Thursday, June 30, 2016

25 Best Films for ther First Half of the Year

Based on what’s been released in the first half of 2016, this is not shaping up as good movie year. Last year at this time, two four-star films — Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside/Out had been released. During the first six months of this year, not one, nada, zilch four-star film has made its way to a theater near you. And, to me, it’s sort of a sad, but also another reflection on the poor quality of films so far this year, that the list includes films with less than three stars. Oh, well. Here’s the list:

1. Love & Friendship ***½
2. Everybody Wants Some ***½
3. Weiner ***½
4. De Palma ***½
5. The Witch ***½
6. The Lobster ***½
7. Embrace of the Serpent ***½
8. A War ***½
9. Green Room ***
10. Sing Street ***
11. Zootopia ***
12. Finding Dory ***
13. The Jungle Book ***
14. Maggie’s Plan ***
15. Midnight Special ***
16. 10 Cloverfield Lane ***
17. Captain America: Civil War ***
18. A Bigger Splash ***
19. Eye in the Sky ***
20. Hail, Caesar ***
21. The Nice Guys ***
22. Louder Than Bombs ***
23. The Meddler **½
24. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping **½
25. Barbershop: The Next Cut **½

Monday, June 27, 2016

This week's major DVD releases

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

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.

Eye in the Sky *** Directed by Gavin Hood. Leading an operation to nab a terrorist and her collaborators in Kenya, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) ends up in a political and moral quagmire as the mission changes and a drone strike is ordered, putting a young girl at risk of becoming collateral damage. The movie is literally all over the map in its depiction of drone warfare, and right on target, if flagrantly contrived, in examining the ethics of killing by remote control.

Kung Fu Panda 3 **½ Directed by Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh. After Po (voice of Jack Black) is reunited with his long-lost dad, the two set off for a secret panda village, where Po must quickly teach his brethren the art of kung fu when a villainous ancient spirit named Kai (voice of J.K. Simmons) threatens all of China. Fitfully amusing and certainly heartfelt, this latest chapter in the likeable animated saga will work best with younger viewers, but its life lessons and emotional beats feel slathered on rather than deftly woven into the storyline.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ** Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. A journalist (Tina Fey) recounts her wartime experiences in Afghanistan.It’s to Ficarra and Requa’s credit that they try to juggle romance and political commentary, daring to make a studio movie that doesn’t fall into cookie-cutter genre rules. But the overriding problem is that their film doesn’t go far enough in its risk-taking, settling for a story that gets more predictable as it rolls along.

Monday, June 20, 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 mght 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.

Embrace of the Serpent **** Directed by Ciro Guerrera. The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. Not nearly as great as Herzog’s films, or as monumentally deranged as Coppola’s, it nevertheless casts a spell of its own. It’s one of those films that, at least for me, grows in the memory because it has some of the most vivid images captured on film in recent memory, and also some of the most haunting.

Midnight Special ***½ Directed by Jeff Nichols. A father (Michael Shannon) and son (Jaeden Lieberher) go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child's special powers. Nichols establishes such a grounded sense of atmosphere and such superb control of mood and pacing, that the odd hiccup barely matters. Only in its final stretch does the film start to lose its distinct identity.

King Georges ***½ Directed by Erika Frankel. A documentary about Philadelphia restaurateur Georges Perrier and the closing of his iconic French restaurant, Le Bec-Fin. Frankel has a fine eye for telling detail, and the result, while sentimental, is as irresistible as the dessert cart.

The Wave *** Directed by Roar Uthaug. Everyone in the Norwegian village of Geiranger knows that one day the mountain overlooking their homes will collapse into the fjord and set off a tsunami. When the alarm finally sounds, residents and tourists have 10 minutes to get to high ground. The human scale of this story about a very real threat to one Norwegian village makes the movie more tragic and also more chilling. But the main reason to rent or stream it is because it’s fun to see Hollywood disaster movie cliches rendered in Norwegian.

Anesthesia **½ Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Multiple lives intersect in connection with the violent mugging of a Columbia University philosophy professor (Sam Waterston). The all-star cast is uniformly good, but the script lacks any sort of nuance to temper the pandering lecture. The irony of the film is that, while it uses interconnectivity as a storytelling mechanism, the characters do not really connect.

Going Away **½ Directed by Nicole Garcia. When young Mathias's (Mathias Brezot) father fails to pick him up from school, substitute teacher Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort) takes the boy on a weekend motorcycle journey. While teacher and pupil quickly form a bond, things grow more complicated when they happen upon Mathias's mother (Louise .Bourgoin). Despite its late shortcomings, this demonstrates Garcia’s ability to coax strong performances out of a relatively young cast.

Knight of Cups **½ Directed by Terrence Malick. A writer (Christian Bale) indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women. This is a ponderous affair, never taking 30 seconds to make a point when four minutes is available. It’s the kind of film that will make viewers long for good, old-fashioned storytelling.

The Brothers Grimsby ** Directed by Louis Leterrier. A suave secret agent (Mark Strong) accepts a mission that requires him to go on the run with his brainless soccer hooligan of a brother (Sacha Baron Cohen). The film has the occasional laugh and a succession of finely wrought grossout spectaculars which are reasonably entertaining. But with its cod-Bond and mock-action material it carries a weird overall feel, like kids’ TV but produced on a lavish scale with added filth.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2Directed by Kirk Jones. There's a new wedding on the horizon for the Portokalos clan and with it comes a new assortment of family crises and secrets. Predictable, tired, formulaic, it makes up for its lack of originality with a bigger budget, louder jokes, louder costumes, and louder music.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ranking the Pixar Films

In Friday’s Austin American-Statesman, a Joe Gross tried to rank all the Pixar films (in honor of Friday’s release of Finding Dory). Although, for the most part, he was not that far off the mark, I was absolutely astonished, amazed, baffled, bewildered — whatever adverb best fits — to see that out of the 16 films he ranked, he had what is not only Pixar’s ultimate masterpiece (and also the best film of that year) 11th? 11th??? And his top-ranked Pixar film is not really among the studio’s five best. It left me wondering what film school this clown graduated from. So, to set the record straight, here is the ultimate ranking of the Pixar films. (The number in parenthesis is Gross’ ranking).

16. (16) Cars 2 **½ The plot of this entry is both overly convoluted and thin, and it folds in so much unvarnished toddler-instruction that it almost feels like an educational film. It is the only Pixar film that could be called "ordinary."

15. (14) Monster’s University *** Though colorful and sweet-natured and occasionally capable of producing the mild chuckle, this is a safe, predictable, edge-free, nearly bland effort from the studio that rarely hedges its bets. This is not a bad movie, and to small children it will be a very good one. But it is closer to average than one would wish from Pixar.

14. (15) The Good Dinosaur *** While the story attempts the moves that a Pixar film typically makes — nonverbal storytelling, death, a bittersweet ending — most of this film’s punches land soft, made worse by the disconnect that exists between the overly cartoonish style of the characters and the photorealistic landscapes.

13. (10) Brave *** Something that feels like it was put together from a jumble of Disney clichés tacked onto the skeleton of Beauty and the Beast. The conflicts, magic spells, chase sequences and reconciliations feel strangely by-the-book for the studio so well known for throwing the book out entirely. Eventually it straightens out into a fast, funny, emotionally resonant story about mothers and daughters, but it takes a while to get there and it's never less than weird.

12. (13) Cars ***½ The movie wins you over through crack comic timing and an awareness that the point of driving isn't how fast you get there but what you see on the way.

11. (12) A Bug’s Life ***½ The story is amusing and the animation is first-rate, but there's less sparkling originality than in Pixar’s best.

10. (7) Monsters Inc. ***½ Funny and sweet enough to delight kids and inventive enough to satisfy adults. The movie's cutest twist is that the monsters are more scared of kids than kids are of them, because they think human children are toxic.

9. (9) Toy Story 2 **** A technologically marvelous movie that's just as funny and inventive as the original Toy Story, but also more emotionally engaging than most live-action films. The story is just as funny and touching as the first one. The only problem is the inevitable one: The freshness — the novel delight — is a little faded.

8. (6) Up **** Challenging, emotionally and narratively, but it trusts viewers to keep up; but then, Pixar has never been interested in talking down to children or their parents. Each character has their own story, and Pixar never sacrifices their development just for a happy ending.

7. (1) Finding Nemo ****½ The humor bubbling through Finding Nemo is so fresh, sure of itself and devoid of the cutesy, saccharine condescension that drips through so many family comedies that you have to wonder what it is about the Pixar technology that inspires the creators to be so endlessly inventive.

6. (8) The Incredibles ****½ The vocal performances are a blast, Holly Hunter's and Jason Lee's in particular. The animation of the villain's tropical isle is stunning. It’s beautiful to look at, but even more lovely beneath the computer-generated surfaces.

5. (5) Toy Story 3 ****½ A sequel made with care and integrity, just moving enough: It winds its way gently toward its big themes instead of grabbing desperately at them, and because its plot is so beautifully worked out, getting there is almost all of the fun. It becomes the kind of love note to movies we want and need.

4. (3) Toy Story ****½ The movie that started it all, this wry, rippingly paced buddy movie is as delightful in its own way as any of Walt Disney's traditional fairy tales. In addition to what in 1995 was its stylistic innovation, the film sports a provocative and appealing story that's every bit the equal of this technical achievement.

3. (4) WALL-E ****½ The story line is probably too convoluted for small kids (which is not a criticism), and sometimes it suffers from techie overload, but it's more heartfelt than anything on the screens these days featuring humans. I rank this one this high simply because its first hour is a crazily inventive, deliriously engaging and almost wordless silent comedy of the sort that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton used to make.

2. (2) Inside Out ****½ On the inventiveness scale, this one is hard to top. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow. It’s an audacious concept, and its imagination is adventurous and genially daft enough to put it over.

1. (11) Ratatouille ***** This movie is courageous (Would you have invested money in the concept of a "feel-good movie" about rats making the meals in a five-star French restuarant?) as well as delicious. In this satisfying, souffle-light tale of a plucky French rodent with a passion for cooking, the master chefs at Pixar have blended all the right ingredients — abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication — to produce a warm and irresistible concoction that's appealing to everyone. A nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film. It provides the kind of deep, transporting pleasure, at once simple and sophisticated, that movies at their best have always promised.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The corrupt NBA

I never believed all those who tried to convince me the 1985 NBA draft was rigged. That is, until now. With the unjustified decision to suspend Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green from last night’s NBA Finals Game 5, the NBA has proved to me it is a corrupt organization interested not in fair competition but in making money.

The ratings for this year’s finals series between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers have been down over ratings from previous year’s finals. Ratings go down, revenues to the league decrease and the only way to increase those revenues is to televise more games. It was definitely not in the league’s best financial interest to have this series end in five games, so it took steps to see if the finals could possibly be stretched to the full seven games.

If this Green suspension had been an isolated incident in the NBA, it could be possible to ignore it. But it is anything but an isolated incident and all the other examples of corruption within the NBA also are attributed to the league’s desperate attempt to garner more income. Some say it started with that 1985 draft, the first time the lottery system was used, and lo and behold, the struggling New York Knicks, located in the league’s largest media market, wound up shocking the world by getting the first pick.

There are enough other examples of a rigged lottery, examples that I also originally dismissed, that are now coming back to haunt me:
  • The 2003 Draft, where the Cavaliers got the No. 1 pick to select hometown hero and Akron native Lebron James
  • The 2008 Draft, where the Chicago Bulls got the No. 1 pick to select its hometown hero, Chicago native Derrick Rose.
  • The 2011 Draft, where the Cavaliers got the No. 1 pick one year after James left.
  • The 2012 Draft, where the New Orleans Hornets got the No. 1 pick and Anthony Davis. Remember who owned the Hornets at this time? The NBA.

Then there’s the infamous Game 6 of the 2002 West Conference finals pitting the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. The Kings were up 3-2 and playing on their home court, but the NBA’s coffers would be far richer with Los Angeles in the finals than Sacramento. In that game, the Lakers wound up shooting 40 free throws, including 27 in the fourth quarter. In 2008, a New York Times article called that quarter "a master class in bad calls, missed calls and miscalls."

There’s also another theory, which you can read for yourself here, which states that most of educated America is now convinced the NBA is rigged and, as a result has quit watching it. Therefore, the NBA is trying to market its product to uneducated or undereducated black males and doing that by doing everything in its power to advance the notoriety of certain black players, chiefly Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. If you look at the replay of the incident for which Green was suspended, it was James who initiated the action by walking over a prone-trying-to-get-erect Green. Green has every right to try to get to his feet. It’s classless and disrespectful for James to try to walk over Green’s prone body. The above cited theory notes that during the 2006 FIBA World Championships, James averaged 2.2 free throws per game, while in the 2008 NBA finals he average six times that many.

So call me prejudiced if you will because I am a huge Dallas Mavericks fan, but the above reminded me of inconsistencies in the 2006 NBA finals, that are now coming bak to disturb me, and they all occurred after the Mavericks, whose star was a white German, Dirk Nowitzki, took a 2-0 lead against the Dwayne Wade/Shaquille O’Neal-led Miami Heat. To wit:
  • Miami stages a miracle comeback to win Game 3, a game in which Wade went to the free throw line 18 times.
  • The Mavericks’s Jerry Stackhouse is suspended for Game 5 during the fourth game, which the Heat also won, because of a  foul on O’Neal, who said, after the game, the Stackhouse hit was less vicious than a love tap from his daughters.
  • The Heat won game five when Wade shot as many free throws as all the Mavericks combined. He set an NBA finals record with 21 made free throws and he hit the winning free throws with 1.9 seconds left in the game after not having been called for committing a back-court violation on that very same play.
  • The Heat won Game 6 and the series when Wade went to the line 21 times and four different Mavericks were whistled for five fouls each.

Tim Donaghy, himself tossed out of the fraternity of NBA referees for gambling, also made some claims in his book as well as during a television show that, at the time, I did not put much stock into, considering the source, but I find myself giving more credence to after the league’s mishandling of the Green situation. Donaghy, talking about league refs, said:

"I mean, there are situations, and the referees are trained in the fact that, obviously, you don't want to be throwing the stars out of the game, or you don't want to be giving a star a foul that you can give to somebody else who's in that area. It's the way that you were trained. Obviously you don't want to give a Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James a foul that may be his second or third foul in the first quarter, to where he's going to have to go to the bench. I mean, it was openly discussed in meetings that, you know, people paid big dollars to see these stars on the floor. So if there's a situation where you can have two people to pick from, you're certainly not going to pick one of them, you're going to pick someone that's the sixth, seventh, or eighth man on that team."

But, you may say. Green is also a black player, so is it in the league’s best interest to target him? The answer is "yes," because Green has a history of baiting referees and that fact reminded me of something else Donaghy said:

"One player where referees targeted on a continuous basis was Rasheed Wallace. He was one of those guys that just constantly seemed to go out of his way to embarrass referees. And when you do that to the referee staff, you know, at times they would come together, and basically try to put him in his place, or try to get him in a position where, you know, he would stop doing what he was doing."

I find all this disturbing and now, with the Green fiasco added to it, I’m through with the NBA.

Monday, June 13, 2016

This week's DVD releases

With this week's releases, it means all of the films I had listed as the 25 best films of 2015 are now available for home viewing. Here is that list:
1. Carol
2. Inside Out
3. 45 Years
4. Spotlight
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Anomalisa
7. Brooklyn
8. Room
9. It Follows
10. Steve Jobs
11. Creed
12. Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens
13. Bridge of Spies
14. Sicario
15. The Big Short
16. The Martian
17. Love & Mercy
18. Ex Machina
19. While We’re Young
20. Paddington
21. The Gift
22. The Revenant
23. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
24. Trainwreck
25. Spy
This list only includes films I saw for the first time in a theater.

***** 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 mght 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.

45 Years ****½ Directed by Andrew Haigh. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer’s (Charlotte Rampling) plans for a 45th anniversary party are upset by the unexpected news that a body found in the Swiss Alps has been identified as Geoff’s long-ago love Katya, who perished in an accident 50 years earlier. The execution of this story is almost uniformly perfect. Haigh’s script and direction are a clinic in careful and measured storytelling, favoring a delicate and devastating slow burn of a narrative over big dramatic moments and outbursts. Brilliant performances from Courtenay and especially Rampling make the proceedings all the more genuine, as they bring to piercing life the relationship of two people who maybe don’t know as much about each other as they once believed. Beautifully observed, gently amusing and often performed with emphasis on the small things in life rather than any major dramatic incident, its focus on retrospective jealousy is an unusual and intriguing one and offers an absorbing story that comes up with some gently profound truths.

10 Cloverfield Lane ***½ Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. After being knocked out in an auto accident, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens in a cellar with a stranger (John Goodman), who tells her that he’s saved her from a chemical attack that has devastated the outside world. A well-crafted affair by debuting director Trachtenberg that mixes elements of an intimate stage play with the white-knuckled tension of a cracking good Twilight Zone episode.

Hello My Name Is Doris *** Directed by Michael Showalter. Inspired by insights gained through a self-help seminar, 60-year-old Doris Miller (Sally Field) brazenly steps forward to pursue the affections of a much younger co-worker. Field, carrying the movie on her shoulders and handing it to us for our approval, makes us root for wistful Doris. Single-handedly, she makes the movie work. I didn’t always believe Doris’ behavior, but I knew I wanted to see her smile again.

Eddie the Eagle **½ Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Forever endearing himself to the British public, Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards (Taron Egerton) becomes the first Englishman to compete in the Winter Olympics ski jump, relying on valor to make up for his lack of experience and bad eyesight. As cinema, it’s an avalanche of feel-good clichés, but as an audience-pleasing machine, it relentlessly pursues its goal and will probably win over viewers who surrender to it.

The Young MessiahDirected by Cyrus Nowrasteh. Tells the story of Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) from age 7 as he and his family depart Egypt to return home to Nazareth. The direction lacks urgency or art and the performances are, for the most part, emotionally flat.

Get a JobDirected by Dylan Kidd. Armed with fresh college degrees, a group of friends wades into the job market but are dismayed by the opportunities offered, ranging from lowly service jobs to bizarre tasks that only a desperate person would consider. A brutally cynical, largely unfunny film fueled by muddled social commentary.

London Has Fallen * Directed by Babak Najafi. In London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) discovers a plot to assassinate all the attending world leaders. This is terrorism porn, an alarmist, jingoistic piece of CGI-soaked garbage that implores its audience to fear nothing after sensationalizing the slaughter of innocents and the destruction of a major city.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Commercial television programming alert

I don’t watch that much commercial television: major sporting events (like the current NBA finals), Pardon the Interruption, The Rachel Maddow Show and that’s about it. It’s not that I have anything morally or even aesthetically against commercial television. It’s simply the fact that I personally feel it’s a waste of what little time I have left on this planet to sit through the "commercials" that are, by definition, the backbone of "commercial television." I don’t even watch those programs I mentioned above as they are being televised. I record them and watch them later that same day or evening so I can fast-forward through the commercials. It takes me an hour and 45 minutes to watch an NBA playoff game. The broadcast length of each of those games is between two hours and 30 minutes to three hours. That to me is a significant amount of time I am reclaiming for other uses.

As far as television series I am enamored of, and there are many, I prefer to stream them or rent/buy the season DVDs and watch them commercial-free. I recently completed watching the entire run of both The West Wing and 30 Rock and am now finishing up the second season of the 19-season Law & Order.

The very next commercial television series I am setting my recorder for begins Sunday evening and runs throughout next week. That’s O.J.: Made in America. Everything I have read about this is laudatory. Everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it either at the Sundance or the Tribeca film festivals has absolutely gushed about it. I’m hearing universal praise for this series unlike anything I have ever heard before about a commercial television program.

So for those, like me, who definitely want to see this 464-minute program, it will be shown in five parts. Here’s the schedule so you can either gather round the television or set your recorders (all times central):
  • Part 1, Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC
  • Part 2, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ESPN
  • Part 3, Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • Part 4, Friday, July 17, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • Part 5, Saturday, July 18, 8 p.m., ESPN

I imagine it will also be available soon on Blu-Ray or for streaming. In the meantime, you can watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Summer can be great for movie fans

As a big fan of movies, I love the summer because I know I can enjoy all that summer has to offer — the outdoors, swimming, picnicking, baseball, taking my dog out for runs in the meadow and dips in the pond, cookouts, and a whole lot more — without every worrying that I’m going to miss something worthwhile at the movies. For the most part, summer is "Movies for Dummies," that time of year when studios dump all their high price garbage sequels on a non-discriminating public willing to shell out good money for this junk.

Yes, movie lovers know that the true movie-going season begins around mid-September and lasts until the end of the year. That’s when the great ones appear.

At least I thought so until I looked at the schedule and saw that 57 films are scheduled to open between Labor Day and Christmas Fay. That’s a lot — between three and four per week. I scanned that list of 57 and found nine that really pique my interest. They are (listed in the order they are scheduled to open):

Sully directed by Clint Eastwood. This is the story of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who heroically landed that troubled US Airways flight full of passengers on the Hudson River. Aaron Eckhart plays the plane’s first officer and Laura Linney portrays Sully’s wife. Opening is scheduled for Sept. 9.

Personal Shopper directed by Olivier Assayas. This film had both its ardent admirers and strident detractors at the most recent Cannes Film Festival where Assayas was co-winner of the best director award for it. It’s supposed to be a ghost story that takes place in the Paris fashion underworld. Kristen Stewart stars and I hear she’s very good in the film. It’s opening Oct. 16 in France, but I have yet to learn of a firm domestic release date. Here's the trailer.

Silence directed by Martin Scorsese. The film stars Liam Neeson and Adam Driver as two Jesuit priests who face violent persecutions when they travel to Japan to seek out their mentor and attempt to propagate their religious beliefs. I am a big Scorsese fan, but I have this terrible feeling this could turn out to another Kundun. Anyone remember that dud fondly? To be released sometime in November.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk directed by Ang Lee which is apparently about how America’s perception of the war in Iraq differed from its realities. Joe Alwyn stars as the title character whose war memories are recalled as he participates in a victory tour back home. Scheduled to open Nov. 11. You can see the trailer here.

Manchester By the Sea directed by Kenneth Lonergan and featuring a performance from Casey Affleck that’s a slam dunk for an Oscar nomination. Affleck plays Lee Chandler who is made a legal guardian of his dead brother's son and who returns to his hometown to care for the teenage boy. Limited release Nov. 18, expanding in mid-December.

Nocturnal Animals directed by Tom Ford. This concept intrigues me. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a package from her first husband (Armie Hammer), an unpublished writer she divorced 15 years earlier, containing the manuscript of his first novel. As she begins to read the story about a math professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is driving his family to their summer house in Maine, she is drawn into its plot and grows fearful for her own life. Also opening Nov. 18.

Collateral Beauty directed by David Frankel and starring Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Pena and Naomie Harris. It’s about the downward emotional spiral of a New York adman that’s caused by a tragic event in his life. Opening Dec. 16.

Gold directed by Steven Gaghan, a thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as an unlucky man who teams up with a geologist to find gold in the uncharted jungles of Indonesia. Unsure of opening date.

Fences directed by Denzel Washington, based on the play by August Wilson, adapted by Tony Kushner. That’s a pretty darn good pedigree of names I just mentioned. The film stars Washington as Troy Maxson, as a former Negro League baseball player who, in the 1950s, struggles to provide for his family as he works as a garbage man. Haven’t heard of a firm release date for this one either.

Monday, June 6, 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 mght 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.

Anomalisa **** Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson. While on a speaking tour, motivational speaker Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), whose anxieties have robbed him of all joy, meets a woman (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) who may just revive his soul. There’s something strange and dreamlike and delicate and beautiful about this animated film for grown-ups that takes a long while to make its point, but does so with a dark brilliance. With spot-on vocal performances from Thewlis, Leigh and Tom Noonan, the film is nothing less than mesmerizing and must viewing for serious cinephiles.

A War **** Directed by Tobias Lindholm. With his family back at home in Denmark, Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) has another family to look after: the soldiers under his command in the Afghan province of Helmand. When his troops get caught in crossfire, he makes a decision with far-reaching consequences. The story unfolds not as contrived drama, but with all the surprise and inevitability of real life. That it delivers the results one might wish for and denies a sense of closure is not a failing but its chief virtue.

Zootopia ***½ Directed by Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore. After an otter suddenly disappears in the animal metropolis of Zootopia, a by-the-book bunny police officer (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) reluctantly joins forces with a fast-talking fox (voice of Jason Bateman) to unravel the mystery. Easily one of Disney’s more imaginative and detail-oriented CGI offerings in a while. It uses the classic tropes of anthropomorphized animals and comic references to pop-culture touchstones to slyly puzzle out what it means to be "civilized." The movie’s message about tolerance and not pre-judging others sings, and the many chases, interrogations (a weasel ably voiced by Alan Tudyk) and narrow escapes pay off.

No Home Movie ***½ Directed by Chantal Akerman. The director memorializes her mother Natalia, a Holocaust survivor, through conversations recorded during the last months of Natalia’s life. In its own highbrow way, this formally demanding and impossibly intimate video essay serves as an elegy to that sense of home that disappeared with the woman who, as far as the film is concerned, seems forever confined to her own bourgeois apartment.

Hail, Caesar! ***½ Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. In 1950s Hollywood, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) labors behind the scenes to "fix" the indiscretions committed by a major film studio’s marquee stars. The film is immensely entertaining, but it’s also frustratingly discursive, with so many incomplete sidelines and distractions that it suggests an overcrowded but exciting TV pilot more than a self-contained film. It isn’t the great film I was hoping for, but it’s very, very good fun.

The Confirmation *** Directed by Bob Nelson. Eight year old Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher) is forced to spend the weekend with his alcoholic, down-on-his-luck carpenter dad (Clive Owen) while his mom (Maria Bello) and her new husband (Matthew Modine) go to a Catholic retreat together. One of the selling points of this movie is how it steers clear of melodrama or tidy perfection in favor of a taste of life on the margins, where even living paycheck to paycheck would be a luxury. Another one is that there’s also the two mesmerizing performances by Owen and his astounding co-star, a remarkably adroit child actor, Lieberher, who is going places fast.

Touched With Fire *** Directed by Paul Dalio. Committed to a mental hospital after going off their medications, bipolar patients Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) — who share a passion for poetry — soon fall in love. This is by no means a perfect film. The production values and melodrama sometimes seem better suited for a small-screen movie. But the drama deserves points for its measured, realistic view of mental illness and Holmes delivers a beautifully understated and moving performance.

Mr. Right **½ Directed by Paco Cabezas. Just when Martha (Anna Kendrick) thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, she learns that the charismatic Francis (Sam Rockwell) is a hit man who offs his clients instead of the intended marks. Kendrick and Rockwell have often been the lone bright spot in otherwise dismal movies, and it takes their combined charm to redeem this one.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ** Directed by Michael Bay. Six members of an elite security team battle to save the lives of trapped U.S. consulate personnel under attack by armed terrorists in Benghazi, Libya. In terms of anything that has to do with characterization, the script is punishingly rote. But as bombastic, shoot’em-up spectacle, this is a visceral, well-paced and often beautiful action-thriller.

Kill Your Friends ** Directed by Owen Harris. An A&R man (Nicholas Hoult) working at the height of the Britpop music craze goes to extremes in order to find his next hit. The film has its razor-sharp grace notes and a seductive stylishness, neither of which can override its relentlessly adolescent worldview.

The Other Side of the Door ** Directed by Johannes Roberts. Unable to get past her son’s death, a mother (Sarah Wayne Callies) takes desperate measures, carrying out a ritual she hopes will allow her to say goodbye. Instead, she ends up opening a door to the spirit world, ushering in an entity that could destroy her family. Effective performances by the principals are unable to surmount the movie’s many cliches, although the actors render them more endurable. A more evocative title for this Hindu Gothic might be Mommies Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

The AbandonedDirected by Eytan Rockaway. With no other options, a single mom (Louisa Krause) takes a job as a nighttime security guard assigned to patrol a vacant luxury-living complex where, as the night wears on, eerie things begin to transpire. Two second-act revelations alter its tired dynamic for the better, but those changes are undone by cheap scares and a climactic revelation that’s more ho-hum than horrifying.

The Offering ½* Directed by Kelvin Tong. After her sister’s alleged suicide in Singapore, a crime reporter (Elizabeth Rice) flies overseas to investigate the circumstances. What it adds up to is either laughably baffling or just plain laughable, depending on how much attention one has paid.