Monday, March 28, 2016

This week's DVD releases


***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but might have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.

Mediterranea **** Directed by Jonas Carpignano. Unlike many of the African migrants trying to reach the coast of Italy, Burkina Faso natives Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy) aren't escaping horrors. They simply want to better their financial lots. Life in Europe, however, turns out to be anything but easy. It renders a global crisis in strikingly intimate terms.

Cartel Land **** Directed by Matthew Heineman. With the law failing to protect citizens from the drug cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico, vigilante groups have sprung up on both sides of the border. This documentary tracks two such groups, one in Mexico's Michoacán state and one in Arizona. Even when the masks are dropped, it’s all but impossible to tell the good guys from the bad. Both sides are corrupt, both sides do terrible harm. Although the film has its shortcomings and simplifications, it’s a bleakly persuasive view of a decades-long combat that respects no boundaries, and seems to hold no prospect of surcease.

Killing Them Safely ***½ Directed by Nick Berardini. Created as a safer alternative to police deployment of firearms, Taser guns have provoked controversy and criticism in the wake of an increasing number of deaths resulting from their use. This documentary explores both sides of the issue. Berardini’s packed documentary makes its case early and often, perhaps too often, but it’s more chilling than your average issue film.

The Hateful Eight ***½ Directed by Quentin Tarantino. In post-Civil War Wyoming, eight travelers stranded at a stagecoach way station — including bounty hunters, outlaws and former soldiers — become enmeshed in a duplicitous plot as a savage blizzard rages outside. Weird, wild and way-too-long. Tarantino seems to have no shortage of creativity or inspiration. What he needs to find is someone who isn’t afraid to occasionally say, "Cut."

Forsaken *** Directed by Jon Cassar. When Civil War veteran John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) tires of the life he's made for himself as a renowned quick-draw gunfighter, he returns to his hometown hoping to mend fences with his estranged father (Donald Sutherland). Cassar’s film rejects the recent revisionism that’s flooded the genre. His take — a straight rip-off of the classics — is weirdly refreshing as a result.

Concussion *** Directed by Peter Landesman. When Dr. Bennet Omalu's (Will Smith) autopsy studies lead him to conclude that multiple concussions could be the underlying cause of the brain disorders suffered by many U.S. football players, he encounters harsh resistance from the NFL establishment. I wish the movie were so good that I could say you have to see it; while Smith’s performance takes on a life of its own, the movie seems locked to its talking points.

Point BreakDirected by Ericson Gore. A young FBI agent (Luke Bracey) infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists. This remake is tedious and overblown — as though the filmmakers were so preoccupied with "updating" the material that they forgot what made it so popular in the first place.

Exposed * Directed by Declan Dale. A police detective (Keanu Reeves) investigates the truth behind his partner's death. If it’s any consolation to the parties involved, this film could have ended up being worse; however, it’s unlikely that it could have been much better. Trainwreck-bad movie enthusiasts will be disappointed to find a film largely defined by its lack of energy, in which every scene seems to be stalling for time.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Legitimizing illegitimacy

For the sake of argument, I’m going to call this university I just founded Northeast Southwestern State University. All courses are taught on-line. We don’t have a physical campus. But because we have delusions of grandeur my university decides to field its own basketball team. Of course, we’re not part of any conference. Heck, we’re not even part of the NCAA or any other like-minded collegiate athletic association. But I want to make a name for my university. I want to attract as much attention (and, as a result, tuition paying enrollees) as I possibly can and I figure one way to do this is to start a basketball team.

But I need to do much more than that. I’ve got to find ways to attract national and perhaps even worldwide attention to my basketball team and thus my on-line only university. And I know the only way I’m ever going to do that is to try to find some way to engage a known basketball powerhouse — a Kansas, an Indiana, a Kentucky, a UCLA — to meet me on the court in a nationally televised basketball game.

I figure that basketball powerhouse will beat my team by at least 50-60 points, but it doesn’t matter. I have achieved my goal of attracting attention to my little, formerly completely unknown and ignored school, just by playing in that game. I also now have the propaganda tools to go seek out better basketball prospects and tell them, "Register at Northeast Southwestern State. You can not only attend all classes without ever leaving your bedroom, but you have a chance to be on national TV playing against the elite college basketball players and displaying your abilities to NBA scouts." That could be a strong recruiting message and that’s one of the reasons why the known basketball powerhouses wouldn’t go near a basketball arena where it would have to play Northeast Southwestern State. That’s why the NCAA or whatever would forbid such a contest. It would legitimize illegitimacy.

That’s why President Obama was correct in not interrupting his South American trip to rush to Brussels in the wake of last week’s terrorist bombings there. If he had, Isis wins. That’s all they want. They want to proclaim to the world that they have reached a status where they can control the actions of the leader of the free world. That’s a powerful recruiting tool. That will convince a lot of those fence-sitters to climb down on the side of Isis. That will make them so much stronger.

Isis isn’t out to defeat the United States on the battlefields of Iraq or Syria. It claims victory by simply forcing the U.S. to send battle-tested forces to those countries to fight against the terrorists. It just wants to engage. Just like Northeast Southwestern State that doesn’t even have a physical campus, Isis is not a country. You can’t invade Isis. Isis isn’t eligible to have a seat at the United Nations. But it wants to be regarded and treated as someone that does have all that because that way it recruits even more activists to their cause. "You, too, have the opportunity to play against the biggest power of all on world television."

That’s why President Obama didn’t go to Brussels. That’s the reason for the insistence of a coalition of countries aimed at defeating Isis. That’s the reason for not putting huge numbers of "boots on the ground."

It would legitimize illegitimacy.

Monday, March 21, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

James White ***½ Directed by Josh Mond. A twenty-something New Yorker (Christopher Abbott), struggles to take control of his self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges. The film gets up close and personal in often discomfiting ways, but it’s never exploitative or glib. It hits the highs, and the rock bottoms, and all the damnable stuff in between.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 **½ Directed by Francis Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), flanked by her allies from District 13, embarks on a quest to liberate the oppressed citizens of Panem by assassinating ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With its political power struggles and prodigious body count, all rendered in a thousand shades of wintry greige, the movie feels less like teen entertainment than a sort of Hunger Games of Thrones.

Dreams Rewired **½ Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, Thomas Tode. Tilda Swinton narrates this documentary that uses footage from nearly 200 films made between the 1880s and 1930s to explore the history of connectivity as well as the anxiety it has provoked. The filmmakers aren’t arguing that mass-media tech leads to fascism, but they suggest, with some lightness, that our interconnectedness certainly facilitates it. But this documentary is no polemic, and it never mocks the past.

Noma: My Perfect Storm ** Directed by Pierre Deschamps. After winning a Best Restaurant In The World award in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014, chef Rene Redzepi discusses his Copenhagen restaurant Noma and how his culinary philosophy has shaped its success. I’ve never seen a restaurant documentary that seemed less interested in showing the joy of food.

Daddy’s HomeDirected by John Morris, Sean Anders. Stepdad Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) is a radio host trying to get his stepchildren to love him and call him dad. But his plans turn upside down when the biological father, Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), returns. One of those comedies that is not terribly good, but not nearly as terrible as it might have been.

Every Thing Will Be Fine * Directed by Wim Wenders. While driving in a snowstorm, a struggling novelist (James Franco) accidentally hits and kills a child. His guilt about the tragic incident lingers for years, sending him into an emotional tailspin and prompting an agonizing reassessment of his life. Something is off with this drama. Even for a movie about a writer detached from his emotions, it’s ponderous, like a lucid dream gone bad.

The Letters * Directed by William Riead. Explores the life of Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) through letters she wrote to her longtime friend and spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), over a nearly 50-year period. Opting for dutiful, reverent beatification over flesh-and-blood characterizations (or insights), the film is merely a clunky primer on how poor storytelling can make even the grandest of figures seem small.

Monday, March 14, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Carol **** Directed by Todd Haynes. Living in a 1950s society that considers lesbian romance taboo, two women from disparate backgrounds — young store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and wealthy socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) — develop an attachment to each other that ultimately turns passionate. Made of crystal and suppressed tears, shot eternally through windows and mirrors and half-closed doors, Haynes’ film is a love story that starts at a trickle, swells gradually to a torrent, and finally bursts the banks of your heart. A beautiful film in every way, immaculately made, and featuring two pristine actresses glowing across rooms and tousled bedclothes at each other like beacons of tentative, unspoken hope. It is a creamily sensuous, richly observed piece of work, handsomely detailed and furnished: the clothes, the hair, the automobiles, the train carriages, the record players, the lipstick and the cigarettes are all superbly presented. The combination of all this is intoxicating in itself. This was my choice as the best film of 2015.

Brooklyn ***½ Directed by John Crowley. After emigrating from Ireland, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) readily adapts to the vastly different New York City, where she falls for a young Italian. But when tragedy pulls her back to her hometown, she finds her loyalties divided between two nations and two men. Endows its characters with desires and aspirations, but not with foresight, and it examines the past with open-minded curiosity rather than with sentimentality or easy judgment. It grabs us, holds us and moves us on its own. Emotionally it’s a killer.

The Big Short ***½ Directed by Adam McKay. Four denizens in the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight. Using gallows humor, likable protagonists, and a variety of nonstandard filmmaking techniques (like having characters address the audience directly), McKay maintains a high level of energy for more than two hours and dares us to become bored.

Censored Voices *** Directed by Mor Loushy. In 1967, author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira tape-recorded the sentiments of Israeli soldiers returning from the Six-Day War. This documentary combines that long-censored audio with archival clips to provide a personal picture of war. Loushy is resourceful, particularly as an editor, and the talking heads, even those not as internationally famous as the compassionate, articulate, and still-distressed Oz, are spectacularly compelling.

Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine *** Directed by Alex Gibney. Focusing on the harsher side of Apple’s mercurial CEO Steve Jobs, this documentary examines the demanding work environment he created for the company’s employees and his cultlike influence on technology culture. While the filmmaker’s trademark mixture of talking heads, archival footage and investigative ethos is familiar, Gibney is certainly good at what he does, and his documentary is at its best in providing a brisk summation of the man’s life. Or, more accurately, lives, for Jobs seemed to have been more people than one would have thought possible.

What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy *** Directed by David Evans. A human-rights lawyer conducts conversations with two men whose fathers were indicted as war criminals for their roles in World War 2. While these men aren’t accountable for the actions of their fathers, they are obligated to recognize the truth of what happened. To see one of them deny that truth is difficult to watch, and just as hard to look away from.

Sisters **½ Directed by Jason Moore. Two sisters (Amy Poehler, Tina Fey) decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home. Even the stray gross-out moments of register as humane and heartfelt; Fey and Pohler’s comedy comes from a place of warmth and intelligence, and so does the movie.

Band of Robbers **½ Directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. Fresh from prison, skeptical Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) joins Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) in searching for a buried treasure that Tom is convinced still exists. This comic take on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is infused with a gleefully absurdist sense of humor while retaining a childlike sense of wonder.

Love ** Directed by Gaspar Noe. An American (Karl Glusman) living in Paris enters into a highly sexually and emotionally charged relationship with an unstable woman (Aomi Muyock). Plays out like the fragmented outline for a more engaging movie. But the one found here lacks substance both on the level of story and graphic reveals.

The Green InfernoDirected by Eli Roth. Determined to save an Amazon tribe being squeezed by logging, a group of students finds nothing but trouble when their plane crashes in the jungle. Unfortunately, the unbridled shock value isn’t matched by a similar investment in other ingredients that might have made this low rent B-movie worthwhile.

CaptiveDirected by Jerry Jameson. A single mother (Kate Mara) struggling with drug addiction is taken hostage in her own apartment by a man on the run (David Oyelowo) who has broken out of jail and murdered the judge assigned to his case. Largely inert and undramatic, what you’re left with is a tedious sentiment: "by the grace of god" this horrible crisis ended without violence, explosives, or spark. Congratulations?

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip * Directed by Walt Becker. Alvin (Justin Long) and his chipmunk posse head for New York City, mistakenly believing that their pal Dave (Jason Lee) is about to propose to his girlfriend. A mostly harmless yet plenty rough assemblage of musical numbers and rote chases that barely add up to a movie.

The 11th Hour * Directed by Anders Morgenthaler. A successful businesswoman (Kim Basinger) has achieved everything except what she wants the most — a baby of her own. She decides to deal with the matter by herself and seeks out prostitutes, hoping to find a mother-to-be willing to sell her child. This Ill-conceived fertility thriller is overwrought, underwritten and pure cynicism.

Friday, March 11, 2016

George Martin's legacy

I'm convinced it's safe to say that, regardless how you feel about the lasting impact of The Beatles or The Beach Boys or  their respective places in the rock 'n' roll pantheon, George Martin and Brian Wilson introduced more avant-garde techniques and sounds into pop music than anyone else, before or since.

Monday, March 7, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Forbidden Room ***½ Directed by Evan Johnson, Guy Maddin. The crew of a submarine trapped in the ocean depths discovers that a dangerous band of forest thieves has joined them on board. This exercise in beauty, derangement and memory can be contemplative or silly. Often it’s both, in just the right proportions.

The Tribe ***½ Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky. A teenager (Grigoriy Fesenl) arrives at a boarding school for deaf-mute students and quickly discovers that there’s far more going on among the students than meets the eye. Original, engrossing and extremely confrontational, it treads the dark path between misery porn and masterpiece.

Victoria *** Directed by Sebastian Schipper. When adventurous Victoria (Laia Costa) goes out for a night of clubbing, she meets four young men who invite her to join them for some after-hours revelry only to learn they are planning a brazen heist. Viewers may come down from the high a little sooner than the film does, with the characters’ increasingly ill-considered actions testing our faith and engagements to the breaking point, but the sheer centripetal force of the film’s vigorous technique never loses its hold.

The Wonders *** Directed by Alice Rohrwacher. A family of beekeepers living in the Tuscan countryside finds their household disrupted by the simultaneous arrival of a silently troubled teenage boy and a reality TV show intent on showcasing the family. Rohrwacher draws us into this unusual world with the ease of someone who knows exactly what they’re talking about, neither judging nor celebrating and, at her best, just looking with tenderness and a winning sense of humor.

10,000 km *** Directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet. Deeply in love and planning to have a baby, Barcelona residents Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) must alter those plans when Alex is offered a one-year artist residency in America. It’s a simple, cheap and limited concept beautifully executed. The players, especially Tena, tell us the story with their faces.

Macbeth *** Directed by Justin Kurzel. An ambitious Scottish nobleman (Michael Fassbender) thirsting for power is egged on by his conniving wife (Marion Cotillard). Beyond the performances, this new Macbeth benefits from Kurzel’s inspired eye, the increasingly impressive talents of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective) and Fiona Crombie’s period-loving production design. The world they have created for this tragedy may overwhelm, but it’s certainly impossible to forget.

The Peanuts Movie *** Directed by Steve Martino. With help from his sidekick Woodstock, the imaginative beagle Snoopy takes to the skies on a daring mission to defeat his sworn enemy the Red Baron, while his good-natured friend Charlie Brown tries to win the heart of the Little Red-Haired Girl. The comic strip’s late creator Charles M. Schulz would undoubtedly approve of this, given his progeny have ensured the film remains true to his artistic and humanist vision.

Break Point **½ Directed by Jay Karas. Two estranged brothers (Jeremy Sisto, David Walton) reunite to make an improbable run at a grand slam tennis tournament. Easygoing and always likeable but hardly packed with laughs.

In the Heart of the Sea ** Directed by Ron Howard. A recounting of a New England whaling ship’s sinking by a giant whale in 1820, an experience that later inspired the novel Moby-Dick. Lovers of spectacle for spectacle’s sake will come away from the film with many discrete sequences to admire, but there’s not enough of a human element to bridge them together. In terms of its lasting power, this film roars in like a great tide, but then just as quickly dissipates.

Mountain Men ** Directed by Cameron Labine. Two estranged brothers (Tyler Labine, Chace Crawford) journey to a remote family cabin in the mountains to evict a squatter. Director Labine seems to want to prove the obsolescence of the lovable-slacker stereotype even as he flogs it for entertainment value.

The Benefactor Directed by Andrew Renzi. Driven by a perceived need to make amends for the deaths of his two best friends in a tragic auto accident, an eccentric philanthropist (Richard Gere) inserts himself into the lives of the dead couple’s daughter (Dakota Fanning) and her new husband (Theo James). What begins as an intriguing psychological thriller devolves into an addiction drama, growing less interesting as it proceeds and giving costars Fanning and James little to do.

Victor FrankensteinDirected by Paul McGuigan. Told from the point of view of loyal lab assistant Igor (Daniel Radciffe) and his friendship with erratic genius Dr. Frankenstein (James McAvoy). For much of the movie’s running time, I wished I were watching Mel Brooks’ classic take on Shelley’s yarn, Young Frankenstein. At least that one was intentionally funny.