War for the Planet of the Apes

The final film in the ‘Planet of the Apes’ prequel trilogy is the best yet, a bleak, thoughtful war film with Andy Serkis at his best

War_for_the_Planet_of_the_Apes_posterI’m floored by “War for the Planet of the Apes.” It has been a point of contention among critics as to why a blockbuster such as this one should be so grave, serious and grim. But the ambition it takes to make a film about talking chimps so emotional, gripping and moving is staggering. That more Hollywood movies don’t strive to evoke “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” is a war crime. The horror, indeed.

This “Planet of the Apes” prequel trilogy has been an exercise in madness. Slowly we’ve seen Caesar grow and evolve from being a precocious and smart monkey in “Rise” to having the motion capture technology fully capture Andy Serkis’s simmering rage and intensity. “Dawn” opened with the apes living peacefully in the woods, building a society as human civilization has crumbled. Now that’s gone, and director Matt Reeves has put in its place a bleak fight for survival. Continue reading “War for the Planet of the Apes”

The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani brings real dire stakes into the rom-com genre

The_Big_Sick_PosterI have been moved to tears and had my heart warmed by plenty of romantic comedies. But before “The Big Sick,” I had never felt genuine stakes in the genre until now.

Kumail Nanjiani has made a rom-com where the consequences and realities of the film are far greater than whether he and her end up together. Nanjiani grapples with race, religion and life and death all as he tries to tell a funny, modern love story.

It’s such a surprise, because “The Big Sick” doesn’t begin far differently from the films of so many other comedians who follow in Louis C.K.’s footsteps and want to tell their coming-of-age stories. Continue reading “The Big Sick”

The Little Hours

How did a movie about horny nuns go so wrong?

There’s a fine line between outrageous and just loud. The Little Hours has a cast and a premise that should be gleefully silly and vulgar and amazingly comes out neither.

Here’s the premise: Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci, an absolutely hilarious trio, are nuns pent up in a medieval convent. They lie and swear profusely, going as far as to berate their servant for just looking at them. Then their pastor played by John C. Reilly brings home a sexy new farm boy played by Dave Franco. He’s on the run for sleeping with his master’s wife, and his master is a plain spoken, bitter Nick Offerman. Franco is supposed to act like a deaf mute for his protection, but the girls get so hot and bothered that doesn’t last long. Debauchery ensues, witches dance naked in the woods, Fred Armisen shows up, you know the drill.  Continue reading “The Little Hours”

Tramps

Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten make this scrappy indie romance a smart movie about class and coming of age.

Tramps PosterI learned something from Tramps. It turns out if you drive a “fucking SUV,” it means you’re an asshole.

That line alone says a lot about the class divide crossed in this indie romance. Adam Leon’s brief, punchy and charming film is a great love story between two cynical young people, but it also examines why so often there’s bitterness and distance between poor and rich people. Tramps is a movie that inspires its protagonists to reach for better lives than the crappy ones they’ve got, even as they look down their noses at those on the other side of the tracks.

When we first meet Danny (Callum Turner), he’s stuck running a bootleg, off-track-betting parlor out of his mom’s New York apartment. When all the old men from the building leave, he glares at his mom as though asking, “How did I get stuck in this life?” Then he gets a call from prison from his deadbeat brother begging him to do a probably illegal job. Pick up a suitcase, hop inside a car, and drop the suitcase off with a woman. The details are hilariously scant, but “he doesn’t have a choice.”

Then there’s Ellie (Grace Van Patten). One moment she’s on a train, and when the conductor arrives, in the blink of an eye she’s gone, hiding in the bathroom for a few more stops. She’s so poor and has enough problems with money that she can’t sort out the real problems in her life. One is some guy named Scott (Mike Birbiglia) pressuring her to be the wheelman in the same suitcase scam as Danny. He’s berating her all the while offering her a spot in his “queen-size bed.” Continue reading “Tramps”

It Comes at Night

Trey Edward Shults’s unconventional horror film is a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

Will the apocalypse come when a plague hits, or aliens attack, or when climate change ravages the planet? Or will humanity become so divided and fearful of one another that we gradually kill ourselves?

The monsters in the unusual indie horror film It Comes at Night all live under one roof. It’s a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

The only image of the end of the world in Trey Edward Shults’s film is on a wall in Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) cavernous cabin in the woods. A Renaissance painting depicts Biblical fire and brimstone, but the vast forest surrounding their home only contains endless mystery. While outside, the family dog barks and chases after nothing in particular except the craggily branches masking whatever horrors we simply assume are out there. Continue reading “It Comes at Night”

Band Aid

Don’t overlook the charming Sundance indie rom-com “Band Aid,” from writer, director, star and songwriter Zoe Lister-Jones.

Band Aid PosterMovies like “Band Aid” get buried at Sundance. They’re a dime a dozen in Park City. Zoe Lister-Jones’s film is an indie, auteur project that’s quirky, about hipsters and stars Fred Armisen. It’s hard to stand out at Sundance when you have all those pieces.

But “Band-Aid” doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. It has smart ideas about gender, an adept visual style, good songs, and it stars Fred Armisen! Lister-Jones stars, writes, directs, produces and composes original songs for “Band Aid,” and her effort and voice stands out over all the other films just like “Band Aid” that are only the sum of their parts. Continue reading “Band Aid”

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Errol Morris’s documentary about one of his dear friends, the Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, is one of his sweeter films.

The B-Side PosterIt feels surprising, but Errol Morris has never made a feature film about an artist before. Elsa Dorfman may not even consider herself an “artist,” so it’s possible he still hasn’t. But in “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Morris is bonding and relating to Dorfman in a way he usually doesn’t with his subjects. It’s made for one of his sweeter, if more fleeting, films.

Morris’s interviews in his documentaries are always square to the camera, with the speaker looking you dead in the eye. His confrontational position always leaves some ambiguity as to whether Morris admires these people or wants to gawk at them. Not so in “The B-Side,” where Dorfman is often shot askew as she hunches over a work table and looks fondly at boxes and drawers full of her old photographs. Occasionally Morris’s camera gets inches from Dorfman’s face, but he looks fondly on her frumpy black hair, thick glasses and congenial face of a kind Jewish mother.

Dorfman came to mild success in the ‘60s with photos of Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries of the Beat scene and New York literature circles. But her lifelong passion was “large scale portrait photography.” Dorfman got her hands on a massive Polaroid camera, one of just a few ever made. The camera is a bulky contraption the size of a refrigerator, and it’s capable of taking life-size portraits just like the instant Polaroid’s your mom snapped before your prom. Continue reading “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography”

Baby Driver

Crank up the volume. “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright’s masterpiece.

Baby Driver PosterYou know that feeling when you get behind the wheel and YOUR song comes on? That song belongs to you and no one else, and it makes you feel like you can do anything, like you can tear up the road, and like you’ve never felt an emotion this strongly before. As you tap on the steering wheel and sing along to the lyrics, someone on the outside looking in might think you look pretty stupid. And you know what? You do, and you kind of know it. What crazy song is that you’re listening to anyways?

Edgar Wright knows that feeling. “Baby Driver” is that feeling. You could be listening to some ‘50s soul song that would be humiliating if anyone knew what you were jamming. Your name could be something silly like “Ansel Elgort,” and you could be wearing a cheap pair of drug store sunglasses as you strut down the road awkwardly avoiding foot and street traffic. But you are in that perfect moment. No one looks cooler. You’ve never felt more confident, inspired or uplifted. This feels awesome.

“Baby Driver” is in love with itself, with its style, its soundtrack and its energy. But Wright gets that to some degree this is just a little lame. If it was trying to be cool he would’ve filled it with Top 40 bangers and jukebox favorites. Instead he picked the deep cuts you dance to when no one is watching. “Baby Driver” is a heist and action movie with the volume turned up to 11, but Wright has selected a soundtrack so in tune with the movie he’s always wanted to make that it feels like a deeply personal statement. Continue reading “Baby Driver”

Split

James McAvoy gives a remarkable multi-personality performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s tightest horror/thriller movie in years.

In “Split,” James McAvoy embodies seven different personalities within one character, he develops new mannerisms and accents for each one of them, and he even flails wildly in a possessed, near perverse dance to a Madonna song. He’s acting a lot.

But in one scene of talking to his therapist, M. Night Shyamalan drills in tight on McAvoy’s calm face and the miniscule, wavering expression in his gaze. You look into his eyes and you see fear and a whole different person trying to get out.

In “Split,” Shyamalan’s horror premise of a man who suffers from experiencing multiple personalities, 23 in all, may be a gimmick, but McAvoy’s performance isn’t. There are a few costume changes, and he makes a big swing between accents, but McAvoy never has to spaz out, and Shyamalan never has to cut for McAvoy to suggest the fascinating, dangerous tug of war going on inside his head.

In fact the mad nature of McAvoy’s character’s disorder subsumes Shyamalan’s typical need to tantalize us with a big twist. Shyamalan has gone nuts with style and psychological parables, but “Split” brings the director back to fundamental genre roots of the horror/thriller. Continue reading “Split”

The Commune

Thomas Vinterberg’s broad, histrionic, blackly comedic social satire doesn’t work on any level

The Commune PosterIn what universe does Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune” make sense? The thinly drawn characters in this stagey, maudlin, histrionic dreck seem driven by pages that must’ve vanished from the script. They leap from broad character types to wild hippies in no time flat, act completely out of line and ultimately enable the film’s dirtbag protagonist to carry on an affair. Chalk it up to the lifestyles of those crazy Danes, I guess.

A nuclear family of a middle-aged couple, Erik and Anna, and their teenage daughter Freja, inherits a massive home too large for them to live in and maintain on their own, so they invite some old friends as roommates but agree to a communal arrangement. In preliminary interviews they reveal themselves as a square, a drifter, a burnout, a hippie and a strict mother with a dying toddler son, but before long they’re all laughing drunkenly and jumping into the ocean naked. Good times. Continue reading “The Commune”