Thursday, July 13, 2017

An inter-species fight for survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two very determined women

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

Six turbulent years in the life of Marie Curie

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

A ribald sex farce set in a nunnery

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK. I know. That's another movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A topical rom-com that works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Too restrained for its own good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A baby-faced getaway driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Okja:' A very big pig movie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A documentary about a jazz great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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