Sunday, October 15, 2017

Available for home viewing: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ★★½

Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista and a critter
 voiced by Bradley Cooper meet Daddy in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has all the digital bells and whistles as well as much of the likable, self-aware waggery of the first. In many respects, it’s not much different except it all feels a bit strained, as if everyone were trying too hard, especially its writer-director, James Gunn. Most of the ragtag futuristic fighters who powered through Vol 1. three years ago are back on board and led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a cheerily roguish type who calls himself Star-Lord. The name still brings a light smile, even if the movie can’t help but feel as deadly serious as any other lucratively branded Marvel property.

It’s tough being a hitmaker who isn’t weighed down by corporate expectations, but for a while, Gunn does a pretty good job of keeping the whole thing reasonably fizzy, starting with an opener that winks at the audience with big bangs and slapstick. The movie begins in medias res, with Quill and the gang facing down a blobby adversary with fat, snapping tentacles and rows of nasty teeth — the better to eat them with or just tear them limb from limb. The Guardians take whacks at the blob, jumping and thrashing around a patently digital environment that’s vaguely far-out and indeterminate.

These introductions are fairly chaotic, which is the usual blockbuster way. The point is to telegraph the movie you’re about to watch — the threats, fights and winks followed by more threats, fights and winks — as well as to reintroduce the crew members, their skills, traits and foibles. Alternately bulgy and sleek, hairy and shticky, they make for often-amusing company, even if this time Zoe Saldana, as Gamora, the green-skinned Amazon with grave daddy issues, feels more sidelined than before. One problem, it seems, is that Gunn is still holding off on developing the romance between her and Peter that was teased in the first movie, probably because he’s saving it for the next installment.

The larger problem, as it becomes progressively evident, is that this series lacks a resonant origin story, a myth, on which a world, multiple stories and a fan base can rest. The Guardians’ personal stories are continuing to emerge, and the meme that’s in circulation is family, which at times makes it feel as if the movie is taking cues from the Fast and Furious franchise. This explains the testy, at times violent and generally dreary exchanges between Gamora and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), a bald badass itching to deliver payback for their rotten childhood. The performers look fierce as they slam around, squaring jaws and giving good side-eye, but it just feels like narrative filler.

For the most part, Gunn puts much of his storytelling energy into filling in Quill’s origins, after having already dispatched Mom in the first movie. This doesn’t sound promising and isn’t, alas, despite the good will that Kurt Russell brings to the part of Quill’s father, Ego. At one point, Russell, or some version of him, assays the role with a weird, disrupting digital face-lift that’s meant to suggest the young Ego, but really only makes you contemplate whether this Benjamin Button-style age-reversing is going to become an increasingly standard (and creepy) industry practice. It’s a distraction that shows a filmmaker making a bad decision mostly, it seems, because he can afford to.

Still, before Russell is swallowed up by the story and digital effects, he holds you with the laid-back vibe of a Hollywood veteran whose tan and crinkly smile tell you that sunsets and Goldie Hawn are waiting for him back in Cali. He brings an unforced looseness to the movie that it very much needs, especially after Pratt slips into a more sober register in his daddy dearest scenes. Gunn likes to play a scene straight and then jokingly pull the rug out from under it, a trick that, among other things, helps soft-sell the violence. But the father-son stuff plays flatly less because it’s been told before (like, forever) than because he can’t figure out how to playfully kink it up.

At times, Gunn’s ambitions badly backfire. Like the first movie, this one is jammed with action-driven sequences, some wildly bloated and most of them cartoonish. For one fight, though, he cranks the music and lets the screen bleed as the ostensible good guys kill one villain after another, the casualties falling to the sound of a head-bobbing song. Tonally, the episode feels unpleasantly sour and wrong for this young series, which is best when it goes light; it’s a bummer watching another director attempt the kind of smiling sadism that not even Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino can always pull off.

In moments like this, Gunn loses sight of the insouciance and feeling that were crucial to making the first movie work. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 certainly has its attractions, but most of them are visual rather than narrative. Among the most appealing are the animated diorama-like tableaus that Ego uses to narrate his life, each a clue to his character. His private planet, meanwhile, is a kaleidoscopic fantasia that suggests modestly trippy science-fiction and heavy-metal cover art. This look — with its softly clashing colors and soaring stalagmites — seems designed to instigate, at least in some, flashbacks to stacks of yellowing paperbacks and lovingly played rock albums.

Like some of the canned music (Fleetwood Mac, the Electric Light Orchestra), the movie’s visual design gestures toward the past but mostly comes across as a generational yearning for such memories. Perhaps like some directors, Gunn fondly or regretfully looks back on a time when studio filmmakers could more or less do their own thing cinematically. Or maybe he just likes songs like Come a Little Bit Closer, a Top 40 hit about a fickle dance partner that works as a nice metaphor for every movie that wants to fall into the audience’s embrace. The difference is that while the first Guardians earned that love as if by accident, this one begs for it.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: “A Ghost Story” ★★★★

I rarely see a movie so original that I want to tell people to just see it without reading any reviews beforehand, including my own. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is one of those movies. So I’m urging you in the first paragraph of this review to just rent it or stream it and save this review for later. If you want more information, read on. There are no spoiler warnings after this because as far as I’m concerned, everything I could say about this film would constitute a spoiler.

This tale of a man who dies young and lingers around the property where he and his wife once lived is bound to be one of the most divisive films of the year. I didn’t know anything about it going in, except that its main character was a person who dies and spends the rest of the movie walking around mute, wearing a white sheet with eyeholes cut out of it. The film is a ghost story, in the sense that there’s a ghost in it, but it’s also many other things: a love story, a science fiction-inflected story about time travel and time loops, and a story about loneliness and denial, and the ephemeral nature of the flesh, and the anxiousness that comes from contemplating the end of consciousness (provided there’s no life after death — and what if there isn’t?).

The characters are so archetypal that they don’t have names, just initials. C (played by Casey Affleck) is a musician who lives with his wife M (Rooney Mara) in a small house surrounded by undeveloped property somewhere the vast flatness of Texas. C dies in a car crash early in the story but continues to linger on as a ghost, silent observing his wife’s grief and her eventual exit from the home they once shared. He stays in the house as new tenants move in, including a single mother (Liz Franke) and her two children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Guiterrez) and some presumably young, single people who throw parties with lots of bohemian artist-types. Time keeps moving forward, and at a certain point the house gets leveled and replaced by a gigantic luxury condo-hotel type of development. C stays rooted to the spot where he died, as if he’s still stuck in the "denial" phase of the grieving process.

The movie’s two most fascinating formal traits are its decision to keep C under the sheet for much of the film’s running time, and the way it moves its story along with hard cuts instead of dissolves, fades to black or other signifiers that a lot of time has passed. The sheet denies the film’s leading man most of the tools he’d normally use to communicate emotion; he must instead approach the character as if he were onstage in a play where gestures were more important than words, and try to convey surprise, sadness or anger simply by holding his head and shoulders in a particular way, or turning quickly instead of slowly to look at something.

But this opens up a different kind of relationship between character and viewer: we’re projecting ourselves onto C as we might as children playing with dolls or stuffed animals. Simple, powerful emotions can be summoned that way, and it’s those sorts of emotions that are this movie’s specialty. There were many stretches where I was reminded of European art cinema classics like Stalker and The Passenger, which derive much of their power from asking you to commit to staring at the images the film has put in front of you, and think about what they might mean and how you feel about them. There are other times when the film is reminiscent of Groundhog Day, in its ability to weave guilt, karma, and fear of change into a story that might otherwise have played as a light diversion.

The hard cuts that move us through the story convey the idea that C perceives time differently than we do. In a scene that involves decay, which I won’t describe in too much detail here because it occurs in a context I didn’t expect to encounter, a body becomes a skeleton in a series of cuts that last about 30 seconds. The deeper we get into C’s story, the more Lowery teases our perceptions of time, until by the end he’s got us questioning the idea of singular, linear experience. (A Ghost Story would make a great double feature with Shane Carruth’s Primer or Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, two other Texas films about the perception and experience of time.)

A Ghost Story feels bracingly, at times alienatingly new. It’s a movie you can’t be quite sure how to take. There are moments where the movie seems to be handing you keys to interpretation, but I’d caution viewers against looking at such scenes for answers, because they have a rope-a-dope quality — as if they're designed to bait and trap those who would sneer at this kind of movie. In any event, this is a film that's more inclined to ask questions than answer them, much less give life advice. A long monologue by a party guest (Will Oldham) about humanity’s doomed attempts to leave traces that last, especially through art, would seem to suggest that a song C writes for M will outlast him, but we have no evidence of that. The film’s presentation of ghosthood as a purgatorial in-between state, inhabited by individuals who refuse to let go of the life they can no longer have, jibes with many Western religions’ ideas about the afterlife, but I don’t think the resolution of C’s story gives us any hope of Heaven; to me it seemed more like a warning to be at peace with the possibility that we may never know the answers to the big questions.

I should admit here that any take I can offer is provisional. I need to see the film a second time to sweep away preconceived notions that might’ve been lingering in my mind during my first viewing of A Ghost Story. The movie is so simple in its storytelling and its situations are observed so patiently that the result has a disarming purity, as if Lowery jammed a tap into his subconscious and recorded one of his dreams directly to film. It’s probably the closest that a lot of people are going to get to seeing a late-period silent movie on a big screen — a melodrama that deals in big ideas and obvious symbols, and that puts across fantastical concepts, such a ghost haunting the landscape over a period of decades, by putting a sheet over its leading man and having him walk around slowly and stare blankly at stuff. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoots the movie in the old-fashioned, square-ish "Academy" ratio, letting us see the rounded edges of the frame; this has a constricting effect, so that we seem to be spying through a keyhole at someone else’s life.)

People either seem to love A Ghost Story or hate it, with no in-between. It got mostly very positive notices during festival screenings, but on the eve of its home-viewing release I’ve found myself arguing with colleagues who think it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and find it too precious, too sentimental, too much of a one-joke movie, or not enough of one thing or another thing. I loved everything about it, including the scenes I wasn’t sure how to take. I recommend seeing it with others because it’s a movie that has as much to say about our perception of time and permanence as it does about love and death. Much of the impact that it has, positive or negative, comes from having to sit there and watch it without interruptions and think about what it’s showing you, and how.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 6)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Clemson 6-0 (1)
2. Alabama 6-0 (2)
3. Georgia 6-0 (3)
4. Penn State 6-0 (4)
5. Washington 6-0 (8)
6. Ohio State 5-1 (9)
7. Washington State 6-0 (15)
8. Miami, Fla. 4-0 (11)
9. TCU 5-0 (7)
10. Wisconsin 5-0 (12)
11. Notre Dame 5-1 (13)
12. USC 5-1 (10)
13. UCF 4-0 (16)
14. Auburn 5-1 (17)
15. Michigan 4-1 (5)
16. Oklahoma State 4-1 (14)
17. Oklahoma 4-1 (6)
18. Virginia Tech 5-1 (18)
19. San Diego State 6-0 (19)
20. Michigan State 4-1 (NR)
21. North Carolina State 5-1 (25)
22. Stanford 4-2 (24)
23. Iowa 4-2 (NR)
24. Texas Tech 4-1 (NR)
25. South Florida 5-0 (23)
Dropped out: Florida, Louisville, Oregon

Monday, October 9, 2017

Available for home viewing: The Big Sick ★★★½

It sounds impossible — too melodramatic, too crazy — but it’s true. Actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani fell in love with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Emily V. Gordon, when she was in a coma. It also sounds impossible that such a story would make for an audience-pleasing comedy, but that’s exactly what The Big Sick is, and so much more.

Director Michael Showalter’s film defies categorization. You could call it a romantic comedy and that would be accurate, because there are indeed elements of romance and comedy. It mines clashes across cultures and generations for laughs that are specific to Nanjiani’s experience but also resonate universally. The Big Sick also functions as an astutely insightful exploration of how we live now with the Pakistan-born comic, starring as himself, enduring racism that’s both casual and pointed.

But the pivotal plot point in The Big Sick is a potentially deadly illness — hence the title — which provides not only drama and catharsis but also dark humor, and it allows the film’s characters to evolve in ways that feel substantial and real.

That’s a lot of different kinds of movies at once, and Showalter — working from a screenplay by Nanjiani and his wife, Gordon — gets his arms around all of it with dazzling dexterity. On the heels of his sweetly heartbreaking 2015 dramedy Hello, My Name Is Doris, Showalter once again makes tough tonal shifts with great grace. Again and again, he finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.

But it all starts with the script. Nanjiani and Gordon have dared to make themselves vulnerable here, allowing us an intimate glimpse into a traumatic and frightening time in their lives. They imbue moments both large and small with such an abiding honesty, though, that The Big Sick never feels like shameless navel-gazing. The events that ultimately brought the two together are extreme, but the depiction of them always rings true.

And Nanjiani’s front-and-center presence is a crucial component in the film’s emotional connection. Even if you had no idea The Big Sick was based on his real-life courtship, Nanjiani exudes an authenticity and a directness that are hugely appealing. He’s part of the ensemble on HBO’s Silicon Valley and he’s had a number of supporting film roles in recent years, including a particularly, um, memorable appearance as a massage therapist in last year’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. But this will make him a star, and it should.

At the start of The Big Sick, though, the on-screen Kumail is struggling to make ends meet, working as an Uber driver by day and a stand-up comic by night. He sleeps on an air mattress in a Chicago apartment that’s a slight notch above college squalor with his needy roommate, Chris (Kurt Braunohler). One night at the comedy club, he connects with the smart and beautiful Emily (Zoe Kazan), who’d inadvertently heckled him during his set. Kazan and Nanjiani have crackling chemistry from the start, a sweet and easy banter that only grows more enjoyable the more time they spend together.

With a deadpan playfulness, they repeatedly insist they’re not dating, even though it’s clear they’re falling for each other. Emily, a grad student with plans to become a therapist, is no giggly rom-com heroine seeking approval: "I love it when men test me on my taste," she zings when Kumail quizzes her on her favorite movies. It’s a testament to Kazan’s instincts and presence that while her character is lying in a hospital bed for much of the film’s midsection, you still feel her influence.

Before that happens, though, we also see what Kumail’s life is like with his family: devout Muslims who insist on arranging a marriage for him. His older brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), already has a wife and seems content. His parents (Bollywood legend Anupam Kher and theater veteran Zenobia Shroff, both lovely) just want him to be happy — as long as he carries on their cultural traditions. Caught between Pakistani and American identities, between Islam and agnosticism, Kumail is unsure of who he is — but he knows he can’t tell his family about the white woman who’s become so important to him.

And then, Emily gets sick — a sudden and unexplainable illness that forces doctors to place her in a medically-induced coma. This allows us to meet her parents — the nerdy, down-to-Earth Terry (Ray Romano) and the feisty, no-nonsense Beth (Holly Hunter) — and it places Kumail in the uncomfortable position of getting to know them under dire circumstances. Again, this might not sound like comedy gold. But the way Nanjiani, Romano and Hunter navigate their characters’ daily highs and lows — and dance around each other — is simultaneously pitch perfect and consistently surprising. Romano is great in an unusual dramatic role, but Hunter is just a fierce force of nature, finding both the anger and the pathos in this frustrated, frightened mom.

The details in the hospital scenes make them feel particularly vivid: the colorful quilt from Emily’s childhood bedroom that her mother brings from North Carolina to cover her during her comatose state, or the yacht rock hits piping through tinny speakers in the bleak, cramped waiting room. The situation would feel like hell no matter where you are, but such touches make the characters’ anxiety seem endless.

Which brings us to the only slight drawback: the running time. The Big Sick is a Judd Apatow production, and like a number of movies he’s been involved with over the years (Funny People, This Is 40), it goes on a tad longer than it should. Some tightening, especially toward the end, might have made an excellent film into a truly great one.

But Apatow also has a knack for spotting up-and-coming talent and using his considerable influence to help foster it on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights. He’s done this with Lena Dunham (Girls) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), and he’s done it again with Nanjiani. We’re the ones, though, who truly benefit.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 5)

Last week’s rankings in parenthesis
1. Clemson 5-0 (2)
2. Alabama 5-0 (1)
3. Georgia 5-0 (6)
4. Penn State 5-0 (8)
5. Michigan 4-0 (4)
6. Oklahoma 4-0 (3)
7. TCU 4-0 (10)
8. Washington 5-0 (7)
9. Ohio State 4-1 (9)
10. USC 4-1 (5)
11. Miami, Fla. 3-0 (16)
12. Wisconsin 4-0 (11)
13. Notre Dame 4-1 (13)
14. Oklahoma State 4-1 (14)
15. Washington State 5-0 (20)
16. UCF 5-0 (NR)
17. Auburn 4-1 (23)
18. Virginia Tech 4-1 (12)
19. San Diego State 5-0 (19)
20. Florida 3-1 (22)
21. Louisville 4-1 (18)
22. Oregon 4-1 (NR)
23. South Florida 5-0 (17)
24. Stanford 3-2 (NR)
25. North Carolina State 4-1 (NR)
Dropped out: Duke, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Wake Forest

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Available for home viewing: Certain Women ★★★

Though not technically a western, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women takes place in a region of broad skies, rocky landscapes and pent-up feelings. Human beings are sparse, and words are even scarcer. But Reichardt, a transplanted Easterner based in Portland, Ore., is a poet of silences and open spaces, and her plain-looking, taciturn films have their own kind of eloquence, the specific gravity of rare minerals.

Working from short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt has composed a splintered group portrait. The three women who, in turn, occupy the center of the screen are loosely connected to one another. They live in the same town, and one of them is having an affair with another’s husband. This adultery is peripheral to the main drama, which is more oblique, and turns on frustrations and failures of communication that are all the more painful for being almost impossible to describe.

Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer, contends with a difficult client (Jared Harris), a man whose profound unhappiness with the way things are threatens to erupt into violence. He’s pathetic but also frightening, and Laura tries to keep a safe, professional distance while holding onto her empathy for him, an effort that produces both a note of tension and a deep chord of melancholy.

Tension and unacknowledged sorrow also define Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who is building a house in the countryside with her husband (James Le Gros) and daughter (Sara Rodier), who she sometimes feels are allied in a silent conspiracy against her. Their family disharmony is underscored — but also, somehow, potentially resolved — when they purchase a pile of old stones from an ancient rancher. Those rocks are at once symbols of transience and of permanence. They lend themselves to solid structures that are nonetheless fated to fall down.

In all of Reichardt’s films — from River of Grass and Old Joy, through Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Movies — the human presence feels fragile and contingent. And the stories of Laura and Gina, while interesting, deftly told and meticulously acted, also feel a little thin, more like anecdotes plucked from the stream of everyday life than like episodes of illumination. The third panel of this triptych is something else, though: a quiet, perfect vignette through which silent passion surges like an underground stream.

In it, Kristen Stewart plays Beth Travis, a young lawyer teaching a night class at a rural school. Ostensibly on the topic of education law, something Beth admits she doesn’t know much about, the course is mainly an after-hours opportunity for teachers to complain about their jobs. Also in the room, for unclear reasons, is a young ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who finds herself smitten with the instructor, and who pursues her infatuation with nervous dedication.

This love story — as full of longing as a great pop song, but without any overt statement of passion — is embedded in the hard routines of Western life: long drives, repetitive chores, endless cups of coffee. Stewart manages the remarkable feat of being at once convincingly mousy and unmistakably glamorous. With her stringy hair, stooped shoulders and anxious smile, Beth is a weary, self-effacing drone, except to Jamie, for whom she is a radiant queen. And Stewart, a tremendously disciplined actress, holds onto just enough of the magnetism that made her a movie star to allow us to see the character both ways, and to understand the ferocity of Jamie’s attraction to her.

That crush is the movie’s strongest source of heat, and it has the effect of rendering the other parts of Certain Women a little chillier and smaller than they might otherwise have seemed. The subtlety of the film is both an accomplishment and a limitation. It’s hard not to want more for these women, and to wish you could see more of them.

Post season baseball predictions

I’m not going chalk here, by any means. In fact, I’m predicting both visiting teams will win their respective wild card games although I must admit I’m not completely comfortable picking the Rockies over the Diamondbacks. I also lament the fact that the two best teams in baseball won’t meet in the World Series, but, instead, in the American League Championship Series.

With that out of the way, here are my picks:

AL Wild Card
Minnesota Twins over New York Yankees

NL Wild Card
Colorado Rockies over Arizona Diamondbacks

Houston Astros over Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians over Minnesota Twins

Washington Nationals over Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Dodgers over Colorado Rockies

Houston Astros over Cleveland Indians

Washington Nationals over Los Angeles Dodgers

Houston Astros over Washington Nationals

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Available for home viewing: “Rough Night” ★½

How low can she go? That’s the question in the soft vanilla comedy Rough Night, about five women who blunder into disaster over the course of a carousing bachelorette weekend. If you’ve seen The Hangover and its sequels or various other movies of this familiar ilk, you have more or less seen Rough Night. There’s even a movie titled Bachelorette, another would-be laugh-in about friends who go crazy — snort, snort, snort, chug, chug — until they’re put back on the path toward happily ever after.

In Rough Night, Scarlett Johansson stars as Jess and is nearly eclipsed by Kate McKinnon, who plays one of her pals. A politician who’s about to get married, Jess is on the verge of losing a state senate race to an opponent who has pulled ahead with some Anthony Weiner-esque penis pictures. That a competent female politician can’t compete with literal penises suggests that the filmmakers have some ideas in store, something, say, that mines the comedy of our new Neanderthalism, an age partly defined by the reinvigorated war between the sexes and the triumphant rise and occasional fall of male members.

No such luck. The director Lucia Aniello, who wrote the script with Paul W. Downs, soon abandons any pretense that she is going to deliver more than goofs. Instead, she trots out clichés, including a flashback that shows Jess and another bestie, Alice (Jillian Bell), holding their own at a frat blowout. Here, partying hard is meant as a stand-in for equality, which is mighty low stakes on which to build a gender-flipping comedy. Nonetheless, Aniello barrels ahead with limp penis jokes, yuks and a little upchuck, throwing in a starry guest appearance and the requisite slow-motion wolf-pack shot of the women strolling in a line, an image so stale it’s an entry on

It’s all blithely formulaic and would be more irritating if the performers — who include Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer — weren’t generally so appealing. (Glazer is a star of the Comedy Central show Broad City, which Aniello and Downs also both work on.) The actors are playing types, not people, but most bring enough natural presence and good will to fill in their characters’ sketchy profiles. It helps, too, that Johansson and Glazer are gifted physical performers who can sell weak jokes, though no one steals a show like McKinnon, a brilliantly versatile comic who reaches Madeline Kahn-levels of eyeball-rolling, eyeball-popping and all-knowing dementedness.

Those eyes get a workout when the women’s weekend takes a detour that’s straight out of Very Bad Things, a 1998 comedy about a bachelor party that turns deadly when a reveler accidentally kills a female prostitute. In response, the men embrace their worst instincts, which in this case means they hide one death and, in the process, instigate another. Boys will be boys and sometimes killers — or so Very Bad Things cheerfully suggests. The Hangover basically packages such rotten male behavior for the mainstream, using a live hooker instead of a dead one and adding Mike Tyson, an errant tiger and a pileup of belabored high jinks. Women scarcely figure in its manly meltdown, which is the point.

Rough Night switches the gender lineup from Very Bad Things but with less (shallow) philosophizing and heterosexual panic. Much like their Very Bad counterparts, the women quickly embrace self-interest, which leads to unfunny gags with an inconvenient corpse. That women can be as deadly or immoral as men isn’t new or interesting, and here it also isn’t all that entertaining. What is notable is that Rough Night makes room for the opposite sex (too many comedies are his or hers), specifically with some slow-building nonsense involving Jess’s fiancé (Downs), who crashes the party in adult diapers — which reads as a nice, sly wink at the comedy of male infantilism.

American comedy has long depended on overgrown baby boys — Lou Costello, Will Ferrell — whose naïveté, entertaining misbehavior or outright stupidity suggests that men are finally as toothless as infants. It’s a convenient fantasy (don’t worry, ladies!), one that has grown less viable as women have gained power and autonomy offscreen. Rough Night wants its female characters to get down, dirty and dumb, too, and indulge in their ostensible vices as unapologetically as any Zach Galifianakis boob. That’s cool or might be if the jokes were a lot funnier and if this movie grasped that performing naughtiness is meaningless when men behaving badly is the rule of the land.

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 4)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Alabama 4-0 (2)
2. Clemson 4-0 (1)
3. Oklahoma 4-0 (3)
4. Michigan 4-0 (6)
5. USC 4-0 (4)
6. Georgia 4-0 (13)
7. Washington 4-0 (10)
8. Penn State 4-0 (8)
9. Ohio State 3-1 (7)
10. TCU 4-0 (14)
11. Wisconsin 3-0 (9)
12. Virginia Tech 4-0 (11)
13. Notre Dame 3-1 (24)
14. Oklahoma State 3-1 (5)
15. Mississippi State 3-1 (12)
16. Miami, Fla. 2-0 (20)
17. South Florida 4-0 (NR)
18. Louisville 3-1 (18)
19. San Diego State 4-0 (NR)
20. Washington State 4-0 (15)
21. Duke 4-0 (NR)
22. Florida 2-1 (NR)
23. Auburn 3-1 (19)
24. Minnesota 3-0 (22)
25. Wake Forest 4-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Colorado, Florida State, Iowa, LSU, Oregon

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Available for home viewing: “Snatched” ★★


Snatched is the highest of high-concept comedies. Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer star as a polar-opposite mother and daughter who get kidnapped while reluctantly vacationing together in Ecuador. It’s a mismatched-buddy comedy. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s a raucous girl-power comedy.

But it’s not much more than a concept. Hawn and Schumer are stuck playing barely-there characters stumbling from one wacky scenario to the next. A cadre of kooks helps them along the way. Both women supposedly shift away from their comfort zones and closer to each other in the process. The end.

If you’re headed on your own vacation, Snatched would be a sporadically amusing way to pass the time on the plane, I suppose. As an exercise in afternoon cable-channel surfing while dozing in and out from cold medication, it’s harmless. But as an end-of-summer comic adventure, it’s a frustrating waste of everyone’s abilities.

The iconic Hawn hasn’t graced the silver screen in 15 years — not since 2002’s The Banger Sisters. Here, she’s a cautious cat lady named Linda who inexplicably displays a preternatural, calm fortitude when the going gets tough. Hawn has elevated similarly throwaway material throughout her career (Foul Play, Overboard, Bird on a Wire), and it’s certainly lovely to see her again, but why come out of retirement for this? The expert timing remains, but she’s awkwardly hemmed-in, and you long to see her burst forth with her signature silliness.

Schumer, meanwhile, plays yet another version of her well-honed persona, which she did far more effectively (and to a surprisingly emotional extent) in 2015’s Trainwreck. Emily is boozy and blowsy. She’s selfish and vapid, but she can be fun. And her underlying insecurity and talent for tossed-off, self-deprecating asides make her an unexpectedly endearing figure.

Linda and Emily get tested repeatedly in Snatched, though the actresses playing them certainly don’t. But they have their moments together — especially in the film’s early going — which provide a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been with snappier direction and stronger material. It’s as if the mere idea of Hawn and Schumer playing a squabbling mother and daughter were enough. It’s not.

Director Jonathan Levine has shown far greater skill in balancing a variety of genres and tones with his previous films, including the great comedy-drama 50/50 and the horror-comedy Warm Bodies. Here, his mixture of action and laughs never quite gels. There’s a lifelessness to the physicality and a shriekiness to the humor.

Similarly, screenwriter Katie Dippold has shown a knack for creating strong and delightfully strange women with her work on The Heat and last summer’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot. But with Snatched, the characters never really deviate from their types until the very end, when they’re called upon to have a sudden and conciliatory change of heart. Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack show up from time to time as the overly prepared, platonic life partners who help Linda and Emily out of their various jams, but their dynamic feels half-baked, too.

Snatched starts with promise, though. The delusional Emily gets fired from her nowhere retail job and dumped by her burgeoning rock-star boyfriend (a very funny Randall Park) in quick succession. There’s a sly, understated nature to the humor here — a rhythm that steadily sneaks up on you. The two had been planning a romantic getaway to Ecuador, and since the trip is non-refundable, she has to find someone else to join her. After all her girlfriends reject her offer, she coaxes the divorced Linda, who still lives in the family’s suburban home with Emily’s nerdy, agoraphobic brother (an amusingly odd Ike Barinholtz), to travel with her to paradise.

But Emily’s flirtation at the hotel bar with a charming and hunky Brit (Tom Bateman) leads to peril for her and her mom, as the two find themselves the victims of a kidnapping plot by interchangeably menacing, brown-skinned bad guys. (Somewhere in here, Snatched might be trying to say something about the propensity of pampered Americans to travel abroad without ever daring to immerse themselves in the local culture, but it doesn’t do it in the most thoughtful or articulate way.)

From here, mother and daughter bicker and bungle their way through an escape and subsequent hijinks. It’s all pretty obvious stuff, and not nearly as outlandish as it strains to be. But an escalating side bit involving phone calls between Emily’s freaked-out brother and an unmotivated State Department official (Bashir Salahuddin) provides some off-kilter laughs, and it hints at the kind of movie Snatched might have been with a little more daring. Similarly, an interlude with a self-serious, self-styled adventurer in the Amazon (Christopher Meloni) offers some welcome surprises.

But if the journey is the destination, Snatched never really goes anywhere.

Available for home viewing "My Cousin Rachel" ½★

This movie begins with a few noncommittal scenic shots of rural England and a man saying in voiceover, "Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?" Hearing this, I thought, "Well, that’s no ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.’" Not fair, maybe, but My Cousin Rachel is, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, master of the moody semi-Gothic romantic thriller.

As it happens, du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel has an entirely different and hookier opening line: "They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days." One feature of this movie, written and directed by Roger Michell, is — I’m assuming here — a new conception of its protagonist, the novel’s unreliable narrator. His name is Philip, and after wondering who’s to blame, he gives a brief accounting of his life. Orphaned, brought up by an adult cousin named Ambrose, sent to school. Philip cops to not having liked books. He cops to not liking much of anything, besides hanging out with Ambrose in a dusty manse whose interior looks like the gatefold sleeve picture of a mid-70s Jethro Tull album. Ambrose runs some kind of land-based business — he has a lot of workers walking around wielding scythes. It’s all very pre-Victorian man-cave like, and Philip insists that’s what he likes, but then, oh no, cousin Ambrose falls ill and gets sent to Italy, because that’s what you did when you were sick and lived in England. From there Ambrose writes letters detailing his recovery, and the TLC he receives from yet another cousin, a young woman named Rachel. But then comes news of Ambrose’s death. Philip is both heartbroken and indignant, and blames this Rachel person. To his godfather and estate lawyer, and his daughter Louise, who clearly pines for the young now-master-of-Ambrose’s-estate, Philip vows revenge. Then Rachel shows up.

And she’s played by Rachel Weisz, so, you know. Nevertheless, the speed with which Philip transforms from would-be avenger to slack jawed google-eyed "let me give you all my mother’s jewelry" dope is kind of astonishing. First he insists that she stay in the mansion, which he and Louise have managed to clean up so it’s more Jane Austen than Jethro Tull. Then he gives her access to his accounts. Eventually, he decides to turn over all his worldly goods to her on his 25th birthday. In return, he wants … well, he’s not quite so indelicate as to articulate it.

This is an arguably juicy narrative, especially when intercepted letters and other items start to cast suspicions on the seemingly pure-and-true Rachel, and after Philip contracts a nasty virus that could in fact be related to the herbal "tisanes" that Rachel concocts and practically force-feeds the fellow. But My Cousin Rachel is an impossibly turgid film. From the moment it opens, it’s constantly indicating menace and heightened emotion, but never doing anything to genuinely evoke it. Rael Jones’ music is the main culprit here, but the film’s most blatant disaster is Sam Claflin’s performance as Philip. From the first minute Claflin presents the character as a kind of period bro, albeit one whose default mode of dealing with his environment is a sneering entitled truculence.

The character’s ingenuousness is meant as a kind of virtue, at least I think it is, but Claflin’s sneering, furniture-smashing, and banality make Philip impossible to care about. As for Weisz, she’s not given much to do besides be tender and/or affronted; the plot, such as it’s been adapted for this film, hinges on her character being kind of unknowable, so we’re left with a good-looking cipher, through no actual fault of Weisz’s. And Michell’s direction is both overstated and incoherent. Plot threads are inexplicably left to hang, only to be picked up at a later point when the viewer has pretty much been obliged to move past them. Focus tricks in individual shots, and unwarranted camera movements meant to create a sense of unease merely elicit the response "what’s THAT about?" Michell has made watchable films in the past — you may like Notting Hill; I was more partial to Venus — but this literally looks like a picture made by someone who’s forgotten how to direct.

Incidentally, the du Maurier novel was made into a picture years ago, with Olivia de Havilland in the title role and a young Richard Burton as Philip. Big shoes to fill, but I honestly don’t even think that was an issue (the movie is not well-remembered today except by devoted fans of its stars) in the creation of this movie. One of the problems with this My Cousin Rachel is that it’s hard to come up with any issue or reason relative to its creation, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 3)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis

1. Clemson 3-0 (3)
2. Alabama 3-0 (1)
3. Oklahoma 3-0 (2)
4. USC 3-0 (4)
5. Oklahoma State 3-0 (9)
6. Michigan 3-0 (8)
7. Ohio State 2-1 (6)
8. Penn State 3-0 (5)
9. Wisconsin 3-0 (11)
10. Washington 3-0 (10)
11. Virginia Tech 3-0 (16)
12. Mississippi State 3-0 (NR)
13. Georgia 3-0 (14)
14. TCU 3-0 (23)
15. Washington State 3-0 (22)
16. Florida State 0-1 (12)
17. LSU 2-1 (7)
18. Louisville 2-1 (17)
19. Auburn 2-1 (15)
20. Miami, Fla. 1-0 (20)
21. Colorado 3-0 (19)
22. Minnesota 3-0 (NR)
23. Iowa 3-0 (24)
24. Notre Dame 2-1 (NR)
25. Oregon 3-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Kansas State, Stanford, Tennessee, Utah

Monday, September 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Going in Style"

Just call it "Grumpy Old Crooks." This quasi-remake of a 1979 caper film (which starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg) makes wholesale changes to the structure of its forebear — unfortunately few of them are for the better. An inconsequential but engaging piece of fluff has been turned into a misfire that somehow manages to misuse the talents of its three Oscar winning stars, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin. Although Going in Style’s heist represents a high point and gets props for being suitably clever, it’s swamped by bad melodrama and lame comedy.

The filmmakers aren’t really selling this movie for its story, however — they’re banking on the reputations and charisma of the three stars to pull in at-home viewers who don’t often venture out to multiplexes. As such, Going in Style may likely be a bigger draw on home video. The decision to cast an 83-year old (Caine), an 82-year old (Arkin), and a 79-year old (Freeman) is not playing to the typical theater-going demographic. Throw in Christopher Lloyd (age 78) and Ann-Margret (age 76) and it’s clear director Zach Braff isn’t going for the teenage crowd despite the soft PG-13 rating (the content is borderline PG).

One of the problems with Going in Style is that it takes forever to get going, and when it does, there’s not much style in evidence. The setup is interminable. Half the movie is devoted to introducing the characters, establishing their relationships, and making sure the audience is aware that these are good guys not criminals. They have been screwed over by the system, robbed of their pensions by greedy banks and corrupt corporations, and forgotten by a system that’s supposed to protect them. In the original Going in Style, the main characters were a bunch of aging retirees who just decided to pull a caper. Here, with the weight of so much social wrongdoing and desperation weighing things down, it’s not nearly as much fun. And God forbid the characters (or the script) have even the slightest edge. Theodore Melfi’s screenplay works overtime to make sure that no one could view the three criminals as anything other than burnished heroes.

Another big change from the 1979 film is that certain bittersweet elements have been elided, ensuring that the narrative is as bland and vanilla as imaginable. Director Zach Braff believes that the audience doesn’t want anything even a little challenging. So he makes sure the comedy is tasteful and restrained, the drama is tasteful and restrained, and the characters are tasteful and restrained. It would be a stretch (although not much of one) to call Going in Style "wholesome" but it’s dull and badly in need of an injection of energy.

Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) are three former co-workers and friends. Now retired, they live off modest pensions and spend their free time hanging out. Joe lives with his daughter and granddaughter and Willie and Albert share a house across the street. Things start going bad when Joe learns that the adjustable rate on his mortgage has adjusted and he can no longer pay the monthly bills. The bank is unsympathetic. Then the three men’s previous employer is bought and their pensions are eliminated. Faced with mounting bills and no way to pay them, they decide on an unconventional solution: rob a bank.

Once the crime arrives (nearly an hour into the 96-minute running length), things perk up. The segment in which Joe, Willie, and Albert construct their alibis represents a small bit of cleverness in an otherwise unremarkable wasteland. The intricate choreography of their day, which doesn’t become apparent until after the fact, is the kind of thing that viewers of caper films appreciate and, at least in this aspect, Going in Style doesn’t disappoint. In trying to connect this movie with Ocean’s 11 (the original not the remake), Braff and company stack the deck. During the robbery, the trio wears Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. masks.

It’s a cliché to say that Caine, Freeman, and Arkin are on hand to pick up paychecks but it’s true. These roles could have been filled by no-name mediocre actors except then it wouldn’t have gotten financing or distribution. It’s a boondoggle for the actors — a chance to hang out and do something that requires little exertion. Learn the lines, have fun with each other, and go home at the end of the shoot with a nice little bump to the bank account.

Going in Style is just as much a demographic-oriented product as any superhero or robot sci-fi movie. It’s all about marketing with little concern for whether the core film is any good. This is at best made-for-TV quality with stars too big to allow it to go directly where it belongs.

Available soon for home viewing

47 Meters Down ** Directed by Johannes Roberts. Two sisters on a Mexican vacation are trapped in a shark observation cage at the bottom of the ocean. With oxygen running low and great whites circling nearby, they have less than an hour of air left to figure out how to get to the surface. In the lulls between bouts of yammering, Roberts concentrates on building a solid atmosphere of desperation.

The Devil’s Candy **½ Written and firected by Sean Byrne. A struggling painter is possessed by satanic forces after he and his young family move into their dream home in rural Texas. To enjoy this, one must tolerate slapdash writing and profoundly irritating adult behavior. Yet Byrne somehow whips his ingredients into an improbably taut man-versus-Satan showdown.

Queen of the Desert ½* Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Charts the life of Gertrude Bell, a British adventurer, archaeologist, spy and political attaché who played a key role in reshaping the Middle East after World War I. Ends up being an emotionally empty, thematically ill-defined and listless affair. It is never able to communicate the complexity of the woman at its center.

Transformers: The Last Knight ½* Directed by Michael Bay. Optimus Prime confronts a dead planet and his lone hope of reviving it depends on an artifact that can only be found on Earth. From the very beginning, this is an incoherent mess.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Available for home viewing: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword"

Guy Ritchie is that fun friend whose texts you don’t always return because his energy level is always cranked up to 10, and even when you’re in the mood for him, he still wears you out. His best entertainments are 1990s lad mag confections, chock full of funny, well-dressed, hardboiled men (and a couple of women) who bust each other’s chops when they aren’t joining forces to steal something. They’re the kinds of films you forget exist until you stumble across them and end up watching the whole thing again because the tone is just right — edgy but lighthearted — and never for a moment does the movie pretend that watching it is going to make you a better person. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his two Sherlock Holmes films, Snatch, the bizarre self-help action film Revolver and 2015’s better-than-expected The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are assortments of savory treats presented in the most stylish boxes Ritchie can devise.

But there are times when Ritchie makes his own style the star of the film, crowding out the actors and the story because neither is terribly interesting. The result is an oxymoron: a frenetic slog. That’s unfortunately what happens to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a knowingly anachronistic riff on the legend starring Charlie Hunnam. This version envisions Arthur as a working-class hero with entirely contemporary sensibilities. He was raised in a brothel after his father and mother were murdered by his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern is an unworthy King of England and a pampered sadist who owes a supernatural debt to the Lady of the Lake, envisioned here as a mass of CGI tentacles enfolding three women, one plump and the others slender and curvy.

Ritchie and his cowriters, Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, aren’t interested in historical fidelity because the historical Arthur was a mystery anyway and they’re mainly having fun here. They take Arthur’s childhood trauma seriously (he keeps re-experiencing it in nightmare form, like Bruce Wayne remembering his own parents’ murder by a mugger) but ultimately treat it mainly as the centerpiece for a standard-issue "hero’s journey," one that owes quite a bit to the Star Wars, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings films. When he pulls the sword from the stone, he, we and the baddies all know that he is truly The One; when he grips it with both hands and then swings, the earth trembles and the camera starts whirling in circles around and around CGI Charlie Hunnam and his adversaries, in the manner of a video game with 3-D graphics.

This Arthur wears what looks like a brown leather bomber jacket, sports a 2016 movie star haircut, calls everybody "mate," and makes a big show of not wanting to get involved in politics, much less embrace his destiny. That is, until circumstances require him to round up a crew of hyper-competent misfit outsiders and depose the kind heist-movie style, treating every skirmish and siege as if it were another vault that the Snatch guys were hoping to empty. The future Knights of the Round Table are just as contemporary. They’re a multicultural crew: this film’s Sir George is nicknamed Kung Fu George, tutors Arthur in martial arts, and is played by Hong Kong-born actor Tom Wu; Sir Bedivere is a Moor played by Beninese movie star Djimon Hounsou. And the Anglo actors’ characters get a dusting of Dickensian chimney soot to enhance their rough-and-ready bona fides. The future Sir William (Aiden Gillen), master of the longbow, goes by Goosefat Bill Wilson.

I love all this stuff in theory — it’s not far from what Martin Scorsese did in The Last Temptation of Christ," populating ancient Jerusalem with New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Brits who spoke in their native accents and used modern slang, slicing and dicing the action into music video beats, and scoring the whole thing with Peter Gabriel’s chants and synth beats. The Ritchie sense of style suits a revisionist approach. He’s as slick and easygoing as a rock and roller showman can be, and because the totality of the film is so knowingly absurd — in addition to the slow-motion, acrobatic swordfights, there are gigantic CGI snakes, rats, wolves, and Godzilla-sized Indian elephants — the whole thing feels like a lark even when the characters are being beaten, tortured and executed. There are even moments when Hunnam, not an actor exactly known for his scalawag charm, evokes Errol Flynn’s devil-may-care jerk incarnation of Robin Hood. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s version of Guinevere, a witch whose eyes go black when she summons dark forces, is a fresh variation on the character, though it would’ve been nice if Ritchie had allowed her to crack a few jokes like the boys.

No, the real problem is that the movie is unmodulated from start to finish. It never lets up in the exact way that a cocaine addict who wants to tell you his life story before closing time never lets up. Michael Bay has often been accused of turning in feature length motion pictures so over-edited that they feel like trailers for themselves, but I don’t think Bay has ever made a movie as frantically, pointlessly, tediously busy as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Not content to do that time-tested Guy Ritchie story-about-a-story thing in every other scene of the picture — you know, the bit where a character tells an audience, "And then I sez to him," and the movie cuts to the same character five days earlier saying, "Put down the money, mate!" — the film does it constantly for two hours, dicing dialogue, performances and story points into microscopic narrative particles that disintegrate in the mind.

On one level, you have to admire the skill necessary to tell a story in this manner. You can’t just make a six-hour film and then cut it down to two. You have to think about how every piece, no matter how small or large, will fit with every other piece when the whole narrative is stitched together. But the downside of this strategy is that it doesn’t allow room for any single moment to truly live and breathe, and it’s in such moments that we really get to know a character and care about what happens to them. The emotional heavy lifting that might be done by acting, writing and careful direction is done here in shortcut form by whooshing, tilting, diving camerawork, ominous "whoosh" and "boom" noises on the soundtrack, and other signifiers of awesomeness.

There’s so much narrative and visual motion, such fast cutting, such loud music, and so many rapid shifts of time and place that on those rare occasions when the movie slows down and lets two characters speak to each other, in relative quiet and at length, it feels as if something’s gone wrong with the projection. Ritchie keeps rushing us along for two hours, as if to make absolutely certain that we never have time to absorb any character or moment, much less revel in the glorious, cheeky ridiculousness of the whole thing. The entire movie is an information delivery device with top-dollar production values, forever mistaking getting to the point for the point itself. It’s the legend of King Arthur as told by an auctioneer. I’m not sold.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

My top 25 college football teams

Last week’s rating in parenthesis

1. Alabama 2-0 (1)
2. Oklahoma 2-0 (4)
3. Clemson 3-0 (3)
4. USC 2-0 (6)
5. Penn State 2-0 (9)
6. Ohio State 1-1 (2)
7. LSU 2-0 (5)
8. Michigan 2-0 (8)
9. Oklahoma State 2-0 (12)
10. Washington 2-0 (10)
11. Wisconsin 2-0 (7)
12. Florida State 0-1 (14)
13. Stanford 1-1 (13)
14. Georgia 2-0 (17)
15. Auburn 1-1 (11)
16. Virginia Tech 2-0 (15)
17. Louisville 2-0 (19)
18. Kansas State 2-0 (20)
19. Colorado 2-0 (16)
20. Miami, Fla. 1-0 (21)
21. Tennessee 2-0 (18)
22. Washington State 2-0 (23)
23. TCU 2-0 (NR)
24. Iowa 2-0 (24)
.25. Utah 2-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Florida, Notre Dame

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

The Bad Batch ½* Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. In a desert wasteland in Texas, a muscled cannibal breaks the important rule of not playing with your food. The violence in this movie has neither artistic nor narrative prupose.

The Big Sick ***½ Directed by Michael Showalter. Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family's expectations, and his true feelings. This is a Judd Apatow production and Apatow has a knack for spotting up-and-coming talent and using his considerable influence to help foster it on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights. He’s done this with Lena Dunham (Girls) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), and he’s done it again with Nanjiani.

Certain Women *** Directed by Kelly Reichardt. The lives of three women intersect in small-town America. The subtlety of this film is both an accomplishment and a limitation. It’s hard not to want more for these women, and to wish you could see more of them.

The Hero ** Directed by Brett Haley. An ailing movie star comes to terms with his past and mortality. Sam Elliott is Sam Elliott as Sam Elliott in The Hero, a sentimental and sporadically effective celebration of the veteran character actor.

Wonder Woman *** Directed by Patty Jenkins. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, Diana, an Amazonian warrior in training, leaves home to fight a war. Jenkins and her collaborators have done what I thought was previously impossible: created a Wonder Woman film that is inspiring, blistering, and compassionate, in ways that honor what has made this character an icon.

Available for home viewing: "Raw"

I’m not feeling the love. Raw, the 2016 French/Belgian horror film, has received considerable praise across the international cinematic landscape for its contribution to the genre. However, what Raw offers isn’t so much original as it is a repackaging of select aspects of zombie/vampire lore. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — even the best horror films typically beg, borrow, and steal — the movie’s qualifications are suspect. At times, it seems like a showcase for director Julia Ducournau, an opportunity for her to show off her considerable skills as a filmmaker. Raw is often visually arresting but it fails at a key aspect of basic horror: atmosphere. There’s nothing creepy or remotely scary about this movie. It relies on gross-out scenes to earn the right to be called "disturbing" and seems more interested in delivering schlocky shocks than suffocating the viewer with suspense or dread.

Raw feels unformed — a collage of partially realized ideas and moments that never gel. The movie relies on our inherent revulsion for the consumption of human flesh to keep us from seeing the thinness of the screenplay. When it comes to gore, Ducournau doesn’t skimp — we see scenes of severed fingers being nibbled like mini corn cobbs, brains being sampled, and love bites go beyond the norm. But the characters are incomplete, the scenario is absurd, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Raw feels like a premise in want of a film.

The setup is simple enough: the young protagonist, wunderkind Justine (Garance Marillier), is dropped off at college by her parents. Her school, a prestigious educational establishment for veterinarians, is an ominous-looking place. On her first night, she is subjected to a hazing ritual that culminates in a rave. After enduring her ritual humiliation, Justine encounters her upper classman sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). The next day, as part of the ongoing initiation process, she is required to consume a raw rabbit kidney. As a lifelong vegetarian, she is understandably reluctant but, faced with possible ostracization, she succumbs. This turns out to be a bad move — the consumption of uncooked meat awakens a hunger in her that she can’t control and, when Alexia loses her finger in a freak accident, Justine discovers that family bonds are no barrier to what constitutes food.

To the extent that the movie is about anything other than inappropriate food habits, it focuses on the odd relationship between sisters. As it turns out, that’s about the only aspect of Raw that works. This is partly because of the spot-on performances of Marillier and Rumpf and partly because Ducournau has a better sense of how to handle the human aspects of her characters’ interactions than the unsavory ones. This makes Raw a bizarre outlier — a horror film where the dramatic elements work better than the scary ones.

The pace is slow and the tone is far too serious. There are instances of black humor but, for the most part, Ducournau keeps things somber. Visually, the movie has its share of showy moments. I especially liked the blue+yellow=green exploration of primary colors, and there are a few other arresting images. I never felt as if my stomach was going to rebel, which makes me skeptical about the reports of mass turn-outs (with viewers fleeing for the nearest sink). Yes, Raw peddles blood and gore but, c’mon, we’ve seen worse.

If I was to guess, Raw might be headed for cult classic-dom. It has that sort of feel. As something to watch at home on a normal evening (rather than a midnight screening in the neighborhood theater in about 10 years), it’s a dubious proposition — not bad enough to be interesting and not good enough to be worth paying money for.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

This has nothing to do with a hard rock band

I’m not an engineer so I never really knew, until just recently, there are significant differences between alternating and direct currents (known as AC and DC). I thought they were always considered together as part of the overall fabric making up the blanket I call electricity. As their respective names imply, DC is current that flows in only one direction while AC is a flow of charge that changes direction periodically, which also changes the voltage level.

What I recently learned was that home and office electrical outlets are almost always AC, while most of the electronics plugged into those outlets or that use a USB cable run on DC.

Thomas Edison
What’s more, I didn’t know that the theories behind AC and DC sparked (pardon the pun) an all out battle in the late 19th Century between two American scientific/engineering titans, Thomas Alva Edison, who by 1887 had constructed 121 DC power stations in the United States, and George Westinghouse, who in the following year purchased from none other than Nikola Tesla the patents for AC motors and transmissions. The problem with Edison’s DC at this time was that it could not easily be converted to high voltages. As a result, Edison proposed a system of small, local power plants that would power individual neighborhoods or city sections. Even though the voltage drop across the power lines was accounted for, power plants needed to be located within a mile of the end user. This limitation made power distribution in rural areas extremely difficult, if not impossible.

George Westinghouse
With Tesla’s patents, Westinghouse worked to perfect the AC distribution system. Transformers provided an inexpensive method to step up the voltage of AC to several thousand volts and back down to usable levels. At higher voltages, the same power could be transmitted at a much lower current, which meant less power lost due to resistance in the wires. As a result, large power plants could be located many miles away and service a greater number of people and buildings.

This led to a major battle between Edison and Westinghouse. Edison tried to prove AC was too dangerous for public consumption and he went so far as having his cohorts stage public executions of animals using AC and having two direct employees, Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly, design the first electric chair for the state of New York using AC.

Today, I’m not sure that many people care enough about this historical battle to shell out the bucks to see a movie on this subject, even one with such high-powered acting talent as Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, especially when you consider the educational level of today’s average moviegoer. The filmmakers have come up with a great title for their film, The Current War, in hopes. I’m guessing, to make it seem more relevant while not misleading the public as to the subject of the movie. I have a feeling this could be a very fine film that could very easily and very quickly be nothing more than a dim bulb.