THE MIDWIFE

Even though The Midwife — the latest from writer/director Martin Provost — opens with a live birth, the story revolves around an off-screen death, with Claire (Catherine Frot) at the center of both. She is a midwife, and we come to know the type of woman she is by watching her make her rounds delivering babies all day and all night. Fastidious and capable, its no surprise when we find out she doesn’t drink, smoke, or stray outside the line.

Then a rupture comes: Claire’s father has committed suicide. Claire deals with it, but she feels an obligation to inform Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve), her father’s mistress whom she hasn’t spoken too in 30 years.

Béatrice is Claire’s exact opposite. She smokes, drinks, and gambles easily — probably loves just the same — still the news of her old flame’s death rattles her. Béatrice looks for solace in Claire’s arms, but that only complicates their strained relationship.

Then another rupture comes: Béatrice has a brain tumor. With nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, she lands in Claire’s lap. “I feel like I’ve made a mistake somewhere,” Claire sighs, but only after she learns of a third rupture: she is going to be a grandmother.

The Midwife is a movie of interiors. Only a dozen shots are set outdoors — a handful of them are used to underline specific tangents the narrative doesn’t have space for. Instead, The Midwife places its focus on Claire and Béatrice. And like the babies Claire pulls into the big, cold, scary world, Béatrice will pull Claire out of her shell and into this world; a world of love and pain, life and death, laughter and misery.

It takes sometime for The Midwife to get there, and when it does, it does so quietly. But with Deneuve and Frot as traveling companions, at least you know the destination will be worth it.

The Midwife is in limited release.

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LANDLINE

Watch enough movies and trends start to develop. One of the major ones: Love is hard; fidelity is harder.

And as time wears on it becomes harder. At least for Tom (John Turturro), a middle-aged father of two daughters who has been having an affair. When his youngest, Ali (Abby Quinn), discovers his extra-curricular activities, she is more devastated to learn that it’s not simply a physical relationship, but an emotional one as well.

The eldest, Dana (Jenny Slate), should be equally disturbed, but she is also stepping out on her fiancé with an old flame. Ali isn’t exactly surprised, she certainly has her own secrets to keep, but with role models like these, it’s no wonder why her mother (Edie Falco) is concerned.

Set in New York City in the 1990s, Landline follows this family as they fall apart and come back together. The story — from a screenplay by Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre, who also directs — is trite and familiar. Even though it takes almost a third of the movie for the affairs to kicking in, they seem inevitable. Yet, there is something about Robespierre’s direction and the performances from Slate, Turturro, and, especially, Quinn that make this family seem honest, their predicament true, and their resolution appropriate.

Landline is in limited release.

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DETROIT

Detroit — the latest film from Academy Award-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow — opens with as much promise and technical brilliance as any feature made this year. Starting with a brief animation depicting the White Flight of the 20th century, Detroit opens on the early morning of July 23, 1967, with a speakeasy raided by police. An informant is roughed up, arrests are made, a crowd gathers. The cameras, seemingly omnipotent, cut back and forth from multiple perspectives, stitching together bits of action from all over; not to give an abstract picture, but to construct a complete one.

This is how a riot builds: through minute moments of action and reaction. A rock is thrown. Then another. And another. A store is looted. People yell curses and epithets. The police hightail it out of there and the mob takes over. Stores are looted, fires are set, destruction is the new normal. President Lyndon Baines Johnson is heard over archival footage, or maybe footage designed to look archival. Does it matter? Not really, a point is being made.

The riot rages on. Day One, Day Two, Day Three. The camera continues to jump around the city, inside police cars, outside neighborhood homes, a congressman tries to quell the crowd. No names are attributed to the faces we see, just the familiar ones glimpsed in archival footage. Working with screenwriter Mark Boal, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow presents the riots as faceless and without a center. The mob is just that, a mob. And for the first 20 minutes or so, Detroit is one of the most powerful and profound pieces of narrative filmmaking this year.

And then, a story develops.

There is a security guard (John Boyega); an up-and-coming Motown act, The Dramatics (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore); racists cops who wear their gun belts like cowboys (Will Poulter and Jack Reynor); two young white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever); and a couple of guys who were at the wrong place at the wrong time (Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell). They all end up at the Algiers Motel, and here is where Detroit settles into its groove.

It should be noted that what happens inside the frame of Detroit is all based on true events. Some embellishments have been made and holes have been filled in where information was obscured. And though what transpires on screen is more traumatic than dramatic, the unfortunate aspect of Detroit is the unconvincing shift in perspective that starts everywhere and narrows to here: this motel, this courtroom, these people, this event.

Of all the directors working, few are as capable and engaging as Bigelow. For Detroit’s first 20 minutes, Bigelow relies on her intelligence as a filmmaker and the technical capabilities of her collaborators. Then she relies on a story. That’s an understandable decision; this is a major motion picture with a wide release, after all, but an unfortunate one. Detroit could have been so much more.

Detroit Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson
Starring: John Boyega, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski
Annapurna Pictures, Rated R, Running time 143 minutes, Opens August 4, 2017
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POP AYE

The road is best shared with an old friend. Be it a drinking buddy, a childhood companion, or an old lover; any trip down the dusty trail of memory is one that must be shared. For successful Bangkok architect, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), that companion is a full-grown Asian elephant named Pop Aye.

As we see in a later flashback, Pop Aye and Thana grew up together but were separated when Pop Aye was shipped off to the circus, performing under the name “Chang” after the popular Thai beer. In a manner of speaking, Thana was also shipped off: went to school, got a job, got married, and now, midway through his life, his path crosses once again with Pop Aye. Thana takes the elephant under his care and the two begin their trek home on foot.

Pop Aye is writer/director Kristen Tan’s debut feature, and it is a strong one with a distinct sense of place. Thana’s midlife crisis and his desire to recapture his youth via Pop Aye are universal but the specifics are what make the movie. From the neon lights flickering on when the sun sets on a dive bar to the image of Thana and Pop Aye wading through hundreds of spilled watermelons on the highway, each moment in Pop Aye feels lived-in and authentic.

Most of that credit goes to Tan but a part of the credit belongs to Pop Aye — played by the incredibly gentle and emotive elephant, Bong. When W.C. Fields proclaimed that actors should never work with animals or children, he did so because they always steal the scene. It’s a good thing Fields never met Bong; he would have been blown right off the screen.

Pop Aye is in limited release.

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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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