Monday, September 30, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

100 Bloody Acres **½ Damon Herriman, Angus Sampson. Directed by Cameron and Colin Cairnes. As the sibling owners of an organic fertilizer business find themselves running low on their product’s magic ingredient — human roadkill — a solution presents itself in the form of three teens stranded on a remote stretch of road. What the Cairns brothers have created is something rare for a horror film: Not only does it get the job done without making you want to shower after it’s all over, but they’ve created multi-dimensional characters who inhabit a believable and expansive environment. In so doing, they’ve also created a bloody good bit of twisted fun.

The Croods **½ Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders. After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy. Though it’s impressive in many technical and surface ways, The Croods lets us down on the essentials of character and story, and no amount of late-stage father/daughter bonding or vertiginous 3D cliffside tumbling can make up for that.

The Frozen Ground * Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens. Directed by Scott Walker. An Alaska State Trooper partners with a young woman who escaped the clutches of serial killer Robert Hansen to bring the murderer to justice. The movie’s only fresh element is the wintry setting, which shrouds everything in a mood of weary fatalism. Otherwise, it’s the same old, same old, efficiently discharged and utterly disposable.

An Overssimplification of Her Beauty ****½ Directed by Terence Nance. When the comely and intriguing Namik stands him up for a date, filmmaker Terence documents his confusion in a short film that he later shows to her. When Namik isn’t impressed, Terence decide to turn the movie into a full exploration of his feelings. What saves the film — and grandly — is Nance’s wildly ambitious visual imagination. Teetering somewhere between film school precocity and impressively assured audaciousness, it’s almost hypnotic in its style and genre promiscuity.

This Is the End **½ James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson. Directed by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogan. A bevy of Hollywood notables are stuck together at a party when the apocalypse dawns. In typical celebrity fashion, the trapped stars bicker rather than bond in the face of doom. Funny is funny, and it would be truly dishonest to deny the big laughs — the spikes of gut-busting inspiration — that the film sporadically delivers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Casual Observations

  • There have been 12 mass murders in our nation’s history involving the shooting deaths of 11 or more innocent victims. The first half of those occurred over a span of 50 years, from 1949 to 1999. The second half occurred during the last six years. Something’s terribly wrong here and it appears to be getting worse.
  • Both of Texas’ U.S. senators are an embarrassment. First John Cornyn addresses the Senate on Syria and doesn’t take a side on the issue, but takes all sides. Then Ted Cruz says of the only avowed and unrepentant racist ever to serve in the U.S. Senate: "We need 100 more senators like Jesse Helms."
  • I don’t care what Johnnie Manziel did at Kyle Field last Saturday, he has absolutely no chance of winning a second Heisman in this, his last year at Texas A&M.
  • Texas coach Mack Brown has done an abysmal job of late in hiring assistant coaches and that is the main reason for the Longhorns’ fall from an elite status. It may be time for a regime change.
  • Coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, 12 Years a Slave has become the frontrunner for this year’s best picture Oscar. It should be noted that coming out of last year’s TIFF, Silver Linings Playbook was in the same position. I will have my Oscar predictions coming up around the end of the month.
  • I will be on vacation next week, so don’t look for any blog entries between Sept. 20-29.

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

This week’s DVD releases

1st Night * Richard E. Grant, Sara Brightman, Mia Maestro. Directed by Christopher Menauf. A wealthy industrialist and frustrated singer attempts to add richness to his life by staging an opera inside his lavish country home. As part of the project, he recruits a beautiful female conductor he’s had his eye on. The depressingly predictable script — and tendency of everyone involved to jump to ridiculous conclusions — suggests a combination of Noises Off at best, and at worst, Three’s Company.

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor * Bruce Greenwood, Parker Posey. Directed by Zack Bernbaum. An advertising CEO wakes up in the hospital speaking only in ad slogans. It’s a testament to Greenwood’s acting that his character never becomes entirely as insufferable as the words that come out of his mouth.

Augustine ****½ Soko, Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianna. Directed by Alice Winocour. A look at the relationship between pioneering 19th century French neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot and his star teenage patient, a kitchen maid who is left partially paralyzed after a seizure. Everything depends on the subtlety of the direction and the charisma of the performances. This film is intellectually satisfying partly because it communicates its ideas at the level of feeling, through the uncanny power of Soko’s face and body.

Bless Me, Ultima ***½ Directed by Carl Franklin. A drama set in New Mexico during World War II, centered on the relationship between a young man and an elderly medicine woman who helps him contend with the battle between good and evil that rages in his village. Writer-director Franklin offers up a tone of heightened reverence that weighs down the material, but there are small, lovely moments when the magic realism approaches the magical.

The Bling Ring **½ Directed by Sofia Coppola. Inspired by actual events, a group of fame-obsessed teenagers use the internet to track celebrities’ whereabouts in order to rob their homes. Coppola’s attitude toward her subject seems equivocal, uncertain; there is perhaps a smidgen of social commentary, but she seems far too at home in the world she depicts to offer a rewarding critique of it.

Disconnect *** Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard. Directed by Henry Alex Rubin. This drama about the thrills and perils of seeking fulfillment online focuses on a male escort, an outcast schoolboy and a married couple in trouble. As cautionary tales go, this is a pretty good one, but it’s not really a whole lot more than that.

Drift Xavier Samuel, Myles Pollard, Sam Worthington. Directed by Ben Nott, Morgan O’Neill. In the 1970s, the two Kelly brothers spend their youth searching for the perfect wave and launch a backyard surf business out of their van. When the movie sticks to the likable, gently humorous contours of occasionally fractious brotherly love, broken up by thrillingly shot surfing footage, it has plenty of charm, period flavor and breezy visual breadth. Where the movie routinely disappoints, though, is in pursuit of a perfect storm of conflict story lines.

The East **½ Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson. Directed by Zal Batmanglij. An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations. The movie never goes as deep undercover as it should.

Gimme the Loot ***½ Tashiana Washington, Ty Hickson, Zoe Lascaze, Meko. Directed by Adam Leon. Two talented graffiti artists from the Bronx are stung when a rival outfit covers their own illustration with a portrait of the Mets’ Home Run Apple. They turn their outrage into a daring plan to tag the real Home Run Apple at the Mets ballpark. Leon, 31, has slyly and reverentially crafted a perfect New York movie, including the class tensions, relentless hustling and spontaneous connections that best define the exuberant strain of the city. The soundtrack, filled with mostly soul oldies, somehow feels exactly right for the sweaty New York summer of this scrappy kid-venture.

Greetings from Tim Buckley **½ Penn Badgley, Imogen Poots, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Rosenfield. Directed by Daniel Algrant. Young, troubled and unknown, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley grapples with his own self-doubts in the days leading up to a tribute concert in honor of his famous father, Tim Buckley, who died of a drug overdose. There is no doubt the movie is respectful, and thanks to Badgley and Rosenfield, does justice to both singers. But the film never quite connects father and son as each sharing the common bond of extraordinary talent or even similar personal woes.

In the Fog ****½ Directed by Sergei Loznitsa. An innocent man accused of treason by Russian partisans fighting the German occupation is marked for death by two of his fellow countrymen. When the trio is ambushed, the man, eager to clear his name, faces a moral choice under immoral circumstances. Intimate in the telling, sweeping in the implications, Loznitsa has created an unusually incisive film. It explores the moralities of wartime with restraint and exacting execution.

Java HeatKellen Lutz, Mickey Rourke. Directed by Conor Allyn. A Muslim detective teams with an American posing as a graduate student to find the man behind a series of deadly terrorist bombings in Indonesia. The film is rarely more than a few minutes away from a gun battle or a tedious chase, and soon you cease to care who is shooting at, or running from, whom or why.

Scenic Route ** Josh Duhamel, Dan Fogler. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz. When car trouble strands two old friends in the California desert, friction surfaces as they try to deal with the situation, and a heated dialogue soon escalates into a violent struggle for survival. The first half of this movie is basically a filmed play, and not an insightful one. The more surreal second half takes on a moodier edge, but the switcheroo ending is cutesy to the point of annoying. Fogler impresses with some brooding edge, but neither he nor the location photography is enough to recommend you join him on this doomed trip.

Shanghai Calling **½ Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe, Bill Paxton. Directed by Daniel Hsia. A New York attorney is sent to Shanghai on business, where he finds himself in a legal mess that threatens his career. With the help of a relocation specialist and her contacts, he soon learns to appreciate the wonders of Shanghai. The movie wants to say something significant about the excitement and alienation of life in a strange — which is to say, new — place. The film never gets there, but its aims are honorable, and the lovingly shot Shanghai scenery does enhance the trip.

Simon Killer ****½ Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet, Solo, Michael Abiteboul. Directed by Antonio Campos. A recent college graduate flees to Paris after a break-up, where his involvement with a prostitute begins to reveal a potentially dark recent past. If the movie’s tragic drift is predictable, the seedy particulars still engross. And the storytelling is first-rate.

War of the Buttons Laetitia Casta, Guillaume Canet, Kad Merad, Gérard Jugnot. Directed by Christophe Barratier. The ongoing "war" between two rival groups of kids in neighboring French villages during the Nazi occupation mirrors the larger events of World War II. For a movie that aspires to be heartwarming, it sure does inspire a lot of eye rolling. The slick filmmaking — the movie has a glossy, Hollywood-ready feel that sometimes tips into the cutesy — works against its themes.

The We and the I ***½ Directed by Michel Gondry. A look at the lives of a group of teenagers who ride the same bus route, and how their relationships change and evolve on the last day of school. By the end of the ride, we’ll see glimpses of happiness, sadness, joy, heartbreak, maybe even tragedy, if cell phone-shot recollections are to be believed. All bases are covered, in other words, in one late-afternoon ride, a ride Gondry and his cast will make you want to take.

World War Z *** Brad Pitt. Directed by Marc Foster. A United Nations employee traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself. Emerges as a surprisingly smart, gripping and imaginative addition to the zombie-movie canon, owing as much to scientific disaster movies like The China Syndrome and Contagion as it does to undead texts like the collected works of George Romero.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's ranking in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 1-0 (1)
2.  Oregon 2-0 (2)
3.  Texas A&M 2-0 (3)
4.  Stanford 1-0 (4)
5.  LSU 2-0 (5)
6.  Florida State 1-0 (9)
7.  Georgia 1-1 (12)
8.  Clemson 2-0 (8)
9.  Oklahoma State 2-0 (10)
10. Ohio State 2-0 (14)
11. Michigan 2-0 (15)
12. Oklahoma 2-0 (13)
13. South Carolina 1-1 (6)
14. Baylor 2-0 (17)
15. Notre Dame 1-1 (7)
16. Northwestern 2-0 (20)
17. Louisville 2-0 (19)
18. Florida 1-1 (11)
19. Wisconsin 2-0 (18)
20. UCLA 1-0 (21)
21. Arizona State 1-0 (NR)
22. Washington 1-0 (25)
23. Miami, Fla. 2-0 (NR)
24. Penn State 2-0 (NR)
25. Nebraska 2-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Cincinnati (24), Mississippi (23), Southern California (21), Texas (16).

Monday, September 9, 2013

This week’s DVD releases

The Black Water of Echo’s Pond ** Danielle Harris, Robert Patrick. Directed by Gabriel Bologna. Nine friends take a holiday at a Victorian home on a private island and uncover a game that when played brings out the worst in each of them. Watching people play a board game ain’t ever going to be scary, and that’s essentially what we have here.

Blood Paul Bettany, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham, Brian Cox. Directed by Nick Murphy. Two cop brothers, smothered by the shadow of their former police chief father, must investigate a crime they committed. The landscape cinematography is often eye-pleasing, but the script is labored, filled with clichés and never allows for character development.

Chasing Ice ***½ Directed by Jeff Orlowski. In the spring of 2005, acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog headed to the Arctic on the tricky assignment for National Geographic to capture images to help tell the story of the Earth’s changing climate. The before and after imagery of Balog’s project speaks for itself, with the power and strange beauty of the evolving landscape strong evidence that something is indeed happening, now and fast.

Frankenstein’s Army **½ Directed by Richard Raaphorst. Toward the end of World War II, Russian soldiers pushing into eastern Germany stumble across a secret Nazi lab that has begun experimenting with the journal of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Narrative depth may be in short supply, but the energy, invention and humor are bracing.

Love Is All You Need **½ Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyrholm. Directed by Susanne Bier. A hairdresser who has recently recovered from cancer finds out her husband is having an affair. But while she’s on her way to Italy for her daughter’s wedding, she meets a widower who also happens to be the father of the groom. At times it seems as if Bier set out to create some kind of absurdist comedy, but lost her nerve somewhere along the way. As the film ties up its loose ends, it settles into a rom-com formula with a predictable, upbeat ending. It feels good, sort of.

Peeples **½ Craig Robinson, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, S. Epatha Merkerson. Directed by Tina Gordon Chism. Sparks fly when Wade Walker crashes the preppy Peeples’ annual reunion in the Hamptons to ask for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage. The movie saves itself from a complete belly flop, by the barest of margins, by leaning heavily on its initial strength of good-natured charm.

Star Trek Into Darkness **½ Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana. Directed by J.J. Abrams. After the crew of the Enterprise find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction. After impressing well enough in his previous big screen directorial outings, Abrams works in a narrower, less imaginative mode here; there’s little sense of style, no grace notes or flights of imagination. One feels the dedication of a young musician at a recital determined not to make any mistakes, but there’s no hint of creative interpretation, personal feelings or the spreading of artistic wings.

War Witch **** Directed by Kim Nguyen. Komona is only 12 years old when she is kidnapped by rebel soldiers and enslaved to a life of guerrilla warfare in the African jungle. Nguyen reportedly worked on this movie for a decade, and it shows in both the immediacy and authenticity of his tale, and the meticulous craft with which it’s told. It is most effective not when we are looking in on Komona but when we are inside her head. When she says that, in order to survive in the rebel camp, she "had to learn to make the tears go inside my eyes," our identification with her is total.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks **½ Directed by Alex Gibney. Award-winning documentary director Gibney turns his camera on WikiLeaks, its founder, Julian Assange, and the global debate over access to information. Gibney, a prolific and skilled documentarian, marshals and organizes a raft of information as deftly as anyone could wish. But his conclusions are murkier than they might be.

Wish You Were Here **½ Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Anthony Starr. Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith. Four friends lose themselves in a carefree South East Asian holiday, but only three return. From the opening montage alone, it’s clear that Australian director Darcy-Smith plans to play his cards close to the vest in this maddeningly underwritten thriller/domestic-drama hybrid. After the painstaking buildup, the revelations are disappointingly predictable.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Preseason rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 1-0 (1)
2.  Oregon 1-0 (2)
3.  Texas A&M 1-0 (3)
4.  Stanford 0-0 (5)
5.  LSU 1-0 (9)
6.  South Carolina 1-0 (8)
7.  Notre Dame 1-0 (6)
8.  Clemson 1-0 (14)
9.  Florida State 1-0 (12)
10. Oklahoma State 1-0 (11)
11. Florida 1-0 (10)
12. Georgia 0-1 (4)
13. Oklahoma 1-0 (13)
14. Ohio State 1-0 (7)
15. Michigan 1-0 (19)
16. Texas 1-0 (15)
17. Baylor 1-0 (20)
18. Wisconsin 1-0 (18)
19, Louisville 1-0 (NR)
20. Northwestern 1-0 (23)
21. UCLA 1-0 (NR)
22. Southern California 1-0 (21)
23. Mississippi 1-0 (NR)
24. Cincinnati 1-0 (NR)
25. Washington 1-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Kansas State (16), Oregon State (17), Nebraska (22), Boise State (24), TCU (25)

Monday, September 2, 2013

My Top 25 College Football Teams

I realize it's late to be posting my preseason rankings, especially when (1) the first week of the regular season ends tonight and (2) my No. 4 has already lost. But here you have it anyway: My preseason top 25:
1.  Alabama
2.  Oregon
3.  Texas A&M
4.  Georgia
5.  Stanford
6.  Notre Dame
7.  Ohio State
8.  South Carolina
9.  LSU
10. Florida
11. Oklahoma State
12. Florida State
13. Oklahoma
14. Clemson
15. Texas
16. Kansas State
17. Oregon State
18. Wisconsin
19. Michigan
20. Baylor
21. Southern California
22. Nebraska
23. Northwestern
24. Boise State
25. TCU

This Week’s DVD Releases

From Up on Poppy Hill ***½ Directed by Goro Miyazaki. A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This movie is a lovely example of the strong realist tendency in Japanese animation. Its visual magic lies in painterly compositions of foliage, clouds, architecture and water, and its emotional impact comes from the way everyday life is washed in the colors of memory.

The Iceman *** Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans. Directed by Ariel Vromen. The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters had any clue about his real profession. An unsettling piece that reminds us how even monsters aspire to living the American dream. Shannon’s restrained and mesmerizing portrayal, bolstered by an excellent offbeat supporting cast, makes for an edgy and compelling Mob yarn.

The Lords of Salem **½ Directed by Rob Zombie. Heidi, a radio DJ in Salem, Mass., is sent a box containing a record — a "gift from the Lords." The sounds within the grooves trigger flashbacks of her town’s violent past. Zombie’s latest is gloomy, lacks variety, and is not without its flat patches. Heidi is an increasingly dullish heroine, and in the first 15 minutes you’ll know what’s going to happen in the next 80.

Now You See Me **½ Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Directed by Louis Leterrier. An FBI agent and an Interpol detective track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money. A superficially diverting but substance-free concoction, a would-be thriller as evanescent as a magic trick and one that develops no suspense or rooting interest because the characters possess all the substance of invisible ink.

Petunia **½ Thora Birch, Christine Lahti, Brittany Snow. Directed by Ash Christian. A dysfunctional family learns to love each other. Features a top-notch cast, a few beautifully observed moments, and some amusingly bitchy dialogue. But its rambling, episodic structure and gallery of troubled characters will ultimately prove too off-putting to attract many renters.

Somm **½ Directed by Jason Wise. Four sommeliers attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world. The film maintains a sluggish calm, like its mellow jazz soundtrack, and suffers from following four players with similar stories.