Contemporary French cinema excels in character studies, foregrounding the interaction between a few connected characters. In The Midwife two middle-aged women come back together in a reunion of opposites. The midwife of the title is Claire who receives an unwelcome telephone message from Béatrice, her deceased father's lover who just walked out on him one day. 

Recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, Béatrice expresses regrets about her previous behavior and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. Claire responds icily at first but, because of her good nature, gradually thaws. And yet, we see that Béatrice remains the kind of person who uses those around her, indulging her narcissistic predisposition, getting money from Claire, moving in with her, and taking advantage of her kindness.  

A study in dichotomous personalities, they present contrasting physical appearances as well. Béatrice gambles, drinks too much, smokes, and thinks of herself first. By contrast, Claire works hard, supports her patients, her son and his girlfriend, and sacrifices her time. Claire wears conservative, tailored, dull-colored clothes; Béatrice prefers bright colors, busy designs, and loose fitting styles. Claire's hair is pulled back in a ponytail; Béatrice's bleached blond hair is loose and free. 

Director/writer Martin Provost makes this all too deliberately designed to explore the yin and yang of one woman who is dying and the other who brings life into the world -- emphasized through a birth in the opening moments and several births in succeeding scenes. More gratuitous, Claire has a budding relationship with Paul who shares garden space as though this woman can't be happy without romance in her life. 

Nevertheless, The Midwife succeeds, to the extent that it does, because of the talented, legendary French actresses who inhabit these two characters. Catherine Frot as Claire and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice interact and react effortlessly, delivering exchanges with poise. For Claire and for us it does invite reflecting on compassion, forgiveness, and what is most important in our lives. In French with English subtitles, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Writer/director Christopher Nolan has a glorious gift. Unfettered by conventional narrative structure, he hit my radar with his second feature film Memento (2000), a mind-boggling story told backwards with overlapping events. Nolan has followed with the exciting Dark Knight trilogy and the astonishing Inception. But he has saved his most brilliant brainchild for Dunkirk.

Dunkirk doesn't relate the story of the May 1940 evacuation of up to 300,000 Allied troops from this French beach area. It viscerally immerses us in it with an immediacy almost beyond comprehension. With a few lines of introductory titles setting the scene, the rest of the film is experienced with men on land, in the air, and on -- and in -- the sea. With his signature playing with unshackled time frames, titles announce: 1. The Mole, one week (the jetty at the beach); 2. The Sea, one day; and 3. The Air, one hour. Liberally crosscutting among these three settings and times, Lee Smith's editing keeps the action clear and crashing forward with unbridled momentum. 

The only context we get, and it is sufficient, is a flyer that flutters down on the six soldiers walking through the town in the opening. Shot on location, with real Spitfires, battleships, and small boats, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema captures evocative (and often painfully beautiful) compositions: the empty beach as one soldier walks into the waves, lines of soldiers waiting for help who are instead sitting ducks for German planes, men thrashing in the water and trapped in enclosed spaces, a lone Spitfire burning in defiance of the Nazis. My sole complaint is the overuse of Hans Zimmer's music. 

The cast is superb. As Mr. Dawson, captain of one of the small civilian boats, the always exceptional Mark Rylance brings a steely resolve to his part in the rescue. Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton and James D'Arcy as Colonel Winnant speak volumes with reaction shots. Fionn Whitehead as young British soldier Tommy evokes empathy immediately and throughout an array of crises. And Tom Hardy as Farrier, piloting one of the British Spitfires, communicates his determination and decision for self-sacrifice with just his eyes, his face half covered by his radio mask.   

In both standard and IMAX presentations, the latter the most powerful way to experience Dunkirk, at area cinemas.

 

That crazy offshoot of St. Louis Shakespeare, the Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre is at it again with another madcap send up of pop culture and theater. This time, the company, which features Rachel Bailey, Brennan Eller, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, Ben Ritchie, Fox Smith, Ron Strawbridge, Alyssa Ward, Nate Cummings, and Morgan Maul-Smith, takes comic aim at the venerable American Film Institute. 

In a 90-minute show that flies by at breakneck speed, the quip filled parody touches every movie on the institute's "greatest films list," finding surprisingly fresh and increasingly ridiculous humor in scripts and scenes that have become part of our common vernacular. Fittingly, there are also a few straight, almost dramatic moments. Due to subject matter and history, not every film on the list lends itself to parody and the company wisely acknowledges these moments with understated simplicity. But the majority of the show is filled with over-the-top laughs and gleeful excess.

An aspect of this show that I genuinely appreciate is the relative absence of company and theater community in-jokes. While they can add to the sense of poking fun at an industry that often takes itself far too seriously, this particular show, with its lengthy count down, benefits from the restraint. Frankly, there's so much to be mined from the 100 films -- from their titles, to famous and infamous lines of dialogue, to overt themes and not-so-subtle commentary -- there simply isn't a need or room for additional shenanigans. And there are shenanigans aplenty.

The video display counting down the list of titles is also helpful, though the majority of the films are instantly recognizable, and a few don't need much dialogue at all to convey. Shualee Cook, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, and Ben Ritchie crafted the playful script from a concept by Suki Peters, who also provides direction and the bell. The cast keeps things moving at a very fast clip and makes fun of the occasional use of a bell sound when it isn't part of the countdown. There are also more than a few winks and nods to the audience, as well as a couple spectacularly explosive moments (consider yourself warned, audience members in the first few rows).

The costumes and props are cheap and obviously handmade, but even this is an important part of the company's approach. The script cleverly weaves its way from one familiar quotation to the next "I remember that" scene without losing momentum or focus, a task that's decidedly more difficult than it appears on stage. At first glance, particularly if you're a movie fan, it honestly feels natural to think, "Oh, I know all these movies, I could totally do this," but familiarity is often a trap. The company succeeds by ensuring the focus is on the material and the laughs, and the laughs are plentiful. There are also a number of spot on impressions strewn throughout the evening, a telling reinforcement of the talents and abilities on stage. 

As usual, the company doesn't take itself too seriously. While a few movies do receive a more serious interpretation, it's quite clear the company has no sacred cows and the cast is willing to exhaust themselves each performance to ensure the audience is in on the joke. For sheer fun that pays its own twisted homage to our favorite movies, Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre's AFI's Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time: A Parody!, running though July 15, 2017, is a real summer blockbuster.

 

Two men openly said horrible things about each other during a historical period known ominously as The Troubles. The enemy leaders are forced to journey together in 2006 during the Northern Ireland Peace Accords. Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness and Democratic Party pastor, Ian Paisley, are chauffeured to the meeting.

Writer Colin Bateman imagines what transpired between the two, even in a funny scene in the men's can of a gas station. The result may not be history, verifiable and true, but it is drama, rich and rewarding.

The journey is not long, but it is bumpy, and it presages a change in Irish history. As the narrator/bureaucrat Harry Patterson says, "The hand of history is 'round my throat." He is wired to the chauffeur and awaits progress reports on the old boys' networking.

The Rev. Paisley is also on his way to his 50th wedding anniversary party, and that event provides an entree for the more flippant MacGinnis to wind up the old, coughing Presbyterian. The chauffeur, a complex character played well by Freddie Highmore of "Bates Motel," gets the two men to talk sports, part of the sport of diplomacy until the pronoun becomes "we."

Paisley, as interpreted so well by Timothy Spall, speaks as if cement were concreting in his mouth. Colm Meany plays the elfish MacGinnis.

Nick Hamm directed The Journey with an eye on art as well as history. He has the witnesses to this history, including John Hurt as Patterson and Catherine McCormack as Kate Elgar, act like a Greek chorus of commentators. Hamm includes the sound of an Irish drum, percussive and foreboding. The Journey offers moments of humor and waltzes of grace and anger in a film of an imagined journey.

 

Eating disorders — specifically, anorexia and bulimia nervosa — affect an estimated eight million Americans, approximately three percent of our population. In To the Bone writer/director Marti Coxon brings these statistics to vivid life. Based on her own struggle with anorexia and bulimia, she exposes the personal sense of shame and the isolation sought by those with this mental illness. 

Through the lives of six young women and one young man, the film shows that eating problems are not simplistic and that glib psychobabble doesn't address underlying triggers. Focusing primarily on twenty-year-old Ellen, the script burrows into her drive for perfection, her inability to confront fears, and her resistance to change. Though Ellen's sister is a source of comfort, Ellen has a complicated family situation with an absent father, a mother not prepared to be one when she had Ellen and who has now come out as a lesbian, and her lover who isn't particularly sympathetic. Coping with all this, Ellen has done the revolving circle of rehab centers and ends up in an unconventional home that jolts her, offering some semblance of hope, if she can come back after hitting rock bottom. 

Unlike some issue-driven dramas, To the Bone is honest, insightful and direct in its exploration with a wonderful script by Coxon, previously show-runner for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, the plot veers into romance and gets derailed as Ellen attracts the attention of Luke (Alex Sharp), a dancer with a career-ending injury. Their interaction offers some revelations, but more helpful would be probing the difficulties living with a stepmother (Carrie Preston) who complains and blames amidst all this.

Nicely shot with a lived-in, naturalistic feel by Rich Wong in a quick twenty-three days, the film showcases Lily Collins as Ellen who listens attentively to those around her, tuned in but cautious and protective. The always wonderful Lili Taylor plays Ellen's mother and Keanu Reeves portrays Dr. Beckham who models honesty with no excuses. Coxon says her goal was "to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions." To the Bone certainly should do that and is streaming exclusively on Netflix. 

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