its best to protect itself from danger. When family members leave their cabin, gas masks give them an ominous, alien look. Inside, they try to keep their environment as impenetrable as possible.

Early on, the family confronts an intruder (Christopher Abbott). As it turns out, Abbott's character also has a family. He offers to share food in return for shelter and water. After plenty of initial doubts, Edgerton's Paul agrees to join forces with a new family, which also includes a wife (Riley Keough) and a child (Griffin Robert Faulkner). None of them has yet to contract the sickness.

Harrison gives the film's best performance, ably reflecting the disoriented quality that accompanies what seems to have been the family's sudden retreat from everyday life, as well as the gloomy acknowledgment that the future must be bleak.

It doesn't help that Travis also is haunted by what he sees in the movie's opening scene, the mercy killing of the family's grandfather (David Pendelton), an early victim of the unidentified "sickness," a malady that causes those who suffer to breathe unevenly and break out in festering sores.

For all its virtues, It Comes at Night also makes us realize that this kind of concentrated, hot-house approach to filmmaking can hamper the way characters are deepened or a film's themes are enriched.

Still, most of the performances click. Behind a thick beard, Edgerton does pared-down work in his second interracial relationship movie since Loving, and Abbott conveys an understanding of the harrowing difficulties involved in negotiating an impossible situation. The script shortchanges Ejogo, as well as any potential racial issues.

If there's real horror here, it has less to do with jolts and gore than with the realization that under extreme conditions, mistrust can become an essential, if double-edged, survival tool. That's a truly scary idea -- and one that seems to fit the precarious moment in which we currently find ourselves.

A decent man faces a crushing system

I, Daniel Blake , director Ken Loach's latest issue-oriented movie, deftly makes its point..

Among filmmakers, British director Ken Loach remains unique in his steadfast commitment to socially relevant film-making. For half a century, Loach, who's now 80, has directed films about the kinds of marginalized people who seldom find their way to the screen.

In I, Daniel Blake, Loach continues to focus on the tribulations of people struggling with forces beyond their control -- in this case, issues involving failing health and diminished opportunities to earn a living.

Daniel Blake, the movie's main character, works as a carpenter until a heart attack keeps him from seeking employment. Much of the movie involves Daniel's efforts to obtain support from the state.

Loach chronicles Daniel's frustrating dealings with social services personnel and with the Internet, a common enough bit of technology about which he knows little. Misguided social workers keep telling him to go on-line to fill out forms.

At one point, a clueless government employee orders Daniel to produce a resume, a meaningless task for someone who knows how to demonstrate his skills only by doing what he's done for all of his adult life; i.e., building things.

Loach makes Daniel (Dave Johns) a sympathetic figure, a decent man who's sensitive to the plight of others. Daniel befriends a young woman (Hayley Squires) he meets at a welfare office. Daniel uses his meager resources to help buy food for her kids. He also repairs her rundown apartment. He's helping, but he's also affirming something that he badly needs: to feel useful.

Guided by his commitment to realism, Loach resists adding the kind of uplift that might be found in a less sobering film, which is not to say that Loach wallows in thick neorealist mud. Daniel can feel desperate, but the film does not.

Besides being a clear-eyed statement about the failures of institutions designed to help people such as Daniel, we also find Loach's love of ordinary people and his abiding empathy for their daily struggles. That shouldn't be an extraordinary accomplishment, but sadly not many filmmakers are as skilled as Loach in putting such struggles at the center of their movies.

A Marine bonds with her dog

On screen, the real-life story of Megan Leavey proves deeply affecting.

Megan Leavey can be categorized as a story about a woman and her beloved dog -- only with a major difference. The woman is Megan Leavey, a Marine and the dog is Rex, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd trained to perform in combat. The relationship between this young woman and the dog she trains saves them both.

We first meet Leavey (Kate Mara) as a disaffected young woman living in upstate New York with her hectoring mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) Leavey's life isn't going well. Her best friend died from a drug overdose. She's directionless.

Absent any other plan and facing increasing desperation, Leavey joins the Marine Corps, where she winds up working with a K9 unit -- first as punishment and later as a committed choice.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) takes us through Leavey's basic training and also introduces us to the world of military dog training. She then travels with Leavey and Rex to Iraq and deals with what happens to them after both are injured by an IED.

Scenes in Iraq have plenty of tension, but offer freshness because they focus on something we haven't much seen in movies, a woman working in a dangerous combat zone.

In Iraq, Leavey also forges a friendship with a fellow trainer, an appealing Ramon Rodriguez, who later becomes a love interest for Leavey, a plot thread that feels a bit superfluous.

Common has a nice turn as Gunny Martin, the Marine in charge of the dog-training unit in the US.

Cowperthwaite loads up on subject matter: She deals with combat and post-combat stress, as well as with the growing bond between trainer and dog.

The movie makes no attempt to raise political issues, although it tries to present a realistic portrait of life in the military and of Leavey's post-war struggles.

Mara brings vulnerability and toughness to the role, but the movie isn't without false notes.

Leavey, who ran into trouble when she tried to adopt Rex (played in the movie by a dog named Varco), sought help rom New York Senator Chuck Schumer. It would have been better not to show Schumer than to have him portrayed -- even briefly -- by an actor (Andrew Masset) who looks nothing like him. Moreover, each of the movie's several acts could have benefited from some trimming.

Still, the relationship between trainer and dog proves moving. The story of Leavey and Rex gets to you -- at least, it did to me.

Megan Leavey may not be the deepest movie you'll see this year, but it definitely shows that animals can play a major role in making people more human.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A cartoonist struggles with grief

Comedian Demetri Martin plays a New York-based cartoonist who makes a trip to LA in the new movie, Dean. Martin also directed this slender tale about a young man who's having difficulty coping with the recent loss of his mother. Martin mostly focuses on Dean, an illustrator whose journey to LA is prompted by a job offer from a "hot" new ad agency. Dean's bullshit meter is far too sensitive to fall for a ton of LA optimism, but he decides to hang around LA with his pal Eric (Rory Scovel). Dean soon meets an appealing young woman (Gillian Jacobs). He's smitten. Meanwhile, Dean's father (Kevin Kline) also attempts to put his life back together. In scenes that parallel what's happening in LA, Dean's New York father begins dating the real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen) he hires to sell the family home. Neither Kline's character nor Martin's Dean handles loss particularly well, but Dad seems to be doing a better job of it. He's more honest about his inability to move on. Martin shows us some of Dean's work, simple stick-figure drawings that are ... well ... simple stick-figure drawings. Mildly amusing and nicely acted by the supporting players, Dean nonetheless doesn't feel like a big-screen breakthrough for Martin, who doesn't dig deeply enough into the movie's most interesting element: undigested grief.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It wasn't Churchill's finest hour

Brian Cox excels but Churchill falters.
Brian Cox excels in Churchill, a movie that reduces a large historical figure to an egotistical, guilt-ridden older man who believes plans for the D-Day landing of 1944 are entirely misguided and will result in needless death.

As characterized in this truncated character study, Churchill resists ceding leadership to Allied military commanders -- notably Eisenhower and Montgomery -- who planned the Normandy invasion that ultimately brought the war in Europe to a close.

An aging Churchill refuses to accept a role as Britain's principal figurehead, a once towering leader whose main function involves buoying the spirit of war-weary Britain.

In this version, Churchill drinks too much, treats subordinates cruelly and refuses to listen to his devoted but pragmatically oriented wife (Amanda Richardson). She realizes that Churchill is past his prime.

For his part, Churchill worries that the landing at Normandy will mirror World War I events at Gallipoli in which some 56,000 soldiers died and for which Churchill felt a personal responsibility. He had helped engineer what became a disastrous mission.

Mad Men's John Slattery portrays Eisenhower, Julian Wadham appears as Montgomery, and James Purefoy has a touching moment as King George VI, who's called upon to back Churchill down from a plan to be present during the invasion.

The movie probably would have benefited from a little more ambition and a lot more scope -- and that goes for the way the movie approaches Churchill, as well.

As it stands, director Jonathan Teplitzky has made a minor entry into the cinematic literature of the war. It's a bit like having only one chapter of what should have been a multi-volume endeavor.

An artist vs a crushing bureaucracy

The last film from a revered Polish director.

Afterimage is the final film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died in October of last year. In this final cinematic outing, Wajda returns to the period of Soviet oppression in Poland by focusing on the declining years of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski, a painter who lost and arm and a leg during World War I, continued to work and teach until the government made his life impossible.

Strzeminski supported socialist revolution, but eventually found himself at odds with apparatchiks in the Polish bureaucracy. Influenced by Moscow, Polish Communists insisted that art adhere to the principals of Soviet Realism. Strzeminski was too much of an individualist to follow any such propagandistic model.

We meet Strzeminski, played by Boguslaw Linda, at a time when he is estranged from his wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. He receives help from his 12-year-old daughter (Bronislawa Zamachowska), a girl who doesn't entirely know what to make of a father who barely looks up from his work when she arrives at his apartment with food.

For his part, Strzeminski believes that every artist must express and defend a unique vision. We don't see much of Strzeminski's vibrantly colored work, but Linda's performance fully captures Strzeminski's devotion to art and to his students while also chronicling the increasing desperation faced by an artist who is having the life choked out of him.

At one point, an art supply store refuses to sell Strzeminski paint because he lacks the proper, government-approved credential. He's forced into a series of demeaning jobs, including painting oversized posters of Stalin. If all that weren't enough torment, Strezeminski contracts a fatal case of tuberculosis.

American audiences may not know much about Strzeminski's art, but Wajda seems less interested in celebrating the artist's work than in focusing on the torments that were inflicted on artists who refused to allow their work to become a tool of the state.

Strzeminski is offered many opportunities to sell-out and make his life easier. But even when he's close to starvation, he won't submit.

That's the film in a nutshell, and it underscores Wajda's lifelong commitment to showing what it means to go against party lines. As such, Afterimage becomes a fitting capstone to a remarkable career that spanned from the 1950s into the 21st Century.*

*If you're interested in revisiting Wajda's films, you may wish to seek out Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1978), Man of Iron (1981) and Danton (1983).

David Lynch at work in his studio

You could devote a considerable part of a lifetime trying to understand David Lynch, the artist and director whose cinematic creations include Eraser Head, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Lynch's movies are known for their alluring beauty, alarming images, and cryptic layers that seem to seep from Lynch's unfiltered subconscious. The new documentary -- David Lynch: An Art Life -- may not answer every question you might raise about Lynch, who's now 71. But the movie shows how Lynch spends much of his time in Los Angeles. Shot mostly in Lynch's studio, the film finds Lynch at work on various paintings while he talks about his life in revealing chunks selected from interviews conducted by the filmmakers. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm offer glimpses of Lynch's work, supplementing views of art with personal material from the Lynch family album. So if you want to watch Lynch smoke cigarettes, apply paint and affix various substances to canvases, this might be your only chance. And, of course, everything the directors show is set against Lynch's homespun affect, which -- despite his constant cigarette smoking -- has a small-town quality that seems instantly at odds with the images that spring from his mind. At times, you'll think that you understand the origin of this or that theme or even a specific image from Lynch's film work. But The Art Life spends relatively little time on Lynch's filmography, opting instead for the quiet of a cluttered studio. In a review of a 2014 Philadelphia show of Lynch's paintings, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson posed a relevant question. Is Lynch's work on canvas as compelling as his work in film. Johnson voted "no," and I'm inclined to agree, although Lynch himself makes no claims to any special status in the art world. Still, the documentary's title and its views of Lynch at work suggest the kind of absorption in the moment of creation that might just define Lynch's deepest pleasure and his keenest aspiration.