TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
**** Bill Baker (Matt Damon) has a new life. After a career working on oil rigs, he has moved to Marseilles, started dating an actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and become a father to her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Yet Bill didn’t plan to forge a new family. He left his home in Stillwater, Okla., because his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), was convicted of murdering her college roommate and has been languishing in a French prison for five years. While a wimpier film would have turned Bill’s dogged quest to prove Allison’s innocence into a righteous tale of a hometown hero battling foreign evils, Stillwater’s sharp emotional claws shred Bill’s moral authority and the myth of American exceptionalism. In ways both shocking and right, director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Station Agent) reinvents the story seemingly in real time. Mystery and melodrama give way to romance, which gives way to horrific vigilantism and a reckoning with the anguish and delusions of America’s white working class. Late in the film, Bill stares at Stillwater and claims that he no longer recognizes it, but the truth is that he also no longer recognizes himself. Like us, he’s seen too much. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinema 99, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Division, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Living Room, Movies on TV, Sherwood, St. Johns Twin Cinemas, Vancouver Mall.
*** If you’re scouring Netflix for a breezy summer flick, the New Zealand saga Cousins is not your best bet. It’s an ambitious, often heartbreaking film that follows the lives of three Maori women, cousins Mata, Missy and Makareta. The sprawling family epic opens on an adult Mata wandering barefoot through the streets of Wellington, disheveled and muttering a nursery rhyme under her breath. As her story unfolds, we begin to understand how she wound up there: Mata became estranged from her Maori culture after being illegally adopted by a white Christian orphanage. She never learned to speak te reo, the Eastern Polynesian language of the Indigenous population, and has the Bible shoved down her throat. Soon, Mata begins to distrust her own culture. The film is a homecoming story but also one of loss and alienation. We follow the cousins in a kind of narrative mosaic that chronicles the characters’ lives as their paths weave together and diverge. At times, the dialogue veers from expository to didactic. Luckily for the viewer, it’s also gorgeously shot and impeccably acted, with standout performances by Tanea Heke as older Mata and Keyahne Patrick Williams as a young Missy. NR. GRACE CULHANE. Netflix.
The New Bauhaus
*** You probably don’t know the name László Moholy-Nagy. You wouldn’t be familiar with his paintings, and the Hungarian-born artist’s experimentalist photography and kinetic sculptures ended up more influential than iconic. Odds are, you’ve never even heard of the school for industrial design he founded, or the boundary-shattering curriculum he installed, but the subsequent creations of his students (Dove’s ergonomic soap bar, James Bond’s trippily louche credit sequences, the Playboy bunny logo, the honey bear) would help shape 20th century iconography and aesthetics. This 2019 documentary by Alysa Nahmias, director behind award-winning 2011 Cuban art school paean Unfinished Spaces, follows Moholy-Nagy from a teaching post at Weimar-era Germany’s legendary Bauhaus through his efforts to re-create the modernist mecca’s ideals within a corporate-sponsored Chicago institute. A brisk, engaging portrait of a restless polymath and beloved educator, The New Bauhaus provides a textured overview of a fascinating life that takes pains to illuminate the subject’s interdisciplinary flights of fancy. Nevertheless, with so much packed into the 89-minute running time, uninitiated audiences hoping to learn more about, say, the artist’s aborted dalliances with cinema (devising special effects for an H.G. Wells collaboration) or the military (disguising Lake Michigan from enemy bombers) may grow frustrated by the sheer breadth of digressions zipped past, however chicly. Form follows function, to be sure, but less isn’t always more. NR. JAY HORTON. Apple TV, Google Play, Vimeo.
** Scarlett Johansson plays a Marvel superhero in Black Widow, but she’s fiercer by far in spandex-free films like Lost in Translation and Marriage Story. She doesn’t seem to get a kick out of being an action star, and Black Widow isn’t much of an action movie—it exists mostly to fill the narrative gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, two similarly mediocre Marvel films. Black Widow unites Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) with her punkish sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). They want to annihilate the Red Room—the Russian brainwashing program that tried to turn them into soulless assassins—but they can’t succeed without the help of Melina and Alexei (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour), the sinister agents who once posed as their parents during an undercover operation. Director Cate Shortland’s poor pacing strips the story of suspense, but the most troubling thing about Black Widow is its eagerness to forgive Melina and Alexei, who condemned Natasha and Yelena to become child soldiers. Black Widow may be a feminist film, but its brand is diet feminism for moviegoers who thought the complete overthrow of the patriarchy in Mad Max: Fury Road was overkill. Maybe that’s why Johansson looks bored—she knows Black Widow isn’t worth believing in. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bagdad, Cedar Hills, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Disney+, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, Movies on TV, St. Johns Theater & Pub, St. Johns Twin Cinemas, Studio One, Tigard, Wunderland Beaverton.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
** Early in Space Jam: A New Legacy, two marvelously smarmy Warner Bros. executives (Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun) pitch a galaxy of LeBron James crossover projects, including LeBron v Batman and LeBron of Thrones. LeBron (who plays himself) calls the concept one of the top five worst ideas he’s ever heard, but the idea is essentially the plot of A New Legacy, a shameless commercial for Warner Bros. properties that barely keeps up the pretense of being a movie. If the film were merely the story of LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) being sucked into the so-called Warner Bros. ServerVerse to play basketball with the Looney Tunes, it might have gotten by on goofy charm, but director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) inserts LeBron into The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road and even Casablanca. By the time LeBron is playing basketball in front of Catwoman, Pennywise and the Night King, it’s clear that the film is nothing more than a product engineered to sell other products. Like too many mainstream movies, it adheres to the golden rule of the Ready Player One school of filmmaking—bludgeon your audience with references until they beg for mercy. PG. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, HBO Max, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Studio One, Tigard, Wunderland Milwaukie.
** Carlos López Estrada’s spoken-word musical and ode to grassroots Los Angeles arrives right on time for this season of rediscovering our cities in existentially hungry, all-day bursts. Seek truth in good company and open air, advises Summertime. With dashes of Short Cuts and Do the Right Thing, plus a deep thumbprint from Estrada’s 2018 debut, Blindspotting, Summertime loosely trails more than 20 Angelenos across one surreal day, idealizing L.A. not toward perfection but for its street-level beauty and collectivism. The servers, cashiers, limo drivers and aspiring rappers (played by real-life L.A. poets) lift each other’s underestimated spirits much the way Estrada’s warm, dappled visuals suggest a golden hour that lasts half the day. In a word, though, the slam-poetry interludes are jarring. For these exhalations, Summertime practically freezes while one ensemble character (whom we scarcely know) pours the contents of their soul into the lap of another who has no choice but to listen, stunned by this impromptu performer. There’s no disputing the artistry, just whether the grand experiment actually works—whether full-throated, showstopping acts of testimony cohere within an otherwise casual, often charming summer stroll. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Fox Tower.
The Tomorrow War
** Hollywood has fully embraced the genre of Big Budget, Doomsday, Alien movies chasing the tail of Independence Day ever since it came out 25 years ago. The formula is a basic mix of plug-in big-ticket actors with CGI monsters and “clever” world-building. In this vein, we have The Tomorrow War, directed by Chris McKay. The film delivers on the adrenaline-pumping action and impending danger around every corner on par with every other film of this ilk. Perhaps too on par. The Tomorrow War plays out like an alien action movie mixtape as it shamelessly steals from every film in its genre, from Aliens to Starship Troopers. If you find you enjoy these films’ predictable but fun structure, then this movie should adequately satisfy and entertain. But if you’re looking for any semblance of depth and character study, you’ll probably be left feeling frustrated by the emptiness in this bloated display of unending clichés and “Oh, my God” moments (not the good kind). Chris Pratt may not have been the best choice to carry the emotional weight the script asks for as his co-stars act circles around him in every dramatic scene. If you cast Pratt, then let him run with the sardonic humor the film is begging for and his onscreen persona delivers so well. But please don’t ask him to actually act. PG-13. RAY GILL JR. Amazon Prime.