Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze (C-) is puzzlingly one-note, like a student film stretched incessantly to feature length and a bit too pleased with its random acts of peculiarity. When a frustrated thirty-year-old (Nick Thune, unconvincing) builds a cardboard labyrinth in his apartment and unwittingly “boxes” his hipster friends within a walled garden that starts taking on a life of its own, metaphors and minotaurs are unleashed with reckless abandon. The acting is largely unconvincing and sometimes insufferable, but there are some nifty practical effects and epic moments of stoner whimsy sure to charm. It’s hard to completely dislike a film in which the ensemble is temporarily re-cast with paper-bag puppets. There are a few surprises around some of the corners, and Meera Rohit Kumbhani is fiercely committed to her underwritten role. Ultimately the story simply can’t support its playful premise and starts to feel more like a dumpster dive than a flight of fantasy.
Note: A hit at the Slamdance Film Festival, DMAM was featured as the opening night movie of the 41st Annual Atlanta Film Festival. #ATLFF and goes wide(r) in the U.S. August 18, 2017.
Although its historic events are lavishly recreated and the cinematography and production values top-notch, Kathryn Bigelow’s panorama about the racially charged 12th Street Riot of 1967, Detroit (C), struggles to finds its dramatic POV or emotional center of gravity. The events depicted clearly resonate with modern times, what with the painstaking portrayals of police brutality and the themes of injustice and inequality in an urban powderkeg, but Bigelow’s fastidious chronicle fails to get in the heads of a cavalcade of underdeveloped characters. With some of the most authentic acting in the film, Algee Smith fares best as a Motown musician caught up in a crescendo of incidents after mid-riot sniper fire turns a group of people holed up at a hotel into brutalized suspects. John Boyega and Anthony Mackie are reduced to small parts as Will Poulter gets most of the scenery chewing as a wicked bad cop. He’s intense but feels miscast. It’s not completely clear why Bigelow lingers so long on certain incidents and not others; and while she creates flashes of pulse pounding tension, the story isn’t superbly served in the aggregate. The director’s formula that worked so brilliantly with soldiers diffusing land mines and raiding terrorist cells works only in fits and starts this time around.
Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish lift the curse of this summer’s R-rated comedies while celebrating the power of wonder women with a joyous journey to New Orleans in Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip (B). The quartet of actresses play lifelong friends who reconnect after a few years apart over a turnt-up trip to the Essence Music Festival. Their sisterhood is roused anew through parties and pratfalls across the Crescent City, along with some vulnerable moments that take their bond to a higher level. The film succeeds largely on the charms of its stars, with Hall registering strong as the woman trying to save face while grappling with a failing high-profile relationship and Haddish prompting the biggest laughs as the devil-may-care friend whose high-jinks are a hoot throughout the madcappery. For those seeking raunchy shenanigans, it’s all there, with crazy antics involving the full alphabet of possibilities from absinthe and zol. There are also some enjoyable cameos from a who’s who of the music scene. Although it overstays its welcome a bit, and not all jokes hit their mark, the movie rewards those who take the trek with an empowering message. For those wishing to escape to the movies, these ladies slay in their getaway!
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.
Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Hebrew Title: Ismach Hatani) (B+) is an often jubilant dramedy about taking a stand, especially when oppression manifests with a seductive face. After a flimsy women’s prayer balcony in an aging Jerusalem synagogue topples and the temple’s senile rabbi is too infirm to oversee the renovation, the men of the tight-knit congregation turn to a charismatic young ultra-Orthodox leader, convincingly played by Abraham Aviv Alush, to guide the rebuild. His new ideas are actually old ones and involve setting the women of the church back in terms of their ability to think, pray and express themselves with any sense of modernity. Radiant actress Evelin Hagoel is the primary protagonist, magnificent in her decency and defiance. The entire ensemble of feisty women is remarkable, and it it is in their light and often humorous approach that a powerful parable comes to compelling life. A bit more muted than the similarly themed Spike Lee movie Chi-Raq, this Israeli film handles gender and religion with a deft touch and a splendid depiction of community. Ultimately it’s a celebration of enduring traditions and the power of progress in standing up for equality.
Note: The Women’s Balcony is the closing night presentation of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and is making appearances at many film festivals around the world this season.
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.