Lots of choice among the new releases this week. Big and small. But notice this extra possibility: EVER DEADLY, the stunning documentary about Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq is now streaming for free at the National Film Board website (https://www.nfb.ca/film/ever-deadly/) The film intercuts her performing in concert with scenes of her life up north. I gave it four stars when I reviewed it.
Today's films rate this way:
Asteroid City: 3 ½ stars
Blue Jean: 4
Subtraction: 4
Extraction II: 3
Music for Black Pigeons: 3 ½
No Hard Feelings: 2 ½

ASTEROID CITY: I'm a big fan of Wes Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr. Fox being among his best. His delight in absurd humor, stylized performances and colorful visuals works for me and he's got me again, though, also again, it's as much of a puzzle to decode what he's saying. There are stories within stories, three in this case, and you have to pay attention to keep track of them. Story one is a black and white TV presensation set in the 1950s, narrated by Bryan Cranston about a playwright (Edward Norton) creating. Story two is the play he's working on, set in a desert town where a stargazer's convention is taking place in a large meteor crater.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Story three is about the actors themselves or the characters they're playing.

Jason Schwartzman arrives with three children (one up for an award at the convention). Tom Hanks plays his father in law. Scarlett Johansson is a movie star, also with a very bright child. Tilda Swinton is the head scientist and Steve Carell manages the local hotel. There's also a singing cowboy, a religious teacher, Adrien Brody as a movie director and when a flying saucer appears and Jeff Goldblum shows up as an alien, the military takes charge by quarantining the town to shut down news of that occurance. What does it all add up to? It's fun to work that out. Story telling itself is a big Anderson theme. Two characters have grief they're trying to overcome and connections forming or halting between diverse characters is a concern. Very amusing, whatever it means. (in theaters) 3 ½ out of 5

BLUE JEAN: This is perfect for pride month. It's from England and joins the growing number of films about LGBT issues with a sharply observed drama. Particularly about whether to come out or not. It's set in the 1980s and the question may not be as pressing these days, but I assume it's still there for many. In this film it's there for a high school physical education teacher because her job would be in danger. Radio news reports in the background go on with politicians pontificating about gays and lesbians as a threat to society. That's as Margaret Thatcher's government is in the process of passing a law to outlaw promotion of homosexuality.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Jean, played by Rosy McEwen, has to hide that she's gay. She hits the lesbian bars and dances with the crowd but at work definitely leads a double life. The film brings around several events that threaten to expose her. But the tension really builds when a new student (Lucy Halliday) arrives, attracts Jean and spurs jealousy in her girlfriend (Kerrie Hayes). A misinterprited incident brings it all to a head. Jean can diffuse it, if she does the right thing. It's a strong, truthful story, a potent debut by writer-director Georgia Oakley that won big awards for her and her stars McEwen and Hayes at the British Independent Spirit Awards. (Arthouse theaters in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) 4 out of 5


SUBTRACTION: This movie from Iran is not much like the deeply humanistic films we've been getting from there. It's a thriller with a twisty narrative that's more like an Alfred Hitchcock creation. The director, Mani Haghighi, says it's his reflection on what it's like to live in Tehran, where people encounter completely unreasonable events but are expected to pretend they're normal. Yes, that sounds Hitchcockian.

Courtesy of Films We Like

Two of Iran's biggest stars, Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh, play the leads, husband and wife. She's a driving instructor and one day sees him go to another woman's apartment. He denies it was him and says he was nowhere near there. He goes to investigate though and finds a woman and a man who look exactly like he and his wife. Doppelgangers. A doctor pontificates on hallucinations but this is something else. For the rest of the film the two couples meet, interact and try to figure out what's happening to them. We're kept guessing all the way to the end. The film is highly engrossing. Remarkably, the two actors play their characters with enough very subtle differences that we can tell them apart. Trivia: the director lived in Ontario for a time and was educated there. (Arthouse theaters in Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Hamilton and Waterloo, now, and Ottawa next week) 4 out of 5


EXTRACTION II: This one has been #1 on Netflix since it debuted last week and it's a sequel to an equally successful first film so I had to check it out. Wow. This is the action film of the summer. Even Tom Cruise will find it hard to top. Too bad it isn't on the big screens. The action, a lot of it very or quite violent, doesn't stop, notably in one 21-minute sequence that was filmed non-stop. No edits. It took months to rehearse. I've watched it three times and can only see two spots that might hide edits. Might.

Courtesy of Netflix

Chris Hemsworth plays a soldier of fortune, agent maybe, with the unlikely name of Tyler Rake. In the first film he was sent to rescue the son of a drug lord in Bangladesh. He almost died at the end. This time, after taking time to recover he is assigned (by Idris Elba) to get to Georgia, not the US, the former Russian satellite. He's to spring a woman and two children out of a prison where her husband, a drug dealer again, has had her locked up. That's where the 21 minutes play out, as he and a couple of associates get inside, fight off guards, battle through a prison riot, escape in vehicles that get pursued by a convoy of SUV's, get on a moving train where more guys come after them and two helicopters fly around shooting at them. It's preposterous, but thrilling. And there's more. The story makes sense. The film is directed by a former stuntman (Sam Hargrave) and Hemsworth recently said there'll be another. He didn't need to. This film says it itself, almost directly, at the end. (Netflix) 3 out of 5


MUSIC FOR BLACK PIGEONS: The title is quirky. You'll find out near the end what it means. Before that you'll meet a number of modern jazz musicians and and hear them muse about what music means to them, how they feel when they're playing it and with at least one of them how they get lost in it. One says it's “a search for meaning in life”. He gets “a small taste of what it's all about”. Others, like Jazz greats Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, aren't that deep although Midori Takade does refer to a “universal consciousness.”

Courtesy of Level Film

They were all seen over a period of 14 years by two Danish filmmakers, Jørgen Leth and Andreas Koefoed, during and around studio sessions in Denmark. They were recording the music of Danish composer Jakob Bro, most of which, judging by the generous portions we hear, is relaxed and mellow. It gives them time to ponder what it means. Guitar player Bill Frisell is affable. Lee Konitz is funny, though cantankerous too, as in an argument with a New York can driver. He and three others have since then died. Jazz fans will enjoy recalling them. One says he doesn't practice. It hampers improvisation. They all get across their total devotion to music. (Arthouse theaters) 3½ out of 5


NO HARD FEELINGS: Well, look at this. Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence in a raunchy Y/A comedy and even does a scene fully naked. But then she is one of the producers and may have thought that would give this a boost. It didn't merit it. It's just a shallow summer comedy notable mostly for how everybody plays it as if it is deep in meaning. It's not.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Jennifer plays Maddie who takes a job to teach a young man who is about to go off to Princeton University how to mix and mingle. His parents (Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick) don't want him to still be a virgin when he gets there. Maddie has to "date" him. You know: "date?" The film is full of double entendres and inappropriate behaviour, as when the kid arrives at a swinging party in a suit and shorts. The scenes are manufactured without effort though Maddie's motivation is filled out. She'll get a car for her efforts. She needs it because she's an Uber driver and her's has been towed away for failure to pay the taxes on the house she inherited from her mother.
She and the kid (Andrew Barth Feldman) develop a good rapport but will he learn the courage to stand up to his helicopter parents? The film's occasional swipes against that style of parenting and against the rich people who've taken over Staten Island, New York where the film is set provide some sly fun. Most everything else is pretty ordinary. (In theaters) 2½ out of 5