Monday, August 29, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Jungle Book ***

One of the loveliest parts of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is the world it creates. In it, a young boy can survive in the jungle and learn from the animals who raise him, or a mongoose can protect an entire family from some slithering cobras. It's a world of lessons and moralities, but also adventure and daring. One in which a bear can be the best friend of a boy, and a panther can become a surrogate dad.

Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man) has done a marvelous job re-creating that world in his live-action/CGI adaptation.

Mowgli (newcomer Neeli Sethi, who spends the entire movie acting opposite CGI characters) is adopted by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) after the boy's father dies. Bagheera takes him to the wolves and helps raise Mowgli, teaching him the rules of the jungle in ways that reflect the human world we live in — stick with the pack, don't play with fire.

But when the evil tiger Shere Khan (a menacing Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli, the tiger vows to kill the little man-cub. So Bagheera sets out to take Mowgli back to the man-village.

Joining Mowgli along the way is the sloth bear, Baloo — played by Bill Murray, whose voice and general persona exude the character's credo: that life should be full of everyday pleasures and little else. He even gets to sing Baloo's theme song, The Bare Necessities, originally sung by Phil Harris.

It's an interesting choice for Favreau to call back to the Disney version. He does it again when Christopher Walken takes over for Louis Prima as the giant ape King Louie to sing I Wan'na Be Like You.

At first, this was jarring, taking me out of the world that Favreau has constructed. But the music adds a necessary levity, especially since Favreau does not shy away from the dark parts of the jungle. Characters fight and die, which, my 10-year-old granddaughter told me, didn't seem to bother her as much as I thought it would.

The reason to rent or stream Favreau's The Jungle Book, instead of just watching the animated one, is how gorgeous the jungle looks. The temple that King Louie calls his kingdom is breathtaking, and it seems as if every hair of Shere Khan's fur moves as he stalks.

It's the living jungle of Kipling's stories that we could once see only in our minds.

Me Before You **

 He’s handsome and rich and newly quadriplegic. She’s cute and spunky and totally broke, and she takes a job as his companion — not as his nurse, but as someone for him to talk to. Predictably, it’s rough going at the start, but then things get better, and, over the course of a few months, they develop a bond, etc. You know this story. You know the emotions to expect, and probably the order in which they’re presented, and yet even so Me Before You is just a little better than it had to be.

It’s not so much better that it escapes being what it is, a sort-of romance, liberally sprinkled with moments of corniness and emotional dishonesty. But ultimately, when it matters, it’s truthful — about the people depicted, and who they are, and what they face. It should be noted, however, that the movie’s depiction of disability and of the choices available to people with disabilities have become subjects of controversy within the disabled community, and there have even been some protests and campaigns against the film.

Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) is Lou, a working-class girl in small-town England, and the movie makes no bones about the fact that, were young Will (Sam Claflin) not the victim of a terrible accident, he would never have given Lou a second glance. It’s actually rather interesting just how uninteresting Lou is. She is genuinely simple and not too bright, with no ambition or passion, but she has qualities of character — not remarkable qualities, but solid, decent qualities, that engage our attention.

Clarke is entirely charming and winning in the role, except for one small but nagging thing. She has too much facial tension as she speaks, and it produces a commensurate tension in the viewer. You might not particularly notice this on a small screen, but it’s something you can’t miss the more the face is blown up. George Clooney had a similar problem when he first started making movies. He’d wag his head, as he’d done for years on TV, but suddenly entire audiences were getting motion sickness. He made the adjustment and went on to glory. If Clarke can just stop scrunching up her face, she can do the same.

The class aspect is a presence in Me Before You, but not in the heavy-handed (and ultimately sentimental) way that was present in the French film Intouchables, which had a similar story. In this film, Lou just hasn’t done anything. She’s never been anywhere. She has never even seen a movie with subtitles. And so, introducing her to new things — not for the sake of educating her, but simply to show her new pleasures — becomes a source of mild enjoyment for young Will.

Within what seems to be (and mostly is) a sappy, romantic frame, Sam Claflin is able to do some nice things with Will, and the movie ultimately doesn’t let him down. He remains, from beginning to end, an intelligent person, utterly realistic about his situation, and we always feel that he is thinking — that even when he is almost amused and almost happy, he maintains a certain British refusal to be anything other than realistic.

Claflin’s rigor and Clarke’s charm are counterbalanced by cringe moments, as when, after years of unemployment, Lou’s father (Brendan Coyle) gets a job as a maintenance man, and the family goes into a paroxysm of joy. In such moments, one gets the sense of the working class as imagined by the upper class, the idea that poor people aren’t just willing and resigned to working hard, but they’re absolutely ecstatic about it.

Still, unlike at least 90 percent of movies, Me Before You gets better as it goes along, and that’s something.

Other new releases this week
Citizen Soldier **½ This film will have a hard time attracting attention outside the community of veterans. But that doesn't diminish its ability to put us in the shoes of ordinary men balancing boredom with life-or-death action on a daily basis.
The Phenom **½ The movie may be choppy, but it’s saying something sincere about how the pressure to be thought of as a winner can be an athlete’s most formidable opponent.
Jane Wants a Boyfriend ** A sweetly-intentioned though somewhat awkwardly structured spin on a Hallmark Channel-style dramedy that strives to shed light on Asperger’s from a female perspective.

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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Preseason Top 25 College Football Teams

1.  Alabama
2.  Clemson
3.  Oklahoma
4.  Ohio State
5.  Stanford
6.  Mississippi
7.  LSU
8.  Florida State
9.  Michigan
10. Tennessee
11. TCU
12. Michigan State
13. Baylor
14. Notre Dame
15. Houston
16. Arkansas
17. Oregon
18. North Carolina
19. Georgia
20. USC
21. Oklahoma State
22. Iowa
23. Mississippi State
24. Wisconsin
25. Washington

Monday, August 22, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Weiner ***½

Once again, truth proves stranger than fiction in the raucous and provocative documentary Weiner. This absorbing, entertaining film takes a decidedly warts-and-all look at disgraced, seven-term Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner and his propulsive if ill-fated 2013 run for mayor of New York City.

Toward the end of the movie, Josh Kriegman, who directed and produced with Elyse Steinberg, bluntly asks the beleaguered Weiner, "Why have you let me film this?" It’s a question that viewers are likely to be wondering throughout as the filmmakers’ cameras capture Weiner, perhaps best known for his career-crippling sexting scandals of 2011 and 2013, in a plethora of awkward, squirm-inducing, shameless, even clueless moments.

If the unfortunately named Weiner’s purpose was to somehow help vindicate himself for cyber-cheating on his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, by showing what a warrior of the people he was — and still could be — he may have partially succeeded. As seen here, Weiner’s steely self-possession, unflagging drive, scrappy charm and, it seems, genuine desire to make a difference add up to the kind of politician you want on your side. In these dizzying days of Donald Trump, Weiner’s flaws can seem a bit quaint.

Still, Weiner’s mayoral bid, coming so soon after his 2011 resignation from Congress in wake of his massively covered and derided scandal (highlighted here by a raft of cringe-inducing, yet funny, Weiner-bashing tabloid spreads, cable news clips and late-night TV talk show bits) was the kind of uphill climb that makes for a riveting documentary narrative. The filmmakers appear to judge via some of their editing choices, but the story pretty much wrote itself; they just needed to shoot it.

And shoot it they did with a kind of joyful abandon, thanks to what feels like an all-access pass to all things Weiner. Whether prowling his turbulent campaign headquarters with its coterie of sweating staffers, the comfy Manhattan home he shares with Abedin and their toddler son, or the many personal, public and backstage dramas that erupted along the way, Kriegman and Steinberg, who co-wrote the film with Eli Despres, enjoyably sweep us into the hugely idiosyncratic ride that was Weiner’s stab at political reinvention.

Though we already know the campaign’s outcome, the film builds palpable tension as it bobs and weaves up to and through election day and, especially, election night. That’s when Weiner must escape the camera-ready clutches of former phone-sex buddy Sydney Leathers, who’s lying in wait for a 15-minutes-of-fame showdown with the man whose online identity was "Carlos Danger."

Viewers hankering for a deeply examined portrayal of Weiner may be disappointed; it’s not that kind of doc. There are no staged talking-head pundits or observers dissecting the politician’s psychosocial makeup; no chats with friends or family members to support, decry or help enlighten us about Weiner; no youthful history to foretell his adult proclivities. Weiner himself, for all the screen time he receives here, does little beyond the mea culpas and let’s-move-on requests to reveal what winds his clock.

Yet, there are enough fly-on-the-wall moments, including a funny riff by Weiner about what that phrase even means, that we feel more intimate with the film’s star than we may have the right to. Sleight of hand? Maybe. Then again, this is a film about politics.

As for Abedin, who was game to participate at all here, she mostly just glowers and simmers at her husband’s gaffes, outbursts and other dubious tactics. Her highly visible presence, however, does help effectively hammer home one of Weiner’s key defenses: No one other than his wife was hurt by his transgressions which, as others have pointed out, never included any actual physical contact — so get over it.

Maggie’s Plan ***
The writing was never a problem in Rebecca Miller’s movies, but it has taken a while for her to become a director. Her earlier films, such as The Ballad of Jack and Rose, had many good scenes, but they didn’t cohere or land with any accumulated impact. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) was a strong step forward for Miller, but her latest film, Maggie’s Plan, is a step beyond that. She’s a genuine director now, not just a writer who directs, and it’s officially time to start looking forward to Rebecca Miller movies.

Her achievement in Maggie’s Plan has many aspects to it, but they boil down to two — how smooth and easy it all is, and how messy and wrong it might have been.

It’s a story with several shifts in time and mood, with characters whose ambitions, affections and motives change, almost without warning. But at no point does the viewer ever feel lost, left behind or pushed into some unearned perception. The film could have seemed clumsy, and it’s anything but. There’s also a lightness in the tone that yet allows for real emotion and impressive performances. Maggie’s Plan doesn’t quite transcend the limits of the romantic comedy genre, but it pushes at them.

At the center of it all is Greta Gerwig, who radiates niceness and authenticity, even as she is playing a character that could be easily misperceived as a control freak. At the start of the film, Maggie has given up on the idea of finding a lifelong partner, but she knows she wants a baby. She also knows the sperm donor she wants — a mathematician turned pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmel).

Even as she is planning that, she is trying to fix the life of a professor at the New School, a ficto-critical anthropologist who aspires to be a novelist. John (Ethan Hawke) is a married man, with a high-powered academic (Julianne Moore) for a wife, and Maggie becomes his chief reader and cheerleader.

It would be so easy, and so wrong, to think of Gerwig as merely a charming personality, someone quirky and appealing, who just stands in front of the camera and acts like herself. Actually, she’s brilliant. Take a look at the long close-up during which Maggie talks to John about her parents. Gerwig seems to be acting five things at once, experiencing sadness, humor, a desire to connect, regret and conflicting impulses to reveal and conceal. But what she’s really doing is getting out of her own way and experiencing all the richness of the moment, and letting us see it, in all its complicated emotionality.

Not everyone can do that, nor can they build, from what might have seemed a character of erratic impulses, a portrait of emotional courage. Gerwig — and no doubt, Miller — makes Maggie into someone with an uncomplicated yet sophisticated capacity to know what she feels, to admit what she feels and to act on her feelings. This makes her a little like a child, but wise.

It also makes Maggie someone who maybe should be planning other people’s lives. Over the course of Maggie’s Plan, Maggie improvises her own course and those of others, and as the movie goes on, the filmmaker’s relationship with the whole notion of planning isn’t simple. While the characters onscreen keep insisting that some things can’t be planned, the movie seems to be arguing something else — that making a grand design for your life is possible, but only if you’re able to face what you want and accept the consequences.

The Nice Guys ***
The Nice Guys opens with a shot of the Hollywood sign, from the back, in the dark, the giant letters dilapidated. Pretty soon, a car goes crashing off a hillside road. The local news warns of a Stage 2 smog alert.

This is not the shiny Los Angeles of now.

It's the funky Los Angeles of 1977, in which a couple of stumblebums — a freelance enforcer by the name of Jackson Healy and a single dad and unlicensed private detective, Holland March — meet up and knock around in pursuit of a missing girl, and maybe a bigger caper, a conspiracy involving a porn king, the mob, who knows what else.

Healy and March are played, respectively, by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and the actors have an instant, jostling, riffing rapport. They meet cute — Healy sucker-punching March, busting some bones — and take it from there.

If there's a straight man, it's Crowe, but he's pretty funny in a deadpan, brute-force kind of way, while Gosling displays a surprising knack for slapstick. Watch him try to protect himself — and what little dignity he has left — in a men's room stall. Watch him do a kind of Lou Costello flabbergasted thing. Watch him swimming in a see-through pool with mermaids.

Yes, mermaids.

Like Shane Black's directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Robert Downey, Jr., his The Nice Guys borrows from noir traditions and pulp fiction, throwing a fresh coat of smart-alecky comedy over the whole thing. And like Black's earlier screenwriting efforts, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, in The Nice Guys, the momentum comes not simply by way of screeching cars and ricocheting gunplay (although there's plenty of that), but from the banter and bickering between the two leads.

Cowritten with Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys finds ways to keep its running gags running along (about Nixon, about killer bees, about a porn flick called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?).

It also finds time for Angourie Rice, one of those kid-actor naturals. She is Holly, March's precocious daughter, and she joins her dad and his new partner as they go private eyeing around town, to swinging soirees and to confrontations with a trigger-happy heavy named John Boy (Matt Bomer — and yes, there are Waltons jokes).

The detective duo also has business with a Department of Justice official. She is played by Kim Basinger, who drove off into the midday sun with Crowe at the end of L.A. Confidential. Their relationship is a little frostier this time around.

Wiener-Dog **½
Wiener-Dog isn’t so much a cohesive movie as a collection of four disjointed shorts. Divided into two groups of two by a jaunty musical intermission, the segments are connected by a worried-looking brown dachshund that shows up in every story. Tone is the other constant: a sardonic sense of melancholy you’d find in any movie by writer-director Todd Solondz (Happiness).

Wiener-Dog opens with a man offloading the title character at an animal shelter. Finding itself inside a small crate alongside the pens of other castaways, the dog paces aimlessly. Around and around it goes, and the camera doesn’t budge.

That’s another hallmark of Solondz: forcing the viewer to linger well beyond what’s expected or what’s even comfortable, holding focus, for example, on a young boy staring at the sky while lying in his backyard. The fact that the kid doesn’t blink gives the disconcerting impression that he may not, in fact, be breathing. Not to worry: His name is Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) and he becomes the new owner of Wiener-Dog, a surprise gift from his father (Tracy Letts). Remi is instantly smitten. His mother (Julie Delpy) is less enthused.

"Now who’s going to walk it?" she spits at her husband. She’s more patient with her son, even though he’s prone to interrogations, asking questions about everything from canine reproductive urges to faith. "What does it feel like to be put to sleep?" he asks, after learning about dog euthanasia. "It feels good!" his mother says, cheerily. "Like forgetting everything." Upon hearing that his family doesn’t believe in God, Remi wonders what they do believe in. "Truth, compassion, love," his mother responds angelically, without even a hint of irony.

Another story revisits two characters from Solondz’s 1995 breakout feature Welcome to the Dollhouse, this time with different actors: Greta Gerwig as former grade-school nerd Dawn Wiener, and Kieran Culkin as the former bully Brandon. After running into each other at a convenience store, the two end up taking a impromptu road trip together, along with her dog, this time named Doody. (The name is inspired by "Howdy Doody," although most people think it’s something else.)

Then there’s the lonely screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito), who’s practically invisible. In the final installment, Ellen Burstyn plays a salty, ailing woman who’s cruel to her freeloading granddaughter and only slightly kinder to her dog, Cancer.

This segment takes a turn for the surreal when several identical little girls show up to explain to the woman all the different people she might have become if she’d made different choices. But it’s still firmly rooted in the director’s particular brand of earthiness. The camera holds steady as Burstyn swills gulp after gulp of Kaopectate, straight from the bottle, until long after you’re sure the container must be empty.

Solondz is an acquired taste, but at least he’s consistent. The same way Wes Anderson serves up elaborate set pieces — not to mention elaborate sets — Solondz revels in rusty minivans and moth-eaten couches. His characters aren’t stylish, or even all that appealing. They’re just everyday people going about their lives. You wouldn’t exactly call the movie a thrill, but it’s curiously engrossing all the same.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War *
One trick of great fantasy storytelling is establishing the rules of the world — in The Lord of the Rings, hobbits fear adventure; in Harry Potter, Muggles can't perform magic; in Avatar, humans can't breathe on Pandora. From those limitations come sympathetic characters and a story with a real sense of peril.

There are no discernible rules in the world of The Huntsman: Winter's War, a dreadful sequel to 2012's darkly appealing Snow White and the Huntsman. In the pale update, nearly every major character dies and comes back to life at least once and a convoluted narrative yields not a single, palpable moment of drama.

Not even the considerable charm of Chris Hemsworth, who plays the seemingly immortal, ax-wielding title hero, or Emily Blunt, as an ice queen with head-scratching motives, can save this dull mash-up of fantasy genre cliches, which wastes its A-list actors, stunning costumes and computer-generated artistry on a fatuous story with zero stakes.

The 2012 film, directed by Rupert Sanders, mostly succeeded as a visually rich retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with Kristen Stewart playing Snow White as a brave warrior princess and Charlize Theron delivering a deliciously over-the-top evil Queen Ravenna.

The new movie, written by Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos and directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, leaves out Stewart's role. Really, it's a Snow White movie without Snow White — can you imagine Iron Man putting up with that?

Set both before and after the events of the first film, The Huntsman: Winter's War stars Blunt and Theron as Freya and Ravenna, a pair of rivalrous royal sisters — think Frozen's Anna and Elsa with better eye makeup and worse attitudes. Ravenna mostly stares in the mirror and makes malevolent declarations. Freya, who starts the film in love and quickly suffers a trauma, begins shooting ice out of her hands, wearing metallic headpieces and training an army of child soldiers.

Hemsworth's Eric and Jessica Chastain's Sara emerge as the most talented fighters in Freya's army. Speaking in muddled Scottish accents and wearing cute leather hunting outfits (perhaps they're hunting for the plot?), Eric and Sara fall in love and try, unsuccessfully, to escape Freya's icy grasp.

Over the next hour, Hemsworth swashbuckles through six or seven plot reversals and multiple inscrutable fight scenes. He is joined by some bickering dwarves, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), and becomes determined to capture Ravenna's magic mirror. Wait, is Ravenna dead? Who's alive? Who knows? Who cares? It's raining and cellos are playing so something bad must be happening.

Though the cast are all pros who do their darndest to deliver the bewilderingly bad dialogue with conviction, even an Oscar winner like Theron can't sell lines like, "A humble pawn can bring down kingdoms."

Nicolas-Troyan, who had been the visual effects supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman, is making his directorial debut here, and there are moments that help explain how he got the job. When Eric and his merry band end up in a computer-generated forest, it's a gorgeous, magical place, where giant, moss-covered tortoises roam and butterflies flutter. If only we could linger here on the mossy forest floor and forget the dizzying subplots swirling in our heads.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who earned her 10th Oscar nomination for her work on the previous Huntsman film, delivers the drama the story lacks, this time via exquisite metallic gowns and headpieces. She drapes Theron in a kind of molten gold dress and Blunt in multiple ice crystal-inspired frocks.

At one point, when the two sisters appear on-screen talking conspiratorially in their glittering garments, I fantasized about what the actresses might have whispered to each other between takes: "Do you have any idea what's happening right now?"

"No. Did you read this script before you agreed to it?"

"No. But the good news is, we look fabulous."

Other DVD releases this week
Paths of the Soul **** Filmed in simple documentary fashion and performed with immaculate conviction by a non-professional cast, this movie, directed by Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home) is a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life.
Sunset Song *** It is a rare director who dares to embrace the slow, meditative rhythms of a classic novel without feeling the need to modernize or accelerate it, but Terence Davies uses the measured pace to unfold his poetic vision of the Scottish peasantry and their attachment to the land.
The Other Side **½ There are moments when this film seems to traverse into arts-ploitation territory, and it’s ultimately hard to tell if the movie is trying to render its subjects with some humanity or otherwise if it's taking advantage of all these poor, beautiful losers.
The Man Who Knew Infinity ** The film tells a great story. It’s just that it’s a little too by-the-book to make anything other than a so-so movie.
Hard Labor ** Teeters uncertainly between horror and social commentary. It feels as if the directors tried to imagine what Bunuel would have done if he had made a horror film.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong ** The two stars (Jamie Chung, Bryan Greenberg) are attractive, and Emily Ting, who wrote and directed, makes the city look great, but during their endless strolling Ruby and Josh never get much beyond shallow banter.
Beautiful SomethingBits and pieces of this gay-themed drama feel real and essential. But this slow-going film often suffers from a forced, navel-gazing quality that can prove exasperating.
ClownDirector Jon Watts does nothing with the scarily funny notion of a respectable professional who suddenly refuses to shuck a party costume.
The DuelThe story is an intriguing twist on the western genre, but in piling on other subgenres and story elements, including a dangerous and charismatic cult, it dilutes the essential nature of what could have been a potent revenge tale.
Outlaws and AngelsDespite worthy performances from the entire cast, this movie’s a prime example of a director admiring some great movies but only having a cursory, superficial understanding of what it was that made them work.
How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town * Despite its provocative title, this film isn’t particularly sexy. More troubling, it’s not very funny either.
Ratchet and Clank ½* In a golden period for both animation and children’s filmmaking, here is a head-splitting reminder of just how bad those two things can get.

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Does anyone else think this is a bad movie idea

According to The Wrap, Ben Affleck has signed a deal to star and direct a remake of the 1960 classic Witness for the Prosecution. I’m assuming Affleck will play the role of Leonard Vole, accused of murdering a much older widow. Tyrone Power played Vole in the original.

The film has two other principle roles, Sir Wilford Robarts, a lawyer in bad health who agrees to defend Vole (played by the great Charles Laughton in the original), and Christine, Vole’s German-born wife who eventually becomes the title character. The story was adapted from an Agatha Christie short story and play,

The marketing for the 1960 film was based on the teaser that "No one would be seated during the last 20 minutes of the film," because of its surprising twist ending. The problem I have with this remake notion is that, by now, everyone interested in seeing this film is going to know the details of that ending so there’s no surprise. Then, what’s the point?

Plus, I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again and I’ll keep on saying it until someone pays attention: Why do studios insist on remaking classic movies? They never live up to the originals. The dismal, just released, Ben-Hur, is just another example and it appears film goers are beginning to notice it as well; Ben-Hur is on its way to becoming an all-time box office disaster. I’m hearing reports it is only expected to collect $12 million in its opening weekend. Here’s my theory: Remake mediocre or largely forgotten films and try to make them better or more popular.

Case in point: Primal Fear, a halfway decent film from 1996 that has a plot similar to that of Witness for the Prosecution, but I’m betting is not lodged in the memory banks of film lovers as firmly as Witness is. But then what the hell do I know? I thought the three best films of last year were, in order, Carol, Inside Out and 45 Years, and none of the three were even nominated for a best picture Oscar. But then, my choice for the fourth best picture of 2015, Spotlight, not only was nominated but walked home with the big enchilada.

And none of those four were either remakes or sequels. So there.

Friday, August 19, 2016

New poll shows Perry beats Cruz in G.O.P Senate primary

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Fascinating juxtaposition

I find it absolutely fascinating that the first voice I hear on this trailer is that of Bruce Springsteen and the first face I see on the trailer is that of Elvis Presley's granddaughter.

Monday, August 15, 2016

This week's (not so major) DVD releases

Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words *** Part of what makes this documentary so pleasurable is that it’s so insistently celebratory, despite the traumas and hurts that trickle in. To that upbeat end, it tends to soften and even elide some of the thornier passages in Bergman’s life.

Our Last Tango *** Balances between a studious fascination with the dance form's history and an embrace of the passions it stokes. Far more engrossing than the usual documentary of this sort.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made *** Though indulgently overlong, this documentary manages to unearth the inner geek in all of us.

Sky ** This expressionistic portrait of the American West is an oddity that only a director from another country could have conjured.

The Angry Birds MovieIf you loved the game, you might enjoy watching the script contort itself into ever more zany shapes to incorporate the necessary elements: giant slings, teetering towers, boomeranging toucans. But it’s not enough to counteract the tiresome, sub-Lego Movie snarkiness of the script or the bright, busy and unengaging animation.

Crazy About Tiffany’sThose enthralled by the venerable brand will no doubt swoon, but casual viewers will find it little more than a feature-length infomercial.

Backgammon ½* May not be effectively provocative, but it is sometimes dumb enough to be offensive.

God’s Not Dead 2 ½* This is a much better movie than the original but that’s a bit like saying a glass of milk left on the table hasn’t curdled and is merely sour.

Sundown (no stars) This is the misbegotten lovechild of The Hangover and Project X. Stupendous in its stupidity, offensive in its attempts to be funny, and downright unpleasant from beginning to end.


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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The sharpest Trump rebuke yet.

Here is an except from a column written by Thomas Friedman which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times:

"People are playing with fire here, and there is no bigger flamethrower than Donald Trump. Forget politics; he is a disgusting human being. His children should be ashamed of him. I only pray that he is not simply defeated, but that he loses all 50 states so that the message goes out across the land — unambiguously, loud and clear: The likes of you should never come this way again."

Monday, August 8, 2016

This week's DVD releases

A Hologram for the King **

Malaise isn't Tom Hanks' thing, so A Hologram for the King with its death of an IT salesman vibe isn't a good fit. Hanks is far too indelible as a can-do personality to play why bother.

A Hologram for the King is an oddity for more reasons than its lead casting. Directed by Tom Tykwer, whose 1998 dynamo Run Lola Run now seems fluky, this adaptation of Dave Eggers' novel is flat as the Saudi Arabian desert where it's set, with a timid sense of existentialism that's confounding. Or maybe free will isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Hanks plays Alan Clay, sales rep for a technology firm specializing in 3D hologram telepresence. Alan's in Saudi Arabia to convince the king to install his program throughout a metropolis to be built someday in the desert. Alan isn't a tech guy; he used to sell Schwinn bicycles, until an outsourcing decision still haunting him today.

Alan is bitterly divorced and estranged from a daughter whose college he can't afford, and he has a worrisome growth on his back. He's desperate to seal this deal even though a one-sided culture clash keeps getting in the way, testing his professional patience. Alan isn't an ugly American but he's homely.

Tykwer shapes his movie around Alan's daily routine: rinse off, ride to work, regret, repeat. One benefit is Alan's driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), happy to make an American friend who knows Electric Light Orchestra. He's a light and later a guiding touch this movie needs. It won't come from Alan, who's joyless enough to resist a sexy woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) throwing herself at him.

Things change when that growth on Alan's back needs treatment, and he immediate crushes on his physician Zahra (an alluring Sarita Choudhury). Almost magically, cultural barriers in a country where women are segregated and aren't allowed to drive disappear for this couple. Zahra's sensual defiance is romantic yet unlikely under penalty of death.

As Tykwer's movie proceeds, the swatches of sharp writing and absurdist clarity lifted from Eggers don't quite converge. A Hologram for the King is episodic to a fault, at least on screen in streamlined form. Alan's professional crises then and now — an outsourcing of his American Dream — don't accumulate much tension or tragedy. Neither does Zahra become much beyond Alan's own overseas acquisition.

A few pleasures emerge: A driveway gate surrounded by nowhere, manned by a guard perpetually wading in a kiddie pool; Tom Skerritt as Alan's ranting father, and any scene with Choudhury; the laughing faces of Saudis watching Alan's hologram demonstration, and what may lay behind them.

For Hanks, A Hologram for the King is strenuous work in a puzzling choice of role, much like his previous Tykwer project, Cloud Atlas. Alan calls for a degree of insincerity that Hanks may not be capable of playing; he hasn't really tried since 2004's The Ladykillers, another misfire. An actor stretches, and sometimes snaps.

Other new releases this week
Dukhtar *** A handsomely made, nicely modulated fugitive drama with forceful social overtones that decries the ongoing practice of marrying child brides in tribal regions of Pakistan’s mountainous north.

Sweet Bean **½ This sweet, slow film — very slow, I’m obliged to say — becomes a meditation on solitary lives lived at the margins of society; on old age, and on the urgency of telling our stories, which may sometimes include recipes.

Baskin ** This proudly derivative genre exercise will not be to every taste (or stomach), but the director, Can Evrenol, shows a certain knack for tension and for framing viscera in wide screen, even if his cutting is sometimes too quick.

Addicted to Fresno * A mean-spirited farce whose strenuous bad taste seldom translates into actual laughs.

Fathers and Daughters * No amount of star power can save this script.

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

This week's DVD releases

The Lobster ***½
When the end credits roll in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos' hypnotically strange and suggestive movie, you may find yourself scanning a bit more intently for the usual reassurance that no animals were harmed during production. There is, for starters, an arresting early scene in which a woman drives out to a remote field and puts three bullets in a donkey’s brain. Sometime later, a rabbit is caught in a trap and presented to a lover as a gift. And in between, there is one act of animal cruelty so chillingly unmotivated, you might be reminded of one of those haunted-house freakouts where it doesn’t pay to get too attached to the family pet.

As it happens, The Lobster is very much its own brand of horror movie, as well as a deranged thought experiment, a stealth love story, and a witty dismantling of the usual barriers separating man from beast. I mean that last part quite literally. Lanthimos (who wrote the screenplay with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou) has imagined a curious dystopian parable in which society is divided between the romantic haves and have-nots, and those who fail to land a spouse within a designated time frame are transformed into animals and cast into the wild.

Our test subject for this procedure is David (a sublimely morose Colin Farrell), to whom we are introduced just as his wife is leaving him for another man. To remedy this sad situation he is sent to a countryside hotel, where he is questioned upon arrival about his sexual preference and the animal he would like to be turned into should he fail. (His answer and his astute rationale for it give the movie its title.) From that point on, David has 45 days to scour the premises for a proper mate, the criteria for which turn out to be highly specific to say the least.

It’s a wondrously silly premise, and one that Lanthimos, not unlike those great cine-surrealists Luis Buñuel and Charlie Kaufman before him, executes with rigorous illogic and immaculate formal control. He also operates with the straight-faced conviction that even his most fanciful conceits are no more absurd or arbitrary, really, than the accepted but always-evolving rites of modern courtship.

Much of the fun of The Lobster derives from figuring out those conceits, which are methodically unpacked by the hotel manager (a superb Olivia Colman), and elaborated upon by some of David’s fellow inmates, who approach their own conquests with varying degrees of calculation (Ben Whishaw) and cluelessness (John C. Reilly). And then there are those who forge their own destiny, like the hotel guest credited only as "Heartless Woman" (a terrifying Angeliki Papoulia), whom David unwisely latches onto as a potential soulmate.

In reimagining the dating game as a sort of endless work convention from hell, Lanthimos unapologetically takes aim at the cherished ideal of monogamous commitment, as well as the ingrained tyranny of any society that regards the single life with contempt or (worse) pity. Even in a time of unprecedented personal and sexual freedom, where marriage and children are increasingly regarded as an option rather than a necessity, The Lobster’s ruthless vision of human coupling as a system of mercenary acquisitiveness can't help but strike a nerve.

But the perversity of the movie — and the pleasure it generates, and mostly sustains, over two steadily absorbing hours — runs deeper than its most obvious application points. Those who have seen Lanthimos’ prior films — including the unnerving Dogtooth (an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film) and the chilly, formalist Alps — may marvel at how fluidly and recognizably his sensibility translates to a broader, more ambitious canvas. While this marks the first time the director has worked outside his native Greece (the picture was shot in Ireland), it is scarcely the first time he has brought his deadpan, diorama-like sensibility to bear on a tale of physical and psychological captivity, as he did in Dogtooth.

The Lobster, for all its mordant humor and spasms of cruelty, is a gentler, less assaultive piece of work, which doesn’t mean it won’t get under your skin. To watch it is to experience an eerie, prolonged immersion in a world governed by utterly bizarre codes of behavior, which are enforced not only by the reigning authorities, but also by the exacting particulars of Lanthimos’ style. The deliberate pacing, the actors’ odd, herd-like formations and the meticulously composed images (shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis) at times convey the uncanny sensation of peering into a zoo enclosure, the better to study the mating habits of a vaguely familiar and frankly preposterous species.

It doesn’t take long, of course, to realize that the TV screen in this case is not just a window but a mirror. And the images we see reflected back at us, while harsh and unflattering, are also streaked with tenderness and compassion. Farrell’s finest performances (in films like In Bruges and Cassandra's Dream) have always de-emphasized his charisma and brought out his natural vulnerability, and here, rocking spectacles, a mustache and a slight paunch, he becomes a moving avatar of hangdog desperation and romantic yearning. And he’s matched, beat for melancholy beat, by Rachel Weisz as a downcast yet luminous Ms. Right who chooses exactly the wrong time and place to materialize.

That encounter occurs deep into the film’s rich but wobbly second act, which finds David fleeing the hotel and taking refuge in the nearby forest with a group of militant singles called the Loners, whose leader (a sharp Léa Seydoux) offers a sly reminder that even liberation can be a trap. Fittingly enough, it’s at this point that the film seems to box itself into a corner. The dense green overgrowth makes for a striking change of scenery, but just when they should be accelerating, the ideas begin to thin out, and the new twists that develop mostly seem to be treading water.

Weisz’s appearance introduces a vital but tricky variable in an emotional equation the film can’t quite bring itself to solve. Lanthimos, in attacking the rigid machinery of social conditioning, exerts his own overly controlling hand, stifling the ardent and unruly romanticism that we sense is just beginning to take root beneath the film's fastidious surface. But even that suppression is very much to the story's point: In a pinch, turning into a lobster might well be preferable to the curse of remaining human.

Louder Than Bombs ***
In Louder Than Bombs, his English-language debut, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) revisits the themes of his previous two movies — coming-of-age, creativity, depression, suicide — with great eloquence and furious, delicate beauty. The story revolves around an upcoming exhibition of the work of the war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died a few years earlier in a car crash.

Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and her oldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), know Isabelle committed suicide by driving into the path of an oncoming truck. But her youngest son, Conrad (Devin Druid), who is now a teenager, still believes it was an accident. A journalist (David Straithairn) who worked with Isabelle is writing an advance of the exhibit. He warns Gene that his story will reveal the truth about her death.

The bulk of Louder Than Bombs, which Trier co-wrote with his collaborator Eskil Vogt, takes place during the few days leading up to the publication of the article. But the movie spans several years in the family’s life, with artful flashbacks and surreal montages — storytelling techniques that come off as crutches in most other films — gradually filling in the events that led to the dysfunction that has paralyzed Gene’s relationship with his two sons.

Even though the narrative becomes smaller and more specific as the movie unfolds, the emotional intensity of Louder Than Bombs grows stronger as we come to understand its damaged, searching protagonists. Here is a drama about a troubled family that builds not to a crescendo of screams and confrontations, but toward empathy and understanding. Trier has a gift for capturing the complexities of human behavior with the depth of a novelist. In Oslo August 31st, a recovering drug addict is so overcome by disappointment he commits suicide, overlooking the importance he played in the lives of other people.

Louder Than Bombs presents us with a woman who takes her life because she’s aware of how much her husband and sons love her. The fact that we’re able to understand that contradictory impulse is a testament to the movie’s compassion. Trier, who turns 42 this year, is young enough to be steeped in popular culture — the role-playing video game Skyrim plays a critical role in the movie — but he has an old soul: Jonah’s unspoken panic about becoming a father, or Gene’s reaction when he confirms his suspicion that Isabelle was unfaithful, feel personal and lived-in. But the most intriguing character in the movie is the confused, tormented Conrad, who initially comes off as the kind of troubled adolescent who will end up riddling his classroom with bullets. By the end of Louder Than Bombs, he’s just one of us — someone who simply needs to love, and be loved in return.

High-Rise **½
What a beautiful and bloody mess of a movie. High-Rise is a surreal, trippy, sex-drenched, blood-spattered, adult variation on Lord of the Flies (with a touch of Brazil and even Metropolis), peppered with provocative allegories but eventually sinking under the weight of its own overly artsy, semi-smug self-consciousness.

Based on the 1975 dystopian novel from J.G. Ballard, High-Rise is set in an ultra-modern, luxury high-rise where the tenants revert to savagery and a kill-or-be-killed mentality when accepted social mores are stripped away and class resentment kicks in.

British director Ben Wheatley lenses with aggressive flair and fills the screen with stark, sometimes shocking visuals, as if he had watched all of Stanley Kubrick’s and Quentin Tarantino’s films just before filming commenced.

Tom Hiddleston, continuing a string of performances leaving no doubt he’s one of our most versatile actors, shines in the leading role as Laing, a doctor residing in one of the nicer apartments in the high-rise. When we first meet Laing, he’s barbecuing on the balcony of his posh pad. But wait, what’s that on a spit? It appears to be the leg of a canine. And it looks as if a good-sized bomb has blasted the building. Cue the flashback graphic: "THREE MONTHS EARLIER." Before all the chaos ensued.

Having just moved into a pristine, intimidatingly huge high-rise on the outskirts of London, Laing is sunbathing nude on his balcony when a glass comes crashing down from an apartment above him. The startled Laing jumps to his feet, looks up — and there’s Sienna Miller’s Charlotte, sauced out of her mind and giving Laing the once-over while she fends off the advances of a neighbor.

"You’re an excellent specimen," Charlotte tells Laing, who flashes a wicked grin in return. This new building, with all the amenities one could hope for and plenty of attractive people milling about, has plenty of promise. Plenty of promise indeed.

High-Rise seems to be set in the future but in the mid-1970s as well. The fashion, the hairstyles, the cars and the overall vibe scream 1975, but the quartet of monstrously tall high-rises jutting into the sky on the far edges of the city and the interiors of Laing’s particular building have a futuristic feel. This looks like a movie from the 1970s imagining what 2016 might be like.

Although most of the adults in the building have jobs in the outside world — every morning they march in unison out to the seemingly endless parking lot, get in their cars and presumably drive to London — the high-rise is something of a self-contained universe. The stay-at-home mothers and the children seem to never leave, as if they’re under some sort of home confinement.

The attractive couples and the well-off single people live in the higher floors of the building, while the working class and the families with multiple children are on the lower floors — steerage, if you will. The upper class enjoys all the perks, while the Lower Floor People are lucky if they can get running water and working electricity.

Meanwhile, the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) lives a kingly existence in the penthouse and rules the building and its tenants like a benevolent dictator. The architect didn’t just design a building, if you’ll hear him out. His plan was to design a better way of life for mankind.

Suffice to say that’s not how things play out. We go from orgiastic, coke-fueled Restoration costume parties featuring a string quartet playing ABBA to horrific scenes of violence and cruelty and destruction. Director Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump are clearly playing much of as pitch-black satire, but High-Rise keeps hammering home the same points, and not even the wealth of strong performances from Hiddleston, Miller and Irons are enough to salvage the day.

Keanu **½
Putting a tiny kitten in an action film sounds like a bonkers idea. That is, until you see the bizarrely wonderful sight of a tiny kitten in an action film.

The little guy in director Peter Atencio’s action comedy Keanu) is fast and furious — and furry — and complements the culturally relevant comedy of stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They bring their talent for creating entertaining character duos from television to a theatrical release for the first time, though Keanu doesn’t on the whole match the sheer hilarity and brilliance of the Key & Peele TV sketch show.

Peele, who co-wrote the script with Alex Rubens, stars as Rell, a newly dumped guy who is in a serious funk until a small cat shows up at his door. His milquetoast cousin Clarence is an L.A. corporate team-builder type told by his wife (Nia Long) to "be himself" while she and the kids are away for the weekend, and he’s also enamored with this ball of fur that Rell has named Keanu.

After a night out at the movies, the pair return home to find Keanu gone and Rell’s apartment ransacked. They find out from the drug dealer next door (a gonzo Will Forte) that the 17th Street Blips are to blame, and Clarence and Rell go undercover as violent killers to get Keanu back from the Blips’ leader Cheddar (Method Man).

Key and Peele showcase their skills in a series of progressively worse situations for Clarence and Rell. From a strip club with the fitting name HPV to a shootout at a palatial mansion, the two middle-class African-American dudes have to be as hardcore as possible, even though they’re usually the geekiest guys in the room. "You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy," Rell tells Clarence after one of his early gangsta-speak misfires.

It’s a sketch-type conceit stretched to movie length that wears thin at times. When the stars are on their game, though, they keep the laughs coming — Key's Clarence teaching a trio of thugs about the wonders of George Michael is priceless, as his musically tinged drug trip, and Peele also has some nice moments with Tiffany Haddish, who plays Bliptown tough girl Hi-C.

Keanu borrows stylistic references and slo-mo moves from action movies such as Bad Boys and Point Break (that other Keanu's presence is felt in multiple scenes), although the film's most special effect is its title critter. The kitten gets a decent amount of screen time, scratching up a photo of Rell’s ex and cuddling in Cheddar’s tattooed forearms, but he’s missed when he’s not around. For sure, he’s a joy to behold in the climactic action sequence, with his spindly legs flying amid adorable meows as bullets whiz past him.

As watchable as he is, so are Key and Peele, and while Keanu isn't their best work creatively, they show the potential to claw their way to the top of the comedy ranks.

The Bronze *½
Imagine a gymnast with the scrappiness of Kerry Strug (and the Olympic medal to prove it) but with the tongue of a sailor, the warmth of Don Rickles and the judgment of Lindsay Lohan. Meet Hope Ann Greggory, the main character in The Bronze, an R-rated sports comedy that is built on an interesting idea — but which, unlike Strug, can't quite stick the landing.

The whole hit-or-miss exercise is the brainchild of Melissa Rauch, the Big Bang Theory co-star who wrote and stars in director Bryan Buckley's film, and it's easy to see why the Duplass brothers signed on to executive-produce and their fellow New Orleanian Stephanie Langhoff to produce. The idea that America's sweetheart is really a tart-tongued, pill-snorting nightmare is one that is ripe for satire, subversion and — if nothing else — some good, naughty laughs.

While frustratingly light on the satire and subversion, The Bronze does at least deliver its share of naughty (and some very naughty) laughs. Unfortunately, rather than coming from a place of genuine wit, most of those laughs come from the shock value of hearing Rauch — in her tiny, Strug voice — let loose with a constant string of eyebrow-singing vulgarities.

While it's funny the first time Hope does or says something off-the-charts off-color, it's a little bit less funny the second time, and even less the third time. By the time The Bronze hits the 15-minute mark, one is left to wonder if that's all it has to offer.

For the most part, it is, as it becomes a one-joke movie, albeit it with a slightly more substantial plot than most one-joke movies.

Along the way, Rauch and company seem to be trying just a bit too hard to be edgy and not enough to build a sympathetic main character. What else can be said about a film in which the opening scene involves the sight of that character engaging in — how shall I put it? — an intimate moment with an old video of her Olympic heroics?

It's not the act itself that's so problematic. Movie laughs have been built on far more unexpected (though equally intimate) juxtapositions. I'm thinking American Pie, for starters. Rather it's in Hope's choice of viewing material during said act, which introduces her right off the bat as someone pathetic at best, and creepy at worst.

Granted, generating sympathy for a character at a film's outset is perfectly fine — desirable, even. Anyone who is being honest with themselves can relate to losers on a certain level. But making that main character downright icky? Not the most endearing of traits for the lead character in a comedy.

Admittedly, that scene alone doesn't torpedo Buckley's film, but it is representative of the overall misjudged tone of The Bronze. The longer it goes on, the more despicable Hope becomes, eventually transforming her into something dangerously close to irredeemable.

When we meet her, it's clear Hope is holding on dearly to her glory days. It's been more than a decade since she earned that bronze medal back in the 2004 Games, but she still caresses it fondly. She still wears her Team USA warm-up every day. She's still committed to the bangs-centric gymnast hair-don't she wore back in the day. (Props to key hairstylist Charlotte Parker; she totally nailed it.)

Hope also still gets maximum play out of the hometown hero status she is still afforded in tiny Amherst, Ohio — right down to the reserved parking spot in front of the downtown soda shop and the free mall pizza at Sbarro's.

Enter the new kid in town, the effervescent Maggie (played by an adorable Haley Lu Richardson). Not only is she America's next great gymnastic hope, but — given that she's also from Amherst — she threatens to rob Hope of the one thing she has to hold on to: her small-town celebrity status.

When Hope is pressed into training Maggie for the big games, you can imagine what happens next. Which is another of the problems for The Bronze. There's just not really a whole lot of suspense in what ends up being a fairly predictable story.

Of course Hope is going to try to sabotage Maggie's path to glory. And of course she's going to have a third-act change of heart.

But as despicable as she's proven to be to that point, by the time Hope gets to that transformative moment on which the whole movie hinges, most viewers will have decided to stop trying to care.

Mother’s Day (no stars)

The unofficial conclusion of an unofficial trilogy of holiday-themed multistar comedy vehicles directed by the late Garry Marshall, Mother’s Day has its perfunctory heart exactly where any experienced viewer would expect it to be. That is, in a fantasy world where, among other things, one older mother’s lifetime of bigotry can be cured by half an afternoon spent with a mixed-race child.

The major players in this movie of intertwined story lines include Kate Hudson as a daughter and mom addicted to secrets; Jennifer Aniston as a frazzled divorced mom super-irritated by her ex, played by Timothy Olyphant (who’s clearly dying to star in a biopic of Billy Bob Thornton); Julia Roberts as a high-powered childless career woman; and Britt Robertson as a young single mom who’s loath to marry her winsome British boyfriend because of her ambivalence about having been adopted. You will guess, immediately, who her mom turns out to be.

The movie, a goopy, glossy mess with 10 times more respect for contrived sentimentality than for film grammar, is bereft of genuinely amusing jokes. Which is not to say the film lacks entertainment value. There’s unusual imagery, in the form of Roberts’s recycled wig. (Perhaps she had hoped to pass for a Julia Roberts impersonator.) There’s suspense, as when Jason Sudeikis, playing a single dad, sings The Humpty Dance for a roomful of children, and you wonder if he’ll make it to the line "I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom." And there are laughs, albeit inadvertent; the biggest comes courtesy of the production’s no-doubt overworked sound department, when Robertson utters "I have abandonment issues" without moving her mouth.

Other releases this week

April and the Extraordinary World ***½ An all-too-rare example of steampunk done right — which also acknowledges that, however pretty industrial imagery might seem from afar, actually living in such a world would be kind of horrible.

Marguerite *** Writer-director Xavier Giannoli offers up an amusingly entertaining portrait of fortune, infamy and severe melodic dysfunction in this polished French period dramedy.

Last Days in the Desert **½ At times a beautiful wandering, at other times an admirable character study, but rarely a powerful whole.

The American Side **½ While it may not quite achieve the classic thriller tone to which it aspires, the film does create an enjoyably hard-boiled world.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me **½ The restrained performances and luscious location photography are enough to make this a film worth renting or streaming, though it might not be a bad idea to down a few caffeine-rich drinks before settling in to watch.

Difret **½ Quietly compelling, but lacks finesse in its characterization and dogged denunciation of the Ethiopian justice system.

Sea Fog **½ This directing debut by Shim Sung-bo offers a cynical vision of human nature, but the characters lack dimensionality and psychological depth.

The Trust ** Nicolas Cage supplies a stream of tension-defusing laughs while the script steadily applies the screws, but this disposable exercise in comic nihilism offers only a modest payoff at best.

The First Monday in May ** This documentary gathers together some of the most influential and radical contemporary figures in fashion, offers a comprehensive view into the creation of a groundbreaking fashion exhibition, and profiles one of the most exclusive figures in the world. And yet, somehow it all feels incredibly familiar.

High Strung In the end, you'll either succumb to the silliness of it all and cheer the hero on to his green card or, more likely, be in desperate need of your own exit visa.

Puerto Ricans in Paris Luis Guzmán and Edgar Garcia give the project much more than it ever gives them, sustaining viewer interest and generating mild amusement more or less through sheer force of will as they amble through a threadbare plot.

Dough The challah may be extra special, but the humor found in John Goldschmidt's direction and the conventional script by Yehudah Jez Freedman and Jonathan Benson is disappointingly stale.

Manhattan Night Adrien Brody does his sturdiest work in years as the morally compromised Porter, and Yvonne Strahovski makes for a fittingly seductive temptress with ambiguous motives. The film's pedestrian style and affected atmosphere, however, make it a routine descent into the black heart of a city and its shady inhabitants.

Lazer Team The comedy is sophomoric and sort-of spoofy; satire happens here and there.

Meet the Blacks ½* Even by the standards of raunchy, comic spoofs, director and co-writer Deon Taylor’s film feels especially scattered.

Septembers of Shiraz (no stars) Another vacuous melodrama/thriller that doesn’t lay a glove on the era’s historical complexities.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
(no stars) Abysmal