Monday, December 5, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Don’t Think Twice ***½

Just about every time I had the opportunity to spend some time in Chicago on business I would try to make my way to ImprovOlympic, on the corner of Clark and Addison, to watch teams perform long-form improv (known as The Harold). The house team was called "The Family": six insanely talented men, all of whom studied with guru Del Close, and all of whom who have gone on to some degree of success: Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Matt Besser, Ali Farahnakian, Ian Roberts and Miles Stroth. People like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler often "sat in," performing with the group. Those shows are still legendary to anyone lucky enough to have been there. In good improv like that, people communicate with lightning-speed via ESP and sixth-sense.

Don't Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia's wonderful film, is so spot-on in its evocation of that whole "scene," onstage and off — its intimacy, competition, struggles and rhythms — that at times it feels like a documentary. The movie has the patience and intelligence to approach extremely esoteric concepts: improv's "group mind," the generosity of good performers, the specific rules of improv and how they impact the group outside the theater. Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian and director (Sleepwalk With Me was his first film), with a background in improv. Not only does he know that world so well, he also knows how to communicate it to an audience. Don't Think Twice is hilarious, yes, but it's also thoughtful and sad and sweet. Birbiglia knows how to communicate those things, too.

Don't Think Twice follows a New York-based improv group called, appropriately, "The Commune" through a year in their lives. The Brooklyn theater where they've been doing improv has been sold, and homelessness approaches. It's a very New York problem, as small black-box theaters disappear one by one, gleaming condos and Starbucks rising in their place, a situation that strands the non-Union theater scene in a desert. The Commune casts around desperately for an affordable space, and along with that are the trials and tribulations of each group member. It sounds like Don't Think Twice is your run-of-the-mill, 20-something ensemble comedy, but it's not. Grounded in a very specific scene, it understands the world in which these characters operate, and what happens when a close group like that faces fracturing change.

Before the story gets going, there is a brief introduction to the history of improv, as well as an explanation of improv's three rules (the most important being saying yes). More commonly known as "Yes, and … ," this means that a performer says "yes" to everything that happens on-stage. One of the cardinal sins of improv is saying "No." Example: One person points a finger at another person and shouts "Bang bang!" The person who was clearly just shot at says, "That's not a gun, that's your finger." The line might get a laugh but it ends the scene. "Yes, and … " makes sure that a scene continues, creating the environment of acceptance that makes all good improv possible. "Yes, and … " is how Birbiglia and his ensemble approach every scene in the film.

Birbiglia plays Miles, a little bit older than everyone else in the group. He taught most of them in improv classes and struggles with bitterness and hurt because, one by one, his students have surpassed him professionally. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, from Key & Peele, beautiful here in a complex performance) and Samantha (the superb Gillian Jacobs) are in a comfortable relationship that is then challenged when Jack seems like he's advancing. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is a trust-fund baby who lives at home and doesn't have to shlep around in a day job. She feels guilty about her privilege. (This is another extremely accurate observation about any theater scene: the unfair envy towards those whose family has money.) Bill (Chris Gethard) slaves over his writing submissions to Weekend Live — a clear replica of Saturday Night Live, one that the group watches religiously, poker-faced and jealous — until he is distracted by his father falling ill. And finally, there's Allison (Kate Micucci), who is excellent at improv but has a secret wish to complete her graphic novel. Some stories get more attention than others, although there is a clear through-line for each character.

The major catalyst for change in the group is when one member auditions for Weekend Live and actually gets cast. They're elated, and the group is too: one of their own has made it! Nobody wants to ruin the winner's moment, but the mixed feelings are palpable. It's reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's great thought: "Anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature — it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathize with a friend’s success." The selected one has mixed feelings about leaving their friends behind, and is not presented as soulless and evil for abandoning the group and going after the brass ring. Don't Think Twice is insightful on how success changes relationships. One of the most accurate things about Birbiglia's film is about how it also later admits that success doesn't look just one way. Outward success (fame, fortune) has value to some, but not all.

Don't Think Twice is meticulous in its progression but also free-form in style. Parties and hanging out at the bar are punctuated by group "bits," each person riffing on whatever happens in the moment. Jack and Samantha's relationship is a case in point. Movies don't often show couples who place such a high premium on being funny for one another. Couples like that exist. When do we ever get to see them? There's a lot of improv in the film, and those scenes could have been awful if it felt like these were rehearsed "bits" as opposed to spontaneous events. Whatever was planned and whatever was unplanned is not at all evident, and Joe Anderson's intuitive, flowing camera moves around on the stage, in the thick of the action. You can see why people flock to The Commune's shows week after week, in the same way Chicago audiences still flock to Second City and ImprovOlympic (now known as The iO).

Improv is a great model for society, which explains why people devoted to improv talk about it with an evangelical gleam in their eyes. What would it be like if we all listened to one another like that? What would it be like if we accepted one another's contributions with generosity and openness? What if we approached every interaction not with "No, but … " but with "Yes, and … ". Birbiglia's beautiful, sneakily profound film shows a world where "Yes, and … " is the default.

Jason Bourne **
Jason Bourne may entice renters and streamers with prospects of a creative and adrenalin-pumping reunion between Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, a duo that went beyond typical blockbuster expectations with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Being a fan of both of those movies, I too had high hopes for a return to form for the character who shares a monogram with 007. But it’s mere minutes into Jason Bourne that something is wrong. Is it the stoic, nearly dialogue-less (25 lines in the entire film) take on Bourne? Is it the more-hyperactive-than-ever action cinematography and editing, designed to make every phone call answered and strident walk taken seem important? How about the familiarity of a plot that literally echoes questions these characters have already asked and answered? Jason Bourne is a film I kept trying to like. It just wouldn’t let me.

After learning the truth of his progression from David Webb to superspy Jason Bourne in the previous two Greengrass films and, of course, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, JB (Matt Damon) is essentially in hiding. Sure, he pops up for the occasional street fight, but he’s a loner, the kind of guy with no current attachments, deeply off the grid. (It’s worth noting that Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse are just barely interested in setting up where Bourne has been and what he’s up to in 2016.) It’s mere minutes before Nicky (Julia Stiles) drags Bourne back on the radar of the nefarious Powers That Be, this time personified by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Nicky wants to give Bourne even more of the background behind the Treadstone project, particularly the details about what really happened to Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry).

Of course, Dewey can’t let that happen, and he plans to use CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and an assassin known merely as "Asset" (Vincent Cassel) to keep his undercover dealings undercover. One of the reasons that Dewey is particularly panicked about the return of Bourne is that he’s also deeply involved with a tech pioneer named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, currently seen on HBO's The Night Of), the head of a company called Deep Dream that promises intense levels of privacy to its customers but has been working with the CIA in secret. Jason Bourne includes several of today’s greatest hot button concerns — internet privacy, government intrusion — but they feel like window dressing.

Matt Damon said in a news conference in 2007 that he thought his iteration of Jason Bourne was over; he had reached the end point of his character’s journey, his search for his identity. He stated, "… all of that internal propulsive mechanism that drives the character is not there, so if there was to be another one then it would have to be a complete reconfiguration, you know, where do you go from there? For me I kind of feel like the story that we set out to tell is has now been told." He clearly still feels that way. Damon can be a complex, character-driven actor with the right material, but his heart’s not in this. Tommy Lee Jones feels even less invested with the little bit of character he’s been given, and poor Alicia Vikander might as well be named Plot Device in that we know exactly what her arc is going to be from the minute we see her. Perhaps worst of all, Greengrass finds a way to waste Vincent Cassel, one of our most physically vibrant and menacing actors. Cassel does most of his acting scowling through a sniper scope, and isn’t allowed to really break out until the end of the film. Only Riz Ahmed makes any impact on a performance level, doing a lot with very little — watch the way he subtly plays a successful businessman who knows the skeletons are about to fall out of his closet. There's a much better version of Jason Bourne that focuses on him, contrasting his arc as a man caught up in something greater than himself with our hero's.

Ahmed registers because one senses an urgency to his character’s plight, which is not the case with the rest of the film. Rarely has there been so much intensity in the pursuit of a story that feels like it has no stakes. When Jason Bourne is done, ask yourself what everyone was yelling, running and fighting about. Good luck coming up with a satisfying answer. It’s as if Greengrass and company knew that they couldn't orchestrate an intriguing new arc for their beloved character, so they just repeated one. The film is like Jason Bourne fan fiction in how much it completely reworks things we’ve seen before, only with a few more years of cyberterrorism buzzwords to give viewers the illusion of not just depth but a plot.

Even Greengrass’ trademark style feels uninspired. Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) is an undeniably talented cinematographer, but his style doesn’t have the same kinetic energy as Oliver Wood’s work in the original trilogy, which put us right in the middle of the action. It’s a fine line, but a crucial one; Wood’s camera feels urgent, as if we might get punched too, whereas Ackroyd’s feels cluttered and desperate. Returning editor Christopher Rouse (who’s cut all of Greengrass’ films) is the technical MVP here, giving the film a propulsive energy that could convince some people they’re watching something fun and exciting just by sheer force. However, when it’s over, even viewers more eager to forgive this failed creative reunion will wonder what it is that they just watched, and what purpose it serves other than financial. And why no one figured out a new, engaging way to tell a story that’s already been told.

The Secret Life of Pets **½
Fetching up a new twist on the tried and tested talking-animal genre, The Secret Life of Pets explores what happens when we close the front door and leave our dogs, cats and canaries to their own devices. The answer, as any recent CG animation flick could tell you, is that our pets act a lot like us, with their own petty quibbles, indulgences, love affairs, music tastes and desire to do what they please at all times — although a dog is a dog and will still run after a stick if you toss one in its direction.

That’s at least half the story in this latest comic romp from director Chris Renaud and Illumination Entertainment — the team behind the ultra-successful Despicable Me and Minions movies — and it’s certainly the more enjoyable part of a film that starts off impressively but gradually tires itself out with a loud and loopy caper plot, taking a clever idea to mostly familiar places in the long run.

Funny in stretches but capable of making you feel like you’ve dropped MDMA and locked yourself inside Petco for several hours, this big-ticket Universal release should play like catnip for kids, though it’s unlikely to dig up the massive popularity of this year’s other anthropomorphic blockbuster, Zootopia.

Set in a fever-dream version of modern-day Manhattan that’s part Vincent Minnelli, part Andreas Gursky, the story (by regular Renaud scribes Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul and Brian Lynch) focuses on a whiny little terrier, Max (Louis C.K.), whose pitch-perfect, apartment-bound lifestyle is upended when his owner comes home with a big floppy rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and forces them to become housemates.

Unable to accept the fact that he’s not the only loved one in town, Max soon finds himself stranded alongside Duke in the Big Apple, where they’re pursued by dogcatchers and cross paths with an underground resistance known as the Flushed Pets, whose goal is to make all animals undomesticated for good. Their leader, Snowball (Kevin Hart), is the most psychotic furry little wabbit to ever chomp on a carrot, and when he finds out Max is not the stray he claims to be, he brings the ruckus down hard.

Renaud dishes out some decent gags during the opening reels, especially when introducing us to the other pets in Max’s building, including a lazy house cat (Lake Bell), an overzealous pug dog (Bobby Moynihan) and a fluffy Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) who has the hots for our hero. Much of the humor comes from the fact that these animals have extremely human characteristics while remaining adorable little critters, even if not all of them aim to please their caretakers in the way that Max always does.

But there are many more castmembers to come, including a kvetching hawk (Albert Brooks), a Cockney-accented alley cat (Steve Coogan) and a sly old Basset Hound (Dana Carvey) with the most bodacious bachelor pad in the city — to name some of several additional characters that wind up crowding the screen for the sake of a few short laughs.

Like the professional dogwalker who can’t exactly keep count of Max and his cohorts, it feels like the filmmakers are juggling too many chatty creatures at once, while trying to maintain a plot that tends to grow more outlandish as the story progresses. Occasionally all the fuss results in a memorable set-piece — such as a digression into a sausage factory that nods to both Grease and a Busby Berkley musical — but by the time the third act rolls around, the cacophony grows exhausting and the laughs become rarer, especially when all the action-movie antics take over.

On the technical side, there are some marvels here — especially Renaud’s vision of a vertically exuberant New York City, with skyscrapers stretching beyond the frame and fire escapes leading forever upwards into different apartments and different lives, as if we’re seeing everything from the viewpoint of a dog watching the world of humans from the ground. Likewise, all the details of the furry and feathered cast, including all of the fur itself, are impressively rendered by the Illumination team, who have created a lively and colorful palette that recalls Technicolor films of the 1950s.

The same goes for the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), which takes notes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other classic Manhattan-set movies, offering up a playful accompaniment to what ultimately feels like a smart but overindulgent exercise in computer-generated puppy love. Or maybe that’s just a pet peeve.

Other new releases this week
For the Love of Spock *** Provides the nostalgia rush that Star Trek Beyond was only able to offer fleetingly. But there’s more to this movie than offering fans an opportunity to wallow in the past. It gives the most complete portrait we’ve seen thus far of Leonard Nimoy, warts and all, as presented by the man who came the closest to knowing him. (Adam Nimoy might be the first to admit that perhaps no one truly knew his father, including the man himself.)
The Great Gilly Hopkins The movie falls between stylization, which it mostly lacks, and realism, which it can’t quite claim with its non-teenage teenager spouting non-swearing swears. It deserves some credit for maintaining its source’s smallness, but its toughness is in shorter supply, and further muted by an overly reassuring coda.
Heart of a Dog ***½ This movie is about telling and remembering and forgetting, and how we put together the fragments that make up our lives — their flotsam and jetsam, highs and lows, meaningful and slight details, shrieking and weeping headline news.
The Hollars ** Too much happens too quickly in this movie for the story to be credible, but the film has some likable qualities, among them the fun of seeing actors in unexpected roles.
In Order of Disappearance *** At times, the movie is a bit too self-consciously clever. But what saves it, paradoxically — even at times, delightfully — from skidding off course into cliche is the profound appeal of its middle-of-the-road, but never dull, protagonist.
Jack Goes Home * Trimming the film’s manipulations and inessential qualities would only improve it, but judicious editing would leave very little meat on its bones.
Kicks **½ An arresting visual experience with style to spare, and in fact it probably should have spared a little, as this first-time director sometimes crowds his film with more auteurial flourishes than his rather simple story can support. Nonetheless, this is a debut of undeniable promise, both for its director and its largely unknown cast.
The Late Bloomer * Lead actor Johnny Simmons fits his role perfectly, his baby face giving him the suitable appearance of an overgrown adolescent. But the smutty, tired material with which he has to work is surprisingly devoid of laughs.
Ordinary World ** Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day is usually pretty appealing when he dabbles in acting, and he’s appealing again in this film, But after a promising start the script lets him down, and the film turns into a predictable midlife-crisis yarn.
Phantasm: RavagerShould please longtime fans while leaving newcomers unimpressed and confused.
Spa Night *** Though it leaves too many narrative blanks unfilled, the film is a promising debut from a filmmaker with a lot of insight into the different guises that immigrants and their offspring wear as they make their way through the world.
Trash FireThe performances are mostly out to sea without a paddle trying to make sense of hateful characters, but Angela Trimbur as Isabel at least shows some comic spark and strikes a few sympathetic notes.
The Unspoken ½* That the story is never scary is the least of its problems,.

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams (after week 13)

Again, posting this comparatively early this week in order to provide the College Football Playoff Committee with some much-needed insight. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Alabama 12-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 11-1 (2)
3.  Clemson 11-1 (4)
4.  Michigan 10-2 (3)
5.  Washington 11-1 (5)
6.  Wisconsin 10-2 (6)
7.  Penn State 10-2 (8)
8.  Colorado 10-2 (7)
9.  USC 9-3 (9)
10. Oklahoma 9-2 (10)
11. Florida State 9-3 (13)
12. Western Michigan 12-0 (12)
13. Stanford 9-3 (16)
14. Louisville 9-3 (11)
15. LSU 7-4 (24)
16. Auburn 8-4 (14)
17. West Virginia 9-2 (25)
18. Oklahoma State 9-2 (23)
19. Florida 8-3 (15)
20. Boise State 10-2 (18)
21. South Florida 10-2 (NR)
22. Washington State 8-4 (17)
23. Navy 9-2 (NR)
24. Iowa 8-4 (NR)
25. Virginia Tech 9-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Nebraska, Tennessee, Houston, Texas A&M

This week's DVD releases

Don’t Breathe ***

At its best, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is a tight, confined thriller — the kind of morality play that toys with audience loyalty and works to convey its protagonists' predicament by making us feel claustrophobic right alongside them. For long passages, the movie plays out in real time, and Alvarez and his team have a remarkable sense of film geography, established in a beautiful unbroken shot that defines the space for this largely one-setting exercise in terror. Alvarez was also wise to reunite with Evil Dead star Jane Levy, an actress who can do a lot with very little in terms of character development and is remarkably fearless physically, and even wiser to cast Stephen Lang, a fantastic character actor for decades who has been given one of his most memorable roles here. Like a lot of films of this breed, Don’t Breathe gets a little less interesting as it proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, replacing tension with shock value, but it works so well up to that point that your heart will likely be beating too fast to care.

Rocky (Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and wishes-he-was-boyfriend Alex (Dylan Minnette) rob houses in the wealthy suburbs of Detroit. Alex’s dad manages a security company and therefore has access to keys that allow for a lot less "breaking" in breaking & entering. Rocky has a horrible mother and a baby sister that she’ll do anything to get out of their dysfunctional and dangerous home. Tired of quickie jobs that net a few nice watches and some jewelry, Money stumbles on a possible crime that would truly change their lives. Deep in the desolate, rundown heart of Detroit — on one of many blocks with no neighbors and few active utilities — lives a blind man (Lang). A few years earlier, his daughter was killed in a car accident and he received a massive cash settlement that Money believes is in a safe in the house. Rocky, Money and Alex will just go in and take it. He’s a blind veteran who lives alone. How hard could it be?

The men of Don’t Breathe are given almost no defining character traits whatsoever, and that’s to the film’s detriment. You can feel Alvarez rushing to get to the centerpiece when he could have taken a beat or two to give us a reason to care about Money and Alex beyond the former being a tough guy and the latter being the nice one. Rocky/Levy fares a little better, as the actress imbues a few very short scenes with a palpable dose of urgency. She doesn’t rob for profit or need; she is stealing money that’s just sitting in a safe to save her life and that of her sister. She’ll get the cash, they’ll all flee Detroit to California, and everyone will live happily ever after. The complex morality of Rocky’s dilemma is one of the most interesting narrative elements of Don’t Breathe. In theory, we shouldn’t be rooting for a young lady to steal money from a blind man, but we do.

And that moral complexity takes a sharp turn when things go wrong in the main event of Don’t Breathe. Without spoiling nearly as much as the previews do, let’s just say that these three low-level criminals vastly underestimate both the current situation in their target’s home and its resident’s certain set of skills. The MVP of this midsection is arguably cinematographer Pedro Luque, who works with Alvarez to very clearly define the blueprint of the house and where our characters are within it. Unlike a lot of modern horror, which uses quick cuts and shaky camerawork to induce fear, Alvarez and Luque understand that we’ll relate to the predicament of Don’t Breathe the more clearly we can define what’s going on. As Lang and Levy play a game of cat and mouse through this maze, it’s best to know where the walls are. And, of course, it’s more effective when Alvarez and company pull those walls away in a basement that feels like a neverending series of shelves, replicating the protagonist’s confusion and fear.

There’s a significant twist in Don’t Breathe (again, don’t watch the previews) that produces shock value (and allows for even more disturbing material later on) but it almost feels like a misstep in that it pushes Lang’s character towards a definitive villain role. I like the idea of a battle of wills — in a home within an abandoned neighborhood — between characters that occupy grayer areas in terms of morality. There are also a few plot turns in the final act that require more suspension of disbelief.

At the heart of the film, as young people who made a very bad decision try to survive long enough to get out of a house that has turned into a fortress, Don’t Breathe is tense and even relatable. There are millions of young people, especially in Detroit, trying to escape their bad decisions. Don’t Breathe becomes a battle of wills between two people who have done very bad things but justified their actions to themselves. The talented Levy and Lang allow us to understand their characters' polarizing choices, and place us right there in the house — with the petty criminal and the man with the dark secret, holding our breath.

Pete’s Dragon ***
In case you're thinking the new Pete's Dragon is another one of those Disney schmaltz-fests that only the most naïve kid could tolerate, snap out of it. Unlike the stupefyingly dreary 1977 musical version of the same name with Jim Dale and Helen Reddy, this one has a real filmmaker at the helm. His name is David Lowery, whose indie drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) had a bruising poetry that made a lasting impression. You won't be bruised much by a tale of orphan boy and the dragon that befriends him. But as family fun goes, Pete's Dragon fills the bill without sending adults into sugar shock.

When we first meet Pete, he's a reading a picture book in the backseat of a car driven by his parents. Then a deer darts out of nowhere, the car veers off the road and the parents are dead. (What is it with the Disney habit of killing off moms and dads?) Alone in the forest in the Pacific Northwest with wolves on his tail, Pete is protected by a green dragon he calls Elliot. It takes years for the now-10-year-old feral kid (Oakes Fegley) to be discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (an appealing Bryce Dallas Howard), who can't see this occasionally invisible dragon. At least, not yet. It's Grace's father, Mr. Meacham (a warm and nicely understated Robert Redford), who claims to have encountered the creature in his youth. He's a believer. You will be too, mostly because Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks ease into the story without getting sucked into the quicksand of cutesy. And when Elliot reveals himself in all his 21-foot, computer-generated, furball glory, he's a fuzzy delight with floppy ears like a pup and a charming clumsiness that's irresistible.

The movie flags when the grownups, such as Grace's rigid fiancé (Wes Bentley) and his bad-guy brother (Karl Urban), drag in every cliché about the cynical outside world. When the movie soars — and it does where it counts — is in the scenes with Pete and Elliot. Kudos to the visual effects masters at Weta, Peter Jackson's company, for making this dragon such a dazzler. Thanks to Lowery's humanizing magic, Pete's Dragon is that rare family film you really can take to heart.

The BFG **½
There, I’ve gotten it out of the way — the obligatory mention of the classic 1982 collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison that every critic will make when reviewing The BFG. The truth is, however, that the two films have little in common beyond the concept of an atypical friendship between a human child and a fantastical creature. Contrasting The BFG to E.T. does the new film a disservice, and it’s mediocre enough that it doesn’t need the comparison to emphasize its shortcomings. In recent years, Spielberg has become a hit-and-miss filmmaker and this is closer to a "miss" than a "hit."

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the source material. Roald Dahl’s The BFG is not inherently cinematic. The structure of the story is such that it’s impossible to develop into a traditional three-act format. As a result, the movie peaks around its midpoint and slides into anticlimax from there. The second hour isn’t bad but it has a meandering quality. There’s an extended comedic sequence followed by a straightforward resolution that generates little in the way of excitement or interest.

The film takes place in what must be a parallel universe. The opening scenes feel like excerpts from Dickens, with orphanages and 19th-century-ish cobbled streets. Later, we get walkie-talkies and modern-day helicopters. Our hero(ine) is a resident of the orphanage, Sophie (Ruby Barnill), who looks out the window one night and is surprised to see a giant (Mark Rylance), whom she later names Big Friendly Giant (or BFG for short), wandering the streets. He spies her and, fearful that she will tell people about him, abducts her King Kong-style and carries her off to his home in the Land of the Giants. Lacking roots in her world, she decides she wants to stay but there are problems. Most giants (with names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater) aren’t nice like BFG and they view girls like Sophie as tasty morsels. Sophie devises a plan to defeat the giants but it requires that the BFG present himself before the Queen (Penelope Wilton) — something he is profoundly unwilling to do.

The story, although lacking in excitement and immediacy (especially after the midpoint when the bad giants raid BFG’s home), is never unengaging. But there’s a bigger omission than that of a traditional structure: the film’s emotional component is strangely muted. Returning to E.T., one of the reasons why that film worked (and it’s not alone among Spielberg films) is that we cared so much about the central relationship that, when the "happy ending" forced the protagonists to sacrifice being with each other, we as viewers were torn. The feelings generated by The BFG aren’t nearly as intense. Although we develop an attachment to Sophie and BFG and become invested in their friendship, the connection is neither deep nor lasting and this limits the film’s power.

Spielberg succeeds in crafting a land of strangeness and wonder but, although his methods are flawless, they’re not unique. Hailed for his groundbreaking use of CGI in Jurassic Park all those years ago, he has been surpassed over the years by others who have pushed at the edges of the special effects envelope. The BFG does a good job making us believe in the title character and his world but the film doesn’t have the awe-factor that accompanied Jurassic Park.

The best things about The BFG are the lead performances. Plucky and immediately likable, Ruby Barnhill is perfect as Sophie. This 11-year old British actress’ performance, her feature debut (although she previously appeared the TV series 4 O’Clock Club), will put her on many critics’ "people to watch" list. Mark Rylance, working for a second time with Spielberg after winning an Oscar under the director’s guidance for Bridge of Spies, conveys a gentle, genial spirit with perhaps a hint of sadness. It’s a surprisingly unexpectedly complex performance for a special effects-enhanced character.

Although there are many things about The BFG that I admired, and I laughed frequently during the dinner scene, I found myself strangely unsatisfied by the experience. Perhaps as viewers, we have unrealistic expectations from a director of this stature and expect greatness from everything he produces. The BFG is flawed and perhaps the problems are exacerbated because of the talent of the man behind the camera. This is pleasant, passable entertainment but nothing more — and unlikely to excite the imagination in the way many of Spielberg’s classics have.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **
After the off-putting Entourage movie and that second, egregious Sex and the City film, I'm stunned to report that the latest small-screen transfer to hit the home video market, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, occasionally justifies its merrily low comic existence.

It helps, of course, when you have Joanna Lumley, that epic dame, and her uniquely piquant pronunciation of the word "fabulous," spoken without moving her lips, as if savoring a liqueur-flavored marble in her mouth. Also, it's a treat to watch Jennifer Saunders break into a trot while lugging more handbags, jewelry and accessories than seems humanly possible to lug.

This is not a movie for Ab Fab newbies. With little or no foreknowledge, director Mandie Fletcher's update on the travails of hapless publicist Edina "Eddy" Monsoon (Saunders) and her voracious pal Patsy Stone (Lumley) may seem more remote to U.S. audiences than the creatures in Star Trek Beyond. Also, real life is doing Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie no favors this month. In one scene the ladies careen in a scooter down a French Riviera boulevard, scattering pedestrians right and left, and after the terrorist attack in Nice, an uninspired bit of physical comedy tastes miserably sour indeed.

The whole thing feels a bit desperate. Eddy finds herself in career trouble, at odds with London's high fashion and red carpet scene, and generally rudderless as she rounds the bend of 60. Her straight-laced daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) and granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) view Eddy and Patsy with wary affection at best, strained patience at worst. The plot cooked up by screenwriter Saunders has Eddy writing her memoirs, only to be rejected by a publisher. What she needs is a hot PR client, and her pursuit of supermodel Kate Moss (played by Kate Moss, convincingly) leads to the apparent accidental drowning of Moss in the Thames, which sends Eddy and Patsy fleeing to the south of France, hiding from the cops.

The cameos are relentless: Joan Collins, Jon Hamm, Dame Edna (Barry Humphries, who adds a substantial cameo as a skeezy old flame of Patsy's) and gossipmonger Perez Hilton. The laughs are sporadic. The skill set of Saunders and Lumley remains astonishing. Yet the jokes about washed-up, worn-out social climbers and boozehounds feel a decade or so out of date, and I found Eddy's self-loathing streak to be wanly pathetic, as opposed to touchingly sardonic. Fans of the series may feel a certain obligation to look in on it. It's a casual lark that does the drinking for you.

This week’s other DVD releases
The Intervention ** The film is no embarrassment, and any time a woman is allowed to direct a film benefits the cause. But if Clea DuVall’s purpose was to provide a snapshot of her generation, she should have sharpened her focus and dug a little deeper.
The Wild Life * The colors are vibrant, the sea, palm trees, birds, bird-feathers and Robinson Crusoe’s red hair are almost photo-realistic. But as a kids’ cartoon, this is a an utter dud. It’s a comic version of the tale told from the point of view of the animals on board various ships, and on the island where Crusoe (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) is shipwrecked. And there isn’t a single laugh in it.

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My November Ranking of the 2016 Oscar Contenders

1.  La La Land
2.  Manchester By the Sea
3.  Fences
4.  Moonlight
5.  Loving
6.  Silence

7.  Arrival
8.  Lion
9.  Jackie

1.  Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2.  Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
3.  Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
4.  Denzel Washington, Fences
5.  Martin Scorcese, Silence

6.  Pablo Lorrain, Jackie
7.  Jeff Nichols, Loving
8.  Ang Lee, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
9.  Garth Davis. Lion

1.  Emma Stone, La La Land
2.  Natalie Portman, Jackie
3.  Ruth Negga, Loving
4.  Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
5.  Amy Adams, Arrival

6.  Jessica Chastain, Miss Stone
7.  Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
8.  Isabelle Huppert, Elle
9.  Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

1.  Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
2.  Denzel Washington, Fences
3.  Ryan Gosling, La La Land
4.  Joel Edgerton, Loving
5.  Tom Hanks, Sully

6.  Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
7.  Viggo Mortenson, Captain Fantastic
8.  Michael Keaton, The Founder

1.  Viola Davis, Fences
2.  Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea
3.  Naomie Harris, Moonlight
4.  Nicole Kidman, Lion
5.  Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women

6.  Felicity Jones, A Monster Calls
7.  Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
8.  Aja Naomi King, The Birth of a Nation

1.  Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
2.  Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
3.  Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
4.  Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
5.  Dev Patel, Lion

6.  Liam Neeson, Silence
7.  Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
8.  Stephen Henderson, Fences
9.  Timothy Spall, Denial
10. Jovan Adepo, Fences
11. Steve Martin, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

1.  Fences
2.  Arrival
3.  Silence
4.  Lion
5.  Nocturnal Animals

6.  Hidden Figures
7.  A Monster Calls
8.  Hacksaw Ridge

1.  Manchester By the Sea
2.  Moonlight
3.  La La Land
4.  Jackie
5.  Loving

6.  20th Century Women
7.  Hell or High Water

1.  La La Land
2.  Arrival
3.  Silence
4.  Jackie
5.  Moonlight

6.  Nocturnal Animals
7.  The Jungle Book
8.  Lion
9.  Live By Night
10. Hail, Caesar!

1.  Jackie
2.  La La Land
3.  Silence
4.  Florence Foster Jenkins
5.  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

6.  Live By Night
7.  Rules Don't Apply
8.  Allied

1.  La La Land
2.  Silence
3.  Jackie
4.  Hacksaw Ridge
5.  Moonlight

6.  Arrival
7.  The Jungle Book
8.  Hidden Figures
9.  Nocturnal Animals

MAKEUP AND HAIR (3 nominees)
1.  Jackie
2.  Silence
3.  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

4.  Florence Foster Jenkins
5.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
6.  Deadpool
7.  Loving

1.  La La Land
2.  Silence
3.  Jackie
4.  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
5.  Rules Don't Apply

6.  The Jungle Book
7.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
8.  Hidden Figures
9.  Live By Night

1.  La La Land
2.  Jackie
3.  Silence
4.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
5.  Lion

6.  Arrival
7.  Hidden Figures
8.  The Jungle Book

1.  Hacksaw Ridge
2.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie
3.  La La Land
4.  The Jungle Book
5.  Deepwater Horizon

6.  Silence

1.  La La Land
2.  Hacksaw Ridge
3.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
4.  Silence
5.  The Jungle Book

1.  Doctor Strange
2.  The Jungle Book
3.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
4.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
5.  Arrival

6.  Captain America: Civil War
7.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

1.  Zootopia
2.  Kubo and the Two Strings
3.  Moana
4.  Finding Dory
5.  The Red Turtle

6.  Sing
7.  Sausage Party
8.  The Little Prince

MyTop 25 College Football Teams (after week 12)

Posting this earlier than usual this week because the college football playoff committee obviously needs some guidance. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Alabama 11-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 10-1 (2)
3.  Michigan 10-1 (3)
4.  Clemson 10-1 (4)
5.  Washington 10-1 (6)
6.  Wisconsin 9-2 (7)
7.  Colorado 9-2 (11)
8.  Penn State 9-2 (8)
9.  Oklahoma 9-2 (15)
10. USC 8-3 (9)
11. Louisville 9-2 (5)
12. Western Michigan 11-0 (10)
13. Florida State 8-3 (16)
14. Auburn 8-3 (13)
15. Florida 8-2 (24)
16. Stanford 8-3 (20)
17. Boise State 10-1 (18)
18. Nebraska 9-2 (22)
19. Washington State 8-3 (12)
20. Tennessee 8-3 (23)
21. Houston 9-2 (NR)
22. Oklahoma State 9-2 (25)
23. Texas A&M 8-3 (19)
24. LSU 6-4 (14)
25. West Virginia 8-2 (17)
Dropped out: Utah

Monday, November 21, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Hell or High Water ***½

There are no tumbleweeds in Hell or High Water, but there might as well be. The Texas terrain, as bleak and barren as any landscape this side of Tombstone, is a constant presence, as forceful a character as any played by a human actor. It speaks of poverty, lost opportunities, and desperation. Alternating with the shots of a cowboy’s dream gone bad are indelible images of refineries and oil rigs, visual blights that obscure the horizon. One character, a half-Comanche, puts it in perspective when he matter-of-factly observes that, 150 years ago, all this land belonged to his people. Then, the grandparents of the current residents drove them out. Now, the banks are doing to them what they did to the Native Americans.

Echoes of the Coen Brothers are impossible to ignore, especially No Country for Old Men. I’m sure the presence of Jeff Bridges, a veteran of couple of Coen Brothers outings, has something to do with it. But it’s more because of the tone, the attention to detail, and the gallows humor injected into the dialogue. This is a thriller but it’s not a Hollywood thriller. Immersed in the overwrought rhythms of a season’s worth of blockbuster "action", I had almost forgotten how satisfying a slow-burn approach can be. Hell or High Water doesn’t feel the need to rush things along and director David Mackenzie isn’t tied to the leash of multiple cuts per second. He prefers extended takes and tracking shots and it’s hard to argue that there’s a better approach because what he achieves is damn near perfect for this material.

The story begins with a low-key bank robbery committed by brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). Although their approach seems amateurish, there’s a method to their madness. And, although Toby is devoted to non-violence, we’re not so sure about Tanner. Two robberies later, although we have gotten to know the criminals, their motivations, which involve reverse mortgages, oil drilling rights, and Toby’s estranged sons, remain murky. This is intentional. Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (with a strong follow-up to his 2015 writing debut, Sicario) are content to allow the information to emerge organically rather than providing it via an exposition dump.

To balance things, Hell or High Water provides us the other side of the story as well — that of the law enforcement officers charged with investigating the bank robberies. In this case, the Texas Rangers are represented by retiring officer Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his earnest sidekick, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). These two share a companionable enmity with Marcus using Alberto as a verbal punching bag for a variety of insults then cheering the younger man on when he lands a return jab. As lackadaisical as Marcus may seem, however, he’s actually a savvy lawman — exactly what’s needed when Toby (if not Tanner) proves to be smart and slippery.

In fact, Tanner is the weak link in Toby’s plans, although the former’s temper occasionally bubbles to the surface in the more grounded brother (consider how he reacts to a perceived threat at a gas station). Initially, it appears that Tanner is the guiding force behind the crimes but we soon learn that Toby is the brains of the operation. The brothers steal only loose bills to avoid dye packs. They have chosen their victim (Texas Midlands, with no branches outside its home state) to avoid FBI involvement. The getaway cars are driven into a grave. Other, deeper wrinkles in their scheme are revealed as the plot unspools.

Strong acting is one of the film’s strengths. Pine, who has become synonymous with the new James T. Kirk, is given an opportunity to show that he can act when not struggling in William Shatner’s shadow. Pine, who usually chooses leading man/action hero type roles, makes us question whether he might not be a better character actor. He’s excellent here in part because the weight of the movie isn’t resting on his back. Foster, who co-starred with Pine earlier this year in The Finest Hours, portrays Tanner as a loose cannon whose traumatic past has left him unhinged but whose love for his brother is his saving grace. Bridges adopts a Columbo-esque laid-back attitude — sort-of a parallel universe version of The Dude if he had become a Texas Ranger. Underneath the seemingly lazy exterior, however, there’s a bit of Sherlock Holmes at work.

Hell or High Water is more of a drama than a thriller, although there are "thriller-type" elements in place (the bank robberies and some chase and close-call elements as law enforcement closes in). The film is more about characters than suspense. Mackenzie takes great pains to provide a compelling, credible motive for Toby and Tanner and to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the men pursuing them. From a purely narrative perspective, there’s nothing new here but like a new arrangement of a familiar tune, the slight changes make it fresh and enjoyable.

Kubo and the Two Strings ***½
It has often perplexed me why there have been relatively few fantasy adventure animated films. With their mix of monsters, magic, and heroism, they would seem to be an ideal fit to captivate the imaginations of children and adults alike. Putting aside the fact that Kubo and the Two Strings is saddled with a terrible (albeit accurate) title, this is not only the first serious fantasy adventure animated film since the How to Train Your Dragon sequel but the best animated feature (at least thus far) of 2016, beating out such impressive contenders as Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Secret Lives of Pets. (The less said about Ice Age: Collision Course, the better.)

The story transpires in a mythological feudal Japan — a setting that allows for an unconventional milieu and look. Although the movie was made with a strong Eastern flavor, its producer is U.S.-based Laika, whose previous credits include Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Like those earlier productions (for which Kubo director Travis Knight was the lead animator), this one employs stop-motion animation (as opposed to the more popular CGI) and represents the most polished example of this style to-date. The stop-motion is smooth (with only very occasional jitter being evident) and richly textured. Although CGI often provides greater detail, stop-motion offers a stronger "tactile" experience.

Kubo begins with a prologue that introduces a young woman with a baby arriving on a desolate coast following a harrowing sea voyage. Events flash-forward about a decade. The one-eyed baby Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) has grown into a self-sufficient boy who cares for his mother and uses a strange sort of magic to breathe life into origami creations. He employs these as characters in stories he tells to the inhabitants of a local village. However, when Kubo violates one of his mother’s key rules — never to stay out after dark — forces from his past erupt to claim him. Led by his two aunts (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather, The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, no less fearsome than as Voldemort), Kubo’s family seeks to sever him from his mother. To save himself, he must go on a quest for the three items (a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet) that, when combined, will allow him to stand against The Moon King. His only companions on this dangerous journey are an animated monkey talisman (Charlize Theron) and a human/beetle hybrid (Matthew McConaughey).

Kubo’s action scenes occur with sufficient frequency that the proceedings never threaten to become ponderous. Many involve monsters — a giant animated skeleton, underwater eyestalks, a flying dragon, and a few other nasties — and all are fast-paced an impeccably rendered. Exposition is seamlessly incorporated; we never feel like we’re being subjected to an information dump. Although most adults will be able to guess the movie’s surprises, that doesn’t diminish the viewer’s pleasure. There’s also humor to be found, especially in the interaction between Monkey and Beetle, whose arguments often sound like those of an old married couple.

Although it incorporates themes about the importance of family and choosing the right path, Kubo is not as light and airy as a Finding Dory or The Secret Life of Pets. An entire village is destroyed and Kubo must learn, like Bambi and Simba, that death is a part of life. Although it’s difficult to determine a cut-off age for children, the movie plays "older" than many animated titles and may frighten or disturb some in the under-7 crowd. However, Kubo’s appeal may be stronger for older children.

Lacking the marketing push of a Disney or Universal, Kubo will undoubtedly be rented or streamed by smaller audiences and the expectations for its video receipts should be modest. However, this is as good as or better than any animated film to reach screens this year. The action doesn’t seem designed to feed into a video game. The narrative scope is epic without losing sight of the importance of interpersonal relationships. The voice cast features two Oscar winners (Theron and McConaughey) and two multiple nominees (Fiennes and Mara). And the images on screen, while not as "perfect" as those generated by Pixar or Illumination, are entrancing. Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical motion picture in every sense of the word.

War Dogs **
War Dogs is a film about horrible people that refuses to own the horribleness. It's too enamored with its glib arms dealer heroes, and although it's packed with scenes that might have inspired moral whiplash in works like Scarface, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street — to name three superb films about guys who get equally high on drugs and the adrenaline rush of living outside the law, and that War Dogs references constantly — they're always softened by Hollywood special pleading: Aren't these guys adorable and funny? Don't you love what good friends they are? Don't you admire their audacity? Look at how troubled the hero seems — don't you feel for him?

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) would seem to be an ideal, or at least promising, person to tell this tale of a couple of pipsqueak Miami arms dealers who make a fortune providing guns and bullets to the U.S. military during the height of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But War Dogs, which is based on a Rolling Stone article and a subsequent book by Guy Lawson, lacks the courage of its convictions. Tone-wise, it's all over the map. Sometimes it seems to stare pitilessly at its hero and narrator, former massage therapist and bed sheet dealer turned arms trafficker David Packouz (Miles Teller), and his friend and boss Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), and recognize them as greedy, expedient men who only care about fattening their bank accounts. But other times it seems inordinately concerned with whether David and Efraim will stay pals once things turn south — as if it's a straightforward, un-ironic buddy flick about badass dudes doing badass things, sometimes in slow-motion, instead of a twisted and conflicted parody of that kind of film.

Worse, War Dogs presents David's barely-developed wife Iz (Ana de Armas) as a voice of conscience who's horrified by her husband's lies and furtiveness, never anything more. Whenever the movie concentrates on Iz and David's marriage problems, it confirms its softness. Every time it asks us to care deeply about whether David will lose Iz — who chastises David for his dishonesty, then supports him, then turns against him again, always according to the needs of the plot at that moment — it exposes its sweet-creamy Hollywood center. Henry and Karen Hill these two ain't.

Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, which co-starred Hill, drew critical fire (like Goodfellas and Scarface before it) for making its wheeler-dealer protagonists as fun to watch as they were morally repulsive; but that was part of the movie's design, and whether you thought Scorsese and writer Terence Winter succeeded or failed, it was obvious that you were supposed to feel torn about the characters and question if you should be having fun watching them get over. It was a variation on the gangster film attraction-repulsion strategy, where you share the hero's power trip fantasy and then feel the sting of reality slapping him in the face. War Dogs keeps the Scorsesean arrogant-macho banter (which can be very funny, thanks to the relaxed interplay between Hill and Teller) but it loses the ugly undertow that makes non-sociopathic viewers feel slightly dirty for feeling so excited. The detailed breakdowns of the fine points of arms deals come across as a guns-and-ammo version of hedge fund guys bragging about a haul.

The choice of storyteller is a big part of the film's problem. David, whose real-life equivalent served as a technical advisor and has a cameo, is depicted as nearly as big of a blank as his poor wife. He's a nice guy who was just going about his business when Satan showed up in the form of Efraim, rather than a quick study who ditched his two day jobs and within a matter of weeks was able to manage a soon-to-be-multimillion dollar business built on Beretta pistols and AK-47 shells bought on the cheap and shipped into war zones.

The best thing about War Dogs is the characterization of Efraim, as embodied by Hill. This actor portrays blobby, sarcastic, volatile men better than anyone since the late, great Chris Penn, and he's terrific here, using the character's squeaky laugh as an exclamation point at the end of a tense moment, and letting us see the calculations happening in Efraim's reptilian brain by letting his eyes go cloudy. There are moments where you can spot the exact moment when Efraim decides to betray or destroy someone; often the moment occurs when Efraim is insisting that he's all about loyalty and trust. If War Dogs had put Efraim at its center, it might have gotten closer to its apparent wish to be a scathing, Scorsesean take on arms dealing during the War on Terror — half madcap comedy, half expose. At the very least, it would have inoculated itself against claims that it's a safe film on a dangerous subject. Efraim is a slobbish but confident con artist who trudges through life in baggy leisure wear and expensive sunglasses, puffing up his ego with money and guns and telling David, "I'm not pro-war. The war is happening. This [business] is pro-money." At one point he even describes himself to an Iraqi as an "ugly American," frankly claiming a stereotype that he knows he embodies from head to toe.

You get the sense that Efraim knows full well what he is but has decided not to worry about it, a scenario that's considerably more chilling than all the scenes of David worrying that Efraim has gone too far but is too good a friend to abandon. Every time Efraim appears onscreen, the audience and the movie have to reckon with him. But War Dogs chooses instead to hang on David and take his exculpatory narration at face value, as if both Phillips and the audience are as gullible as Iz.

Phillips knowingly cites Goodfellas through various formal techniques (chatty narration, scary-funny violence, freeze-frames) to the point where you pretty much have to buy the idea that David is a 20-something, 21st century Henry Hill. But War Dogs doesn't have the bravura visuals and electrifying coldness of Scorsese in gangster-scumbag mode. And you never get the sense, as you do in the best narrated Scorsese films, that the narrator is shading things to make himself seem more glamorous, or less culpable in horror than he actually was (as exemplified in the Goodfellas scene where Hill calmly describes the ramifications of a mob footsoldier killing a waiter on a whim, but the movie shows us closeups of the character looking appalled and distressed).

War Dogs, in contrast, wants us to take David at face value, as a nice guy who made a few mistakes and got in way over his head before coming to his senses but is still basically decent. In the end, he comes off as guilty mainly of loving and trusting his friend, and there's hardly anything in the film to suggest that this might not be the whole story. Efraim, meanwhile, comes across as more of an outrageous, hot-tempered clown than a grubby visionary pig whose lack of education and refinement are eclipsed by a predator's cunning. The film turns him into glorified comic relief, so funny that he can't be properly frightening. Most of the characters in the first Hangover seemed more disreputable and unpredictable than this guy, and Phillips seemed not to care if we liked them as long as we found them funny and interesting; here he wants us to like his slimy people, too — or at least the film wants us to like David, and root for him to stay friends with Efraim and win back Iz's love. It's a brief in David's defense that sometimes plays as if it was written by David himself.

Hands of Stone **
Some of the best biopics are the ones that focus on a pivotal point in a major figure’s life and use that period as a prism through which to understand what makes that person tick, what makes that person matter. Che Guevara’s road trip in The Motorcycle Diaries and Steve Jobs’ product launches in Steve Jobs immediately come to mind. They don’t try to give a celebrity the complete cradle-to-grave treatment, but rather provide a more intimate, specific look.

Hands of Stone, about the legendary boxer Roberto Durán, could have used such an approach. It’s clearly there in his rivalry with American Sugar Ray Leonard. Their back-and-forth in and out of the ring is just tantalizing — the most compelling part of the whole movie. And Edgar Ramírez and Usher Raymond bring these very different fighters vividly to life.

Instead, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz depicts Durán from his impoverished youth as a scrappy kid on the streets of Panama through his rise in the sport, his thrilling capturing of the welterweight title against Leonard in 1980, his fall in the famous "No Mas" rematch and his subsequent, triumphant return as light middleweight champion at Madison Square Garden.

That’s a lot of ground to cover. Jakubowicz also skips around in time to cram in Durán’s family life with his wife and five kids, the turmoil that rocked Panama during Durán’s early years, the swelling sense of national pride as the Panama Canal returned to the country’s ownership and the resentment Durán carried as an adult over the American father who abandoned him as a child. He also tells the whole tale from the perspective of Durán’s trainer, Ray Arcel, a legend in his own right with his own backstory and baggage.

Robert De Niro, whose deeply Method-y portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull gave us one of cinema’s most indelible performances, plays Arcel, which theoretically should be exciting in itself. De Niro dials it down here and does some of the most honest and understated work of his late career. But he’s stuck over-explaining everything in voiceover — about Durán, about Arcel’s decades-old mob troubles, about this historical period, about boxing in general — which only contributes to the sensation that we’re watching yet another paint-by-numbers biopic. In trying to encompass way too much, Hands of Stone ends up feeling superficial and unsatisfying.

The performances are really strong, though. That’s what’s so frustrating; you just know there’s a better movie in here waiting to burst free. Ramírez may look distractingly too mature at first to be playing a 20-year-old Durán in 1971, but his swagger is electrifying, from his flirtation with the woman who would become his wife (Ana de Armas) when she was just a teenage schoolgirl to the way he trash-talks Leonard in Montreal leading up to their big showdown. But Ramírez also has the depth to depict Durán’s darker moments: his pent-up anger, hunger and self-indulgent tendencies once he becomes rich and famous. It’s enough to make you wish it were all in the service of a better script. De Armas, meanwhile — who also appeared in a similarly underwritten supporting role as Miles Teller’s fiancée in War Dogs (see above) — has a hugely charismatic presence. But except for a couple of showy moments, she gets little to do besides function as the dutiful wife in a sexy array of disco-tastic costumes.

Durán’s more influential relationship is with Arcel, who functions not only as his trainer but also as a father figure, even though he promised the mob (represented in a couple of scenes by the always-welcome John Turturro) that he’d walk away from the sport. That organized-crime element of the story never feels like a real threat; similarly, the introduction of Arcel’s daughter about halfway through the movie comes out of nowhere and never gets developed. The two other men who were major early forces in Durán’s life — a Fagan-like figure who taught him how to survive on the streets and his first trainer — barely get fleshed out, either.

The real missed opportunity, though, was in choosing not to make the Durán-Leonard rivalry the center of Hands of Stone. The actors playing them present such an intriguing clash of styles — Ramirez is all bravado and machismo, Raymond is all coy, cool charm. The boxing scenes themselves are shot and edited in a rather standard (if somewhat choppy) manner, but it’s the way the relationship between these two men developed outside the ring that gives Hands of Stone any sort of real punch.

Other DVD releases this week
Homo Sapiens ***½ Each individual shot creates a fission of desolation that resonates far beyond the facile irony suggested by the movie’s title.
Chicken People ***½ This beguiling documentary proves that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often more poignant and illuminating as well.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World *** We want the rambling Werner Herzog to follow his muse into strange corners — let lesser documentary filmmakers stick to virtues like coherence. Herzog’s latest, ostensibly about the internet, is divided into 10 sections, each taking on a blend of awe and uneasiness at a radically changed world that’s increasingly lived online.
Silcon Cowboys *** Director Jason Cohen, whose Facing Fear was among the 2014 Oscar nominees for documentary short, lends this classic David versus Goliath story a playfully retro feel complete with old TV clips that look like they were recorded on VHS and a beep ’n’ blip-heavy electronic score by Ian Hultquist that could have easily come from a vintage Nintendo game.
Harry and Snowman *** In this documentary about Harry deLeyer, who raised horses and taught riding at a girls’ school in Long Island, a student of deLeyer’s recalls some of his advice: "Throw your heart over the top, and your horse will follow." This film makes you want to do the same.
Palio *** This documentary, while high-spirited and often hilarious, adheres to a formulaic sports movie structure, as 28-year-old upstart jockey Giovanni Atzeni trains to defeat reigning champion Luigi Bruschelli in a four-century-old horserace held semiannually in Siena, Italy. Atzeni’s racing for glory, not money, naturally, but it's hard to consider this absurdly handsome, bright-eyed, rather cocky kid an underdog. And while director Cosima Spender spends enough time with both new and retired jockey legends to collect a gold mine of macho, bullheaded rapport, you wish she delved deeper into the more sinister, behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings.
The Nightmare **½ This is a different kind of documentary, shelving the usual experts and talking heads for a more personal experience of the title subject. That's good and bad.
The Childhood of a Leader **½ Scott Walker’s score for this film is a work of dark, twisted genius, skin-crawling and bombastic in equal measure, and first-time director Brady Corbet does his damnedest trying to mount a movie to deserve it. And, miraculously, he eventually pulls it off with the epilogue, a left turn into dystopian nightmare. If only for a few minutes, it becomes its own film, a tour of the printing presses, paternoster elevators, and mazes of power that ends with a convulsive blur of bodies crowding in a public square. A viewer can’t help but think, "What took so long?"
The Greasy Strangler ** Pure uncompromising yuckiness is what this comedy delivers. A grossout smack in the face. Deplorable. Unspeakable. Often funny.
Sneakerheadz ** Some collectors' pre-EBay anecdotes about the lengths they went to in procuring rare sneakers prove memorable, but the film is more lifestyle puff piece than journalism, as filmmakers David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge seem to glorify their subjects. The film places some blame for shoe addiction on media hype, yet it's also culpable of feeding that frenzy.
The Land ** The Cleveland locations — along with some memorable visual flourishes via skateboard tricks — show that writer/director Stephen Caple Jr. has a unique eye and a strong sense of place. Here’s hoping that next time he applies them to a fresher story.
Mechanic: Resurrection * Despite some of the most picturesque locations money can buy, and some not unimpressive looking movable props (yachts with helipads and such) and so on, this movie suffers from a storyline and script that strains credulity and insults intelligence even by the low bar set by the majority of contemporary action movies.
 I.T. ½* Let’s just say director John Moore’s thriller should be lost in cyberspace — not filling up an hour and a half of your life.
Yoga Hosers ½* This is lazy, unfunny, and self-indulgent. It should have been binned the second the (literal) smoke cleared, and while it's been clear for some time that Kevin Smith is either incapable of making a good movie or simply doesn't care to, Yoga Hosers may very well be the film that finally convinces audiences the emperor has no hockey jersey.

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