August Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

ATOMIC BLONDE (R)
***
Sorry, DC fans, but Lorraine Broughton could kick Wonder Woman's butt any day, and without superpowers or special effects. The British agent played by Charlize Theron doesn't fight like a girl (even if crotch-kicking is one of her go-to moves), and she's involved in some of the most brutal fight scenes of any gender ever seen on the screen. (Great stuntwork!) The plot she's involved in, mostly set in Berlin in 1989 in the days before the wall came down, is one of those affairs that's too complicated to follow, so you just relax and enjoy the action. In fact it's so full of clichés it could be a spoof of the genre. Basically, Broughton is sent to retrieve "The List" that several countries are after and discover the identity of a double agent called "Satchel." (The screenplay offers too few suspects.) Of course Theron is too beautiful to be a spy because she stands out in any crowd, and for a Western agent she does a lot to support Russia's vodka industry; but if you're going to be that picky you should be a critic, not an audience member. With its ultimate '80s soundtrack, Atomic Blonde is a movie, like Baby Driver, that lets my critic side relax and my audience side have a blast.

BRIGSBY BEAR (PG-13)
***½
Why not combine Room with Be Kind Rewind? I don't know how a pitch like that could get Brigsby Bear greenlighted, but I'm really glad it did! (Get greenlighted, I mean. I'm not sure that was the pitch.) Though its creators include comedy teams The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg has a small role and all three are producers) and Good Neighbor (the director and writer/star), this is hardly a comedy; yet it's almost always on the verge of funny, while having moments that are surprisingly moving. It's an amazing balancing act! I wish you'd trust me and see it before you read further, but I've tried to leave some surprises. James (SNL's Kyle Mooney) was kidnapped as an infant and raised in a remote desert hideaway by Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams). (Is it too soon to have a character named Ted in a movie about a bear?) James was never allowed outdoors, except on the roof, and never saw entertainment from the outside world except 736 episodes of the super-cheesy kids' TV show Brigsby Bear. Freed after 25 years, reunited with his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), and introduced to movies, James decides to make a feature film to continue Brigsby's story. Entering the world like the boy in Room but at five times his age, James begins to hang with his teenage sister's crowd and become somewhat socialized, especially when they start to share his Brigsby obsession. Written by Mooney with Kevin Costello and directed by Dave McCary, this movie seems to float effortlessly over a minefield. It could have gone wrong so many ways so easily, but it's gone wonder-fully right.

CITY OF GHOSTS (R)
***
I went to college to become a journalist. Now anyone with a smartphone can be one. If I'm bitter it's because some of them are doing the world a lot more good than I've been able to. City of Ghosts is about some of them, the Syrians known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Flashing back from their receiving an International Press Freedom Award in New York in 2015, Matthew Heineman's documentary shows how Raqqa students, inspired by the Arab Spring, revolted in 2012 against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Taking advantage of the unrest, the Islamic State (ISIS), a cure worse than the disease, took over the city for their headquarters in 2014. Several public executions encouraged most of the surviving citizens to join them; they even recruited young children to be suicide bombers. They destroyed all satellite dishes to keep out news of the outside world and only let out their own propaganda. But a few brave souls joined together in RBSS to film the truth and reveal it to the world. Some stayed behind in Raqqa to do the filming and report to the others, who had escaped to Turkey or Germany, so they could circulate it broadly. We meet a few of them as they carry on despite the deaths of friends and family members and death threats against themselves, not to be taken lightly when ISIS is killing or inspiring the killing of large numbers of people around the world. Heineman combines footage smuggled from Syria with coverage of the refugees in their temporary new homes - including Berlin, where a Trump-like anti-immigrant rally shows they're not entirely welcome. The story's well told and achieves its aims of informing and empowering, but I found it more depressing than anything. If you can handle that, it's worth seeing.

DUNKIRK (PG-13)
***
Traditionally, American war movies were about John Wayne winning the war singlehandedly and were used to generate public enthusiasm for the next war; British war movies featured less combat and more homefront nostalgia with Vera Lynn singing in the background. In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's masterful epic, Hans Zimmer's score is too much in the foreground, unnecessarily reminding us we're watching a tense situation. In the spring of 1940 some 400,000 English, French and Belgian soldiers are trapped on the French coast, surrounded on three sides by Germans and on the fourth by the English Channel. German planes strafe and bomb periodically while their troops advance on the ground. Most military ships and planes are being kept in England in anticipation of a German attack, but a call goes out for fishing boats and pleasure craft to cross the channel and evacuate the pinned-down troops. (Millennials will wonder why they didn't call Uber for a ride, but a Brexit from Europe was no easier in those days.) We're given some individuals to follow but we learn very little about them as characters, often not even their names. Fionn Whitehead is a crafty soldier who pushes himself to the head of the queue on the beach but finds himself no better off. Tom Hardy is one of the Spitfire pilots who engage the Germans in dogfights to deter their bombing. Mark Rylance sails his small boat to help with the evacuation, picking up shipwrecked and shell-shocked Cillian Murphy along the way. The differing timelines of these three stories create some confusion but Nolan's immersive style puts you in each situation with them so you won't care. This nontraditional war movie must earn him his first directing Oscar nomination and quite possibly a win.

THE EMOJI MOVIE (PG)
** ½
Talk about lowered expectations! By the time I saw The Emoji Movie it had risen from 0 to 3% on Rotten Tomatoes. I was ready for the cinematic equivalent of the character Sir Patrick Stewart voices, the Poop emoji. Like Inside Out with emojis instead of emotions, this animated feature deals with what's inside us and how we express it – here through our cellphones instead of our bodies. In this film's universe each phone comes with a set of living emojis – multigenerational, with no explanation of what happens to the old ones when the young ones replace them. Gene (T.J. Miller) is the Meh emoji. At least that's what he's supposed to be on the day of his debut; but when his cellphone's owner, shy teen Alex tries to text Meh to his dream girl, Addie, he catches multifaceted Gene in the wrong facet. Rather than be disemployed as malfunctional, Gene escapes into the cyber world, pursued by robots but helped by the Hi-5 emoji (James Corden) and a hacker called Jailbreak (Anna Faris). As they travel through Candy Crush, Dropbox, etc., young viewers will discover new worlds to explore on their phones. (Just What We Need emoji.) The concept would seem to allow for a lot more imagination than is shown here in stringing together tired old tropes, but The Emoji Movie isn't terrible – it's just meh.

GIRLS TRIP (R)
** ½
"A few longtime female friends reunite for a wild weekend." Did someone sell the same pitch to two studios, or is it really a coincidence that Rough Night and Girls Trip opened a month apart? Rough Night didn't set the bar too high so Girls Trip easily passes it, even if I didn't love it as much as a lot of critics did. It's got more than its share of raunchy comedy, much of it laugh-out-loud funny; but it gets more and more soapy-serious as it goes along. As we learn at the outset, the girls have issues, individually and as friends. Ryan (Regina Hall) has been at odds with Sasha (Queen Latifah) since the latter started a gossip blog, which is now on the verge of going under. So is Ryan's marriage (to Mike Colter), which has devolved into a business relationship despite her successful book, "You Can Have It All." Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a stressed-out control freak, the single mother of two kids, who really needs to get laid. Dina (the movie's breakout star, Tiffany Haddish) recently lost her job, but this girl just wants to have fun. Her description could get "grapefruiting" added to hygiene class curriculums (or ripped off by John Waters). The "Flossy Posse," as they were known in college, get together in New Orleans, where Ryan is the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival, which provides enough musical cameos that they could make a companion concert film if they shot the full performances. There's enough comedy to make everybody laugh, but the serious stuff is strictly for the girls.

LANDLINE (R)
**
There's no shortage of women in the cast and credits of Landline, starting with director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate, reuniting after Obvious Child. That doesn't mean Hollywood's problem of gender inequity has been solved. It also doesn't mean women can't make good movies, just that the women who made this one have made a bad one. It's about one big unhappy Jewish-Italian family; and even in their happy moments, usually when having sex, they're no fun to be around. Edie Falco and John Turturro are the parents of twentysomething Dana (Slate) and teen Ali (Abby Quinn). Dana is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass) but fooling around with Nate (Finn Wittrock). Ali has casual sex with a casual boyfriend, Jed (Marquis Rodriguez). When Ali discovers their father may be having an affair, it makes both sisters question the permanence of relationships and the desirability of getting into one. The story takes place between Labor Day and Halloween of 1995, with a coda in the following weeks but no sign of Thanksgiving or Christmas. Robespierre milks the period for nostalgia: record stores, floppy disks, hit songs and of course landline phones. Slate and Quinn must create believable characters if I disliked them so much, but that doesn't justify this unpleasant experience. That IMDb classifies it as a comedy is funnier than anything in the movie.

ESCAPES (NR)
**
Hampton Who?  Hampton Fancher’s name isn’t mentioned in the first 15 minutes of this documentary about him, as if everyone knows he was one of the creators of Blade Runner and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049.  Is it a coincidence that Escapes is opening less than two months before that sequel?  It’s enough to make you stop believing in coincidences.  Escapes is also enough to make you question whether Donald Trump is really the most egotistical person on Earth.  After we finally meet him, Fancher tells us part of his life story and lets us read the rest, then dives into an anecdote about a promotional trip to Pennsylvania that takes about 15 minutes to get to the rather interesting point.  Writer-director-producer Michael Almereyda puts together a lot of short clips from Fancher’s 20 years as a minor supporting actor in TV and movies, often making them seem to illustrate Fancher’s narration.  This is sometimes clever, sometimes potentially libelous, as when he shows Teri Garr opposite several actors as Fancher disses Garr’s ex, who used her and cheated her.  As Fancher describes beating the man up, we see clips of him fighting with Troy Donahue.  Fancher’s longest relationship was with Barbara Hershey, who he stole from David Carradine.  Although Philip K. Dick didn’t like him, Fancher was instrumental in getting Dick’s novel made as Blade Runner and wrote the first draft of the screenplay.  Dick’s is the second voice you hear in Escapes but you’ll naturally assume the words, if not the voice, are Fancher’s.  There are moments of modesty from this man who apparently has a lot to be modest about, and an occasional juicy Hollywood tidbit; but it’s mostly just an ego trip that at best should be an extra on the Blade Runner 2049 DVD.

INGRID GOES WEST (R)
***
It’s time to purge my friends list.  If Ingrid Goes West doesn’t make you totally paranoid about social media, it should at least make you wary of announcing in advance where you’re going to be.  Aubrey Plaza advances to Hollywood’s A-List with her starring performance as Ingrid, a lonely young woman who takes cyber ”friendships” too seriously.  That’s established in the opening scene when she attacks a woman for not inviting her to her wedding.  After a stint in an institution Ingrid goes looking for a new friend.  She cashes out her inheritance and moves to L.A. to be closer to Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), whose world she manages to enter through dognapping.  Soon Taylor calls Ingrid “my favorite person I’ve ever met,” part of the film’s sometimes subtle satire of typical SoCal types.  There’s a lot of comedy along the way but we always know things can’t end well, and that creates undertones of suspense.  Director and co-writer Matt Spicer blends his elements beautifully.  Considering that the protagonist is such a socialmediapath (Doesn’t that sound nicer than sociopath?), it’s ironic that, lacking a big advertising budget, the film’s success will depend largely on what people say about it on social media.  Talk it up!

THE MIDWIFE (NR)
** ½
Most dudes will not appreciate watching two babies born in the first five minutes of The Midwife, but they probably won’t like the rest of the movie either.  I don’t mind a good soap opera but this one’s too chick-flicky for me.  There should be a sign at the entrance: Your estrogen level must be THIS high...  Catherine Frot, so good in last year’s Marguerite (the French Florence Foster Jenkins), has the title role of Claire.  Her clinic is closing and she’s the only one of the staff who doesn’t want to move to a big corporate hospital.  There’s romantic potential with a man who’s visiting his father, her next-door neighbor; and Claire’s med student son has knocked up his girlfriend.  While she has all this to deal with, enter Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve).  Over 35 years ago she had an affair with Claire’s father, who killed himself when she left him.  She claims not to know that, and with a possibly terminal illness she’s returned, hoping to reconnect with the love of her life.  She’ll settle for his daughter but Claire’s not eager to forgive Béatrice.  Director Martin Provost’s (if ever a movie should have been made by a woman...) screenplay unfolds like an exercise in creating the equivalent of a page-turner, with a new incident or revelation just often enough to keep you hooked; but the pace still seems too slow, and not in that arty European way.  The Catherines are wonderful but Deneuve shows her vanity by refusing to part with her flowing locks after Béatrice supposedly has brain surgery.  It’s one of the film’s many inconsistencies.

PERSON TO PERSON (NR)
***
The characters in Person to Person are hyperreal – like people you see every day, only more interesting.  They talk like folks in independent films, or like the New Yorkers they’re supposed to be.  During a single day we follow three basic stories and a subplot or two about what New Yorkers will do for love or money – or sex or revenge.  Michael Cera mentors new reporter Abbi Jacobson with hopes of bedding her.  They’re investigating the death of Michaela Watkins’ husband, which may have been murder or suicide.  This involves them with watch repairman Philip Baker Hall.  Besties Olivia Luccardi and Tavi Gevinson ditch high school to spend the day together, but Luccardi plans to involve some boys.  Vinyl collector Bene Coopersmith is offered a rare Charlie Parker album, while his couch-crashing friend George Sample III gets in trouble for posting nude pictures of his ex on the Internet.  At first writer/director Dustin Guy Defa seems to be trying to outdo Baby Driver by relating each character to their personal soundtrack (jazz, metal, ‘60s soul, etc.), but this is largely ignored after the initial setup.  The action takes place in non-touristy neighborhoods, the kind that haven’t changed much since the days when vinyl records were no more a novelty than the 16 mm. cameras this film was shot with.  That makes it rather a laidback throwback, but the persons involved are fun to spend a day with, especially since their day only takes up 84 minutes of your time.

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD (NR)
***
I consider myself pretty well informed about 20th century pop music, but this documentary by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana opened my eyes and ears to much I’d overlooked regarding the contributions of Native Americans to several genres.  Admittedly it exaggerates the importance of some musicians to make its point and doesn’t distinguish between a pureblooded Cree like Buffy Sainte-Marie (blacklisted for her activism), a 1/16 Cherokee like the late Jimi Hendrix (whose sister says he honored all his ethnic components equally), and the various gradations between.  While the idea of “Indian music” probably makes you think of tom-toms, did you know there was a period when the US government forbid them to make music, a form of cultural genocide?  And the Natives were victims of the Ku Klux Klan, leading to the admonition, half-Mohawk Robbie Robertson tells us, “Be proud you’re an Indian but be careful who you tell.”  There’s more mixed blood than you realize because early settlers shipped a lot of male Natives to Africa, then imported African males as slaves.  But this is mostly about music, the title coming from the 1958 hit single by half-Shawnee Link Wray, the rock guitar pioneer (even though his career was eclipsed two months later by non-Indian Duane Eddy) who made Iggy Pop decide to be a musician.  You’ll connect the dots as Native sounds come down through the blues of Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf (both part Choctaw) and the jazz of Mildred Bailey, not to mention Dixieland.  The last time I learned this much I got college credit for it!

13 MINUTES (R)
***
German director Oliver Hirschbiegel is best known for the Hitler rants in his film Downfall that have been used in countless Internet parodies.  He’s back in the Führer business with 13 Minutes, based on the true story of a November 1939 assassination attempt in Munich.  Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is already in police custody when his bomb goes off, killing several people and destroying a building where Hitler gave a speech but left 13 minutes earlier.  The film goes back to 1932 for some background on Elser, who is apparently well enough known that the film’s German title is Elser; but it was a history lesson for me.  We see Georg flirting with women at a picnic, tinkering with gadgets at work and trying to keep his alcoholic father from giving away the family farm.  As we alternate between past and present we see that Georg was a pacifist, a womanizer, a musician, a Christian and a Communist sympathizer.  Now he’s also a mass murderer.  Not a perfect hero, but between him and Hitler, who you gonna root for?  Elser also stole his love interest, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), from her abusive husband.  The Gestapo arrests her too, but doesn’t use her as a bargaining chip to the extent you’d expect during his enhanced interrogation.  They’re trying to get him to name accomplices, but he can only tell them the truth: he acted alone.  Elser will obviously suffer the fate of the Führer-ous but there are a couple of surprises before that happens.  Friedel gives a multifaceted performance in the leading role of this absorbing drama whose appeal should extend beyond hardcore history buffs.

WHOSE STREETS? (R)
***
Whoever you are, Whose Streets? will make you mad.  If you’re at all sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and believe some police have overreacted in shooting and killing African Americans, this documentary about the birth of the movement in Ferguson Missouri will get you fired up all over again.  If you feel the police are always just doing their jobs and may be having a bad day when they kill an unarmed suspect unnecessarily, you’ll still be fuming over the release of Detroit a week earlier; and you won’t see Whose Streets? anyway, but if you did it would piss you off.  Three years ago this month, Officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Mike Brown Jr., whom he confronted for blocking traffic by walking in the middle of the street.  Traffic got worse when the unarmed teenager’s body was left in the street for four hours, and still worse when local residents and some from St. Louis, half an hour away, took to the Ferguson streets to protest and hold a candlelight vigil.  They were met in the days that followed by a militarized police force and the Missouri National Guard.  There are some news clips but Sabaah Folayan and her co-director Damon Davis rely largely on cell phone and camera videos for a less slick but more visceral feeling.  When many locals are introduced early on it’s hard to tell who will become important to the film and the movement later on.  While I disagree with the radical who justifies the looting and vandalism that went on, I agree with the US Justice Department that there was racial bias in the Ferguson Police Dept.  There have been too many more Mike Browns since then.  See Whose Streets?  Get mad.  Do something.

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