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Atomic Blonde

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Without Charlize Theron, the spy adventure “Atomic Blonde” would only be clever. She makes it insightful. The actress gives emotional depth to the highly mannered behavior of the film’s heroine, British spy Lorraine Broughton, as she tries retrieve a coveted list of undercover operatives and catch a British double agent working in West Germany. What Lorraine truly wants, for the most part, is a mystery, since she hides behind a chilly James Bond-style persona, amplified by silver-grey camera filters, pulsating blue lights and Lorraine’s favorite drink, vodka on the rocks. 

Theron’s commanding performance is remarkable. Her take-no-bull body language and calculating stare give her character an intelligence and prove she’s the right person for the job. Theron grounds the film whenever it threatens to become a smarter-than-thou, hyper-convoluted slog. She also makes you believe that her character isn’t just another James Bond clone. You may watch “Atomic Blonde” because it’s from the co-director of “John Wick,” but you should see it for Theron.

Theron also makes you want to dig into the meaning of a film whose amped-up ’80s soundtrack—everything from Nena’s “99 Luftballons” to New Order’s “Blue Monday”—announces “Atomic Blonde” as a knowing act of role-playing. The story is set during the first week of November, 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historically speaking, we know how the story ends. But what’s important here is the spy work and its consequences for Lorraine. To get the job done, she has to enter every situation numb to the human connections she makes in order to (primarily) survive and also to save the lives of her colleagues. She consequently addresses every situation tactically rather than emotionally. 

Lorraine has personal ties to the spy whose death and betrayal leads to her arrival in Berlin, even if those ties are thankfully only mentioned once during a flashback. That dream/flashback suggests a personal dimension to Lorraine’s quest that is thankfully never foregrounded. Lorraine’s status quo is chilliness, a foundational state of being whose necessity is confirmed with almost every interaction she makes. As a woman, she necessarily has to be on guard at all times, because she enters every situation knowing that everyone wants to proposition and/or take advantage of her. At every step, she meets people who openly deceive her or who are theoretically on her side but seem as if they’re out to get her. First she is ambushed by a group of Stasi officers who pose as her contacts. Then she meets British spy David Percival (James McAvoy), who is disillusioned with his low status on the espionage totem pole and doesn’t seem too invested in helping a British informant known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) to flee Berlin. A French spy and potential love interest named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) challenges Lorraine, but even she is initially untrustworthy since she employs the same used car salesman “trust me” tactics as Lorraine’s counterparts (the first time they meet, Delphine offers to “rescue” Lorraine).

Still, the fact that Lorraine’s backstory is relegated to a single dream sequence is telling. True, her story is recounted in the form of a series of flashbacks to a trio of antagonistic interrogators: Eric Gray (Toby Jones), Lorraine’s commanding officer; Emmet Kurzfeld (John Goodman), a dickish CIA chief; and the mysterious Chief “C” (James Faulkner), an MI6 figurehead who watches Lorraine tell her tale from behind a two-way mirror. But these guys are, as she points out, not her “superiors.” For the most part, action and steely-eyed glares tell us everything we need to know about who Lorraine is. The fact that the film’s creators trust viewers enough enough to downplay hackneyed origin-story psychology will hopefully make viewers more inclined to forgive blocky expository dialogue exchanges, smart-ass Machiavelli quotations, and an overwritten plot.

Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s comic book, “Atomic Blonde” has been adapted by director David Leitch (co-director of the “John Wick” films) by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad in a way that gives us lots of information about Lorraine through visuals alone. The heroine announces, in thuddingly obvious dialogue, that she’s cool, and is only making connections to get ahead, but she’s actually a mix of fire and ice: Leitch and his cinematographer Jonathan Sela put the idea across with red and blue light. The ice bath Theron emerges from in her first scene is lit blue, while the lighter that is offered to her at a bar in one of the film’s most indelible images lights her face up red. Blue is the persona that Lorraine presents to the world; red light cuts sees through the character’s facade and reveals her interior. When Lorraine makes contact with Delfine, her blue-lit face is undercut with flashes of fiery red light that accent Theron’s cheekbones. When Delfine and Lorraine retire to Lorraine’s bedroom, the sheets are the same cerulean hue as the light on their bodies. 

Pop culture references do some of the heavy lifting here, too, connecting not only with Lorraine’s personality but with the historical landscape through which she travels. “Blue Monday” plays during a table-setting introductory scene, solidifying the notion of Lorraine-as-ice-queen and subtly reminding us that espionage is Lorraine’s job and she’s about to start a new assignment. The film’s main action kicks off to the tune of David Bowie’s “Cat People,” a song that begins with a verse by Iggy Pop, one of Bowie’s famous collaborators during his Berlin years, and whose main refrain is “It’s been so long … ” More ideas are teased in a fight scene where Lorraine tracks a group of killers into a movie theater showing “Stalker,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction drama, then sneaks into the area behind the screen and is ultimately kicked through right through it. “Stalker” is set in “the Zone,” an Edenic oasis where wishes are granted by discarded alien artifacts; to Lorraine and Percival, Berlin is their own personal version of the Zone, a Wild West-style frontier where anything goes and everything can kill you. 

This, ultimately, is why it matters that Theron plays a role that under most other circumstances, would have been given to a lesser male star. Her intensity during the film’s action scenes—a mix of ostentatiously choreographed “The Raid”-style brutality and Paul Greengrass-style hand-held camerawork—really convinces you that she is the best person for the job. And while the film doesn’t ultimately say anything more cutting than “sometimes we role-play in order to remind ourselves what we stand for,” Theron does ground the film whenever its hard-boiled heroine threatens to get bogged down by superficial allusions and armchair philosophizing. The film’s creators do exploit her gender in ways that they wouldn’t for a man (a male lead wouldn’t be allowed to have a same-sex relationship in a movie made at this budget level). But you can’t help but be awed as Theron’s Lorraine knowingly traipses into a minefield of impending double and triple crosses, and comes out looking as poised as royalty.  

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Munna Michael

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Bollywood musical “Munna Michael” is too many movies crammed into one. This formulaic but satisfying crowd-pleaser shifts its focus from one protagonist to another so many times that it’s hard to tell whose story and emotions matter most. It only begins as a “Saturday Night Fever“-style celebration of lead protagonist Munna Michael (Tiger Shroff), a talented, self-absorbed dancer who hustles less-talented dancers by betting that he can out-dance them. The kicker is that all of Munna Michael’s dance moves—and some of the film’s song lyrics—are inspired by Michael Jackson

But soon enough, Munna Michael gets banned from local Mumbai dance clubs, and moves to New Delhi. While there, Munna Michael’s story turns into a lumpy action-comedy: he tries to teach gangster Mahindar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) how to dance. But Mahindar only wants to dance so he can impress night-club dancer Dolly (Nidhhi Agerwal), who immediately becomes the object of Munna Michael’s affection. He then tries to helpt Dolly realize her dream of winning the top prize on “Dancing Star,” a “So You Think You Can Dance”-style competition show. Which brings us back to Munna Michael, a character who hides his dancing career from his sick father (Anupam Shyam), a former Jackson-inspired dancer.

At this point, Munna Michael stops being the lead of his own film, and starts looking like a cliche-dispensing Swiss army knife. How many masters can one man serve? He’s proud, and independent, like his idol, so his inability to dance out in the open automatically hobbles the film’s plot. Munna Michael’s also a foil for Mahindar, and his earnest quest to win Dolly’s affection, which is sometimes annoying since Mahindar is simultaneously depicted as a clueless nebbish, and a raging brute. And then there’s Dolly’s story, a largely uninspired “putting on a show”-style musical that only comes alive when Munna Michael and his crew of back-up dancers hit the dance floor.

Thankfully, the film’s set pieces are a treat. At this point, “Munna Michael” stops being held back by inconsistent characterizations, and cuts loose with derivative but viscerally satisfying musical numbers. Munna Michael’s style is a mix of break-dancing spins and jumps and Jackson-style joint-bending, limb-twirling, gravity-defying showmanship. When Munna Michael hits the dance-floor, viewers can enjoy Shroff do his thing thanks to the use of wide-angle lenses, lavish sets, and talented back-up dancers. These are moments where logic, as we know it, stops being important, and back-up dancers materialize out of nowhere. Not even a bullet can stop Munna Michael: he leaps, jumps, and pirouettes his way around in an infectiously joyous way. You’ve probably seen dancers that are at least this good before on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Shroff is admittedly not the most charismatic Bollywood leading man. But Shroff does well within the limited range of his character’s “Tony Manero: show-stopper” style.

Shroff is also good enough to make slow-motion-intensive action scenes work. These scenes are not the most well-choreographed fight sequences you’re likely to see. In fact, they’re just a touch over-edited, and feature too many scenes that emphasize the blunt impact of flying into bicycle kicks and/or windshields, concrete roads, glass windows, what have you. That having been said, there are several moments of cocky joy during these scenes, like when Shroff glides across the hood of an off-road vehicle in order to emphasize the car’s brand. It’s such a brazen move pulled off with such winning dickish-ness that I almost stood up and cheered. Moments like these are the real reason to see “Munna Michael,” a collage of superior films’ better ideas that works best when its characters are flexing their muscles, and acting like they’re as talented as they are boastful. 

Unfortunately, only Shroff gets to look really good. Mahindar is embarrassed repeatedly whenever he tries to dance: his childish dance moves prove what Munna Michael tells his competitors early on in the film: some people just can’t dance very well. That hint of elitism is fascinating, but not particularly well-developed. If anything, that mentality is underwhelmed by Aderwal’s first solo dance number, the one that’s supposed to catch Munna Michael’s eye, and win him over. It’s also evident in the scene where Munna Michael and Dolly serenade each other … in the middle of the desert? This probably seems more out there than it actually is since there’s an unwritten rule that requires most contemporary Bollywood films to include at least one desert/ancient ruins-set slow dance/serenade. Still, in this specific case, the scene undermines the suggestion that some people are just born to dance while others can train constantly without ever becoming great.

“Munna Michael” is not always great. It constantly fluctuates from being the kind of film I want to like to a giddy popcorn flick that doesn’t know its own strengths. Still, “Munna Michael” has enough high points to make it the kind of film I’m glad I saw on a big screen. It’s noisy, silly, and sometimes rather fun. I just wish it weren’t such a hot mess.

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Girls Trip

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Divisive politics, a health-care plan in limbo, those darn Russians, triple-digit temps. If ever there was a moment when we as a nation needed to let off some steam and chill, it has arrived. 

Just in the nick of time, the multiplex offers just such a chance to sit back, take a deep cleansing breath and let go of any pent-up anxiety. That is, for those who can handle hard-R-rated content such as an act of intimacy known as “grapefruiting” that does for citrus what “There’s Something About Mary” did for hair gel. Judging by the contagious outbursts of shock, awe and guffaws at my raucous screening of “Girls Trip,” courtesy of a full house of primarily African-American women along with a smattering of men folk who were invited for the occasion, the best way to exhale these days is to simply laugh as one.

“Girls Trip” is the ladies-on-the-loose comedy that everyone needs right now, even if they don’t know it yet. Yes, this is another equal-opportunity ensemble of females gone wild, most recently observed in the subpar “Bad Moms” and “Rough Night.” While “Bridesmaids” and the “Sex and the City” franchise might have redefined such bosom-buddy bonding while trafficking in the usual raunchy, rude and rowdy behavior, “Girls Trip,” with its epic two-hour length, apparently aims to be the “Lord of the Rings” of sisters doing it for themselves, one that gets a whole lot right that the others too often get wrong.

By now, director Malcolm D. Lee knows how to stock a cast full of top-shelf talent as proven by “The Best Man” films and “Barbershop: The Next Cut.” But he outdoes himself as a matchmaker this time by gathering an insanely likable and capable quartet of actresses to play the college chums who proudly proclaim themselves as the Flossy Posse. Headlining these grads of the class of 1995 is Regina Hall, a regular in Lee’s “Best Man” films, who is promoted to lead as Ryan Pierce, a sleekly pulled-together self-help guru and best-selling author of a book, You Can Have It All—which, for her, includes her retired NFL star husband and business partner, Stewart (Mike Colter of Netflix’s “Luke Cage”). But, of course, her “all” is not what it seems and she suddenly gets the urge to use her appearance as a keynote speaker at the Essence Festival in New Orleans to reunite with her friends after many years apart and allow them to share in her luxury accommodations.

They include Queen Latifah as Sasha, a celebrity gossip blogger who fell out with Ryan after she nixed their website deal, and Jada Pinkett Smith as Lisa, a prim and proper divorced nurse and mother of two who used to be a sexual dynamo back in the day. This is the pair’s first outing together since 1996’s bank-heist thriller “Set It Off” and don’t think “Girls Trip” doesn’t duly sneak in a reference to that oldie. But they and everyone else is forced to take a backseat to the film’s motor-mouth of mass dysfunction known as Tiffany Haddish. Her hard-partying Dina, who lives to stir up trouble, is to “Girls Trip” what Melissa McCarthy was to “Bridesmaids” and Kate McKinnon was to “Ghostbusters”—one-of-a-kind breakouts who commit grand larceny in every scene. Dina’s best trait is her unwavering loyalty to her posse. Her worst is a penchant for hair-trigger acts of aggression—which we first observe when she assaults a male co-worker who has dared to steal her Go-Gurt. As for her love life, let’s just say she is the type who is ecstatic to learn that her STD diagnosis is only chlamydia.

Soon we land in the chaotic French Quarter, where a brass band does a peppy version of “Lovely Day.” Everything is selfies and smiles until Sasha receives a paparazzi photo on her phone that shows Stewart canoodling with an “Instagram skank” known as Simone (Deborah Ayorinde). Money-strapped Sasha must face the moral dilemma of whether she should cash in on revealing to the world Ryan’s marital woes or protect her privacy. But, in between, there is plenty to keep these pals pre-occupied. That includes VIP backstage passes to the Superdome where performers include Bell Biv DeVoe, Common, Maxwell, Mariah Carey and Sean “Diddy” Combs, who yanks Dina up onstage after she flashes her glitter-sprinkled breasts. Other cameos include author Terry McMillan, “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and chef Carla Hall.

Men, of course, come into the picture. That includes a crusty old flasher, a definite “ew” moment for the ages. But Smith’s Lisa finally gets lucky—actually, too lucky as those who have seen the red-band trailer know—when a gorgeous young college student (Kofi Siriboe) attempts to woo her. Meanwhile, Ryan runs into old college flame Julian (Larenz Tate), a bassist for Ne-Yo, and flirtatious sparks tentatively fly. But what will propel word of mouth are the outrageous moments that go where others have declined before. Whereas no actual poop was exploited in the infamous diarrhea outbreak in “Bridesmaids,” a rain shower of urine pours down upon the denizens of Bourbon Street not just once but twice. And if you ever wanted to see Queen Latifah make out with a floor lamp, this is your chance courtesy of a run-in with 200-year-old absinthe.

Screenwriters Kenya Barris (creator of “Black-ish”) and Tracy Oliver (“Survivor’s Remorse”) know how to get the party started and keep it lively. That is until matters are awkwardly forced to take a serious whiplash turn that drags down the final half-hour when many difficult truths must be confronted. But probably what most distinguishes “Girls Trip” from other such comedies is that these four black actresses in their late 30s and mid-40s play adults who are honest, grounded and devoted to one another, differences be damned. Such cruelty-free comedy is a beautiful thing to see. And if grapefruit sales explode in the coming days, you will know why. 

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Every summer movie season needs at least one out-of-left-field entry that is so cheerfully bonkers it stands as a living rebuke to an industry that churns out noisy and soulless garbage like “Transformers: The Last Knight.” This year, that film is “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” a deliriously entertaining film that finds writer/director Luc Besson swinging for the fences in his efforts to make a weirdo sci-fi epic for the ages and coming up with a virtual home run derby. It’s a film filled with humor, charm, excitement and so many memorable images that many viewers will find themselves struggling to keep from blinking so as not to miss any of the eye-popping delights crammed into each overstuffed frame.

The film is inspired by Valerian and Laureline, a French comic book series created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres that is said, especially among European comic book buffs, to have influenced the look of any number of films over the years, including “Star Wars.” The comics also helped to instill an interest in the genre in a ten-year-old Besson, who would eventually go on to employ Mezieres to help design the look of his own elaborate sci-fi epic, “The Fifth Element.” Besson may be one of the leading players on the international moviemaking scene, but while watching “Valerian,” he has reverted, in the best possible way, to the mindset of a kid helplessly enthralled by the wild plotting, bizarre alien worlds and breathless derring-do on display—albeit a kid who has been able to marshal together armies of cutting-edge visual technicians and a near-$200 million budget (the largest in French film history) to bring it all to life exactly as it played in his head.

Set in the 28th century, the film centers on Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a pair of special operatives fighting crime throughout the universe. As the story begins, the two are sent off to Big Market, a virtual-reality bazaar whose hordes of vendors can only be seen and approached after donning special equipment, to confiscate an ultra-rare and powerful Mül Converter, an adorable creature capable of reproducing anything that it eats. The cocky Valerian soon finds himself being pursued by any number of creatures while the far more cool and collected Laureline is charged with saving his bacon, presumably not for the first time. The twist this time is that, due to a technological malfunction, Valerian is also trapped between two different levels of reality with most of his body in the real world while his arm is stuck in the virtual universe. This may not make a lot of sense in the explanation but the end result on the screen is a hilarious and exciting thing of crackpot beauty that is just one high point of a film filled with them.

After securing the Mül Converter, Valerian and Laureline report to Alpha, a massive floating city that began centuries earlier as the International Space Station and has expanded over the years to serve as a home away from home for aliens from throughout the universe to live together in harmony. Now Alpha’s very existence is being threatened from within and Valerian and Laureline are charged with getting to the bottom of things before it is too late. While investigating, the two uncover evidence of a massive government conspiracy to cover up a ghastly mistake. As they try to unravel before all is lost, the two are separated and have a series of adventures involving a wild collection of creatures, the most memorable of which is a shape-shifting “glampod” played by pop princess Rihanna, who turns up to help Valerian rescue Laureline. 

Besson has long been one of the most cinematically stylish filmmakers at work today but he outdoes himself here. There is not a single scene in the film that does not contain a visual worth savoring, whether it is an unusual creature, an extravagant costume or just a throwaway oddity lurking in a corner. (This is one of the rare recent films in which the 3-D option is clearly the way to go.) At the same time, Besson is using his visual skills as a way of telling the story instead of merely serving up bits of gourmet eye candy. Take the extended early sequence set on a bucolic distant planet whose sleek and iridescent inhabitants go about their business before being interrupted by a cataclysmic event. The scene is an initial grabber because of the absolutely gorgeous design of the planet and its inhabitants. But as it goes on, we quickly get a sense of who they are in relation to each other and how their world functions without a single word of dialogue to explain any of it.

Some will complain that the screenplay is little more than a series of action sequences linked together by a story that doesn’t make any sense and absurdly clunky dialogue. While some of the criticisms are valid—there are times when the dialogue sounds as if it underwent one pass too many through translation software programmed by George Lucas—Besson’s narrative is more ambitious than usual this time around and, for all the silliness on display, ultimately touches on real-world concerns such as political corruption and the international refugee crisis in ways that lend real emotional weight to the proceedings. At the same time, “Valerian” is unusually optimistic in its depiction of the future from the charming prologue showing the evolution of Alpha to the sight of its inhabitants living together in peace. At a time when virtually every futuristic film envisions some form of dystopian nightmare, the sunnier take shown here is refreshing.

The only weak element to “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” ironically enough, is Valerian himself. Throughout his career, Besson has never had much interest in telling stories based around conventionally masculine heroes—most of his films have centered on tough and resourceful female characters and when guys have been front-and-center, they have had their macho natures subverted in some way (such as dressing Bruce Willis in Jean-Paul Gaultier in “The Fifth Element”). Here, Valerian should be brave, bold and resourceful but as inhabited by DeHaan, he comes across more like a callow kid struggling to emulate the effortless cool of Han Solo. Besson is clearly more interested in the character of Laureline and so will viewers thanks to the performance by Delevingne. She is funny, convincing in the fight scenes, charismatic as hell and capable of taking an absurdly melodramatic speech like her climactic oratory on the importance of love and make it work. Thanks to films like “Wonder Woman” and the recent “Star Wars” entries, we are in a new age of exemplary female heroes at the multiplex and Laureline is fully deserving of a place among them.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is an utter delight and one of the most gorgeous fantasies to hit the screen in recent memory—the kind of film that can take moviegoers logy from the usual array of craptaculars and render them absolutely giddy with its pure fun. The question, of course, is whether viewers will be willing to give its weirdo charms a chance. But if you want to come away from a film feeling dazzled instead of simply dazed, this is an absolute must. Besides, it is almost certainly going to become a cult favorite in a few years, so why not get in on the ground floor while you can?

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Santoalla

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Fans of off-beat true-crime tales will find an absorbing murder mystery in Daniel Mehrer and Andrew Becker’s “Santoalla,” a documentary that had this reviewer wondering if it was a real or faux doc until the very end. Turns out it’s real, but the suspicion that it might be otherwise is a tribute both to the debuting filmmakers’ skills in shaping their story and that story’s innate dramatic power.

The film also offers the fascination of taking us into a scenic and out-of-the-way corner of Europe. Santoalla is a village in Galicia in northern Spain, a region that has seen rural residents moving off the land in recent years. That’s left depopulated areas like this one enveloped in a wild and desolate beauty, with abandoned houses overgrown by the returning forests.

That remoteness was what attracted Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, a Dutch couple who moved there in the 1990s to farm and enjoy the isolation. It seems it was a happy decision for the pair, who evidently loved their new life. But it’s not long into the film that we learn that the couple’s existence was recently shattered. Martin disappeared and foul play was suspected, with suspicion falling on the only other people living in Santoalla, a Spanish family named Rodrigues, who’ve been farming the same ground for a couple of generations at least.

When the film turns back the clock to look at the Dutch couple’s life prior to Martin’s disappearance, Margo serves as narrator (the filmmakers are never seen or heard). Speaking in Dutch-accented English, she recalls her and Martin’s decision to leave behind Amsterdam and a world where civilization meant living by other people’s “rules.” They were archetypal latter-day hippies, in other words, and they found a natural haven in Santoalla, where the goats and other animals they raised were their main companions. (This part of the story is told using old photos as well as film footage shot while Martin was still around.)

If Margo never seems grief-stricken or distraught when speaking of Martin in the past tense, that’s because a certain kind of northern stoicism seems a part of her make-up. You can imagine her as a settler wife speaking dispassionately about a husband who’s been spirited away by Indians in the Old West. As in that analogy, there’s an element of cultural clashes to this story.

The Rodrigues clan was rooted to the land and their culture’s old ways. Their number includes a rather wily and imperious matriarch, and one son who is mentally challenged. They’re a strange bunch, and not the friendliest folks you’ve ever seen. We soon come to understand that there was never any friendship between the two clans. They were too different, and the Spaniards evidently didn’t appreciate the interlopers.

The friction between two families came into public view when Martin filed suit against the Rodrigueses for withholding money that should have been shared by the families. We see footage of the trial, which ended in a victory for Martin. It was within a few weeks of that event, in early 2010, that he disappeared along with his truck.

To discuss the story further would be to venture into spoiler territory, so suffice it to say that the story has a satisfying shape in that various mysteries are solved, including the crucial one. At 83 minutes, the film is a concise and well-executed example of smart documentary storytelling. Its photography is particularly memorable for the way it captures the wild beauty and haunting atmosphere of the Santoalla region.

The one question the film left me with was how directors Mehrer and Becker found out about this case and what it was like for two Brooklyn-based filmmakers to go to Spain to make the film. There are probably a number of interesting tales in the answer to that. Or maybe that’s another documentary altogether.

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Dunkirk

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Lean and ambitious, unsentimental and bombastic, overwhelmingly guy-centric, Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” showcases the best and worst of the director’s tendencies. The best win out and the worst recede in memory when you think back on the experience—provided that you want to remember “Dunkirk,” a movie that’s supposed to be grueling and succeeds. Less of a war film and more of a disaster (or survival) picture, it’s an ensemble work that chronicles the evacuation of English soldiers who got trapped in the harbor and on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June of 1940, with the Germans, who had driven Allied forces practically out to sea, closing in for one last sweep.

If you were to make a list of every phobia you can think of, you’d have to tick off a lot of boxes after seeing this film. Fear of heights, fire, drowning, confined spaces, darkness, abandonment—you name it, it’s represented in cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s nightmarishly clear images. And if you see the movie in one of the handful of theaters showing it in 70mm IMAX format, the experience will feel even more constricting and oppressive because of the image’s unusual shape. It’s close to the old-fashioned “Academy” ratio common to films made in cinema’s early decades: squarish, tall instead of wide. That means that when you’re in the cockpit of a fighter  diving towards the water, or running behind an infantryman dodging German snipers, the idea of “tunnel vision,” a phrase spoken by many a catastrophe survivor, comes to life onscreen.

The film will be shown in a wider format in most cinemas, but I doubt this will lessen the overall effect: this is a pile-driver of a movie, dropping one visual or aural bomb after another, with barely a pause to contemplate what it’s just shown you. To watch it is to feel beleaguered. This was a period in which German military power was ascendant and hope for the United Kingdom’s survival was starting to ebb. The story of Dunkirk has been told on film before, notably in Leslie Norman’s same-titled 1958 feature, and there has been no shortage of other films about other battlefield rescues; but this one feels different, mainly because of how it’s made. 

Nolan, who also wrote the film’s script, drops you into the middle of the action from frame one and keeps you there. This is an ensemble movie that doesn’t just fail to delineate most of its characters through exposition but seems to take perverse pride in letting them scamper anonymously across the screen at flyspeck distance, getting lost amid crowds or merging with smoke or water. Scenes sometimes play out for minutes without audible dialogue, a rarity in commercial cinema made at this budget level; it’s even rarer in Nolan’s own films, which tend to clarify narrative via massive verbal exposition dumps. Nolan and van Hoytema hold shots longer than the Nolan norm, sometimes long enough to let you consider everything in the frame and decide where to let your eye settle.

Like a more restless cousin of Terrence Malick, who infused the combat picture with Transcendental philosophy in “The Thin Red Line,” or Robert Altman, who painted microcosmic panoramas of civilization in such films as “Nashville” and “Short Cuts,” “Dunkirk” treats every English soldier on that beach and in assorted nearby planes and boats as part of a collective organism, less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be. “Dunkirk” is what I like to call an Ant Farm Picture: it’s a portrait of a society, or a species, fighting for its life. It’s not hugely interested in the plight of individuals, unless they’re trying to save themselves or others. If you get confused about who’s who and what’s what from time to time, you can rest assured that this is a feature of Nolan’s methods, not a bug (pun intended). 

Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot trying to blast German pilots out of the sky before they can strafe soldiers on the ground and sink boats in the harbor. He has maybe a dozen lines and spends much of the film behind a mask, as he did in his last collaboration with Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises“; but he makes a strong impression anyway by treating the character as the sum total of his actions. Mark Rylance plays a civilian with teenage sons who is determined to pilot his small yacht to Dunkirk and rescue as many people as he can; there are lots of these self-appointed rescuers around Dunkirk; their ultimate organization into one of the twentieth century’s boldest non-military flotillas is as inspiring as you imagine it to be. A trio of soldiers, one of whom is played by Harry Styles, rushes from the town to the beach and onto a long dock that stretches into the ocean; this is the only way that big boats can get close enough to shore to pick up the stranded. The would-be passengers pray that they can pile onto a ship and get out before more German planes shred them with bullets or bombs. Some of the characters, including Hardy’s Farrier and Rylance’s Mark Dawson or Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, the highest ranking English officer on the scene, are given names. Others are identified only by their general appearance or actions, such as Cillian Murphy, known only as “Shivering Man”; he’s pulled from the icy sea by Rylance’s captain and strongly urges the crew to sail away from Dunkirk, not toward it.

The film has its share of stumbling blocks. One is the persistent anonymity of the characters; just because a gambit is a conscious part of the film’s design doesn’t mean it always works, and there are moments you may wonder whether treating supporting players as something other than glorified cannon fodder might have resulted in a film as emotionally powerful as it is viscerally overwhelming. Another miscalculation is the score, by Hans Zimmera Jungian din of booming drums, bum-vibrating synth chords, and cawing string effects that loses much of its power by refusing to shut up, even when silence or ambient war noise might have been just as effective, or more so. The overuse of Zimmer’s music has been an issue throughout Nolan’s career, but here may become an object of debate. The situations and images are so vivid that the score often seems to be trying to rescue a film that doesn’t need its help.

I was more on-the-fence about the movie’s intricate narrative construction, but once the film’s visceral impact had faded, it was there that my mind wandered. Like most of Nolan’s films, “Dunkirk” is obsessed by the relative perception of time. This is emphasized here by the cross-cutting of Lee Smith. Smith has edited all of Nolan’s movies since “Batman Begins“—including “Interstellar,” which is explicitly about the idea of time passing more quickly or slowly depending on where you are. “Dunkirk” tells us in its chapter-like opening titles that one major subplot takes place over a month, two others during the course of a week, and so on. Then the movie hops between them in ways that compress and expand time for poetic effect—making, say, a plane’s run that probably took thirty seconds seem to take exactly as long as a sea rescue that lasted hours.

One could make a case that this amounts to over-intellectualization of a strong, simple tale. But that’s been Nolan’s m.o. from “Following” and “Memento” onward, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t fascinate me, even if a particular film isn’t doing much for me scene-to-scene. It has often been said that trauma wreaks havoc with one’s perceptions of time. This is one of the few works I can think of that considers that idea over the course of a whole feature, not just in self-contained sequences. (The backbone of Zimmer’s score, appropriately, is a ticking clock.)

If somebody were to ask me if I liked this film, I would tell them no. I loathed parts of it and found other parts repetitious or half-baked. But, maybe paradoxically, I admired it throughout, and have been thinking about it constantly since I saw it. Even the aspects of “Dunkirk” that didn’t sit right with me are all of a piece. This is a movie of vision and integrity made on an epic scale, a series of propositions dramatized with machines, bodies, seawater and fire. It deserves to be seen and argued about. They don’t make them like this anymore. Never did, really. 


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Wish Upon

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“Wish Upon” is another one of those movies that would be memorable if it were a lot better or a lot worse. Joey King (“Oz the Great and Powerful”) stars as Claire Shannon, a teenage girl whose mother killed herself years earlier. Claire grew up into an unhappy teenager who feels like a pariah and gets bullied. She’s also humiliated that her father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), dumpster-dives all over town, even across the street from her school. Then her dad finds a mysterious box inscribed with Chinese characters. It’s a wishing box that gives its owner seven wishes. The downside is, every time a wish comes true, somebody dies. And we’re off!

That sounds like a decent setup for a schlock horror flick, but it’s hard to tell what director John R. Leonetti (“Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”) and writer Barbara Marshall saw in this story. The screenplay made The Black List, an annual film industry survey of the “most liked” unproduced screenplays. But it’s tough to discern from the evidence onscreen that anybody could see something remarkable in this material, besides the possibility of making money from people who thought they’d be getting a great or even good horror film, as opposed to one of those here-and-gone time-wasters that I used to watch at the dollar theater when I was a kid. The best thing you can say about it is that the acting is alright, there are a few decently executed moments of nastiness, the whole thing is in focus and you can understand what’s being said.

There’s not much internal logic to the way the script sets up Claire. She’s made out to be a pariah, but she has two spirited, funny, attractive friends (Sydney Park and Shannon Purser, aka Barb on “Stranger Things”), and when she’s bullied, she stands up for herself immediately. The characters speak in outdated ’80s and ’90s slang (“Bitchin’!” “No way.” “Yes, way”), and they are often played by actors who seem too old, or at least too self-possessed, to be teenagers. The conception of all the young characters feels like an older screenwriter’s idea of what it means to be young and American at this point in history. This all matters because originality and specificity would’ve set the story apart and made it seem special. 

The story is steeped in Orientalist cliches that are also very ’80s. The box exudes The Ominous Mystery of the Far East, and Claire has a crush on a Chinese American classmate named Ryan Hui (Ki Long Hee of “The Maze Runner“), who takes the box to his cousin Gina (Alice Lee), who translates the characters in exchange for an order of won tons. The script thinks that if it makes the Asian characters cool, and includes a couple of lines shading Claire for stereotyping Chinese people, it won’t seem like it’s wallowing in the same cultural cliches that drive older horror and fantasy films. This is also the kind of movie where one of the heroine’s friends chastises her late in the story for wasting her seven wishes on popularity and personal riches when she could be using the box to solve world hunger; this comment plays like a preemptive strike against criticism, and only serves to remind us that the movie can’t or won’t explore its central idea in anything but a perfunctory way. Nor is “Wish Upon” willing to crank up the outrageousness and really go for it—a scenario that might’ve at least secured a spot in the Midnight Movie Hall of Fame.

“Wish Upon” livens up whenever the box extracts its blood price, but only a little. Nobody ever dies in an unremarkable way, only through chain reaction slapstick mishaps that involve garbage disposals, chainsaws, deadly bathtub spigots and the like. Even routine car accidents are staged to make the impact seem at once tragic and silly. But the kills aren’t enough to distinguish the film, much less save it. The violent scenes might play as outrageous, in midnight movie fashion, if the direction were capable of putting an intention, any intention, across. Instead, the bloodletting plays as leaden and self-important, as if we’re supposed to be deeply horrified by what the film shows us and come away thinking about it. I laughed at it, not because it’s disturbing or deliberately hilarious, but because the movie seems blissfully unaware of what it wants to do, or could do. (If you like this kind of thing, the “Final Destination” series does it better.)

The movie is almost worth seeing for the scenes where the heroine’s dad reconnects with his love of the saxophone and blats out obviously prerecorded instrumental stylings that sound like smooth jazz in the vein of Kenny G. Here, at long last, is the bone-chilling horror you were waiting for.

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Bronx Gothic

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How much work does it take to love yourself as a woman in modern society? How much effort must one put forth to shut out the deafening howl of discrimination and accept oneself as a woman of color, an unapologetically sexual being or a girl who isn’t deemed as conventionally pretty? These questions have recently been tackled in indelible ways by brilliant female artists working within the realm of dance. Under the choreography of Ryan Heffington, Maddie Ziegler exposed the messy emotions trapped within the commoditized faces of women in the acclaimed music videos for Sia tunes such as “Chandelier” and “Big Girls Cry.” Bobbi Jene Smith obliterated the shame so often associated with sexuality in her electrifying performance piece, “A Study on Effort,” the evolution of which can be witnessed in Elvira Lind’s Tribeca prize-winning documentary, “Bobbi Jene.” Though Okwui Okpokwasili’s performance piece, “Bronx Gothic,” is filled with words—both spoken and sung—the first half-hour is comprised entirely of its solo performer dancing silently in a corner of the stage, her back turned to the audience. This radical decision inevitably frustrates some audience members (one man is overheard groaning, “Shoot me now”), but its hypnotic effect proves to be transformative for those willing to lose themselves in the person standing and convulsing before them. 

In an era when so many technological distractions are vying for our attention, Okpokwasili challenges us to keep our eyes focused on her until we, in a sense, “become” her. The first third of her performance serves as a sort of overture, fully immersing us in the mood of the piece before a single word is uttered. The intimate venues where “Bronx Gothic” is performed enable Okpokwasili to make eye contact with her audience when she finally turns to face them. She gazes at the seated observers in a way that forces them to consider how they may be read by their mere appearance, a thought that consistently crosses the minds of black women in America. Her goal is to take the viewers off of their protected, elevated perch in the darkness and bring them into her world—the one from her past that continues to haunt her present existence. 

Recounting a coming-of-age yarn set in her childhood home of the Bronx, the show is perhaps most poignant when performed in its own location. Even the safe space of the theater can’t prevent the sounds of subway trains and ambulance sirens from blaring through the walls, much like how the security of the Parkchester neighborhood where Okpokwasili grew up wasn’t immune to the threat of violence. Yet no matter where “Bronx Gothic” happens to be staged, the “porous boundary” separating Okpokwasili from her audience is repeatedly blurred. When a fleck of sweat or saliva happens to be flung from the performer onto a member of the crowd, it’s the externalization of Okpokwasili’s intent to have her “blackness get on” the people in attendance until they are consumed.

No filmed footage could replicate the experience of watching “Bronx Gothic” live, but documentarian Andrew Rossi does an admirable job of channeling its power in his movie of the same name. It’s not as adventurous or as thorough a portrait as “Bobbi Jene,” and there are areas where it is conspicuously lacking. As Rossi follows Okpokwasili during the final three-month tour of her show, we catch glimpses of her husband and frequent collaborator, Peter Born. He served as the director of “Bronx Gothic,” but we get little sense of his working relationship with Okpokwasili, aside from one tense conversation regarding the arguable merits of a “Roots” remake. Born questions why so many “black films” tend to be about oppression, leading his wife to argue that the ahistorical attitudes pervading American culture necessitate reminders of our country’s systemic prejudice. The picture may have been enriched by more conversations between this couple, though we are supplied instead with interactions that are nearly as compelling. There’s some very funny banter courtesy of Okpokwasili’s mother, who balks at how her daughter refuses to take a break during the 90-minute performance (“Do they have a doctor there?” she quips), as well as some moving responses from audience members at talkbacks. 

Throughout the film, Okpokwasili is surprisingly candid in voicing her intentions behind each artistic choice in the show, which she insists is not an autobiography but a character piece loosely based on her life and the lives of girls that she knew. As the director of NYC profiles including “Page One: Inside the New York Times” and “The First Monday in May,” Rossi is skilled at involving us in the process of creation, and the best moments in this film juxtapose thrilling performance excerpts with the concepts from which they sprung.

The term “Gothic” in the title is meant to evoke the forbidden spaces where one accidentally enters, culminating in the end of innocence. Once Okpokwasili arrives at the mic, she reads selections of the correspondence that her character supposedly had with her best friend when they were 11 years old in the Bronx. There’s a frankness to the girls’ discussion of their budding sexuality that is both amusing and refreshing, encouraging youth to not be ashamed of their developing bodies. Okpokwasili was pregnant with her daughter when she wrote the show, an added factor that fueled her desire to revolt against the puritanical fear of educated women. Keeping girls ignorant about their own physical functions merely leaves them vulnerable to the predatory forces in society. At the heart of the piece is Okpokwasili’s need to “author herself into existence,” allowing women of color to have their lives acknowledged and validated in a world that “privileges whiteness.” In a riveting montage, Rossi fuses images of mutilated slaves with the recent murders of men like Eric Garner, as Okpokwasili describes the ontological crisis spurred by the endless cycle of watching black bodies be destroyed without consequence. Her stated question of whether she exists if her existence can be so easily erased lends an overarching spiritual component to the show that crystallizes in the final act. As the girls’ identities start to fragment and combine, we wonder whether they are actually shades of the same person, or if they are reflections of ourselves as well. 

Rossi’s “Bronx Gothic” is a stirring ode to the liberating catharsis of artistic expression, as embodied by Okpokwasili and Born’s transcendent theatrical masterwork. A lingering question raised by the picture is how black male bodies can cease to be branded as threats, considering how their tough exteriors are so often acquired for the purposes of self-preservation. I was reminded of a good friend whom I walked with many times through the city of Chicago. As we chatted enthusiastically about a variety of topics, he often paused to compliment a passerby or help a family carry a box to their door. I also noticed how the pace in his step would slow on occasion, causing the distance to widen between him and the lone pedestrian ahead of us. When I asked him why he did these things, he told me that as a black man, it was imperative that he go out of his way to avoid being perceived as scary or ill-intentioned. The effort that he put forth on a daily basis boggled my mind and broke my heart. I can’t think of a better example for why the work of artists like Okpokwasili is not only beneficial but entirely indispensable.

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