Monday, August 7, 2017

Atomic Blonde, Girls Trip, Step, Brigsby Bear, Landline, Menashe, The Midwife, Person to Person, Pop Aye, Austin Found, The Big Sick, Endless Poetry, Fun Mom Dinner, Santoalla, Wind River, Columbus, Dunkirk, A Ghost Story, Lady Macbeth, Detroit

Atomic Blonde

Girls Trip


Brigsby Bear



The Midwife

Person to Person

Pop Aye

Austin Found

The Big Sick

Endless Poetry

Fun Mom Dinner


Wind River



A Ghost Story

Lady Macbeth


A very quick catch-up on July and August at the movies, with 20 titles capsuled from best to worst:

Best of the bunch – and a flick I can’t wait to see again, and own – is David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” with a kick-ass, super-sexy Charlize Theron as MI6 superspy Lorraine Broughton, sent to Berlin to infiltrate an espionage ring and procure a vital information database. James McAvoy – in his best performance in years – is the station chief who alternately helps and hinders her; there’s also good work by Sofia Boutella (whose erotic scenes with Theron are only enhanced by the latter’s real-life lesbianism), Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, German vet Barbara Sukowa and the redoubtable John Goodman. This is a movie that’s beautiful to look at (I could watch it with the sound muted) but also to listen to (with a great new-wave soundtrack that fits the late-80s Berlin setting like a glove), with mordant humor and scenes of hand-to-hand combat far more ingenious and exciting than the director’s “John Wick” franchise. Depending on what comes down the pike, it will either make or just miss my year-end top-ten.

Women – black women, to be specific – also take the lead in the other two titles I strongly recommend from this crop. Malcolm D. Lee’s “Girls Trip” – though missing the possessive apostrophe – is the best American comedy of the year and the best women-acting-badly comedy since 2015’s goldmine of “Spy,” “Trainwreck” and “Sisters.” It’s smart, winning and frankly sexual, and announces the arrival of Tiffany Haddish as a major comic talent. I was pleased to note that I had singled her out for praise among the cast of “Keanu,” as I frequently do (I have an almost unerring eye for talent). There are plenty of laughs to go around among the rest of the “Flossy Posse” – Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah (who bears the burden of the most plot-based part) and Regina Hall (who gave the best female comic performance of 2014 in the remake of “About Last Night”), but Haddish’s hyper-sexual, tell-it-like-it-is Dina takes “Girls Trip” to the next level.

Amanda Lipitz’s “Step” is the kind of documentary that makes you stand up and cheer. It uses the stories of three high school seniors on the step-dancing team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as a conduit to give voice to a community of smart, talented women whose hardships and triumphs rarely make the big screen. There’s Blessin Giraldo, who founded the team six years ago but whose academic woes and interpersonal problems jeopardize the school’s 100% college placement rate. There’s Tayla Solomon, who shrugs off the periodic shutting-off of her family’s electricity (and her endless embarrassment at her one-of-the-gals mom) and lands a spot at Alabama A&M. And there’s focused valedictorian Cori Grainger, who with the help of fully invested counselor Paula Dofat (a true hero) secures a full ride to Johns Hopkins. (I also note the presence of a good man, her stepfather, in the picture.) Watching these young women express themselves through step is invigorating, but it’s their academic success that left a big old lump in my throat.

It would almost be unseemly to give any of these low-key charmers more than a mild recommendation, so that’s where they land: Dave McCary’s abductee/fanboy comedy “Brigsby Bear,” which mostly sustains its daffy tone on the strength of a guileless lead performance by Kyle Mooney; Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline,” a story of dysfunctional relationships, familial and romantic, which gets better – funnier and truer – the longer it goes and the more the great Jenny Slate is given to do; Joshua Z. Weinstein’s sweet but resolutely unsentimental “Menashe,” with Orthodox newcomer Menashe Lustig as a widowed single father who must, by rabbinical mandate, remarry within a year or risk losing his son; Martin Provost’s French import “The Midwife,” which circles the airport a few times too many but ekes out a thumbs-up for the pleasure of very different performances by a subdued Catherine Frot and a game, mischievous Catherine Deneuve; Dustin Guy Defa’s soulful, feather-light 16mm “Person to Person,” with quietly melancholy performances by Abbi Jacobson as a cub reporter and Michael Cera as her metalhead mentor; Tavi Gevinson as an overly quirky teenager and cute Ben Rosenfield as the boy who’s fine with it; Philip Baker Hall as an horologist whose new customer’s watch may hold the key to a murder; the adorably hapless and put-upon George Sample III, who engenders as much sympathy as a character can who put pictures of his ex-girlfriend on the Internet; and especially newcomer Bene Coopersmith as a jazz lover with an unwavering moral code; and Kirsten Tan’s Thai import “Pop Aye,” about a middle-aged architect who chucks his job and marriage when he re-encounters (and, without pause for thought, buys) the elephant his family owned during his childhood.

These next half-dozen titles land on just the wrong side of the line, but my marginal discommendations are tempered by affection: Will Raee’s low-rated straight-to-VOD comedy “Austin Found,” with a fully committed performance by the talented Linda Cardellini as a mother who plots her daughter’s kidnapping hoping to become a rich celebrity. It treats its absurd premise with perfectly understated sincerity, scoring some big laughs before falling off the rails in an incongruously violent, incoherent final third; there are some cute moments (and a vintage supporting performance by Holly Hunter) in Michael Showalter’s bland warmedy “The Big Sick,” but the comedy is too written; I could see the script whenever they talked; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Endless Poetry” is another film that might play better without sound (though there are a small handful of big laughs), but the extraordinary imagery can only hold the tedium at bay for about 100 minutes, and there’s still half an hour to power through; Alethea Jones’ low-rated, straight-to-VOD comedy “Fun Mom Dinner,” a much lesser entry in the women-acting-badly sweepstakes, nevertheless makes an innocuous 89-minute time-killer, occasionally elevated to hilarity by Adam Scott (who in “The Overnight” gave the male comic performance of 2015); Andrew Becker’s and Daniel Mehrer’s documentary “Santoalla,” about a Dutch couple who moved to the titular Spanish ghost town thinking they’d found their Eden, only for their bliss (and, ultimately, their lives) to be ruined by the only other remaining family, would definitely have been better as a short; and Taylor Sheridan’s thriller-on-the-rez “Wind River,” a disappointing directorial debut by the brilliant writer of “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” with a poorly structured story, not enough of Sheridan’s wry humor, and a noticeable lack of emotional and thematic resonance.

Diving lower still, we come to three squirm-in-your-seat boring films: Kogonada’s “Columbus,” set not in Ohio but in the Indiana hometown of Vice President Pence, an unlikely hub of modernist architecture, which features a subtly ingratiating performance by Haley Lu Richardson and the genial presence of John Cho (who remains somewhat inscrutable as an actor) but in which almost nothing happens; Christopher Nolan’s fall-asleep boring “Dunkirk,” which plops us down in the middle of a famed WWII evac mission without giving us anyone or anything to care about, and in the middle of which Kenneth Branagh stands in his naval uniform as if posing for a recruitment brochure and never gets a speck of dirt on him; and David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” in which the director re-teams with stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for a ponderously slow lament that makes the elliptically elegiac “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” seem like “The Fast and the Furious” by comparison. There are exactly two affecting scenes, both involving the ghost next door to Affleck’s, but many in my audience had already wisely walked out by then.

William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” wastes a promising debut by Florence Pugh in an exercise in misanthropic miserabilism, as we watch a young woman imprisoned by her husband (and his father) in a loveless marriage in rural England find passion with a black servant only for it to be snatched away. Then everybody starts dying – including, despicably, several animals – as Oldroyd mistakes the shock value of “what’s the worst that could happen?” happening again and again for some sort of artistic integrity. It’s not; it’s just cut-rate sensationalism. Finally, particular contempt must be reserved for Kathryn Bigelow’s race-baiting “Detroit,” a two-and-a-half-hour movie with exactly ten seconds of nuance, which begs to be patted on the head for topicality by showing some white policemen behaving very badly – and all the black people behaving like saints (an end title card notes that the events as depicted are based on the recollections of only selected participants) during a 1967 riot. Today’s urban police forces are either majority-minority or close to it, with a large percentage of women; they bear no relation to the snarling Klansmen Bigelow gives us here, and perpetuating that false equivalency (and the movie would have no reason to exist were it not doing so) is deeply misguided and grievously damaging to the communities she’s merely attempting amicably to exploit.

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