‘Stars at Noon’
“Stars at Noon” is a dreamy reimagining of the international spy thriller, borne aloft on a cloud of tropical atmosphere and enigmatic romance. The characters are slippery, hard to pin down, and for a while it’s difficult to figure out what they’re up to. The setting is Managua, Nicaragua, where a young American woman named Trish (Margaret Qualley) has been trapped for much longer than she ever anticipated. Trish claims to be an investigative journalist, but ever since the oppressive Ortega government confiscated her passport (presumably for being an investigative annoyance), she’s been making ends meet as a prostitute, picking up men in tourist bars and servicing them for $50 a go.
During a Zoom call with a stateside magazine editor (John C. Reilly in a flavorful cameo), we learn that Trish is in fact a freelance journalist and that her specialty is politics — a touchy subject in a country in which armed soldiers exude menace in every street and byway. The editor is bluntly uninterested in political coverage — he’s in the market for travel features — so Trish moves on. In a hotel bar she approaches a handsome blond Englishman in a white suit who calls himself Daniel (Joe Alwyn) and claims to be in the oil trade. After a sex session in Daniel’s hotel room, she discovers a gun in one of his bags and begins to wonder. The next day, she sees him talking to a man she knows to be some sort of cop from neighboring Costa Rica. So, who is this guy? The story’s final complication drops into place with the arrival of a faux-jovial CIA man (Benny Safdie), who tells Trish he can solve her passport problem. For a distasteful price.
The movie evolves into a study of loyalty and betrayal — and of the easy chemistry between Qualley, who projects live-wire energy in every glance, and Alwyn, a natural leading man of the old school. The movie’s celebrated French director, Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”), shooting mostly on location in Panama, mixes dusty streets, scruffy motel rooms and sudden, drenching bursts of rain to create a world that may be new to us, but feels immediately real. And at one memorable point, she steps away from the story’s gradually mounting tension to focus briefly on Trish and Daniel as they tenderly slow-dance in an abandoned ballroom to the melancholy strains of the movie’s title song. (The picture has been beautifully scored by the director’s go-to musical unit, the English band Tindersticks.)
Stars at Noon may be a slow burn, as is sometimes said of movies that are in no forced rush to get where they’re going. But it ultimately does get there, and its sultry mood lingers.
‘Ticket to Paradise’
George Clooney and Julia Roberts beam out rays of Hollywood royalty as they stroll through “Ticket to Paradise,” a movie that strives to be a classic, bubbly romcom, but falls surprisingly short. It’s the seventh film the two actors have featured in together over the last 20 years (including three of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” pictures), and their easy rapport is the movie’s central pleasure. Unfortunately, their magnetism is wasted on a story that is starved of sparkle and sometimes drifts into simple mindlessness.
The stars play David and Georgia Cotton, a long-divorced couple who have reluctantly reunited (he’s a Chicago lawyer, she an LA art-gallery owner) to fly to Bali to attend the wedding of their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), who’s been celebrating her recent law-school graduation on the faraway Indonesian isle. In the first of the movie’s several clanking improbabilities, we get the backstory of Lily’s Balian romance, showing us how she fell instantly in love ( really instantly, in about 10 seconds) with a handsome local lad named Gede (Maxime Bouttier). Now, not much later, she’s decided to junk her expensively acquired law degree and marry a Hindu seaweed farmer. (Later, when David exhibits doubt about Gede’s occupation, his future son-in-law explains that there’s actually a worldwide market for seaweed, and that he recently signed a supply deal with Whole Foods. In accord with romcom tradition, David’s reservations are allayed.)
There was a time, back in Hollywood’s dark old days, when a movie like this might try to mine chuckles from the exotic behavior of non-Western characters. Those days are pretty much gone now (could a picture like the 2008 “Tropic Thunder” be made today?), so in dealing with Gede’s smiley, sprawling family, “Ticket to Paradise” restricts itself to showing us how guilelessly virtuous they are. This gets boring very quickly.
Clooney and Roberts each get a few moments to do the things they do well — the things their fans probably expect to see. When Georgia surprises David by speaking a few native Balinese words she’s gone to the trouble of learning, and David grumps that she’s only doing it to make him look bad, Georgia smoothly tops him: “You don’t need my help there.”
The movie’s English director and cowriter, Ol Parker, who previously helmed the island-based “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” has a facility for the sort of surf-and-sand activity we see here. He goes wrong, however, with a scene set in a hotel bar in which David discusses the vagaries of love with Lily’s school friend Wren (Billie Lourd), which has the off-putting overtone of an older man hitting on a much younger woman. Did Parker really not feel this?
The picture saves its worst moment for last — a final scene so witless that you may rue having sat through all that preceded it. If in fact you have.