Saturday, July 29, 2017



You don't watch Dunkirk as much as you witness it.  There is no way Christopher Nolan's film can be called anything less than impressive.  It is a tremendous technical achievement, a film that is staggeringly well put-together.

But as a film, Dunkirk is a little like Titanic if the movie began and ended in the last reel and cut out all the stuff about Jack and Rose.  It's like Star Wars if the Death Star battle went on for two hours and did away with the plot.

In that way, Dunkirk is an apotheosis of big-budget cinema: an important, commercially successful filmmaker has convinced a studio to release a filmmaking experiment, one that does away with conventional notions of storytelling and character development in favor of editing, sound mixing and mise-en-scène.

There are recognizable actors in the film (Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance) but they aren't given the opportunity to blossom into characters.  Tom Hardy spends almost all of his screen time mumbling behind a face mask (a Batman in-joke?), while the younger cast members are interchangeable, as if Nolan intended for the audience to be confused about who's who.

Even dialogue is treated as disposable -- there are long, long scenes in Dunkirk where the characters are speaking but their words are vaguely incomprehensible.  Nolan, perhaps, wanted to extend the you-are-there gut-punch of Dunkirk to these scenes, to place the viewer into the midst of battle so fully that there's constant confusion that is not helped by only occasionally being able to hear what others are saying.

The end result is that Dunkirk is only intermittently engaging as a drama, even while it is almost always fascinating to watch as a piece of filmmaking.  As almost every article about the film makes a point of relating right up front, Dunkirk was shot on 65-millimeter film and in 65-millimeter IMAX by a director who refuses to allow cell phones on his sets, and the very fact that we know those things and they get reported explains quite a bit about the film as a whole: this is, first and foremost, a technical achievement.

Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese built their careers upon crafting jaw-dropping sequences that defined their films -- think of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, the shark attack in Jaws or the shower scene in Psycho.  The indelible marks of those tightly constructed moments resonated through the entire film -- and through entire careers.  Nolan takes that one step further and creates in Dunkirk a full-length sequence.  Every shot matters, every moment is impeccably constructed.

But when the whole film is "the moment," how do you know what the moment means?  Dunkirk begins and ends mid-scene, with little connective tissue.  It has a terrific construct of telling the movie from three different chronological perspectives, but that proves to be as much a technical feat as anything else.  There's really no reason to tell the story this way, except that it is a wonderful trick.

Every moment of Dunkirk is like a tightly wound gear that's ready to spring.  Even Hans Zimmer's score keeps pulsing and pulsing and pulsing but never quite reaching a crescendo: Like the movie itself, it's all just very loud.

The pity of all of that is that buried within the technological marvel of the movie is a stirring and heartbreaking story.  For all it gains in visceral impact (which is a lot), Dunkirk loses in humanity.  Leaving the audience simultaneously exhausted by its relentless intensity and perplexed by its insistence on telling its tale in ways that are neither linear nor conventional, Dunkirk fully engages -- even overwhelms -- the senses, just not the emotions.

Viewed July 29, 2017 -- Chinese Theater


Sunday, July 23, 2017

"War for the Planet of the Apes"


This is not your standard summer blockbuster, even by Planet of the Apes standards.  Fifty years after Franklin J. Schaffner's first classic, but comparatively hokey, movie comes this long, careful blend of action-thriller and neo-Western, an Apes movie that is no longer fun.

Note that I didn't say this Apes movie wasn't good -- it is, very good.  But the little jolt of amusement that has always been part of Planet of the Apes is all but gone.  This is a serious, solemn movie, with stakes about as high as they get: the fate of humanity.

Of course, the "rebooted" Planet of the Apes films have been flirting with that idea from the beginning, especially in the first movie, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which ends with the global spread of a super-virus.  In the second film, that virus has wiped out most of the planet, and the "apes" who were the unwitting source of the disease -- you may recall that they had been exposed to a virus that was used to deliver an experimental drug that magnified their intelligence by astonishing factors -- fought against both man and themselves in a struggle to determine who would rule the world.

This time around, simian leader Caesar -- played once more with ferocious intensity by Andy Serkis -- is in hiding, under constant attack by human soldiers who want to wipe out the apes, who pose a grave existential threat to the remaining homo sapiens.  Human soldiers have become more violent, and among their ranks are "donkeys," apes who, for a multitude of reasons, fight alongside man against Caesar and his super-intelligent ape-soldiers.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens with an extraordinary battle, shot with deliberate precision by director Matt Reeves.  This is a gorgeous movie, overflowing with craftsmanship.  If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second film in this series, seemed more like the plot-weary CGI clash of apes and man that I always feared the series would be, War for the Planet of the Apes wisely course corrects.  The story here is about the apes, who are struggling for their own survival.  (Once again, some of them speak using sign language, and some of them, particularly Caesar, speak with a command of the English language that would impress most native speakers.  It's one of those just-get-over-it leaps of faith the film assumes won't bother you; mostly, it doesn't.)

Just as Caesar and his followers are getting ready to leave their home in the forests of Northern California for a desert to the east, they're brutally attacked by a band of solidiers led by Col. McGullough (Woody Harrelson), who has seen way too many movies about the Vietnam war.  McGullough kills Caesar's wife and son -- and the war turns personal.

It's interesting that in a movie filled with animated characters, the most cartoonish are the humans.  McGullough and his army are the movie's weakest point, and as Caesar, Maurice (an orangutan, whose expressiveness remains one of the series' high points), Luca (a gorilla) and Rocket (a chimpanzee) search for the Colonel it becomes rather astonishing just how much we care about the apes and how meaningless the humans are.

Caesar and his band stumble across two important new characters, a funny and charming chimp named Bad Ape (tremendously well-played by Steve Zahn) and a little girl who the apes name Nova, and whose inability to speak proves to be a major plot point.  Bad Ape knows the soldiers are headed north to the California border, but doesn't know exactly why, and when they arrive Caesar finds that McGullough has captured and enslaved all of Caesar's followers.

The first 90 minutes of War for the Planet of the Apes movies at a brisk pace, and its wintry, High Sierra setting proves unexpectedly alluring, as does a rich and evocative score by Michael Giacchino.  But then War for the Planet of the Apes turns into a bit of a slog as it becomes a POW movie that proves the filmmakers probably watched too many old films when designing this one.  Just as it should be reaching its high point of tension, War for the Planet of the Apes flags.  The scenes between Caesar and McGullough, while well-played, go on far too long, and the climactic conflagration comes too late.

The film's final moments recall the culmination of Battlestar Galactica, another science-fiction story about a battle between humans and a race they created, and lead more or less directly into the 1968 original -- with about 2,000 years to play with.  That means War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the last of the new Apes movies.  In a way, that's a shame.  The film wraps up the saga of Caesar, who was just a baby in the first film and here is the wisest elder of all the apes, and brings the story nicely full circle.

Despite its faults, and its rather bleak view of humans as small-minded, violent and leaning toward fascist tendencies, War for the Planet of the Apes is a good movie -- and a perfect note on which to end its story.

Viewed July 22, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 8, 2017

"The Little Hours"


It takes about ten minutes to read the first story of the third day of Boccaccio's The Decameron, which I know not because I was a mediocre literature major but because I Googled it and read the story after seeing The Little Hours.

A quick recap for those of you, who like me, weren't paying enough attention in school -- The Decameron is a collection of stories, and the one on which The Little Hours is based says, basically, nuns are women, and women like sex as much as men, so just because they wear habits doesn't mean nuns are any less randy than anyone else.

As far as movie ideas go, it doesn't really jump out at you, but here it is anyway, and The Little Hours is endlessly amused by putting some pretty fine comic actors in medieval religious attire and letting them have at it.

The result is a bit like a bunch of graduate students in literature got together and made their version of Smokey and the Bandit.  They think it's absolutely hilarious.  You can practically see them cracking up just before and after the cameras roll.  It's a little surprising The Little Hours doesn't have a blooper reel running over the credits, the kind where Dom De Luise takes off his toupee and Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson can't stop giggling.

The trouble is, they're not actually being nearly as funny as they think they are, and the audience isn't really in on whatever the joke is.  There's really only one big joke in The Little Hours, which is that the three nuns at the center of the story talk in modern dialect and use the F-word a lot.  A lot.  Because nothing is funnier than a nun with foul mouth.

They're also horny nuns, living in a secluded convent in Tuscany.  One day, in a convoluted story that slogs on and proves Einstein was right by making 20 minutes feel like two hours, a hot guy named Masetto (Dave Franco) shows up in their midst, and the nuns, who are played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci, all decide they want to have sex with him.  (Well, one of them, the goofy-eyed one played by Micucci, actually decides she wants to have sex with the other nuns.)

There could be something crazy and farcical about the movie, but it's a listless sort of slog.  The actors all seem to be doing their own thing, none of them really connects with each other, especially not John C. Reilly as a priest who helps Molly Shannon (completely wasted here) manage the convent.

Little vignettes happen, and the way they're stitched together gives the movie the feeling of having been a bunch of improvised days on the set that someone assembled into a loose semblance of a plot. The only time anything ever gets close to the level of humor that the filmmakers must have thought they were achieving is when Fred Armisen shows up as a dumbstruck bishop who can't believe the stories he hears about what goes on in the convent.  He strikes the farcical tone the rest of the movie should have hit.

The poster for The Little Hours cites a real review from The Catholic League that calls it "trash, pure trash."  If only that were true.  Trash would have been a lot of fun.  The Little Hours is mostly kind of a bore.

Viewed July 8, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"Baby Driver"


Baby Driver crackles with the fire and energy of something new and completely unexpected, a dizzying combination of crime thriller and musical, a pairing that shouldn't work but succeeds at almost every level.

Writer-director Edgar Wright balances his film precariously on a high wire between inspiration and insanity, and keeps it beautifully tilted toward the former with an audacious mix of cinematic genres that makes Baby Driver such a shocking surprise.

Its opening sequence alone is worth savoring, a daring bank robbery set to a propulsive rock song that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) uses to fuel his escape.  It's like watching the kind of music video they don't make anymore, but with impossible-to-believe stunts and adrenaline-pumping action.  But this isn't even the most impressive sequence in the film's first few minutes, because it gives way to a stunningly conceived, intricately choreographed title scene that shows the main character doing little more than walking down the street ... but with such dazzling moves that it belongs in a musical.

Baby is just a kid in his early 20s, but he's already got a long history that involves dead parents, a foster father (CJ Jones) and a big debt to pay off to an Atlanta criminal (Kevin Spacey) who has a penchant for daring robberies and even more daring getaways.  That's why he has turned to Baby, whose own fascination with cars is inextricably intertwined with his love of music.  He's always listening to something -- he doesn't just have playlists, he has entire iPods for different moods.  There's a reason he listens to music all the time, one that is integral to the plot of Baby Driver, but to give it away would be borderline treasonous -- this is a movie audiences are best left to discover for themselves.

As the plot thickens with an assortment of criminals -- including some really sleazy characters played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez -- Baby meets a waitress (Lily James) who senses that the boy's mysterious job as a "driver" is turning him into a bad boy when he really only wants to be good.  That's one of the most engaging conceits in Baby Driver: No matter how much Baby keeps getting pushed into a life of crime, he resists.

But he can't completely ignore the heavy-handed urgings of his less-than-savory associates, and that conflict propels the film's plot while music -- an endlessly inventive array of songs and tracks -- propel its action and its visuals.

There's a moment when Baby Driver threatens to lose what made it special and devolve into a standard crime thriller, but director Wright catches it just before it falls and pushes it back onto that high wire to find a climax that's as heart-stopping and as engaging as the rest of the movie, even when it turns to over-the-top violence that feels excessive yet entirely earned.  Its good-guy-versus-bad-guy showdown strains under its excessiveness -- it's the one bit of the film that needs scaling back -- but it never breaks.

Elgort is one of the biggest reasons why.  As the peach-fuzz-faced Baby of the title, he's the beating heart of the film, and he's dazzling in a role that's alternately showy and low-key.  Baby doesn't say much, but he almost always knows exactly what he's doing.  Elgort is charming and in command of the complex role, especially in his flirtation scenes with James as his love interest and his tender moments with Jones as a deaf-mute father figure who loves the boy desperately.

Baby Driver begins with a sly intent to excite our senses but finishes with an emotionally resonant flourish.  Everything Wright has learned from a life of loving and making movies he puts to impressive use in Baby Driver, which uses an extraordinary array of cinematic tricks to convey both plot and character.  The movie tells its story in such a breezy fashion, and makes it look so incredibly easy, that it seems a bit of a shock to get to the end of the film and find that it resonates not just on a visceral level but an emotional one.  Crime thrillers aren't generally known for having complex, meaningful characters, yet Baby Driver delivers exactly that: In Baby it finds a hero who's a real rarity in an age of instant sequels -- he's a character we'd like to see again; Baby Driver leaves you wishing you knew what happens after the credits roll.

That's a rare feat for any film, but then, few movies are as inventive, daring and downright appealing as this.

Viewed July 4, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks




Of course "trigger warnings," the controversial labels designed to let sensitive audiences know that the content they are about to read, watch or hear might upset them, are silly ideas.  Works of art, even the most commercial, are designed to elicit a reaction.  Trigger warnings strip away the wonder and joy of discovery.

But if I've ever seen any film that might make the case for a trigger warning, Okja is it.  Visually captivating and meticulously crafted, Okja manipulates emotions with a skill that borders on alarming.  In wild and weird ways, it combines tender and quiet moments of beauty and grace with vicious satire and explosive, violent anger.

In a boisterous opening scene brimming with crazed energy that director Bong Joon Ho uses in flashy ways throughout the film, Okja sets up a simple story: sometime in the future, a profit-hungry company led by loony, megalomaniacal Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) develops a way to feed the world cheaply by creating a genetically modified "super-pig."  It sends 26 of these pigs all around the world for local farmers to raise, and after a decade the company will recall them all to determine the best ways to create even more of the massive, meat-laden animals that, its scientists say, can help end hunger.

For 10 years, one of those super-pigs, a female named Okja, has lived in the mountains of South Korea, where a sweet young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised the beast with tender love and friendship.  Like Elliott and E.T., they are inseparable, until the day Mirando's henchmen come to take the creature back to meet its fate.

The team of researchers sent to retrieve the pig includes hyperactive TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an ethically compromised Steve Irwin on crystal meth.  While Mija's grandfather distracts her, Wilcox and his cronies take Okja -- and when Mija finds out, she sets off on a mission to Seoul to find and rescue her friend.  During an extraordinary, hair-raising truck chase through the narrow Seoul streets and highways, in which Okja escapes, Mija meets the Animal Liberation Front, a ragtag group of radicals (led by Paul Dano) who believe the nefarious Mirando and Co. are up to no good.  

As a visual and action spectacle, Okja delivers, and Mija is a captivating heroine cut from the same cloth as a Spielbergian child hero from the 1980s.  With the help of the ALF, she discovers the grim fate that awaits Okja, and Okja the film becomes a painful, borderline unwatchable treatise against the consumption of red meat and the industry that sells us food.

This is where Okja runs into its biggest problems, as it sets up the greedy captialists and sell-outs behind the big "super-pig" experiment as cartoonish buffoons.  The stark reality of what they're doing doesn't match the silliness of their presentation.  Swinton is extraordinary as both flighty, lightweight Lucy Mirando and her no-nonsense twin Nancy; she's the kind of actress who knows how to plant nightmares in the minds of both children and adults.  But what to make of the cavalier way she throws around profanity?  The bad guys in Okja toss out F-bomb like confetti at a parade, a tonally harsh contrast to the childlike wonder of much of the film.

It turns out Okja is not at all meant for children.  When Mija and the ALF uncover what happens behind the scenes at Mirando's company, the revelation is graphic and disturbing, and once the film moves a step in that painful direction, it doesn't seem capable of stopping.  The climax is almost sadistic in the way it seems to revel in blood-soaked violence.

Yet Okja remains riveting -- despite the ways in which it taunts us to avert our eyes.  Even while I was captivated by the story, though, I had to wonder about its intentions: Is it trying to tell a grand adventure or is the goal to repulse its viewers from eating meat?  Is it meant to be a satire about the blood-stained hands of capitalists or is it meant to be a touching story about the bond of friendship?

Okja is never quite able to resolve its inconsistencies.  And yet there are elements of the film that are genuinely remarkable, including a chase sequence that is one of the few that has ever truly made me gasp.  It's a fantastically well-made film that is frequently splendid to watch.  But not everyone will be able to make it through -- certainly not children, who would seem at first glance to be one of its primary audiences, if it weren't for the profanity and the blood.

So, be warned: Okja might touch your heart deeply.  It also might just leave you nauseous.

Viewed July 3, 2017 -- Netflix