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Reviews for July 21st, 2017

Documentary Round-Up

      The underwhelming doc The Pulitzer at 100 squanders an opportunity to take its subject, the Pulitzer Prize, and make it intriguing, moving or even engaging for that matter. Director Kirk Simon interviews journalists, photographers, and authors who've won the prize, but they talk about their own work mostly and how they felt when they won the Pulitzer. Natalie Portman, Liev Schreiber, Martin Scorcese and others read some of the past winners' work. You learn too little about the award's founder, Joseph Pulitzer. The doc's largest flaw, though, is that it doesn't have any surprising revelations or friction/tension that would've added some much-needed meat on its bones. Some great writers like Graham Greene didn't end up winning a Pulitzer despite deserving one. The Pulitzer isn't always fair, but, so what? Who said that life is always fair? There are surely some talented musicians who never won an Emmy and talented actors/filmmakers who never won an Oscar. So, yes, prizes such as the Pulitzer are very subjective, but even someone unfamiliar with the Pulitzer would know that based on logic and reason. "What is this film really trying to say?" is a question you'll find yourself asking more often than not throughout the doc. Although the cinematography looks crisp and stylish, the editing leaves a lot to be desired because the film often feels unfocused. Its running time of 91 minutes feels more like 2 hours. It opens via First Run Features at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Christopher Nolan

      During World War II, 338,226 British and French soldiers became trapped in the port of Dunkirk, France. Civilians on ships in the English Channel and pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) desperately tried to rescue the stranded soldiers. By sea, there's Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who manned a small yacht called Moonstone with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan). They rescued a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy). By air, there's RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who flew planes called Spitfires. On the shores of Dunkirk, Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) attempted to coordinate the rescue mission with the help of Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy). British Army soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) was among the many soldiers who struggled to survive in Dunkirk.

      Good luck remembering any of the character's names because writer/director Christopher Nolan eschews character development in favor of bombarding audiences with loud, nauseating, video game-like action scenes instead. Seeing it in IMAX is quite an immersive experience only on a purely shallow, aesthetic level. Did Michael Bay discover a portal into Christopher Nolan's head ŕ la Being John Malkovich to control him like a puppet during the filming of Dunkirk? It wouldn't be surprising if someone were to have spotted Michael Bay on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike afterward. To be fair, many scenes are indeed breathtaking to behold because of the cinematography, but a beautifully-shot video game is still a video game. It would be a misnomer to call anyone onscreen a character given that Nolan doesn't even remotely provide them with a backstory or a distinguishable personality. Don't they have wives, girfriends, mothers or fathers waiting for them at home?

      Keeping the plot lean would have been fine if Nolan were to have grounded the film in humanism (a truly special effect which money cannot buy), but the only modicum of humanism derives from the actors' charisma. Just when you start to feel absorbed or ever so slightly thrilled by a scene, Nolan abruptly cuts to a different plot point in time. A non-linear structure worked well in Memento because it helped you to relate and to connect with the protagonist who suffered from short term memory problems, but in Dunkirk it feels like an unnecessary gimmick that highly diminishes any emotional impact as well as dramatic momentum. I well aware that directors like to play the audience like a piano, so the non-linear structure here serves that purpose, but it's not effective if I don't actually like the song that Nolan plays, so-to-speak.

      Francois Truffaut once wisely stated that a truly great film has a perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle. Dunkirk, like too many Hollywood films, suffers from too much Spectacle and not nearly enough Truth. The most palpable kind of Truth is humanism which Dunkirk sorely lacks. There's no comic relief, so the consistently serious tone becomes monotonous---even Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan had some levity to counterbalance the heaviness. Moreover, Nolan holds the audience's hand and squeezes it with an overbearing musical score that often drowns out the dialogue with a poor sound mix. Why not trust the audience's emotions? Why not trust their patience by slowing down Dunkirk's pace? Why not include some nuance and characters conversing with one another? Why not give the film a heart and a soul? Oh, right, because that would've allowed for some humanism to seep in, God-forbid. Humanism is like butter or jam on bread: it provides bread with much-needed flavor and oomph. Ultimately, Dunkirk is the equivalent of dry, stale bread.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Gastón Solnicki


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Cinema Slate and Cinema Tropical.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Killing Ground

Directed by Damien Power


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Midwife

Directed by Martin Provost

      Catherine Frot stars as Claire, a widow who works as a midwife at a hospital's maternity ward that's imminently closing. She has an adult son, Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), whose girlfriend announces that she's pregnant with his baby. Paul (Oliver Gourmet), a truck driver, persistently tries to romance her despite that she doesn't quite warm up to him at first. When her father's ex-mistress Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve) calls her out of the blue claiming that she's dying from terminal cancer, she meets up with her and gradually develops a friendship.

      The Midwife begins compellingly as Beatrice arrives and disrupts Claire's life. Claire has an animosity toward her for leaving her father, and still blames her for his suicide. She and Beatrice clearly have very different personalities, but the more time they spend together, the more Claire learns to stop holding a grudge against her. They both help one another to grow in many ways. The screenplay by writer/director Martin Provost feels organic, engrossing and genuinely heartfelt during the film's first two acts. It's quite refreshing to observe the evolving dynamics of a female friendship onscreen.

      How rare it is to encounter such rich and complex roles for older women in cinema these days! Frot and Deneuve both radiate charisma and warmth, and it's a pleasure to watch them play off of each other even when they're not getting along. Bravo to Provost for unflinchingly showing Claire delivering a baby from start to finish, and for not turning the character of Beatrice into a one-note caricature. Beatrice is fallible like all human beings, but she also has a conscience and complex feelings of her own. Also, Provost deserves to be commended for including female characters who undergo innate changes by the time the end credits roll.

      To be fair, The Midwife takes a slight nosedive when it tries to juggle too many subplots and turns of events all at once. The way that Provost wraps those subplots up feels a bit rushed and contrived even though he's unafraid to delve into dark territory. This drama is, after all, mostly a tragedy, although it's not nearly as dark or profound as Amour. Fortunately, Frot and Deneuve's stellar performances compensate for the screenplays deficiencies because they manage to successfully rise above the material. It's a testament to their impeccable talents that Claire and Beatrice come to life with all of their complexities and innate human struggles.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and The Paris Theatre.

The Untamed

Directed by Amat Escalante


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by 20th Strand Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center.
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