Monday, July 25, 2016

This week's DVD releases


Barbershop: The Next Cut **½


Arriving 14 years after the original Barbershop, and 12 after Barbershop 2: Back in Business, Barbershop: The Next Cut is saddled with the task of taking a familiar property and bringing it up to date. In the hands of writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, and director Malcom D. Lee, the strategy is to get political, with the issue of shootings and gang violence in Chicago as the galvanizing force around which the barbershop rallies. Leaving aside the humorous cultural escapism of the early aughts, The Next Cut faces the racial and political issues of 2016 head on.

Ice Cube returns as Calvin, a successful small business owner, married, with a teen son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), just trying to keep the wild bunch at the barbershop in check. With the exception of Terri (Eve) and Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), it's a whole new crew in the shop, including Calvin's best friend Rashad (Common), nerdy cute Jerrod (Lamorne Morris), "Bollyhood" barber Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar), as well as entrepreneurial One Stop (J.B. Smoove) and uncensored Dante (Deon Cole).

On the other side of the shop is a ladies salon, managed by Angie (Regina Hall), featuring outlandishly dressed flirt Draya (Nicki Minaj), and the soulfully conscious Bree (Margot Bingham). The girls vs. boys layout allows for heated debates and banter covering everything from gender to presidential politics.

The barbershop in this film is a hub of the community where issues of all types are hashed out. Right away, that issue becomes gang violence and shootings in their community. Calvin's concerned about his son, and considers moving the business to the North Side. But with the threat of an ominous "enclosure" to stem the violence, soon to be voted on by city council, and an increase in tensions, the crew decides to take it upon themselves to promote a 48-hour cease-fire, with free haircuts for the duration, hoping to inspire peace talks and community bonding.

There's a lot of rhetoric about "taking care of your own business," saving your own community and placing the power on the individual to affect change. The neo-liberal ideas are espoused most vehemently by Raja, the son of Indian immigrants who chased the American Dream — though the lively debaters in the shop are quick to point out that the playing field isn't level for African-Americans.

Less successful is the subplot about infidelity suspicions between Terry, Rashad and Draya. The quickly escalating drama and cheesy reconciliations aren't as interesting as the spirited discussions about relationships on the floor of the shop, and feel shoehorned in to give Eve and Common something to do. The relationship that feels the most fresh, funny and contemporary is between dorky Jerrod and enlightened Bree. Lamorne Morris as Jerrod is the low-key MVP of the film, a comedic standout.

The cease-fire seems strangely ineffective, a short term solution that doesn't effect real change. But Barbershop: The Next Cut stays on message about community pride, family values and personal responsibility. It's a wholesomely entertaining film, though some of the political discourse is a bit fast and loose with neo-liberal notions of individualism and respectability politics (Ice Cube, of all people, admonishes his son about baggy pants), and wants to be simultaneously both pro- and anti-government. It's a mixed message, but that perfectly encapsulates the confusion of 2016 American politics.


The Boss *½

 
Melissa McCarthy is funny. Just by existing — the way she carries herself, spastic with energy, swearing with vim — she can elicit a chuckle, even when the material doesn’t live up to her talent.

And does this material ever not live up to her talent. The Boss, written and directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and creative collaborator, has crafted for the comedian a high-concept character rich with comedic possibility and riotous social commentary and given her absolutely nothing to do. The script occasionally lets her off the leash for bursts of fun chaos, but the sum total is a controlled studio pic with little to recommend it beyond audience fealty to McCarthy and the fervent desire to see her talents put to better use.

McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, the 47th wealthiest woman in America and a self-styled financial and lifestyle guru with a short, shellacked, blazing red Suze Orman coiffure. All ego and brass, Michelle packs arenas with working women eager to worship their hero and her venal, take-no-prisoners, get-rich program. It’s as if the aforementioned Orman mind-melded with Martha Stewart and burned away all traces of kindness and empathy. (Not that she doesn't have reason to be so distrusting; an opening montage shows the difficult girl being returned to her Catholic orphanage by exasperated foster parents.)

Her empire crumbles when she’s sent to federal prison on insider trading charges — an arrest orchestrated by her one-time lover, lifelong nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage). Her mercenary ways have left her short on friends, and with her assets liquidated and nowhere else to go, she turns up on the doorstep of her long-suffering ex-assistant and single mother Claire (Kristen Bell).

In the throes of couch-surfing depression, inspiration strikes when Michelle takes Claire’s young daughter to her Dandelions meeting, where the Girl Scout-like troupe celebrates their cookie-sales numbers. Michelle wants in on the racket and devises Darnell’s Darlings, a leaner, meaner operation with salesgirls dressed like militant communist youth peddling Claire’s homemade brownies, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to a college fund to empower the girls to grow up educated, successful women. It’s an inspired bid for image rehab, and one that seems to be working until someone says the dreaded F-word: Family.

And that is this movie’s biggest failing. Michelle Darnell is high-concept, irreverent and R-rated while the PG world she inhabits is predictable and feel-good, armed with life lessons about building relationships and sticking together.

Every other character in the film is a misfire. Claire is such a cipher that not even Bell’s bubbly charisma can imbue her with any weight or purpose. Kathy Bates is cast as Michelle’s estranged mentor and given a single, brief scene with no gags. And who knows what fever dream gave birth to Dinklage’s Renault, a wannabe samurai with dumb hair, a katana collection and an assistant who hand-feeds him milk while he plots taking over the brownie business; it’s as if they threw a handful of weird quirks in a blender and called the resulting sludge a character.

There are brief bursts of hilarity, and they are all, without exception, owed to McCarthy’s innate charisma and comedic timing. The Boss does McCarthy such disservice that a crass physical gag of a hide-a-bed hurling her into a wall starts to feel like a metaphor.


Hardcore Henry **

 
Hardcore Henry has to be the most video-game-like movie yet made, taking the concept of a first-person shooter to the extreme. It’s akin to the famous FPS sequence in previous video game feature Doom, but for a whole movie, and with way more imagination and energy and gonzo bloodshed (including one of the most violent credits sequences ever).

It’s shot in first-person perspective, largely through a fish-eye GoPro, to put the viewer in the protagonist’s skin. It’s an innovative storytelling step down the path to virtual reality. But is it more drama or Dramamine? The answer is yes.

Hardcore drops you into the body of amnesiac Henry, late of some super-soldier program that luckily makes him able to withstand all manner of mayhem. There are lots of fistfights and shootouts and copious Sharlto Copleys (the actor tests his versatility in a number of guises) and a bunch of the inexplicable things that happen in video games, which you shrug at and keep firing your weapon.

The plot has something to do with Henry’s wife being kidnapped by a bad guy with unexplained powers and Henry regaining his memory. Nothing new in the story, but the experience is full of entertainingly grisly moments.

As in John Wick, the stunt team earns its hazard pay. The filmmakers don’t run out of amusing ways to destroy a human body. First-time feature director Ilya Naishuller relishes his R-rated fun.

However, the jittery camera work makes The Blair Witch Project look like something out of Kubrick. This is a real concern, as I, for one, fought some pretty sharp motion sickness while watching.

If one can accept the story’s video-game logic and cope with the kinetosis, Hardcore is often exhilaratingly extreme.


Sing Street ***

 
If you were not a chronicler of music in the 1980s, John Carney’s Sing Street is likely to beguile you with the sweet, universal energy of youth. By the same token, if you were one of the select few in that profession during that much-maligned decade, the movie might make you feel old and a little cranky. Don’t get me wrong. As a 21st-century moviegoer, I was touched by this pop fable. But as a grizzled survivor of the age of Duran Duran, I found myself picking nits about its musical choices (most of which are three or four years out of sync with the plot) and occasionally resisting its winsome, cheeky, post-punk spirit.

That’s my problem, and it’s a problem less with the film — an autobiographical tribute to Dublin, hair gel and the power of lip-syncing — than with the passage of time and the tiny schisms that open up within a single profession’s experience. The narcissism of small differences, you might say. Envy and regret, you might say.

In any case, the charms of Sing Street should not be underestimated. Partly because its manner is unassuming and its story none too original — a young man’s coming-of-age amid the chaos of home, the rigidity of school and the riot of stirring hormones and budding ambition — it’s easy to overlook Carney’s ingenuity and sensitivity. A songwriter himself, he specializes in movies about striving tunesmiths who fuse dreams of glory with the drive for love, connection and authenticity.

In Once, his overachieving breakthrough feature and Begin Again, its overreaching follow-up, the musical idiom was sincere and acoustic. Sing Street, in contrast, embraces the high artifice and self-conscious irony of early and mid-80s mostly British pop, a music replete with cheesy keyboard effects, cotton-candy harmonies and pouty posing. Its hero is not a striving professional, but rather an ardent amateur, a 15-year-old boy who decides to start a band because he wants to impress a girl.

His name is Cosmo, and he’s played with a perfect blend of diffidence, confidence and sly charisma by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Cosmo lives with his brother and sister and their bickering parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) whose financial worries force Cosmo to change schools. He lands in an institution run by the Christian Brothers. The school, on Synge Street — an address that lends its name to both the film and Cosmo’s band — is a rougher scene than he’s used to. The bully takes a special interest in him, and so does the autocratic, creepy headmaster.

Cosmo, meanwhile, is smitten with Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a slightly older girl who lives in a nearby group home. She wants to run off to London to become a model, and he offers her a starring role in a music video. This promise leads to a scramble: The young swain needs songs, and also musicians, musical instruments, a video camera, and costumes.

All of that appears, if not quite by magic then by the kind of grace that operates in movies like this one. A pipsqueak sidekick becomes Sing Street’s manager and helps Cosmo recruit a songwriting partner with a houseful of equipment. Before long, a quintet takes shape and the tunes — written by Carney, with an uncanny ear for the styles of the era — start to flow.

Cosmo is tutored in music by his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor, looking like an Irish Seth Rogen), a college dropout with an extensive LP collection and a surfeit of rock ’n’ roll wisdom. The band cycles through a range of available influences — the Jam, the Cure, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates — and Cosmo’s style of dress changes accordingly. The costume design, by Tiziana Corvisieri, is generally flawless. All those puffy sleeves and acid-washed denim.

The sound mix may be a little too polished for a schoolboy combo cutting demos on a push-button cassette recorder, but Sing Street’s videos and songs feel like the plausible products of a precocious sensibility. For its part Sing Street is generally up-tempo and sentimental, but its nostalgia is rarely cloying and its plot doesn’t feel overly contrived. There is an undercurrent of darkness and frustration rippling under the bright optimism. Around the edges of the story is a penumbra of real trouble: alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse, stalled careers and broken marriages.

Such trouble inspires Cosmo’s fantasy of escape, and also grounds the escapism of Sing Street itself in a recognizable reality. The movie understands how enchantment and disappointment go together, like the A and B sides of a single that won’t leave the turntable.


Other DVD Releases This Week
Born To Be Blue **½ This is a curious mixture of fact and fiction, cliche and originality, style and emotion — it never truly soars but by throwing the ingredients of jazz great Chet Baker’s life together and producing something different, it’s never less than intriguing.

Criminal * Struggling to generate much tension, the film opts for sensory battery in the action scenes, rendering gunshots as loud as cannon fire and splashing blood every which way.

L’Atessa (The Wait) ** What this movie needs is more: more story, more character, and more reason to grieve with the women in it. Because what these women have to grieve is worthy of time and attention, yet these qualities are frustratingly absent from this film.

Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked ** As ever, the paradox of Verhoeven’s style is that it seems to wallow in tastelessness and transgression even as he remains one of the most classical movie craftsmen.

The Russian Woodpecker *** This documentary is provocative, spooky and just a little nutty.

A Strange Course of Events ½* A film about ordinary people doing nothing is a tricky thing, quickly numbing the viewer to sleep unless the screenplay is electrifying and the actors greatly appealing. Unfortunately, neither of these is true in this film, which is anything but strange and eventful.


RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

My doubts about Hillary’s decision making ability


I am not a fan of a Hillary Clinton. I am not a fan of the entire Clinton Clan. One of my problems is that every time I read the word "Clinton" I also read the word "scandal," if not in the same sentence, at least in the same paragraph. But it’s also philosophical. I am an unabashed and not ashamed to admit it independent liberal progressive and the Clintons have always been and will continue to be far too conservative for my political leanings. I have heard all those who claim she has shifted more to the left, but, frankly, I don’t trust her. I simply don’t believe her. She’s the type of politician who’s all too pervasive on the scene these days — she’ll say anything she feels she needs to in order to garner votes. Not only that, her selection of Virginia senator Tim Kaine proves just the opposite — now that the nomination is secured, she’s moving back toward the center-right where she’s always felt the most comfortable.

But recently my feelings about Hillary have only darkened. I found FBI director James Comey’s analysis of Clinton’s handling of classified information to be devastating. Hillary’s supporters will scream "The FBI found no reason to file charges against her," but I want to hold aspiring Presidents of the United States to a higher standard than "at least no charges were filed against her."

But now I’m beginning to view Clinton as the Richard Nixon of the Democratic Party. The revelations of how the Democratic National Committee worked to sabotage the candidacy of Bernie Sanders reminds me of what we learned about the dirty tricks Republicans in CREEP employed in 1972 to guarantee Nixon’s re-election. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the 2016 reincarnation of Donald Segretti.

On top of that, Clinton chose to fight the wrong battle when all of these shenanigans were revealed. Instead of highlighting the likelihood that Russian President Vladmir Putin conspired with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to hack the DNC’s e-mail system in return for Trump’s declaration he would not necessarily challenge Putin for any actions Russia might direct against NATO countries in Europe, Clinton immediately announced how much she respects Wasserman Schultz. Now we’ve also learned that Clinton has hired this dirty trickster to be the "honorary chair" in the effort to elect Democrats nationwide and that she also will continue to be Clinton’s primary spokesperson and surrogate in Florida.

If this is an example of Hillary’s decision-making ability, I’m really afraid of what she might do as president. It makes me more committed than ever to support the Green Party candidacy of Liz Stein.

Monday, July 18, 2016

This Week's DVD Releases


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½



Were you one of those lucky viewers who were watching TV, in 1987, when The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones aired? Did it give you a craving for crossovers so ravenous that not even Alien vs. Predator (2004) could sate it? Well, your time has come. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is out on DVD. You could argue that the Avengers movies beat it to the punch; to the purist, however, those are not so much authentic crossovers as kindly support groups, where people with a wide range of personality disorders can meet under the Marvel banner and exchange thumps. Batman and Superman, on the other hand, are ideally matched: numbly heroic, bulging in all the right places, and bent on busting crime in the permanent hope that nobody will notice how dull they are. Unless you count the time when they went to the same dry cleaner to get soup stains out of their capes, they have never been introduced. Until now.

Superman is played, as in Man of Steel (2013), by Henry Cavill, whereas Ben Affleck is a novice in the part of Batman. A curious choice, especially in the light of Hollywoodland (2006), where he excelled in the role of George Reeves, who starred as Superman on TV in the early 1950s, loathed the experience, and died of a gunshot to the head. It was hardly a movie to brighten one’s faith in comic books. Since then, Affleck has become a director of steady and satisfying thrillers, including The Town and Argo, so why risk this backward step into the realm of beefcake? Maybe he relished the gleam of the supporting cast — Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Costner, with Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jesse Eisenberg as a jittery Lex Luthor, and Jeremy Irons taking over from Michael Caine as Alfred, the venerable butler-cum-weapons designer to Bruce Wayne.

It’s quite a lineup, and not one of them goes unwasted. All are sacrificed to the plot — the usual farrago of childhood trauma, lumps of kryptonite, and panic in the streets — or, rather, to the very loud noises that the plot creates. The director is Zack Snyder, who was responsible for 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), Man of Steel, and other Chekhovian chamber pieces, and whom I suspect of having worked for NutriBullet before he joined the movie business. When in doubt, he simply slings another ingredient into the mix, be it an irradiated monster, an explosion on government premises, or the sharp smack of masonry on skull. Then, there’s the music. Hans Zimmer, seldom the most placid of composers, is joined on this occasion by Junkie XL, and we should give thanks for their combined efforts, which render large portions of the dialogue, by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, blessedly inaudible. The drawling Irons does, now and then, signal his fatigue at the whole enterprise ("Even you’ve got too old to die young," Alfred says to his master), and there is one other good line, but it’s stolen from Cole Porter, so that doesn’t count.

When fans flock to the video store for this movie, it will be not for Batman or Superman alone but for the sake of the preposition in the title. To be blunt: how big is that "v"? You can’t accuse Snyder of tamping it down; his chief promoter is Luthor, who calls it "the greatest gladiatorial contest in the history of the world," and suggests a number of suitable tags — blue vs. black, dark vs. light, Coke vs. Pepsi, and so on. In the event, the bout is like any other slugfest, with Batman warned by the referee for using nasty green krypto-gas in the fourth round, and his opponent hitting back strongly in the ninth. The winner, on points, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who crashes the party and leaves them both dumbfounded, not least because she has the wit, and the wherewithal, to confront evil while wearing a conical bustier. And that is that, except that the film, determined to hit the two-and-a-half-hour mark, has fifteen more minutes to fill. These are jammed with peekaboo teasers for sequels, since DC comics, like Marvel, require that movies do their own marketing. The Dawn of Justice may be over, but the lunchtime of justice is still to come, and after that the cocktail hour of revenge. I can’t wait.


Elvis & Nixon **
If you want to know about the tone of Elvis & Nixon, if you want to have an idea of its comedy, just look at the casting of Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. Here’s an actor more suited to playing Lurch on The Addams Family than the King. He’s tall and menacing. He has a cold stare. He’s not charming, but alarming, all of which makes him ideal for this movie, which is more like an absurdist lampoon than a straight account.

In real life, when Elvis told President Richard Nixon that he wanted to become an undercover agent, he probably just seemed silly. When Shannon says it, he seems downright insane, and were it not for the historical record, we might fear for Nixon’s safety, especially the fairly sympathetic Nixon we find here, played by Kevin Spacey. This Nixon is practically being held hostage by a lunatic, and the situation is definitely rich enough for a terrific sketch on Saturday Night Live. But for an 86-minute feature film, it’s a stretch.

Written by Joey and Hanala Sagal, as well as the actor Cary Elwes (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), Elvis & Nixon is based on the real-life meeting of two titans at the summit of power, each destined for a dramatic fall. In December 1970, Elvis showed up at the White House, unexpectedly, with a letter for President Nixon and a request for a meeting. Alarmed at the direction of a youth culture that was growing away from him, Elvis wanted to work as an "agent at large" for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Freud might theorize that Elvis felt angry at the decline of his cultural relevancy, and so he acted on an unconscious impulse to arrest and punish people for no longer being his fans. Moreover, he wanted to attribute their disaffection not to movies like Clambake, but to the influence of narcotics. That he fantasized about working undercover speaks to the extent to which he felt outside of things.

In any case, the Nixon administration — colossally out of touch — thought that a photo of the president with Elvis might speak to America’s youth. (This is, by the way, just seven months after the shootings at Kent State.) And so they granted the meeting.

But in the film, nothing happens right away. Basically, anything worth watching in Elvis & Nixon either involves Elvis, or Nixon, or both of them. But there isn’t enough material for a whole movie, so everything must be stretched. When stretching isn’t enough, the movie must find another source for drama outside of Elvis and Nixon. And so it finds one in the dilemma of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a former member of Elvis’ inner circle, who is recruited by Elvis to accompany him to Washington.

Jerry is torn. He feels affection for Elvis, and he is drawn to the Elvis way of life. But he has a fiancee, and on the day the movie takes place, he is expected back in Los Angeles at night for an important dinner with the girlfriend’s parents. He’s going to ask if he could marry her.

You see the problem, don’t you? Jerry’s dilemma is very small, and even worse, in a movie about Elvis and Nixon, he’s not Elvis or Nixon. There’s something else, too. Jerry’s loyalty for Elvis was predicated on Elvis’ actually being recognizably human, as he certainly was in real life. But Shannon’s Elvis is a farcical figure, an intentionally comic creation, ideal for the scenes with Nixon, but not someone to inspire devotion in an underling. In this way, the two strains of the movie — the Schilling strain and the White House meeting — are in conflict.

What we’re left with is a film that has some good comic moments, but also dull stretches in which viewers may find themselves checking out or unexpectedly fighting fatigue. Shannon is worth seeing, and so is Spacey — hunched over, doing a funny impression of Nixon’s voice and body language. But this time the actors are better than the material.
 

Miles Ahead **½
Because improvisation is the heart of jazz, a few new biopics of storied trumpeters are seeing fit to mess with the facts. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a problem: With this music, it’s not what you play but how you play it. As told in the current Born to be Blue, the Chet Baker story more or less remains within the realm of nonfiction, but Miles Ahead, a passion project of its director, co-writer, and star Don Cheadle, is plumb made up. And it dares you to object.

Again, not necessarily a problem, since Cheadle is never not worth watching and doubly so as late-period Miles, a force of barely banked murder beneath an electric shock of hair and industrial-strength shades. It’s the late 1970s and the great man hasn’t released any music in half a decade. Is he burnt out? Doped up? Has he lost his lip, his nerve, his mind? The suits at Columbia records are getting antsy and a reporter for Rolling Stone is at the door.

The reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), is a British-born bottom-feeder who needs a scoop and realizes he may have one if he can separate Davis from a reel of tape containing the jazz icon’s first recording session in years. That reel becomes the movie’s talisman, the thing everyone wants to get their hands on, and Miles Ahead crisscrosses a few days in New York — plus a few decades of flashbacks in Davis’s mind — as he fends off what seems like a city of hustlers. The way Cheadle tells it, Davis was the king of that city because he figured out how to hustle art.

It’s a phantasmagoric, impressionistic version of a legendary life, and sober-sided jazz historians will probably hate it. About the only real-life musician name-checked besides Davis is Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover), who orchestrated the great run of late-’50s albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. There’s a pianist who looks sort of like Bill Evans and someone else who might be Herbie Hancock, but that’s not the point. Very little penetrated Davis’s fierce protective shell, and Cheadle seems to want to look at the life from the inside out.

He gives a great performance. The actor rasps his dialogue from what feels like the bottom of an ashtray, and a sequence in which Davis stalks into the Columbia executive suite with a pistol and a grudge is a choice piece of grandstanding. It almost doesn’t matter that it never happened; the movie convinces you it should have. The modern-day scenes have a pungent, day-glo urgency — they’re coked up — while the flashbacks are cool and craftsmanlike, as controlled as any of the cuts on Davis’s timeless 1959 album Kind of Blue.

The story in those earlier scenes is that Miles wooed and won the love of his life, the ballet dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi, centered and graceful), then let his need for control overwhelm the marriage; this is a familiar and ugly picture, and Miles Ahead doesn’t shy from it. But neither does Cheadle connect it to the modern-day story line in any meaningful way. The movie is vibrantly all over the map, and the star doesn’t direct so much as over-direct, cramming in as many camera moves, flashy cuts, and ducks down the metaphorical alley as he can manage. Cheadle’s to be commended for climbing out of the cramped biopic box, but he hasn’t figured out what the new box should be made of, nor what should go in it and what should get left out.

The music is fine, with trumpeter Keyon Harrold dubbing in the licks over Cheadle’s trained fingering and a lot of actual Davis in the background. If you want, you can see Miles Ahead as a bandstand cutting session, with the leader allowing for sharp solo turns by McGregor, Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg as a smug thug of a promoter, and the fine up-and-coming actor Lakeith Lee Stanfield (Selma, Short Term 12) as a nervous young rival with a horn.

It’s all deeply felt and just as deeply unfocused, and that, more than the invented story line, betrays the movie’s subject. See it for Cheadle — for his performance and his ambition — but know that his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach does a disservice to the man whose life he’s telling. Davis always understood that the notes he didn’t play were as important as the ones he did.


OTHER RELEASES THIS WEEK

Kill Zone 2 ***
 Far from being the convoluted mess it could have been, incoming director Cheang Pou-soi crafts a tight, swiftly paced action yarn that ensures viewers won’t be pining for the presence of the first film’s stars, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung.

A Perfect Day **½ By the end, thanks to Leon de Aranoa’s steady direction and the actors’ slow-building character work, this film manages to coalesce into a reasonably tough-minded, compassionate vision of the difficulties and rewards of trying to do the right thing in an intractable situation, though it has to overcome more than a few flat, indolent stretches to get there.

The Perfect MatchAn attractive and appealing cast helps this formulaic pablum go down easy, but the genial tone buffs the edge out of every element.

Rio, I Love You ½* Despite its connotation of sun-drenched sensuality, this is a dispiritingly dull affair.

Underdogs * In a memorably bad summer for children’s films, this, surely, is as low as things can sink.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This Week's DVD Releases


The Divergent Series: Allegiant *


The Divergent series — a derivative saga of family, factions and overstressed females — soldiers within sight of the finish line with its third installment, Allegiant. But a story that kicked off two years ago at a reasonable gallop has now slowed to barely a limp.

The first film in a two-part finale (the second, Ascendant, is expected next year), Allegiant sends Tris (Shailene Woodley), her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and her hunky squeeze, Four (Theo James, even more expressionless than usual if that’s possible), fleeing from a still-walled-in Chicago. One shower of toxic rain and a blasted landscape later, they wash up at the gleamingly pristine Bureau of Genetic Welfare, where David (a smugly sinister Jeff Daniels) presides over unspecified hanky-panky with the human genome.

Spouting biological balderdash with a commendably straight face, David declares Tris "pure," a designation that comes with all-white outfits and an all-access pass to David’s private aerie. (This doesn’t sit well with Four, who, being "damaged," is stuck below, wearing Mad Max’s postapocalyptic castoffs.) Ill-defined and padded with tame special effects, these scenes are so lacking in narrative momentum that we can almost hear the hum of a plot idling in neutral.

Tris, too, seems becalmed and unsure, vacillating between David’s professed humanitarianism and Four’s insistence that evil is afoot. Woodley, previously such a strong anchor for a series that’s casually dominated by powerful female characters, feels disengaged here and a little tired. And a sidelined Octavia Spencer, playing the leader of the former peace-loving Amity faction — now reborn as a resistance group known as Allegiant — appears similarly detached.

A flaccid blend of eugenics, purloined children, memory-wiping gas and laughably unlikely scuffles, Allegiant (directed by Robert Schwentke) offers a weak bridge to the series’ conclusion. Whether viewers will still be allegiant after crossing it remains to be seen.


Everybody Wants Some!! ***½


Finally, an Animal House movie for the generation that can remember seeing Animal House. Maybe.

Everybody Wants Some!! — and those exclamation points are totally earned — is set in the summer of 1980, as Southeast Texas State University welcomes some freshly baked frosh. And they're ready to learn a lot: About keggers, about Everclear, about bongs. Also about crashing parties, meeting girls and standing by your buds. About literature, philosophy and organic chem? Eh, not so much.

Director Richard Linklater has described this as a "spiritual sequel" to his '70s high-school flashback Dazed and Confused, but Everybody Wants Some!! is a gentler, looser movie. There's no real plot, and not much conflict. (The only villain is a pretty easily handled jerk.) The characters, all on the school baseball team, are as simple as a college memory. Hey, remember that guy who bet on everything and always lost? Or that pick-up artist who always scored? What a madman.

Luckily, the young and mostly unknown cast is a lot of fun, particularly Glen Powell, who plays cocky upperclassman Finnegan, and Wyatt Russell as the California stoner Willoughby. Blake Jenner is a little flat as our supposed hero, Jake, but adding gentle class to this gang of jocks is Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a performing-arts major who still hasn't chosen her path. (On one dorm room wall: a Patti Smith poster. On the other: Cabaret.)

And Linklater, always a detail guy, gets such period stuff absolutely right — like the bitchin' Pioneer tapedecks, the raggedy jean cutoffs and a soundtrack that kicks off with My Sharona and never lets up. There's never an emotional moment here to compete, or even compare, with his last film, Boyhood. But there's not supposed to be. Everybody Wants Some!! is as laid-back and low-pressure as a Saturday afternoon at someone's dorm room.

So, go ahead, clear those empties off the futon. Grab a Schlitz. Hang out for a while in the summer of 1980. There’s almost nothing better.


Green Room ***


Patrick Stewart has a blast playing against type as a soft-spoken white supremacist holding a punk rock band as his temporary prisoners in Jeremy Saulnier’s nicely crafted, low-budget comedy-thriller.

The struggling band, the Ain’t Rights, have unwisely accepted a fill-in gig at Stewart’s concert venue in the Oregon wilderness, and compounded their mistake by performing the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F?-?-?k Off to an unappreciative audience while surrounded by Confederate flags. The unnerved musicians then accidentally become witnesses to a murder while retrieving a cellphone from the venue’s squalid green room.

Saulnier gets lots of laughs and builds plenty of suspense in this effective (if gory) little tongue-in-cheek sleeper. He’s abetted by solid performances from Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat as the musicians whom Stewart’s minions are trying to methodically eliminate to cover up the crime.


Other releases this week:

13 Cameras
Belladonna of Sadness ***
The Dark Horse ***
Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang ***
Marguerite & Julien *
Miracles from Heaven
Mountains May Depart ***
My Big Night ***
My Golden Days ***½
The Preppie Connection *
Road Games
Sworn Virgin ***


RATINGS

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Monday, July 4, 2016

This week's major DVD releases


I Saw the Light *½


In the big-screen memorial I Saw the Light, the music legend Hank Williams strums a guitar and hits the road and the bottle, all while flashing a smile as blinding as the lights of a semi on a dark highway. He also sings, but each time he does it’s a reminder that it’s not Williams on the soundtrack but the British actor Tom Hiddleston. As Hank, Hiddleston leads with charm and a twang, keeping the beat with his shoulders, hips and feet. He looks as good as the movie, but if you want to hear what white soul music sounds like you need to fire up the real Hank Williams.

I Saw the Light is the latest movie to try to capture that certain ineluctable something about Williams (1923-1953), the poor Alabama boy turned country-music star who died at 29 and inspired later legends like Bob Dylan. Other big-screen disinterments have tried to do right by Williams, including Your Cheatin’ Heart, a 1964 biopic starring George Hamilton, whose singing was dubbed by the teenage Hank Jr. The writer-director of I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham, sticks closer to the facts than previous treatments, but perhaps because he’s farther from Williams’s moment, he turns the story into an old-fashioned, hand-tinted postcard that’s as inert as it is pretty.

The music is, of course, the point of the story, or should be, even in cover versions, so it’s strange that Abraham doesn’t pay it more heed. The story picks up with Hank as an adult and folds in assorted studio recordings and stage performances, but there’s little about who and what inspired the real man, including the black gospel music he listened to as a child and the black musician who taught him guitar, Rufus Payne. Not much appears to be known about Payne, but their relationship has the makings of a classic American story, one that ended with one man in an unmarked grave and the other one, after a rise and fall, enshrined in music halls of fame, biographies and myth.

Abraham largely dodges that myth and Williams’s hold on American music, hearts and ears, though he does give him an uncharacteristically articulate speech about why people love his work. Instead, Abraham focuses on the greatest hits and private headlines, narrowing in on Hank’s stormy first marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), a beauty with a flat voice whose great passion seems to have been a misplaced belief in her own vocal talent. Much of the movie follows the arc of their marriage, a grindingly unhappy union marred by her jealousy of Hank’s talent and increasingly plagued by fights and infidelities. Audrey’s grasping ambition gives the character spark, but Olsen doesn’t have the lines or guidance to elevate this harridan beyond cliché.

A few barbed scenes with Cherry Jones as Hank’s mama, Lillie, meanwhile, suggest that you can learn more about some men by spending five minutes with their mothers than a few hours with their wives. It’s instructive that Hank Williams: The Biography, the book that the movie is based on, suggests that even those who thought themselves closest to Williams didn’t know him. Abraham seems to be acknowledging the elusiveness of his subject in the opener, which shows Hank on a stool in a circle of light, his face in shadow as he sings an a cappella version of Cold, Cold Heart.

As Hank’s features emerge from the dark, you grasp what Abraham is trying to suggest, even if he introduces this honky-tonk bluesman as a Sinatra-like saloon singer.

Part of what defeats Abraham and may help explain why Hiddleston’s performance, however appealing, never gets below the surface, is that Williams is one of those artists whose eloquence is expressed through his work. That eloquence is in his lyrics and melodies as well as a voice that, especially when it quavers on the high end, conveys a sincerity he transfers to his listeners. That voice has a singular sound, and it carries a specific American history and way of feeling and being that finds the holy not only in the Bible, but also in a lonesome whippoorwill, a midnight train and ordinary life and people. When Williams sang to his audiences, they knew that he heard them, too.


By the Sea *½


After careful consideration, it would seem By the Sea is not an interminable exercise in narcissism but, instead, a loving homage to Robert Wiene’s groundbreaking 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which writer, director and co-star Angelina Jolie Pitt channels the somnambulist.

OK, that’s a cockamamie theory, if ever there was one, but I’m searching for some reason Jolie Pitt has managed to take a film that includes two of the most watchable people on the planet (Jolie Pitt and husband Brad Pitt), a story that involves voyeurism and naked beautiful people and some of the most gorgeous seaside settings you’ll ever see, and turn it into such a boring movie. Why else would she sleepwalk through the film?

Granted, there is a reason, one you will guess pretty quickly into the 2-hour, 12-minute running time. But the means don’t justify the ends, though the means are beautifully shot by cinematographer Christian Berger. It’s like a fashion magazine put out a video to help you sleep. Cut down to 90 minutes, who knows? But at its current length, By the Sea is a chore, if a nice-looking one.

Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) arrive, courtesy of a Citroen convertible, at a hotel in a small village on the coast of France in the 1970s. We learn that he is a writer and she is a retired dancer. They seem to have come for him to work on a book, but mostly, he drinks. And mostly, she does nothing much, except look sad and work on her makeup. Her demeanor is ice cold, especially toward Roland, though she appears to love him. He has pent-up frustration practically coming out of his ears, so he spends his days at a cafe run by Michel (the great Niels Arestrup), downing various libations while looking like a million bucks — though over time, a somewhat dissolute million bucks.

Just when you fear the film will drone on in this fashion one minute longer, it does. But finally, a newlywed couple, François (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent), show up and move into the room next door. They’re just another distraction at first, like the lonely fisherman Vanessa watches rowing out to sea and back every day.

One day, Vanessa discovers a peephole in the wall that looks in on François and Lea’s room, who are on their honeymoon and attempting to get pregnant. So there’s a lot to see, and Vanessa sees all of it. Eventually, she brings Roland in to watch, as well, and it seems as if it rekindles a spark between them. Voyeurism — a potentially under-explored marital aid. But there is still trouble afoot; Vanessa thinks Roland desires Lea, while Roland thinks Vanessa has the hots for François. It’s a regular Peyton Place they have going on there.

The reason for Vanessa’s sadness and remoteness will be revealed, of course, long after the viewer is likely to have deduced it. While we wait, Roland suffers and drinks some more, Vanessa takes long hot baths and mopes, and François and Lea have lots of sex — all under the watchful eyes of Roland and Vanessa.

Jolie Pitt is going for a European cinema vibe here, but all the smoking, drinking and speaking in French can’t disguise the fact that there isn’t a lot going on here. Filmmakers reserve every right to demand patience from their viewers, but they have to provide a worthwhile payoff in the end. By the Sea simply doesn’t.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

25 Best Films for ther First Half of the Year


Based on what’s been released in the first half of 2016, this is not shaping up as good movie year. Last year at this time, two four-star films — Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside/Out had been released. During the first six months of this year, not one, nada, zilch four-star film has made its way to a theater near you. And, to me, it’s sort of a sad, but also another reflection on the poor quality of films so far this year, that the list includes films with less than three stars. Oh, well. Here’s the list:

1. Love & Friendship ***½
2. Everybody Wants Some ***½
3. Weiner ***½
4. De Palma ***½
5. The Witch ***½
6. The Lobster ***½
7. Embrace of the Serpent ***½
8. A War ***½
9. Green Room ***
10. Sing Street ***
11. Zootopia ***
12. Finding Dory ***
13. The Jungle Book ***
14. Maggie’s Plan ***
15. Midnight Special ***
16. 10 Cloverfield Lane ***
17. Captain America: Civil War ***
18. A Bigger Splash ***
19. Eye in the Sky ***
20. Hail, Caesar ***
21. The Nice Guys ***
22. Louder Than Bombs ***
23. The Meddler **½
24. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping **½
25. Barbershop: The Next Cut **½

Monday, June 27, 2016

This week's major DVD releases


RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.

Eye in the Sky *** Directed by Gavin Hood. Leading an operation to nab a terrorist and her collaborators in Kenya, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) ends up in a political and moral quagmire as the mission changes and a drone strike is ordered, putting a young girl at risk of becoming collateral damage. The movie is literally all over the map in its depiction of drone warfare, and right on target, if flagrantly contrived, in examining the ethics of killing by remote control.

Kung Fu Panda 3 **½ Directed by Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh. After Po (voice of Jack Black) is reunited with his long-lost dad, the two set off for a secret panda village, where Po must quickly teach his brethren the art of kung fu when a villainous ancient spirit named Kai (voice of J.K. Simmons) threatens all of China. Fitfully amusing and certainly heartfelt, this latest chapter in the likeable animated saga will work best with younger viewers, but its life lessons and emotional beats feel slathered on rather than deftly woven into the storyline.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ** Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. A journalist (Tina Fey) recounts her wartime experiences in Afghanistan.It’s to Ficarra and Requa’s credit that they try to juggle romance and political commentary, daring to make a studio movie that doesn’t fall into cookie-cutter genre rules. But the overriding problem is that their film doesn’t go far enough in its risk-taking, settling for a story that gets more predictable as it rolls along.

Monday, June 20, 2016

This week's DVD releases


RATINGS
***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but mght have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.

Embrace of the Serpent **** Directed by Ciro Guerrera. The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. Not nearly as great as Herzog’s films, or as monumentally deranged as Coppola’s, it nevertheless casts a spell of its own. It’s one of those films that, at least for me, grows in the memory because it has some of the most vivid images captured on film in recent memory, and also some of the most haunting.

Midnight Special ***½ Directed by Jeff Nichols. A father (Michael Shannon) and son (Jaeden Lieberher) go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child's special powers. Nichols establishes such a grounded sense of atmosphere and such superb control of mood and pacing, that the odd hiccup barely matters. Only in its final stretch does the film start to lose its distinct identity.

King Georges ***½ Directed by Erika Frankel. A documentary about Philadelphia restaurateur Georges Perrier and the closing of his iconic French restaurant, Le Bec-Fin. Frankel has a fine eye for telling detail, and the result, while sentimental, is as irresistible as the dessert cart.

The Wave *** Directed by Roar Uthaug. Everyone in the Norwegian village of Geiranger knows that one day the mountain overlooking their homes will collapse into the fjord and set off a tsunami. When the alarm finally sounds, residents and tourists have 10 minutes to get to high ground. The human scale of this story about a very real threat to one Norwegian village makes the movie more tragic and also more chilling. But the main reason to rent or stream it is because it’s fun to see Hollywood disaster movie cliches rendered in Norwegian.

Anesthesia **½ Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Multiple lives intersect in connection with the violent mugging of a Columbia University philosophy professor (Sam Waterston). The all-star cast is uniformly good, but the script lacks any sort of nuance to temper the pandering lecture. The irony of the film is that, while it uses interconnectivity as a storytelling mechanism, the characters do not really connect.

Going Away **½ Directed by Nicole Garcia. When young Mathias's (Mathias Brezot) father fails to pick him up from school, substitute teacher Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort) takes the boy on a weekend motorcycle journey. While teacher and pupil quickly form a bond, things grow more complicated when they happen upon Mathias's mother (Louise .Bourgoin). Despite its late shortcomings, this demonstrates Garcia’s ability to coax strong performances out of a relatively young cast.

Knight of Cups **½ Directed by Terrence Malick. A writer (Christian Bale) indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women. This is a ponderous affair, never taking 30 seconds to make a point when four minutes is available. It’s the kind of film that will make viewers long for good, old-fashioned storytelling.

The Brothers Grimsby ** Directed by Louis Leterrier. A suave secret agent (Mark Strong) accepts a mission that requires him to go on the run with his brainless soccer hooligan of a brother (Sacha Baron Cohen). The film has the occasional laugh and a succession of finely wrought grossout spectaculars which are reasonably entertaining. But with its cod-Bond and mock-action material it carries a weird overall feel, like kids’ TV but produced on a lavish scale with added filth.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2Directed by Kirk Jones. There's a new wedding on the horizon for the Portokalos clan and with it comes a new assortment of family crises and secrets. Predictable, tired, formulaic, it makes up for its lack of originality with a bigger budget, louder jokes, louder costumes, and louder music.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ranking the Pixar Films


In Friday’s Austin American-Statesman, a Joe Gross tried to rank all the Pixar films (in honor of Friday’s release of Finding Dory). Although, for the most part, he was not that far off the mark, I was absolutely astonished, amazed, baffled, bewildered — whatever adverb best fits — to see that out of the 16 films he ranked, he had what is not only Pixar’s ultimate masterpiece (and also the best film of that year) 11th? 11th??? And his top-ranked Pixar film is not really among the studio’s five best. It left me wondering what film school this clown graduated from. So, to set the record straight, here is the ultimate ranking of the Pixar films. (The number in parenthesis is Gross’ ranking).

16. (16) Cars 2 **½ The plot of this entry is both overly convoluted and thin, and it folds in so much unvarnished toddler-instruction that it almost feels like an educational film. It is the only Pixar film that could be called "ordinary."

15. (14) Monster’s University *** Though colorful and sweet-natured and occasionally capable of producing the mild chuckle, this is a safe, predictable, edge-free, nearly bland effort from the studio that rarely hedges its bets. This is not a bad movie, and to small children it will be a very good one. But it is closer to average than one would wish from Pixar.

14. (15) The Good Dinosaur *** While the story attempts the moves that a Pixar film typically makes — nonverbal storytelling, death, a bittersweet ending — most of this film’s punches land soft, made worse by the disconnect that exists between the overly cartoonish style of the characters and the photorealistic landscapes.

13. (10) Brave *** Something that feels like it was put together from a jumble of Disney clichés tacked onto the skeleton of Beauty and the Beast. The conflicts, magic spells, chase sequences and reconciliations feel strangely by-the-book for the studio so well known for throwing the book out entirely. Eventually it straightens out into a fast, funny, emotionally resonant story about mothers and daughters, but it takes a while to get there and it's never less than weird.

12. (13) Cars ***½ The movie wins you over through crack comic timing and an awareness that the point of driving isn't how fast you get there but what you see on the way.

11. (12) A Bug’s Life ***½ The story is amusing and the animation is first-rate, but there's less sparkling originality than in Pixar’s best.

10. (7) Monsters Inc. ***½ Funny and sweet enough to delight kids and inventive enough to satisfy adults. The movie's cutest twist is that the monsters are more scared of kids than kids are of them, because they think human children are toxic.

9. (9) Toy Story 2 **** A technologically marvelous movie that's just as funny and inventive as the original Toy Story, but also more emotionally engaging than most live-action films. The story is just as funny and touching as the first one. The only problem is the inevitable one: The freshness — the novel delight — is a little faded.

8. (6) Up **** Challenging, emotionally and narratively, but it trusts viewers to keep up; but then, Pixar has never been interested in talking down to children or their parents. Each character has their own story, and Pixar never sacrifices their development just for a happy ending.

7. (1) Finding Nemo ****½ The humor bubbling through Finding Nemo is so fresh, sure of itself and devoid of the cutesy, saccharine condescension that drips through so many family comedies that you have to wonder what it is about the Pixar technology that inspires the creators to be so endlessly inventive.

6. (8) The Incredibles ****½ The vocal performances are a blast, Holly Hunter's and Jason Lee's in particular. The animation of the villain's tropical isle is stunning. It’s beautiful to look at, but even more lovely beneath the computer-generated surfaces.

5. (5) Toy Story 3 ****½ A sequel made with care and integrity, just moving enough: It winds its way gently toward its big themes instead of grabbing desperately at them, and because its plot is so beautifully worked out, getting there is almost all of the fun. It becomes the kind of love note to movies we want and need.

4. (3) Toy Story ****½ The movie that started it all, this wry, rippingly paced buddy movie is as delightful in its own way as any of Walt Disney's traditional fairy tales. In addition to what in 1995 was its stylistic innovation, the film sports a provocative and appealing story that's every bit the equal of this technical achievement.

3. (4) WALL-E ****½ The story line is probably too convoluted for small kids (which is not a criticism), and sometimes it suffers from techie overload, but it's more heartfelt than anything on the screens these days featuring humans. I rank this one this high simply because its first hour is a crazily inventive, deliriously engaging and almost wordless silent comedy of the sort that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton used to make.

2. (2) Inside Out ****½ On the inventiveness scale, this one is hard to top. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow. It’s an audacious concept, and its imagination is adventurous and genially daft enough to put it over.

1. (11) Ratatouille ***** This movie is courageous (Would you have invested money in the concept of a "feel-good movie" about rats making the meals in a five-star French restuarant?) as well as delicious. In this satisfying, souffle-light tale of a plucky French rodent with a passion for cooking, the master chefs at Pixar have blended all the right ingredients — abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication — to produce a warm and irresistible concoction that's appealing to everyone. A nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film. It provides the kind of deep, transporting pleasure, at once simple and sophisticated, that movies at their best have always promised.