Wednesday, September 21, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 3-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 3-0 (2)
3.  Stanford 2-0 (5)
4.  Houston 3-0 (7)
5.  Michigan 3-0 (6)
6.  Louisville 3-0 (12)
7.  Clemson 3-0 (4)
8.  Tennessee 3-0 (8)
9.  Texas A&M 3-0 (18)
10. Arkansas 3-0 (16)
11. Baylor 3-0 (13)
12. Michigan State 2-0 (19)
13. Washington 3-0 (11)
14. Wisconsin 3-0 (9)
15. Oklahoma 1-2 (10)
16. Florida State 2-1 (3)
17. Miami, Fla. 3-0 (NR)
18. Nebraska 3-0 (NR)
19. LSU 2-1 (14)
20. Georgia 3-0 (21)
21. Mississippi 1-2 (17)
22. Boise State 2-0 (NR)
23. Utah 3-0 (25)
24. North Carolina 2-1 (23)
25. Florida 3-0 (24)
Dropped out: Iowa, Notre Dame, Oregon

Monday, September 19, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising **

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has too many talented people involved in it for it not to be at least a little bit funny. But that’s all it is, a little bit funny. Over the course of its hour and a half running time, it inspires maybe three loud guffaws, a few modest chortles, a subsonic chuckle and a handful of silent smiles. That’s not enough to make it a worthy — or even worth-making — sequel to the 2014 comedy Neighbors.

The movie’s problems are peculiar because they almost seem contradictory. On the one hand, the set-up is so obvious, so designed to re-create the dynamics of the original movie, that it seems either a purely cynical exercise or so blatant a cynical exercise that it qualifies as a bold comic gesture: In the previous film, a newly married couple had to contend with a fraternity moving in next door; this time, a sorority takes over the same house.

The jokes are as coarse as the strategy is deliberate. As the movie begins, we see the young married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) having sex, and then she throws up on him. Actually, it’s one of the best laughs in the movie, as well as a cautionary example. Had she been on the bottom, she might have died from aspiration, and that wouldn’t have been funny.

Yet for all the movie’s boldness, its coarseness, its in-your-faceness, Neighbors 2 is constrained by political correctness. The sorority is at least as bad as the fraternity ever was, but, because the couple is fighting girls, the movie has less fun with it. The girls act like villains, but the screenplay is unwilling to present them unsympathetically. The upshot is that Neighbors 2 is mostly unpleasant without being funny or ultimately satisfying.

The screenplay ties itself into a knot from the start, when it presents the founding of the nasty sorority as a feminist event. Young Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is disheartened to find out that sororities, under national Greek rules, can’t throw parties. She is further disillusioned when she attends a frat party and finds the experience sexist and degrading. And so she joins forces with three new friends to establish a new sorority, independent of the Greek system.

In the new sorority, they throw parties that are just as loud and lewd and awful as the frat parties, though the movie expects us to recognize a difference that isn’t there. In any case, the parties are a source of misery to next-door neighbors Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne), who don’t realize that what’s keeping them up at night isn’t mere raucousness, selfishness and noise but burgeoning feminist assertion. Meanwhile, the movie makes it plain that this is coming at the worst possible time for the couple: They’ve bought a new house and need to sell the old one, which they’re currently occupying. But the sorority has made their property unsellable.

In Neighbors, the culprits were young men, and so director Nicholas Stoller and the screenwriters felt at liberty to present them as slobs — not evil, but ridiculous. By treating the sorority sisters of Neighbors 2 with kid gloves, they rob them of humor and, inadvertently, make them more culpable (and therefore more dislikable) with every awful thing they do. They’re just not funny. And neither is Zac Efron as Teddy, who was the fraternity leader last time and here is presented as pathetic and needy.

Yet even with so-so material, Rogen is funny, and so is Byrne, whose comic facility was the revelation of the first Neighbors. But they’re so sympathetic that there’s little joy in witnessing their victimhood.

Free State of Jones **
A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. As if afraid to offend anyone or put a wrong foot in an era of racial hypersensitivity, writer-director Gary Ross tiptoes as if through a minefield in relating the fascinating tale of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who had the temerity to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of a growing number of renegade slaves. Serious and upfront films about slavery have been scarce enough through the decades that it's notable to have at least two of them in 2016, this one and Nate Parker's impactful but also problematic Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation, set for theatrical release on Oct. 7 and bound to be the bigger audience-pleaser.

Returning to action four years after making the first Hunger Games installment, Ross opens well with sobering scenes of Civil War carnage, as Confederate troops are systematically mowed down while being marched directly into Union lines of fire. Ross underlines the butchery with dialogue footnotes about Dixie's class divide, as the poor do the fighting on behalf of rich landowners, who are exempt from military service if they own at least 20 slaves.

There could scarcely be a more sympathetic member of the Confederacy than Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic who's both anti-secession and anti-slavery; he's a reb by geographic happenstance alone. The quick death of a youngster he's taken under his wing is the last straw for the aging farmboy, who deserts and, back home, tries to protect his wife Serena (Keri Russell) from the illegal confiscation of most of their possessions; she soon sees no choice but to flee. More provocations send Newt fleeing to an impenetrable swamp where, in league with a small band of escaped slaves, he begins his career as a maverick marauder against his increasingly beleaguered Southern brethren.

In its sober and considered way, the film is absorbing at first, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of the war. Americans fighting Americans delivers a sharp sting, and Ross succeeds in establishing a thoughtful, non-sensationalistic tone as he lays the foundations for Newt's unintended career as a leader of disenfranchised men.

Twenty-five minutes in, the focus abruptly shifts to a courthouse scene in the late 1940s, in which a Caucasian-looking man is seemingly being accused of being part-black and, therefore, vulnerable to charges of miscegenation. Some sort of related link to the Civil War story is clearly in the offing.

In a gradual, Seven Samurai-like manner, Newt builds a belief in his hitherto subservient and downcast new allies that they can strike back against their longtime tormentors. "Nobody done nothin' like that for them before," remarks Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave at a nearby plantation who ends up doing many favors for the renegades and eventually becomes Newt's common-law wife. The first order of business is getting a dreadful iron necklace with upward-pointing spears removed from Moses (Mahershala Ali), the clear leader among the "collective." The second is for Newt to teach them all how to shoot; they learn very quickly.

But just as the film seems like it's about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.

Still, Ross is more attentive to what is historically known of Newt Knight and his times than to the imperatives of good drama; the veteran screenwriter has neglected to write any interesting or emotional scenes between Newt and Rachel, dialogue is devoted far more to issues than to quotidian banter and the Reconstruction-era scenes jump from one increasingly negative historical moment to the next. The Ku Klux Klan is born, plantations are restored to their former owners, apprenticeship becomes a euphemism for slavery, voting rights for blacks are squelched and "emancipation" is a term that must be enclosed within qualifying quotation marks. As the characters recede, the final stretch becomes a checklist of setbacks for racial fairness and equality, a build-up that concludes with a consequent outrage in the resolution of the 1940s court case.

Well before it's over, then, Free State of Jones (which never really does satisfactorily address the issue of the three relevant Mississippi counties ever having been declared a "state") has devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments. Despite endowing Newt with a right-amiable manner and an easy way with speechifying, McConaughey doesn't get the opportunity to create a fully dimensional man — he's given precious few intimate moments and no flashes of self-doubt. Ali is charismatic and his character's arc is the most eventful and tragic, but Mbatha-Raw is given little opportunity to flash the talent she's suggested previously.

Shot entirely in Louisiana, the film benefits from its lush rural locations and the lived-and-died-in look of its sets and costumes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows *½
In 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the title characters, on meeting the journalist April O’Neil, comment with aggressive enthusiasm on her good looks. They subsequently learn that April cared for them when they were just regular turtles, and, hence, is kind of like a big sister. At that point, a viewer might expect the fellows to stop hitting on her, but this reboot of the whimsical superhero franchise is partially produced by Michael Bay, so, no.

In the new movie, April, played again by the attractive, pouty Megan Fox, does not hesitate, in the first 10 minutes, to use her sexuality to extract data from two men. She even concocts a sort of schoolgirl outfit to get close to a target. Apparently, the one note that today’s studio executives will not give to filmmakers is, "Think of the children."

Out of the Shadows finds the named-for-Renaissance-artists protagonists contending with both an apocalyptic villain from another dimension and an existential crisis (that is, what does it mean to be normal when you are a mutated superpowered turtle?). This movie is, it happens, easier to sit through than the 2014 film. The action, overseen by the director Dave Green, is not wholly incoherent. The production values (showcasing new mutants and many gear-heavy extra-dimensional machines undreamed of in any actual engineering philosophy) are ultrashiny. And there are even a couple of amusing, albeit unmemorable, sight gags and one-liners.

Will Arnett is back, and game, as April’s unctuous former colleague. Newbies include an amiable Stephen Amell as a hockey-stick-wielding good guy, Tyler Perry as a mad scientist and the great Laura Linney, who plays a police captain, and sometimes smirks as if enjoying a joke nobody in the audience has been let in on, at least not explicitly.

Other new DVD releases this week:
Under the Sun ***½ The truths revealed in this film have more to do with the North Korean government’s self-consciousness about how they’re perceived by foreigners. Here, they seem desperate to appear productive, congenial, devoted, and above all, happy.
Sunday Ball ***½ Captured more for poetry than for clarity, the topography of penalties and free kicks can be impossible to follow. But Léo Bittencourt’s photography has flash and flair, and hardscrabble determination on a real-life field of dreams has a narrative all its own.
Collidng Dreams *** Directed from the center-left with an ear to parties on both sides of the West Bank separation barrier, it’s knowledgeable and unhysterical, openhearted without seeming naïve. Those on the extremes will probably hate it.
Wedding Doll **½ Nitzan Gilady, a documentarian making his fiction feature debut as a writer and director, over-stacks the deck with this belabored if artfully shot story.
The Blackout ExperimentsNeither scary nor shocking.
Pele: Birth of a Legend * Who knows what the could have been had it tapped more into that mysterious life force and the true messiness in harnessing it and making it glorious. Instead we get what the man himself was canny enough to ignore: a familiar game plan tediously followed.
ma ma * Julio Medem’s film is a smiling-through-tears saga whose generally tasteful execution can’t ultimately salvage a whopping load of maudlin contrivance, all designed to burnish the halo around Penelope Cruz.
Sacrifice ½* A unique kind of very bad movie. The spectacle of this misbegotten thriller is not amusing enough to recommend to fans of casual movie cheesiness, but it’s the filmmaking choices that made me laugh out loud.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 2-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 2-0 (2)
3.  Florida State 2-0 (4)
4.  Clemson 2-0 (3)
5.  Stanford 1-0 (5)
6.  Michigan 2-0 (6)
7.  Houston 2-0 (7)
8.  Tennessee 2-0 (10)
9.  Wisconsin 2-0 (12)
10. Oklahoma 1-1 (8)
11. Washington 2-0 (16)
12. Louisville 2-0 (20)
13. Baylor 2-0 (11)
14. LSU 1-1 (15)
15. Arkansas 2-0 (24)
16. Iowa 2-0 (19)
17. Michigan State 1-0 (18)
18. Mississippi 1-1 (14)
19. Texas A&M 2-0 (21)
20. Notre Dame 1-1 (25)
21. Georgia 2-0 (9)
22. Oregon 2-0 (22)
23. North Carolina 1-1 (NR)
24. Florida 2-0 (NR)
25. Utah 2-0 (23)
Dropped out: TCU, Oklahoma State

Monday, September 12, 2016

This week's DVD releases

De Palma ***½

De Palma begins with Hitchcock, which is only right.

There hasn't been a contemporary director more indebted to and influenced by the Master — and happy to acknowledge it — than Brian De Palma. And so, this immersive and illuminating documentary about the man who made Carrie and Blow Out, The Untouchables and Scarface, begins with a scene from Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Technicolor dream of sexual fantasy, fetishes, and mystery.

Which is precisely the stuff many of De Palma's own titles trade in (Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, to name a few).

De Palma, a big bear of a man, is 75 now. His age is addressed in the movie — he addresses it himself, allowing how directors historically do their best work in their 40s and 50s. (Is he making excuses for his later, arguably wobblier work?)

Seated before the camera, De Palma goes through his career, chronologically, from his early days in New York shooting with a fresh-faced gang (including a ridiculously boyish Robert De Niro) to his move to Hollywood and the team of "rebels" he joined in the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg.

And onward, into the '80s, the '90s, and the '00s. There are blockbusters and bombs and a seminal music video — Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark — as well.

De Palma, co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is awash in great clips: a few more from Hitchcock, from Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut — but mostly, of course, De Palma's own, and they are killer, in more ways than one. And if the subject of this must-see documentary didn't say so himself, it quickly becomes obvious: This is a man who thinks visually, who constructs a scene before he constructs the characters in it.

A giddy maestro of mayhem, De Palma offers commentary on some signature work: the train station shootout in The Untouchables, the shocking locker-room bullying of Carrie, the creepy cross-dressing carnage of Dressed to Kill.

It's great to hear a director talking candidly about the actors he's worked with, dishing out good, juicy stuff (about De Niro, about his Carrie ingenue, Sissy Spacek) and bad, juicy stuff (about Cliff Robertson, all wrong in Obsession, and an unhappy Sean Connery in The Untouchables), and just strange, juicy stuff (Sean Penn's serious goading of costar Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War).

And that criticism about De Palma's misogyny? About the way his cameras linger on, and leer at, the beautiful women he casts? About the violence he subjects them to?

He dismisses the charges with an I-am-what-I-am shrug.

One movie De Palma hasn't made, but maybe should: a thriller about a kid who suspects his highly regarded orthopedic surgeon dad of having an affair, following him to the trysting place, where he finds his father with another woman. That's a story the director tells in De Palma. He was a boy on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a student at Friends' Central, his father a teacher and doctor at Thomas Jefferson University.

His father, too, traded in blood. Real blood. The blood in De Palma's movies is fake, of course — but he's made the most of it.

Captain America: Civil War ***

Hubble's Law of the expanding universe? Ha! That's nothing compared to Disney's Law of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With every new installment of the comic book franchise, the scale gets bigger, relationships get trickier, new forces enter the fray. In Captain America: Civil War, the 13th title in Disney and Marvel's systematic plan for global domination, a dozen superheroes come and go, lining up on either side of a tumultuous ideological dispute.

This may be the first film since Avatar that truly necessitates viewing in a gargantuan format: On a plain old normal-size TV screen all these superhumans could get lost in the crowd, and in the accelerated blur of action, mayhem, and snappy quipping.

In Captain America: Civil War, the superdudes' (and dudettes') crisis of identity, of purpose, begins with an earnest attempt on the part of a squad of Avengers — Steve Rogers' Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff's Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson's Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda Maximoff's Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — to thwart a plan to steal biological weapons from a lab in Lagos.

Poor Wanda, still struggling to master her hex powers (lots of waving of hands and wrinkling of forehead), and lacking a cool costume like her peers, wields more hex than she should, resulting in the death of 11 innocent people.

When news — and news footage — of the calamitous combat is broadcast around the world, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt with a mustache) convenes a meeting at Avengers HQ back in New York.

Are you heroes or vigilantes? he asks Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Captain, and the crew, informing them that 117 countries have agreed to sign "the Sokovia Accords," which will establish a governing body to monitor — and approve the missions of — the superheroes. No more pro-active interventions.

And, in theory, no more collateral damage.

Stark and Romanoff agree to go along with the plan, Rogers and his pals don't like it. It's Team Cap v Team Iron Man — let the games begin.

This issue — well-meaning mighty saviors of mankind, or rogue players wreaking havoc? — has long been at the heart of the comic book world. It's a debate that the X-Men have had to contend with and that provided the motive and momentum behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you want to get hifalutin about it, it's also an issue that's been running through the presidential campaigns: Should the U.S. act unilaterally in conflicts and crises overseas, or should some group like the United Nations determine when and what actions are necessary?

But let's not get hifalutin. Instead, let's go looking for an uber-baddie with a German accent, which is who we'll find pulling the strings in Captain America: Civil War. He is Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a madman bent on destroying the Avengers who uses a series of trigger words ("Longing," "Benign," "Freight train") to unleash the thawed "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) on the world.

Bucky, formerly the Captain's sidekick and one of the so-called "Winter soldiers" who've been hanging out in a cryogenics chamber, has been programmed a la The Manchurian Candidate. The Bucky doesn't stop here — he's everywhere, doing evil stuff.

If you haven't read or watched or heard anything about who shows up in Captain America: Civil War — and if you care — you may want to stop right now and go on to the next review below.

Perhaps the most significant introduction in sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo's all-but-inevitable blockbuster is that of T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, the African superhero who is played by Chadwick Boseman and who is getting his own stand-alone movie, coming in 2018, to be directed by Creed's Ryan Coogler.

A new Spider-Man also rises, although Downey's Iron Man aptly cracks that he should be called Spider-Boy. Young Tom Holland gets the role. His Spider-Man: Homecoming is set for next July.

Oh, and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man shows up, but then he morphs into Giant-Man.

They can do stuff like that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who's going to stop them?

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping **½

Conner4Real, played by Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg, performs many songs in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but my favorite is Humble, in which the chorus is a repeated, "I'm so humble." Conner performs the song with "humble" spelled out in giant letters behind him, and the song includes the refrain, "I say that with no ego!"

Popstar gets to satirize not just music, but also celebrity culture in a way that a movie such as Spinal Tap never could — because, well, the internet and 24-hours news cycle didn't exist in 1984.

But when Popstar has to do more than lampoon the cultural climate — namely, be a movie with a plot — it can't sustain the momentum to keep up what's essentially a one-joke film.

Structured as a mockumentary, Popstar follows Conner, a Justin Bieberesque superstar who's on the verge of releasing his second solo album. He's a white rapper from Sacramento who fakes a hard authenticity by covering himself with tattoos and reveling in his celebrity trappings. He came to fame as a member of the Style Boyz with his buddies (played by Samberg buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who also co-direct). Then he slowly alienates them as he strikes out on his own.

The movie is full of cameos of stars playing themselves. Questlove and Ringo Starr act as talking heads in the faux documentary. Pink sings a song with Conner that's a send-up of Macklemore. The frequency with which these celebs appear and the brevity of their parts could be thought of as a comment on the ephemeral nature of the cultural wash cycle, but they also make for good jokes — and that's really what matters. (Comics Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman, who play actual characters, are among Popstar's high points.)

Samberg produced Popstar, and he cowrote the script with Taccone and Schaffer. The three also work together as the comedy trio Lonely Island. (Those viral digital shorts that SNL used to produce? Those were by the Lonely Island guys.) The humor in Popstar fits squarely into their brand, which can be crude, but also winningly funny.

And that's what Popstar is, half the time — purposefully stupid and gleefully silly. (In a review of Conner's second album, for example, Rolling Stone rates it with a poop emoji, while Pitchfork gives the album a minus-4 out of 10.)

But then Conner learns a lesson about the value of friendship and humility, or something akin to that. That's when Popstar stops being fun and starts to feel as thin as it actually is.

The Conjuring 2 **½

As a filmmaker, James Wan plays to the reptilian brain of his audience, orchestrating such autonomous body functions as heart rate, breath and goosebumps like a maestro. In movies from Saw to Furious 7, and now The Conjuring 2, a sequel to his ghostly 2013 hit, the filmmaker bypasses higher brain function, plugging directly into the peanut-shaped circuit board — buried deep beneath your to-do lists — that makes you jump out of your skin when you hear a loud noise.

If The Conjuring 2 is not quite the achievement of the original (and what sequel is?), it nevertheless manifests a canny understanding of what modern audiences expect from a ghost story, delivering slowly mounting dread, punctuated by alternating bursts of terror and laughter.

Set in 1977 England, and inspired by events that have come to be known as "the Enfield Haunting" (from the North London borough in which they took place), the film centers on a working-class family of five. Single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are terrorized by the ghost of a former occupant of their shabby house, Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), after her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), opens the door to the underworld by messing around with a Ouija board.

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen the spirit-board gimmick used to invite a malevolent entity to pass through the veil between this world and the next. Working from a script Wan co-wrote with The Conjuring sibling screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes and David Johnson (Orphan), the filmmaker demonstrates that he is not averse to reusing dusty old tropes: a creepy mechanical toy, levitation, a seemingly possessed television set — all these cliches and more are trotted out in service of the desired effect, while exhibiting only minimal signs of wear. (One doesn’t fault Brahms for using the same notes as Beethoven, does one? It also should be noted that the real Hodgsons are purported to have triggered their poltergeist attack with an ill-advised Ouija session.)

Other aspects of the story are less faithful, although, to its credit, The Conjuring 2 does include a character (Franka Potente) who exists merely to debunk the Hodgsons’ claims of haunting. Accusations of a hoax have swirled around the Enfield case since the 1970s, and it helps that Wan acknowledges this, inoculating the film — if only a tad — against charges of excessive credulity.

It takes a while for the film’s real stars to show up. After a brief prologue set in Amityville, New York, in 1976 — during an investigation of that infamous haunting by professional ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — the Warrens finally get invited to Enfield. By that point, things have gotten out of hand. Janet seems to be possessed by the spirit of Bill Wilkins, who for unexplained reasons wants the Hodgsons out of "his" house, threatening to kill them— and the Warrens — if they don’t leave.

Of course, if you’ve seen the film’s trailers (or any of Wan’s Insidious films), you already know that there’s more going on here than a poltergeist infestation. One of Wan’s weaknesses is a predilection for demons that borders on religious obsession. To his mind, one measly old ghost is never enough. Where The Conjuring 2 goes off the rails a bit is in its insistence on dredging up a monstrous satanic entity — in a nun’s habit, no less, wearing deranged clown makeup that makes him look like Marcel Marceau on a murder spree — to supplement the level of malevolence generated by Wilkins. Another shortcoming is the story’s inability to clearly differentiate between the world of apparitions and our material one. What ghost, for instance, drops a set of real dentures?

At the same time, The Conjuring 2 satisfies more than it disappoints. As Wan’s story swells to its inevitable, almost operatic crescendo, playfully balancing the hush of your own held breath with the kettle drum of your heart beating against your rib cage, one thing becomes evident: You’re not the viewer for this symphony of terror; you’re the instrument.

Other DVDs to be released this week
The Fits **** This is what independent moviemaking should be and can be in this country. Like its heroine, it’s slight but it’s built to last.
The Measure of a Man *** It’s a small film that touches on large issues: the world of work, and how it defines us. You finish watching it feeling you’ve met someone, and wishing him well.
Standing Tall ** Director Emmanuelle Bercot's setting out to make both a character study of a troubled young man wasting his potential, and an examination of a system trying desperately to do right by its charges, despite the immense difficulties and occasional bureaucratic red tape that tie their hands. It's more successful at the latter than at the former.
MaraudersLays out a scenario in the first 40 minutes or so that, oddly enough, makes you think "this is not an entirely uninteresting premise for a thriller." But after that, things devolve into "this is extremely far-fetched" and, finally, "this is goofy."

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

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Steve Martin in line for acting Oscar nomination

Steve Martin may finally get his long over-due Oscar nomination. While his fellow comedian, the late Robin Williams, not only scored a number of nominations, he actually won an Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting, Martin’s equally fine work largely went ignored by the award-givers. I was really impressed by Martin’s performance in All of Me. If you think back on that film, you probably remember as one where Martin’s co-star, Lily Tomlin, had a lot more screen time than she actually did. That’s because Martin did such a superb acting job channeling Tomlin that it made it seem like she was on screen more than she actually was.

Martin is not favored to win an Oscar this time, but people in the movie business I’ve talked to recently tell me if the deadline for nominations was today, he would be a lock for a best supporting actor nomination for his performance Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

In fact, if the nominations deadline was today, it looks like Manchester By the Sea would be the big winner. Here’s what I understand would be the likely nominees.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
La La Land
Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
The Birth of a Nation

Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Michael Keaton, The Founder
Denzel Washington, Fences


Viola Davis, Fences (probable winner)
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Kyle Chandler, Manchester By the Sea
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Steve Martin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Supporting Actress

Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Aja Naomi King, The Birth of a Nation
Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)


Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Denzel Washington, Fences

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

If you sliced one of my arteries, the blood that flowed would be the color of burnt orange. I am a diehard Texas Longhorn fan and no one was more excited watching that nationally televised game Sunday night as I. But, at the same time, I can't help but wonder about a Texas defense that gave up 47 points at home, squandered a 17-point lead and never did stop Notre Dame's running game or its screen passes. I also remember last October when Texas achieved another "signature" win, an upset victory of Oklahoma and I'm still crushed about how last season turned out. Not good. So unlike just about everyone else who prepares one of these polls, I'm not ready yet to bless the Longhorns as a top 25 team. I want to see a few more victories first, especially some more convincing ones.

My preseason rank is in parenthesis.
1.  Alabama 1-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 1-0 (4)
3.  Clemson 1-0 (2)
4.  Florida State 1-0 (8)
5.  Stanford 1-0 (5)
6.  Michigan 1-0 (9)
7.  Houston 1-0 (15)
8.  Oklahoma 0-1 (3)
9.  Baylor 1-0 (13)
10. Georgia 1-0 (20)
11. Tennessee 1-0 (10)
12. Wisconsin 1-0 (24)
13. TCU 1-0 (12)
14. Mississippi 0-1 (6)
15. LSU 0-1 (7)
16. Oklahoma State 1-0 (21)
17. Washington 1-0 (25)
18. Michigan State 1-0 (11)
19. Iowa 1-0 (22)
20. Louisville 1-0 (NR)
21. Utah 1-0 (NR)
22. Texas A&M 1-0 (NR)
23. Notre Dame 0-1 (14)
24. Oregon 1-0 (19)
25. Arkansas 1-0 (16)

Monday, September 5, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Love and Friendship ***½
Over 25 years and a handful of minor classics, writer-director Whit Stillman has distilled and modernized the spirit of Jane Austen so ably that it’s a wonder he has taken so long to go to the source. Love & Friendship is based on an early, lesser-known novella by the maid of Hampshire, but it has the wise, worldly wit of Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — movies in which streams of glittering chatter course over riverbeds of joy and pain. It’s a film true to both the adaptor and the adapted, and it’s wonderful.

Lady Susan was written as a series of letters when Austen was still shy of 20; its heroine is unusual for this author in that she’s something of a villain. As played with sly fire by Kate Beckinsale, Lady Susan Vernon is closer to a Restoration Era minx than a proper Regency gentrywoman. Recently widowed of an older and unloved husband, Lady Susan is on the prowl for a new catch through the drawing rooms of London and the country mansions of the aristocracy. She’s a notorious scandal, but she has more than enough beauty and charm to compensate.

And she has prospects, even though most of them don’t know it yet. There’s the rakish Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), but he’s inconveniently married. There’s the profoundly idiotic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) — more about him later. And there’s the young and ardent Reginald De Courcy, the brother-in-law of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, who’s played by Xavier Samuel in what can only be called a spirit of Early Firth.

To add to the confusion, Lady Susan has a teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), gentle, pure-hearted, and good. Her mother has no idea what to make of her. Love & Friendship introduces all these characters with droll visual cameos at the start and then proceeds to play mix-and-match. Reginald is dazzled by Lady Susan — to the diplomatic horror of his family — but is the daughter his true partner in temperament and morals? Sir James is besotted with Frederica, but his title, riches, and general stupidity make him attractive to the mother as well.

Sniping from the sidelines is Lady Susan’s closest confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chlöe Sevigny), a visiting American whose stuffy husband (the great Stephen Fry) is worried that she’s spending too much time with the temptress and who keeps threatening to pack her back to the wilds of Connecticut. ("You could be scalped!" cries Lady Susan.)

The novella brought us into the minds of these characters through the letters they wrote; Love & Friendship, by contrast, dramatizes their interactions. More properly, Stillman comedicizes them, fascinated by the way true intent can be expressed, gleaned, implied, or end-run through the polite clockwork of social conversation. Because so little can be directly said in Austen’s universe, the art and endless pleasure comes from the ways in which people speak their minds and hearts indirectly, until such time as they can no longer box up their emotions and all is revealed in a climactic blurt — Darcy declaring his love for Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice being the classic example.

So Love & Friendship is a film to make an action fan tear his or her hair out; it’s all walking and talking. But what talking! Of her friend Alicia, Susan says, "She has none of the uncouthness one expects of Americans but all of the candor"; of Alicia’s husband, she murmurs sympathetically, "too old to be governable, too young to die." Beckinsale rises to a splendid occasion, making us privy to Lady Susan’s manipulations while presenting a glamorous front that blinds all of the men. The women, of course, see everything.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but pride of place goes to Bennett’s Sir James, an upper class twit of Pythonesque proportions. Rarely has a character this moronic been this happy. Pushing his vegetables around a plate, Sir James crows, "Tiny green balls! What do you call them?" ("Peas," replies a perplexed Reginald.)

Love & Friendship accomplishes miracles on a meager budget; only the makeup seems out of place every so often, with Beckinsale looking unaccountably tan for a Regency aristocrat. The film ends, too, not with an Austenesque bang — order restored and all in its place — but with a reasonably satisfying whimper. Stillman is less interested in punishing the bad here than in honoring the good. That’s more than good enough.

A Bigger Splash ***

A Bigger Splash takes place on the Italian island of Pantelleria, but the movie looks like it was shot in an alternate universe where the sun is brighter, the water is bluer, the music is louder and everyone exudes a carnal, sultry pull — it’s an open-air hothouse. This is the second collaboration between Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, and it’s a reversal from their previous film, I Am Love. That one took place inside opulent mansions, sported a discordant score by John Adams and had a rigorous, formalist style that reflected the psyche of its heroine, a trophy wife suffocated by her wealthy, orderly life.

In A Bigger Splash, everyone is still gorgeous, the camera still captures scenes from unexpected angles and the images still radiate an unnatural splendor — you want to jump into the screen. But the tone is different, the subject matter more specific and the energy is inverted. I Am Love built to a crescendo of a woman’s spiritual and physical liberation; A Bigger Splash is a gradual sink into a swamp of moral quandaries and ambiguities, an exhilarating, sensual downer.

The premise is simple: The rock star Marianne (Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery and has come to Pantelleria to vacation with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks like Viggo Mortensen’s younger, hunkier brother). Marianne is under doctor’s orders not to speak for two weeks, so the couple spends their time sunbathing nude, having sex and slathering each other’s bodies with sea mud, all things that don’t require much talking.

Then Marianne’s ex, the record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls to say he’s vacationing on the island with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and could they all get together? Paul acquiesces with furrowed brow. Father and daughter grab spare bedrooms in the mansion the couple was renting. Marianne and Paul’s romantic getaway has become an extended get-together with friends, although they still manage to squeeze in some private sexy time here and there.

But Harry, who seems a little too animated and happy, begins to commandeer the vacation. One day, while the group is chilling indoors, he starts dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and becomes so enraptured by the music that he winds up outside, reaching to the sky, gyrating with such wild, spastic energy you wonder if he’s praying to some pagan god. In this scene, as in several others, Fiennes goes so far over the top he comes back around the other end; you have never seen this side (or so much) of him.

His daughter Penelope is the opposite, a cool, observant beauty with cruel eyes who always seems to be working out some kind of plan inside her head. "My trouble is that I fall in love with every pretty thing," she tells Paul with such disingenuous innocence that you wonder why she didn’t think to be sucking on a lollipop when she said it.

Through quick flashbacks, the movie gives us just enough details to understand the nature of Marianne and Harry’s former relationship, how it contrasts to their current state and why Harry wants her back. Emotional schisms begin to form (the island, we are told, is filled with volcanoes); snakes literally start slithering across the vacation home’s outdoor deck, like serpents in the garden; the TV blares news reports about hungry Tunisian refugees making landfall; a strange tension begins to coil underneath the movie’s ravishing beauty.

A Bigger Splash was inspired by the 1969 French drama La Piscine, in which Alain Delon and Romy Schneider played the vacationing couple. But Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich expand on the original film, pulling the material in different directions. The movie is filled with indelible, throwaway little moments: Harry and his daughter getting a little carried away (ahem) while singing at a karaoke bar; the world's creamiest, most appetizing ricotta; an anecdote recalling the worst suicide note ever; a car hurtling down a highway at unsafe speed during a rainstorm; a meal at a mountainside restaurant that makes you want to hop on a plane and fly there right now; a police detective (Corrado Guzzanti) pausing his investigation to compliment Marianne on her purse.

In its last half-hour, A Bigger Splash becomes a specific kind of story, and it’s not as pleasurable or strange as what preceded it: It makes you long for the earlier hedonism. But maybe that’s the point. Guadagnino is a bit of a prankster, and even when he’s being dead serious (such as a long overhead shot depicting some suspenseful business that stretches on without cutting away, making you catch your breath), he’s showing off, too.

Guadagnino is preparing to direct a remake of Suspiria as his next project (Swinton and Johnson are on board to star), and that may well turn out to be his masterpiece, a delirious horror movie wild enough to accommodate his lavish, outsized vision. He is a filmmaker incapable of crafting a boring shot, and he has a devilish sense of humor, too. He casts Swinton, one of the best actors on the planet, in his film and then barely lets her speak. When she does, it’s mostly in raspy croaks — except for a moment in which she has to scream.

The Meddler **½

Susan Sarandon pours on the New Yawk accent in The Meddler, an ingratiating semi-autobiographical comedy by Lorene Scafaria. Correction: Sarandon is actually channeling the signature New Jersey drawl as Marnie Minervini, a recent widow who moves to Los Angeles to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). A compulsive advice-giver, dropper-by and barger-inner, Marnie isn’t a helicopter mom. She’s a Black Hawk mom, continually offering advice, help and guidance whether the recipient wants it or not.

For Lori, this means it’s time to "set some boundaries," which prompts Marnie to visit her daughter’s therapist. When her daughter travels to New York for work, Marnie sets her sights on other potential beneficiaries, including a friend of Lori’s, played in an amusing turn by Cecily Strong, who never got the storybook wedding she wanted, and an Apple store clerk (Jerrod Carmichael) who is considering law school.

Just when you think Marnie’s grating, un-self-aware Lady Bountiful act couldn’t get more patronizing, The Meddler morphs into something tender, even poignant. What at first looks like a massive case of overcompensation and denial instead becomes a portrait of loneliness, unresolved grief and a courageously persistent generosity of spirit.

The Meddler is a movie of modest charms. It unfolds as a series of vignettes rather than a structural whole; it has a tendency to feel schematic and forced, such as in a bit involving the Apple store guy and one of his relatives that feels like a gratuitous non sequitur. Scafaria — who made her directorial debut in 2012 with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — doesn’t have the ease or rhythmic command of such peers as Noah Baumbach or Nicole Holofcener. But she does evoke a yielding, expansive tone that pleasantly ambushes viewers who reflexively expect the worst for the slightly out-of-it Marnie.

Once the accent settles in, Sarandon delivers a spirited, brash performance as a woman just coming into consciousness about how she’s really feeling (other than the "just great" she repeats like a chirpy mantra). And she’s ably supported by Byrne, who exudes flustered sympathy as a young woman sorting out her own jumble of mixed feelings, and J.K. Simmons, who channels his inner Sam Elliott to become a seductively persuasive love interest.

It’s been an interesting season for upper-middle-aged women in cinema: No sooner was Helen Mirren literally and figuratively commanding the military thriller Eye in the Sky than Sally Field made the best of a ditheringly thankless role in Hello, My Name Is Doris. Sarandon’s Marnie is a welcome addition to that field, a woman whose instincts may not be entirely foolproof but wind up creating their own kind of luck. What seems cringe-worthy at first in The Meddler winds up as a warm, forgiving embrace — of the movie’s characters and viewers, as well.

Money Monster **

Big money Wall Street gets bashed by big money Hollywood in Money Monster, a timely, moderately engaging real-time thriller about a live-TV hostage drama that unfortunately lacks any suspense whatsoever. George Clooney romps gleefully as a Jim Cramer-like broadcast financial commentator until a disaffected young intruder straps an explosive vest on him, forcing Julia Roberts, as the show's producer, to try to save the day while the whole country watches.

One of the scarier impressions created by Jodie Foster's peppy, upright film is that more people may take their financial advice from a guy like Clooney's cynical, clown-like Lee Gates — who issues glib pronouncements on the market while enacting pranks and showing clips from monster and horror films — than from more sober-minded analysts. Too rich himself to even care anymore, Gates has made finance into just one more branch of the entertainment industry, where any misguided predictions can just be tossed aside and forgotten like yesterday's bad joke.

Unfortunately for him this time, a fan who has taken his advice too much to heart decides to exact revenge. Working-class stiff Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) has lost all his money — $60,000 — based on Gates' enthusiasm for an outfit called Ibis Clear Capital, whose stock has just tanked overnight. About 10 minutes into the film, Kyle manages to slip into the studio and suddenly has Gates looking like an ISIS captive, ready to be blown up in front of a worldwide audience if Kyle doesn't like what comes out of the older man's mouth. Much better to be victimized by Ibis than ISIS, the TV pundit might have quipped.

The unsteady Gates has an advantage in being equipped with a virtually invisible earpiece, which allows producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) to feed him instructions and advice on what to say and how to behave. At first, of course, they have to play ball with Kyle, to figure out what he really wants and how he reacts. As he seismically conveyed in the British prison drama Starred Up three years back, O'Connell is great at conveying bottled-up anger as well as its shocking release. Part of the problem in the script by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf is that Kyle explodes at the beginning and, having shot the works, soon lets his anger subside. By the final stretch, he has very little to say at all, leaving it to the rich and famous to sort things out.

Although the virtually real-time format is maintained (there would seem to be a bit of cheating here and there, given the variety of locations and time zones introduced), the story fans out as Patty bears down by phone on Ibis' communications director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), whose job it is to protect the reputation of her jet-setting CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) but whose official stories about the boss soon crumble as his chronic lying becomes irrefutable.

The real-time conceit is ready-made to serve the cause of suspense, and it should be remembered that Clooney has shown a rare predilection among contemporary artists for the format, having done live broadcasts of both E.R. and Fail Safe for television. Unfortunately, as a director, Foster shows no knack or instinct for building tension; her style is strictly presentational, brisk and efficient, but with no sly trickery, desire to surprise or to forge technique that suggests an imaginative approach to storytelling. There's nothing subversive or disquieting in the imagery or editing, which is to say that she learned little about creating suspense from working with the likes of Scorsese, Demme and Fincher.

Money Monster therefore emerges as a pretty ordinary film about an extraordinary predicament, one in which the writers contrived to bring all the principals together down on Wall Street. The wrap-up, and the way it too easily employs both comeuppance and tragedy, is rather too neat for real life, and there's a feel-good aspect to it as well in the way the sneaky, morals-free culprit is forced to be held to account in the most public and embarrassing way possible. It's a fantasy, in other words.

While pointed at times, the script should have been a couple of notches wittier and more caustic than it is, and a few vivid character actors surrounding the big stars would have been welcome as well — the sort of things that the old Hollywood provided as a matter of course.

Clooney doesn't play a doofus here as he has done repeatedly for the Coen brothers, but his Lee Gates could be a smarter, more successful but jaded second cousin to those rascals. Attached to a phone or microphone most of the time, Roberts has little to play other than on-point efficiency through most of the tight running time, and her best scenes involve her exchanges with the fellow female executive intriguingly played by Balfe (intriguing in that the actress makes you aware that there's much more to her character than meets the eye or that is touched upon in the script). West has no trouble letting the audience feel all the scorn it can summon for the heedlessly amoral, and criminal, big-money guy, by which time poor, working-class Kyle has been frustratingly sidelined in favor of the fat cats.

Now You See Me 2 *½

Two of the stars from 2013’s magician caper Now You See Me, Isla Fisher and Mélanie Laurent, have pulled a smooth disappearing act for the sequel. In Fisher’s case, this had something to do with a pregnancy before cameras rolled, but one begins to smell a rat: perhaps a silicone fake belly, or planned adoption?

They must have figured out what new cast member Daniel Radcliffe has not: that the best attitude to Now You See Me 2 is simply to go nowhere near it.

This inane franchise treats its audience like patsies — essentially casting us as the gullible, whooping masses it puts on screen during its glitzy Vegas conjuring shows, where a trickster posse known as the Four Horsemen keep staging appearances, while finessing simultaneous heists across the world. Like a coloured ribbon whipping through one ear and out the other, the plot bypasses your brain with overconfident flourishes that can’t disguise how amateurish it all is.

The ridiculous fame of these characters — Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco are now joined by Fisher replacement Lula (Lizzy Caplan) — already makes them hard enough to like. But they also come across as certifiable, with their mad banter about false sleeves, bird tricks and habit of endlessly flicking cards about during passages of downtime.

If the camera pulled back to reveal this whole charade as a high-concept production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you wouldn’t be wholly surprised.

The Nurse Ratched trying to quash these bizarre antics is "magic debunker" Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman), who got shafted at the end of the last one, and is now in prison. For circuitous reasons, Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent (who’s in on the games, remember? You don’t? Never mind) has to bust Freeman loose, but the movie completely bails on the Houdini possibilities of a prison break. He’s granted leave to walk right out — where’s the fun in that?

Meanwhile, the other four are whisked without their knowledge to Macau, where Radcliffe’s Walter Mabry, the tech tycoon son of Michael Caine’s insurance bigwig, makes them an offer they can’t refuse: they have to steal some all-important data-mining chip from under a casino, or else.

Radcliffe makes a good first impression — he’s so darn likeable as an actor, almost embarrassingly sincere, that it briefly looks like he’s going to charm the film out of trouble. It’s tediously inevitable, though, that the boy wizard has to turn bad here, and duplicitous egomania isn’t something he does nearly as well.

So many sequences — take the five straight minutes of ensemble card-palming needed to purloin that chip — make no sense even by the film’s own flashy logic. Just when we thought Eisenberg had reached a nadir of up-himself tomfoolery as Lex Luthor, he makes rain stop in Greenwich and vanishes into the pavement.

Meanwhile, Harrelson has to play his character’s twin brother, with false teeth and a curly wig, for double unamusement. When we're bored during dialogue scenes, looking at Franco’s will-this-do face becomes oddly hypnotic, if depressing.

Constructed to fool the viewer with layer upon layer of lame cheats and moth-eaten devices, the film has nothing on its mind but sinking you gently into an in-flight stupor.

Other new releases this week
Neon Bull ***½ The film is filthy with nuanced moments of fierce, sweaty intimacy, all shot with a precise eye for detail. At the very least, it will make you rethink your next rodeo.

What Happened, Miss Simone? *** Features some of the best concert footage and musical performances in recent music documentary memory, even if it never quite answers the question in its title.

From Afar *** The movie’s disquieting tone unfolds with a familiar kind of naturalism — devoid of soundtrack, it develops an engrossing reality filled with pregnant pauses and fragmented exchanges. There’s a palpable despair to this scenario rooted in the authenticity of its environment.

Tale of Tales *** Director Matteo Garrone has created a world of both rich and ugly textures — visual, narrative and imaginative — that transports, delights and imparts disturbing lessons.

Hockney **½ There are beautiful moments from David Hockney’s home-video stash in this thoughtful documentary..

The Ones Below **½ A creepy genre exercise by a craftsman finding his groove.

Genius ** Not nearly as smart as it should be.

Buddymoon ** This is the kind of buddy comedy where you have to take a giant leap of faith just to believe these two characters would ever be friends.

EqualsIts few saving graces are some decent shot-making, a rather great score and the loveliness of its lead actors' faces.

Compadres ½* This is a movie which you’d call a god-awful mess.

Nina ½* The whole endeavor seems like a bad idea badly executed, and one can only imagine that Nina Simone, a fierce advocate of black pride and empowerment, would be aghast at this cheesy rendition of the later years of her life. Strange that this misfire is released the same week as a better-made documentary about the singer.

The Darkness ½* This is pretty much a total bust — it isn’t scary, it isn’t exciting and it plods along at such a snails pace that even though it clocks in at just over 90 minutes, it plays like it runs at least twice that.

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