July Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (R)
***
I thought Rocky Horror had retired the "car broke down" trope forever. It's back, but not to set up the usual thriller situation; but with a screenplay by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Amazing Race) you don't expect the usual. When Beatriz (a deglamorized Salma Hayek) is stranded in a posh, gated Newport Beach community, what follows is more of a social horror story - The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie revisited, but with subtle suspense. Beatriz is a holistic healer at a cancer center. She makes house calls to give massages to Cathy (Connie Britton) and her husband, the wealthy parents of one of her patients. That's where her car dies and she's invited to stay for a dinner party celebrating a legislative victory on behalf of developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who's there with his third, "well-compensated" wife. Of course Beatriz is out of her element, but a little wine makes her forget her manners when Strutt reminds her of the man who destroyed her Mexican hometown. More wine and vegetarian Beatriz loses it when Strutt displays his hunting photos. Though he was reportedly inspired by a certain lion-killing dentist, his smug, too-rich-to-care attitude may remind some of a certain political figure who's also on his third wife. We can see that Beatriz wants to avenge the people and animals this man has hurt, but you'll have to wait to the end to find out whether she does, or leaves it up to us.

LIKE CRAZY (NR)
***
If Thelma and Louise were Italian and escaped from a psychiatric facility, their adventure might have been something like Like Crazy. Talk about bipolar – and we will in a minute – this movie is like a double feature. I loved the first half, which may be the year's best comedy, and only liked the second, a more ordinary drama that relies on too much of a coincidence to set up its best scene. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is amazing as Beatrice, who in her manic phase acts like she runs the clinic, Villa Biondi, instead of being a court-ordered patient. The staff and other "guests" are tired of her ways, so in search of a friend she attaches herself to a new arrival, Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), a depressed younger woman who blossoms somewhat under Beatrice's unwanted attentions. Some confusion at a work-release gig strands the pair in the real world, and they're in no hurry to leave it. But staying requires stealing cars and other things, and interacting with people who may have been responsible for their mental states in the first place. Their sad backstories are gradually revealed as Like Crazy become far less fun but is still well done. Based on their physical resemblance to the stars, I could picture Edie Falco and Hilary Swank in an American remake, which wouldn't be a bad idea. Bruni Tedeschi won the Best Actress award from Italy's Oscar equivalent, and Paolo Virzì won for directing what was named Best Picture of the year.

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (PG-13)
**1/2
The addition of Anthony Hopkins and some medieval jibber-jabber shouldn't make you approach the fifth Transformers movie as if it were by Shakespeare, even if it has as much plot and as many characters – human and Autobot – as all 38 of the Bard's plays combined. There's nothing new about the Transformations, so director Michael Bay doesn't linger over them like in the early films; he keeps everything moving because there's a lot to squeeze into two-and-a-half hours. It comes down to a battle between the humans of Earth and the bots of the planet Cybertron. Our friend Optimus Prime returns to Cybertron and is persuaded by evil Quintessa to fight against us in the coming war. The bots have been on Earth for at least 1600 years, influencing world events without anyone seeming to notice them until the last decade. They're banned in America and pursued by Josh Duhamel's TRF (Transformers Reaction Force) like metaphorical Muslims, but they've left ancient artifacts that can be useful. A talisman makes Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) the Last Knight of the title, and a magical staff buried with Merlin can only be operated by his last surviving descendant, Viviane (Laura Haddock), Oxford's hottest professor. Hopkins plays an earl who knows a lot of the historical stuff. The visuals are constant spectacle overload, though 3D doesn't add much. With all that's going on there's still time for humor, romance and – Stonehenge? Whatever you think of the series, this one won't transform your opinion.

GOOD FORTUNE (PG)
***
Sainthood isn't reward enough for some people. Unlike many of the "faith-based" films that are a hot commodity, Good Fortune is truly inspiring. It's the true story of John Paul DeJoria (known as JP), who went from being homeless and a biker gang member to growing multimillion-dollar businesses out of Paul Mitchell hair care products and Patrón tequila and using his wealth and power for philanthropy and activism to save the planet, help the homeless and dozens of other causes. (It's a far cry from the news – real and fake – about rich people using their power to keep their money and help their fellow billionaires keep theirs.) I might think it impossible if not for the most generous person I ever worked for, Atlanta's Dante Stephensen of Dante's Down the Hatch. Like JP, Dante treated his employees with respect and appreciation. But he's got his own documentary. This one, by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, lets some of JP's family and celebrity friends (e.g., Dan Aykroyd, Michelle Phillips, Cheech Marin) tell his story, going back and forth between a chronological biography and segments about his charitable efforts, including celebrating his 70th birthday in Austin at an annual motorcycle ride and concert to raise money for first responders. In the early going the filmmakers try too hard to illustrate every word with stock footage, but they soon relax and let the amazing tale take over. Like all rich men, JP's most successful marriage is his third, to a younger, beautiful blonde. Yes, they live in "a $50 million Malibu mansion," but they're helping others realize their own potential too. "Success unshared is failure," JP says. He also says that working as a team, ordinary people "can achieve extraordinary results." After seeing the story of his life, I'm a believer!

THE JOURNEY (PG-13)
***
As an old peacenik I appreciate the message of The Journey, that when human beings get to know each other we find we have more commonalities than differences. The film might be called speculative fiction, being based on a true event that essentially ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland. In 2006 opposing leaders are meeting in Glasgow for peace talks: Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), a fierce Protestant, and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney), "the acceptable public face" of the Irish Republican Army. The film is light on details about their disagreements and what compromises are necessary to bring them together, but too much of that would have made my head explode. It's enough to know a simple handshake can end decades of civil war. Paisley is going home to Belfast to celebrate his 50th anniversary but a storm closes the airport so he has to go to Edinburgh to catch a plane. Security mandates that McGuinness travel with him and their British hosts arrange a car (driven by Freddie Highmore) for them with the idea that the men, who haven't spoken in 30 years, are more likely to reach accord privately than in a public forum. There are silly attempts to build suspense about missing the plane, especially showing the pilot flipping switches before the men have their decisive conversation on the ground; but director Nick Hamm is eager to avoid viewers getting claustrophobia from watching two men in a car. The actors do their part brilliantly without regard for what's going on around them, and they make The Journey worth taking.

MOKA (NR)
***
As if to show Hollywood that a movie can have middle-aged female protagonists, the Swiss and French have made one about a bad driver. Sorry, poor joke, especially considering the seriousness of the situation. Nathalie Baye plays Marlène, who may have hit-and-run, killing Luc, the teen son of Diane (Emmanuelle Devos). The police aren't having any luck but a detective comes up with some leads and Diane follows up, settling on Marlène as the prime suspect. Using the alias Hélène, she gets to know Marlène and her partner, Michel (David Clavel), individually, by patronizing Marlène's beauty salon and negotiating with Michel to buy the possible death car, a 1972 mocha-colored (hence the title) Mercedes. There are two questions here: what really happened and what will Diane do if/when she finds out? Along the way she meets Marlène's teenage daughter, setting up a possible quid pro quo. And since this is a movie, Diane also meets Vincent (Olivier Chantreau), a handsome young smuggler who gets her a gun and teaches her how to use it. A grieving mother is sympathetic but Diane's behavior is downright creepy; it's odd that Marlène and Michel don't mention her to each other. Directed and co-written (based on a novel) by Frédéric Mermoud, Moka is a chick flick but good enough for even some men to enjoy.

THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY (PG-13)
**
If you think every picture tells a story, The B-Side may change your mind. Every person tells a story, and any Facebooker can tell you they're not all equally interesting. Given some visuals to work with, a great filmmaker can make almost anyone's story palatable to a large number; but surprisingly, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) is unable to do much with Elsa Dorfman's. He lets her tell most of it herself – a sweet, chatty old Jewish lady who's taken a lot of photos with Polaroid's 20x24 camera and even their supersized 40x80. The film serves as an infomercial for an obsolete technology. Given a camera to use while teaching elementary school, Dorfman took a lot of selfies to get comfortable with it. Early in her career she shot several folk singers and poets, most notably Allen Ginsberg, who became her friend and who gets almost as much screen time as Dorfman. Most of her celebrity photos flash by in a montage that hardly gives you time to recognize them. Photos of herself, her family and civilian clients get far more exposure and on an interest scale rank somewhere between your friends' food pictures and their vacation photos. Spending her adult life in Massachusetts, Dorfman notes that "I didn't have the work and I didn't have the personality" for Boston dealers to want to handle her pictures. It's too bad Morris wasn't as discerning.

BAND AID (NR)
***
Hear that? It's the sound of couples counselors everywhere kicking themselves because they didn't come up with the therapy at the heart of Band Aid. Anna (writer-producer-director-composer-lyricist-vocalist-instrumentalist Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) fight about everything from unwashed dishes to something a nice Jewish girl doesn't do, even to her husband; but they're really depressed because they have no children and all their friends are the envy of rabbits. It's Anna who has the brainstorm: "What if we turned all our fights into songs? ... Let's start a band!" They have an old guitar and bass in the garage and their weird neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen) happens to be a drummer (and recovering sex addict). Anna and Ben are totally relatable and mostly likable, so the movie works despite a lot of mistakes caused by Lister-Jones wearing too many hats. The screenplay sounds like it was written by a committee that didn't consult each other. The backstory of the couple's childlessness is withheld far too long for no reason. The music aspect is all but forgotten in the middle, as is a mother-in-law (Susie Essman) who's introduced in the beginning, then ignored until she's brought in to save the day with a monologue all men should hear about the difference between the sexes. It sounds like a synthesis of an entire book but can be further reduced to "Women have feelings, men have dicks." Most of the cinematography is sitcom-slick, which makes some indie-messy shots stand out. Speaking of sitcoms, Band Aid could almost be a very special episode of Lister-Jones' current series, Life in Pieces, and should appeal to the same audience.

POP AYE (NR)
***
One of my most vivid memories of Thailand is coming out of a Bangkok club late one night and seeing an elephant in the street. That gives Pop Aye an extra specialness for me, but it's a special movie anyway. It's the first feature by Singapore-raised New York resident Kirsten Tan. She has minor structural problems – the timeline is confusing at times – but the writer-director has a unique sensibility that makes even the rare familiar elements seem fresh. You might see it as a late-midlife crisis movie in which the protagonist gets an elephant instead of a sportscar. Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is being eased out of his job at a Bangkok architectural firm by the son of the founder, and his wife no longer has much use for him either. When he recognizes Popeye (subtitles give it the traditional spelling), an elephant his family owned in his boyhood, he buys Popeye and takes him on the road to the town he – they – grew up in. Cue the road trip movie, as Thana encounters people who may be clichés in Thailand but will surprise most Americans. Though there are exceptions, most of the characters are nice; they're underappreciated people all along the social spectrum who do things for each other to make the world a little less miserable. Honestly, when's the last time you saw a movie in which a man hitchhiking with an elephant actually scored a ride? Though Pop Aye is unrated, some sexual scenes should exclude kids who just want to see it for the elephant.

RESET (NR)
** ½
Action and sci-fi clichés seem almost original when they're rearranged and in Chinese. In the year 2025 two multinational corporations, IPT and Nexus, are competing to win the race to time travel through alternate universes. So far they can only go back an hour and 50 minutes, and they've yet to experiment with humans; but that's about to change. Nexus is ahead so IPT resorts to industrial espionage. Violent industrial espionage. Their hireling kidnaps Doudou, the young son of lead researcher Xia Tian (Yang Mi), and threatens to kill him if his mother doesn't deliver all the company's research data within an hour. The first attempt to save the boy doesn't go well, but fortunately Xia Tian can go back in time for a do-over. Take Two is better but not good enough, so before you can say "Groundhog Day" she's back for Round Three; but each trip adds another Xia Tian to the current population, and somehow each dresses and wears her hair differently. Einstein couldn't have explained this, but action flicks don't have to make sense, especially in the science-fiction realm. The climax is a three-way catfight with three of the same cat, but it's followed by a too-long anticlimax with more weepy mother-and-son stuff than all four Gospels combined.

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