When people hear about independent movies, they don’t usually think about nine-figure budgets and heavy visual effects. The connotation is one of quirk, small relationship drama, and emotional realism. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may have been funded outside of the studio system, technically making it an indie film, but it has exactly none of the hallmarks of films that follow a similar financial path to release. If the advantage of making something outside of the system is to have fuller control over the end product, Luc Besson’s long-gestating passion project squanders that asset with an abysmal amount of toe-curling repartee. Valerian contains George Lucas-level dialogue and character, a neutralization of the George Lucas-level imagination and world-building that’s also on display. If the admittedly novel and unique environment is staffed with cardboard cutouts absent any charisma or human traits, why am I spending time in it?
A tense two-hander for the #metoo movement, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine finds two women turning on each other when their real enemy is the system they’re stuck in. She formulates two approaches to a world run by men: one of compliance and one of resistance. The former provides plenty of social and material rewards, while the latter allows for integrity and isolation, especially when compliance-demanding men are the gatekeepers. Through the lens of the present moment, Always Shine provides a vision of alternate realities. Its two protagonists are both actresses, but the intransigent one is the superior talent while the compliant one is far more successful. They’re longtime friends, but friends with this rotten core at the center of their relationship. Takal tracks the spread of this rot over the course of an ill-fated vacation.
It remains somewhat ridiculous that three actors have played Spider-Man in the last decade, making the Marvel teen superhero the most unstable character in the ever-expanding superhero genre. The latest incarnation, played by Tom Holland and folded into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, differentiates himself by committing to the adolescent aspect of the character. Previous Spider-Men like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were never believable as teenagers, probably because they hadn’t been ones in six or seven years when they were cast. Holland is barely into his 20’s and has retained a boyish enthusiasm that neither earlier incarnation contained. The difference is a surprising freshness that merges well with the lower stakes of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. As far as superhero films go, this is the fluffiest and lightest yet, though not so impermanent as to be disposable.
Give a little kid a pair of toy cars and they’ll probably contrive some way to smash them together. The big kid physicists of the illuminating Particle Fever are doing the same thing, only replace the cars with protons. In his documentary, director Mark Levinson chronicles the debates and preparation leading up to the first experiments using the Large Hadron Collider. The subjects he captures might communicate on blackboards in indecipherable mathematical languages, but they retain the raw sense of wonder they must’ve had as kids, smashing their toys into each other.
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda makes deeply felt family dramas revolving around the roles of parents and children and how the wires can get crossed. I Wish focused on two young brothers separated by divorce and their impulse to take charge in reuniting their family. Like Father, Like Son tracked the fallout from a hospital delivery room mix-up, a snafu that potentially reshuffles the two families at its center. Our Little Sister doesn’t have any parents among its main characters, but it has plenty of daughters acting as surrogate guardians to their younger siblings. The least structured of the three Koreeda films I’ve seen, Our Little Sister’s makeshift family is deeply endearing, and another beautiful piece of work from its director.
The second prequel trilogy to start in 2011 after X-Men, Planet of the Apes seemed like the more desperate choice of the two. Tim Burton’s failed attempt at restarting the dystopian franchise had failed a decade earlier, and Rupert Wyatt, director of first installment Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was an untested quantity. However, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance has proved to be one of the best things in the last six years of big-budget filmmaking, and the scripts from the team of Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver told a coherent story of a conflict with an obvious end but one that the losing party would fight tooth and nail to prevent. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes finds that losing party clinging to hope while the apes, led by Serkis’ Caesar, continue their ascent up the food chain. With Matt Reeves replacing Wyatt in the director’s chair, Dawn improves on the prior film by deepening the conflict and the protagonist.
David Oelhoffen’s bleak film set at the cusp of French-Algerian war begins in a one-room schoolhouse amidst the North African landscape. Viggo Mortensen’s Daru is teaching young Algerian children about French geography, a particular set of knowledge probably less pertinent than others for rural kids under France’s colonial yoke. Daru, an ostensibly charitable man still teaching from a Euro-centric standpoint, is revealed to be a man tentatively accepted by both sides but not fully at home in either. His European blood gives him a pass from the French masters, but his sympathies and preferences lie with the Algerians. Though he fought with both during WWII and maintains close multicultural friendships, the days of straddling the fence are coming to an end. Far From Men forces its characters to choose sides despite all evidence speaking to the impossibility of such a choice.
Sofia Coppola returns to cinemas after a too-long, four-year break with The Beguiled, her first remake and her second period film. The characters of The Beguiled aren’t as high in the social hierarchy as those in Marie Antoinette, but a 19th century style and certain level of class allows Coppola to do what she is most known for; depict well-off and bored individuals rebelling against their beautifully-photographed gilded cages. Having not seen the original Clint Eastwood-starring Beguiled, one can only assume that its famous leading man pulled focus away from the women his deserting soldier barges in upon. That’s not the case with Coppola’s version, which places a greater focus on the female septet instead of Eastwood’s replacement (Colin Farrell). The Beguiled entrances the viewer with every aspect of its production, pulling them into its Virginia estate as surely as Farrell’s soldier is drawn into it. This is the most attractive cage that Coppola has created, though it’s a motif that she neglects to follow all the way to its logical historical conclusion.
Part food porn travelogue, part Grumpy Middle-Aged Men, The Trip is wholly delightful. Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary finds actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traipsing through northern England’s B&B’s and restaurants, playing slightly elevated versions of themselves as the former reckons with his lack of romantic stability and the latter butts up against the safe predictability of his married existence. Both share a lived-in rapport that expresses itself in one-upsmanship, particularly around the various impressions of actors that they use to thrust and parry at each other. Both are unqualified to be professionally mimicking someone like Anthony Bourdain (Coogan says the tomato soup tastes like tomatoes), but they are supremely qualified to entertain the viewer with their very funny back and forth.
Edgar Wright made his reputation with lovable misfits happy in their average station. Shaun of Shaun of the Dead isn’t asking for much more than nightly video game sessions with his best friend, Scott Pilgrim wants to date a woman too cool for him, and the nerds of Spaced want to maintain the low-key status quo for as long as possible. Overweight, slovenly, and unpretentious, Wright’s characters are awkward and unambitious, and his films give them ways to be satisfied with who they are while also allowing for some level of self-improvement. Wright’s Baby Driver is a new frontier for him, stocked with characters who believe they’re cool, but this time, the film doesn’t take pains to prove them wrong. From protagonist Baby (Ansel Elgort) on down, this is unquestionably Wright’s best-looking cast, made to look like suave bandits operating outside of the law and given the scenes to solidify the impression. It contains Wright’s flair and style and love for his protagonists, but Baby Driver provides the furthest distance between Wright’s love and the character’s entitlement to it. It’s harder to tolerate affectation in perfect human specimens.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.