June Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

You may wonder if Baywatch can survive without the starpower of Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff (don't worry – they have cameos) – or if you have taste, you wonder how the 1989-2001 TV series survived with them. Now it's a movie, set in Florida but filmed in Georgia. There are lots of pretty girls in skimpy bathing suits but the emphasis is on Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, so even though they wear shirts most of the time you can call this a pecsploitation movie. There's a ridiculous plot involving Priyanka Chopra as a ruthless woman who is not only a major drug dealer but is also in real estate, paying off politicians to let her privatize the beach and killing the ones who don't cooperate. Sounds like a job for the police, but who needs them when you have lifeguards around? Mitch (Johnson), the leader of the family-like group, is always looking for major crimes to solve, even though their unauthorized actions are technically illegal. Matt (Efron) is a disgraced Olympian seeking a fresh start. He and Mitch lock horns right away, with mild dissing to cover up their intense mutual dislike (which will, of course, develop into a bromance). Another new recruit is Ronnie (Jon Bass, this month's Josh Gad), who's too geeky to believe he has a chance with CJ (Kelly Rohrbach). She returns his interest too soon and too obviously, even if he's too dumb to realize it. This lightweight and lighthearted movie wisely stresses humor, since it can't be taken seriously; but most of the good laughs are in the trailer.

Yo ho ho and a bong of WHAT?!!! Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been putting the "high" in the high seas since 2003. There's not a spliff in sight (it's a Disney movie) but it's the Caribbean, mon, and we know stoner humor when we smell it, even on a character who's supposedly drunk on rum all the time. I wasn't looking forward to Another Summer Sequel (ASS for short), but low expectations can be a blessing sometimes. This one grabbed my attention from the beginning and pretty much held it to the end with a consistently entertaining combination of humor, adventure, romance, the supernatural and some terrific effects. Depp's Sparrow is the most tired element but even he has some really funny lines. The complex script eventually unites Jack with two other fugitives – Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who's trying to break a curse on his father (Orlando Bloom), and Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer accused of being a witch – in the search for the Trident of Poseidon, which can right all wrongs or something. Jack is pursued by Capt. Salazar's (Javier Bardem) ghost ship and Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Action overwhelms all the other elements in most of the second half, but not so much that I mind if the pirates sail to fight again.

Back during the Ming Dynasty, the Japanese tried to take over China on their way to taking over the world. God of War shows how their plan was foiled, at least temporarily. In 1557 Japanese pirates were pillaging China and attacking Chinese armies on land, hiring ronin to do their fighting, even though at least some of the pirates were trained samurai. Young general Qu Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) clashes about strategy with old garrison commander Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung), and even with his own wife (Wan Qian). On the Japanese side young Yamagawa, whose godfather founded the pirates, argues that they should do their own fighting. That's the best I can figure out the plot, after trying to read subtitles on my home TV, with an enthusiastic narrator filling in the history and frantic dialogue rattling off unfamiliar names and places at a rapid pace. But unless you're into the history enough to know it already, you'll probably just go for the action; and there God of War delivers. There are more than half a dozen scenes of combat in the first half, from one-on-one arm wrestling to a barroom brawl to battles between armies using the latest technology: swords, shields, guns, bamboo poles and a Crouching Tiger cannon. The second half is a triple battle, when the Japanese attack in three areas at once to divide and conquer the outnumbered Chinese army. In the finale we finally see the pirates on a ship, where the Chinese attack them. If you want to see God of War, it should be far more enjoyable in a theater than at home.

I start my day by looking at the obituary page and if I don't see my name listed, I go to work. Vanessa Gould's documentary takes you behind the scenes of the New York Times obituary section, where they strive to tell stories of lives, not deaths, in an interesting way. They write about people you never heard of but perhaps should have: the man who prepped JFK for his TV debates with Nixon; a teen female stunt pilot who lived to be 98; the inventor of the TV remote; and a white male who was the hidden figure who saved the 1973 Skylab launch. Because it's a movie Gould adds flavor with old clips of the people and events discussed and ends with a dazzling montage that might involve everyone who died in the last 100 years. Obit. is not recommended for journalism students, who would get an idealized view of their chosen profession, which is dying – at least the print aspect of it. "Behind the Times" would be an appropriate title, as Gould makes it appear the staff rarely use their computers, relying mostly on telephone interviews and yellowed clippings from the paper's aptly-named morgue. These retro aspects make Obit. seem as timely as the 1931 movie The Front Page, but it's just as entertaining too.

June 9:
Potentially as depressing as anything on screen today, I, Daniel Blake is leavened by the ironic portrayal of the frustrations facing the common man (and woman). Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is an analog man in a digital world. When he says he can't file a form online he's told there's a telephone alternative – but he has to go online to get the number. A 60-ish widower in the north of England, he's recovering from a heart attack. His doctor says he's not healthy enough to resume work as a skilled carpenter but the government says he's not sick enough to collect benefits. He's begun the slow process of appealing their decision, but will he live long enough to have the appeal heard? Though he plays the grumpy old man, Daniel is quick to help Katie (Hayley Squires), a young woman with two children he meets at the welfare office, asking nothing in return. They're not freeloaders, just proud, desperate people doing the best they can. The bad news about Ken Loach's film is that the accents are often unintelligible to American ears, but the good news is that you'll get the point of every scene, even if you miss some of the words. It's recommended for anyone who's faced any of the Catch-22s of modern bureaucracy.

I've never wanted to keep Paris waiting. It's one of my favorite cities. In this movie, written, produced and directed by 80-year-old Eleanor Coppola, Paris keeps us waiting. About as much of the ending takes place in the briefly-glimpsed French capital as the beginning features Alec Baldwin. He plays Michael, a movie producer at the Cannes Film Festival who sends his wife Anne (Diane Lane) driving to Paris with his French partner, Jacques (Arnaud Viard). Michael wonders if it's safe to leave Anne alone with a Frenchman, even one well into middle age. We wonder too. There doesn't seem to be much sexual tension between Anne and Jacques; they talk about flirtation more than they practice it. But the one-day drive extends to two and they're healthy heterosexuals who bond as they get better acquainted.... Get your mind out of the gutter! Paris Can Wait is more of a travelogue than a romance, and even more of a foodie movie because Jacques knows where all the good restaurants are. It's rather like Steve Coogan's The Trip series, without the laughs. The meals are lovingly photographed, not just by Coppola but by Anne, an amateur photographer who must have the world's most boring Facebook page. Jacques acts as driver, tourguide and translator, offering tidbits about Roman relics and how Provence got its name. With far more screen time than the Eiffel Tower, Lane looks great and seems more certain than Coppola what kind of movie she's making.

A soldier in combat doesn’t have time to think, debate or run a poll on social media.  They have to rely on instinct and training, much like the dogs who sometimes fight beside them.  Perhaps that’s why Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) grows so attached to Rex, the K-9 Corps dog who saves her life and thousands of others in Iraq.  In this true story, Megan joins the Marines in 2001 to escape her dead end life.  Like a faith-based film except that she finds Dog instead of God, Megan’s calling is to be a handler for the bomb-sniffing dogs who work “in front of the front lines.”  Because it’s a movie there’s a man (Ramon Rodriguez) too, but Rex is the real love of Megan’s life; and after months in combat her biggest fight is to adopt Rex when the Marines retire him.  Formulaic and a bit too family-friendly but well crafted, Megan Leavey is a movie to make you yell “Semper Fido!”

June 16:
"Who hasn't had the impulse to put their life on hold for a moment?" Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) asks rhetorically. A moment maybe, but months on end? Anyone who's seen Wakefield, if they have had that impulse, will never have it again. After a rough day at his Manhattan law office and a wicked commute, Howard's not eager to see Diane (Jennifer Garner), the wife of 15 years he's been fighting with; so he goes to the attic-y room over their freestanding garage, which offers a view into the house through a large window. He doesn't intend to spend the night but after he does, staying off the grid feels like a good idea. He doesn't tune in or turn on, just drops out. While Diane reports him missing he starts living like a homeless person, eating out of trash cans but still sleeping in the garage. He denies that it's a game but never says what it is. Because there's not much to see in Howard's life, a lot of time is devoted to flashbacks and fantasies. Cranston's narration is almost the only voice we hear, attempting to keep us on his side while we observe only a fraction of the effects of his irresponsible behavior. I can see why the concept, from an E. L. Doctorow short story, might have appealed to writer-director Robin Swicord, but the comedy-ish she's turned it into doesn't work. Howard's hiatus from life may seem like a lark to him, but it doesn't fly on screen.

June 23:
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) isn't really a hero but he played the title role in The Hero 40 years ago and will play a hero today for anyone who will hire him. They'd better hurry because he's 71 and, with pancreatic cancer, may not make it to 72. Having just gotten the news Lee doesn't want to share it, but he wants to mend fences with his ex-wife (Katharine Ross) and their daughter (Krysten Ritter). On the bright side, while visiting his best friend/pot dealer (Nick Offerman) he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman attracted to men twice her age; and a group he's never heard of wants to give him a lifetime achievement award. Fortunately for actors like Lee, there are writer-directors like Blake Haley who make modestly budgeted films like this (and I'll See You in My Dreams, in which Haley also cast Elliott) for adult viewers. The Hero is a slow, sad, simple slice of life that probably gives Elliott more closeups than he's had in the rest of his career combined. It's not one to see when you're in a party mood, but it's a well-made drama. "Movies are other people's dreams," Lee says; and Haley has dreamed up a good one.

Here's the cure for your Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms. Maurice hasn't changed in the 30 years since it was released, but the world has. Although much had changed in the two previous decades, gay love stories were still rare in mainstream cinema and you didn't see them every night of the week on network television. No country had legalized same-sex marriage and most LGBT entertainers remained closeted. In many ways little had changed since the pre-WWI period of Maurice, when decent folk wouldn't even think about "the unspeakable love of the Greeks." But even then men were falling in love with each other, risking prison, social ruin, unemployment and blackmail to do so. Maurice Hall (James Wilby) has been attracted to boys since adolescence but didn't dream of acting on it until, at Cambridge, he meets Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). They become chums, then chums with benefits; but back in the real world Clive breaks Maurice's heart by telling him their romance can't continue. Clive tries marriage, Maurice tries hypnotherapy; they remain friends. Then Clive's gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves) develops a crush on Maurice. It's an impossible situation, with Maurice risking all he has and Alec risking what little he has; but this is a movie (based on an E.M. Forster novel), so they just might make it. James Ivory went on to direct a dozen more films, few as good as this one. Grant became an international star while Wilby and Graves have worked steadily, mostly in British TV. Maurice is a pleasure you no longer have to feel guilty about.



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