TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
*** This nine-minute film is the pinnacle of 2020's Oscar-nominated animated shorts. But if Opera tells us anything, beware of pinnacles. Patient and haunting, Erick Oh's conceptual film comprises one drooping pan down a pyramid-bound society, and then one pan back up. Resembling a pagoda in some areas and a spectral Richard Scarry illustration in others, the structure is populated by thousands of minuscule and identical beings, but their boundaries are clear: a ruling force at the top, undergirded by intellectual and professional strata with laborers at the bottom. Best seen on a 100-foot screen or with your nose 6 inches from your TV, Opera is intensely allegorical, though it's difficult to pin down for what exactly. The castes, exploitations and cyclical violence found in most every modern civilization? No answer seems too big. Whatever the inspiration, Opera is a technical stunner. A viewer could watch it 10 consecutive times and snatch some new fleck of detail from, say, the second box on the left, seven levels down. The macro-simplicity of countless stick figures milling around a triangle only enhances the themes as ambitious as Mother! and disturbed as Brazil. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Virtual Cinema.
*** The Parisian take on the Irish goodbye, a French exit amounts to quickly and silently ditching a party. That's the Price family's move when their New York accounts run dry and mother Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) and son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) flee to France. There, they can hole up and spend their last cash stacks while the movie around them cycles through genres. Based on a 2018 novel by Portland author Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers), French Exit is mostly a roving gabfest, and a wonderful showcase for lioness-in-winter Pfeiffer, who savors Frances' boozy Lucille Bluth-esque contempt in dialogue exchange after exchange. By contrast, a kindly naturalist at his acting core, Hedges can't quite handle the playful yet biting artificiality. Still, French Exit simply tries on enough hats (love triangle, supernatural mystery, mannered comedy) that no one leaky crack sinks the ship. Azazel Jacobs' film is by far at its best in skewering wealth's absurdity, namely when Frances overpays a private detective to find a psychic to find a cat. Its more serious elements tend to drag, but there's a curiosity and empathy toward the Prices' ridiculous position. A onetime trophy wife (with no husband) and her trust-fund son (with no trust fund) are free of most everything: the good, the bad and any definition but mother and son. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. AMC Vancouver Mall, Eastport Plaza, Liberty, Living Room.
*** According to director Francine Parker, the White House itself called up American International Pictures in 1972 and, poof, this vérité document of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland's anti-war variety show evaporated from theaters. The presumed reason for the censorship is still the most important historical detail within F.T.A. (standing alternately for "Free" and "F*ck the Army"). Those were the flames Fonda, Sutherland (both fresh off Klute), songwriter Len Chandler and their touring troupe tried to stoke with this satirical counterprogramming to the USO. We witness thousands of soldiers thwarting their base commanders to attend, and concurring with the vaudevillian skits and musical numbers skewering a war that would "flatten" Southeast Asian nations "to save" them. While the unearthed documentary's chief drawback is its sense of preciousness for the actual live show—maudlin folk ballads deserve their own wing in the Diminishing Returns Hall of Fame—it also demonstrates a real-time attentiveness to the Vietnam War's countless exploited parties: Black GIs, women in the Air Force, unionizing Okinawan workers, Filipino independence movements. Even if the harmonies and high kicks didn't turn the Hueys around, F.T.A. is a convincing testament to the theater kid's particular tools of discord. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Virtual Cinema.
** During the Cold War, British businessman Greville Wynne had a secret life. While exporting industrial engineering products, he worked as a courier for Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer who was an informant for MI6 and the CIA. Wynne's espionage career ended with his capture in 1962, but he survived 18 months in a Moscow prison and later wrote two memoirs, The Man From Moscow and The Man From Odessa. It would take more than a facile film to diminish his heroic legacy, but it's still dispiriting to watch The Courier, a movie so bland it's barely fit for the BBC. Under the direction of Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown), a tale that should have been scary and suspenseful turns into a stately British period piece, complete with a surprisingly shapeless score by the brilliant Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski. As Wynne, Benedict Cumberbatch is exquisitely vulnerable—the prison scenes are haunted by images of his increasingly skeletal frame—but The Courier's cheery conclusion obscures painful realities, including the real Wynne's MI6 training, which he said was more brutal than the KGB beatings he endured. Greville Wynne risked his life to prevent nuclear war. The least The Courier could have done was risk being honest. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. AMC Vancouver Mall, Cedar Hills, Cornelius, Living Room.
** Finally premiering after some 40 months of frantic reshoots and studio dithering (and, sure, virus-related postponements), Chaos Walking was an anticipated adaptation of Patrick Ness' beloved YA sci-fi trilogy. But the film slunk into theaters this month under a cloud of negativity not unlike the roiling miasma of doubt and aggression bedeviling the 23rd century humans who inhibit its "New World." Crash landing on the distant planet as a scout for a second wave of immigrants, Viola (Daisy Ridley) stumbles into a rough frontier community only to find all the women settlers are dead. Meanwhile, the men have become afflicted by a phenomenon dubbed "Noise" that renders mental activity visible, though the look of each one's mind varies. Naturally, Viola's arrival spurs various reactions. The town's mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), wields his psychic shroud as a means of deception, while farmboy Todd (Tom Holland) is cajoled into aiding her escape and veers between a hectoring chorus of thoughts that range from self-recrimination to lust since this is the only woman he's ever seen. Thankfully, these three lauded actors aren't asked to do much more than lean into their signature affects: Ridley's unsinkable resolve, Prentiss' simmering menace, and Holland's adorably brash neuroses. Compared to the relentless world-building of recent tween-targeted dystopian franchises, there's a quiet confidence that downplays batshit-crazy sci-fi elements to encourage a sense of discovery. Alas, as the film repeatedly stresses, it's never the thoughts that count. PG-13. JAY HORTON. AMC Vancouver Mall, Eastport Plaza, Cedar Hills, Cornelius.
** His centrality to this hyperstylized shoot-'em-up notwithstanding, Bob Odenkirk shares one other crucial trait with the Bruce Willises and Dolph Lundgrens of the world—his head. That Easter Island chin. Those granite cheekbones. Stubble the color and texture of iron filings. Every time Odenkirk growls, broods or ironically luxuriates in the battering he takes in this half-comedic John Wick knockoff, that mug draws all attention away from the stunt men overselling his unremarkable punches and gunplay. Ilya Naishuller's debut feature is essentially Death Wish with dads who collect vinyl and cultivate man caves they would never deign to call man caves. The spree of (maybe righteous?) violence by suburban accountant Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) begins when he freezes up during a home invasion, much to the chagrin of his wife and teenage son. From there, Hutch is on a collision course with the criminal underworld as Nobody becomes a bloody romp but skirts questions of wounded modern masculinity raised by the inciting incident. Nobody can't get over the fact that it cast Bob Odenkirk instead of letting the incredibly versatile actor tangle with the meaning of all this carnage. If only it took its own premise more seriously. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. AMC Vancouver Mall, Cedar Hills, Eastport Plaza, Cornelius, Living Room.
* A death in the family. Dueling directors. Wrathful fans. Zack Snyder's Justice League may be a slab of bloated mediocrity, but the story of its creation is a saga of epic, tragic proportions. In 2017, Snyder surrendered his superhero mashup Justice League to director Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who reshot multiple scenes while Snyder grieved for his daughter, Autumn, who had died by suicide at age 20. Enraged by Whedon's revisions, some fans demanded to see Snyder's version of the film, unleashing a campaign that included a Times Square billboard and an airplane banner. Zack Snyder's Justice League is the answer to their prayers: a restoration supervised by Snyder himself. It is also a four-hour bore that subjects us to a lifeless Batman (Ben Affleck), an apathetic Superman (Henry Cavill) and an appallingly clichéd screenplay (sample line: "The great darkness begins!"). The Justice League's more charismatic recruits—Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—provide spark and spunk, but not enough to elevate the interminable action scenes, which are clogged with sluggish slow motion, a Snyder trademark. None of this will faze Snyder's fans, who care about him so passionately they have donated half a million dollars to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. There are plenty of reasons to loathe Zack Snyder's Justice League, but it is important to acknowledge that it has meaning beyond its artistic failures—and to hope that finishing it brought some solace to a bereaved father. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. HBO Max.