Friday, January 20, 2017

My final 2017 Oscar nominations predictions

The Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday morning so I figured this would be as good a time as any to look into my cracked crystal ball to forecast the results (listed alphabetically):

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester By the Sea

Damen Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
(Possible: Denzel Washington, Fences)

Amy Adams, Arrival
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
(Possible: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins; Ruth Negga, Loving)

Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion

Adapted Screenplay
Nocturnal Animals
(Possible: Hidden Figures)

Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester By the Sea

La La Land

Costume Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

Film Editing
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
(Possible: Manchester By the Sea, Silence)

Make-Up and Hairstyling
Florence Foster Jenkins
Star Trek Beyond

Production Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book
La La Land
(Possible: Arrival)

La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

"Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," La La Land
"Can't Stop the Feeling," Trolls
"City of Stars," La La Land
"How Far I'll Go," Moana
"Runnin'," Hidden Figures
(Possible: "Try Everything," Zootopia)

Sound Editing
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Possible: The Jungle Book)

Sound Mixing
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Possible: The Jungle Book)

Visual Effects
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Animated Feature
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Red Turtle

Documentary Feature
The Eagle Huntress
I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America

Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
My Life As a Zucchini
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

Animated Short
The Head Vanishes
Inner Workings
Sous Tes Doights

Documentary Short
Joe's Violin
The Mute's House
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Live Action Short
Nocturne in Black
The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy
Sing Mindenki
The Way of Tea

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The 25 Best Films of 2016

The Oscar Nominations will be announced in a week so with that in mind I thought it was time to list my selections for the best films of last year:

1. Moonlight

2. Manchester By the Sea
3. La La Land
4. Patterson
5. Elle
6. Hell or High Water
7. Krisha
8. Love & Friendship
9. Little Men
10. The Handmaiden
11. Weiner
12. Kubo and the Two Strings
13. Everybody Wants Some
14. De Palma
15. The Witch
16. Don’t Think Twice
17. The Lobster
18. Embrace of the Serpent
19. 20th Century Women
20. Silence
21. Arrival
22. Certain Women
23. Moana
24. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
25. A War

Monday, January 16, 2017

This week's DVD releases

The Girl on the Train *½

Paula Hawkins is on record as disliking comparisons of her sensationally successful 2015 best-seller The Girl on the Train to the previous "girl" crime fiction smash, Gone Girl. There's no doubt that Tate Taylor, the director of the film version of Hawkins' novel, will also object to having his work held up next to David Fincher's cinematic take on Gone Girl, as the juxtaposition will certainly not be to his benefit.

A morose, grim and intensely one-dimensional thriller about an alcoholic's struggle to make sense of a close-to-home murder as well as her own mind, this major release from Universal can count on a panting public to rent or steam this when it first becomes available tomorrow. But this train may hit a yellow commercial light sooner than expected down the line.

Distinguished only by a quite extraordinary musical score by Danny Elfman, working in an entirely uncharacteristic mode, and some adventurous camerawork from Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the film is very faithful to the book both structurally and in dramatic incident. The changes lie elsewhere: The setting has been shifted from greater London to the New York City suburbs, the milieu is much more upscale than in the book and the title character in the film is both more physically attractive and less ironic than on the page.

As the cinema is arguably the artistic medium most conducive to conveying sustained voyeurism, this particular story held a great deal of potential. The first mistake of cast-off ex-wife Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is to continue to live in immediate proximity to her ex, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux), and his beautiful new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), especially now that they have a baby, something a jealous Rachel was unable to produce.

While drowning her sorrows with the bottle and having long since lost her job due to drunkenness, Rachel spies on and harasses Tom and Anna with persistent phone calls, unwanted visits and, unbeknownst to them, prying looks as Rachel passes by their house twice a day on the Metro North commuter line on her way to idle days in the city.

Along this river route also lies the house shared by ultra-macho Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) and his gorgeous young mate Megan (Haley Bennett), who not only bears an acute resemblance to Anna but, at the outset, works as the nanny for Anna's child. Rachel likes to spy on her, too, and one day her prying eyes hit pay dirt when she spots Megan on an upstairs deck kissing a man who is decidedly not her husband.

In fact, it is the local ladies' favorite shrink, dreamy-looking Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), a problematic character in that, a) he has some professional ethics issues he ought to sort out, b) he just sort of disappears from the narrative at a certain point and c) his name suggests Middle Eastern descent (explicitly so in the book) but the role is performed with a light Spanish accent. Once it was decided to cast Ramirez, an excellent actor, why not just change the character's name instead of inviting perplexity?

The sometimes formidable screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has retained Hawkins' storytelling architecture, which involves shuffling three female first-person points of view as well as hopscotching among past and present time frames. Still, the central voice belongs to Rachel, who spends a good deal of her time trying to remember the details of an awful drunken night when something very bad happened.

The problem, however, is that Rachel just can't stay off the sauce. Taylor and his cinematographer move the camera around in any number of disorienting, unsteady, focus-changing ways to communicate the protagonist's instability. But the bottom line is that what we're looking at much of the time is a woman with bleary eyes, blotchy complexion and a demeanor of sour discontent who nonetheless remains movie-star pretty. In the book, Rachel says of herself, "I am no longer desirable, I'm off-putting in some way. It's not just that I've put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it's as if people can see the damage written all over me … ." Try as the actress might, all of Blunt's grimaces, slurred words and unbalanced walking don't really convince that she is Rachel; it feels like an act.

But the real problem is that she's a drag, as is virtually everyone else who populates this dire tale of serial misbehavior among would-be-but-not-really friends. The puzzle of how the various personal and narrative pieces will eventually fit together exerts a smidgen of interest, but the characters are so dour and lacking dimension as to invite no curiosity about them. The two main men, Tom and Scott, are humorless, ornery, sexually presumptuous and incapable of saying an interesting word about anything. The women aren't much better: The sullen Megan resembles a beautiful zombie, Anna can think or speak of little other than her baby and Rachel only with great difficulty emerges from her booze-soaked cocoon. Taylor's first feature was called Pretty Ugly People; that could equally serve as the title for this one.

All of this wouldn't matter quite so much if the central mystery had been more compelling. But the ever-present possibility of trick endings to the side, it isn't too difficult to come up with the most rational supposition as to who the baddie is, and the revelation, when it comes, isn't the least bit gasp-inducing. The other suspense rates as little more than curiosity, as to whether or not Rachel will ever pull herself together and pour the hooch down the drain instead of down her throat.

A few nice character performances lurk around the edges, including those by Allison Janney as an approachable cop; Laura Prepon, given too little screen time as Rachel's indulgent landlady; and especially Lisa Kudrow, who brings exceptional verve to a nothing role.

The lone creative element to command coercive interest here is Elfman's score, which employs sonic currents of tonal irregularities, pulsations and mood instigators rather than melodies, typical tension tropes or any of his trademark gambits from the Tim Burton collaborations. He almost makes the film seem good from time to time.

Keeping Up with the Joneses *
Greg Mottola has made some fine contributions to big-screen comedy — including sweet-and-salty teen flicks Adventureland and Superbad — but his new film, Keeping Up With the Joneses, is decidedly not one of them.

Stale as week-old bread and every bit as bland, the movie saddles a strong cast with a groaningly ineffectual script (courtesy of Michael LeSieur, who wrote 2006’s You, Me and Dupree) and wastes the director’s gift for bringing lived-in charm and feeling to broad comic premises. It’s been obvious for a while now, but bears repeating: At a time when we’re spoiled with satisfyingly funny small-screen options, laugh-challenged fare like Keeping Up With the Joneses just doesn’t cut it. Why shell out anything for this junk if you can tune into the latest season of Black-ish, check out new gems like HBO’s Insecure, FX’s Better Things and Amazon’s Fleabag, or just google Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL? Even by standards of low-IQ escapism, the film falls short. At least Masterminds, another recent goof-fest headlined by Keeping Up With the Joneses star Zach Galifianakis, gave the actor an epically awful pageboy hairdo to divert our attention from its disappointments.

Mottola’s movie wasn’t without potential. There's an appealing quaintness to its story of a married couple who become convinced their glamorous neighbors are spies. Unlike most studio comedies these days, Keeping Up With the Joneses isn’t brashly vulgar, nor does it try, aside from a lame Caitlyn Jenner joke, to be zeitgeisty. The problem is that it doesn’t really try at all. Imagine Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery plus I Love You, Man, multiplied by Mr. & Mrs. Smith, divided by TV series The Americans. Minus all the wit, spark and deftness.

Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) enjoy a life of comfortable if numbing suburban averageness in the Atlanta area. He’s a straight-arrow HR manager who cheerfully submits employees to asinine trust games and conflict resolution exercises. She’s a perky interior decorator suffering from a lack of inspiration. With their kids at camp for the summer, Jeff and Karen vow to spend some quality time together, but empty-nest syndrome starts to take hold.

That’s when distraction, and possibly danger, arrives in the genetically blessed forms of Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), who move into the house next door. Tim, a travel writer, speaks multiple languages and has a head of hair made for shampoo commercials. His wife Natalie is a social media editor and food blogger with runway-ready legs and cheekbones for days. Jeff and Tim begin a tentative bromance — dorky Jeff seems flattered that the suave, casually macho Tim even acknowledges his existence — but Karen decides that "there’s something off" about the Joneses. When she finds Tim snooping around upstairs during a barbecue hosted by the Gaffneys, she sets out to do some snooping of her own.

Thuddingly obvious hijinks ensue as Karen, "incognito" in a hat and sunglasses, follows Natalie around town — an operation that concludes with the two women facing off in a lingerie store dressing room. (The movie’s use of lesbian "tension" to titillate and amuse, culminating in an especially depressing girl-on-girl kiss, feels dated and desperate.)

Mottola and LeSieur fumble the big set pieces, including a sequence that finds the Gaffneys breaking into the Jones residence to look for clues; the rhythm is off, the jokes don’t land, the gags are sluggish and unimaginative. You know things are dire when one of the most amusing bits consists of Jeff accidentally smashing Karen’s head into a wall. Even scenes that have a flicker of comic invention — as when, toward the end of the film, the Joneses start bickering at a diner, the sexy, unflappable twosome momentarily unraveled by the same neuroses that haunt normal couples — peter out before they get good.

Galifianakis, in what might be described as the Will Ferrell role, has a few giggle-worthy lines (sitting down at an underground Chinese eatery, he marvels, "Look at all these little ethnic condiments!"). But it's safe to say the actor is better at playing creepy man-children than regular squares. He and the always likeable Fisher pull faces and do pratfalls, throwing their considerable skill and timing at material that, apart from a throwaway touch or two (there's a good quip about crooked British teeth), is essentially irredeemable.

Hamm offers up a breezy variation on his tormented Mad Men protagonist Don Draper, and he's a pleasure — the only one who doesn't seem to be trying too hard. Gadot looks fittingly stunning and bad-ass, though on the basis of her work here, comedy may not be her strong suit.

The sparse supporting cast includes Veep's terrific Matt Walsh, an inadvertent reminder of how much more fun we could be having watching something else.

This Week’s Other New Releases
Zero Days *** Because the movie’s subjects who are best positioned to provide new information are also the least likely to talk, much of the movie is devoted to rehashing previously published reports, which director Alex Gibney does with both cogency and style.
Ouija: Origin of Evil **½ The movie takes a while to get going, and the demonic possession plot pretty much runs on rails. And yet there’s plenty to admire here: strong performances (E.T. legend Henry Thomas is a welcome sight as a kindly priest), top-notch jump-scares, and some unexpected lovely, almost Far From Heaven-ish autumnal photography.
The Whole TruthPlays like an especially claustrophobic courtroom procedural, drably photographed and generically framed.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

This Week's DVD Releases

The Birth of a Nation **½

Audaciously appropriating the title of the first blockbuster in Hollywood history a century later to turn its racial agenda upside down, director-writer-lead Nate Parker at last brings the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to the screen in a potent if also somewhat pokey manner that will nonetheless hit home with many viewers. A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that generated a great deal of media attention and controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons; creatively, it’s a far cry better than Stanley Kramer, but it’s no Son of Saul either.

Parker refused acting jobs for the time it took to get this project launched, itself a good story. But the real story is Turner’s, a film of which has cried out to be made for decades and once almost was, by Norman Jewison, as an adaptation of William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but subsequently disparaged 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Recognized as unusually bright at an early age, Nat Turner was taught to read and eventually groomed as a preacher for his fellow slaves in Southampton, Virginia. Even though he had to pick cotton, he didn’t have it as bad as many of his color did, but eventual exposure to the deepest horrors of the "peculiar institution" roused him to action, as did his unusual religious visions and revised interpretations of biblical passages.

In Parker’s script, the story for which he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin, young Nat Turner (Parker) is largely shielded from the worst depredations by a master roughly his own age, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who’s trying to keep his father’s plantation going through difficult financial times. Nat can even exercise a degree of influence over Samuel, as when he suggests that Samuel buy the attractive teenage slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so he, Nat, can marry her. Outsiders sometimes fault Samuel for his relatively light hand, and Nat helps protect his fellow slaves from the worst of the worst.

With careful but arguably undue deliberation, the film offers a succession of vivid (if just briefly gory) set-piece depictions of white-on-black brutality, beginning with the dental torture of a slave on a nearby plantation who’s gone on a hunger strike. Cherry is attacked for no reason and, for his part, Nat is struck for merely preaching to slaves whose owners are more sadistically inclined than his own.

When Nat is discovered to have baptized a white man, it’s simply too much for the local bigots, who have him whipped something fierce. Slowly but decisively, Nat’s personal scales of justice begin to tilt the other way; a man who once dueled another over conflicting interpretations in the Gospel, Nat now takes the edict "smite the oppressor" to heart, using it as grounds to mount a slave insurrection that he intends will spread and deliver his people from tyranny.

The screenplay builds up to this moment with care and even a degree of preciousness. On top of that, the direction has its moments of eloquence and a handful of memorable images, particularly one near the end, a backward tracking shot revealing numerous bodies hanging from trees in a glade. All the same, the deliberate and unvaried sense of pacing becomes monotonous, just as turbulent dramatic undercurrents and a sense of building narrative momentum are increasingly missed.

By the same token, the staging of Nat Turner’s climactic nocturnal raid on white households, during which between 55 and 65 people were killed, mostly with axes and knives, could have been made more sweeping and affecting. Partly, perhaps, it might have been a matter of budget and shooting time, but a master action director could have made this into an amazing sustained sequence that ideally would have swept the viewer up in the horror of it all while provoking profoundly complex reactions due to its underpinnings.

As it is, Parker conveys the basics of what happened but without the more profound sense of what this incident represented morally, politically and historically. He also severely telescopes Turner’s final weeks on Earth, a period that could have been developed into an exceedingly dramatic chapter of its own.

Still, the film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance to not at all be considered a missed opportunity. Far more of the essentials made it into the film than not; its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt, and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.

As he must, Parker dominates the proceedings as Turner in a carefully judged and non-showy performance. He well suggests the man’s early prudence and tact in judging what he can effect and get away with and what he can’t, and also illuminates the man’s emotional and pastoral concern for others. His transformation into a man of action is perhaps less convincingly dramatized, even if his motives are clear.

Beginning with Hammer as a man who here and there suggests that, under different circumstances, he might not necessarily have felt compelled to enforce the prejudices and practices he inherited, the supporting cast is solid, albeit without the array of stellar supporting turns that graced 12 Years a Slave.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ shooting on Georgia locations is astutely judged and particularly notable in the night shooting. Henry Jackman’s score is unusually varied and draws upon multiple musical traditions and references to fine effect.

Deepwater Horizon **½
On the night of April 20, 2010, more than 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon suffered a series of explosions. On board was a crew of 126, of whom 11 died. Two days later, the rig sank, and more than two hundred million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill has lodged in the popular imagination as the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, and the legal consequences, too, were unprecedented. British Petroleum, to whom the rig was leased, has paid $61.6 billion in fines, cleanup costs, and compensation. So, if you’re making a film of this tumultuous saga, what kind of tale should you tell?

At the start, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon feels like a courtroom drama. With the screen still black, we hear a clip from the testimony of a witness, promising "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." A likely story. The rest of the movie is no more concerned with litigation than it is with ecological fallout, unless you count a cameo appearance by a distressed pelican. Instead, what Berg has done — as he did in The Kingdom (2007), which sprang from attacks on Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, and Lone Survivor (2013), based on a Special Forces operation in Afghanistan — is to take a complex and unwieldy episode and strip it down to its essential moving parts. So efficient has he become at this that the Bergian brand can now be relied on to make doomed or devastated events resound like triumphs. He is the ideal filmmaker, you could argue, for a nation that continues to smart from the wounds of unpopular wars.

None of this can be accomplished without a hero, preferably one who verges on the herculean. Mark Wahlberg, who played the title character in Lone Survivor, returns in the more peaceable part of Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the rig. We see him, before his departure for a three-week shift, hanging out with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), who helpfully declaims a school essay on what her father does for a living. By rights, these scenes should be as corny as hell, and yet they do the trick, as do Mike’s exchanges, later on, with his co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and his boss, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), because the actors feel not just grounded but bedded down in their roles. Russell, in particular, seems so weathered and toughened by time as to be indestructible. When the explosion hits, Mr. Jimmy, as the crew calls him, is in the shower; though naked and half-blinded by the blast, he plucks a jagged shard from his foot, tugs on his overalls and boots, and gets to work.

The screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, have designed the dialogue both to instruct and to overwhelm. Technical terms abound, lending a rich and glutinous texture to the talk. Mud means not mud but drilling fluid. We hear of kill lines, blowout preventers, negative pressure tests, and something called the bladder effect, which I would rather not know about. The highlight comes when the phrase "confidence in the integrity of our cement job" issues from the lips of John Malkovich. He plays a senior honcho from BP on the rig. Malkovich is the only actor, I would say, who juts out from the surface of the film — as riveting as ever, yet savoring his villainy just a little too much.

True to the ever-disturbing laws of disaster movies, we wait hungrily for the Deepwater Horizon to blow. When that happens, the conflagration is so extreme that one can’t quite tell whether Berg is still pursuing a logical narrative or switching to barely controlled chaos. This is where Wahlberg comes into his own. We follow Mike’s exploits as if we were clinging to a guardrail, watching in awe as he rescues Mr. Jimmy, strives to engage the emergency generator, and climbs to a perilous height, the better to leap for his life, with the ocean blazing below. In short, Peter Berg has done it again. You finish this film shaken with excitement, but with a touch of shame, too, at being so easily thrilled.

The Accountant **
"How can you make a financial intrigue thriller more exciting than average?" You can almost hear screenwriter Bill Dubuque ask that question and then crack his knuckles during the opening minutes of The Accountant. Said opening minutes, directed with customary nose-to-the-grindstone conviction by Gavin O’Connor, feature a strange scene of an urban mob massacre, tinged in sepia and boasting a lot of faux-celluloid graininess, to imply "period grit." Then there is another scene, set in 1989, at a home for neurologically impaired kids, run by a kindly doctor who explains to a cranky dad and a less cranky mom why their "different" son might have a better chance at adjusting to life in the world if he spends a summer at the institute. Said kid, watched over by his brother, puts together a jigsaw puzzle not only scarily quick, but also in a VERY novel way.

The next scene takes us to the present day, where a strip mall accountant named Christian Wolff (the allusion is to the German philosopher and mathematician, not the contemporary avant-garde musician and composer, and you can only imagine how let down I am by that), an affectless fellow played by Ben Affleck (who, frankly, is trying a little too hard to be flat — the strain shows), dazzles a couple of his clients with tax code wizardry anyone who’s ever filed under "self-employed" will recognize as pretty basic. And then we are whisked to the Department of The Treasury, where avuncular bigwig Ray (J.K. Simmons) delivers some exposition on a mystery man — the fellow played by Affleck, as we already know. "He’s their accountant, an accountant, ‘the’ accountant," Simmons says, sounding like he’s setting up an episode of The Blacklist. The junior officer he’s telling all this to, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, is intrigued. And soon she’s annoyed, as Simmons dredges some stuff up from her past to effectively blackmail her into tracking "the accountant" down for him.

There’s quite a bit of stuff going on here, and for a good while The Accountant percolates on its multiplicity of plot threads even as it keeps adding to them. As it happens, the "accountant" that the Treasury agents are looking for is up to quite a bit more than providing tax relief for rural dwellers. He uncooks the books for a slew of deadly bad guys. Deadly bad guys who are, an observant viewer will note, subsequently busted by the Treasury Department. Despite his proximity to some of the most dangerous criminals in the known universe, this man of dozens of aliases stays alive. How? Part of the answer is provided by the recurring flashbacks, in which Wolff’s father (Robert C. Treveiler) provides young Christian with his more militaristic cure, which later manifests itself in sharpshooting and martial arts skills. I admit that it is a novel idea to take a Rain Man-type character and also make him into a Lethal Killing Machine, but it’s also in kind of bad taste, something the movie tries to ameliorate by depicting autism with sympathy and some progressive accuracy. Despite the fact that he has oodles of cash and precious art at his disposal, the accountant’s life is a welter of pain, much of it in the form of self-punishment. The viewer is left to wonder why he plays the dangerous games he does.

At that point, the nice British-accented woman who seems to be the only person he can truly trust, and with whom he communicates only by phone, tells him that it’s time for him to take on a "legit" big client, and plops him in the lap of a high-tech prosthetic firm headed by John Lithgow. Turns out that Dana, one of that firm’s accountants, played by Anna Kendrick — doing, as she did in Up in the Air, fine work in a Non-Romantic-Romantic-Interest role — has discovered a discrepancy. Christian uncooks it, as they say … and then very nasty assassins are dispatched to kill both Christian and Dana.

Here the action heats up. Christian kills a guy who looks a bit like Vice mascot and rapper Action Bronson, in a scene that is far and away my favorite in the movie. A very effective hitman/financial-malfeasance-avenging-angel played by Jon Bernthal shows up. The plot, as they say, thickens.

And then it goes south. It goes very far south, with two plot reveals that are among the most ludicrous that I’ve experienced in quite some time. The worse of the two twists is made genuinely hilarious by the cutaways to Lithgow watching things unfold on his home security cam monitors and looking in disbelief — echoing the likely expressions of the viewer. In any event, it certainly DOES succeed in being more "exciting," say, than 1981's Rollover. But excitement isn’t always positive.

Other New Releases This Week:
Under the Shadow ***½ A rare genre film of emotional and political complexity, one that’s well acted and directed, even if the psychological horror is front and center.
Closet Monster ***½ Canadian writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature treads no new ground in basic outline. But the risk taking confidence with which he weaves his sardonic magical-realist elements, not to mention his unpredictable yet assure approaches to style and tone, makes this an auspicious debut.
Kevin Hart: What Now? **½ At times throughout this concert film, Hart’s brash honesty about himself can feel liberating.
Max Steel ½* May promise a change of pace from all the Marvel and DC adaptations, but it’s subpar to both those shared universes on every level, telling an origin story that brings little new to the table and a cast that deserves far better.

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

Monday, January 2, 2017

This Week's DVD Releases

Denial **½

At the nasty center of the otherwise dutiful Denial is a slimy, self-aggrandizing upper-class blowhard of a bigot who believes he has every right to circulate hateful and hurtful falsehoods to his followers — including white supremacists and Neo-Nazis — without suffering consequences or being called out for his actions.

That might sound somewhat like déjà vu to anyone who followed the recent presidential campaign. But apparently the notion that a lie repeated often and loudly enough will somehow magically become a fact is not a new tactic.

As despicable as the "birther" movement might be, the historical event that is being negated in this morally-charged legal procedural is a whopper way beyond the usual pale: That Adolf Hitler never ordered the extermination of six million European Jews during World War II. In other words, the Holocaust didn’t exist.

I doubt the filmmakers, including seasoned director Mick Jackson (whose varied resume includes 1992’s The Bodyguard and 2010’s HBO biopic Temple Grandin) and screenwriter David Hare (The Hours) knew that their timing would be so perfect eight years ago. That’s when they began adapting American academic and author Deborah E. Lipstadt’s first-hand account of the 1996 libel lawsuit brought against her by British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving.

But despite two terrifically nuanced performances by its male leads and a good try by its somewhat miscast female star, the simmering dramatics behind Denial never quite reach a satisfying boil of righteous indignation and justice served that was felt in 2015’s similar Spotlight, the expose about the uncovering of the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal.

The film opens with the first public encounter between Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, exuding intense intelligence yet too soon turned into a bystander) and Irving (Timothy Spall, greedily soaking up the attention and grandly oozing smug know-it-all-ness from every pore). The bluntly outspoken Queens native is appearing at a speaking engagement at Emory University in Atlanta, where she teaches Jewish studies, for her new book on Holocaust deniers. A scheming Irving, along with several video-shooting cohorts, crashes her lecture and tries to engage her in a debate. When she refuses to indulge him, Irving grabs center stage by offering $1,000 — money in hand — to anyone who can show that Nazis killed Jews by gassing them at Auschwitz.

Soon after, Lipstadt learns that Irving is suing her and publisher Penguin for libel after labeling him a Holocaust denier in her work. That leads to a trial held in England, where — unlike the States — defendants are guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof is on the good guys, which essentially means that the author and her legal team must somehow provide evidence that the Holocaust really occurred — no easy task since the Nazis made sure to destroy signs of their horrific genocide.

The story is primarily told from Lipstadt’s Yankee fish-out-of-water point of view — underlined by her heavy accent and rust-hued perm — a choice that ultimately keeps the audience at bay as well. Rather than having a single defense lawyer, the British legal system with its wigs and robes requires a solicitor (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty on TV’s Sherlock, as a defamation expert who once represented Princess Diana in her divorce and is tasked with coming up with the strategy) and a barrister (Tom Wilkinson, who singlehandedly elevates the third act with a towering display of human resolve, dedication and decency as a libel expert who presents the argument in court). But other specifics about the case cause Lipstadt even more consternation. She won’t be testifying even though Irving is acting as his own representative in court, no living Holocaust survivors will be called as witnesses (to save them from being humiliated by Irving, we are told, but you have to believe they have withstood far worse) and the lone decider of the verdict will be a judge instead of a jury.

While the lawsuit attracted rabid press coverage around the world, don’t expect a depiction of the kinds of colorful behind-the-scenes shenanigans that drove TV’s hugely popular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Much like Lipstadt, viewers aren’t privy to the inner workings of the defense except in dribs and drabs. True, Irving comes up with a sort of catchy slogan akin to O.J. lawyer Johnny Cochran’s most memorable phrase, "If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit." In this case, it’s "No holes, no Holocaust" — referring to the supposed lack of rooftop openings for the Nazis to drop poison pellets into gas chambers at concentration camps. The sight of reporters rushing out to call in the headline-ready refrain is meant to have us think that all might be lost. But if that were the case, there would be no reason for this film to exist.

What we do get instead is the rare location shoot in a non-documentary film at the actual Auschwitz. If Jackson does anything right, it is his solemn treatment of the visit made by Lipstadt and her lawyers to the site. First seen in the pre-dawn darkness with a blanket of snow and eerie pockets of fog, it is one of the few times that Denial vividly drives home what is at stake in this lawsuit. Add to that the footage of mountainous piles of shoes and eyeglasses encased behind glass as part of an exhibit, and it is difficult not to be at least partly invested in the movie’s outcome. These scenes, and the look of utter repulsion that washes over Wilkinson’s face as he refuses to make eye contact with Spall’s Irving while delivering his final verbal coup d’etat, are the saving grace of a film that too often denies its audience a chance to feel the same.

Blair Witch
In 1999, the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment introduced horror fans to The Blair Witch Project, a film so unique in approach and intent that it became an immediate art house sensation. In a marketing blunder that underestimated the differences between cult horror and its mainstream counterpart, Artisan expanded The Blair Witch Project into multiplexes and the rabid admiration accompanying its limited release turned into a vicious backlash. The distributor subsequently invested in a dreadful 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows, which fared so poorly at the box office that it seemed to bury the legend of The Blair Witch in a deep grave. Apparently, however, Adam Wingard (V/H/S) never forgot the impact of the original and, when given the opportunity to make a sequel, he leaped at the chance. Unfortunately, although Blair Witch owes much to the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, it’s an inferior production. This is as much a result of stylistic and narrative choices as it is a reflection of how the horror landscape has changed in the last 17 years.

When The Blair Witch Project was released, the concept of first-person "found footage" was relatively unheard-of. Although technically not the first of a kind (the dreadful Cannibal Holocaust owns that medal), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s low-budget romp through the woods popularized it. At the time, however, the horror field wasn’t oversaturated by these first-person movies. It was unique and exciting. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create a background story (including a fake website) that duped many viewers into believing that the events depicted in The Blair Witch Project actually happened.

For Blair Witch, although Wingard pays lip service to this, there’s no follow-through. Indeed, in 2016, it wouldn’t work. We accept from the beginning that this is fiction. The title card is problematic, however. It announces that the footage in the movie was (like in The Blair Witch Project) assembled from remnants that were found in the woods near Burkettsville, Md. By aping the way the first movie began, however, the filmmakers effectively inform us that none of the characters are going to make it out alive. That, in turn, saps a lot of the suspense. We’re watching a group of dead men and women walking. In The Blair Witch Project, everything was so creepy and mysterious that it didn’t matter. Here, we know the routine and there are times when the path to the end feels more like a slog than a journey.

The first half-hour is setup. The leader of this exploration into the Black Hills Forest is James (James Allen McCune), the (much) younger brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue. Convinced that a YouTube video shows a glimpse of his sister, he recruits his filmmaker friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and two other buddies, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), to tag along. They are all wired for sound and video with tiny ear cameras, more traditional hand-helds, and even a drone to provide "helicopter shots" for Lisa’s planned documentary. Along the way, they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the couple who unearthed the YouTube footage. They wander into the forest and immediately begin violating "haunted woods" movie rules: (1) Watch where you’re walking if you’re barefoot, (2) Never venture far from camp in search of fire wood, and (3) Set up a rotating watch-person during the night.

Things get creepy fast, although the result, with all the shaky-cam activity and loud noises (replacing the more subtle and effective sound work of The Blair Witch Project), is less frightening than it is confusing (and, for those afflicted with motion sickness, stomach-churning). Every time the lights go out, it sounds like King Kong is crashing through the forest, knocking over trees along the way. Eventually, there’s a betrayal within the group that leads to a reduced number of characters. After that, there are some odd time-travel and reality-bending elements. One character’s injury allows us to experience a hard-core gross-out moment. As for the ending … it resolves nothing but goes on forever. Blair Witch starts to overstay its welcome around the 60-minute mark and, by the time it fades to black at about 85 minutes, we’re more than happy to have things done. The final 15 minutes drag — we know everyone’s going to die, we know they’re going to leave behind footage, so why not get on with it? Protracted shaky-cam wandering around in a haunted house with uneven lighting doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

It’s an interesting thought-piece to speculate whether this movie might have worked better had it replaced The Book of Shadows as the first sequel since it’s similar in many ways to the original. But this is 2016 and not 2000 and the horror genre has moved on. Found footage has evolved from being edgy and interesting to being an overused joke. Jump scares (which Blair Witch relies on too often) have become the province of the lazy filmmaker. Perhaps for someone who never saw The Blair Witch Project, this might represent an adequate scary movie. But for those who have seen Myrick and Sanchez’s calling card, regardless of whether they loved it or hated it, Blair Witch will seem more like a pale homage than a new chapter to the saga.

Other New Releases This Week
Operation Avalanche **½ While the movie balances a spirited celebration of America’s space race ingenuity with a satire about the cleverness of mass deceit, it’s hard to ignore the one thing it understands implicitly: whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, a well-crafted image can sell anything.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life ** It’s a so-so film with jarring tone changes and a plot that sputters before a predictable ending. But there are moments of inspiration and authenticity.

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

We are ready to enter the twilight zone

A political argument worth hearing, considering

I was one of those who believed one of the main reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the recent Presidential election was due to her failure to craft a viable economic message (or really a coherent message of any kind), and enough poor working folks in the swing states voted for Donald Trump in large enough numbers to provide him with an Electoral College majority.

But according to this well-reasoned analysis from Sam Harris (which you can view for yourself below), exit polling revealed that the majority of those who thought the economy was a primary issue in the campaign voted for Clinton. The reasons Trump won, according to Harris, was (1) a desire for change, (2) a rebellion against "political correctness’ and, most important of all, (3) the fear of terrorism and its origins. In trying to embrace all Muslims, Clinton failed to acknowledge the fact that radical Islam is responsible, in the minds of most voters, for the insecurities they feel as a result of terrorist activities.

At the same time, however, it must also be recognized that Harris mentions, but, in my mind, glosses over the real reason for Clinton’s loss. And that comes when he notes than Clinton received 10 million less votes than Obama in 2008 and six million less than the outgoing President won in 2012. That to me is really the crux of the problem. Too many Obama supporters simply did not, for one reason or another, like Clinton and they either voted for Trump, a third party candidate or simply did not vote at all. I know because I am one of those who will gladly admit supporting Obama in his two elections, but who could not, under any circumstances, find a way to vote for Clinton. And my decision was not based on her views on anything because, having worked with the Clintons in previous professional incarnations, I am fully aware of her political vision or lack of same. I voted for a third party candidate because I didn’t think Trump was qualified and because I didn’t trust Clinton. One of the main reasons I couldn’t trust her was not only her complete lack of political integrity, but the fact that I simply could not get past the notion that for the last quarter of a century whenever I saw or heard the word "Clinton," I would also see or hear the word "scandal."

At any rate, Harris makes some interesting points here and it is something to consider.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The 25 Best (and worst) Films Released on DVD in 2016

1. CAROL **** Made of crystal and suppressed tears, shot eternally through windows and mirrors and half-closed doors, Todd Haynes’s film is a love story that starts as a trickle, swells gradually to a torrent, and finally bursts the banks of your heart. A beautiful film in every way, immaculately made, and featuring two pristine actresses glowing across rooms and tousled bedclothes at each other like beacons of tentative, unspoken hope.

2. 45 YEARS **** If you prefer acting prowess over Star Wars, you won’t do better than observing Charlotte Rampling (she of the withering stare) and Tom Courtenay (he of the soulful gaze), two stalwarts of that wonderful wave of British talent that hit our shores in the 1960s, as they perform a finely calibrated pas de deux.

3. SPOTLIGHT **** Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy played a weasel of a journalist in The Wire. With this film, he has made a meticulous, exacting procedural on real-life journalists who excelled at their job; had the resources to do it properly; and in early 2002 published the first in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of grim, carefully detailed stories of pedophile priests.

4. SON OF SAUL ***½ A film that is as grim and unyielding depiction of the Holocaust as has yet been made on that cinematically overworked subject — a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload that recasts familiar horrors in daringly existential terms.

5. PHOENIX ***½ Both a powerful allegory for post-war regeneration and a rich Hitchcockian tale of mistaken identity, this film once again proves German filmmaker Christian Petzold and his favorite star, Nina Hoss, are clearly one of the best director-actor duos working in movies today.

6. HELL OR HIGH WATER ***½ By turns funny, elegiac and thrilling, it’s a tale of brotherhood and family that takes in the harsh beauty of the land, the elusive nature of right and wrong and the quirky delights of human connections in a time of bewildering change.

7. ANOMALISA ***½ Even though it is a highly stylized , stop motion animation film featuring puppet-like human characters, it is a pinpoint accurate encapsulation of some of the most banal and some of the most exhilarating moments virtually all of us have experienced in some point in our lives.

8. BROOKLYN ***½ A heartbreaking and poignant story about choices, country, commitments, sacrifice, and love, this is superb, luminous, and bittersweet portrayal of who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and the places we call home.

9. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP ***½ The funniest, most venomous Jane Austen movie ever made, and conclusive proof that (1) actress Kate Beckinsale has been seriously undervalued by the movies and (2) director Wilt Stillman is a major, distinctive talent.

10. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL ***½ A remarkably vibrant and frank look at one precocious teen’s emerging sexual life — a film with the stuff of life coursing through its veins and sex very much on its brain.

11. ROOM ***½ Amazingly — and this movie is amazing — this is a story of hope, of possibility. Sure, your stomach will be in knots, your fingers clenched, your heart racing. But it will also fill your heart with a sense of the goodness, the courage, the enduring love that is out there to be discovered — and to be held onto with the fierceness of life itself.

12. LITTLE MEN ***½ The remarkable, magical thing about this film is that, at 85 minutes, it’s so whole. With it’s fully formed people and changing places, this is a film you can live in, and think about while you’re there.

13. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS ***½ From its opening image — of a distraught woman battling massive ocean waves on a moonlit night — to its surprisingly ambiguous final shot — of what, I won’t say — this animated feature sears itself into your brain.

14. WEINER ***½ A pair of documentary filmmakers have provided a brilliant window into the impact of the contemporary media circus on public life, While not exactly a figure of sympathy — he lied, after all, more than once — Anthony Weiner nevertheless maintains the charisma and the drive to provide the movie with one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory.

15. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! ***½ Austin-based writer-director Richard Linklater indulges his characters’ antics with such wild, free-flowing affection that you might miss the thoughtful undertow of this delightful movie: Few fimmakers have so fully embraced the bittersweet joy of living in the moment — one that’s all the more glorious because it fades so soon.

16. THE WITCH ***½ A deeply impressive first film by director Robert Eggers, this is immaculately constructed, evinces an exquisitely ominous tone, and is unequivocally haunting. It’s exacting look at the dissonance of human nature is terrifying.

17. DE PALMA ***½ Director Brian De Palma is a true visionary, even if you might not agree with what that vision is. Either way, a trip through his wild and hugely influential filmography is mandatory for any film fan, and that’s just what directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow offer in this documentary.

18. DON’T THINK TWICE ***½ It’s funny and inspiring and harsh and depressing. It’s steeped in existential dread. I don’t know how director Mike Birbiglia pulled it off, but he gets the minutia of an improv-comedy show thrillingly right while using the form to build a kind of allegory of the corrosive effects of capitalism.

19. STEVE JOBS ***½ This is a moving and magnificently crafted story about a person named Steve Jobs who was brought low by pride and arrogance and then redeemed by love. It might be a story that mirrors our dreams and desires, which is what the real Steve Jobs did too, and it that sense maybe it’s directly about him. It’s definitely not about the guy who built and sold computers.

20. THE LOBSTER ***½ A wickedly funny protest against societal preference for nuclear coupledom that escalates, by its own sly logic, into a love story of profound tenderness and originality.

21. CREED ***½ The film mingles go-for-broke romance with bloody pugilist thrills — but instead of feeling like a rehash, it works like gangbusters. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler honors and builds upon the Rocky formula so that it feels both comfortably old-fashioned and bracingly new.

22. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT ***½ Viewed largely though the aggrieved eyes of a shaman whose tribe is on the verge of extinction at the hands to the Colombian rubber barons in the 19th and 20th centuries, this film is a fantastical mixture of myth and historical reality, shatters lingering illusions of first-world culture as more advanced than any other, except technologically.

23. STAR WARS EPISODE 7 — THE FORCE AWAKENS ***½ Frankly, this is some sort of miracle. It works on every imaginable level — as a heartfelt love letter to fans, an irresistible invitation to newbies, a visual marvel and a blockbuster of unparalleled emotional heft and cultural significance.

24. BRIDGE OF SPIES ***½ Director Steven Spielberg has taken an important but largely forgotten and hardly action-packed slice of the Cold War and turned it into a gripping character study and thriller that feels a bit like a John Le Carre adaptation if Frank Capra were at the controls.

25. SICARIO ***½ This movie is a tentacled drug cartel thriller grabbing viewers by the throat and squeezing for two hours. The movie continuously defies the conventions of its genre, from its hero’s gender to the vagueness of its morality.

26. The Big Short ***½
27. Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½
28. A War ***½
29. The Martian ***½
30. Sing Street ***
31. Green Room ***
32. American Honey ***
33. Indignation ***
34. Zootopia ***
35. Finding Dory ***
36. The Jungle Book ***
37. Grandma ***
38. Chi-Raq ***
39. The Revenant ***
40. 10 Cloverfield Lane ***
41. Midnight Special ***
42. Maggie’s Plan ***
43. 99 Homes ***
44. Captain America: Civil War ***
45. Southside with You ***
46. Sully ***
47. A Bigger Splash ***
48. Eye in the Sky ***
49. Hail, Caesar! ***
50. Straight Outta Compton***

1. Mother’s Day (no stars)
2. London Has Fallen ½*
3. Rock the Kasbah ½*
4. Independence Day Resurgence *
5. Warcraft *
6. The Divergent Series: Allegiant *
7. The 5th Wave *
8. The Forest *
9. Alice Through the Looking Glass *
10. Zoolander 2 *
11. The Huntsman: Winter’s War *
12. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 *
13. Ben Hur *
14. Suicide Squad *½
15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows *½
16. The Boss *½
17. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½
18. The Brothers Grimsby *½
19. The Legend of Tarzan *½
20. By the Sea *½
21. The Bronze *½
22. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies *½
23. Now You See Me 2 *½
24. In the Heart of the Sea *½
25. I Saw the Light *½