Thursday, July 27, 2017

Charlize Theron, kicker of butts

Atomic Blonde has style to spare, but wears itself out.

What's the most damning thing you can say about a movie? That its actors don't behave credibly. That it has been miscast? That its plot wobbles? That its dialogue sounds lame and wooden? That it displays too little visual imagination?

All of those are unfortunate missteps, but only one of them (the one about a story made overly complex by a needlessly fragmented narrative) applies to Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron's plunge into the world of movies based on graphic novels.

The damning sum total of the movie's plot intricacies and icy stylizations, at least for me, is that I didn't much care about the outcome of a story set in Berlin in 1989, a time when the wall separating East and West Germany is about to topple and spies on both sides are beginning to wonder about their role in a post-Cold War world.

This sounds like John Le Carre territory, but Atomic Blonde, which springs from a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and has been directed by David Leitch, wallows in attitude and style in ways that create little by way of emotional involvement.

For all its hyper activity, the movie often feels exhausted, perhaps because it taps into an already mined thematic vein in which old antagonisms are evaporating like morning mist exposed to new sun.

Theron's performance as the self-possessed Lorraine Broughton embodies nearly everything you need to know about Atomic Blonde. A cooly efficient MI-6 agent, Lorraine arrives in Berlin to obtain a list of western spies a wannabe Stasi defector (Eddie Marsan) has offered to sell before it reaches Soviet hands.

Ably demonstrating her mastery of martial arts choreography (think Hong Kong movies of a couple of decades back), Theron plays a spy so cool she takes ice baths. Lorraine's blonde hair frames the countenance of a character who has been trained to turn her face into a mask. It's possible that Lorraine has worn her spy mask so long, it has become real.

Lorraine is bruised and bloodied by fights, but the bruises feel like physical post-it notes, self-conscious attempts to add realism to an overall atmosphere rich in faux trappings. Watch out for Lorraine's high heels.

Lorraine is asked to work with another British agent, James McAvoy's Percival. Percival, who has plied his trade in Berlin for some time, claims to know everything about this increasingly corrupted environment.

With his hair cut short, McAvoy offers plenty of scenery-chewing mania, but a framing device adds to the feeling of a mishmash unified only by style and attitude. Intermittent breaks in the action arrive when Lorraine is debriefed by an MI-6 desk jockey (a dyspeptic-looking Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (a bearded John Goodman).

Sofia Boutella portrays a French spy who has a sexual encounter with Theron's character. Does it mean anything? Or is it just a way for the filmmakers to add an LGBT twist to a story that wants to be hip, which -- in this case -- requires a bit of prurient seasoning?

Protracted and built around the grunting exhaustion of the protagonist and her enemies, a late-picture fight scene packs some wallop, as does a car chase in which the crunch of colliding metal smashes against your ear drums. Moreover, the movie's opening scenes are cool enough to feel like exercising without breaking a sweat.

But for all Theron's punches, kicks and icy stares, the movie's flirtation with ideas remains unconsummated. Besides, how many stylistic trump cards can one movie play before you start wondering whether it has anything else in its deck? For me, so many that I eventually stopped caring what Atomic Blonde might deal next.

'Endless Poetry' is aptly named

An inventive filmmaker immerses himself in a wild version of his own life.
An 88-year-old poet of cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky is best known for 1970's El Topo and for 1973's The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky also became the subject of Jodorowsky's Dune, a 2013 documentary about the filmmaker's difficult and ultimately failed attempt to turn a popular piece of science fiction into a movie. (David Lynch wound up directing a big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel.)

In 2013's The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky began to tell the story of his life, focusing on his early days in Tocopilla, Chile, where he grew up under the thumb of a tyrannical father who had become obsessed with Joseph Stalin.

Jodorowsky's latest -- Endless Poetry -- continues the director's autobiographical journey with Jodorowsky revealing the ways in which he left his childhood behind and began to emerge as an artist.

For most of the movie, Jodorowsky is portrayed by his youngest son, Adan, who comes across as a poet, a clown (literally), a dancer and a comedian.

The filmmaker -- who also appears in the film -- builds a variety of episodes around the relationships young Jodorowsky forms with artistically oriented Chileans who provide him with a community that confirms and encourages his Bohemian dreams.

During this period, Jodorowsky has a defining encounter with Stella (Pamela Flores), a woman from whom he ultimately must seek liberation. When Stella and Jodorowsky walk down the street, she holds him by the genitals, an amusingly literal embodiment of their one-sided relationship. Flores, by the way, also portrays Jodorowsky's mother, who sings all of her dialogue.

Feel free to interpret this bit of dual casting any way you like.

The movie's main tension involves Jodorowsky and his father, portrayed by Brontis Jodorowsky, another of the director's sons. Father/son tension ripples throughout the movie even when Dad is off-screen and seems forgotten.

Narcissistic, full of wild theatrical flourishes and nudity, Endless Poetry serves as a kind of abstract memory trip that lives in its own eclectically assembled world.

Endless Poetry isn't for every taste, but those who give it a try will find a celebration of imagination from a director whose sense of invention seems unchecked either by censorial impulse or personal inhibition.

Man and beast on the road in Thailand

Director Kirsten Tan makes his debut with Pop Aye, a film about a man whose mid-life crisis brings him into contact with an elephant he believes he knew in his youth. Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is going through a bad patch, highlighted by the imminent destruction of his signature work as an architect, a shopping mall that he hoped would be a place for families to experience relief from the pressures of daily life. Thana buys Pop Aye, the elephant in question, on a Bangkok street, vowing to return the animal to the country town where both Thana and the animal grew up. This turns Pop Aye into a Thai road movie, as Thana and Pop Aye make their way to the home of Thana's uncle (Narong Pongpag), the man who presumably will take care of the aging elephant. Getting Pop Aye back to nature gives Thana purpose in a life that seems to be shrinking by the minute. Along the way, Thana encounters a variety of characters including Dee, a man who claims to want to die so that he can join his brother in heaven. Jenny, a transgender woman Thana encounters in a bar, offers assistance. Like the lumbering elephant, Pop Aye can be awkward at times, but the movie genially conveys the power of a restorative link between a depressed man and his new best friend.

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 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.