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3 of This Year’s Best: Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, Logan Lucky

The damage sustained to the film industry is, as of late, woefully overstated. While, yes, oftentimes the most prominent films are stupid or disappointing and, yes, it seems like a new stupid idea for a movie is announced everyday.

Yet, it should be clear that as long as we’ve had a film industry (or any commercialized creative profession), we’ve had expensive failures and we’ve had stillborn ideas. Every “Golden Age” in anything had a few bad ones. The number one single of 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, the same Best Picture category that included The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde also included Doctor Doolittle.

All of this really comes to the point for all the handwringing, there’s still a remarkable amount of quality in the film industry, inventive stories being told the way only film can convey. It’s also a not-so-subtle way of justifying why I’m giving three movies an A all at once. So, without further adieu, let me explain why Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, and Logan Lucky are three of this year’s best reasons to hope out into the theaters.

Atomic Blonde

Summary: At the end of the Cold War, spycraft still runs hot. MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a stolen microfilm that contains a list of every active agent in the Soviet Union. With her contact David Percival (James McAvoy), Broughton plunges into a world of doublecross, murder, and the existential dread of being a spy with plenty of neon and New Wave.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”: 

If there’s a movie more obviously made for me, I’d be hard-pressed to describe it. An action spectacle in ’80s Berlin directed by one of the fine folks who brought us John Wick? I’m intrigued. The film’s aesthetic courses with neon and shadows and the soundtrack pumps the great synth-heavy hits of the 80s, including a beatdown set to George Michael’s “Father Figure”? I’m down. It features a lead performance from Charlize Theron at her icy, slowly revealing best? I bought tickets already, quit selling me.

Atomic Blonde is the kind of film that feels like a modern James Bond more than any other attempt has, short maybe Casino Royale. It keeps all of that intrigue and style and glamour that those old James Bond films had. Its protagonist is hard-drinking, hard-thinking, and making love to beautiful women who eventually meet terrible fates.

But it doesn’t feel glamorizing or worshipful of its hero. Its storyline becoming so wrapped up in double and triple-turns that the only story becomes the crushing existential despair of spycraft, of the isolation of removing every identity you have in the service of ideals that are on their way out. It’s not for Queen and Country when the Queen is far away and its hard to remember what your country is anymore.

Atomic Blonde, on top of its sorrowful rumination, is also gifted with some positively bone-crunching action sequences. It should be no surprise that David Leitch can design a good action sequence given his past work, but it’s still a pleasant discovery that he can couch it well in the film around. Theron is a coil of physical efficiency and even as she takes blow after blow, the film revels in the damage that she can do. Most impressive, even despite its hype, is a 10 minute sequence done in what appears to be a single take, a masterwork of tension and choreography, a brutal sequence where no one goes down after one hit and where you never know who’s going to take the final blow. Kudos to Theron for actually playing through every beat of this sequence.

It’s a physical component to what is a surprisingly impressive performance from her overall. Broughton is a well-worn character, wearing so many masks and telling so many lies that she’s lost track of who she actually is. The cast around her is strong as well, McAvoy playing a perfect spy scumbag and Boutella bringing a lot of intrigue to very little time.

Atomic Blonde is a 21st century spy film looking back into the 20th century. The morality is muddled, the style isn’t.

Brigsby Bear

Summary: When James Pope (Kyle Mooney) was just a child, he was kidnapped by Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams) to live in a bunker underground, told the world had basically ended, and only given children’s educational show Brigsby Bear to connect with the outside world. Then, one day, he has all that ripped from him. His parents, his show, his world was a lie. So James has a new world to adjust to that he’s had no conception of.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”:

It’s hard to avoid cliche when you celebrate your own medium in the making of a work. Concept albums about defiant musicians, books about complicated novelists, and films about filmmakers who find a lens into the world. Brigsby Bear isn’t necessarily innocent of cliche, of playing into celebrating the people who are creating the work. But it’s a film that doesn’t feel so self-serving, so masturbatory.

At the heart of Brigsby Bear is sweetness, of an earnest affection for the creative process and the people who make it up. But not just the creative process, but the people who love the creative process. Brigsby Bear is a work on fandom, the people who use creative works to feel out and understand the world around them. Brigsby Bear is a celebration of passion and what it means in people’s lives.

It also understand that it’s not just the beats you move through that make a story feel unique, but the way you tell it. Writers Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney (who also stars) give the world such unique flavor and imbue such odd details into the Brigsby Bear show. It feels studied, like these people actually know what becomes cult phenomena and what people raise fandoms around, without ever feeling condescending to the work itself.

It’s that razor’s edge of understanding how weird this thing is without ever looking down on James for being so in love with it. Much of that is helped by Kyle Mooney. Look, you know you feel about Mooney from watching him on SNL. If you don’t like his shtick, you may not be into it here, but if you love it, it’s basically what he does for the whole of the film. He just turns that awkwardness and that difficulty interacting with the world into a dramatic character, one who grows in the smallest ways and one who really is very easy to connect deeply with.

Brigsby Bear is just a film imbued with a deep empathy for the people in its movie and for the people that it’s about. It understands its world and tells it with a unique dynamic and a unique sense of humor.

Logan Lucky

Summary: Them Logan Boys, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), get up to some trouble. With the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), current-con Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and a couple other ne’er do-wells, they’re gonna rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”:

I could pretty much live forever in films about charming Southerners running afoul of the law. If they’re doing it in the South, it’s only a bonus.

Steven Soderbergh’s return from his “retirement” (during which he directed a season of television and helped make a few other movies) is a call-back to his Ocean’s Eleven days, trading the high-class slick hucksters for the very real poor of the South.

It’s clear Soderbergh grew up in the South (the same South I did, largely), as he really does understand what a Southern culture looks like in the contours of the real world, and what it looks like for the real people living in it. The way they talk and the way they interact and what they think about. It feels tangible and easily recognizable.

It’s also a lot of fun. Logan Lucky is not a manic film. It has the pacing of any Soderbergh art film. Deliberate and measured and letting it all unfold just as it should, it’s as classically composed narratively as a heist film gets. But Logan Lucky is an absolute hoot, populating its world with weirdos that are just specific and bizarre enough without ever going full cartoon. Hell, the movie gets an enjoyable live-action performance out of Seth McFarlane, certainly no small feat.

But as much the heist motivates, it’s about the people that are doing the thieving. What drives them and why take this step? What do they unveil about themselves? There’s all these great little motivations and these little steps. Joe Bang revealing his chemistry knowledge, the Logan brothers able ability to spin a few lies to put some people in the right place. Even an extended riff on Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s writing speed (which may be one of the funniest and nerdiest Game of Thrones jokes ever) reveals this penchant for these little and unexpected unveilings Soderbergh and writer Rebecca Blunt revel in.

It’s also the little nuances the cast gives their characters. If you asked for a list of “leading actors who do character actor-level specific work” you couldn’t have produced a more comprehensive one than Logan Lucky. From Channing Tatum (Soderbergh’s current muse) and his soulful outlaw to Driver’s specific and sweet and deliberate as hell performance as Clyde Logan to Daniel Craig clearly having the most fun he’s ever had in a role ever to Riley Keough continuing to be every film’s secret weapon to a host of surprises I don’t want to spoil too much, Logan Lucky is a veritable buffet of actors.

It’s also Soderbergh at his best, absolutely controlled filmmaking, tight and interesting and propulsive without ever being fast. Its deliberate pacing recalling older films with its warm digital look eyeing towards the future. That plus the best use of “Country Roads” this summer so far makes for a fantastic piece of work.

Wind River is a gritty directorial debut that could have used a stronger hand

Exchanging the delirious heat for the mythic snow does little to dull the quickly notable Taylor Sheridan brand of crime story. Through Hell or High Water and Sicario, Sheridan has become famous for his stories of the frontier and how quickly that frontier destroys human decency, his stories of procedure and his stories of the places that people live away from most eyes.

Wind River trades on all of that, though this time there is no filter between Sheridan’s writing and the film we see on screen. This is Sheridan’s directorial debut, which may not necessarily be to the film’s benefit. Removed from Denis Villeneuve’s haunting precision or the quiet desperation that David Mackenzie brought, Sheridan’s shaky directorial foundation finds Wind River falling far shorter than its predecessors.

Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the story starts with the body of Natalie (Kelsey Chow) found barefoot in the snow by US Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought on to investigate, as the elements and the violence and despair visited on the Reservation by the elements and by the sins of America begin to consume the investigation.

Much of what has worked about Sheridan’s writing in the past is still fantastic here. The sense of environment is immaculate, the specific nuances of Wyoming feel as real and tangible as his Texas does. Isolated and lonely but something beautiful in the snow and in the pain. It’s the frontier, but one both mythical and rare. The movie’s compassion to the Native Americans is absolutely admirable, if a little clumsy.

His sense of procedure is also still incredibly intact, and playing even more of a role here. Sheridan’s interest is clear without the filter of other director’s interests. It contributes to that tangibility, a well-researched run through what form these things may actually take. Concerns about what the cause of death is listed as, getting the right back up, whose jurisdiction a given area is sounds boring, but Sheridan has a penchant for pulling the emotion and tension out of these decisions.

And whether it’s his work or just good casting, Wind River pulls strong performances out of just about everyone. Renner and Olsen have strong duo chemistry and each managed to play big and emotional without ever losing the gritty thread of the story. Most of the supporting cast are good to “does their job” but real MVP work is done by Gil Birmingham, the Native actor who plays the father of the murdered girl. Birmingham’s performance is heartbreaking at every step and between this and his scene-stealing in Hell or High Water, one wonders why Hollywood doesn’t seek to snap him up.

One also wonders if perhaps Wind River chose the wrong protagonist.

Where Wind River really begins to fall down on the weakness of a first time director. As strong as Sheridan’s writing is, Villeneuve and Mackenize’s sensibilities both provided a specific filter. Both are excessively visual directors in the subtlest ways, letting movements speak for monologues and moments speak for scenes.

Sheridan’s visual eye simply isn’t as strong. His vistas feel a little less grand, his tense handheld close-ups feel more shaky than chaotic. His action staging often has great surprise, but rarely manages the sustained tension of something like Sicaro‘s border crossing.

He also just isn’t great at making the story connections yet. His raw material is strong, but he can’t bring it coherently together. His thematics rarely feel connected (there’s a thread about Cory and Martin [Gil Birmingham] and their parallel children that is brought up and dropped from time to time). There’s also a lot of clunk that feels like material that would be trimmed by more experienced hands. Much of Wind River is told in monologue and has its ideas stated openly.

Wind River is still a cut-above crime film and perhaps it seems unfair to compare it so heavily to its predecessors. But when your material is so often shaped so expertly, it seems right to note when the potential is lost.

Grade: B-

The Dark Tower is the most impressive book adaptation of 1999

As a total fucking nerd, I used to follow the rumors and stories of geek properties and comic book movies in development.

I still do, but I used to too.

Before the 2008 Iron Man/The Dark Knight swing that meant Hollywood found the money in taking all this shit seriously, it was pretty commonplace that while they wanted to adapt things with built-in audiences, a lot of this geek stuff was just a little too weird or expensive to treat the right way. You had to bust down the budgets (and what the audience would take at face value) and find some way to remove the most fantastical portions of it while keeping the name that people already knew.

So, that meant you often got the “They come to Earth” adaptation. It was a surprisingly popular genre at the time, some fantastic thing coming to Earth and teaching us all a new lesson, whether it was an angel or an alien or Gary Busey. So it made a sort of sense for these properties that took place on other worlds to pop on over to Earth and let the characters roam around in like…New York or something. Most infamously was an adaptation of Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece of comics, that mostly took place as a bad combination of Terminator 2 and every movie about the “Coming Millennium”

This is all context to get into my main point about a movie that doesn’t have one. The Dark Tower feels so much like those kind of adaptations, one that isn’t totally into its property and one that extracts so much of what’s loved to try to make it into a more marketable product. The kind of adaptation that was more common before we realized common audiences could get into geek shit and just feels out-dated now.

It doesn’t help that The Dark Tower is somehow dreadfully slow and has way too much going on, is slapped together like a reel of film falling down a stairs, is as cheap-looking as a feature film could possibly be, and has great actors struggling valiantly against the writing of Akiva Goldsman (coincidentally, often responsible for the kind of adaptations I railed against at the beginning).

Based on Stephen King’s epic dark fantasy tale, The Dark Tower takes the task of compressing his vast mythology down to roughly 90 minutes. Told through the eyes of Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young man who sees visions of another world, an evil man, and a valiant gunslinger. That world comes crashing into his reality as The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) hunts Jake down in order to harness his growing psychic power to destroy The Dark Tower and allow the monsters outside the universe through the barrier. The only man who may be able to stop him is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a broken man seeking only to take his revenge on The Man in Black.

This doesn’t even break the surface of what’s going on here, as the movie is trying to cram even more detail from these books in an incredibly small amount of time while still trying to move forward under its own momentum, create an actual watchable stand-alone film. There’s too many cooks in this kitchen, and that’s the beginning of the problem.

Side note: In fact, there’s so many cooks I don’t know who to blame. I could blame the director Nikolaj Arcel, but he is 100% the kind of dude they brought on to give a chance if he succeeded and blame if he failed. This movie reeks of studio interference through and through, a bad adaptation made worse.

I have never been more bored by a film that’s trying everything it can to keep the pace up. A ton of stuff happens and yet it’s all so low-energy. There’s no sense of wonder, no sense of how cool all of this is.

Because it is cool! Elba is a badass playing a dude who does gunplay like nobody’s business fighting an evil sorcerer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for the fate of the universe against Lovecraftian evil. Yet The Dark Tower is either enamored with the much more ground-level story of Jake (thinking we need him as the audience surrogate) or completely disinterested in conveying the actual scale and scope of The Dark Tower story in front of it.

Of course, it doesn’t help that this film adaptation would hardly be equipped to do that. The fingerprints of too many hands are all over this film, cut to ribbons and overexplained within an inch of its life. Bad ADR and scenes spliced in make The Dark Tower a jarring experience to watch.

It’s also a surprisingly cheap looking movie. Action scenes are almost entirely staged in the dust or the dark, the monsters are in shadows or avoid the use of prosthetics, and there are roughly 5 locations, all shot very flat.

And a strong cast could have possibly saved this and should have considering who was on deck. Yet Idris Elba is pretty much the only one worth a damn, owing to his intense charisma, the kind of star performance that’s trying to keep things afloat.

Nobody else is given the time or the performance space to do anything. Performers like Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, and Kathryn Winnick basically pop in and disappear almost instantly. Anyone who isn’t them is giving a performance that I would suggest just not mentioning on their resume.

That includes Matthew McConaughey who is chewing the scenery in a way that is not fun enough to overcome how completely out of step he is with the rest of the movie. A few corny jokes aside, McConaughey is vamping in a way that just makes you feel kind of embarrassed for the Academy Award-winning actor. The Man in Black is an evil character with a goofy side, but McConaughey is more showboat than cackling. There’s also two moments that made me stifle long giggles in the theater (one where they find him cooking chicken, the other involves the use of the word “magicks”), which is not great for your big villain.

The Dark Tower is just an absolute swing and a miss. You see what could work here, but none of it does.

Grade: D

Detroit is a viscerally intense story told by the wrong people

The second act of Detroit is less Selma than The Purge. A home invasion horror tapping into the deepest fears of the faces on its screen, the difference is that the white faces were placed in a dystopian future to live their terror, black faces are reliving a still-perpetuating history.

History is important to consider with Detroit. The best telling of history in film is never about what happens. It’s not rote recitation, documentary and written and oral history has proven itself far superior at those activities. History on film should understand the effects, the people, the reverberations in culture. In other words, not just what happened, but was felt, dreamed, and meant.

In all respects, Detroit is an impressive work of historical re-creation of an event that flew under the modern radar and is still muddled in its telling. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s third collaboration conveys gripping you-are-there visceral recreation that drips every bead of sweat on you and every bit of righteous fury that simply watching these events play out before you can and should induce.

Yet, something’s not quite right. Not quite there. The story being told feels right, but it feels like it’s being told by the wrong person.

Detroit tells the story of the 1967 12th Street Riot primarily through the incident at the Algiers Hotel. Ignited by a late-night police raid on an unlicensed drinking club where 82 African-Americans celebrating the return of two GIs were arrested, the incident quickly spread and overtook the city. Police were fully mobilized, The National Guard was brought in, and countless African-Americans were subjected to the extreme measures designed to put the riot down.

At the Algiers Hotel, the belief that there was a sniper (created by a toy gun firing from Carl Cooper [Jason Mitchell]) led 3 police officers, headed up by Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), as well as National Guardsmen to take hold of the Algiers Hotel annex and keep the residents hostage until one of them confessed to firing on the police.

This incident is the bulk of the action and runtime, preceded by a historical explanation and followed (largely unnecessarily) by the trial that came out of the Algiers incident. It’s clear that you see the appeal of this story to Bigelow on an aesthetic level.

It’s a chance for Bigelow to return to a more genre-aesthetic befitting some earlier work. The Algiers sequence is less historical drama and more home invasion-horror flick, the sadistic police officers befitting the slashers, the Black men (and white women) trapped in the hotel their victims. The horror all the more for knowing (and showing, in docudrama style, the real photos of their bodies) that this happened and still does.

Bigelow is in her element, ratcheting up the sweaty, late-night tension and the constant brutality of what’s happening. Guns cocking, batons beating, the air is filled with the sounds of violence. The entire second act plays like an extended version of the Seal Team 6 raid from the end of Zero Dark Thirty. A recreation of a muddled event that leaves you digging into your arm rests. It’s undoubtedly impressive and a reminder of the sheer skill someone like Bigelow brings to filmmaking.

It’s also impressive the cast she’s assembled. While none of her characters ever quite escape their setting and history (emulating the Dunkirk model), they’re each performed with all the passion that can be allowed. John Boyega’s fundamental charming decency as a leading man shines through, Algee Smith makes a harrowing impression as Lucas Reed, and the cast is dotted with talented player. Will Poulter is the film’s despicable MVP, sinister in a way too human way and using his arched eyebrows to considerable effect.

But it’s easy for Poulter to have a good performance. He’s the monster and he’s one of the only allowed to have agency in this film. He’s making the decisions, we intricately understand what brought him to this point. A facts-based recollection, a loud atonement for guilt can easily get into the mindset.

The Black characters put up against the wall never get the chance to take their own decisions. They’re saved by the “good” white police officers with agency, they’re subject to the whims of the world around them, never getting a chance to dive in and see their thought processes. Boal’s characters have all the semblance of a traditional story, but they never dive into get what they might be thinking.

If their powerlessness was intentional, it would have been beneficial for Detroit to understand the implications on the community, on the political ends and the reasons and psychological ramifications of these riots. Some understanding of the effects of this story on Black history, on Black political thought, some theorization on what all of this meant. Without it, Detroit feels like Black suffering without Black thought. There’s little inner life, it’s all outer pain.

I can’t help but think Bigelow and Boal weren’t the people to tell this story. They’re not enough. They reckon with its facts and reenactments, but never diving underneath the surface. We’re forced to watch beating after beating, but we’re never given the before or the after.

Grade: C+

A Ghost Story is a bonafide masterpiece

You can tell whether or not A Ghost Story will work for you based on your first look at the actual ghost of the picture. Is it a representation of something as ineffable and difficult to capture as the spirit as something so small and ridiculous that it becomes inextricably human? Or is it Casey Affleck under a sheet?

If you’re still with me (and for a film that features Sheet Affleck and a whole lot of unbroken shots of people staring at things, I don’t necessarily blame you) or even if you’re not, A Ghost Story is perhaps one of the most incredible works of cinematic artistry this year.

More poetics than prose, director David Lowery (who filmed this in just over two weeks, functionally in secret) has crafted an intimate epic, a story of love across death and how small we are against the span of time. A work that can only be done through the unique powers of filmmaking and a work that will haunt long after it ends.

I don’t want to signal too much about this film. There are things you need to uncover for yourself. You simply need to know that C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a married couple living in a house in Dallas. One morning, C dies in a car crash outside his home. He wakes up in the morgue and returns to haunt his home and the people left behind.

It’s a tale of sickeningly raw grief, the slight sense of unreality that comes with having to move on and drawing out every single moment to the breaking point, giving no break away from what you’re seeing. It’s a remarkable intimacy, the constant feeling of seeing something that you’re not supposed to see, those moments that we talk about but never want to show.

Mara excels at this, letting herself go to a very difficult place, putting so much of herself out there and being constantly under the camera’s eye for every microexpression she can give. She gives a phenomenal performance, grief and acceptance mixing into something cathartic and understanding. There’s also a five-minute sequence that I kind of can’t believe someone agreed to and that there’s no way to explain how it’s as brilliant as it is.

But you can’t speak performance in this film without talking about its most perpetual presence and scene partner…Casey Affleck underneath a sheet. That sheet removes C from humanity, really sells that outsider feeling. Just as Affleck removes basically every actor trick possible. No eyes, no dialogue, and most of his movements hidden. It’s all about the spacing and the timing and his large motions and his gait. Yet he manages to convey so much. It’s a performance that competes with Manchester by the Sea for career best.

But all of this is at the control of Lowery. A Ghost Story is an excessively small film, but that’s how it gets it power. It pulls in so so close to its subjects, Lowery lets his camera linger just past the point of comfort to make his audience squirm as they recognize what’s going on. It’s bold and ambitious filmmaking, seeing exactly what you can extract from every bit of setting, from the shadows of the night and from the faces of recognition.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, incredible story. It’s hard to praise it enough. Yet up until now, I’ve been discussing the film’s grief-stricken first half, the easiest to pull from what’s already out there. The film becomes so much more. I’m gonna ask you that if you are at all interested in this film, stop here, check my grade, and go see it. If you want to know more, click on to page 2.

Grade: A+

Review Round-Up: Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planet and The Little Hours

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the sort of project birthed in the world to be an example of a high budget failure. After all, the whole thing:

  • Is starring two stars who have more name recognition than most, but less box office draw than almost all.
  • Is coming from a director who’s had huge successes and numerous flops.
  • Is based on a property that’s really big to a very small audience.
  • Looks really expensive because it is really expensive.
  • Has…some competition.
  • Has an entire advertising campaign based largely around hiding what the living fuck is happening in the movie.

It’s a shame because had this project been less blatantly thrown to the wolves, Valerian might have had something like a cult success. It’s rare to see a film this large feel this singular or bizarre or truly visually rich and there’s a lot going on here that is admirable. Yet it’s also not hard to see why this film is fated to do so poorly. It’s a total pacing and narrative mess and has so little charisma in and between the people leading its movie. It’s so good at things other major studio films are bad at, and so bad at things other major studio films are good at..

I’m not gonna bother summarizing all that much. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are agents working for the Human Government in the far-flung future. They look related but are not and Valerian has the hots for Laureline. They get sent on a mission to protect the Commander (Clive Owen) (whose actual political authority is ill-defined) and get wrapped up in a mystery involving a rat/frog that shits out pearls, colonialism, and various large set-pieces.

Let’s start with what it’s good at. Valerian is easily one of the most visually impressive movies to come out on a large scale in some time. Not necessarily speaking cinematographically or from an effects perspective, both qualities are strong if not necessarily over-the-top. I’m speaking from a design and imagination perspective.

Luc Besson has crafted a truly fantastic and alien world. Every frame is showing off something different or bizarre, every detail is creative. It’s just so much fun to pick through every moment and find something new, something that shows off the real power of cinema. There’s an actual inventiveness to the world-building, too rarely seen.

You’ve also got some great set-pieces. And by some great set-pieces, I’m talking very specifically about the Rihanna shape-shifting performance in the middle, which again all goes into the imagination that this film speeds with. It’s a movie that I can’t describe to you, you really have to see it to believe it.

It’s just hard to find the core of the movie here because the movie is deliberately distancing from the people pulling you through this world. Characters like Rihanna’s shapeshifter or Ethan Hawke’s space pimp (seriously) provide way more flavor than our leads, who have trouble ever sufficiently generating a belief that they like each other, much less that they’re madly in love. Delevingne is definitely at least the more interesting screen presence, but neither generate much more than a shrug.

It’s also that the movie around them maybe just never finds the momentum to pull things forward. Valerian is afflicted with a weirdly slack pacing, an already sprawling narrative never feels zippy enough to address everything that’s happening. And it’s a shame because there is some really strong material here. No spoilers, but Valerian gets essentially into an anti-colonialist message that demands empires take responsibility for their misdeeds. Good shit, but it’s a slog to get there.

Valerian is by no means as bad as its place in the landscape might tell you. It lacks the rapid clip that its contemporaries move at, as well as the often strong character work that populates the rest of the landscape. But a movie this bold and imaginative deserves some sort of consideration.

Grade: B-

The Little Hours

The Little Hours is perhaps one of the most literarily high-minded UCB improv shows ever. It’s not adapted from a particularly deep ASSSSCAT riff, but mostly improvised (by affiliated performers) and based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it can’t escape the weird worlds it’s been pulled between.

Perhaps that’s why The Little Hours never fully comes together. The tale of three ribald nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci), the officials who run their convent (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly), and the young man up shit creek who needs to hide out there (Dave Franco), The Little Hours seems poised to be a rollicking raunchy comedy with an unconventional setting.

Yet it’s also a surprisingly faithful retelling of that original Decameron story and plays into those dramatic beats. There’s plenty of time spent on the actual dramatic contours of these characters, poising the movie to be closer to something like a dramedy, a raunchy movie that actually wants to explore these characters.

Director/writer Jeff Baena has certainly set out for ambitious waters, and on that, I admire it. Yet I think it has troubles truly navigating what it needs to do to make it through the course it’s charted.

Much of it starts at this film’s pacing issues. It’s a weirdly slack, slow, low-energy film for the dirty, loud, raunchy jokes it’s trying to tell. You can perhaps see what the intention was. That you would break up this idyllic Italian landscape with these filthy jokes. But The Little Hours never gets up the energy to sell these jokes, delivering Andrew Dice Clay with the energy of Todd Barry, never feeling like it’s doing it on purpose.

That means from a comedy perspective, nothing is necessarily landing. It feels odd to say it, but I can literally see what they’re trying to do here and in theory I find it funny. But that pacing and the weird underplaying snuffs most of the jokes in the bed and The Little Hours never really gets more than a snort out of me. This movie is mostly improvised, and it kind of feels like talented improvisers who aren’t quite pulling things together.

Without the comedy working, the drama is mostly just hard to hook into. You care about characters and people who make you laugh, and when they don’t, the drama is just…there. Fine, I guess, nothing is bad. But not worth price of admission.

I wish I had more nice things to say, because I admire the ideas here. It’s a bold setting and it really does go off the rails in some interesting ways. But when the basic genre never feels like it works, it’s hard to recommend much about it.

Grade: C-


Dunkirk is a war film that’s all death, no glory.

Note: I saw the film in non-IMAX 70mm projection.

Dunkirk is the rare kind of blockbuster granted to the rare occurrence of a clear and vaunted “auteur” that manages to find clear commercial success. Scorsese or Spielberg had these and now Nolan joins their ranks. A film that drips its budget and studio backing and effects work from every frame and yet takes its formal cues from masters of Art and Classical cinema and, of course, wears the concerns and abilities of its directors on its sleeve.

If Inception was Nolan’s calling card, a film that showed how his very specific clockwork robot filmmaking and spiraling narratives about confidence men and dead wives could be commercially populist, then Dunkirk is his opus. A film that, finally divorced from all his usual narratives and genres, gives him the chance to let his formal aesthetics and structure and filmmaking ability free.

Dunkirk is Nolan letting his filmmaking speak all the volumes it can, no dialogue, no tricks, just his narrative structures and his ability to stage filmmaking on a massive scale. It’s an immersive, breathtaking experience and one that it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off on quite so grand a scale.

Nolan chooses to tell the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, after most of the fighting has stopped and as the British forces try to retreat from the French Harbor as the Germans push slowly forward and pick them off from the air. There are three narratives interwoven here, told non-linearly.

The Mole takes place over one week and follows Tommy (Fion Whitehead) as he tries to get on a boat back to Britain and escape the bombing in Dunkirk. The Sea takes place over one day as British civilian boats (our focus is on one vessel commanded by Mr. Dawson [Mark Rylance]) as they sail to Dunkirk to evacuate the soldiers. The Air takes place over one hour as a trio of the British Air Force (our focus is on a pilot named Farrier [Tom Hardy]) shoot down Luftwaffe as they advance towards the evacuation in Dunkirk.

While on its face this non-linear storytelling may seem like a simple extension of Nolan’s usual narrative tricks, there’s something that feels so much more vital than merely being impressive. Dunkirk is a film of experience, a “You Are There” strapping-in where the war isn’t happening in front of you, but around you. The airplanes scream and the bombs explode (this is a LOUD movie) and you feel the air leave your lungs as the characters drown in the sinking ship.

Nolan compresses and expands time to create just as much of that feeling. The waiting on the beach desperately hoping someone will come, giving a week gives the time for multiple attempts to cling to a chance of rescue. The day gives that difficulty and the way civilians could approach each instance in this war. The hour gives urgency and an ever-ticking clock up in the air.

Speaking of an ever-ticking clock, and as much as I’ve praised Nolan, Dunkirk is a film that reminds you of the efficacy of good collaborators. Hans Zimmer’s score, constructed around a ticking clock (see, brought that back around), is a score that embraces the terror of this war, blasting noise and pulling the strings to their limits, and allowing for the briefest moments of grace. Lee Smith’s editing is tight and propulsive and juggles the intersecting timelines and time frames impossibly well. And cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema may be the best pickup Nolan’s had, giving his film a more distinctive and dirty, shadowed look far from Nolan’s overly clean earlier work.

Dunkirk is a film that looks past its people, in a way. This is Nolan’s most human film, in a way that’s more successful than something like Interstellar. The emotion, the pathos, the connection to these men in this tribulation feels more organic, more drawn from what we see them go through than the story that’s told about them.

But it’s not about them. It’s not Man v. Man. The word Nazi is never said and a German is but once seen on screen. There’s only the dialogue that is necessary, only the struggle that feels real. The twist is incidental, the structural tricks have no explanation within the narrative itself based on the characters.

It’s about something bigger than them. It’s about war not as an individual glorious struggle, but as some terrifyingly mundane thing that just gets a bunch of people killed and doesn’t produce great men dying to make a name for themselves. Dunkirk is a film that gets that existential terror of war, how much you’re subsumed into the gears of a machine that grinds you up and spits you out on the other side for enemies vaguely defined and by people basically unseen. There’s a patriotism yes, but there’s no glory to Dunkirk.

The people aren’t defined because no one in war is. We glorify heroes to hope that war has a meaning, but Dunkirk shows how truly anonymous many of these people are, how much they’re pulled into a monster that doesn’t offer them glory, just the hope of one day leaving.

This isn’t to say that the performances aren’t worth anything. Dunkirk has a strong cast doing simple, clean, understated work. Rylance and Hardy’s skill is well-known and unsurprising, Rylance conveying a fundamental decency and Hardy doing wonders with just his eyes. The kids on the Beach, including the famous Harry Styles, get across the sorrow and difficulty and desperation.

But it’s not about them. It’s about that larger horror and the little graces you can find in them. The movie’s second-to-last shot is a beautiful grace note in the middle of it all, a bit of Tarkovsky in the middle of all of Nolan’s Bresson here.

Grade: A+