July Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

With Hawaii and Guatemala recovering from volcanic damage, this may not be the best time for a volcano-triggered fantasy (after all, school shootings led to the postponement, then cancellation of the Heathers TV series); but the people who flock to Jurassic Park/World movies would rather think about their crossover potential with the How to Train Your Dragon series, or how much better their giant animals are than those of Rampage. They're more concerned with CGI than IRL. So here we go again. All the rehistoric life on Isla Nublar is about to be covered in lava, wiping out all those species again. The U.S. government won't help but wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) will. He recruits Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) to bring 11 species back to the mainland, including Blue, who was practically Owen's pet. (So was Claire, and they've still got feelings for each other.) But some greedy bad guys (Rafe Spall, Toby Jones) have other plans for the animals. I know it's hokey, and how many times can you believe a 50-foot critter can sneak up on a five- or six-footer? For that matter, even if you can catch these giants, where will you find cages big enough to hold them? and how will you transport the cages? (Hint: Proportions change conveniently.) If you're going to be picky, go watch something you can believe, like Deadpool. The effects allow great interspecies interaction; and while Steven Spielberg's just an executive producer, Lockwood's granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) brings the childlike wonder we associate with him to this effort. Whether you go for those aspects or find contemporary relevance in a huge monster with tiny hands, Jurassic offers a World of summer escapism.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses and Christopher Plummer should be on an actors' version of Mount Rushmore. Having them together in a film raises unreasonable expectations which Boundaries doesn't come close to meeting. It's pleasant enough and the stars do fine work, but they can't raise it much above the level of meh. Farmiga gets to act up a storm. Her character, Laura has enough problems to ensure full employment for an advice columnist, or the therapist she's seeing in the opening scene. A single mom working as executive assistant to a wealthy, bitchy friend, Laura keeps close to a dozen stray animals in her house at any one time. One of them scares off her man of the month on the same day her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is expelled from school and her estranged father Jack (Plummer) is evicted from his nursing home. Before you can say "road trip!" Laura's driving the trio (and some extraordinarily well-behaved animals we rarely see or hear in the car) from Seattle to Los Angeles, to deposit Jack with her younger sister JoJo (Kristin Schaal). Though Laura's in a hurry, she takes the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (hey, it's a movie) rather than the interstate. Actually the route is dictated by Jack, who has a trunkful of weed to sell on the way, to clients Christopher Lloyd, Bobby Cannavale and Peter Fonda. Writer-director Shana Feste seems to have made a checklist of characteristics and incidents and crammed them into a script without quite rounding them off into believable characters and events. The result is passable but far short of its potential.

Damsel is the kind of movie that, if you're watching it in a theater, you're afraid to laugh until someone else does, because so much of it is serious you think the things that strike you as funny may not be intended to be. Oh, there are obvious laughs, like the line about Horehound being a bad name for a pet, and the preacher saying he's used Bible pages for "personal hygiene"; but most of the humor is more subtle. So is most of the drama, which unfolds slowly and with some big surprises. The setting is the American West, sometime in the 19th century. Samuel (Robert Pattinson) hires Parson Henry (David Zellner) to marry him to his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), but doesn't mention that they have to travel some distance to find her. A couple of other details remain to be revealed. I won't explain why, but basically the first half of the movie is about Samuel, the second half about Penelope. Parson Henry, whose younger self also appears in the opening scene with Robert Forster, is the most consistent character, perhaps because Zellner wrote and directed Damsel with his brother, Nathan Zellner, who has a smaller role. They would have done better to give more screen time to the more interesting top-billed actors, who both have some time to shine. Wasikowska reminded me of Martha Plimpton, who I could imagine playing Penelope a generation ago. Damsel is for those of us who want something different and don't care if it's perfect. It's kind of infectious – whether like laughter or disease is your call.

John Callahan (1951-2010) was "Portland's celebrity cartoonist" and an alcoholic. As played by Joaquin Phoenix in an award-worthy performance, he opens Gus Van Sant's film by telling his story to a group of fellow alcoholics at the home of their sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill, unrecognizable with long blond hair, who could also be remembered at awards time). John's telling the same story, which comes from Callahan's autobiography, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and in a larger auditorium, and later to a group of neighborhood skateboarders. The multiple locations, and jumping around in time via flashbacks, are supposed to make this seem more like a movie and less like an inspirational speech on behalf of AA. It won't fool anybody. The flashbacks are divided between two periods. Depending on whether John is in a motorized wheelchair or not, it's either before or after the accident that left him largely paralyzed for the rest of his life. He somehow regained enough use of his hands to start drawing cartoons which are crude both visually and in terms of subject matter, laughing at sensitive subjects including his own condition. (The movie's title is the caption to a classic, where a posse comes upon an empty wheelchair.) Some sketching is animated and there's a bit of a vague romance (with Rooney Mara), but it's often hard to tell where we are in the film's 30-year-plus timeline. (It's not stated but Callahan was 21 when he had the accident. I still don't know when he stopped drinking.) There are people who will benefit from seeing this movie, but if you're just looking for a good time it will drive you to seek out the nearest bar afterwards.

The King is like a buffet. It has so many items to consume that, as good as most of them are, it leaves you feeling bloated and unsatisfied. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki travels around the country in a 1963 Rolls-Royce that once belonged to Elvis Presley, tracing highlights of Elvis' life, from his birthplace in Tupelo to Sun Records in Memphis, where his recording career began (but not Graceland, although an old housekeeper describes how she prepared his peanut butter and banana sandwiches); to Nashville, where most of his RCA hits were recorded; to New York, where he made his network TV debut; to Los Angeles, where he made a slew of mediocre movies; to Las Vegas, where he performed and got hooked on the pills that killed him. Other cars drive in Germany, where Elvis served in the US Army. But filming during the 2016 election campaign, Jarecki wants to compare the American Dream when Elvis worked hard and became successful, to today, metaphorically represented by Fat Elvis, who had everything but couldn't buy happiness. Soundbites of election news mix with snippets of interviews with Elvis. Celebrities and unknowns ride and sometimes sing in the car, suggesting a marriage of Carpool Karaoke and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. There are fascinating (but not always true) bits of Elvis trivia, and complaints of Elvis' "cultural appropriation" of black music while he didn't take a stand during the civil rights struggle. You can enjoy the nostalgic nuggets, the augmented Elvis biography, the music, the review of the last 70 years of American history, the travelogue and the political debate; but cramming them all into one movie makes them harder to appreciate.

Raising-kids-off-the-grid movies could be a new subgenre. Two summers ago we had Captain Fantastic and Hunt for the Wilderpeople; and now this, arguably the best of the three (or four, if you throw in A Quiet Place). Directed and co-written by Debra Granik with the same sensitivity her Winter's Bone showed toward people we don't normally see on screen, Leave No Trace introduces the U.S. to New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, whose impact is almost as great as Jennifer Lawrence's in Winter's Bone. Though the actress turns 18 this month, her character Tom's age is unspecified. (She could pass for as young as 12.) So are details of what happened to Tom's mother and how long she's been living outdoors with her PTSD-affected father, Will (Ben Foster). He's done a good job of home(less)-schooling Tom, as her knowledge is said to be above others of her age; but she's lacking in social skills, having only brief contact with others when they go into town for supplies. Eventually they're discovered and a surprisingly compassionate government agency (yes, it's fiction) tries to ease them back into the system with a job and a house to live in. What's wonderful about Leave No Trace is how easily anyone at all open-minded can empathize with all the characters and all points of view at the same time. What Will is doing is wrong for his daughter, if not for himself, but he's certainly not a monster. Your emotional investment may leave you craving a sequel, but that should probably be called Leave Well Enough Alone.

Eating Animals will make some people stop consuming meat products and others stop watching documentaries. On the positive side, it should stimulate some healthy conversations; on the other side, it could make some nutjob think the solution to the problems it depicts is a nuclear war to reduce the world’s population. Yes, it’s that kind of movie - preaching to the converted and hoping to win a few more converts. Aside from the expected images of the abusive conditions in which our food products are raised and slaughtered, it examines environmental consequences of “factory farms”-“hog lagoons” in North Carolina polluting the water downstream, killing fish and poisoning people; and antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” developed in chickens that have been pumped full of the medication. There are sad stories of people who have tried to buck the trend: farmers who raised animals humanely (with the same end result) in a nostalgic manner that’s not financially sustainable; and whistleblowers who have revealed the truth behind Purdue commercials and how the U.S. Department of Agriculture works for the industry, not us citizens (and certainly not the animals). Natalie Portman’s narration comes from a book by Jonathan Safran Foer (both are among the film’s dozen producers) and sometimes sounds strange out of context. It makes up some “facts” and uses others selectively, conveniently ignoring the fact that most American workers are also treated inhumanely and can’t afford to do the right thing when putting food on their table.

If you enjoy flipping through old albums of celebrity and fashion photos, you can hardly do better than the hundreds on display in this biography of Cecil Beaton. If you like to learn more about the person who took the photos, it’s a real win-win. Born in England in 1904, Beaton is best known in the US for his Oscar-winning design work on Gigi and My Fair Lady. Well, he was also a photographer, illustrator and diarist with several books to his credit. He was also very opinionated and has choice “No, he didn’t!” comments to offer on various celebs, many of whom attended parties at his country home and queued up for him to photograph them. His life is apparently more charming to look back on than it was to be a part of, and easier to watch than it was to live. Probably because Cecil was obviously gay in post-Oscar Wilde England, his father liked his brother (and sisters) best. He says (in diary excerpts read by Rupert Everett) he was a poor student, but he managed to attend Cambridge for three years before flunking out. He hung with a crowd of creative misfits, mostly wealthier than himself, and managed to become internationally famous for his skill with a camera. The great, largely unrequited loves of his life were Peter Watson, Kin Hoytsma, and - wait for it - Greta Garbo! Called “a total self-creation” by Truman Capote, Beaton had a knack for self-promotion. This documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland extends that promotion 38 years after his death.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It works on women too, but more slowly, according to this odd Israeli-German drama, the first feature by Ofir Raul Graizer. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) is an awesome German baker. His desserts win the heart - and other body parts - of Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli who travels to Berlin frequently on business, leaving his wife and young son in Jerusalem. Their affair lasts nearly a year until Oren dies in a car crash (early in the film - it’s not a spoiler). For reasons not entirely clear, Thomas travels to Jerusalem and begins stalking Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler), until she gives him a job in her cafe. His baking puts the place on the map but also puts its Kosher license in jeopardy.  Anat’s son brings out paternal feelings in Thomas and he eventually, if mysteriously, wins over her bigoted brother-in-law. But is Thomas really interested in taking Oren’s place in his late lover’s family? And in Anat’s case the question eventually arise, What did she know and when did she know it? Graizer develops his story slowly and not uninterestingly, but leaves too many questions unanswered for the film to be completely satisfying. Perhaps he expects his actors to tell us more but their faces are too often blank when they could provide explanations. The writer-director has mixed some fine ingredients in this cinematic pastry, but it doesn’t rise to the heights it should.

I didn’t know much about fashion designer Vivienne Westwood before I saw Lorna Tucker’s biography. Now I know a lot more, although I had to do post-viewing research to clarify some details. I know I would hate to work for Dame Vivienne (although many who do say positive things about their jobs) and I know I hate about 90 percent of her designs. But I had fun learning these things. In the early ‘60s, not yet having found her calling, she’s “living the American dream” (‘50s TV version) with Derek Westwood, who gives her his name and a son. Then she spends over a decade with Malcolm McLaren. They don’t marry but she has another son. Malcolm creates the Sex Pistols and Vivienne dresses them. Having designed their fashions she becomes a fashion designer, operating out of a small London shop. The film is vague about when she meets Andreas Kronthaler at a show in Australia, but he returns with her, marries her (in 1992) and becomes a true partner in her business. It’s implied that he’s gay, which is obvious, but they make each other happy on some level and are still together. A reluctant narrator to her own story, Westwood says she “can’t remember at what point the company became successful. But it did.” She opened shops in New York and Paris, among other places, but pulled out of a China deal because the business was getting too big for her and she wanted to remain independent. Aside from putting political slogans on t-shirts, her activism is limited to a brief section involving an Arctic voyage with Greenpeace and demonstrations for the Green Party and against fracking. Working well past retirement age (she turned 77 this year), Westwood continues aging naturally if not gracefully. She’s always been a character and always will be.



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