Monday, May 25, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Ballet 422 *** Directed by Jody Lee Lipes. A documentary chronicling the intense artistic effort behind the 422nd new work staged by the New York City Ballet. A delightfully immersive look at how a ballet is created, Lipes’ documentary is a stark contrast to the psycho theatrics of something like Black Swan.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles *** Directed by Chuck Workman. Cinema icon Welles’ talent and checkered career are memorialized in this documentary featuring clips from nearly all of his directorial efforts and interviews with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. Sturdy and rudimentary, Magician may be Welles 101, but it’s dotted liberally with TV and radio clips of the famously loquacious auteur talking, talking, and doing more talking — and how could anybody with ears and a brain resist that buttery voice, spinning out clause-laden sentences that take more twists and turns than the streets of Venice but always end, somehow, in a place that’s ravishingly articulate?

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus ** Directed by Spike Lee. While researching the history of a little-known empire, anthropologist Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) comes across an ancient dagger that is shortly used to murder him. When he wakes up unharmed, Greene discovers that he’s developed an acute appetite for human blood. While this return to indie roots frees up Lee’s often gifted image making, his usual pace issues and penchant for jagged flourish over sustained feeling keep it from achieving a rich, strange, sexy and sad whole.

Cut Bank Directed by Matt Shakman. Starring Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt, John Malkovich, A young man’s life is unraveled after witnessing a murder that he filmed in his rural town of Cut Bank. Clever enough to provoke a few abrupt laughs along the way, this big screen debut for two television stalwarts, Shakman (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and writer Robert Patino (Sons of Anarchy, Prime Suspect), is sabotaged by some frightfully on-the-nose expository dialogue and an adamantly prosaic visual style.

Seventh Son * Directed by Sergei Bodrov. In the 18th century, apprentice exorcist Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) is the lynchpin in a battle between good and evil when imprisoned witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) escapes. Not only offers no new spin on its bland, by-the-numbers story, it also fails to deliver any generic pleasures; I’m not sure this movie could even keep a young child engaged.

See You In Valhalla * Directed by Jarret Tarnol. Starring Sarah Hyland, Steve Howey, Odeya Rush, Bret Harrison, Emma Bell, Jake McDorman, Beau Mirchoff, Michael Weston, Conor O’Farrell. A young woman returns home to reunite with her estranged family after the bizarre death of her brother. Featuring stereotypical characterizations and painfully awkward dialogue, the film treats its dramatic themes with a wince-inducing shallowness. Virtually nothing in the drawn-out proceedings works on any level, and the characters are so inherently unlikeable that being in their company is as painful for viewers as it is for them.

Nightlight * Directed by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods. Making a night journey into Covington Forest — a place long associated with teen suicides — five friends plan to play flashlight games. It’s all very familiar in that Blair Witch kind of way, with neither the characters nor situations proving remotely interesting.

The Loft * Directed by Erik Van Looy. Five married co-owners of an upscale loft enjoy their investment as a discreet hideaway for their adulterous pursuits. But when a murdered woman is discovered in the apartment, each suspects the others of committing the grisly killing. This silly chamber piece about sex and murder elicits only yawns, interrupted by the occasional unintentional giggle.

Monday, May 18, 2015

This wee's DVD releases

Leviathan **** Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. In a Russian coastal town, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits a lawyer friend to help, but the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family. If there was ever any doubt as to Zvyagintsev's position as one of world cinema's foremost auteurs, it's put to rest here. His filmmaking has always been superb, but he's never taken on the state of his nation in the way he does here. And that makes Leviathan not just masterful but also hugely important.

Girlhood ***½ Directed by Céline Sciamma. A girl with few real prospects joins a gang, reinventing herself and gaining a sense of self confidence in the process. A powerful and entertaining film about a gang of girls, and what friendship means, the protection it provides.

American Sniper *** Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind. Cooper, to his credit, rarely flinches, never chest-thumps and never loses his cool, even when Kyle is starting to lose his. It’s a masterful interpretation of a man with a lot more on his mind and blood on his hands than he was ever inclined to let on. And it’s a performance worthy of Eastwood himself — 50 years ago.

The Blue Room *** Directed by Mathieu Amalric. In the intimate confines of a hotel room, married Julien Gahyde (Mathieu Amalric) and his paramour, Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau), meet regularly for erotic encounters until he's arrested for an unstipulated crime connected to their intense affair. A deceptively low-key riff on a Hitchcock whodunit. It’s both sexy and inscrutable, a cold-blooded puzzler to the very end.

Last Hijack **½ Directed by Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting. A partially animated documentary that focuses on Mohamed Nura of Somalia, who — despite his family's opposition — has become an expert in piracy. The filmmakers have gotten extraordinary access to Mohamed and ravaged Somalia. But it's disappointing that they did not capture more scenes of Mohamed's wife and her family, who in the end are the ones who make the most momentous decision.

All the Wilderness ** Directed by Michael Johnson. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Danny DeVito. A restless teenager explores the wilderness of his city while struggling with the absence of his father. Writer-director Johnson covers a lot of familiarly morbid teen ground in All the Wilderness, a film with touches of "Ordinary People" and a hint of "Harold & Maude." But touches and a hint aren’t enough to lift this morose movie into anything any of us need to see or hear to deepen our understanding of teen depression, grief and love.

Cymbelline ** Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jobovich, John Leguizamo, Dakota Johnson. Biker-gang leader Cymbeline and his second wife scheme to have her son wed Cymbeline's daughter to get her out of the picture. One of the most uncinematic pieces crafted by an otherwise fine stylist, Cymbeline befuddles with its ineffective blocking and lack of art direction.

Maya the Bee Movie ** Directed by Alexs Stadermann. Starring Jacki Weaver, Richard Roxburgh, Noah Taylor, Justine Clarke, Jodi Smit-McPhee. Banished from the hive by the queen's evil adviser after discovering her dastardly scheme to steal the royal jelly and frame the hornets, young Maya the bee must make her way alone across the perilous meadow to save the day. More harmless than entertaining, a limp exercise in cinematic baby-sitting for the 6-and-under set.

Before I Disappear ** Directed by Shawn Christensen. Starring Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Paul Wesley, Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman. At the lowest point of his life, Richie gets a call from his estranged sister, asking him to look after his 11-year old niece for a few hours. There's a surface elegance that might play as depth in smaller doses, but at feature length, the stylistic flourishes seem to be covering for deficiencies rather than servicing the material.

ZombeaversDirected by Jordan Rubin. Enjoying a relaxed and romantic lakeside holiday, a gang of college students suddenly find themselves hunted by a pack of murderous un-dead beavers (I’m not making this stuff up). It’s not a total wash, and seen at night, under the right combination of low expectations and controlled substances, it may even seem better than it really is.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 * Directed by Steve Pink. When Lou (Rob Corddry) finds himself in trouble, Nick (Craig Robinson) and Jacob (Clark Duke) fire up the hot tub time machine in an attempt to get back to the past. But they inadvertently land in the future. It’s a comedy that’s so witless and unfunny and shoddily made it makes The Hangover 2 look like The Godfather 2.

Lovesick * Directed by Luke Matheny. Starring Matt LeBlanc, Ali Larter, Adam Rodriguez, Chevy Chase. A school principal is successful in life but for one glaring exception: Every time he begins a relationship, his excessive jealousy and paranoia ruin things. Both LeBlanc and Larter glide through the synthetic setup like pros, but they have no connection because their characters barely resemble human beings.

Strange Magic * Directed by Gary Rydstrom. Starring Alan Cumming, Evan Rachal Wood, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Peter Stormare. Goblins, elves, fairies and imps battle over a powerful potion. It’s like watching a cartoon version of American Idol on an endless karaoke loop.

Monday, May 11, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Still Alice *** Directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart. A linguistics professor and her family find their bonds tested when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore makes the movie worthwhile, elevating it from disease-of-the-week fare to the role of a lifetime.

Beloved Sisters **½ Directed by Dominik Graf. In the late 18th century, sisters Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) begin an unconventional romance with poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), who cares deeply for them both. Might scratch your costume drama itch, but it’s not among the genre’s best.

Tip Top **½ Directed by Serge Bozon. Two lady detectives (Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Marinelli) are sent to investigate a rash of crimes in a provincial town, much to the annoyance of the locals. Shot in precisely composed frames, with recurring visual motifs and an eye-pleasing color palette that accentuates blue hues, Tip Top is commendably ambitious in its Godardian attempts to deconstruct the police thriller format, but it’s only partially successful.

The Sleepwalker **½ Directed by Mona Fastvold. As Kaia (Gitte Witt) and her boyfriend (Christoper Abbott) work to restore her childhood home, they get an unexpected visit from her estranged sister, Christine (Stephanie Ellis), and her fiancé (Brady Corbett). The setup has mysterious promise, but the film cheaps out on a satisfying payoff.

These Final Hours **½ Directed by Zak Hilditch. A self-obsessed young man makes his way to the party-to-end-all-parties on the last day on Earth, but ends up saving the life of a little girl searching for her father. Incoherent and pointless as it is, These Final Hours moves with commendable swiftness.

Two Men in Town **½ Directed by Rachid Bouchareb. Starring Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Elen Burstyn, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzman. A Muslim ex-con forms a friendship with his parole officer. The setting is striking, the cast impressive. But Two Men in Town, a drama that’s built on dread and circles the question of redemption for a newly released prisoner, falls short of the mythic territory it aspires to.

The Girl Is in Trouble ** Directed by Julius Onah. Starring Columbus Short, Wilmer Walderrama, Alicia Bachleda, Jesse Spencer. A Lower East Side bartender becomes entangled in a murder mystery involving a desperate woman, a missing drug dealer and the scion of a powerful investment firm. The story has plenty of possibilities, though Onah rarely manages to put his own stamp on things.

Blackhat ** Directed by Michael Mann. Convicted hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) receives a "get out of jail free" card to join a team of American and Chinese technical experts tasked with tracking down a Balkan cyberterrorist operating from somewhere in Southeast Asia. A moody cyber-noir with not much on its mind but looking good, Blackhat is a must-see if you like your dialogue (romantic, dramatic, subtitled Cantonese) peppered with techspeak.

Tracers ** Directed by Daniel Benmayor. After New York bike messenger Cam (Taylor Lautner) falls into debt with the wrong people, he ends up bumping into the sexy Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos), who offers him sanctuary and the chance to join her crew of thieves, who use their parkour skills to pull off their heists. The lusterless camerawork keys itself almost empathetically to the drab reality of the film’s spaces, settled and unsettled alike, but it can’t enliven the hackneyed plot.

White RabbitDirected by Tim McCann. A bullied high school student starts having visions of a rabbit that he killed when he was a kid, soon putting him in a state where his imagination threatens to cause him to carry out violent acts. While White Rabbit is not a lost cause, its difficult story of mistreatment and lashing out proves too much of a challenge to tell well.

Extraterrestrial Directed by Colin Minihan. A group of friends on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods find themselves terrorized by alien visitors. Doesn’t amount to much beyond a mish-mash of movies we’ve seen before.

Just Before I Go * Directed by Courteney Cox. On the verge of giving up on life, a guy (Seann William Scott) travels to his hometown to make amends. A Garden State retread in which filthy jokes gradually cede ground to sentimental slush.

Mortdecai * Directed by David Koepp. Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Oliver Platt, Jeff Goldblum. With the Russian Mafia on his trail, an urbane but unscrupulous art dealer sets off on a quest to recover a purloined painting that’s allegedly connected to a bank account chock-full of Nazi treasure. Charmless, mirthless and witless, this waste of time is another black mark on Depp’s card, while his co-stars fare little better. Even low expectations won’t help you here.

The Cobbler ½* Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Starring Adam Sandler, Method Man, Ellen Barkin, Steve Buscemi. New York shoe repairman Max Simkin has become weary of his drab existence when he discovers that an old stitching machine in his shop has magical properties, enabling Max to fully inhabit the lives of his customers simply by trying on their shoes. A slow-motion zeppelin crash that starts as a dull-edged fable, and then spirals further and further out of control without ever growing more exciting or interesting.

Monday, May 4, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Mr. Turner **** Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen. A portrait of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner that spotlights his artistic genius, along with the eccentric and frequently insensitive behavior that he exhibited in his private life. Turner was a master of light and image, but what stands out most about him in Leigh’s captivating biographical film is a sound. Playing the renowned Victorian-era English painter, Spall grunts and expectorates his way through his scenes, chugging along with the phlegmy belch of an old jalopy or, as the film suggests more than once, a snuffling pig.

Selma **** Directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Omar J. Dorsey, Alessandro Nivola, Dylan Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Tessa Thompson, Colman Domingo, Stephen Root, Jeremy Strong, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey. A chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. This is gripping, inspiring and sometimes terrifying historical drama, loaded with specific detail, that brings a turning point of the civil rights movement back from black-and-white obscurity to present-tense urgency.

Winter Sleep ***½ Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With winter closing in, an Anatolia hotel owner prepares for the coming cold, but the severe weather transforms his cozy inn from a shelter into an emotional prison for an aging former actor, his resentful wife and his recently divorced sister. Staring deep into the darkness of an apparently static character, Ceylan again exhibits his gift for making interesting stories out of predetermined plots, locating small eddies of change in the midst of eternally fixed dynamics.

Black Sea **½ Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall. In order to make good with his former employers, a submarine captain takes a job with a shadowy backer to search the depths of the Black Sea for a submarine rumored to be loaded with gold. Certain sequences are handled exceptionally, but others feel overblown and some characters underwhelm. That’s not to say that Black Sea is not an enjoyable — and at times, enthralling — aquatic adventure, it just never quite thrills as much as it spills, and flounders during some of its more emotional beats.

The Last Five Years **½ Directed by Richard LaGravenese. Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordon. A struggling actress and her novelist lover each illustrate the struggle and deconstruction of their love affair. No, it’s not deep. But the film, a sung-through (virtually no dialogue) musical by Jason Robert Brown, is sweet and sunny and occasionally funny.

Amira & Sam **½ Directed by Sean Mullin. Starring Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche. An army veteran’s unlikely romance with an Iraqi immigrant is put to the test when she is faced with the prospect of deportation. An earnest and considerate examination of two people falling in love, but the movie lacks certainty when handling these characters separately.

Miss Julie **½ Directed by Liv Ullman. Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton. Over the course of a midsummer night on a rural estate in 1890, an unsettled daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy encourages her father’s valet to seduce her. A handsome production, its few settings (indoors and outdoors) painterly and period-perfect. It’s entirely too long for a filmed chamber drama of such limited stakes. But Ullmann’s adaptation reminds us that the gap between "those people," now called "the 1 percent," and the rest of the world will always be ripe for conflict, drama and tension, no matter how much we evolve.

Days of Grace ** Directed by Everardo Valerio Gout. Starring Paulina Gaitan, Carlos Bardem, Dolorès Heredia, Miguel Rodarte, Tenoch Huerta, Mario Zaragoza. Set against the fervor of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup games, this drama presents three stories of violence and survival in Mexico City. It’s a confident, well-made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism.

Spare Parts ** Directed by Sean McNamara. Starring George Lopex, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei, Carlos Pena, Esai Morales, José Julián, David Del Rio. The journey of four undocumented Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix, Ariz., who form a robotics club and are led by their teacher with nothing but spare parts and a dream to compete against MIT in a National Underwater Robotics Competition. In its mad hurry, the movie denies itself its own genre pleasures — chiefly, the ways assembling a ragtag robotics team and an equally ragtag robot might add a little bit of Mission: Impossible or MacGyver dynamics into a sports-style narrative.

Fifty Shades of Grey ** Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring Jaime Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden. A literature student’s life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire. In the annals of sexually-charged event cinema, Fifty Shades of Grey barely lights a candle let alone combusts with unbridled forbidden passion.

Black or White ** Directed by Mike Binder. Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Jennifer Ehle, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Anthony Mackie. Still reeling from his wife’s death, Elliot Anderson struggles to maintain custody of his biracial granddaughter when her grandmother begins pushing to have the girl sent back to her father, a crack addict Elliot blames for his daughter’s demise. The performances are fantastic across the board, with Costner acting in his trademark low-key naturalistic style and Spencer as the picture of no-nonsense maternal love. But their efforts can’t make up for overly simplified characters, not to mention melodramatic exchanges that sound exactly like written dialogue.

Love, Rosie Directed by Christian Ditter. Lily Collins, Claflin, Christian Cooke, Tamsin Egerton, Suki Waterhouse, James Beamish. Best friends from the time they were tykes, Rosie Dunne and Alex Stewart remain close as adults. Although each takes a different partner, an intimate attachment between them lingers. The message is more pedestrian than passionate: Life is long, and full of instant messages.

Lost River Directed by Ryan Gosling. Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele. In the rotting remains of a once-great city, a struggling single mother is forced to take a job at a bizarre cabaret to keep her house and support her kids. Meanwhile, her eldest son’s efforts to help land him in the neighborhood nut’s crosshairs. In time, we may look back at Lost River as a fascinating mess or a misunderstood miss. As for his promise, I’d be fine if Gosling promises to never make a film like this again.

The FrontierDirected by Matt Robinowitz. Starring Max Gail, Coleman Kelly, Anastassia Sendyk, Katherine Cortez. An estranged son travels back home to confront his overbearing father to see if there is any relationship left between them. The film means well but feels generic, strained and claustrophobic (despite several scenes at a deserted beach), with tight close-ups and sudden confrontations.

Murder of a Cat * Directed by Gillian Greene. Starring Fran Kranz, Greg Kinnear, J.K. Simmons, Nikki Reed. When a cat turns up dead with an arrow through its gut, its owner vows to find the culprit and deliver him (or her) to justice. This is a perfect example of the kind of indie movie Simmons will hopefully never have to do again now that he’s won the Oscar for Whiplash.

The Pyramid * Directed by Gregory Levasseur. Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley. An archaeological team attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. It’s a found footage movie that feels instantly dated, even with its supposed political undertones. It’s creaky, laborious, and not, in the least bit, scary.