Here are the movies I saw in July:
THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)—Often uproarious 14th Century sex farce about a group of nuns whose world changes when an attractive young servant (Dave Franco) takes up residence in their convent. Full of blasphemous jokes, and the cast is loaded with hilarious TV actors—Nick Offerman, Paul Reiser, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Adam Palley and, from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shannon and Fred Armisen. (9)
BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)—Absorbing character study pits spiritual healer and massage therapist Salma Hayek against a Trump-like land developer (John Lithgow) when they are both invited to the same dinner party. Inevitably, the bleeding heart liberal clashes with the hawkish Republican when he boasts of killing a rhino (via a cell-phone photo, which he gleefully shares with his fellow guests). The dinner contains some high drama and awkward humor; sadly, the movie’s ending falls totally flat. Too bad—what preceded it was very entertaining. (8)
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)—Final installment of the excellent reboot trilogy—which has been not only more plausible than the original but with far better special effects—is about 20 minutes too long. It’s much more of a generic war movie, with one of the two warring factions only incidentally being talking apes. Still, it’s an engaging “guy movie,” just a little overlong. And I feel like the writer of the film score really hit us over the head with the repeating 12-note theme, played incessantly throughout the movie. But I enjoyed the little “easter egg” references to the original trilogy, i.e., how the female character in this one gets the name Nova, and how the orangutan character is named Maurice (after Maurice Evans, who played the 1970s chapters). (8)
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)—I have never been interested in Spider-Man as a superhero; thus, I have never seen one of his movies. But Marvel rebooted his story in the last Captain America movie, which I liked. So I was tempted to give this movie a try—especially since reviews were so good, and because my favorite superhero, Iron Man, makes some appearances. Michael “Birdman” Keaton once again gets a bird-centric role, but this time he’s the evil Hawk instead of a superhero role. The movie is fun and briskly entertaining, and the best parts belong to Robert Downey Jr., whose Iron Man is his definitive lifetime role. (8)
THE HERO (2017)—Here’s a low-key drama featuring two of my favorite actors, Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon (the latter a regular on Orange Is the New Black). Elliott plays an aging actor who is being honored with a lifetime achievement award; he has just learned he’s got cancer, and so his struggling to face his mortality. There’s a bit of romance and family melodrama, as he tries to repair his fractured relationship with daughter Krysten Ritter (Jane of Breaking Bad). An absorbing character study, very well done, and the acting is predictably outstanding. Featuring Sam Elliott’s real wife, Katharine Ross. (9)
BABY DRIVER (2017)—WOW! Here’s the summer’s best thrill ride, a nonstop action movie starring the weirdly named Ansel Elgort as a kid working as a getaway driver for the evil but magnetic Kevin Spacey, along with bank robbers Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza González. While working off some kind of debt to Spacey, Elgort falls for waitress Lily James (“Cinderella”). The movie is pure fun, and I’ve never seen a film whose soundtrack is so perfectly in tune with the action on the screen. Stylish direction from Edgar Wright keeps things lively and engaging (although, at times, the action is wildly implausible). Even the outstanding reviews could not have prepared me for how much fun this was. Paul Williams has a small but memorable role. (10)
A GHOST STORY (2017)—It’s kind of funny that I saw this movie directly after Baby Driver. It’s like going on a rollercoaster, and then immediately having to sit in detention for two hours. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are a married couple, but Affleck dies very early on and becomes a ghost—not the Patrick Swayze kind, but a guy in a Halloween-style sheet with black holes where the eyes should be. He basically haunts the house, even after his widowed wife moves out and other families move in. Mostly the spirit silently observes, but occasionally he can throw a poltergeist-type fit, tossing dinner plates around or spooking the kids. This is a movie full of long static shots where nothing happens—if Rooney Mara needs to pull an old chest to the sidewalk for trash delivery, you see her struggled across the whole lawn, walk all the way back to the house, and then the audience sees a two-minute static shot of the house Rooney Mara has just re-entered. There’s a lot of these sequences: Rooney Mara eating an entire pie, Rooney Mara washing the dishes, etc., all while the ghost stands there watching her. It’s maddeningly boring, and it all comes to very little. The most mysterious thing about this movie is why I sat through the entire thing! (3)
THE HANGING TREE (1959)—Author Dorothy M. Johnson’s Western stories “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “A Man Called Horse” were made into successful films in 1962 and 1970, respectively. Before either of those, her story “The Hanging Tree” became this film, starring Gary Cooper as a doctor in the 1860s who sets up shop during the gold rush. Karl Malden plays a Michael J. Pollard-style creep, and Maria Schell is a gorgeous immigrant whom Cooper nurses back to health after her covered wagon is attacked by thieves. It’s an old-fashioned Technicolor movie that earns the phrase, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” Would be great to see this on the big screen, but my iPad got the job done. (9)
LANDLINE (2017)—Comedy-drama featuring Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn as sisters of parents Edie Falco and John Turturro, each with his or her various professional and romantic problems. The main subject here is infidelity, with dad and older sister each cheating on their respective main squeezes. The upside is the story of how the sisters slowly bond after sniping at each other, sibling-rivalry style. The downside is that there are too few characters to like here—there seemed like enough smoking, drug use, cheating and puking for two or three movies, and although this was supposed to be a comedy, I don’t think I laughed once. The first third is very rough going, but it does gradually improve. (7)
BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)—This is sort of a half-Western, half-suspense thriller starring the great Spencer Tracy. He plays a mysterious one-armed guy who arrives in a tiny town in the Southwest, and the handful of people there are extremely suspicious of his agenda. Everybody in the movie has a secret, and practically everybody except Tracy is a bad guy—including Dean Jagger, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Very tense at times; unfolds at its own pace, but totally absorbing. (9)
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)—Who is the most beautiful woman in the world: actress-model Cara Delevingne or actress-model-singer Rihanna? I can’t be sure, but I sure didn’t mind wrestling with the question during this 2 hr. 20 min. sci-fi fantasy epic, which features both women. (Let’s just agree that Cara is the hottest white woman; Rihanna is the hottest black woman.) No, this is not a great movie. It needs to be trimmed a bit, and it’s something of a mess. It steals from everywhere (Avatar, Star Wars, Blade Runner) while retaining its comic-book pedigree (it’s based on the popular Euro-comic Valerian and Laureline). But visually, Valerian is a dazzling feast for the eyes—the expensive CGI and special effects are in every frame, and it’s a work of art. It must have cost $100 billion to make. And speaking of works of art, Rihanna’s brief role is simply amazing. Anyway, my expectations had been dialed way down, since this film is a bonafide box-office bomb, but it’s perfectly fine if you accept it as a space opera with some allegorical lessons for modern politics and some incredible eye candy. This did not deserve to be the summer’s biggest bomb—I think I’d actually like to see this again! (8)
DUNKIRK (2017)—Director Christopher Nolan does a great job of "putting you on that beach," as one critic put it. He conveys the sense of dread, horror, fear and hopelessness as soldiers stand like sitting ducks on the beach. But I guess I must not be a war movie fan. I prefer to have stories and character development along with my conflict, and Dunkirk contains precious little of that. Almost the entire movie consists of:
1. Pilots in planes chasing other planes, shooting at them and crashing them into the sea.
2. Terrified British soldiers ducking as bombs and artillery burst around them.
3. People in pleasure boats frantically trying to rescue humans stranded in the water.
There is a wisp of a genuine human drama involving a kid in a boat vs. a shell-shocked soldier. For me, that was the most interesting part of the film. If you want to know what it was like being at Dunkirk during the war, you won't be disappointed. As another critic wrote: “Too much spectacle and not nearly enough humanism—a truly special effect that money cannot buy. It's the equivalent of dry, stale bread.” (6)
BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)—Kyle Mooney, the nerdy guy from Saturday Night Live, plays nerdy James Pope, a kid living in an underground bunker with adults he thinks are his parents, but who kidnapped him as a child. Like Jack in Room, or the title character in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, James doesn’t really know much about the outside world. His “parents” (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) have created a myth about an apocalypse and poisoned air to keep him shielded from society. Fake Dad has also created an insipid TV series just for him called Brigsby Bear that he’s the ultimate fan of—strictly speaking, the only fan of. And suddenly, cops descend on the bunker, the fake parents are arrested and James is reunited with his real parents. Only…now what? The new parents have to deal with James’s off-the-charts fanboy obsession with the home-brew fantasy TV show (there are 700+ episodes—all on VHS!). Should they encourage his obsession of filming a sequel, or encourage a psychiatrist (Claire Danes, who’s in the movie for about three minutes) to wean him off it? Assuming you can overlook an alarmingly high number of unlikely and/or ridiculous plot elements, it’s a sweet movie about the nature of creativity. Greg Kinnear has a nice part. (8)