Tuesday, July 29, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

It Felt Like Love **** Directed by Eliza Hittman. Determined to explore her budding sexuality, 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) develops romantic delusions about an older guy that soon turn to obsession. Hittman’s film captures the exclusive properties of sex with a degree of intimacy and empathy that, at times, feels authentically revelatory.

Finding Vivian Maier ***½ Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel. A documentary on the late Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers. This movie might better have been titled "Constructing Vivian Maier" — not because the filmmakers came up empty-handed, but because what they found out sheds too neat and tidy a light on her unsparing, yet warmly sympathetic portraits of the denizens of Chicago’s seamy underside.

Noah ***½ Directed by Darren Aranofsky. This adaptation of the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) depicts the visions that led him to voice dire prophesies of apocalypse and to build an ark to survive. Aronofsky’s earnest, uneven, intermittently powerful film, is both a psychological case study and a parable of hubris and humility. At its best, its shares some its namesake’s ferocious conviction, and not a little of his madness. With Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins.

On My Way *** Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Prompted by a post-midlife crisis, Bettie (Catherine Deneuve) goes out for cigarettes and decides to keep on driving, abandoning the restaurant she owns. Family members fight and reconcile over delicious-looking regional cuisine, new romantic possibilities present themselves, and Deneuve swans through all the heartstring-plucking silliness like the ethereal superstar she is. There are worse things in life.

Cuban Fury **½ Directed by James Griffiths. Two decades after retiring his dancing shoes, former almost-champion salsa expert Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost) tries to regain his form. Frost is a likable lead and an easy rooting interest. But his affability isn’t enough to give this silly-sweet feature the edge and dimension that would make it a memorable contribution to the subgenre epitomized by The Full Monty — comedies in which middle-aged, unassuming Brits discover their inner showman. With Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Ian McShane.

Half a Yellow Sun **½ Directed by Biyi Bandele. Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) each find unexpected romance in the late 1960s against the backdrop of Nigeria’s civil war. One of those movies in which a pesky event of great historical import keeps getting in the way of a soap-opera romance. With Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Five Dances **½ Directed by Alan Brown. The coming of age tale of an extraordinarily gifted young dancer (Ryan Steele) recently arrived in New York City. The gorgeous physicality is more impressive than the sketchy storyline of this dance-centric drama.

The Protector 2 ** Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Martial arts expert Kham (Tony Jaa) wages new battles with animal poachers who work for an organization planning to use his beloved elephant Khon as part of a plot to carry out a coup d’état. In brief spurts, the film is funny, but taken as a whole, it feels like a waste of talent. Cheesiness should not be the most memorable thing about a Tony Jaa movie.

Cold Turkey ** Directed by Will Slocombe. Thanksgiving for the eccentric Turner clan turns into a train wreck when "insane" daughter Nina (Alicia Witt) comes homes for the first time in 15 years. The film is too busy and offers no fresh insight on the inner hysteria of seemingly upright WASPs. The actors work hard, but their roles are mostly one-note. It’s Witt who generates the laughs and the pathos. With Peter Bogdanovich, Ashton Holmes, Sonya Walger, Wilson Bethel, Cheryl Hines.

The Other Woman ** Directed by Nick Cassavetes. When she finds out that her boyfriend is married and that she’s his mistress, a woman teams up with the jerk’s wife to get revenge. Ignores dozens of potentially edgy possibilities to tell the most banal story imaginable — and to do it badly. With Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton.

Lullaby Directed by Andrew Levitas. A man (Garrett Hedlund) who’s estranged from his family receives word that his father has chosen to take himself off life support within 48 hours. This feature debut deals mainly in clichés, never transforming the tough question at its center into compelling cinema. With Richard Jenkins, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anne Archer, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Barden, Terrence Howard, Amy Adams.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a Joke

A number of so-called deserving former players, managers, executives, etc., were inducted today into Major League Baseball’s so-called Hall of Fame. Pardon me if I don’t get all excited or take the news too seriously. My favorite sportswriter of all time was a gentleman by the name of Red Smith and he once wrote that the only solution for the sorry state of the Hall was to blow it up and start all over again. I couldn’t agree more.

For one thing, the Hall’s standards are too low and voting for entrance is too prejudicial. Since 1939, the No. 1 way to gain entrance into the Hall was by a vote of Baseball Writers Association of America, a collection of mostly white, middle-aged men — the very last group you want handling a selection process like this. Back in the day when baseball writers actually were worth reading, the players were making far less money than they are today and the relationship between the two was really too cozy for the writers to be objective. Today, the writers have to grovel just to gain access to baseball’s hallowed stars, so the relationship between the two is antagonistic. Take the case of Boston’s Jim Rice. He had a well known disdain for sports writers which is the reason it took the writers 15 years to finally vote him into the hall. Today, the Hall adopted new rules which allow a player to remain on the ballot no longer than 10 years. Hmmm.

The other way to get in is through a vote of the Veterans Committee, which should be abolished immediately. Between 1945 and 1946, the committee ran rampant, voting all of their cronies into the hall. After that — nada. I guess they just think the modern player doesn’t hack it among the greats of the VC’s era. Ha!

But that’s not my main quarrel with the hall, not by a longshot. Among its members are, to quote Zev Chaftets’ book Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame," a convicted drug dealer, a reformed cokehead who narrowly beat a lifetime suspension from baseball, a celebrated sex addict, an Elders of Zion conspiracy nut, a pitcher who wrote a book about how he cheated his way into the hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver and a couple of nasty beanball artists."

And those are all living members. Among those who are no longer with us are Ty Cobb, who may have actually been a murderer, and who we absolutely know to have been a raging sociopath and an avowed racist who was a card-carrying, torch-waving member of the Ku Klux Klan (as were fellow hall members Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby). The hall also contains a defendant in a paternity suit, many gamblers and too many drunks to count (legendary baseball executive Bill Veck claimed Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched better drunk than sober).

During today’s ceremonies, three —count ‘em, three —managers, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, were inducted into the hall. I’ll leave it to someone else to debate their worthiness for the honor— I have no qualms about it — but I will continue to argue the success of any baseball manager is directly linked to the quality of the players on that manager’s team. Casey Stengel is in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Why? I have no idea. The reason given was because of the success of the New York Yankee teams he managed between 1949 and 1960, during which time the Yanks won five consecutive World Series titles (1949-1953) and then after failing to the win the league title in 1954 and the series in 1955, won titles in 1956 and 1958. Sounds impressive. But not really. The Yankees of that era were loaded. They had players on the bench that could start and star for any other club in the major leagues. My mother could have managed that team to the same success Stengel enjoyed. After Stengel’s Yanks lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, he was fired and subsequently hired by the New York Mets. He managed the Mets four years and in all four of those years the Mets finished 10th in the 10-team National League. If Stengel was such a Hall of Fame-worthy genius, don’t you think one of those four Mets teams could have finished at least ninth?

And although the success of any baseball team (thus manager) is directly linked to the quality of the players on that team, there are only four — four! — general managers — the executives responsible for assembling major league teams — in the hall: Ed Barrow, Branch Rickey, George Weiss and Larry McPhail. That’s blasphemous.

But what’s worse is the baseball writers holier-than-thou, disgracingly sanctimonious decision to exclude Roger Clements and Barry Bonds from the hall. How can they justify including possible murderers, racists, sex addicts, cokeheads, drunk drivers and other nefarious types in the hall, but exclude two individuals, who were acquitted by juries of their peers in courts of law of taking performance enhancing drugs?

Pete Rose deserves a spot in the hall as well. And when he’s inducted, his plaque should note quite emphatically he was banned from baseball for life for betting on games. Yes, he did that. He even admits it now. But that does not take away from what he accomplished on the baseball diamond. He’s the all-time hits leader, for goodness sakes. I simply can’t see how the hall can exclude the all-time hits leader, the all time homers leader and a seven-time Cy Young award winner from the hall, when all the other aforementioned outlaws are allowed in.

As long as this type of bigoted attitude and these types of wrong-headed decisions exist, all I can say about Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame is "pass the dynamite."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Protect the women and children — he’s running and bumbling again

You would think he would learn from his disaster four years ago, but apparently not. Our own dear Gov. Hair is running for President again.

This was readily apparent by two recent actions. First, he went off to Iowa to chat with citizens who rebuked him in the Hawkeye two four years ago. Now, give me one good reason why anyone in their right mind would journey to Iowa unless it was to place some chips early for the Iowa caucuses, the first test for anyone thinking about aiming for the Oval Office.

Second, he sent a whole bunch of National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley to handle what he is calling our "immigration crisis." Why would he do that? What does he hope to gain? What will National Guard troops do? What is happening these days at the U.S.-Mexican border is that hundreds of children, slightly more than 27 percent of which are coming from Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate, are coming to the border and immediately surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents. They aren’t trying to sneak into the United States illegally. So what’s the National Guard’s role in this? No, this is just our demagogue governor grandstanding for his Tea Party base so that he can establish his bonafides for another Presidential run. What an embarrassment!

Exodus chapter 22 verse 20 reads: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." It’s shameless that so many politicians, our own governor
being just one prime example, will, when the chips are down, let politics trump their so-called religious beliefs. But Hair’s certainly not going to let religious beliefs stand in the way in his quest for power.

Now the good news is that he doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance of even winning the Republican presidential nomination which means that after the 2016 primaries he should fade back into the dusty scrubble of Paint Creek, hopefully never to be heard from again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

This Week's DVD Releases

Blue Ruin **** Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Bad news from the past unhinges vagabond Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), sending him on a mission of bloody retribution that takes him to his boyhood hometown. A Clint Eastwood vigilante fantasy with an anti-Clint at its center — small-statured, round-faced, nervous Dwight (Blair), whose burning desire to avenge the long-ago murder of his parents doesn’t make him one whit less terrified of actually doing it.

Dom Hemingway **½ Directed by Richard Shepard. After finishing a 12-year prison sentence, safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) sets out to collect the money he’s owed by his former partners in crime. An uneven movie, to be sure — plot holes abound, and some of the clichés can be distracting — but it’s still hard to resist. Because rarely have an actor and a part been so perfect for each other, and Shepard lets his lead run wild with this offbeat, contradictory character.

Cesar Chavez **½ Directed by Diego Luna. A biography of the civil-rights activist and labor organizer (Michael Peña). Plays more like an exercise in nostalgia than a dramatic re-creation of a triumphant fight for civil rights.

Heaven Is For Real **½ Directed by Randall Wallace. The story of the 4-year old son (Connor Corum) of a small-town Nebraska pastor (Greg Kinnear) who, during emergency surgery, slips from consciousness and enters heaven. When he awakes, he recounts his experiences. A well-meaning but misshapen movie about the folly of pursuing answers to unanswerable questions.

Sabotage ** Directed by David Ayer. Members of an elite DEA task force find themselves being taken down one by one after they rob a drug cartel safe house. A sloppy whodunit, distinguished by its scatological humor and gore. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard.

Transcendence ** Directed by Wally Pfister. A scientist’s drive for artificial intelligence, takes on dangerous implications when his consciousness is uploaded into one such program. Pfister, best known until now as the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s big films, makes his directorial debut here, and as dumb as Jack Paglen’s script is, Pfister seems to have no feeling whatsoever for the staging of sequences or for any sort of dramatic narrative momentum. With Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman.

Make Your Move ** Directed by Duane Adler. A pair of star-crossed dancers (Derek Hough, BoA) in New York find themselves at the center of a bitter rivalry between their brothers’ underground dance clubs. Hough’s dancing is far more impressive than his acting, and BoA, despite her perky sexiness, is an even less compelling screen presence. But they certainly move well together, and that’s pretty much all that matters here.

Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club Directed by Tyler Perry. A diverse group of single mothers come together after an upsetting occurrence at their kids’ school. The problem here isn’t the writer-director’s politics, but his stifling lack of imagination, his complete refusal to even attempt narrative dexterity.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn * Directed by Phil Alden Robinson. A curmudgeonly man (Robin Williams) is mistakenly told that he has 90 minutes to live by his doctor (Mila Kunis) and promptly sets out to reconcile with his wife, brother and friends in the short time he believes he has left. Robinson’s overheated dramedy feels disconnected from reality in every emotional way. With Peter Dinklage, James Earl Jones, Melissa Leo.

Monday, July 14, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

Wrinkles **** Directed by Ignacio Ferreras. Set in a nursing home, this animated feature chronicles the friendship between new arrival Emilio (Tacho González), a retired bank manager afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and his chatty Argentine roommate, Miguel (Álvaro Guevara). Unfolding in simple yet wonderfully expressive hand-drawn frames, the film’s unsparingly observant plot depicts the slide into senility with empathy and imagination.

Under the Skin **** Directed by Jonathan Glazer. A seductive alien (Scarlett Johansson) prowls the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in search of prey. A totally wacky head-trip with midnight movie sensibilities and a daring avant garde spirit, Glazer’s movie is ultimately too aimlessly weird to make its trippy narrative fully satisfying, but owes much to Johansson’s intense commitment to a strangely erotic and unnerving performance unlike anything she has done before.

The Face of Love **½ Directed by Arie Posin. A widow (Annette Bening) falls for a guy (Ed Harris) who bears a striking resemblance to her late husband. A maudlin, superficial exercise in obsession masquerading as a heartfelt romance and study of grief, and character development is sorely lacking. Although well-acted, particularly by Bening, the story feels contrived. With Robin Williams, Amy Brennerman.

Rio 2 **½ Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their three youngsters visit the Amazon, where they find the rain forest in peril and contend with their old nemesis, Nigel the cockatoo (Jemaine Clement). It’s a bright and fun movie, but also repetitive and overloaded with plot. A nice enough diversion, but not a necessary one.

A Night in Old Mexico ** Directed by Emilio Aragón. After losing his longtime home to property developers, rancher Red Bovie (Robert Duvall) decides to take a road trip to Mexico, accompanied by his grandson. But their adventure turns dangerous after the pair unwittingly drives off with a drug dealer’s money. Formulaic and often hard to swallow, the picture offers little beyond the familiar pleasures of Duvall’s old-coot mode.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Linklater's "Boyhood"

I have never heard advance word as positive about any movie as I have heard about this one. It opens a week from today and people are not calling it "the movie of the year"; they're calling it "the movie of the century."
Can't wait.

Monday, July 7, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

Jodorowski’s Dune **** Directed by Frank Pavich. The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel. Cheerfully partial and unapologetically deferential to its subject’s operatic self-promotion, Jodorowsky’s Dune makes you wish that he had scraped together the final $5 million needed, we are told, to realize his dream.

Le Week-End ***½ Directed by Roger Michell. A British couple (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) return to Paris many years after their honeymoon there in an attempt to rejuvenate their marriage. This film doesn’t feel obliged to pick a winner or lob easy answers; it aims to observe, with humor and humanity, with penetration and without oversimplifying. With Jeff Goldblum.

The Raid 2 ***½ Directed by Gareth Evans. Only a short time after the first raid, Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover with the thugs of Jakarta and plans to bring down the syndicate and uncover the corruption within his police force. Those with a high tolerance for violence and gore — at one point, Rama battles assassins labeled "Baseball Bat Man’‘ and "Hammer Girl’‘ simultaneously — will eat this up.

Watermark ***½ Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky. A documentary on how water shapes humanity. By keeping explanatory talking-heads interviews to a minimum, the filmmakers put their trust in the audience to draw their own conclusions based on what they present to us.

Maidentrip ***½ Directed by Jillian Schlesinger. 14-year-old Laura Dekker sets out on a two-year voyage in pursuit of her dream to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. Schlesinger’s first feature, made in collaboration with Dekker and composed largely of footage that the hardy adventurer shot herself, is both low-key and lyrical as it focuses on the mundane and the magnificent.

Nymphomaniac Volume 1 *** Directed by Lars von Trier. A self-diagnosed nymphomaniac (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her erotic experiences to the man (Stellan Skarsgard) who saved her after a beating. Felt at times like a long-winded dirty joke — meandering, incoherently provocative, self-indulgent without being fun enough to make up for it.

Nymphomaniac Volume 2 *** Directed by Lars von Trier. The continuation of Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sexually dictated life delves into the darker aspects of her adulthood, obsessions and what led to her being in Seligman’s (Skellan Skarsgard) care. The problem with Volume 2 lies not in its display of erect penises and reddened buttocks, but rather in its dull narrative and overworked ideas.

Bad Words *** Directed by Jason Bateman. A spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by finding a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Soars in the bits of riotously offensive chitchat between Guy (Bateman) and a young Indian hopeful (Rohan Chand); it wobbles in plot developments involving the effortlessly starchy Allison Janney as the contest’s "queen bee"; and it splats in the I’m-secretly-hurting conclusion.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? *** Directed by Arvin Chen. A married man begins to question his sexual orientation as he and his wife consider having another child. Dutifully hitting its marks up to a point, this story of a married man struggling to stay closeted proves to have a maturity that eludes more overtly ambitious dramas on the subject.

Kid Cannabis **½ Directed by John Stockwell. Teaming with his best friend and a ragtag group of potheads, enterprising teen Nate Norman (Jonathan Daniel Brown) sets up a lucrative operation smuggling large amounts of marijuana from Canada to Idaho. But the young drug traffickers soon sow the seeds of their downfall. Has its entertaining moments and boasts pungent performances from such supporting players as Ron Perlman and John C. McGinley, but never quite succeeds in managing its uncomfortable tonal shift from dark comedy to true-crime thriller.

Stage Fright ** Directed by Jerome Sabel. A snobby musical theater camp is terrorized by a blood-thirsty killer who hates musical theater. Whether it’s being sexy, jokey or homicidal, Stage Fright doesn’t deliver the goods with sufficient spirit. It lacks the sparkle to be a truly killer show.

Don Peyote ½* Directed by Michael Canzoniero, Dan Fogler. Driven by hallucinatory dreams, jobless stoner Warren Allman (Fogler) decides to film a documentary that will alert others to the dark future looming over them. All the controlled substances in the world couldn’t improve a viewing of this execrable film,, a tedious, incoherent look at a paranoid stoner’s emotional and spiritual unraveling.

10 Rules for Sleeping Around no stars Directed by Leslie Greif. Two couples — one with an open marriage and the other soon to be wed — see their best-laid plans go ironically awry during a weekend gala at the home of a media tycoon. A sex comedy can sometimes get by, even if it is deficient in one of the two things that term promises. But a sex comedy that is short on both sex and comedy is unlikely to please anyone.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Brooklyn improves its Nets' worth

Gotta hand it to the NBA's Brooklyn Nets. First they banish coach Jason Kidd to the boonies and get a pair of second-round draft choices in the process. Then they hire Lionel Hollins to replace him. Hollins took the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference playoffs in his last three seasons with the team. In his last year, they made it all the way to the Western Conference finals.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Best Movies of the First Half of 2014

It's July 1, meaning half the calendar year is over. In the world of movies, that usually means those released so far will be ignored by year's end. So here's my opportunity to give them their due. What follows are my choices for the 25 best movies released so far this year. After that comes my list of the 25 best films of 2013, which I never got around to publishing before and after that is my list of the 25 best films of the last 10 years.

1. Ida
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. We Are The Best!
4. Ernest and Celestine
5. Gloria
6. The LEGO Movie
7. Locke
8. Stranger By the Lake
9. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune
11. Under the Skin
12. Child’s Prose
13. Blue Ruin
14. Only Lovers Left Alive
15. How To Train Your Dragon 2
16. The Immigrant
17. The Lunchbox
18. The Dance of Reality
19. Obvious Child
20. Finding Vivian Maier
21. Omar
22. Night Moves
23. X-Men: Days of Future Past
24. Like Father, Like Son
25. Le Week-End 

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Gravity
3. Before Midnight
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Stories We Tell
6. The Gatekeepers
7. Her
8. American Hustle
9. The Act of Killing
10. Blue Is the Warmest Color
11. The Missing Picture
12. All Is Lost
13 Nebraska
14. The Great Beauty
15. The Past
16. Fruitvale Station
17. The Square
18. Dallas Buyers Club
19. Blackfish
20. The Wind Rises
21. Twenty Feet From Stardom
22. Captain Phillips
23. The Selfish Giant
24. Cutie and the Boxer
25. Short Term 12

1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2008)
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
4. Ratatouille (2007)
5. Gravity (2013)
6. The Social Network (2010)
7. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
8. A Separation (2011)
9. Before Midnight (2013)
10. Killer of Sheep (2007)
11. The Hurt Locker (2009)
12. WALL-E (2008)
13. Sideways (2004)
14. Carlos (2010)
15. Amour (2012)
16. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
17. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
18. The Class (2008)
19. There Will Be Blood (2007)
20. Toy Story 3 (2010)
21. Moolaadé (2004)
22. The Queen (2006)
23. Stories We Tell (2013)
24. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
25. No Country for Old Men (2007)