Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: "13 Minutes

Review: "Atomic Blonde"

Look, I see a daggone lot of movies -- 200 a year, I reckon -- so it’s pretty hard to impress me. I’m the guy who yawns at a 20-second piece of CGI that cost $5 million and took a team of computer animators six months to create. But there were parts of “Atomic Blonde” where I had to scoop my jaw off the sticky floor of the theater.

Essentially the first imitator in the “John Wick” mold, this spy action/thriller combines unbelievable kick-butt stunt sequences with a whole lot of intrigue and double crosses. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 agent sent into the rat’s nest of Berlin on the eve of the Wall coming down in 1989.

The plot is a largely forgettable dance through the usual spy movie tropes: enemies, allies, those lying somewhere in between, all sides playing the long game of leverage, with the threat of a double agent and a MacGuffin-esque “list” that could bring the whole order tumbling down.

What sets “Blonde” apart are the in-your-face stunts. Director David Leitch is a rookie behind the camera but a veteran stunt coordinator -- much the same as "Wick" -- and he shows an audacious verve that kicks the usual hand-to-hand combat scenes to the next level.

The high point is a sequence on a flight of stairs that segues from one group of opponents to the next, with the camera following Broughton every step of the way. She gets thrown down a flight, the camera tumbles right along with her. And Leitch uses minimal cutting, so we get to see the whole thing play out from beginning to end, as the combatants grow battered and exhausted.

Theron proves an able physical presence, completely believable as someone who could take on her all-male gallery of adversaries. She also brings subtle acting chops to the connective scenes, lending Broughton a haunted quality -- a deceiver and killer who flings herself into the life she’s chosen, but doesn’t enjoy it.

James McAvoy plays David Percival, a fellow Brit agent who acts as her sneering host, helper and foil. He’s been stationed in East Berlin for a decade, carving out an identity as a black market dealer in Western goods and information. Percival knows everyone, has all the angles covered, is familiar with the back ways and hidden passages. What’s unclear is where his true loyalties lie.

Based on the graphic novel, “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300”) is long on too-cool mood and punk imagery. What people say isn’t nearly as important as how and why they are saying it.

It seems a Soviet intelligence agent code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) is ready to defect, and is dangling a list that contains the identities of every known spy of every nationality. Everyone is desperate to get their hands on it, so the orders are “trust no one.”

Sofia Boutella plays a mysterious French woman tagging along everywhere, whose importance will grow. Roland Møller is Bremovych, the local Russian chief, who has hands in every pot. Bill Skarsgård plays a helpful young proto-computer geek, and Daniel Bernhardt is memorable as a local tough who goes toe-to-toe with our heroine in a couple of brutal blond vs. blonde matchups.

The film is told through the framing device of a debriefing interview back in West Berlin, where Broughton has turned up beaten to a pulp, her mission failed. Toby Jones and John Goodman play English and American spooks, respectively, giving her the business and trying to interrogate some straight answers out of her.

Theron works the poker face, letting her mask slip but once.

Sexy, smart and seriously high-energy, “Atomic Blonde” is like James Bond mixed up with steampunk fantasy and a heavy dollop of feminism. John Wick, meet your match.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: "A Ghost Story"

A few years back writer/director David Lowery made the expressive, offbeat “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a star-crossed couple whose story is pulled along more by imagery and music than a conventional narrative.

Now the trio has reteamed for another film that pushes the boundaries of the cinematic experience even further, and with keener effect.

“A Ghost Story” may sound superficially like “Ghost,” in which Patrick Swayze famously played a dead man whose spirit lingered long enough to watch over his beloved. Similarly, the Affleck character (nobody’s ever named) stays in his old house after his death, watching his girlfriend (Mara) as she mourns and, eventually, moves on.

Thematically, though, the films couldn’t be wider apart.

Affleck is represented entirely in his afterlife like a cheap Halloween ghost: literally, just a voluminous white sheet with two ragged eyeholes cut out. At first off-putting or even slightly comic, the look soon becomes a totemic representation for a soul who has always been wandering, even as it refuses to leave its chosen domain.

The ghost mostly just stands around, observing the doings of the living with an air of pained regret. It also walks about seemingly normally -- people amble by unawares, rather than passing through an immaterial figure.

For him, time flows with great irregularity, a turn of the head resulting in days or even weeks passing in the living world. We get the sense of a guest stranded in a vast museum, who becomes enraptured with small details and doesn’t notice when the doors open and close.

We see glimpses of their life before, as she urges them to move out of their decaying rural home to someplace nicer in the city, but he resists with a form of passive obstinacy. Later, the ghost has further encounters with others, about which I’ll say no more, other than these do not conform to a strict temporal progression.

Shot mostly in a single derelict house for a reported budget of $100,000 -- or about how much they spend on one week’s worth of catering on a superhero flick -- “A Ghost Story” is an indescribably eerie, affecting experience.

It is very deliberately paced, with Lowery holding his camera for long unmoving takes and unspoken pauses. For instance, there is one scene that goes for probably five minutes, consisting entirely of Mara wolfing down a giant pie.

And yet, rather than becoming boring, time flew. I was astonished when the closing credits came up; I had assumed we were only 30 or 40 minutes into the movie.

Once again Lowery teams up with musical composer Daniel Hart, whose blend of melodies and atonal sounds adds immeasurably to the moody mixture. There are portions of the score that sound like just random clangs and effects, other parts with the grand air of church music, and even an eerie art-pop song sung by Affleck’s character, a musician in life.

It’s hard to judge Affleck’s performance using a traditional ruler -- after all, some might say, all he does is literally stand around with a sheet over his head. Mara and other actors -- notably Sonia Acevedo and Will Oldham -- project an unfailing naturalistic quality; we never catch them performing for the camera.

I’m quite sure “A Ghost Story” is not everyone’s bag. Many will find it dull or maybe self-indulgent. But for those with patience and curiosity, here is a truly audacious take on the hereafter that makes us desperately cling to the now.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Video review: "Gifted"

A small film with some huge names attached to it, “Gifted” is a tender little drama about an extended family fighting over the fate of a 7-year-old girl genius. Directed by Marc Webb, best known for the previous two Spider-Man movies, it’s a touch formulaic but well-acted and earnest.

Chris Evans plays Frank, uncle to the girl, Mary (Mckenna Grace), whose mother took her own life some years ago. Now she lives with Frank in a grubby community of rental homes in a part of Florida where the tourists don’t flock. He fixes boat engines for a living, but has his own past that we’ll find out more about down the line.

Octavia Spencer is Roberta, friend a maternal figure to Mary, and Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) plays Frank’s mother, Mary’s grandmother. She pops up about halfway through the movie to sue him for custody of the girl.

Grandma wants to take Mary to a very specialized educational facility where she can work on big-brain mathematical problems – in particular, one her mother failed to solve. It’s clear Evelyn sees her granddaughter as less a child to nurture than a source of greatness that has gone untapped.

Frank would prefer that Mary stay in a regular school to gain better emotional intelligence and just be a kid. But the movie (screenplay by Tom Flynn) acknowledges that there are flaws in his line of thinking, too. Mary’s own teacher (Jenny Slate) is among those who thinks the girl would be better served in a special setting, even as she tries to resist her own attraction to Frank.

With a little bit each of family melodrama, courtroom intrigue and character study, “Gifted” is a simple movie about some large issues. It may not be the smartest or most original movie around, but it never hits a false moment or fails to engage the heart.

Bonus features are adequate, and are identical for the DVD and Blu-ray editions. These include five deleted scenes, a production gallery of still photos and location footage. There are also five making-of featurettes: “Gifted: A First Look,” “Story,” “An Accomplished Cast,” “Inside the Equation” and “Marc’s Method.”



Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: "Maudie"

With every one of Sally Hawkins' endearing, deeply etched film roles, we fall a little bit more in love with her.

Hawkins' performance as Maud Lewis is essentially a portrait of pure love. Maud was a woman from Nova Scotia who was racked by crippling rheumatoid arthritis from childhood. She spent most of her life in a tiny shack without electricity or running water, living in abject poverty with her husband, Everett, a fish peddler who was gruff and ornery on his best days, a much worse on his worst.

Despite this, Maud became a renowned artist whose work was collected far and wide. Her paintings were bright, bold sweeps of unmixed colors, flowers or other nature scenes. She painted on almost everything: cards, pieces of scrap wood, virtually every single surface of their cottage. Today Maud's entire house is a work of art enshrined inside a museum.

Directed by Aisling Walsh from a screenplay by Sherry White, "Maudie" focuses not on the tiny, disabled body but the titanic soul contained within it. Hawkins portrays Maud's disease without fetishizing it, a slightly crooked, awkward woman who becomes more bent and bowed with the passing of years, her little hop of a limp turning into a tremulous stagger.

But that's not what the movie is about. Indeed, I don't think the word "arthritis" is even spoken aloud until near the end.

Like nearly all of Hawkins' other roles, even the most tragic of circumstances cannot bury her character's joyful essence. Maud smiles and twinkles, even when she is ignored or treated ill, always finding a way to carry on and hope for better.

Among those failing to give Maud her due are her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett). They view Maud as a naive invalid, someone to be looked after and kept inside tight bookends of their own proscription. After Charles sells the family home to fund his business schemes, Maud is forced to live with Ida, under her strict rules -- a kept woman with no lover.

Certainly, Maud is not very smart in the traditional sense. She's a simple woman of simple tastes and desires. She wanders down to the local club to have a beer and do a little dance by herself, which Ida finds scandalous.

Then Maud spies a disheveled man coming into the local five-and-dime store to advertise for a housemaid. The man is obviously simple-minded, prone to outbursts of anger, and fiercely independent. Despite this, Maud answers the ad, seeing an opportunity to move out of Ida's place and have a piece of life that is her own.

The advertisement is for a live-in position, despite the fact the man's shack would qualify as what we today call a "tiny home," with a single walk-up loft bed. It soon becomes apparent that what the man was really advertising for was a wife to look after him.

We hear Everett before we see him, and it's hard to believe that sound could come out of Ethan Hawke. Low and guttural like a pair of stones being ground together, Everett's voice is that of a man not used to speaking, because he does not have much to say.

Everett is very particular about how things are done. He believes his home is his castle, and he the unquestioned lord. Everett is at once a very proud man and one who believes that everyone looks down upon him. Possibly there are undiagnosed mental health issues.

The arrangement causes a minor scandal in their little town -- "shacking up together" is tossed around. Maud doesn't really mind, and part of her is happy to be noticed at all, or spoken about in a romantic context.

The relationship, such as it is, gets off to a rocky start. There are outbursts, controlling behavior, even some physical violence. Everyone expects Maud to crawl back to Aunt Ida's. But she stays, the wavelength and intensity of Everett's rages become wider and smaller, and they settle into something like a routine, which finally becomes a marriage almost by default.

There's not much house to clean, so Maud passes the time painting little flowers here and there to brighten up the place. One of Everett's fish customers, a sophisticated woman from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett), notices one of Maud's doodles and offers 25 cents for it.

Soon others buy them, painting becomes a regular source of income, and eventually people from all over stop by the little house to purchase a Maud Lewis original. Newspaper reporters and TV camera crews come calling.

Everett begrudgingly takes over the chores so Maud can have more time to paint -- which is as close to an overt expression of love a man like him can utter.

In its own plain way, "Maudie" is an incredibly beautiful movie. The photography by Guy Godfree has an unornamented charm, and the sweet strings of Michael Timmins' musical score sing a lullaby of humble passion.

Walks are used as a visual representation of Maud and Everett's evolving relationship. At first she walks behind him while he pushes his cart of goods about town; later they walk together, then she sits in the front of the cart facing away from him, and finally she rides nose-to-nose with her husband.

I think these are among the finest performances of both Hawkins' and Hawke's careers -- and that's saying something. Theirs is a duet of troubled love, expressing how two people with fierce challenges and emotional limitations can find contentment and a sense of permanency together. Both should remembered come time for Academy Award nominations.

"Maudie" is a quiet, candid movie that reminds us that beauty is not just found, it often must be made.

Review: "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is a very creative movie, but it's a shallow sort of creativity.

Based on the comics by  Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, "Valerian" is kind of a goofy James Bond-in-space adventure with tons of aliens and CGI. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it makes his "The Fifth Element" look like a hard and gritty drama.

Government agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner and hoped-to-be lover, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), traipse through the galaxy getting into and out of all sorts of scrapes. The plot is barely comprehensible -- not that it's really meant to be -- having to do with a refugee race of aliens, a critter MacGuffin and the prerequisite sneering villain.

The tone is overtly comic book, and the expensive digital imagery ($180 million, I hear tell) has a deliberately cartoony look. I never quite knew how I was supposed to take the movie, or its characters. Certainly, we never feel any kind of connection to them. They're like our avatars in a video game that can't control all that well.

I'm not sure about the casting of the two leads. DeHaan, with his tired eyes and spindly frame, certainly doesn't look the part of an action movie hero. I'm actually OK with that: not every male body we see onscreen needs to have a six-pack and cannonball biceps. DeHaan plays Valerian as a smirking playboy who thinks he's finally found true love in Laureline, and tries to live up to that.

Delevingne brings some kick-ass authority to her role, a duty-bound soldier who's also able to look past the rule book when it doesn't fit circumstances. She continually puts off Valerian's advances, but the way she glances at him when he walks away tell us she secretly wants it to go on.

Things center around Alpha Station, a former Earth orbit platform that grew and grew as humans encountered more alien species and incorporated them into their galactic government. Eventually it got so big its gravitational pull threatened Earth's, so Alpha has traveled millions of miles over the last 400 years, and is home to multitudes.

The creature effects are quite impressive. Some, like those from planet Mül, look like stretched-out humans with translucent skin and no hair. Other aliens resemble the ogres from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, or butterflies, or sea slugs. Some are even liquid or gaseous, contained within space suit for interaction with humanoids, and others are living machines.

Combined with the wonders of Alpha and beyond, there's no denying "Valerian" is a feast for the eyes.

In one neat sequence, we enter a marketplace that exists in another dimension, so visitors don special eyewear to interact with the peddlers. Valerian sticks a laser pistol and his hand into a special gizmo, so he can shoot at bad guys while the rest of him remains phased in safety.

The adventure, though, soon grows tiresome as it seems there are no consequences to be encountered. For every obstacle or enemy, there's some kooky solution involving cool technology or interaction with a bizarre creature.

For instance, when Laureline needs to track down the lost Valerian, she seeks out a jellyfish that she has to, uh... interface with in an interesting way to learn his location. When roles are reversed, Valerian recruits a "glamopod" named Bubble who can transform her appearance. She's played by Rihanna, who does a very sexy and athletic burlesque routine as her introduction.

When she has to do dialogue, though... ugh. Rihanna can certainly perform, but she can't act.

Others rounding out the cast are Herbie Hancock (!) as the intergalactic minister calling the shots, Clive Owen as the local commander with a history, Sam Spruell as his upright number two, and Ethan Hawke as a cowboy pimp.

I had fun for awhile watching "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," but it grows tiresome, like a circus show that runs too long. There's only so much bedazzlement the eye can take in before becoming strained.

We jump from dizzying scene to scene like we're progressing through a role-playing video game, and waiting at the end is a prize we don't really want that badly.

Review: "Dunkirk"

There aren’t any characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” at least not really. It’s not a story of individual men so much as a tale of mankind -- his possibilities for mayhem and potential for nobility. This is a war film with very little fighting, an ode to humanity in which no one man stands too far above the rest.

Nolan recreates the mass evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk in 1940, the lowest point of World War II when it seemed that the Reich truly was on the verge of toppling the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of troops were trapped on the French coastline, surrounded by Germans, desperately trying to make their way across the Chanel despite too few ships to transport them and not enough planes to protect the ones that did manage to disembark.

The individual story threads are fiction, but together they weave themselves into a thundering representation of the heroism, cowardice and sheer terror of those few days. I have no doubt this film will receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and many others.

I was surprised when I learned this movie was one hour and 46 minutes long; I thought for certain I had misread it instead of two hours, 46 minutes. But no, “Dunkirk” is the rare war epic that sprawls in scope but not length. There’s an economy to Nolan’s filmmaking here, harkening back to his breakout with “Memento,” like a middleweight fighter who’s all sinew, packing a powerful punch from a modest frame carrying no fat.

The narrative consists of a handful of storylines that intersect when we least expect it, intercutting between them in an order that is not necessarily chronological. At one point we encounter a man, beaten and hollow-eyed, and are surprised to later see him calm and in command. We can guess what happened to him in between, but we don’t know.

This is a true ensemble acting effort, with no lead performers. Fionn Whitehead comes closest to that designation, playing a private who ends up encountering nearly all the other characters in one way or another. He’s a young private who tries to sneak his way to the head of the evacuation line, and keeps finding himself pushed by circumstance further away from salvation. Like many other characters, we never even hear his name.

Kenneth Branagh is the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, standing like a sentinel against the coming apocalypse. Mark Rylance plays Dawson, a Brit civilian who launches his tiny boat, Moonstone, in a seemingly vain effort to help out, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) tagging along.

Up in the skies, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray RAF fighter pilots chasing the German planes who are hunting those soldiers who have managed to get off the shore in boats. Their fuel is running lower and lower, but they know that every enemy shot down could mean hundreds of lives saved. So they watch their gauge needles, and stay a little longer.

(Though he’s not credited, I’m fairly certain it’s Michael Caine as the voice of their commander over the radio.)

There are no genuine battles in “Dunkirk,” other than some aerial dogfighting. The Allied soldiers hunker on the beach, hoping for a ship, or if they made it onto one, pray they’re not spotted by German planes or U-boats. There is no illusion of winning here, merely a frantic struggle to survive.

The film is a technical marvel, a seamless combination of live action and CGI effects that convince us we’re right in the thick of it. The metal hulls of the Spitfires pop with the stress of sharp banking; the seas go nearly black with oil spilled from ships stoven in by bombs like playthings.

Hans Zimmer’s musical score is a masterpiece of mood without melody. Reminiscent of the old Vangelis scores from the 1980s, the eclectic combination of tones and rhythm soars or sinks as the prospects for survival wane and wax.

In the middle of a summer of popcorn movies and dimwit comedies, “Dunkirk” rises, grim-faced and commanding, to grab our attention.