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Megan Leavey movie review: a soldier and her dog

23 June 2017 7:15 AM, PDT

MaryAnn’s quick take… This deeply satisfying military drama demonstrates that a simple, even familiar story can be powerfully effective when told with big heart and solid craft. I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; I’m a sucker for stories about dogs

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I might have had something in my eye there by the end of this deeply satisfying military drama, which demonstrates that a simple story — even a familiar one — can be powerfully effective when told with big heart and solid craft.

This one isn’t entirely familiar, however. The honking big freshness to Megan Leavey is right there in the title: here it’s a young woman with no direction in life and few skills for coping with adult relationships who gains confidence and finds purpose when she joins the Marines, almost on a whim. This is a path that surely many women have taken, just as many men do, but one we rarely see onscreen. Leavey’s is even a true story, and as long as we insist upon maintaining such an expansive military, it’s absolutely vital that our popular storytelling reflects that it represents such an opportunity for women as well as for men. (I have not done a quantitative study, but I feel like there are far fewer movies that bear the names of their female protagonists than there are movies with men’s names as titles. So that’s something else to love here too.)

“Dog, dog, he’s a workin’ dog, he’s a hard-workin’ dog…”

Kate Mara (Morgan, The Martian) is terrific navigating Leavey’s restive despair as it slowly morphs into patience and power and confidence as she connects with and trains Rex, a bomb-sniffing dog with a bit of an attitude problem himself. Gabriela Cowperthwaite — the documentarian who gave us the astonishing Blackfish — makes her narrative debut here, and handles with surety the film’s dynamic central combat sequence, which is as viscerally thrilling as anything we saw in, say, The Hurt Locker. (The film notes slyly that even though women were supposedly not allowed to take combat roles at the time when Leavey was deployed in Iraq, in the mid 2000s, de facto combat roles were unavoidable for anyone there.) And Cowperthwaite avoids anything approaching the cornball in the intimate interactions between Leavey and her parents (Edie Falco [Random Hearts, Judy Berlin] and Bradley Whitford [Get Out, Saving Mr. Banks]), the fellow Marine (Ramon Rodriguez: Need for Speed, Battle: Los Angeles) she falls into a romantic relationship with, and of course with Rex. (Leavey bears no resemblance whatsoever to 2015’s appalling propagandistic military-dog movie Max. Thank goodness.) The script — by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo (Joy, Bridesmaids), and Tim Lovestedt — is uncomplicated, but in an era of overplotted blockbusters, its straightforwardness is actually sort of bracing.

There may be little that’s unexpected in Megan Leavey, but in this case, that’s just fine. This is an instant comfort movie for lovers of dogs and for anyone who longs — as I do — to see more stories about women living their ordinary lives, facing ordinary challenges, and succeeding on their own terms. We don’t get anywhere near enough movies like this one. »

- MaryAnn Johanson

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The Bad Batch movie review: a girl walks into dystopia alone

22 June 2017 7:08 PM, PDT

MaryAnn’s quick take… Filmmaker-to-watch Ana Lily Amirpour again shakes up a familiar genre — here, the postapocalyptic adventure — in unexpected ways, but stumbles a bit in the process. I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; loved Amirpour’s first film

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s followup to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night once again takes a familiar genre — the postapocalyptic adventure — and shakes it up in unexpected ways, riffing on such classics as Escape from New York and Mad Max and giving them a somber spin; even the odd poignancy that hangs over this story is a cold one.

Unlikely companions at the ass end of the world…

In the near future, “bad batch” prisoners are locked in a fenced-off American desert to fend for themselves: there is no parole, no release. There is also no escape from this hellscape, and no one is even trying; that’s not what this tale is about. So a certain hopelessness hangs over new inmate Arlen (Suki Waterhouse: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and a certain suspense: Just what is her story going to be about, then? How do all these “nonfunctioning members of society,” thousands of them, manage to function as part of a makeshift society? As Arlen explores — not always willingly — she discovers that the best situation to be found is in the jury-rigged town, overseen by “kindly” overlord Keanu Reeves (Exposed), where the residents enact a parody of decent society. The worst is infinitely worse, epitomized by cannibal bodybuilder Jason Momoa (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

Matter-of-fact brutality and offhand compassion sit side by side…

Matter-of-fact brutality and offhand compassion sit side by side, and no one here is all good or all bad, so Batch is more nuanced than we typically see in the genre, but most welcome is Amirpour’s determination not to sensationalize the violence or make this awful end of civilization look cool or alluring, as too often happens in similar films. On the other hand, there are some oddly male-gazey moments, problematic depictions of people of color (which the filmmaker has addressed only badly), and a two-hour runtime that is not justified. Still, if Amirpour stumbles a bit in her sophomore feature, she remains a talent to watch. »

- MaryAnn Johanson

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Lost in Paris (Paris pieds nus) movie review: French kicks

22 June 2017 3:40 PM, PDT

MaryAnn’s quick take… An exquisite miniature puzzle-box pop-up-book of a movie. All is color and light and exhilaration here, a fantastical lark that is sheer mischievous joy. I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

When we think of summer movies, we usually think big: action and explosions, superheroes and supervillains. But here’s another kind of perfect — absolutely perfect — summer movie: the exquisite miniature puzzle-box pop-up book that is Lost in Paris. This fourth film from the Belgian clown duo of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon (who wrote and directed as well as star) pits her hapless Canadian visitor against his insouciant tramp in the City of Lights as she tries to find the elderly aunt (Emmanuelle Riva: Amour) who has run away in order to avoid the social workers who want to plant her in a nursing home. The comedic pas de deux Gordon and Abel enact is sheer mischievous joy, buoyantly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers or Harold Lloyd, a tripping dance of effervescent physical slapstick and — in one sequence beautifully simple and thrillingly, unexpectedly rapturous — actual dance. All is color and light and exhilaration here, a fantastical lark that swings with winsome precision from laugh-out-loud farce to poignant melodrama. Somehow charmingly sentimental and casually disdainful of sentiment at the same time, Lost in Paris refreshingly eschews any hint of relevance to the world outside of itself: this is a magical spell of a movie with which to block out the real world entirely for an hour and a half. Even a literal translation of its French title — Paris pieds nus, or Barefoot Paris — sounds summery and escapist. See this movie, if you find yourself anywhere in its vicinity, and savor the delightful little vacation from reality it offers.

Lost in Paris is now playing at the Landmark Sunshine in New York City. See the film’s official site for future dates and cities. »

- MaryAnn Johanson

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new and ongoing dvd & vod releases, Us/Can, from Jun 20

21 June 2017 10:29 AM, PDT

A simple listing, duplicated from the dvd + vod Us and Canada page, of new releases and other stuff currently available, for the benefit of those playing along by RSS or keeping up via the Daily Digest emails (sign up here).

new dvd+vod Kong: Skull Island Sour Grapes The Zookeeper’s Wife The Bad Batch Smurfs: The Lost Village    I’m planning to watch… Wilson

2017’s films, ranked by maryann (subscribers only until the end of the year)

get all reviews since 1997 here

recent releases Finding Kim Get Out A Good American The Great Wall I Am Not Your Negro John Wick 2 The Lego Batman Movie Logan The Most Hated Woman in America My Life as a Zucchini (aka My Life as a Courgette) Raw The Red Turtle The Salesman The Survivalist T2 Trainspotting A United Kingdom Urban Hymn Aaron’s Blood Beauty and the Beast Dough The Sense of an Ending A Street Cat Named Bob Xx Aftermath The Autopsy of Jane Doe The Belko Experiment CHiPs A Cure for Wellness The Greasy Strangler Life Power Rangers The Shack The Space Between Us Wakefield The Wedding Invitation Welcome to Happiness xXx: The Return of Xander Cage »

- MaryAnn Johanson

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new and ongoing dvd & vod releases, UK/Ire, from Jun 19

21 June 2017 9:46 AM, PDT

A simple listing, duplicated from the dvd + vod UK and Ireland page, of new releases and other stuff currently available, for the benefit of those playing along by RSS or keeping up via the Daily Digest emails (sign up here).

new dvd+vod Aquarius Chasing Asylum Hidden Figures Logan 20th Century Women Patriots Day The Autopsy of Jane Doe A Cure for Wellness

2017’s films, ranked by maryann (subscribers only until the end of the year)

get all reviews since 1997 here

recent releases Carrie Pilby Denial Fences Finding Altamira Finding Kim The Founder The Great Wall Hacksaw Ridge I Am Not Your Negro Jackie John Wick 2 La La Land The Last Laugh The Lego Batman Movie Lion Loving Manchester by the Sea A Monster Calls Moonlight The Most Hated Woman in America Prevenge The Salesman Sing Sour Grapes Tanna Toni Erdmann T2 Trainspotting We Are X Gold Silence Spaceship Xx Aftermath The Bye Bye Man Fifty Shades Darker The Levelling Live by Night Rings The Space Between Us Split xXx: The Return of Xander Cage »

- MaryAnn Johanson

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