Movie Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk may be the director’s most single-minded film.  All the sensory effects of a cinematic experience, visual and auditory, are marshaled to reproduce the barely endurable tension and fear of the Allied soldiers stranded by enemy attack at the isolated beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 during WWII.  In other words, rather than the cinematic spectacle being driven by an emotional story, the amazing spectacle here becomes the story.  The movie’s primary purpose is to put the audience right into the middle of the escalating danger that the over 300,000 British, French, and Dutch troops faced with growing dread and hopelessness of rescue until the miraculous evacuation took place.  In achieving that purpose to gruelingly moving effect, it mightily succeeds.

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Thus, while the movie is available in a variety of different formats including 70 mm, 35 mm, or digital projection in IMAX or non-IMAX, this movie must be seen in 70mm IMAX for maximum impact (read here for a better explanation of different formats).  All sorts of credit and awards recognition must go to the cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (also responsible for shooting Interstellar and 2008’s atmospheric vampire film, Let the Right One In).  I cannot fathom the lengths Nolan and Hoytema must have gone through to install those lugging IMAX cameras at the back of plane wings and above the seas to capture those shots realistically plowing through the clouds in the air or swooping through the seas (those prone to motion or air sickness should be forewarned).  It is an astonishing accomplishment that furthers Nolan’s consistent argument that 2D can be more immersive than 3D and that 70 mm film stock is still a valuable resource in the age of digital projection.  In addition, Nolan, who avoids CGI when he can, opted for greater physical reality by using real naval destroyers for the sea battles and practical effects of cardboard cutouts of soldiers on the beach for distant background shots.

All of this is not to suggest that the movie is necessarily lacking in story, as writer/director Nolan employs his trademark nonlinear storytelling technique to tell three disparate accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation.  The first, which stars Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, and Harry Styles as Allied soldiers, takes place on the beach in the span of one week (chaptered “The Mole”, which is actually referring to the small isolated beach harbor).  The second (chaptered “The Sea”) takes place in the span of one day and features Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain with his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan), setting out from home on his boat to rescue soldiers stranded in Dunkirk.  Finally, the third (“The Air”) happens in the span of one hour in an aerial battle of British RAF pilots headlined by Tom Hardy against German pilots.

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In telling the three accounts that finally intersect near the climax, there are no detailed backstories of individual characters, as the movie, without much dialogue, is entirely concerned with capturing the hellish anxiety of war in the moment.  The relative experiences of anxiety would be different, however, between the fear of potential air strikes and torpedoes on the ground, which would be like a prolonged and unbearable crawl, and the fear of drowning or heights being more sudden and instantaneous.  Nolan’s regular editor, Lee Smith, conveys that rather elegantly in the movie’s crosscutting between the different passages of time.  The structure also allows for small, significant character turns and revelations, whether they be heroism, trauma, or cowardice.

The movie is not geared to be an actors’ showcase but it is nonetheless tricky for the performers to behave convincingly in the moment to make us care for their predicament.  The veteran Oscar®-winning British actor, Mark Rylance is a crucial standout as the boat captain in “The Sea”, symbolically expressing the can-do spirit responding to the desperate military call from Dunkirk for civilians to rescue them.  Playing opposite him in a fierce battle of determination is Cillian Murphy, a shell-shocked soldier that Rylance rescues from another near-sinking boat.  As the ranking commander on the beach, Kenneth Brannagh also provides great facial reaction shots that Nolan can hold on to underline the mounting weight of enemy oppression in the shores.  Hardy may be building a running joke in playing roles that require him to wear a mask over his face all the time (after The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road), but is as reliable as always, while Whitehead, Bonnard, and Styles provide fitting empathy as the desperate soldiers.

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A special mention must also go to Nolan’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, who comes up with yet another unique musical score.  Reportedly, Zimmer made recordings of the tick-tock sound of Nolan’s pocket watch as the background for his score.  The music builds on that sound with increasing, high-pitched crescendo sounds to emphasize the feel of a countdown ticking in the desperation of survival.

In its skillful joining of sheer spectacle and story, the movie that I was most reminded of was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which is the only movie that I felt was actually improved by seeing it on 3D.  Both movies fully exploit and immerse us into all the inherent drama of survival in the face of seemingly inevitable doom and, though Nolan is more of a traditionalist in technique, both films try to push the envelope of visual technologies to achieve the immersive effect.  Much like Gravity clocked in at just 91 minutes, I am also particularly happy that Nolan, after the slight bombast of Interstellar (which I still liked for its vision but found too simplistic in its ideas), made his second shortest movie to date at 106 minutes.  The movie has a singular purpose and achieves it in a most efficiently brilliant way.

Rating: 92/100

USA/UK//France/Netherlands.  2017.  Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan.  Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.

Movie Diary for the Weeks of July 2-15, 2017

Both in movie watching and writing, these last two weeks have been catch-up time.  Several were re-watches including the Guardians of the Galaxy series and I have finally gotten to familiarizing myself with the reboot of the Planet of the Apes series.  Without further ado, here are my capsule reviews of movies I saw in the last two weeks.

 

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The Villainess (2017) – dir. Byung-gil Jung

Rating: 62/100

If this Korean action film had a story to match the impressive action sequences on display here, it would have really amounted to quite something.  The action scenes are certainly memorable, right from the opening brutal knife and gun fight filmed as the POV shot of its lead female assassin more than ably played by Ok-vin Kim (it is reminiscent of 2015’s Hardcore Henry, though thankfully the POV dizziness doesn’t last for the whole film to become tedious).  The final action sequence set in a city bus, as the camera goes in and out of a desperate and violent melee like a participant in the action, is also very impressive.  Also, it is not often you get to see a woman in a wedding dress with a sniper rifle.  However, the story in between gives you the sense that the filmmakers took you around a long, convoluted route to drive up the storytelling taxi meter.  The trip just adds up to a tale of an assassin confused between the loyalties of a government agency and a secret criminal faction.  Convoluted storytelling might work if there is enough of an emotional anchor to latch on to, but nearly all the characters (played by accomplished actors like Ha-kyun Shin and Seo-hyung Kim) are set up to be distrusted that the main protagonist comes off as foolish for believing anyone at all.  The action sequences may make it worth seeing anyway but you may find yourself itching in between those sequences.

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – dir. Jon Watts

Rating: 71/100

Even though I knew Marvel had taken control of the character, I still found myself asking, “Do we need yet another Spider-Man movie?”  While this does not displace Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie for me (I know many will disagree), Spider-Man: Homecoming at least avoids rehashing the origin story (unlike The Amazing Spider-Man series, which was perfunctory for that very rehashing) and brings enough fresh character and story touches to make it worthwhile.  Like the way Tom Holland breezily plays Peter Parker, the film doesn’t take itself as seriously as the Tobey Maguire series (though I think the first two of those have the dramatic weight to support it) and the humor often hits the bull’s eye for laughs.  An action sequence in the middle set at the Lincoln Monument is tense and very well done, but the climactic action sequence with the plane is sadly shot in a dark and disorienting fashion that I could not tell what was going on most of the time.  However, there are some clever character touches with familiar characters from the comic universe such as Flash, among others, who is not made to be a physical bully, but a verbally insulting one.

 

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Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016) – dir. Joon-Ik Lee

Rating: 83/100

This film tells the story of the famous Korean poet, Dong-ju Yoon, who wrote in the period when Korea was under Japanese colonization.  Some of his famous artful poetry is integrated nicely with the film’s elegant black-and-white cinematography, giving it a historical feel.  The black-and-white palette of the film reminded me how the removal of color forces us to pay more attention to shapes and geometry in a scene (which is fitting, I think, with the theme of colonial oppression, as the characters often appear to be boxed in).  Joon-Ik Lee is a director that I have liked for picking rather humanistic stories like The King and the Clown and Wish but I have found his visual style to be rather stale.  This is certainly his most visually striking film to date, however, and through the duality of Yoon (Ha-neul Kang) and his cousin, Mong-gyoo Song (Jung-min Park), the film conveys the tragedy of a people without national sovereignty and whether writing in literature is a means to fight against the oppression or run away into the wilderness of intellect.

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vols. 1 (2014) and 2 (2017) – dir. James Gunn

Rating for Vol. 1: 81/100

Rating for Vol. 2: 78/100

So I guess I got into bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy kick, as I re-watched Vol. 2 in theaters the first week of July and then caught the first one playing on FX with special behind-the-scenes footage and interviews the following week.  The humor worked for me as well as it did the last time, and It is always fun to be dazzled by how the directors and actors have to imagine the CGI effects that will be filled in later.  The niftiest details that I was realized this time were in how they imagined the characters of Rocket and Groot, which points to how actors who serve as the model for motion capture do not get enough credit (which is also true of the Planet of the Apes series, more on that later).  Bradley Cooper does a fine job of voicing the sardonic Rocket, but it is the director James Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn that provides the physical movement.  For Groot, it is the motion capture performance of Krystian Godlewski who provides the real substance to Vin Diesel’s repeatedly saying, “I Am Groot” (and you know the other line).

 

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – dir. Rupert Wyatt

Rating: 72/100

So I finally got to catch up with this much-praised reboot trilogy of Planet of the Apes and, while it is yet another tale of humans playing God against nature and losing, the movie nicely updates the elements for a modern retelling.  Best of all, it has Andy Serkis, who, after bringing Gollumn from Lord of the Rings and King Kong to life, imbues yet another character with vivacious heart in the form of the intelligent ape, Caesar.  Caesar is a product of experiments done by a scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), who is trying to find a cure for his father’s (John Lithgow) degenerating Alzheimer’s disease.  While Will and Caesar form a bond, Caesar is taken away in a locked in a cage and mistreated by other humans, as he eventually brings together a race of apes to rebel against the mistreating humans.  The elements are familiar but director Rupert Wyatt enlivens the action sequences with swooping cinematography by Andrew Lesnie and the aid of CGI to capture and follow the apes’ paths of climbing from limb to limb.

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) – dir. Matt Reeves

Rating: 82/100

I still have to watch the second part of the reboot trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this third one really improves on the elements of the first.  The opening title cards get the audience up to speed with the events of the first two and a human army is sent to eradicate the rising species of intelligent apes led by Caesar.  More than Avatar or District 9, this movie really has us rooting against the human species, and Serkis once again imbues ample heart and humanity to Caesar, who starts out on a personal path of revenge against the unnamed Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leading the army.  I should also point out that the story that seems to be in the trailers is not what is in the movie (it is much more interesting than a one-dimensional war between apes and humans).  While some may read into possible political parallels in the movie (e.g. the Colonel is trying to build a wall to keep his enemies out), given the length of time in filmmaking, I usually see such parallels as coincidence and take the director, Matt Reeves at his word when he says “it was unintentional”.  It is also to the film’s credit that, with the exception of one crucial scene of exposition, it propels the story forward with action, suspense, and not much explanatory dialogue.  To be fair, with the oppressive humans being painted as villains, the climax resorts to some of them acting not so intelligently and the ending catastrophe feels somewhat arbitrary.  However, the movie conveys its symbolic messages and parallels (such as the biblical Exodus) lightly and subtly enough in the mix of a rousing entertainment.  Also, it has become a cliche to say that motion capture performances like Serkis’ are undervalued and it is time for some actual awards recognition to end the cliche.

 

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Police Story (1985) – dir. Jackie Chan and Chi-hwa Chen

Rating: 76/100

I personally find good repeat value in the best of Jackie Chan’s action comedies and Police Story is certainly one of his most exhilarating.  As a caveat, I do find this one troubling to watch in one sense because Chan, the actors, and the stunt players are really getting injured.  Well, okay, Chan has gotten injured making a lot of his movies and he got one of his worst here as he slides down a long pole in a shopping mall surrounded by electric lights.  However, this one in particular has so many people getting cut by glass throughout (and many of the cuts are real) in the final mall melee and I get a slightly queasy feeling that we may be a few steps shy of watching a live death video.  Still, it is better to praise the actors for the risks they take to deliver the sensational action throughout.  This movie also has one of my favorite comedic sequences by Chan when his character, Ka Kui tries to take on multiple telephone calls coming into the police station including his girlfriend, Amy (Maggie Cheung).  As a side note, she has got to be one of the most understanding girlfriends in movie history considering the increasing amount of misunderstandings and peril he puts her through in the Police Story series.

 

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The Big Sick (2017) – dir. Michael Showalter

Rating: 85/100

It turns out I saw the best movie for last.  This was the independent film that broke out as the sensation from the Sundance Festival this year and I can understand why.  The movie, directed by Michael Showalter and written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, is Kumail’s own real life story of balancing romance and stand-up comedy.  As Kumail, who is an immigrant from Pakistan aspiring to be a stand-up comedian, meets a Caucasian American woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan), the movie goes through some familiar territory in dealing with obvious familial and cultural differences.  Once a pivotal event happens, however, and Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) enter into the picture, the movie becomes highly fresh and original in navigating different facets of a growing but awkward relationship.  It was a particular thrill for me to see Hunter and Romano again in memorable roles that remind us how they can balance quirkiness with dramatic heft. I didn’t know much about the particulars of this story, so I hesitate to say much more.  But Kumail’s story, as co-written and acted by himself, is sweet without being too cloying and serious without taking itself too seriously (especially thanks to many of Kumail’s hilarious zingers in his routine).

Movie Diary for the Week of June 25-July 1, 2017

I didn’t see any movies for more than a week.  However, the next week, I caught up with more.  Going on vacation often means sightseeing during the day and re-watching movies on HBO in my hotel room.  So I got to re-watch a few movies while watching a couple of new ones in theaters.  Here are the movies I watched this past week:

 

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Sister Act 2 (1993) – dir. Bill Duke

Rating: 53/100

This movie does have some childhood nostalgia value from when I saw it as a kid enjoying the gospel soundtrack including great renditions of “Joyful, Joyful”, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”, and “Oh, Happy Day”.  However, it is not a very good film.  The first Sister Act failed to live up to the comic potential of its premise about a lounge singer, Dolores (Whoopi Goldberg), who is hidden in a convent under the witness protection program.  After Dolores is accepted as a proper nun, this second one trades in on the old teacher-student clichés without a lot of heart, originality, and conflict in between.  I have always thought that Hollywood never quite figured out how to exploit the unruly comic potential of Whoopi Goldberg and this one does not either.  Pitting someone like her against a disorderly class could be interesting.   However, the movie resolves that conflict way too quickly and conveniently in the first third of the movie (with the exception of one student played by Lauryn Hill).  The actors playing them, which includes a few future (and some eventually faded) stars like Hill and Jennifer Love Hewitt, are certainly musically talented but the mediocre script does not give them much in the way of personalities to create a real class dynamic.  I’ll still always enjoy the soundtrack for this movie including the closing finale of “Joyful, Joyful”.

 

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Live Free or Die Hard (2007) – dir. Len Wiseman

Rating: 71/100

In the tradition of the 4th of July, this is probably as prime time as any to watch this fourth Die Hard movie.  It is the last of the action film series that I enjoyed even though, as a computer programmer, I know that little of the techno terrorism set around Washington, DC makes any sense.  What I look for in a Die Hard film is good action and the wise-cracking attitude and bravado of Bruce Willis as John McClane, who is still deep down a good cop.  Many felt that the film was diluted by the language and violence being toned down for the film’s PG-13 rating but that was until the fifth film, A Good Day to Die Hard came out, which proved that having a higher R rating is not necessarily what captures the essence of a character.  At least McClane is recognizable as McClane in this one, there is good chemistry between him and Justin Long as a hacker who aids him in his quest, and the action here is directed by Len Wiseman in a clean, crisp fashion so that we can follow it.

 

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Catch Me If You Can (2002) – dir. Steven Spielberg

Rating: 81/100

Aside from big action blockbusters, I sometimes have trouble trying to come up with a response when someone asks me for a suggestion of a light, entertaining film that is skillfully made.  This film by Steven Spielberg, however, is one of the first movies that would come to my mind.  It tells the kind of story that would only be told because it happened in real life.  The main character, Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio, in probably his last youthful role) is a teenager who became a con artist to impersonate a Pan Am pilot, a doctor from Harvard Medical School, and a lawyer, all while forging millions of dollars in checks.  The movie could have been made into a serious crime story or, worse, have the story become an ungainly fit for the film’s breezy tone to become morally problematic, but it strikes a delicate balance to celebrate Abagnale’s brazen charm over his criminality.  I also think of this as a very good Christmas film, as Abagnale and his FBI agent pursuer, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) always talk to each other during Christmas, eventually building something resembling a father-son relationship.  There is also a great supporting performance by Christopher Walken playing the actual father, Frank Abagnale, Sr.

 

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Baby Driver (2017) – dir. Edgar Wright

Rating: 76/100

This is probably the movie I most anticipated watching this summer and, while it is not the masterpiece I hoped it would be, it is still a very musically entertaining ride.  Writer and director Edgar Wright always had the directorial knack for literally directing and editing his scenes with a musical beat (where scenes on set would be acted to the beat of the background music).  Here, that approach takes center stage to turn this film really into a musical in some ways.  All the action scenes are directed to be set to musical beats, whether it is the mix of screeching tires set to memorable 80s tunes or the timing of gunshots in a warehouse shootout.  The directorial touch is also driven narratively by the central character, Baby (Ansel Elgort), who listens to music on his MP3 player to drown out his tinnitus with his music while working as a getaway driver for armed robberies.  The movie is filled with good supporting performances from Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm, who deliver clever speeches surrounding pop culture references from the music of the 80s to Monsters, Inc., sometimes even turning them into veiled threats.  It is too bad that the overall crime story and character motivations turn out to be generic, predictable, and occasionally nonsensical, but the movie is still worthwhile for appreciating the musical direction.

 

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The Mummy (2017) – dir. Alex Kurtzman

Rating: 40/100

So I had already heard the terrible reviews for this film and I was hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as they said (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 15%).  It wasn’t as bad but that also means it is not memorably bad.  There are a couple of nice scenes like the realistic depiction of the plane crash that is shown heavily in the trailers.  The issues, however, are numerous including how the points introduced in the story remain merely as plot points, disconnected and underdeveloped, and thus the jump scenes throughout the film do not add up to any scares.  The plot lapses could be forgiven if the characters had some personality but they do not (and there are several points when I felt I had to really “guess” the character motivations).  Tom Cruise may have had more substantial dramatic roles than Brendan Fraser from 1999’s The Mummy did, but Fraser had the goofy sense of bumbling and foolhardiness that would fit the adventure and Cruise is really too green for the role.  Annabelle Wallis fares worse, as she is there to stop and spout plot exposition.  Sofia Boutella as the titular mummy and Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll come off a little better, but even their more intense moments are sabotaged by the film’s failure to establish the rules of the premise very well.  Overall, this will hardly work as a launch pad for Universal’s plan to launch the Dark Universe franchise, mainly because it is forgettable and without a personality.

 

Happy 4th of July!

Movie Diary for the Week of June 11-17, 2017

The movies that I watched this week were so different from each othe this week, I feel like I really went from one universe to the other.  One was an action movie that I re-watched, the second was a movie about a young African-American girl who wants to join a dance troupe, and the third was a psychological drama with post-apocalyptic overtones.  Here are the movies:

 

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John Wick: Chapter 2 – dir. Chad Stahelski

Rating: 86/100

I have already written a full review praising this movie here and I was every bit as pleased with it the second time around.  There has been a surge in quality in action movies recently with the John Wick movies, The Raid movies from Indonesia, and Mad Max: Fury Road with a greater reliance on good old-fashioned stunt work and balletic choreography over CGI.  I hope this signals a trend that will continue.

 

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The Fits (2015) – dir. Anna Rose Holmer

Rating: 87/100

This is one of the most surreally intriguing films I’ve seen in a while and it is one that you have to meet halfway to appreciate.  The movie’s tone and thematic approach require some patience, especially as the first half has hardly any dialogue.  Then you realize it is resolutely capturing the pure, unadulterated perspective of a preteen trying to fit in and belong in her school environment (the characters in focus are all young people in school and the adults’ faces are not seen or kept out of focus).  The main character is a young African-American girl, Toni (a guilelessly captivating Royalty Hightower) who is somewhat of a tomboy and training in boxing.  Then she tries out for a girls’ dance troupe that she gradually becomes enamored with.  Some of the dancers then start having seizure fits.  What The Fits of the title means symbolically is one of the intriguing points to be debated and I think it adds up to a beautiful story about the rite of passage into adolescence and feminine freedom of expression.

 

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It Comes at Night (2017) – dir. Trey Edward Shults

Rating: 75/100

There are many audiences who feel disappointed by a movie after it is not the same as what the previews advertise and I fear that this movie will fall prey to that as well.  The trailer, as trailers often do, is misleadingly marketing this as a horror film with boos and jump scares.  However, while there are subtle elements of horror, this is really a tense psychological family drama about internal fears set against the backdrop of a pervasive surrounding threat.  Paul (Joel Edgerton, who seems to pick one intriguing movie after another) is a father trying to protect his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) with his own strict sense of rules to guard themselves, especially at night.  Then, a man, Will (Christopher Abbott), who also has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), suddenly comes in, seeking shelter.  I won’t say too much about the movie, because this is a chamber drama with a small number of characters and the psychological and moral tension crucially depend on character more than plot.  But if you saw a movie called The Trigger Effect from back in 1996, which had the intriguing premise about a domestic environment with no electric power but failed to live up to its potential, this film is the one that realizes the inherent drama better with a similar theme.

Movie Diary for the Week of June 4-10, 2017

Because of personal traveling, I did not get to see many new movies for the first time.  Still, I got to see one somewhat interesting movie and an older movie that was playing on HBO.  Here are the movies that I viewed last week:

 

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) – dir. Andre Ovredal

Rating: 63/100

There is a terrific buildup to make half a good horror movie in this 86-minute flick.  Brian Cox and Emilie Hirch play a father-son team of coroners who perform an autopsy of an unidentified female corpse that turns out to harbor many secrets.  The title should already suggest that the film is not for the squeamish, but the first 45 minutes makes good use of the potential morbid humor and jump scares that can happen in the grisly setting of the morgue.  Many have mentioned that the resolution is disappointing (and I agree) and each viewer would have their own opinion about the degree to which it mars what came before.  One reason that it is disappointing is because it invites comparison to another recent horror film (which I won’t name because it may be a spoiler) and the revelation tied to that element seems like a hokey twist to an old historical event.  Also, while I know the leads characters are supposed to be more subdued being people who dissect dead bodies for a living, the tension could have been raised a bit by ratcheting up the characters’ desperation and/or ingenuity (to be closer to a survivalist horror film a la Get Out).  Still, there has been a recent surge of quality in horror films (Personal Shopper being another one) and the first half of this film is indicative of a trend of going back to the more classical tradition of well-timed scares.

 

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Shaft (2000) – dir. John Singleton

Rating: 54/100

I admit that I have not seen the original 1971 Shaft that was hugely influential in its popularization of the blaxpoitation genre (and I would like to see it at some point).  But this loose remake from 2000 was playing on TV so I decided to stop and watch it.  The remake, on its own terms, really amounts to an uneasy alliance between a serious crime drama and a movie that frivolously wants to celebrate the coolness of its central character. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the titular cop turned private eye and vigilante, is rock-solid as the central character who takes matters into his own hands to take down a rich tycoon’s racist son (Christian Bale), who has murdered an African-American man in a frenzy.   There is a slew of superb actors including Bale (who played a similarly homicidal rich man in the much better American Psycho), Toni Collette, and Dan Hedaya, who are all typecast to a T.  They, along with the mercurial character actor Jeffrey Wright as a gangster, bring a lot of gravity that would be fitting in a grittier, urban crime drama.  But the seriousness is at odds with the vigilantism the movie celebrates and stretches credibility to do so (Shaft, after he quits the police force, is really a civilian who shoots and kills multiple people in his own personal code of justice).  The result is a movie that is confused in tone where good actors and a good director (Singleton made the great first film, Boyz n the Hood) try to elevate material that is awkwardly unable to be elevated.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 28-June 3, 2017

This was a lighter movie week with two movies driven by strong, defiant women in very different ways.  Here are the movies I watched:

 

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Wonder Woman – dir. Patty Jenkins

Rating: 73/100

I became more hopeful about this DC comics movie when I heard that the director was Patty Jenkins, whose last film was the intense, despairing but empathetic Monster from 2003 (where Charlize Theron won an Oscar).  To say that this is the best DC comic book movie since The Dark Knight trilogy seems like faint praise, but it is a relief that it is a good movie anyway.  I could still do with less Zack Snyder-influenced slow motion in the action scenes (just let the scene play out in real time to have maximum impact) and elements in the climax, including revelations and reversals, will seem familiar and predictable.  However, there are a few places where the film takes chances and the strong and clear characterization of Wonder Woman that is strengthened by Gal Gadot’s performance makes us care anyway.  There is also effortless chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine as a WWI pilot.

 

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A Quiet Passion – dir. Terence Davies

Rating: 78/100

British director Terence Davies (more of whose work I would like to seek out) directs this biopic of the life of American poet, Emily Dickinson.  Davies brings a literal formalism to the portrayal of the poet (played elegantly by Cynthia Nixon), who found pockets of comfort in the witty camaraderie with some people around her, but was quietly, defiantly working through her emotional introversion and confusion.  The first half has conversations with her sister, Vinny (the always underrated Jennifer Ehle), and especially her friend, Vryling Bufam (Catherine Bailey) and they are some of the funniest scenes I have ever seen in a costume drama.  The second half darkens as her reclusive turmoil grows, reflecting the poetry where she vividly ruminates about her place in the world in the span of eternity (the film is sometimes punctuated with excerpts of her poetry narrated by Nixon).  Some may see Dickinson as a smug and often impossible person who merely speculated about a world that she refused to fully participate in.  However, within her strict Christian upbringing, she was one who stuck to her own values (especially in regards to women’s place in literature in a male-driven society) and was comfortable asking the tougher questions about existential meaning.  The movie captures all of that in a poetic way with stately visual compositions of interiors and lush vistas.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 21-27, 2017

It was a busy movie watching week with a troubled writer, a Hollywood love story, a father looking for his lost son in war, a rocker posing as a teacher, and a children’s book author whose animal creations come to life.  You may already guess a couple of the titles from the descriptions above and it was nice to have an overall gentle week in movie watching.  Here are the movies that I saw:

 

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The Whole Wide World (1996) – dir. Dan Ireland

Rating: 73/100

This is the movie about the tentative courtship between Novalyne Price and pulp fiction author, Robert E. Howard.  I have written a full review for this low-key, effective film that contains some moments that terrifically capture a writer’s imagination and a tender, but tragic romance.

 

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Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) – dir. Daniel Raim

Rating: 80/100

This charming documentary is about an unsung couple in Hollywood, Harold and Lillian Michelson, who were instrumental in the creation of classic movies for over 50 years since the 1940s.  Harold was a storyboard artist who drew the artwork that gave way to classic moments from movies like Spartacus, The Birds, and The Graduate before he went onto become an Oscar-nominated production designer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Lillian was a film researcher who found the details to bring famous movies like Scarface to life and worked in famous studios like Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks.  Harold’s work reminds us moving images require static images to put together and Lillian’s work reminds us of the painstaking research that is required to bring authenticity and credibility to a film from the smallest detail.  Film buffs would be fascinated to learn about this under-recognized duo who gave life to so many classic films while maintaining one of the rare lasting marriages in Hollywood.  Lillian narrates much of the film about her late husband’s and her own work.

 

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Shenandoah (1965) – dir. Andrew V. McLaglen

Rating: 75/100

Jimmy Stewart stars as a Virginia farmer and father of six sons and one daughter who vows to stay out of the Civil War that breaks out near his land in Shenandoah Valley.  The movie carefully displays the family’s stance of neutrality in showing their family being anti-slavery and having a young African-American as a close friend but also having the daughter marry a Confederate soldier.  When the youngest son gets caught as a POW on the Union side while wearing a Confederate soldier cap that he picked up, Stewart sets out with some of his children on a quest to find him.  It is interesting to reflect on this movie’s reception against the backdrop of the Vietnam War but, at its heart, it is a movie about a father looking for his lost son as a shepherd looks for his lost sheep.  Some points in the story are unbelievable as certain actions do not seem to have as serious consequences as they should, but, by the end, I was so moved that I thought that the last hymn played in the church would be “Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us.”  My mind filled in the gap anyway, which suggests the effectiveness of the film.

 

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School of Rock (2003) – dir. Richard Linklater

Rating: 83/100

As it was playing on TV, I re-watched this fun little gem that shows Jack Black in probably his funniest comedic performance.  Director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White fashioned a tailor-made vehicle for Black, who makes his love of rock and roll infectious to the class that he teaches and the audience with ease.  Black plays Dewey Finn, who does con his fifth-grade class and impersonate his roommate as a substitute teacher, but his passion to put on a great rock and roll show winningly brings out the musical talents in his class (who are cast with actors who are convincing musicians first).  The story checks off the familiar points to make a feel-good film but with some quirky details of originality tucked in between including the school principal character played by Joan Cusack.

 

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Miss Potter (2006) – dir. Chris Noonan

Rating: 68/100

This is the second movie that I saw with Renee Zellweger, who often picks good, strong-willed female roles.  Here, she plays the British children’s author, Beatrix Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” among other books in the early 1900s.  The movie often fantastically shows the animals in her drawings come to life, which makes it easy to see why Noonan, who directed Babe, would helm this one, too.  As Zellweger plays her, Potter is independent and not willing to settle for any suitor merely on the basis of wealth until she finally falls for her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor).  While there is a certain amount of serious drama, this is mostly a frothy, straightforward portrait of a woman who was ahead of her time and stuck to her talents despite all the familial and social roadblocks, including her own mother.