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Summer's Pallet Cleansers, Or: A Vacation From the Extrodinary

I love summer movies just as much as the next person. Hell, this season's crop of popcorn escapism are actually better and more satisfying than last year's disappointing slate of blockbusters. But there's only so many big-budget, effects-driven extravaganzas I can watch before I burn myself out. In that instance, a break from blockbuster fare is sorely needed, and i'm reviewing two movies that help cleanse the pallet, and one that...doesn't . Yep, you can even find bad movies at an art-house theater. But that's beside the point. These movies, regardless of your opinions coming out, are good to experience because these are filmmakers who aren't beholden to the studio's bottom line of making a profit. They're doing smaller work, but nonetheless engaging. Most of the time.

Belle - Remember the name Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She's the best thing in an English drama that has so much right going for it. First, it's superbly directed by Amma Asante, who combines the flare of a British period piece with subtle commentary on social class and race that's refreshing to see in this kind of work when romantic/period dramas are mostly about a ravishing romance between two talented, attractive leads. The fact Asante will be directing a thriller next for Warner Brothers is cause for celebration because we need more filmmakers of color and gender out there showing off their talents. Next, the acting is absolutely excellent, from Mbatha-Raw herself as the titular Dido Bell, a mixed race girl born into nobility and privilege by her white Naval Officer father (Matthew Goode) and raised by her grandfather, the Lord Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). She's the heir to her father's estate, but she's an outsider to the aristocratic class because of her race. She's an educated, well-spoken young black woman in an age where none of those traits are looked upon as suitable, and Mbatha-Raw captures her inner struggle with amazing grace and a quiet vulnerability that sneaks up on you. There are other actors who excel, like Tom Wilkinson as Chief Justice Murray, who is caught in a moral trap between doing right by her mixed granddaughter and keeping to the norm on the slave trade in Britain, and Harry Potter star Tom Felton, playing a bigoted suitor for Belle's cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray's (Sarah Gadon) affections, but the star remains Mbatha-Raw. Seek this one out in theaters, if you can, but it's a must watch.
*** stars out of ****

Snowpiercer - This dystopian science fiction action-thriller, set entirely on a consistently moving train that houses what's left of the human race after global warming freezes over the planet, has so much going for it: the train separates those who have everything (literally - the train houses a steak house, a nightclub, a salon and a clothing store, etc), and those who are banished to the tail end of the train. It features solid performances by Chris Evans as Curtis, the leader of the rebellion of outcasts who are banished to the back of the train, Song Kang-ho as the drug-addicted Minsu, who can open and close doors thought the train, and Tilda Swinton, completely chewing up scenery as Mason, the resident dictator who does the dirty work for Gilliam (Ed Harris) the conductor of the Snowpiercer. And it contains perhaps this year's most outrageous scene with a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill), storytime in a classroom, and an oozie. The whole sequence is so dark and bizarre that it actually feels almost right to have it in there, and you can't help but laugh at the madness transpiring on screen. South Korean director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho juggles themes picked up by The Matrix, Brazil, Tarantino films, and tackles themes of socio-economic class, the human condition and religion, but in the end, it never fully forms together in harmony. The film takes itself so seriously at times, that when the action scenes come around, you wish it had more a functioning sense of self-awareness about its own premise and jump off from there. Snowpiercer is an interesting film filled with big ideas, but I felt they never came full circle when it ended.
** 1/2 stars out of ****

Chef - Watching Jon Favreau's culinary comedic tale, you can't help that the film is really a metaphor for his adventures in Hollywood. He plays Carl Casper, a popular chef in the L.A. restaurant scene who feels trapped by his success and an owner (Dustin Hoffman) who wants him to keep producing the same food that made him a hit. The parallels between his character and Favreau himself feeling trapped by the Suits in Hollywood are almost un-missable, especially his less-than stellar outings with Iron-Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens. His blow-up over food critic/blogger Ramsay (Oliver Platt) makes waves with social media, but gets him canned from his own restaurant. His ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Veargra) suggests he take his estranged son (Emjay Anthony) and do a food truck venue with his pal (a vibrant John Leguazamo) in order to rekindle his culinary passions, and spend time with his son. What happens after the 30 minute mark is a blast of vibrant, comedic and culinary life, as cuisine and culture from South Beach, the Big Easy and Austin come flying rapidly; the humor, even faster. You get a blast from watching something that doesn't have to do with giant robots beating the crap out of each other, or even from super heroes swinging, flying, shooting and smashing things every other minute, and you'd wish the film was longer than it's 114 minute run-time. Favreau is at his best, both creatively and performance-wise as an artist getting in touch with his roots. You watch his scenes making Cubanos or just fiddling around in the kitchen and you can feel his passion for what he does. That's movie magic that computer-generated effects can never capture.
*** 1/2 stars out of ****

Ida - The best thing I can say about this art-house drama is that it's beautifully captured in black and white by Polish director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowoski and that the last act of the film, where the titular Ida (a wonderful Agata Trzebuchowska) makes her choice about whether to take her vows and become a Nun is quietly heartbreaking. Past that, Ida is deathly dull to watch. Before taking her vows, Anna must meet her family, which as it turns out, is only her Communist aunt (Agata Kulesza). She also learns that her real name is Ida, and wants to learn what happened to her parents, so the pair set off on a personal journey to discover the truth. That's all I can say, mostly because of spoilers, and partly because this is where I honestly dozed off. It's meant to be a slow burn, but there's no urgency to the pair's journey, and the pacing becomes non-existent because of it. Ida has a run-time of 80 minutes, and yet it felt like I was in there longer. If you have insomnia, Ida is a sure-fire way to put you to sleep.
* 1/2 stars out of  ****


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