MOKA

Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) is hurting. Her young son, Luc, was killed in a hit-and-run. And with no one to take responsibility, no one to blame, grief has driven her deep inside herself. Diane pulls back from the world, from her husband, and from the future. Her world narrows to one simple task: make them pay.

Finding the couple responsible isn’t that difficult for Diane — there are eyes everywhere — but convincing herself that vengeance can be righteous is. As the old saying goes, “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth only leaves the world blind and toothless.” Diane doesn’t exactly want that, but she also doesn’t want the death of her son to be something that disappears like tears in the rain.

Moka, much like Diane’s quest for catharsis, is a slow-burner that never catches fire. Shot on the French-Swiss border and co-starring Nathalie Baye and David Clavel, director Frédéric Mermoud sets his sights on Hitchcockian material and ends up with pictures of pained people looking off wistfully into the horizon. If only that one mistake, that one tragic mistake, hadn’t happened we’d all be shiny, happy people. If only.

Moka is currently in limited release.

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

There’s no hyperbole in calling War for the Planet of the Apes the best of the franchise just as there is no overstating the series’ contribution to motion capture performance. With each Apes installment, the technology gets a little better, but what makes War special is not simply that the technology has become more refined, but the storytelling as well.

Set two years after the events in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) continues to lead his army of genetically enhanced apes against the last few outposts of humankind. The war is hard fought and with dwindling support, the humans have become more ruthless, more fundamental in their execution. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) strikes a personal blow to Caesar, murdering his wife and child while they sleep, clouding Caesar’s mind with rage and vengeance.

Directed by Matt Reeves, War narrows a global conflict into a personal drama of blood revenge and blind belief that continually ratchets up the tension until one gigantic and cathartic release spills forth onto the screen. With action pieces, an intricate side story between Maurice (Karin Konoval) and a mute war orphan (Amiah Miller), and The Colonel’s righteous indignation, War for the Planet of the Apes is a smartly crafted summer blockbuster with plenty on its mind. A fitting conclusion to a prescient trilogy.

War for the Planet of the Apes is in wide release.

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2017: THE BEST SO FAR

Kedi

Taken as a whole, 2017 at the movies has left me somewhat dismayed. This is at least partly due, I think, to the overlong award season. With each passing year, this toxic notion of competition clouds the waters and does little to foster the appreciation and discussion of cinema. This rang particularly true in the silly and absurd horse race between La La Land and Moonlight — which ended up being an overwrought debate between authenticity in emotion — and culminated in one spectacular and public bungle at this year’s Oscar ceremony.

And while award season is both exhausting and disheartening, it was the lackluster rollout of blockbusters that followed; suggesting that Hollywood’s wheels weren’t just spinning, there were running on fumes. Beauty and the Beast, Ghost in the Shell, and Baywatch were duds. Even more were middling: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Cars 3, even Wonder Woman, a movie that opened with great promise, fell under the weight of corporate ambitions and a half-baked third act.

Creeping in between those blockbuster were the movies from tenured auteurs that either fell flat on their face (Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) or just short of excellence (François Ozon’s Frantz). Thankfully, I saw more from the latter category, but, like most Hollywood fare, there was a dull sense of the familiar, of the routine.

Those who did stretch out, who strove for something more, found excellence within the frame and eagerly sent me back the theater. They are the movies that wipe away the bad taste of corporate products and misguided motives. And the beauty of a magnificent movie isn’t just that I want to see them again, it makes me excited to discover what the second half of 2017 has in store.

Afterimage
Baby Driver
Band Aid
Kedi
I Am Not Your Negro
Get Out
LA 92
Logan
Personal Shopper
A Quiet Passion

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) helps Debora (LILY JAMES) do her laundry as they dance around each other and kiss in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER.

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STAR WARS AT 40

A space opera in eight films, five directors, and two studios.

A long time ago — May 25, 1977, to be precise — in a Hollywood far, far away, Star Wars took cinematic hearts and minds by storm. Later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars was a ragtag space opera about a young farmer and two mercenaries trying to rescue a captured princess from the evil clutches of the Empire and return her to the Rebel base so she could deliver the stolen plan necessary to destroy the armored base.

The backstory was sparse, the plot points were standard, and the characters were archetypal. This was all by design. Writer/director George Lucas drew heavily from Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth — detailed in his book-length study, The Hero With a Thousand Faces — matinee serials from his youth, and the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa.

What Lucas initially intended as a Vietnam War allegory — with the Rebels standing in for the Viet Cong and the Americans as the Empire — was seen as anything but. Audiences flocked to Star Wars‘ simple storytelling and non-stop action. Critics and writers were entranced by Lucas’s effective adaptation of the familiar and the studio that funded the picture, 20th Century Fox, soon found their coffers lined with millions upon millions of dollars. It didn’t take long for talk of sequels and whispers of Lucas’s larger universe, one that would span nine installments and three generations of Skywalkers.

But that was then. 40 years and seven movies later, with an eighth on the way this Christmas, Star Wars has become something else. Thanks to Lucas’s ability to re-energize and revitalize ancient myths for audiences young and old alike, Star Wars is well-known, well-tread terrain. But as the franchise continues to grow, will it continue to drawing from outside sources? Or is it becoming bogged down by the weight of its own interior?

It was with these questions in mind that I approached a re-watch of the Star Wars franchise. Like most, I saw the movies in order of release — IV, V, VI, I, II, III, VII, Rogue One — but for this go-round, I chose to see how this space opera played out in order. Could Lucas, and subsequent filmmakers, make something cobbled together feel coherent?

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Darth Maul (Ray Park)

Of all three prequels, The Phantom Menace features the greatest amount of imagination, even if that imagination is often silly, unnecessary, or sophomoric (fart jokes, Jar Jar Binks stepping in poop, etc.). It’s as if Lucas figured that his target audience was children and decided to talk down to them. Yes, children like Star Wars but they like it because it talks honestly about adult issues in ways that they can understand.

The Phantom Menace isn’t an altogether bad film. It has the energy and feel of the originals, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn is a solid mentor, and the fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul is impressive — and somewhat accurate considering that these warriors are in their prime; compared to, say, the old man shuffle of A New Hope.

But Lucas undermines his own devotion to Campbell by inventing myth, not invoking it. Whereas A New Hope uses archetypal structure to cover extraneous story, The Phantom Menace seeks to re-work all that by building worlds, spouting mumbo-jumbo, and, frustratingly, depict the bureaucracy of Senate hearings, councils, and trade federations ad nauseam.

Though each of these handicaps originates from the story itself, there was another force working against The Phantom Menace; the proliferation of “The Chosen One” storyline. When A New Hope debuted in 1977, The Chosen One wasn’t common place and it certainly wasn’t pop culture. By the time Menace came out in May 1999, it had to compete with a much more engaging and relevant treaty of the story, The Matrix — which was released only a month prior — and the soon to be the phenomenon of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s Potter was fresh — wizards and witches had not yet saturated the marketplace — and her story did not have the handicap of a known ending.

But Menace’s greatest asset would also be the next two episode’s glaring admission: celluloid. Not all of the CGI works, but you still get the feeling of real people, in real locations, interacting with real things. Something that is sorely missed from the next two installments.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) against an army of clones.

Attack of the Clones picks up ten years after the battle of Naboo and takes place in a world that is even more controlled by the Senate. Like most second acts, Clones is bloated with narrative set-up (particularly the Clone Army), a requisite love story, and foreshadowing of future events (that infernal Death Star).

Hayden Christensen is terrible as Anakin Skywalker; saddled with the unenviable task of portraying teenage angst while developing phenomenal cosmic powers. A better actor might have accomplished more with this material, but they would still have Lucas’s stilted dialogue to overcome. That dialogue gets the best of Portman but not McGreggor’s Obi-Wan, who is more snark than Jedi.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Anakin and Obi-Wan showdown on a planet bubbling with rage, fury, and plenty of metaphor.

Revenge of the Sith completes Anakin’s transformation to Darth Vader, a cycle that is born out of the anger from his mother’s death, the fear of losing Padme, and the frustration of being second class. Future Emperor Palpatine fosters these feelings and turns Anakin into a ruthless killing machine (Jedi, children, viceroys, separatists, people who just happen to be working when he shows up, etc.) in one hell of a giant leap in logic. Lucas never was one for character development.

Yes, it’s a prequel, but everything feels like a foregone conclusion. The only real moment of surprise, and not a pleasant one at that, is when Anakin is called upon to kill the younglings. Everything else is just window dressing for A New Hope.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

If there is any benefit to binge watching these movies, then it is in the development and contributions of disposable characters. Since all eight movies essentially revolve around one father/son relationship, Star Wars has a laser focus on twelve or thirteen people — much to the chagrin of every other character in this galaxy. Maybe that is why the notion of “Easter Eggs” are so enjoyable, they signify that other people matter too.

Or maybe I am just trying to find significance in insignificant material. When I first watched Rogue One in the theaters, there was no suspension of disbelief and no need for investment. Though their ultimate goal would be accomplished, all of these characters were doomed, and not in the noir sense of the word. Yet, when viewed sequentially between Sith and A New Hope, Rogue One feels more like a stepping stone in a long path than commercial filler.

Aesthetically speaking, the movie is vastly different than the digital statist of Lucas’s prequels or the standard sticks approach of Hope. Shaky-cam makes the battle scenes feel more like an insurgency, with the grit of soil and streaks of rain making these worlds seem abysmally gloomy. The performances are all better than most Star Wars films but little here seems organic.

Episode IV: A New Hope

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the twin suns of Tatooine

I have heard from many friends that (insert TV show X) is a slow starter but gets really good around episode eight or so. In that regard, the beauty of watching Star Wars sequentially is that you get a masterpiece midway through.

A New Hope is fun, inventive, and entertaining. It starts in medias res and never once loses steam. It’s a movie that effortlessly hopscotches over the boring bits to deliver a kids film that adults can identify with. This is mainly due to Lucas’s simplification of the material; forcing the audience to fill in the holes themselves, making each connection more and more personal.

From this movie forward, explanations would be given, characters would be complicated by conflicting emotions, and contradictions would be found in the cracks. Those movies lean forward, explaining themselves to the audience. Star Wars is the only one that leans back. It beckons you to come to it, and for 40 years, we have. And we have been rewarded every time.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Skywalker and Darth Vader

Many consider The Empire Strikes Back to be the greatest installment in the Star Wars saga. It is, but only in the sense that it perfectly reflects its predecessor.

Here the story is tighter, deeper, more meaningful, sadder, and slightly more complicated. Emotions between Luke and Han over Leia become more combative, as does the love between Han and Leia. Luke’s sense of destiny continues to gnaw at him. He senses that he might be the strongest Jedi ever. But he is pure of heart and — unlike his father — his pride won’t be his undoing. His gung-ho nature might. Obi-Wan and Yoda have nothing to fear from Luke; while Anakin had to prove his worth to the galaxy, Luke simply wants to save the day.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Sebastian Shaw, one of the many to play Vader, shares a touching moment with his son.

Lucas completes his space opera with another duel of the fates, another ground siege, another battle in the stars, and, of course, another climatic run at the Death Star. According to Lucas, he had to recycle A New Hope’s climax due to story constraints; I can think of no better way to describe the entire franchise.

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 carry the franchise into the future.

In 2012, Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, allowing them to go hog wild with his beloved characters and situations.

They didn’t exactly do that.

When The Force Awakens took theaters by storm in 2015, audiences gleefully turned over their hard earned cash for another bite of the apple, and that is exactly what they got. The Force Awakens tread A New Hope‘s territory with a couple of new characters and plenty of familiar faces.

Considering that the heart of Star Wars revolves around a father and son relationship, it is no surprise that the new main players also have some sort of familial relationship. All happy families may be alike, but this unhappy family fosters a galactic civil war.

That doesn’t seem to matter much to the audience at large. Effective works of art point past themselves and address something larger. A New Hope did that, but subsequent installments simply point inward.

R2-D2, once again, saves the day.

In 1999, Lucas described his filmmaking process to Bill Moyers: “Some artists see the picture whole, complete. I see the picture in a fog.”

That is evident. Though there are impressive echoes from film-to-film (and not just in the callbacks and references), it is how each installment works just enough to keep the ship afloat. Star Wars is no perfectly constructed tapestry that will hang in a museum for all time. It is an ongoing property of commerce that will outlast us all. The baton has been passed from Lucas’s hands to Disney and Kathleen Kennedy. In time, she will hand it off to the next generation and Star Wars will belong to whoever wants it.

When critic Roger Ebert praised The Phantom Menace in 1999, he was bowled over by the movie’s wonder; a wonder that he found lacking in the 16-year gap between Return and Menace. These words once sang of praise, now they read like a harbinger of things to come:

How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders. I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” about the planet where the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again, searching for a Dairy Queen.”

 

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BABY DRIVER

There is a scene roughly halfway through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 backstage masterpiece The Red Shoes where Ballet Russe impresario Lermontov comforts his understandably nervous principal dancer, Vicky Page.

“Nothing matters by the music,” Lermontov assures her.

He hums the notes and Page relaxes, the steps have returned to her mind and her body regains confidence. Without the music, she’s just a bunch of limbs failing about; with the music, her body and her movements become a work of art.

Maybe a post-war tragedy about the all-consuming desire to create isn’t the most obvious connection to Baby Driver — the new heist/getaway film from British writer/director Edgar Wright — but neither is Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 musical comedy Love Me Tonight. Or the candy-colored costuming and fluid choreography of Jacques Demy’s romantic French trilogy. Yet, there they are; up on the screen, alongside Walter Hill’s The Driver, Richard Rush’s Freebie and the Bean and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Much in the same way the French New Wave blew a breath of fresh air into gangster pictures, Wright makes a mix tape musical — a “rock opera” in his words — and brings the ghosts of the past to life.

But Baby Driver is more than a simple sum of its reference points; it is an energetic race down the crime-soaked streets of Atlanta and up freeways of young love. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend (Lily James), the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a demon of a wheelman for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, always good, rarely better). Budd (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), lovers who steal to fuel their drug habit, and Bats (Jamie Foxx), a stick-up man with a proletariat ax to grind, round out the remainder of the crew.

Sexy, sleek, and stylish, Baby Driver is more than just an exhilarating take on a familiar genre; it’s a magnificent mash-up of music and movies. Pre-recorded rock ‘n’ roll, pop, jazz, R&B, and rap are no strangers to mainstream cinema, but few filmmakers have found ways to use it as inventively. The songs are not here to carry the story when it drags or inject energy where there isn’t any; they are here because they are just as elemental to Wright’s composition as the images. They bump up against each other, bleed into the one another, and drown out Baby’s tinnitus — a constant reminder of the car crash that took both of his parents.

But Baby doesn’t just listen to the music, he moves to it. He mouths the words, sings to himself and others, and, most importantly, he creates it. The songs he selects for each job are carefully curated based on the energy and timing needed. In one robbery, a bit of riffing from the criminals delays Baby long enough that he has to restart his getaway song to get the timing right. Nothing matters but the music.

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) helps Debora (LILY JAMES) do her laundry as they dance around each other and kiss in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER.

Written & directed by Edgar Wright
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx
TriStar Pictures, Rated R, Running time 113 minutes, Opens June 28, 2017
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BAND AID

The beauty of Band Aid is that while every happy couple may be alike, not every romantic comedy about them has to be.

Director Zoe Lister-Jones (who also wrote, produced, and stars) manages to avoid the pitfalls of a typical romantic comedy and the dull pacing of an indie film; which, for a first-time filmmaker, is nothing to sneeze at. Much like the works of John Cassavetes and Roberto Rossellini, Lister-Jones injects her characters with refreshing energy and realism. No behavior is out of place, no conclusion strained.

There is little doubt that Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) aren’t meant for each other, it’s just that they are on Year Ten and spend more time fighting over the little things than they do talking about what’s on TV or the new bar that opened down the street. There’s still that look in their eyes, that look that brought them together in the first place; but it only comes out when they are stoned at their godson’s birthday. Music plays an integral role and the idea strikes: Maybe music will help mend their marriage.

If they’re going to fight, why not make music out of it? They enlist the help of their next-door neighbor who drums (Fred Armisen) to form The Dirty Dishes. As the old adage goes: write what you know.

Like most marriages, Anna and Ben’s fights circle that one big issue neither dare speak of. Here, it is the absence of a child; or, more accurately, the creation of a child. But libido need not refer only to the act of procreation. Sometimes the act of creation is what matters. Children won’t fix a broken marriage, but communication will. Anna and Ben just need a little drum and bass to get there.

Band Aid opens June 23 at the Landmark Mayan.

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CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY

Chasing Trane, the new documentary about saxophonist John Coltrane, opens with a digital trip through the cosmos. Coltrane’s music arranges the galaxies and a constellation forms to assemble his image while disembodied voices rhapsodies about the great jazz musician. Time after time again, the name “John Coltrane” is said; in case there is any confusion what-so-ever about the subject of the doc. It’s a theme that continues throughout the movie, one that even the subtitle seems to reference, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary.

Directed by John Scheinfeld — his previous Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) earned an Oscar nomination — Chasing Trane is a 90-minute lovefest supreme about the influential sax player. Reading from Coltrane’s words, Denzel Washington presides as this movie’s master of ceremonies about Coltrane’s story, talent, drug addiction, and musical contributions. All presented in the typical fashion of archival footage and photographs with modern-day talking heads interviews, each one frustratingly intoning “John Coltrane” for dramatic effect every 45 seconds. It would be far more enjoyable, and illuminating, to watch Coltrane perform for 90-minutes than it is to listen to people talk about him.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary opens June 23 at the Landmark Chez Artiste.

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