Movie reviews: From Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to Dunkirk, summer films that sparkled
Published Friday, September 1, 2017 5:00AM EDT
From Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to Wonder Woman, there were plenty of films that made it worth going to the movies this summer, writes Richard Crouse. Read on for more on his exhaustive list.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: 4 STARS
Set to a soundtrack of 70s radio hits and a cavalcade of pop culture references “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is less focused on the story than the first film. With the origin tale out of the way, it focuses on the characters and their relationships. Director James Gunn doesn’t allow the characters to become overwhelmed by the computer-generated imagery. From Rocket’s wisecracks to Peter the semi-inept action hero and Gamora’s pragmatism—“If he does turn out to be evil, just kill him.”—the characters are front and center. Like the true scavengers they are, Drax—with Bautista’s deadpan delivery—and Baby Groot—“He’s too adorable to kill,” says Taserface (Chris Sullivan)—steal the show.
Fans will get what they expect—loads of goofy, gross and gooey cartoon action and cool Day-Glo creatures—but it’s the characters that make it so enjoyable. They spend as much time laughing as they do in action, bringing with them an infectious joyfulness. The movie is at its best when the characters are hanging out, when Peter finally gets to play catch with his dad with a ball made of pure energy, when Drax is ribbing Mantis (Pom Klementieff) or when Baby Groot is perched on the shoulders of his Guardian pals.
There will be a time when the “Guardian of the Galaxy’s” formula of 70s kitsch and wisecracks won't work but we're not there yet.
WONDER WOMAN: 4 STARS
Equal parts Amazon sword and sandal epic, mad scientist flick, war movie and rom com, “Wonder Woman” is a crowd pleaser that places the popular character front and centre. As played by Gal Gadot, Diana is charismatic and kick ass, a superhero that is both truly super and heroic. Like Superman she is firmly on the side of good, not a tortured soul à la Batman. Naïve to the ways of the world, she runs headfirst into trouble. Whether she's throwing a German tank across a battlefield, defying gravity to leap to the top of a bell tower, tolerating Trevor’s occasional mansplaining or deflecting bullets with her indestructible Bracelets of Submission, she proves in scene after scene to be both a formidable warrior and a genuine, profoundly empathic character.
The action scenes are cool. The Lasso of Truth sequences look like a glow-in-the-dark Cirque du Soleil scarf dance and the iconic Wonder Woman battle poses placed against the terrible beauty of the First World War frontlines are stunners, but it’s ultimately her strength of character that keeps the movie interesting. Even the prerequisite CGI overkill at the end is made palatable by her potent message that only love can save the world. It’s a welcome and refreshing change from the deep, dark pit the DC movies seem to have fallen into of late.
“Wonder Woman” works because it maintains a human core in a fantastical good vs. evil story. As Diana’s understanding of heroism and mankind deepens, so does the movie. As she questions authority and man’s capacity for cruelty, there are several very funny moments—her “How can a woman possibly fight in this?” routine at Selfridge’s clothing department is very funny, but Jenkins wisely and wonderfully keeps the character true to her self-confident, mythic comic book roots.
This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Gal Gadot in a scene from "Wonder Woman." (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: 4 ½ STARS
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a summer tentpole movie that fits into the franchise but can be enjoyed as a standalone. Director Matt Reeves creates exciting action sequences but there's more to the movie than explosions and gunfire. A brief recap brings us up to speed, and then we’re thrown into the world. Cesar wants to be left alone but the murder of his family ignites within him complex, contradictory emotions, the desire to protect his ape herd while getting revenge. Those feelings are the engine that drives the movie but they are wrapped around a blockbuster that doesn't feel like a blockbuster. It's quiet -- most of the apes speak in sign language -- with a philosophical edge not usually found in big summer releases.
Much of that is due to a brilliant MoCap performance from Andy Serkis. In a genre not known for subtlety, he brings a range of emotion to Cesar. Selfless, melancholic and compassionate, his take on the ape character is layered and made all the more remarkable given the computer generated process that goes into creating it.
Like all good speculative fiction, “War for the Planet of the Apes” isn’t just a movie about the wild idea of apes vs. humans. With deeply rooted ideas about the nature of compassion and community, it also contains timely ideas for a troubled world. In one tense scene, child sidekick Nova (Amiah Miller) risks everything to bring food and water to Cesar, subtly suggesting that even in the darkest times kindness can still exist. It’s a rare movie, an intimate epic brimming with food for thought while simultaneously satisfying the need to watch apes on horseback.
DUNKIRK: 4 ½ STARS
"Dunkirk," the new war epic from director Christopher Nolan, could be one of those rare movies—rare like a unicorn or a modest Kardashian—that comes out in the summer and earns a Best Picture nomination. It is a complete cinematic experience, immersive, intense showing us things rather than telling us things.
With a minimum of dialogue, electrifying visuals and ear-splitting sound design—the rumble of the spit fire engines will make your chest shake—Nolan has made a movie best seen large and loud. He uses the power of the image to create an immersive cinematic experience that offers up not only vicarious thrills but also ethical dilemmas, honour and personal drama. It is not a typical war movie. You never see the Germans and there is no victory march at the end. Instead it is a large-scale examination of the workings of war and warriors that blends epic filmmaking with intimate character work.
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows James D'Arcy, left, and Kenneth Branagh in a scene from "Dunkirk." (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
"Dunkirk" is an intense movie but it is not an overly emotional one. The cumulative effect of the vivid images and sounds will stir the soul but despite great performances the movie doesn't necessarily make you feel for one character or another. Instead its strength is in how it displays the overwhelming sense of scope of the Dunkirk mission. With 400,000 men on the ground with more in the air and at sea, the sheer scope of the operation overpowers individuality, turning the focus on the collective. Nolan's sweeping camera takes it all in, epic and intimate moments alike.
JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT: 3 ½ STARS
Jeremiah Tower is the most famous celebrity chef you have never heard of.
Martha Stewart calls him “a father of the American cuisine.” Anthony Bourdain says he changed the world and Mario Batali calls him “the darling, the glamour puss, the sexy guy, the smart guy and the innovative chef that everybody wanted to know something about.”
“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” isn’t a food network special. There’s no cooking competitions or Top Five Moments in the Career of Jeremiah Tower. Instead we’re offered a methodical look at the man behind a foodie revolution. Like a chef who over perfumes everything with truffle oil, director Lydia Tenaglia overuses recreations of Tower’s young life. The footage is stilted and overpowers the telling of the rebellious chef’s troubled childhood.
Archival footage from the well-documented Chez Panisse years onward is livelier, adding a badly needed you-are-there element to the film’s tale of food as an emotional crutch. But then, just as the film works up a head of steam Tenaglia skims over Tower’s decades out of the spotlight, picking up the story again when he lands in New York.
Still “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is a compelling watch thanks to its charismatic subject. In his mid-seventies Tower is as elegant as he is difficult. The film plays a little too heavily into the tortured chef cliché but since Tower had a hand in creating the cliché the movie gets a pass on that count. As the portrait of an enigma, it’s entertaining enough but despite the backstory, the recreations and the myriad of heavyweight talking heads, by the end credits Tower is still an enigma. Perhaps Bourdain sums it up best when he says, “there is a locked room inside Jeremiah, I haven’t been there, I don’t believe anyone has.”
THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY: 4 STARS
It’s a film as simple and unpretentious as its subject. In 76 quick minutes, Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris lets portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman narrate the story in her thick Massachusetts accent. A friendship with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg opened the door for her to take photos of many literary and music stars, including W.H. Auden, Anais Nin, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Local heroes like Jonathan Richman also found their way before her camera but it is the pictures of her family and friends that define her work. “What you’re wearing is OK,” she says. “Who you are is OK. You don’t have to be cosmetized.” It is, she says, an acceptance of “everydayness.”
Much of “The B-Side” takes place in Elsa’s cluttered archive. “A lot of these are mistakes but because they are 20x24 they are too expensive to throw away,” she says. “The ones they don’t take I call the B-side.”
In 1980, she found a format that came to define her work, the Polaroid Land 20x24 camera. Producing large-scale photos became her trademark, although by her own assessment, her straightforward approach never brought her fame or media attention.
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography” is a quiet look at Dorfman and the art and life she created. “I was lucky in a way to find the cameras and to like it,” she says. “It’s a real way of being a quote artist and having an offbeat life. Inventing a way of living that is comfortable. It worked. I feel very grateful that it worked.”
THE HERO: 2 ½ STARS FOR THE MOVIE, 4 STARS FOR SAM ELLIOTT
Sam Elliott, he of the easy drawl, smoky voice and horseshoe moustache, has made almost fifty films but has rarely ever been the above-the-title star. In “The Hero” he plays Lee Hayden, an aging Western film star, diagnosed with cancer. He’s in almost every frame, bringing an easy charm that solidifies his leading man status while smoothing over the film’s rough patches.
Writer/director Brett Haley knows how to make the most of Elliott’s weary but stately presence. The pair worked together on Haley’s last film, “I'll See You In My Dreams,” another look at aging and legacy. Both films rely on clichés to forward their stories, but both films are saved by strong central performances from their stars—Blythe Danner in “I'll See You In My Dreams,” Elliott in “the Hero”—who bring warmth and believability, not to mention high powered and often untapped star power, to their roles.
When the film falls into the romantic/comeback template already established by films like “Tender Mercies” and “The Wrestler,” Elliott’s quest for redemption keeps it from becoming a maudlin look at Hayden’s twilight years.
BABY DRIVER: 4 STARS
Although it contains more music than most tuneful of movies “Baby Driver,” the new film from director Edgar Wright, isn’t a musical in the “West Side Story,” “Sound of Music” sense. Wallpapered with 35 rock ‘n roll songs on the soundtrack, it’s a hard driving heist flick that can best be called an action musical.
Even when there are no cars on screen (which isn’t very often) “Baby Driver” is in motion. Working with Sia choreographer Ryan Heffington, Wright has created a stylized dance between his camera and actors. It’s frenetic, melodic and just a dance step or two away from being the world’s first car chase musical.
Elgort is the engine that drives the movie. With dark Ray Bans and tousled hair, he recalls Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” His character has suffered great loss and copes by thrill chasing set to a soundtrack provided by stolen iPods. Baby doesn’t say much—“You know why they call him Baby, right?” says Buddy. “Still waiting on his first words.”—but the character takes a journey, physical and metaphysical. He has a wide arc summed up by the old cliché actions speak louder than words.
"Baby Driver" 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Spacey is more verbose. He plays Doc as a gangster who talks like a character out of a Raymond Chandler movie. Instead of "get rid of the car,” Doc instructs Baby to "sunset that car." It’s a small but important role that adds flair and some laughs to the film.
“Baby Driver” succumbs to cliché near the end but for most of its running time is an exhilarating ride, fuelled by a tank full of adrenaline.
OKJA: 3 ½ STARS
From visionary South Korean director Bong Joon-ho comes a film that defies categorization. “Okja” has elements of family entertainment, sci fi fantasy, cultural satire and more all wrapped up in a cautionary tale about genetically modified meat. It’s a big, handsome and entertaining adventure that not so subtly poises questions about the relationship between corporations and where food comes from.
“Okja” features strong work from Tilda Swinton—in a double role, playing Lucy and her even more cutthroat sister Nancy—and a wild performance from Jake Gyllenhaal but it really is all about the bond between the girl and her super-pig. An Seo Hyun’s moon face conveys her pure and sincere love for “super pig” Okja but it is the beast itself who brings heart to the movie. A combo of CGI and puppetry Okja is a strange animal but a tender one. He rescues Mija from danger and later, when she returns the favour, the bond between them is palpable.
That relationship smooths the way for the rest of this uneven but entertaining movie. The way “Okja” veers between action and comedy, horror and social commentary could lead to whiplash but it is never less than audacious.
THE BIG SICK: 4 STARS
The old maxim, “Write what you know,” holds true for comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon who turned their personal relationship into the new film “The Big Sick.”
Calling “The Big Sick” a rom com doesn’t do it justice. It is much more than that.
There are no major revelations here, just a carefully balanced look at the immigrant experience—“The rules don’t make sense to me,” Kumail says to his parents. “Why did you bring me here if you didn’t want me to have an American life?”—ambition, family and the nature of true love. It’s funny, but not laugh-a-minute funny, just comfortably charming as it navigates the cultural and medical landmines in Kumail and Emily’s path.
It works so well because of the chemistry between the leads. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) do the heavy lifting for the first half until she becomes ill. They spark in the most natural and sweetest of ways as their relationship goes from casual to serious, from good to bad.
The second half explores the chemistry between Kumail and Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). What begins as a contentious relationship—“You don’t need to commit to anything here,” snarls Beth. “You didn’t while she was awake and you don’t have to now.” It then becomes heartfelt and loving. Hunter and Romano bring considerable warmth as well as honest humour, finding a balance between the drama of the situation and the rom com elements.
Even when “The Big Sick” is making jokes about terrorism and the “X-Files,” it is all heart, a crowd-pleaser that still feels personal and intimate.
LADY MACBETH: 3 ½ STARS
“Lady Macbeth,” a new drama based on Nikolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” is not your father’s period drama. Disturbing and diabolical, it’s an erotic thriller that examines gender politics, power and class.
More “The Making of a Murderer” than “Wuthering Heights,” ice runs through the veins of “Lady Macbeth.” Cold and austere, the story of sexual rebellion is given life by Florence Pugh’s mesmerizing performance. Her insolence and opportunism are fascinating to watch as she thumbs her nose at the social norms of the day. Don’t let the stillness of her performance fool you. Her calm, collected demeanour hides Katherine’s conniving nature, but much is revealed in the small details. The fire in her eyes as Alexander says, “I do not like owning a whore,” the tilt of her head as Boris berates her. In her case, the devil is literally in the details. It’s tremendous work that should spell big things for her.
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth. (Lady Macbeth/Roadside Attractions)
She is ably supported by Ackie and Jarvis. Ackie, in a performance of few words, still manages to convey a great depth of feeling, while Jarvis compellingly plays a man torn between the physical pleasures Katherine offers and the metaphysical consequences of their actions.
DETROIT: 4 STARS
There is a disclaimer at the end of “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s latest look back at our recent history. Before the final credits roll a title card reads something to the effect that the details of the bloody Algiers Motel Incident, the most infamous episode of the Detroit riots of the summer of 1967, were pieced together from available sources and eye witness accounts.
“Detroit” is an uncomfortable, gruelling watch. The physical intimidation, racially-based violence, murders utilized against Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith), Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) and others as they plead innocence, is sickening. “I will kill you one by one until I find out what's happening here,” says racist, trigger-happy cop Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Using psychological games and hard-core interrogation tactics he (and a handful of others) terrorizes his suspects and it is gut wrenching. Bigelow has a historical POV setting up the story and in the subsequent court case but her handling of the interrogation sequences is pure psychological horror. Claustrophobic and violent, it is as compelling as it is abhorrent.
Bigelow uses archival footage and stills to set the stage but it is a combo of her kinetic, muscular filmmaking and strong performances that make an impression. John Boyega channels a young Denzel Washington, radiating decency while Poulter is a snarling ogre who revels in the powerlessness and dehumanization of his victims. As a paratrooper recently returned from Vietnam Anthony Mackie is a stoic presence amid the chaos.
Best of the bunch is Algee Smith as the young singer whose dreams are crushed when the Fox Theatre is evacuated just before his debut. While the dirty cops assert that “one bad minute shouldn't define their lives,” it is through Smith’s performance that the long term effects of the Algiers event are the most tangible. The repercussions of that vicious, lawless night echo throughout his psyche, changing him forever.
The story in “Detroit” is fifty years old but the names of Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown Jr., Ezell Ford, Dante Parker or any number of others who have been killed at the hands of the police in recent times, echo throughout.
BRIGSBY BEAR: 4 STARS
Against all odds “Brigsby Bear,” a new film starring “Saturday Night Live’s” Kyle Mooney, manages to be an inspirational story about child abduction.
Mooney is James, a man-child with a head of curly hair and 173 episodes of his favourite show, “The Adventures of Brigsby Bear” on VHS. He lives with his parents Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker, shut off from the rest of the world save for a weekly delivery of a new “Brigsby” tape and a dodgy internet connection.
Turns out Ted had been making Brigsby episodes like, “Making Friends with the Wizzels,” for an audience of one, James. Filled with good life lessons the show has taught James about loyalty, fairness and perseverance. When he is rescued and has no new episodes to study and learn from James comes up with a plan to share his favourite character with the world. “Brigsby never gives up and I won't either,” he says.
James is a Chance the Gardener type. Like the famous “Being There” character he is sweetly unsophisticated with knowledge derived mostly from television. Mooney could have played James as an alien, a fish out of water for whom everything is new—first party, first time with a girl, first bad drug trip—but, Like Peter Sellers’ Chance, he keeps it real, imbuing the odd character with real humanity. “It's a different reality than I thought,” he says of world outside the bunker and he has trouble fitting into it but he never falls into caricature.
I kept waiting for “Brigsby Bear” to develop an edge or to get ugly or to collapse under the weight of its quirkiness, but it doesn’t. It’s a sweetheart of a film about loyalty, the power of art as a coping device and a source of inspiration, the line between passion and obsession, but most importantly, it’s about accepting people for who they are.
LANDLINE: 3 ½ STARS
“Landline” uses infidelity as a backdrop for a study of partnership and family. Everyone’s relationship is teetering on the edge and yet this is a hopeful movie, a film that suggests monogamy is viable when given room to breathe.
“Obvious Child” director Gillian Robespierre brings a strong ensemble together, elevating the material with strong performances. Jay Duplass is suitably milquetoast as Ben, the dull but lovable fiancée. John Turturro and Edie Falco breathe life into characters that in lesser hands might have been caricatures or worse, simply a plot device to support the sisters’ story.
The stars here, however, are Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn. They look like sisters but their chemistry extends beyond the skin deep. Slate’s giggles and affectionate asides—“You’re a weird little bird.”—feel authentic, as though these two have a long shared history that predates anything we see on the screen. They bring humanity and sympathy to the film despite their foibles.
“Landline” is an engaging portrait of broken relationships in an analogue time. It’s a gentle heart tugging story about the consequences of breaking relationship rules. There are jokes and there are tears but mainly “Landline” has a wistful tone that gets under your skin.
INGRID GOES WEST: 4 STARS
“Ingrid Goes West” has the makings of either a comedy or psychological thriller but mostly plays like a cautionary tale. A portrait of a woman who buys into the Instagram muth of an effortlessly curated life, it’s a withering comment on the real stories behind social media’s hashtagged pictures. “Likes” do not equal love.
At the heart of this is Aubrey Plaza, an actor unafraid to plumb the depths of desperation in her characters. Unlikeable in almost every way, Ingrid is as deep as a lunch tray and yet, because Plaza plays her as a human and not simply a caricature, she remains compelling.
Aubrey Plaza (right) as Ingrid and Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor are shown in a scene from the film "Ingrid Goes West." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-NEON
Elizabeth Olsen, whose famous twin sisters were proto-Instagram stars, embodies the kind of superficial social media maven who thinks nothing of asking—with a perfect vocal fry—a stranger to lay on the ground to take the perfect “candid” shot of her fabulous life. She’s the neo-American Dream, a perfectly fluffy confection with a dark heart and a permanent spot on the guest list for every hot club in town.
On the sidelines, but still memorable is O'Shea Jackson Jr as Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed landlord Dan. He isn’t given much to do—he spends more time reading comics than cruising Instagram—but is a likeable and charming presence.
“Ingrid Goes West” essays the phony baloney world of social media but does so with grace and depth, exposing the disconnect many people feel in a digital world.
PATTI CAKE$: 4 STARS
“Patti Cake$,” a story of big dreams and hip-hop glory, introduces two major new talents to the world, writer, director (and former front man for indie rock band The Fever) Geremy Jasper and star Danielle Macdonald. Together they present a movie that is gritty, sweet and quite unforgettable.
It’s hard to classify “Patti Cake$” as a feel-good movie but underneath the story’s grit and grime is an aspirational tale that won’t leave the taste of saccharine in your mouth. It’s a raw, emotional coming-of-age story of the type we’ve seen before, with styles we’ve seen before— fantasy cutaways and impossibly grim circumstances to overcome—but director Jasper and Australian born star Macdonald keep it compelling.
Perhaps it’s because “Patti Cake$” is, in part, based on the director’s life that Patti’s attempts to claw herself out of her Dickensian existence feel so authentic. Patti is a resilient underdog, a sympathetic lead brought to vivid and appealing life by Macdonald. What begins as one rapper’s run-of-the-mill journey to get out from under the weight of her dreams snakes around to become a high-energy, fist-pumping story of overcoming odds with dignity and on your own terms.