Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Ohio State 3-0 (2)
2.  Alabama 4-0 (1)
3.  Michigan 4-0 (4)
4.  Clemson 4-0 (7)
5.  Stanford 3-0 (3)
6.  Louisville 4-0 (6)
7.  Houston 4-0 (5)
8.  Texas A&M 4-0 (8)
9.  Tennessee 4-0 (9)
10. Wisconsin 4-0 (14)
11. Florida State 3-1 (16)
12. Washington 4-0 (12)
13. Nebraska 4-0 (18)
14. Baylor 4-0 (11)
15. Miami, Fla. 3-0 (17)
16. Mississippi 2-2 (22)
17. Boise State 3-0 (21)
18. West Virginia 3-0 (NR)
19. Arkansas 3-1 (10)
20. Virginia Tech 3-1 (NR)
21. Utah 4-0 (24)
22. Oklahoma 1-2 (15)
23. Western Michigan 4-0 (NR)
24. Florida 3-1 (23)
25. TCU 3-1 (NR)
Dropped out: Michigan State, LSU, Georgia, North Carolina

An idea to produce a meaningful presidential candidate debate

If I were the emperor of the world — in charge of all things regarding presidential candidate debates — here are the simple rules I would have for my debates:

1. The moderators will ask the candidates questions on a variety of topics designed to get them to speak specifically about what actions they will take to make the world a better place four years from now.

2. Candidates will be forbidden to mention their opponents. If they try, they will be cut off.

It would also be interesting to have the audience be comprised of undecided voters wired to determine their responses — favorable and unfavorable — to the various pronouncements  from the candidates.

Monday, September 26, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½

Hunt for the Wilderpeople takes a troika of familiar story types — the plucky kid, the crusty geezer, the nurturing bosom — and strips them of cliché. Charming and funny, it is a drama masquerading as a comedy about an unloved boy whom nobody wants until someone says, Yes, I’ll love him. Much of the humor comes from the child, who’s at once a pip and a gloriously expressive ambassador for the director Taika Waititi’s cleareyed take on human nature and movies. Waititi knows that we love to cry at sad and bad times, but he also knows that people in pain need to get on with their lives.

The story centers on the soon-to-be 13-year-old Ricky (the irresistible Julian Dennison), a New Zealand foster child who, as the movie opens, is being placed with an older couple who live in a pastoral clearing at the edge of the bush. Ricky rapidly bonds with the woman, who goes by Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata as the nurturer), but he’s kept at arm’s length by her gruff, taciturn husband, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill, perfect as the house geezer). Like hippies time forgot, Bella and Hec live off the land and its bounty, including boar and the possums that she skins one handful of fur at a time.

Waititi works fast, setting a bright, light comic mood that owes something to Wes Anderson but is organically his own. Waititi started out in comedy, shifting to movie directing more than a decade ago with little evident strain. His first features (Boy, Eagle vs. Shark) are imperfect, but also unmistakably of an auteurist piece with strongly defined characters, a deep sense of place and a humorously deadpan view of life’s absurdities. They’re also very sweet. More recently, he and his longtime friend, the comic Jemaine Clement, another New Zealander, directed What We Do in the Shadows, a cheerfully silly mockumentary about vampires living as roommates.

The comedy in Wilderpeople is quieter than in Waititi’s earlier movies, which strengthens the story’s realism. Ricky is a funny kid. He’s amusing to look at, for one thing, what with his fish-out-of-water hip-hop threads, and has a gift for bolts from the blue, like the bad-boy haikus he creates (and recites) as part of his therapeutic training. As a child of social services, he throws words like "processing" around, though Waititi is careful when it comes to Ricky’s history, which is scattered piecemeal throughout. Tragedy touches the characters in Wilderpeople, but it doesn’t define them and they’re not into sharing, caring and closure like their American counterparts.

Sorrow descends on Wilderpeople soon after it opens, leaving Uncle Hec and Ricky first unmoored and then on the run in the bush, where they’re chased by a social services zealot, Paula (Rachel House), and her minion, Andy (Oscar Kightley). Waititi likes to play with types of comedy, but he’s partial to modest exaggeration, whether he’s putting the joke across with slapstick, songs, caricature, lovingly deployed insults or a flurry of tableaulike images. All the characters are funny and idiosyncratic, but because they make you laugh in different ways they also register — with the pointed exception of the cartoonish Paula and Andy — as real people rather than as contrivances.

Drawn in crayon by Waititi, Paula and Andy are burlesques of bureaucratic incompetency. There’s an obvious political dimension to Paula’s fanatical, overblown crusade to flush Ricky and Uncle Hec out of the bush, but her mania is mostly just another clown car that Waititi enjoys taking out for a spin. For the most part, Waititi’s politics are as matter of fact as his humor and expressed through his gritty, singular characters, some of whom happen to be white, others of whom happen to be Maori. (Waititi also wrote the movie, adapting it from the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, a best-selling author and self-styled bushman.)

Waititi’s expansive sense of human beings in Hunt for the Wilderpeople allows his characters to endure loss and hardship without forcing them to be wholly limited by their suffering, as marginalized people too often are in fiction. They’re romantic and pragmatic, eccentric and utterly ordinary. They’re also reasonably flawed, as is this movie, but Waititi transcends most of the narrative bumps and generally dodges the obvious land mines, including cuteness. He’s still finding his way, but he’s already a director who — as he does in a shot of a friendly, undefeated child pausing to wave at a pursuer — can distill a worldview into a single, perfect cinematic moment.

The Shallows **
There’s too much shark in The Shallows. It swims circles around actress Blake Lively, follows surfers in crashing waves and makes its complicated sharkly decisions in anticipation of human moves. By the end, you’ll be convinced that this predator fish could play a game of chess, or at least Clue.

The Shallows is a very earnest woman-versus-shark film. It delivers the requisite thrills, including a surprisingly satisfying resolution. The heroine is capable, and the writers, who trap her on a rock for half the film, find ways to make her situation seem interesting.

But the most important parts, the ones involving the shark, don’t feel genuine. The shark in Jaws was scary because of what we didn’t know. This shark acts like a horror movie villain, as predictably relentless as Jason in a Friday the 13th sequel.

There’s that word again — Jaws. Just as every San Francisco 49ers quarterback will always be unfairly compared to Joe Montana, every shark film forever swims in the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 epic horror/thriller/drama. The makers of The Shallows seem aware of this, and they strip the film down to the marrow. Medical student Nancy (Lively) gets a ride to a remote beach in Mexico, after her party-obsessed companion bails on her at the last minute. She’s attacked by a great white shark the size of a Ford Taurus station wagon and finds safety on a temporarily exposed small rock. But the tide is coming back in. …
Here are a few things that feel genuine in The Shallows.

Our hero is scared: The screenwriters do Lively very few favors, with some awkward Tom Hanks-in-Cast Away exposition-heavy monologues. ("Got to get some blood flowing. Let’s loosen this tourniquet …") There’s a completely unnecessary and unbelievable subplot about quitting medical school. But, working alone in most scenes, Lively sells the terror of the situation.

Mexico is an OK place: The filmmakers finish one drunk, overweight Mexican away from a film 100 percent free of stereotypes. Grading on a curve with other Hollywood films set in Mexico, they get at least a B-plus. Nice job.

It’s a bad idea to surf alone: Even if this were the worst shark film ever made, it would serve as a solid 87-minute public service announcement on the dangers of getting in the ocean without a companion.

Our hero has the world’s worst best friend: You almost want Lively’s character to die, just so her drunken flake of a travel companion, who can’t overcome her hangover, is guilt-racked for the rest of her life. Power through and get to the beach, Nancy’s friend!

The Shallows is a lean 87 minutes, and it would be closer to 67 minutes if it weren’t for all the slow motion. As the shark displays more human-like thought processes, the script goes for broke with a few scientifically questionable but thoroughly satisfying action scenes. This is not an epic film. But in defense of the filmmakers, they probably weren’t trying to make one.

Central Intelligence **
Truth-in-advertising alert: There’s hardly any intelligence to be found in Central Intelligence. Those glimmers that exist come mostly from Dwayne Johnson, who turns in an enthusiastic and witty performance as a one-time high school nerd who has morphed into a guy who looks like The Rock. The film itself is painless, strained, occasionally amusing, and utterly disposable — just another studio buddy comedy/action movie that forgot where it put the script.

The pairing of Johnson (massive and graceful) and Kevin Hart (sawed-off and yappy) is its own visual joke, of course, one that keeps you watching and hoping things will improve. (They don’t.) A prologue set in 1996 uses impressively creepy CGI techniques to juvenate Hart into a high school senior named Calvin "The Golden Jet" Joyner, god of his graduating class, and Johnson into Robbie Wierdicht, a much-bullied fat kid who Calvin rescues from a moment of prime humiliation.

Fast forward to today, and Calvin has lost his BMOC mojo to become an unhappy low-level accountant, married to high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Robbie reappears in Calvin’s life beefcaked up into Bob Stone, a CIA agent who’s either in danger, gone rogue, or off his rocker. There are mysterious computer codes to be retrieved and assassins to be killed; Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) tries and fails to class up the joint as Stone’s grimly efficient agency handler.

Hardly any of this makes sense, and Rawson Marshall Thurber directs the way he did in Dodgeball and We’re the Millers — gamely but without a whit of skill. (The action sequences are a particular hash.) So why am I maybe recommending Central Intelligence for a night when there’s absolutely nothing else available to watch? Because of Johnson, who plays Stone as an action hero who still looks in the mirror and sees a teenage geek with an unhealthy Sixteen Candles fixation.

Who would have thought back in his pro wrestling days that The Rock would someday become one of our more likably nuanced comic actors? The joke of Johnson’s persona is the deftness with which this human cinderblock moves and the wry sensitivity he gives to his line readings. Bob is capable of dispatching legions of Uzi-wielding assailants but around Calvin, his long-ago high school savior, he reverts into a worshipful puppy. It’s as if Duckie from Pretty in Pink had ended up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body.

By contrast, Hart has little to do but schpritz and shriek, which he does ably and to diminishing returns.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates **
In the inevitably inebriated, sometimes stoned, reliably raw and occasionally bodily-fluid-enhanced annals of gross-out wedding comedies (a list arguably topped by The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Wedding Crashers), Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates rates medium on the grossness scale (an all-body, pre-marital naked-Indian-guru-administered massage for the bride with a happy ending, anyone?) and pretty high in crude talk. But it's kind of a dud when it comes to endurance and imaginative moves. The amusing premise of naughty-boy brothers who troll online for dates to their sister's Hawaiian nuptials, only to end up with two babes far more foul than they, delivers enough raunch to satisfy its intended good-times-seeking audience. Still, the repetitive humor is frat boy-level boorish rather than cosmically anarchic, suggesting a quick box-office cash-in instead of a big long haul for Fox in a summer very short on comedy.

Loosely based on the antics of real-life brothers Mike and Dave Stangle, whose adventures advertising for dates on Craigslist led to TV appearances and a book, this frantic, almost desperately vulgar farce panders to its intended audience by following the simple formula of making sure nearly every sentence features three or four dirty words rather than one or two. For a while, the overkill is somewhat amusing, especially when the gals show up and outdo the guys. But when this is basically the only comic stratagem, you're bound to hit the wall sooner rather than later.

Having ruined previous family events with their antics (helpfully glimpsed in some raucous home videos), Mike (Adam Devine, of Workaholics, Modern Family and the two Pitch Perfect features) and Dave (Zac Efron) are commanded by their elders to get actual dates to accompany them to the upcoming wedding of their squeaky-voiced sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard).

Despite their ad going viral and attracting 6,000 responses, the boys end up with two young ladies of genuinely bottomless vulgarity, classlessness and lack of self-esteem. However, the almost permanently sloshed Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) can still recognize a gravy train when they see one and they manage to climb on board without, for once, getting prone even before the double "date" is underway.

"Being a nice girl is hard," complains Alice, who's still reeling after having been jilted at her wedding. But she and born hard-ass Tatiana have agreed not to capitulate before Jeanie's wedding, so you can just about feel screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien (former Judd Apatow cohorts, best known for the two Neighbors features) scouring around trying to figure out what their boys and girls can do to create mayhem without doing the nasty.

The foursome's first outing is a wild ATV ride across the Hawaiian landscape where the dinosaurs first appeared in the original Jurassic Park, except there are no reptiles this time, only heedless nutjobs on wheels. Then comes Jeanie's deluxe massage, followed by a provocative steam room encounter in which Mike and Dave's butch cousin Terry (Alice Wetterlund, very good) takes great pleasure in getting somewhere with Tatiana before Mike does.

But what fizz there is goes flat after about an hour, as TV comedy director Jake Szymanski, on his debut feature, desperately tries to keep a few laughs coming while navigating toward a resolution without getting too pat or sappy. A thankless task it was.

Although both the guys are very vigorously vulgar, Efron has little choice but to play the straight man to Devine's hyperactive stooge; the latter never lets up with his shameless gall, giving Jerry Lewis a run for his money when it comes to making faces. Kendrick and Plaza are somewhat better company, if only because their characters' extremism is initially more surprising and both have more cards to play as performers.

The fancy resort settings notwithstanding, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates has a very cheap look and it doesn't take long to realize that, if Hawaii is to be the cinematic vacation destination, seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall again would have provided a far better time.

The Neon Demon **
Enduring as All About Eve has proven with its musings on stardom, there’s nothing about the jealousy-fueled ruthlessness on display that flat-out makes us gasp. The same is true of, say, Showgirls, unless we’re talking about the awful dialogue. Then there’s The Neon Demon, from director Nicolas Winding Refn (Ryan Gosling’s Drive and Only God Forgives). It’s debatable whether the Danish provocateur is telling us anything new about the fame game — or telling us anything thematically worthwhile, really — with his darkly surreal portrait of LA’s modeling scene. But we do gasp in watching Refn’s visually and viscerally charged exploration of the territory. Actually, retch is more like it — which is precisely what a last-act audience surrogate even cues us to do, as if we needed encouraging.

Elle Fanning is impeccably cast as Jesse, a quiet, sweet-natured ingénue shuttling between sketchy photo shoots and her clichéd newcomer’s digs in a seedy Pasadena motel. Toweling off the blood after one session (don’t ask), she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who part impishly, part sympathetically offers her an intro to the cool crowd. But it takes just minutes for Jesse to run innocently afoul of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), played-out 20-something models as viciously catty as they are statuesquely blond.

Jesse’s tentative navigation of her cold yet seductive new world is hypnotically rendered by Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier. An enigmatic fashion photographer (Desmond Harrington) simultaneously objectifies and exalts her with gold body paint. A cruelly detached designer (Alessandro Nivola), amusingly gulping at the sight of her, taps her to close his otherworldly runway show over humiliated, dehumanized Sarah. To keep the aesthetic from getting too far out there, we also get an earnest beauty shot of Jesse girlishly balancing on a moonlit overlook and, somewhat less beautifully, scenes with Keanu Reeves as the motel’s entertainingly sociopathic manager.

It’s tonally strange, mesmerizing stuff — and about as narratively eventful as a supermodel holding a cover pose. That is, until the final act, as Refn goes wild with the star factory’s propensity for devouring It Girls. Fanning’s character takes a hard turn, Malone reminds us that she’s forever been OK with playing disturbing (remember Bastard Out of Carolina?), and Heathcote and Lee make Malone’s transgressions seem almost tame. After all the earlier trippy languor, Refn suddenly pushes hard to make this a unique statement. Which it is — uniquely repellent.

Warcraft *
Warcraft, the film adaptation of the 1994 Blizzard Entertainment computer game that spawned several sequels (including the massive hit World of Warcraft), throws so many realms and characters at you in its first 15 minutes — Azeroth, Draenor, Gul’dan, Durotan — even George R.R. Martin would beg for mercy.

Here’s the thing, though: The moment you stop trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who, the movie becomes easy to follow, because all the fancy names and references are just window dressing on a plot so simple it could pass for a children’s book. Devoted Warcraft fans will take pleasure in seeing this dense, beloved universe brought to life via the most impressive motion-capture effects since Avatar. The orcs, a race of towering, mostly green-skinned brutes who sport gnarly tusks and wield huge war hammers, have such expressive eyes and faces you buy them as real creatures (the two main orcs are played by Toby Kebbell and Clancy Brown).

They’re so impressive, they highlight how bad the performances by their human co-stars are. Director Duncan Jones, who previously made the minimalist sci-fi drama Moon and the time-travel mind bender Source Code, seems to have been in over his head at the reins of this massive, $160 million production. He has devoted so much attention to the technical aspects of the film — some of the orcs sport bling and piercings on their tusks — that he didn’t notice how badly his human cast was flailing.

The people in Warcraft are all standard fantasy-genre types — the dutiful warrior (Travis Fimmel), the benevolent king (Dominic Cooper), the ornamental queen (Ruth Negga), the powerful wizard (Ben Foster), the studious apprentice (Ben Schnetzer) — without any distinguishing characteristics. The actors, who spent much of their time on the set acting opposite green screens, seem bored and more than a little bewildered (with the exception of Foster, whose odd, drunk performance is out of place and strangely comical, like Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau).

Paula Patton plays the most intriguing character, a half-orc who fights on the side of the humans as they try to prevent the orcs from invading their world via a magical portal. But the script, co-written by Jones and Charles Leavitt, is filled with so much deadly dialogue no actor could save it: "In my entire life, I have never felt so much pain as I do now!" or "If love is what you need, you must be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find it!" Glenn Close pops up in a cameo, mostly to deliver the ominous warning "No one can stand against the darkness … alone." And so on.

Warcraft isn’t a flat-out disaster like Battlefield Earth or David Lynch’s Dune: The movie contains some impressive setpieces, such as a surprise forest ambush by the orcs, and the film wisely spends more time exploring the cultural and political ideologies of the monsters (who are not all evil) than it does hanging around the dull king and his court. The orcs have a great physicality to them — when they swing their giant hammers, you can feel their weight — and the climax piles so many cliffhangers on top of each other that you can’t resist a smile: The movie may not work, but it certainly tries hard. (I did wish Jones had thrown in a scene showing the orcs, with those gnarly teeth, eating dinner; their army is so big, they’d need an entire ranch of cattle to get through a single week).

Warcraft would be easy to relegate to the bargain bin of 1980s B-grade guilty-pleasure fantasy pictures such as Krull or Yor, the Hunter from the Future, except that the game’s popularity guarantees a healthy international box office haul (it grossed $46 million in China in one day alone), and the entire movie is structured as the opening chapter of a much longer saga. The story doesn’t end so much as stop, leaving enough plot threads dangling for at least two sequels. The Warcraft hardcore can rejoice. Everyone else can move along. There’s not much to see here.

Other new DVD releases this week
The Innocents *** Veteran French director Anne Fontaine approaches a spiritually and emotionally complex real-life slice of history with deftness and understated drama.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words *** A fascinating and compelling dive into an artist’s uniquely ticking parts, gives voice to a complex dude and broadens the picture.
City of Gold *** At a moment when public discourse seems so often focused on exacerbating hostile divisions, this documentary’s joyful embrace of human (as well as edible) variety as "the spice of life" seems particularly, well, filling.
Cell * Dated, despondent and pretty much a disaster, this film plays like a series of nods to other science fiction-horror hybrids, notably The Matrix (1999) and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 3-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 3-0 (2)
3.  Stanford 2-0 (5)
4.  Houston 3-0 (7)
5.  Michigan 3-0 (6)
6.  Louisville 3-0 (12)
7.  Clemson 3-0 (4)
8.  Tennessee 3-0 (8)
9.  Texas A&M 3-0 (18)
10. Arkansas 3-0 (16)
11. Baylor 3-0 (13)
12. Michigan State 2-0 (19)
13. Washington 3-0 (11)
14. Wisconsin 3-0 (9)
15. Oklahoma 1-2 (10)
16. Florida State 2-1 (3)
17. Miami, Fla. 3-0 (NR)
18. Nebraska 3-0 (NR)
19. LSU 2-1 (14)
20. Georgia 3-0 (21)
21. Mississippi 1-2 (17)
22. Boise State 2-0 (NR)
23. Utah 3-0 (25)
24. North Carolina 2-1 (23)
25. Florida 3-0 (24)
Dropped out: Iowa, Notre Dame, Oregon

Monday, September 19, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising **

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has too many talented people involved in it for it not to be at least a little bit funny. But that’s all it is, a little bit funny. Over the course of its hour and a half running time, it inspires maybe three loud guffaws, a few modest chortles, a subsonic chuckle and a handful of silent smiles. That’s not enough to make it a worthy — or even worth-making — sequel to the 2014 comedy Neighbors.

The movie’s problems are peculiar because they almost seem contradictory. On the one hand, the set-up is so obvious, so designed to re-create the dynamics of the original movie, that it seems either a purely cynical exercise or so blatant a cynical exercise that it qualifies as a bold comic gesture: In the previous film, a newly married couple had to contend with a fraternity moving in next door; this time, a sorority takes over the same house.

The jokes are as coarse as the strategy is deliberate. As the movie begins, we see the young married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) having sex, and then she throws up on him. Actually, it’s one of the best laughs in the movie, as well as a cautionary example. Had she been on the bottom, she might have died from aspiration, and that wouldn’t have been funny.

Yet for all the movie’s boldness, its coarseness, its in-your-faceness, Neighbors 2 is constrained by political correctness. The sorority is at least as bad as the fraternity ever was, but, because the couple is fighting girls, the movie has less fun with it. The girls act like villains, but the screenplay is unwilling to present them unsympathetically. The upshot is that Neighbors 2 is mostly unpleasant without being funny or ultimately satisfying.

The screenplay ties itself into a knot from the start, when it presents the founding of the nasty sorority as a feminist event. Young Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is disheartened to find out that sororities, under national Greek rules, can’t throw parties. She is further disillusioned when she attends a frat party and finds the experience sexist and degrading. And so she joins forces with three new friends to establish a new sorority, independent of the Greek system.

In the new sorority, they throw parties that are just as loud and lewd and awful as the frat parties, though the movie expects us to recognize a difference that isn’t there. In any case, the parties are a source of misery to next-door neighbors Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne), who don’t realize that what’s keeping them up at night isn’t mere raucousness, selfishness and noise but burgeoning feminist assertion. Meanwhile, the movie makes it plain that this is coming at the worst possible time for the couple: They’ve bought a new house and need to sell the old one, which they’re currently occupying. But the sorority has made their property unsellable.

In Neighbors, the culprits were young men, and so director Nicholas Stoller and the screenwriters felt at liberty to present them as slobs — not evil, but ridiculous. By treating the sorority sisters of Neighbors 2 with kid gloves, they rob them of humor and, inadvertently, make them more culpable (and therefore more dislikable) with every awful thing they do. They’re just not funny. And neither is Zac Efron as Teddy, who was the fraternity leader last time and here is presented as pathetic and needy.

Yet even with so-so material, Rogen is funny, and so is Byrne, whose comic facility was the revelation of the first Neighbors. But they’re so sympathetic that there’s little joy in witnessing their victimhood.

Free State of Jones **
A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. As if afraid to offend anyone or put a wrong foot in an era of racial hypersensitivity, writer-director Gary Ross tiptoes as if through a minefield in relating the fascinating tale of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who had the temerity to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of a growing number of renegade slaves. Serious and upfront films about slavery have been scarce enough through the decades that it's notable to have at least two of them in 2016, this one and Nate Parker's impactful but also problematic Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation, set for theatrical release on Oct. 7 and bound to be the bigger audience-pleaser.

Returning to action four years after making the first Hunger Games installment, Ross opens well with sobering scenes of Civil War carnage, as Confederate troops are systematically mowed down while being marched directly into Union lines of fire. Ross underlines the butchery with dialogue footnotes about Dixie's class divide, as the poor do the fighting on behalf of rich landowners, who are exempt from military service if they own at least 20 slaves.

There could scarcely be a more sympathetic member of the Confederacy than Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic who's both anti-secession and anti-slavery; he's a reb by geographic happenstance alone. The quick death of a youngster he's taken under his wing is the last straw for the aging farmboy, who deserts and, back home, tries to protect his wife Serena (Keri Russell) from the illegal confiscation of most of their possessions; she soon sees no choice but to flee. More provocations send Newt fleeing to an impenetrable swamp where, in league with a small band of escaped slaves, he begins his career as a maverick marauder against his increasingly beleaguered Southern brethren.

In its sober and considered way, the film is absorbing at first, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of the war. Americans fighting Americans delivers a sharp sting, and Ross succeeds in establishing a thoughtful, non-sensationalistic tone as he lays the foundations for Newt's unintended career as a leader of disenfranchised men.

Twenty-five minutes in, the focus abruptly shifts to a courthouse scene in the late 1940s, in which a Caucasian-looking man is seemingly being accused of being part-black and, therefore, vulnerable to charges of miscegenation. Some sort of related link to the Civil War story is clearly in the offing.

In a gradual, Seven Samurai-like manner, Newt builds a belief in his hitherto subservient and downcast new allies that they can strike back against their longtime tormentors. "Nobody done nothin' like that for them before," remarks Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave at a nearby plantation who ends up doing many favors for the renegades and eventually becomes Newt's common-law wife. The first order of business is getting a dreadful iron necklace with upward-pointing spears removed from Moses (Mahershala Ali), the clear leader among the "collective." The second is for Newt to teach them all how to shoot; they learn very quickly.

But just as the film seems like it's about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.

Still, Ross is more attentive to what is historically known of Newt Knight and his times than to the imperatives of good drama; the veteran screenwriter has neglected to write any interesting or emotional scenes between Newt and Rachel, dialogue is devoted far more to issues than to quotidian banter and the Reconstruction-era scenes jump from one increasingly negative historical moment to the next. The Ku Klux Klan is born, plantations are restored to their former owners, apprenticeship becomes a euphemism for slavery, voting rights for blacks are squelched and "emancipation" is a term that must be enclosed within qualifying quotation marks. As the characters recede, the final stretch becomes a checklist of setbacks for racial fairness and equality, a build-up that concludes with a consequent outrage in the resolution of the 1940s court case.

Well before it's over, then, Free State of Jones (which never really does satisfactorily address the issue of the three relevant Mississippi counties ever having been declared a "state") has devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments. Despite endowing Newt with a right-amiable manner and an easy way with speechifying, McConaughey doesn't get the opportunity to create a fully dimensional man — he's given precious few intimate moments and no flashes of self-doubt. Ali is charismatic and his character's arc is the most eventful and tragic, but Mbatha-Raw is given little opportunity to flash the talent she's suggested previously.

Shot entirely in Louisiana, the film benefits from its lush rural locations and the lived-and-died-in look of its sets and costumes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows *½
In 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the title characters, on meeting the journalist April O’Neil, comment with aggressive enthusiasm on her good looks. They subsequently learn that April cared for them when they were just regular turtles, and, hence, is kind of like a big sister. At that point, a viewer might expect the fellows to stop hitting on her, but this reboot of the whimsical superhero franchise is partially produced by Michael Bay, so, no.

In the new movie, April, played again by the attractive, pouty Megan Fox, does not hesitate, in the first 10 minutes, to use her sexuality to extract data from two men. She even concocts a sort of schoolgirl outfit to get close to a target. Apparently, the one note that today’s studio executives will not give to filmmakers is, "Think of the children."

Out of the Shadows finds the named-for-Renaissance-artists protagonists contending with both an apocalyptic villain from another dimension and an existential crisis (that is, what does it mean to be normal when you are a mutated superpowered turtle?). This movie is, it happens, easier to sit through than the 2014 film. The action, overseen by the director Dave Green, is not wholly incoherent. The production values (showcasing new mutants and many gear-heavy extra-dimensional machines undreamed of in any actual engineering philosophy) are ultrashiny. And there are even a couple of amusing, albeit unmemorable, sight gags and one-liners.

Will Arnett is back, and game, as April’s unctuous former colleague. Newbies include an amiable Stephen Amell as a hockey-stick-wielding good guy, Tyler Perry as a mad scientist and the great Laura Linney, who plays a police captain, and sometimes smirks as if enjoying a joke nobody in the audience has been let in on, at least not explicitly.

Other new DVD releases this week:
Under the Sun ***½ The truths revealed in this film have more to do with the North Korean government’s self-consciousness about how they’re perceived by foreigners. Here, they seem desperate to appear productive, congenial, devoted, and above all, happy.
Sunday Ball ***½ Captured more for poetry than for clarity, the topography of penalties and free kicks can be impossible to follow. But Léo Bittencourt’s photography has flash and flair, and hardscrabble determination on a real-life field of dreams has a narrative all its own.
Collidng Dreams *** Directed from the center-left with an ear to parties on both sides of the West Bank separation barrier, it’s knowledgeable and unhysterical, openhearted without seeming naïve. Those on the extremes will probably hate it.
Wedding Doll **½ Nitzan Gilady, a documentarian making his fiction feature debut as a writer and director, over-stacks the deck with this belabored if artfully shot story.
The Blackout ExperimentsNeither scary nor shocking.
Pele: Birth of a Legend * Who knows what the could have been had it tapped more into that mysterious life force and the true messiness in harnessing it and making it glorious. Instead we get what the man himself was canny enough to ignore: a familiar game plan tediously followed.
ma ma * Julio Medem’s film is a smiling-through-tears saga whose generally tasteful execution can’t ultimately salvage a whopping load of maudlin contrivance, all designed to burnish the halo around Penelope Cruz.
Sacrifice ½* A unique kind of very bad movie. The spectacle of this misbegotten thriller is not amusing enough to recommend to fans of casual movie cheesiness, but it’s the filmmaking choices that made me laugh out loud.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 2-0 (1)
2.  Ohio State 2-0 (2)
3.  Florida State 2-0 (4)
4.  Clemson 2-0 (3)
5.  Stanford 1-0 (5)
6.  Michigan 2-0 (6)
7.  Houston 2-0 (7)
8.  Tennessee 2-0 (10)
9.  Wisconsin 2-0 (12)
10. Oklahoma 1-1 (8)
11. Washington 2-0 (16)
12. Louisville 2-0 (20)
13. Baylor 2-0 (11)
14. LSU 1-1 (15)
15. Arkansas 2-0 (24)
16. Iowa 2-0 (19)
17. Michigan State 1-0 (18)
18. Mississippi 1-1 (14)
19. Texas A&M 2-0 (21)
20. Notre Dame 1-1 (25)
21. Georgia 2-0 (9)
22. Oregon 2-0 (22)
23. North Carolina 1-1 (NR)
24. Florida 2-0 (NR)
25. Utah 2-0 (23)
Dropped out: TCU, Oklahoma State

Monday, September 12, 2016

This week's DVD releases

De Palma ***½

De Palma begins with Hitchcock, which is only right.

There hasn't been a contemporary director more indebted to and influenced by the Master — and happy to acknowledge it — than Brian De Palma. And so, this immersive and illuminating documentary about the man who made Carrie and Blow Out, The Untouchables and Scarface, begins with a scene from Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Technicolor dream of sexual fantasy, fetishes, and mystery.

Which is precisely the stuff many of De Palma's own titles trade in (Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, to name a few).

De Palma, a big bear of a man, is 75 now. His age is addressed in the movie — he addresses it himself, allowing how directors historically do their best work in their 40s and 50s. (Is he making excuses for his later, arguably wobblier work?)

Seated before the camera, De Palma goes through his career, chronologically, from his early days in New York shooting with a fresh-faced gang (including a ridiculously boyish Robert De Niro) to his move to Hollywood and the team of "rebels" he joined in the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg.

And onward, into the '80s, the '90s, and the '00s. There are blockbusters and bombs and a seminal music video — Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark — as well.

De Palma, co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is awash in great clips: a few more from Hitchcock, from Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut — but mostly, of course, De Palma's own, and they are killer, in more ways than one. And if the subject of this must-see documentary didn't say so himself, it quickly becomes obvious: This is a man who thinks visually, who constructs a scene before he constructs the characters in it.

A giddy maestro of mayhem, De Palma offers commentary on some signature work: the train station shootout in The Untouchables, the shocking locker-room bullying of Carrie, the creepy cross-dressing carnage of Dressed to Kill.

It's great to hear a director talking candidly about the actors he's worked with, dishing out good, juicy stuff (about De Niro, about his Carrie ingenue, Sissy Spacek) and bad, juicy stuff (about Cliff Robertson, all wrong in Obsession, and an unhappy Sean Connery in The Untouchables), and just strange, juicy stuff (Sean Penn's serious goading of costar Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War).

And that criticism about De Palma's misogyny? About the way his cameras linger on, and leer at, the beautiful women he casts? About the violence he subjects them to?

He dismisses the charges with an I-am-what-I-am shrug.

One movie De Palma hasn't made, but maybe should: a thriller about a kid who suspects his highly regarded orthopedic surgeon dad of having an affair, following him to the trysting place, where he finds his father with another woman. That's a story the director tells in De Palma. He was a boy on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a student at Friends' Central, his father a teacher and doctor at Thomas Jefferson University.

His father, too, traded in blood. Real blood. The blood in De Palma's movies is fake, of course — but he's made the most of it.

Captain America: Civil War ***

Hubble's Law of the expanding universe? Ha! That's nothing compared to Disney's Law of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With every new installment of the comic book franchise, the scale gets bigger, relationships get trickier, new forces enter the fray. In Captain America: Civil War, the 13th title in Disney and Marvel's systematic plan for global domination, a dozen superheroes come and go, lining up on either side of a tumultuous ideological dispute.

This may be the first film since Avatar that truly necessitates viewing in a gargantuan format: On a plain old normal-size TV screen all these superhumans could get lost in the crowd, and in the accelerated blur of action, mayhem, and snappy quipping.

In Captain America: Civil War, the superdudes' (and dudettes') crisis of identity, of purpose, begins with an earnest attempt on the part of a squad of Avengers — Steve Rogers' Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff's Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson's Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda Maximoff's Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — to thwart a plan to steal biological weapons from a lab in Lagos.

Poor Wanda, still struggling to master her hex powers (lots of waving of hands and wrinkling of forehead), and lacking a cool costume like her peers, wields more hex than she should, resulting in the death of 11 innocent people.

When news — and news footage — of the calamitous combat is broadcast around the world, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt with a mustache) convenes a meeting at Avengers HQ back in New York.

Are you heroes or vigilantes? he asks Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Captain, and the crew, informing them that 117 countries have agreed to sign "the Sokovia Accords," which will establish a governing body to monitor — and approve the missions of — the superheroes. No more pro-active interventions.

And, in theory, no more collateral damage.

Stark and Romanoff agree to go along with the plan, Rogers and his pals don't like it. It's Team Cap v Team Iron Man — let the games begin.

This issue — well-meaning mighty saviors of mankind, or rogue players wreaking havoc? — has long been at the heart of the comic book world. It's a debate that the X-Men have had to contend with and that provided the motive and momentum behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you want to get hifalutin about it, it's also an issue that's been running through the presidential campaigns: Should the U.S. act unilaterally in conflicts and crises overseas, or should some group like the United Nations determine when and what actions are necessary?

But let's not get hifalutin. Instead, let's go looking for an uber-baddie with a German accent, which is who we'll find pulling the strings in Captain America: Civil War. He is Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a madman bent on destroying the Avengers who uses a series of trigger words ("Longing," "Benign," "Freight train") to unleash the thawed "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) on the world.

Bucky, formerly the Captain's sidekick and one of the so-called "Winter soldiers" who've been hanging out in a cryogenics chamber, has been programmed a la The Manchurian Candidate. The Bucky doesn't stop here — he's everywhere, doing evil stuff.

If you haven't read or watched or heard anything about who shows up in Captain America: Civil War — and if you care — you may want to stop right now and go on to the next review below.

Perhaps the most significant introduction in sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo's all-but-inevitable blockbuster is that of T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, the African superhero who is played by Chadwick Boseman and who is getting his own stand-alone movie, coming in 2018, to be directed by Creed's Ryan Coogler.

A new Spider-Man also rises, although Downey's Iron Man aptly cracks that he should be called Spider-Boy. Young Tom Holland gets the role. His Spider-Man: Homecoming is set for next July.

Oh, and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man shows up, but then he morphs into Giant-Man.

They can do stuff like that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who's going to stop them?

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping **½

Conner4Real, played by Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg, performs many songs in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but my favorite is Humble, in which the chorus is a repeated, "I'm so humble." Conner performs the song with "humble" spelled out in giant letters behind him, and the song includes the refrain, "I say that with no ego!"

Popstar gets to satirize not just music, but also celebrity culture in a way that a movie such as Spinal Tap never could — because, well, the internet and 24-hours news cycle didn't exist in 1984.

But when Popstar has to do more than lampoon the cultural climate — namely, be a movie with a plot — it can't sustain the momentum to keep up what's essentially a one-joke film.

Structured as a mockumentary, Popstar follows Conner, a Justin Bieberesque superstar who's on the verge of releasing his second solo album. He's a white rapper from Sacramento who fakes a hard authenticity by covering himself with tattoos and reveling in his celebrity trappings. He came to fame as a member of the Style Boyz with his buddies (played by Samberg buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who also co-direct). Then he slowly alienates them as he strikes out on his own.

The movie is full of cameos of stars playing themselves. Questlove and Ringo Starr act as talking heads in the faux documentary. Pink sings a song with Conner that's a send-up of Macklemore. The frequency with which these celebs appear and the brevity of their parts could be thought of as a comment on the ephemeral nature of the cultural wash cycle, but they also make for good jokes — and that's really what matters. (Comics Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman, who play actual characters, are among Popstar's high points.)

Samberg produced Popstar, and he cowrote the script with Taccone and Schaffer. The three also work together as the comedy trio Lonely Island. (Those viral digital shorts that SNL used to produce? Those were by the Lonely Island guys.) The humor in Popstar fits squarely into their brand, which can be crude, but also winningly funny.

And that's what Popstar is, half the time — purposefully stupid and gleefully silly. (In a review of Conner's second album, for example, Rolling Stone rates it with a poop emoji, while Pitchfork gives the album a minus-4 out of 10.)

But then Conner learns a lesson about the value of friendship and humility, or something akin to that. That's when Popstar stops being fun and starts to feel as thin as it actually is.

The Conjuring 2 **½

As a filmmaker, James Wan plays to the reptilian brain of his audience, orchestrating such autonomous body functions as heart rate, breath and goosebumps like a maestro. In movies from Saw to Furious 7, and now The Conjuring 2, a sequel to his ghostly 2013 hit, the filmmaker bypasses higher brain function, plugging directly into the peanut-shaped circuit board — buried deep beneath your to-do lists — that makes you jump out of your skin when you hear a loud noise.

If The Conjuring 2 is not quite the achievement of the original (and what sequel is?), it nevertheless manifests a canny understanding of what modern audiences expect from a ghost story, delivering slowly mounting dread, punctuated by alternating bursts of terror and laughter.

Set in 1977 England, and inspired by events that have come to be known as "the Enfield Haunting" (from the North London borough in which they took place), the film centers on a working-class family of five. Single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are terrorized by the ghost of a former occupant of their shabby house, Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), after her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), opens the door to the underworld by messing around with a Ouija board.

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen the spirit-board gimmick used to invite a malevolent entity to pass through the veil between this world and the next. Working from a script Wan co-wrote with The Conjuring sibling screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes and David Johnson (Orphan), the filmmaker demonstrates that he is not averse to reusing dusty old tropes: a creepy mechanical toy, levitation, a seemingly possessed television set — all these cliches and more are trotted out in service of the desired effect, while exhibiting only minimal signs of wear. (One doesn’t fault Brahms for using the same notes as Beethoven, does one? It also should be noted that the real Hodgsons are purported to have triggered their poltergeist attack with an ill-advised Ouija session.)

Other aspects of the story are less faithful, although, to its credit, The Conjuring 2 does include a character (Franka Potente) who exists merely to debunk the Hodgsons’ claims of haunting. Accusations of a hoax have swirled around the Enfield case since the 1970s, and it helps that Wan acknowledges this, inoculating the film — if only a tad — against charges of excessive credulity.

It takes a while for the film’s real stars to show up. After a brief prologue set in Amityville, New York, in 1976 — during an investigation of that infamous haunting by professional ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — the Warrens finally get invited to Enfield. By that point, things have gotten out of hand. Janet seems to be possessed by the spirit of Bill Wilkins, who for unexplained reasons wants the Hodgsons out of "his" house, threatening to kill them— and the Warrens — if they don’t leave.

Of course, if you’ve seen the film’s trailers (or any of Wan’s Insidious films), you already know that there’s more going on here than a poltergeist infestation. One of Wan’s weaknesses is a predilection for demons that borders on religious obsession. To his mind, one measly old ghost is never enough. Where The Conjuring 2 goes off the rails a bit is in its insistence on dredging up a monstrous satanic entity — in a nun’s habit, no less, wearing deranged clown makeup that makes him look like Marcel Marceau on a murder spree — to supplement the level of malevolence generated by Wilkins. Another shortcoming is the story’s inability to clearly differentiate between the world of apparitions and our material one. What ghost, for instance, drops a set of real dentures?

At the same time, The Conjuring 2 satisfies more than it disappoints. As Wan’s story swells to its inevitable, almost operatic crescendo, playfully balancing the hush of your own held breath with the kettle drum of your heart beating against your rib cage, one thing becomes evident: You’re not the viewer for this symphony of terror; you’re the instrument.

Other DVDs to be released this week
The Fits **** This is what independent moviemaking should be and can be in this country. Like its heroine, it’s slight but it’s built to last.
The Measure of a Man *** It’s a small film that touches on large issues: the world of work, and how it defines us. You finish watching it feeling you’ve met someone, and wishing him well.
Standing Tall ** Director Emmanuelle Bercot's setting out to make both a character study of a troubled young man wasting his potential, and an examination of a system trying desperately to do right by its charges, despite the immense difficulties and occasional bureaucratic red tape that tie their hands. It's more successful at the latter than at the former.
MaraudersLays out a scenario in the first 40 minutes or so that, oddly enough, makes you think "this is not an entirely uninteresting premise for a thriller." But after that, things devolve into "this is extremely far-fetched" and, finally, "this is goofy."

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

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Steve Martin in line for acting Oscar nomination

Steve Martin may finally get his long over-due Oscar nomination. While his fellow comedian, the late Robin Williams, not only scored a number of nominations, he actually won an Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting, Martin’s equally fine work largely went ignored by the award-givers. I was really impressed by Martin’s performance in All of Me. If you think back on that film, you probably remember as one where Martin’s co-star, Lily Tomlin, had a lot more screen time than she actually did. That’s because Martin did such a superb acting job channeling Tomlin that it made it seem like she was on screen more than she actually was.

Martin is not favored to win an Oscar this time, but people in the movie business I’ve talked to recently tell me if the deadline for nominations was today, he would be a lock for a best supporting actor nomination for his performance Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

In fact, if the nominations deadline was today, it looks like Manchester By the Sea would be the big winner. Here’s what I understand would be the likely nominees.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
La La Land
Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
The Birth of a Nation

Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Michael Keaton, The Founder
Denzel Washington, Fences


Viola Davis, Fences (probable winner)
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Kyle Chandler, Manchester By the Sea
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Steve Martin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Supporting Actress

Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Aja Naomi King, The Birth of a Nation
Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)


Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea (probable winner)
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Denzel Washington, Fences