Baby Driver (Directed by Edgar Wright). 2017.

with Anselm Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James.

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I had often wondered what it would be like to live in the soundtrack inside your head as I passed people who never look up on the busy streets, their earbuds seeming to direct where they went.  Baby Driver seems to answer my questions about that — since the title character, a driver named Baby, never wants to take his ear buds out even when he is driving dangerously fast, even when he is driving in reverse, fleeing the police.

It seems that Baby is in debt to a man named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who commandeers heists never with the same crew except for Baby, an exceptionally skilled driver.  When he isn’t driving recklessly and effectively to carry the money away, and deliver it to Doc, Baby lives with his foster father, an elderly deaf black man who worries about the legality of Baby’s business.  The back story has to do with Baby’s parents fighting in a car at the moment of impact that killed them both, leaving the boy in the back seat slightly scarred, and perhaps brain damaged, or a little compromised in the hearing department.

Anselm Elgort played the sad tragic romantic lead in A Fault in Our Stars, and showed himself to be utterly charming, and captivating to the camera.  His simple deadpan straightforwardness as he faces us spectators is almost like a dare to the audience not to sympathize with him.  He brings us back to the importance of relating to characters who might be like us.  Surely, we can relate to a boy who lost his parents very young and then became beholden to a villain.

 

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Lily James and Anselm Elgort

 

But Baby Driver is not a character study so much as a series of excellent car chases, punctuated by a love story, and bordered with some excellent character acting by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez (looking like Salma Hayek did 20 years ago, and giving off the same wise ass attitude).  The heists are rarely believable, the car chases beyond brilliant, but the music that carries the movie along is the reason to go.  I think that Wright started out wanting an exciting video game like experience, then found the lovers irresistible, and finally had to give them a soundtrack worthy of them.

 

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Wonder Woman Directed Patty Jenkins

With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, David Thewlis.

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Wonder Woman is not exactly the movie I have been waiting for, but it will have to do.  Since superheroes are the only way Hollywood knows how to sell tickets, at least we have a woman superhero. And lots of tickets have been sold.   An Amazon princess, daughter of Zeus and Hyppolyta, Diana is raised at first not to become a warrior, but aunt Antiope makes it clear that she must be trained.  Antiope has a long scar running down her neck, and  wears the strange headdress that doesn’t really look as if it has a function except to frame her gorgeous face and that of her sister (Hippolyta and Antiope are played by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright).

Connie Nielsen

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Robin Wright

It turns out that Diana is not just a great fighter, she has super powers, resting largely in her wrists which when lined by super metallic pads, can deflect bullets, bombs, and worst of all, the wrath of Aries.  But I am jumping ahead.  First she must deal with her introduction to a human man, one American soldier, posted as a spy by the British during World War I, the war to end all wars. Diana rescues Steve (Chris Pine) when he is shot down by enemy German sailors.  The photography of the water, Diana’s slicing through it, finding Steve, and bringing him to the surface, is exciting, as are all the scenes where Gal Gadot must move quickly and athletically through space doing her derring do turns.

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The movie moves in and out of seriousness. There is a witty visual sight gag as Steve takes a bath. Steve’s mission is full of suspense.  He means to stop the dastardly duo of Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Namu (Elena Ayana) as they prepare thousands of canisters of mustard gas to drop on unsuspecting populations just as the armistice is being drafted. Once  Dr. Namu, the mastermind behind the evil weapon, is quite fascinating, with half her face covered in a plastic mask since she was injured terribly in one presumes an accident resulting from something that she herself made.

With the penetration of the sacred space that is the island inhabited by the Amazons, Diana decides to go after the evil Aries who has brought on this war.  She brings with her a god- killer, a sacred sword, kept in a tower she must breach by climbing in a fantastic way, breaking the stone with her fists in order to create rungs for her to fasten onto.

Diana’s physical power and indignation at evil come together when she charges across No Man’s Land, a patch of trenches hopelessly caught in the cross fire of a nest of submachine gunning Germans.  Once Diana sees a woman with her baby, both of whom are starving,  she takes matters into her own hands or should I say wrists which deflect dozens of bullets as she braves all to get to her target and decimate the villains inside.  This scene has momentum, missing from some of the repetitive special effects and explosions that bog down the last third of the movie.

The framing device, of starting and ending in modern Paris, with Wonder Woman taking on her true shape and most comfortable costume, is a bit mysterious. I think it has to do with how Paris was attacked recently by terrorists, the new version of Aries.  We leave her in midair, presumably on her way to sequels.  Now, if only Hollywood would believe that women want to see more movies with themselves as the center of the action and not just the focus of the male gaze.  Please Patty Jenkins, will you make some more?

 

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Ready to Wear (Directed by Robert Altman). 1994.

Ready_to_wear_pret_a_porter_american_posterWith Anouk Aimée, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Stephen Rea, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, Rupert Everett, Forest Whitaker, Richard E. Grant, Danny Aiello, Teri Garr, Lyle Lovett, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Ute Lemper, Anne Canovas, and François Cluzet.

The cold war was still on, which may explain why this movie made in 1994 features a mysterious scene in Moscow where Marcello Mastraoianni buys not one but two hideous ties, and sends one to a fashion consultant in Paris where they eventually meet and recognize each other by their ties, and during a conversation in the hired car, the fashion consultant dies.

Robert Altman is good at many things, including assembling a huge talented cast, creating multiple levels of dialogue and sound that contribute to a feeling of busyness and real life as it is lived, but telling a story is not one of them. The thread that connects Marcello to Sophia Loren, who is soon seen wearing a big red celebratory hat right after her husband has died, is sort of herky jerky; the dots do not connect, even when Marcello must deliver  a long soliloquy which explains the back story of their relationship.

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What story there is centers on the three editors of fashion magazines, played by Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, and Tracy Ullman. They all want to poach the star photographer (Stephen Rea) who is as rotten a cad as seen on screen since Boris and Natasha were hoodwinked by Mr. Big. Besides his weakness for flimsy plots, Altman seems to enjoy humiliating Sally Kellerman by having her show her body when clearly she wished she hadn’t. What is surprising is how she agrees to this claptrap since its jokiness had grown stale in M*A*S*H twenty years before.  Kim Basinger gamely performs her journalist role with a Southern accent.

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But I confess that I enjoyed some of the scenes.  Anouk Aimee and Jean Rochefort are genuinely acting compared to the rest of the cast who seem to be mugging.  The subplot with Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts getting stuck in a room together because neither of them will yield has a certain charm until they get dressed and the movie looks impossibly dated.  Oh and the only way Julia relaxes is when she drinks which she does unconvincingly.  Richard E. Grant looks like something out of a Renaissance painting with his tiny curl over his forehead.

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The fashion shows have that ridiculous over the top quality that fashion shows do, as if what we wore could ever make a difference in the world.  And then you realize that it does, it really does matter.  And I wondered how much Altman got paid for all of the product placements…and if he thought he really was making a dazzling satirical statement in the closing scene when the models shed their clothes, and parade on the runway naked.

The movie was playing at the Walter Reade Theater who was celebrating Marcello Mastroianni. He made many movies better than this, but his charm and charisma come through and cannot be blamed for the smarmy tone of the director.

 

 

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A Quiet Passion (directed by Terence Davies). 2016.

with Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine.

with Ehle

Emily Dickinson wrote poems in the privacy of her house in Amherst Massachussetts because her father allowed her to be an artist, as long as it didn’t interfere with the rest of the household. The rest of the household included her mother, also named Emily, her sister Lavinia, and her brother Austin, along with several employees (not servants who can be insulted or overlooked). Keith Carradine plays Edward Dickinson as a stern religious paterfamilias with all of the decision making power and sometimes a modicum of grace. Jennifer Ehle keeps smiling in that ingratiating way she did as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. But Lavinia (aka Vinny) is Emily’s saving grace. Vinny keeps counsel, is constant, and tells Emily off in a way when warranted.

I enjoyed the first half of the movie with its dialogue worthy of an Oscar Wilde play: witticism, retort, further witty reply, even more playful retort. These scenes especially with Aunt Elizabeth, a horrible prig, demonstrate the intelligence and depth of the Dickinson family. For family was all to Emily. Her parents and siblings formed her whole world. As she explains to her independent sprightly friend, Vryling Buffam, I probably won’t marry, my family is enough.

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But when her family begins to die, the tone changes drastically. Davies lingers on illness and death forgetting the audience’s taste for the intellect that comes with verbal greatness. Davies wallows in the disheartening parts of being human: besides illness and death, there are infidelity and envy. It’s as if Davies has been kidnapped by the strict religion of the day that Emily rejected (she would not kneel when everyone else did) and trains his viewers in his lugubrious point of view. I kept sighing and yawning, even as Emily was dying. Poor Cynthia Nixon must pretend to have not one not two but three convulsions very slowly with melancholy music. The mother’s severe depression is demonstrated by showing her eyes well up with tears. Otherwise, she remains a cipher. It makes me think that Davies unlike Dickinson suffers from a severe lack of imagination.

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Even though the second half of the movie lagged, and ends with the most well known of Dickinson’s poems accompanying her casket, Davies frames each shot beautifully. He morphs the younger actors into their older selves artfully with time lapse photography. Visually the movie keeps you watching, along with the laudable acting, but the challenge of capturing the essence of Emily Dickinson eludes Davies.

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Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas). 2016.

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This movie made me nervous which is I suppose the point, but not in the way the director intended.  There is genuine suspense, but if you don’t buy the special effects with ectoplasm,  you are left with an impatience to see where the plot is going.  Personal Shopper‘s supporting cast is minimal and weak, so the movie pretty much rests on the shoulders of Kristen Stewart.  The story:  Maureen’s (Stewart) twin brother, Lewis, has died of a heart condition she also has, and since both of them are mediums,  Maureen is waiting to see if he will speak to her, or let her know if he has reached the other side. I learned from Wikipedia why the director doggedly depended on low lighting during these scenes. “According to some mediums, the ectoplasm can not occur in light conditions as the ectoplasmic substance would disintegrate.”  

I wish I knew more about the characters.  We learn that Lewis loved carpentry, and wanted to create a school for it, in the old house about to be sold.  We watch  Maureen’s dependence on her phone, which she uses constantly to listen to (what?) and watch an old movie about Victor Hugo communicating with spirits as she disembarks from a train.

After Maureen’s effort to find her dead brother’s spirit in his house, she is back at work, selecting clothes for her celebrity employer.  An incident of buying some leather pants seems to have more portent.  When Maureen attempts to retrieve these pants because the store did not approve them being worn and returned, a man is in the apartment. Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is the boyfriend of Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), her celebrity boss, and somehow manages to elicit the story of Maureen and her brother.  Both characters are frustrated by Kyra, who is evidently a terrible pain, spoiled in the extreme, expecting to have everything her way no matter how unjustified.

The scenes with the most tension occur as Maureen, on her way to London on the Chunnel (many scenes involve commuting, going to and fro, including some of the best photography in the movie, when Maureen is on her motorbike), receives a text message from an unknown sender, asking her when she will arrive, indicating that he has personal details about her.    Now the movie shifts genres and becomes a mystery / thriller.  Could the texter  possibly be her brother?

Perhaps the real subject of the movie is our compulsion to depend on technology to lead us where we don’t want to go.  How did the unknown speaker in Maureen’s texts get her number? Why does she continue a conversation with a mildly threatening disembodied voice? Is this how we are haunted now? Not by ectoplasm, but by bytes and bits ? Assayas is enchanted with the woop noise that accompanies the text as it is sent to the recipient.

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There are some surprises and sudden jolts of violence in the movie, which gave me more to think about after I had left the theater than when I was in it.  Even though the metaphysical questions at its heart are worthy– who are we really? why are we here? where are we going? is there life after death?–  something slightly pretentious and disingenuous about the filmmaking (those beginning endless scenes with irritating low lighting at dusk), the script (weak dialogue especially for the supporting cast), and the acting (Stewart flounders and stammers too much) left a sour taste in my mouth. Still, Stewart is a beautiful actress, and one can see why Assayas is mesmerized by her.  A pity this movie did not have, as did The Clouds of Sils Maria, an actress of the caliber of Juliette Binoche to play against.

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Frantz (directed by Francois Ozon) 2016

With Paula Beer and Pierre Niney.

A girl brings flowers to the grave of her fiance, killed during the First World War.  We are in Germany, and the wounds are fresh in the spring of 1919, just months after the armistice.  Anna (Paula Beer) wears black, walks slowly, deliberately to the grave. She has taken up residence with the parents of her slain intended, the Frantz of the title.

When she finds flowers already there at the grave, and discovers that a young man is responsible, she wants to know who he is and what his relationship is with Frantz.  Adrien (Niney), a slight, slender young French man weaves a tale of their relationship, something pleasing to hear, something that mourners would be glad to know.  French men who fought in the war are not welcome in Germany.  Frantz’s father repels him at first.  As the stories unfold that Adrien brings them, and soothes them, the audience can tell it is a deception, and for the first part of the movie, we wait to see the truth unmasked.  When it finally comes, as Adrien is about to return to France from the German town he brought himself to as a kind of tribute to Frantz, it feels as if the movie is over.

But that is just the beginning of the story telling.  It turns out that Anna cannot bring herself to share the truth with Frantz’s parents, so she invents stories of her own.  At this point, the movie bogs down a bit, and I found myself wishing that I could live in the heads of the deluded parents, safe and secure from the ugliness of truth.  frantz

War has a habit of taking the will to live away.  Stories are sometimes not enough.

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Le Suicide by Manet

The characters all are drawn to the Manet painting, Le Suicide, and besides the movie’s concern with war guilt, truth telling, and nationalism, there is a fair dose of suicide as well.  Ozon inserts color at rare moments in  this otherwise black and white film, when the characters who are in deep mourning are allowed to live in the moment and be freed of their tragic past.

“Be happy!” urges Adrien as Anna leaves him presumably for the last time.  How odd a request to someone so permanently damaged, broken, even.   The couple who play Frantz’s parents are excellent (Ernst Strutzner and Marie Gruber), and their stern earnest portrayals hearken back to a serious era of movies, when World War I was fresh in everyone’s minds.

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Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele) 2017

With Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, Catherine Keener.

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The story is simple.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented young photographer, is invited by Rose (Allison Williams), his girlfriend, to meet her parents for the first time.  He is black and she is white, and the parents don’t know that, because Rose says it doesn’t matter.  “If my father could have voted for Obama for the third time, he would have.” So much for the bona fides of not being racist.

But when they arrive at the nameless suburb, we remember the opening scene when a hapless young black man in search of a house in an unnamed suburb is kidnapped by a man in a black helmet who appears from an ominous white sports car.  The set up is scary, and the music adds to the feeling of creepiness, beginning with a lyric whose refrain is “run rabbit run.”  Throughout the movie there are references to hunter and prey.  Animals sometime stand in as black surrogates, beginning with  a suddenly violent accident with a deer on the road which sets everyone’s teeth on edge.  We are in horror movie country here.  Is the deer real? Will it rise up and strike its killers?

As the weekend goes on, more signs indicate that the young man is not safe.  The movie explores a paranoid nightmare of a black man who cannot trust white people, and even less, the black folk who work on the estate and seem to have suffered some kind of brain damage.

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We kept some of Grandma

I loved the humor in the movie.  At one point, Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who suspects that things aren’t right when Chris doesn’t return on time, goes to the police to report a missing person. While there, he gives his theory of what the white folks are doing to the black men in that neck of the woods.  What the on duty officer does with the information is funny. It also shows how important it is to have one good friend.  Rod is a member of the TSA and knows his way around an investigation.

The photography captures each scene with its alternating twistedness and fear, the acting is dead on, and the music by Michael Abels sets the mood perfectly.  This movie’s brilliance lies in how it lands its points in two different genres: as a horror movie and a social satire.

get out with keener

Catherine Keener plays a psychohypnotist

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