Provoking a desire for audiences to watch a movie again in order to further study how all the narratives connect isn’t exactly a badge of storytelling honor. Writer/director Christopher Nolan continues his march to cinematic glory with two lofty experiments within one compact and technically thrilling WWII film in Dunkirk (B) and sometimes succeeds in spectacular spurts. Nolan employs two unconventional approaches in telling the story of stranded British, Canadian, French and Belgian soldiers retreating to safety across the English Channel in small boats when large watercraft are sitting targets. One of these hat tricks – creating a war movie without showing any of the German army antagonists on screen – might have been enough. But by depicting three intercutting stories on a trio of timelines – newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a soldier in a weeklong journey across land and sea (where an inert Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer plots events from a pier), Mark Rylance as a citizen on a one-day timetable guiding a pleasure boat into enemy territory to save as many servicemen as possible and Tom Hardy as an ace flier engaged in one hour of hitting enemy targets from the skies – Nolan scores a paradoxical panorama that is intriguing but shuts out emotionally satisfying undercurrents. It’s fun to treasure hunt for how the three sub-stories interact, but to what end? The technical triumphs of tick-ticking musical tension (a restrained Hans Zimmer), ultra-real sound design, eye-popping stunts and the general eschewing of typical battle tropes such as backstories or motivations all contribute to the firm’s originality. But in trying so hard not to state the obvious, Nolan forgoes characterization nearly completely. In a story that’s basically about caring, he doesn’t give entry points for audiences to invest specifically in any of the individuals in the collection. So it’s a glorious visual piece of impressionism, an agile brain teaser and a so-so war thriller. Blunted by bland fictional characters standing in loosely for real-life heroes, the film is a new form of cinematic Sudoku in which the major victories aren’t given much ado while Nolan counts his creative flourishes.
Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (B+) marks the superhero’s seventh on-screen adventure (as played by Tom Holland, he most recently had a minor but memorable role in Captain America: Civil War) and his first standalone Marvel movie, with small bits by a quintet of actors popularized in other universe franchise series. Thankfully this third reboot of the series eschews the origin story, spider bites and uncle tragedy and simply lets Peter Parker be a regular high school kid with an extraordinary extracurricular life. Tom Holland is superb as the awkward arachnolescent, and the film’s best sequences show him fumble through the stickiness of growing up. Following other roles in the bird and bat family, Michael Keaton is strong as villain Vulture, a salvager turned arms trafficker who assembles Avengers scraps into fancy new weapons. Watts is inventive with the teen scenes and largely successful on the action front (disaster sequences at Washington Monument, aboard a Staten Island Ferry and at Coney Island are believable). The stakes seemed a bit smaller than the usual Marvel epic, but the characters reveal themselves nicely. Robert Downey, Jr. is fun as mentor/impresario Tony Stark, and Jacob Batalon is a delight as sidekick Ned. Effective storytelling and upbeat, compelling characters continue the Marvel winning streak.
With Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (B), cinema catches up a bit to television as small screen cast and collaborators bring an outsider cross-cultural sensibility to the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy formula. Star and semiautobiographical co-screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani brings a mild-mannered and endearing quality to his lead performance as a Pakistani Muslim stand-up comic who falls for a woman decidedly outside of his arranged marriage options. Zoe Kazan delivers warmth and wit to the role of the real-life psychiatry student for whom Nanjiani finds himself smitten. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano get some nice bits as her parents, who arrive at a critical juncture in the relationship. The dialogue is largely droll, inventive and natural and the mix of comedy and drama kept at lofty levels. Only in the final act does the film sputter a bit and fall prey to romcom clichés. Overall it’s a winning ensemble and a joyous time, filled with moments that feel new and relatable on screen.
Four decades after Bandit’s criss-crossing car chases left Smokey in the dust of Georgia, Edgar Wright’s Atlanta-set Baby Driver (A) grafts grifts and getaways, criminally comic chase capers and manic musical syncopations that yield new song to this southern boomtown into a wholly original new entertainment. This candy-colored fantasia is an engrossing and involving tale from the get-go, propelled by a very charming Ansel Elgort in the central role as a go-to guy for driving armed robbers from scenes of the crime and plucky Lily James as the waitress who wins his heart and may just pull him away from his life in the shadows. Add to these great performances scenery chewing Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and it’s off to the races. Wright has drawn his characters finely with clever quirks that pay off perfectly in episodes behind the crimes and behind the wheel. Because Elgort’s character has “a hum in the drum” and relies on an iTunes shuffle for the soundtrack to his days (including sweet, swift exit music), the film is laced with an electric and eclectic jukebox of joy ranging from Blur to The Beach Boys to the Incredible Bongo Band. The movie is faster, more furious and funnier than most anything in the marketplace right now because it sweats the details, cares for its characters, goes out on a limb for adventure and doesn’t mind crossing lanes between genres. It’s an ultracool summons into trippy territory. It’s the mix-tape and mash-up of summer that you didn’t know you were looking for, and it’s ready for a fresh spin.
A tepid Southern-gothic melodrama about a wounded Union soldier harbored in a small Confederate girls’ school during the Civil War, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (D+) explores the effects of an intrusive and intriguing outside force on a tight-knit group. It’s part hot and bothered but mostly “why’d she bother?” as Coppola pours on curiously long camera gazes at plantation columns and Spanish moss. Colin Farrell doesn’t really have a prayer in the thankless role of the charming invalid, and Nicole Kidman comes across as campy with a touch of trampy as head mistress of the schoolgirls. As a strange relationship rhombus begins to emerge, there emerges virtually none of the payoff for which one could hope. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are distinguished primarily by being pale and wearing poofy dresses and pearls. The cinematography technique is somewhere between Vaseline on the lens, a light candlelight flicker through gauze or an Instagram filter called Sepia Baroque. With set, soundtrack and staging laid bare of most frills, it was surprising there were fairly few twists and turns of note. The premise was here for a barn burner of a tale, but the fuse never ignites.
With a timely script by frequent collaborator Mike White, Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner (A-) is billed as a dark comedy but is actually one of the most arresting dramas of the year, anchored by a title performance by Salma Hayek that will become an indelible part of the cinema canon and the actress’s defining role. Hayek plays a Mexican immigrant holistic healer who ends up as an unexpected guest at a ritzy celebratory house party hosted by Connie Britton’s character where a business real estate tycoon played by John Lithgow becomes a singular foil and object of obsession. Hayek fully inhabits nearly every frame of the film and is a stunning observer for what it means to be an American living in Trump’s 2017. She is as focused and feral as Lithgow is pompous and proud. This is one of those films sure to be referenced by academics who will note how fully it captures the mood and zeitgeist of a nation grappling with the specific politics of the here and now. Supporting actress Chloë Sevigny is always a delight, as is Jay Duplass as her increasingly drunk husband. The film captures the syncopation of conversation well, especially the ability of groups to change the subject. Given the gourmet feast of acting and reflection that abounds, the final ten minutes were a bit “dine and dash.” It’s otherwise a blissfully enjoyable if surprisingly melancholy trip to the thinking person’s table.
Benny Boom’s by the numbers Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me (B-) is buoyed by Demetrius Shipp Jr. who is electric in the lead role and Danai Gurira who is effective in a supporting role as his political activist mother. Shakur the man spent his short 25 years as an entertainer, provocateur and man of contradictions, so it’s disappointing the film doesn’t get deeper under the surface at some critical junctures. The film starts as a bit of a superhero origin story, becomes a “behind the music” string of montages for a while and ultimately settles into a gangster epic as our hero joins Death Row Records. Shipp wears it all very well, even when his motivations aren’t always crystal clear. It’s still extraordinarily watchable, absorbing even, if fairly predictable and a bit overlong. Tinged with highlights of the rapper’s music and of period detail, the movie will take lots of folks back to the ’90’s and remind people about a magnificent talent taken away too soon.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick protégé Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night (B+) is a superb psychological horror film that wrings generous art house thrills out of a straightforward apocalyptic premise. A couple and their son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have secluded themselves in a country home as a contagious disease plagues the outside world, and they are faced with a cat and mouse dilemma when visited by another couple and their son (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) who may or may not be safe or worth harboring. Edgerton and Abbott are fabulous foils, one the rule-abiding master of an elaborate isolated house and the other the scallywag with a backstory. The casting is creative and unexpected: Abbott is wonderful, and the acting is great all around. Shults makes the most of a fairly low-budget bare-bones production space to stage his wicked one-upmanship. He is imaginative in what he doesn’t show the audience and teases with darkness as an effective canvas for scares in the first act before introducing a more conventional narrative. Hardcore horror fans may be let down by the lack of gore and by the calculated pace, but this summer film-goer was delighted at the effective storytelling on display.
Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot lasso a true kickstart to the summer movie season with grit and girlpower, spunk and splendor in the satisfying superhero movie Wonder Woman (B+). After an origin story prologue on Amazon island where warrior Diana grows up with a peacekeeping destiny and mentorship from Robin Wright, the narrative thrusts to Europe, where our heroine marshals a team of ragtag ruffians to infiltrate WWI enemies and attempt to thwart a bunch of baddies and their chemical weapons plot. Jenkins proves masterful in taking us to tentpole territory with a reverent tone, pulpy production values and motivated action. Gadot is a delight as a woman with singular purpose and a refreshing lack of irony. Chris Pine is superb as her foil, an American spy who answers her questions about the nuances of men’s modern warcraft and anatomy. Mostly, it’s old-fashioned adventure building on the spirit of the original Captain America or The Rocketeer, with moments of comedy in London a most enjoyable surprise. For thrills and good-natured fun, this is a high point for the otherwise murky D.C. comics cinematic universe and the antidote for and female-driven counterpoint to Michael Bay style phone-’em-in summer blockbuster machinations.