Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 3)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis

1. Clemson 3-0 (3)
2. Alabama 3-0 (1)
3. Oklahoma 3-0 (2)
4. USC 3-0 (4)
5. Oklahoma State 3-0 (9)
6. Michigan 3-0 (8)
7. Ohio State 2-1 (6)
8. Penn State 3-0 (5)
9. Wisconsin 3-0 (11)
10. Washington 3-0 (10)
11. Virginia Tech 3-0 (16)
12. Mississippi State 3-0 (NR)
13. Georgia 3-0 (14)
14. TCU 3-0 (23)
15. Washington State 3-0 (22)
16. Florida State 0-1 (12)
17. LSU 2-1 (7)
18. Louisville 2-1 (17)
19. Auburn 2-1 (15)
20. Miami, Fla. 1-0 (20)
21. Colorado 3-0 (19)
22. Minnesota 3-0 (NR)
23. Iowa 3-0 (24)
24. Notre Dame 2-1 (NR)
25. Oregon 3-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Kansas State, Stanford, Tennessee, Utah

Monday, September 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Going in Style"

Just call it "Grumpy Old Crooks." This quasi-remake of a 1979 caper film (which starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg) makes wholesale changes to the structure of its forebear — unfortunately few of them are for the better. An inconsequential but engaging piece of fluff has been turned into a misfire that somehow manages to misuse the talents of its three Oscar winning stars, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin. Although Going in Style’s heist represents a high point and gets props for being suitably clever, it’s swamped by bad melodrama and lame comedy.

The filmmakers aren’t really selling this movie for its story, however — they’re banking on the reputations and charisma of the three stars to pull in at-home viewers who don’t often venture out to multiplexes. As such, Going in Style may likely be a bigger draw on home video. The decision to cast an 83-year old (Caine), an 82-year old (Arkin), and a 79-year old (Freeman) is not playing to the typical theater-going demographic. Throw in Christopher Lloyd (age 78) and Ann-Margret (age 76) and it’s clear director Zach Braff isn’t going for the teenage crowd despite the soft PG-13 rating (the content is borderline PG).

One of the problems with Going in Style is that it takes forever to get going, and when it does, there’s not much style in evidence. The setup is interminable. Half the movie is devoted to introducing the characters, establishing their relationships, and making sure the audience is aware that these are good guys not criminals. They have been screwed over by the system, robbed of their pensions by greedy banks and corrupt corporations, and forgotten by a system that’s supposed to protect them. In the original Going in Style, the main characters were a bunch of aging retirees who just decided to pull a caper. Here, with the weight of so much social wrongdoing and desperation weighing things down, it’s not nearly as much fun. And God forbid the characters (or the script) have even the slightest edge. Theodore Melfi’s screenplay works overtime to make sure that no one could view the three criminals as anything other than burnished heroes.

Another big change from the 1979 film is that certain bittersweet elements have been elided, ensuring that the narrative is as bland and vanilla as imaginable. Director Zach Braff believes that the audience doesn’t want anything even a little challenging. So he makes sure the comedy is tasteful and restrained, the drama is tasteful and restrained, and the characters are tasteful and restrained. It would be a stretch (although not much of one) to call Going in Style "wholesome" but it’s dull and badly in need of an injection of energy.

Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) are three former co-workers and friends. Now retired, they live off modest pensions and spend their free time hanging out. Joe lives with his daughter and granddaughter and Willie and Albert share a house across the street. Things start going bad when Joe learns that the adjustable rate on his mortgage has adjusted and he can no longer pay the monthly bills. The bank is unsympathetic. Then the three men’s previous employer is bought and their pensions are eliminated. Faced with mounting bills and no way to pay them, they decide on an unconventional solution: rob a bank.

Once the crime arrives (nearly an hour into the 96-minute running length), things perk up. The segment in which Joe, Willie, and Albert construct their alibis represents a small bit of cleverness in an otherwise unremarkable wasteland. The intricate choreography of their day, which doesn’t become apparent until after the fact, is the kind of thing that viewers of caper films appreciate and, at least in this aspect, Going in Style doesn’t disappoint. In trying to connect this movie with Ocean’s 11 (the original not the remake), Braff and company stack the deck. During the robbery, the trio wears Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. masks.

It’s a cliché to say that Caine, Freeman, and Arkin are on hand to pick up paychecks but it’s true. These roles could have been filled by no-name mediocre actors except then it wouldn’t have gotten financing or distribution. It’s a boondoggle for the actors — a chance to hang out and do something that requires little exertion. Learn the lines, have fun with each other, and go home at the end of the shoot with a nice little bump to the bank account.

Going in Style is just as much a demographic-oriented product as any superhero or robot sci-fi movie. It’s all about marketing with little concern for whether the core film is any good. This is at best made-for-TV quality with stars too big to allow it to go directly where it belongs.

Available soon for home viewing

47 Meters Down ** Directed by Johannes Roberts. Two sisters on a Mexican vacation are trapped in a shark observation cage at the bottom of the ocean. With oxygen running low and great whites circling nearby, they have less than an hour of air left to figure out how to get to the surface. In the lulls between bouts of yammering, Roberts concentrates on building a solid atmosphere of desperation.

The Devil’s Candy **½ Written and firected by Sean Byrne. A struggling painter is possessed by satanic forces after he and his young family move into their dream home in rural Texas. To enjoy this, one must tolerate slapdash writing and profoundly irritating adult behavior. Yet Byrne somehow whips his ingredients into an improbably taut man-versus-Satan showdown.

Queen of the Desert ½* Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Charts the life of Gertrude Bell, a British adventurer, archaeologist, spy and political attaché who played a key role in reshaping the Middle East after World War I. Ends up being an emotionally empty, thematically ill-defined and listless affair. It is never able to communicate the complexity of the woman at its center.

Transformers: The Last Knight ½* Directed by Michael Bay. Optimus Prime confronts a dead planet and his lone hope of reviving it depends on an artifact that can only be found on Earth. From the very beginning, this is an incoherent mess.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Available for home viewing: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword"

Guy Ritchie is that fun friend whose texts you don’t always return because his energy level is always cranked up to 10, and even when you’re in the mood for him, he still wears you out. His best entertainments are 1990s lad mag confections, chock full of funny, well-dressed, hardboiled men (and a couple of women) who bust each other’s chops when they aren’t joining forces to steal something. They’re the kinds of films you forget exist until you stumble across them and end up watching the whole thing again because the tone is just right — edgy but lighthearted — and never for a moment does the movie pretend that watching it is going to make you a better person. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his two Sherlock Holmes films, Snatch, the bizarre self-help action film Revolver and 2015’s better-than-expected The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are assortments of savory treats presented in the most stylish boxes Ritchie can devise.

But there are times when Ritchie makes his own style the star of the film, crowding out the actors and the story because neither is terribly interesting. The result is an oxymoron: a frenetic slog. That’s unfortunately what happens to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a knowingly anachronistic riff on the legend starring Charlie Hunnam. This version envisions Arthur as a working-class hero with entirely contemporary sensibilities. He was raised in a brothel after his father and mother were murdered by his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern is an unworthy King of England and a pampered sadist who owes a supernatural debt to the Lady of the Lake, envisioned here as a mass of CGI tentacles enfolding three women, one plump and the others slender and curvy.

Ritchie and his cowriters, Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, aren’t interested in historical fidelity because the historical Arthur was a mystery anyway and they’re mainly having fun here. They take Arthur’s childhood trauma seriously (he keeps re-experiencing it in nightmare form, like Bruce Wayne remembering his own parents’ murder by a mugger) but ultimately treat it mainly as the centerpiece for a standard-issue "hero’s journey," one that owes quite a bit to the Star Wars, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings films. When he pulls the sword from the stone, he, we and the baddies all know that he is truly The One; when he grips it with both hands and then swings, the earth trembles and the camera starts whirling in circles around and around CGI Charlie Hunnam and his adversaries, in the manner of a video game with 3-D graphics.

This Arthur wears what looks like a brown leather bomber jacket, sports a 2016 movie star haircut, calls everybody "mate," and makes a big show of not wanting to get involved in politics, much less embrace his destiny. That is, until circumstances require him to round up a crew of hyper-competent misfit outsiders and depose the kind heist-movie style, treating every skirmish and siege as if it were another vault that the Snatch guys were hoping to empty. The future Knights of the Round Table are just as contemporary. They’re a multicultural crew: this film’s Sir George is nicknamed Kung Fu George, tutors Arthur in martial arts, and is played by Hong Kong-born actor Tom Wu; Sir Bedivere is a Moor played by Beninese movie star Djimon Hounsou. And the Anglo actors’ characters get a dusting of Dickensian chimney soot to enhance their rough-and-ready bona fides. The future Sir William (Aiden Gillen), master of the longbow, goes by Goosefat Bill Wilson.

I love all this stuff in theory — it’s not far from what Martin Scorsese did in The Last Temptation of Christ," populating ancient Jerusalem with New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Brits who spoke in their native accents and used modern slang, slicing and dicing the action into music video beats, and scoring the whole thing with Peter Gabriel’s chants and synth beats. The Ritchie sense of style suits a revisionist approach. He’s as slick and easygoing as a rock and roller showman can be, and because the totality of the film is so knowingly absurd — in addition to the slow-motion, acrobatic swordfights, there are gigantic CGI snakes, rats, wolves, and Godzilla-sized Indian elephants — the whole thing feels like a lark even when the characters are being beaten, tortured and executed. There are even moments when Hunnam, not an actor exactly known for his scalawag charm, evokes Errol Flynn’s devil-may-care jerk incarnation of Robin Hood. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s version of Guinevere, a witch whose eyes go black when she summons dark forces, is a fresh variation on the character, though it would’ve been nice if Ritchie had allowed her to crack a few jokes like the boys.

No, the real problem is that the movie is unmodulated from start to finish. It never lets up in the exact way that a cocaine addict who wants to tell you his life story before closing time never lets up. Michael Bay has often been accused of turning in feature length motion pictures so over-edited that they feel like trailers for themselves, but I don’t think Bay has ever made a movie as frantically, pointlessly, tediously busy as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Not content to do that time-tested Guy Ritchie story-about-a-story thing in every other scene of the picture — you know, the bit where a character tells an audience, "And then I sez to him," and the movie cuts to the same character five days earlier saying, "Put down the money, mate!" — the film does it constantly for two hours, dicing dialogue, performances and story points into microscopic narrative particles that disintegrate in the mind.

On one level, you have to admire the skill necessary to tell a story in this manner. You can’t just make a six-hour film and then cut it down to two. You have to think about how every piece, no matter how small or large, will fit with every other piece when the whole narrative is stitched together. But the downside of this strategy is that it doesn’t allow room for any single moment to truly live and breathe, and it’s in such moments that we really get to know a character and care about what happens to them. The emotional heavy lifting that might be done by acting, writing and careful direction is done here in shortcut form by whooshing, tilting, diving camerawork, ominous "whoosh" and "boom" noises on the soundtrack, and other signifiers of awesomeness.

There’s so much narrative and visual motion, such fast cutting, such loud music, and so many rapid shifts of time and place that on those rare occasions when the movie slows down and lets two characters speak to each other, in relative quiet and at length, it feels as if something’s gone wrong with the projection. Ritchie keeps rushing us along for two hours, as if to make absolutely certain that we never have time to absorb any character or moment, much less revel in the glorious, cheeky ridiculousness of the whole thing. The entire movie is an information delivery device with top-dollar production values, forever mistaking getting to the point for the point itself. It’s the legend of King Arthur as told by an auctioneer. I’m not sold.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

My top 25 college football teams

Last week’s rating in parenthesis

1. Alabama 2-0 (1)
2. Oklahoma 2-0 (4)
3. Clemson 3-0 (3)
4. USC 2-0 (6)
5. Penn State 2-0 (9)
6. Ohio State 1-1 (2)
7. LSU 2-0 (5)
8. Michigan 2-0 (8)
9. Oklahoma State 2-0 (12)
10. Washington 2-0 (10)
11. Wisconsin 2-0 (7)
12. Florida State 0-1 (14)
13. Stanford 1-1 (13)
14. Georgia 2-0 (17)
15. Auburn 1-1 (11)
16. Virginia Tech 2-0 (15)
17. Louisville 2-0 (19)
18. Kansas State 2-0 (20)
19. Colorado 2-0 (16)
20. Miami, Fla. 1-0 (21)
21. Tennessee 2-0 (18)
22. Washington State 2-0 (23)
23. TCU 2-0 (NR)
24. Iowa 2-0 (24)
.25. Utah 2-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Florida, Notre Dame

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

The Bad Batch ½* Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. In a desert wasteland in Texas, a muscled cannibal breaks the important rule of not playing with your food. The violence in this movie has neither artistic nor narrative prupose.

The Big Sick ***½ Directed by Michael Showalter. Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family's expectations, and his true feelings. This is a Judd Apatow production and Apatow has a knack for spotting up-and-coming talent and using his considerable influence to help foster it on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights. He’s done this with Lena Dunham (Girls) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), and he’s done it again with Nanjiani.

Certain Women *** Directed by Kelly Reichardt. The lives of three women intersect in small-town America. The subtlety of this film is both an accomplishment and a limitation. It’s hard not to want more for these women, and to wish you could see more of them.

The Hero ** Directed by Brett Haley. An ailing movie star comes to terms with his past and mortality. Sam Elliott is Sam Elliott as Sam Elliott in The Hero, a sentimental and sporadically effective celebration of the veteran character actor.

Wonder Woman *** Directed by Patty Jenkins. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, Diana, an Amazonian warrior in training, leaves home to fight a war. Jenkins and her collaborators have done what I thought was previously impossible: created a Wonder Woman film that is inspiring, blistering, and compassionate, in ways that honor what has made this character an icon.

Available for home viewing: "Raw"

I’m not feeling the love. Raw, the 2016 French/Belgian horror film, has received considerable praise across the international cinematic landscape for its contribution to the genre. However, what Raw offers isn’t so much original as it is a repackaging of select aspects of zombie/vampire lore. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — even the best horror films typically beg, borrow, and steal — the movie’s qualifications are suspect. At times, it seems like a showcase for director Julia Ducournau, an opportunity for her to show off her considerable skills as a filmmaker. Raw is often visually arresting but it fails at a key aspect of basic horror: atmosphere. There’s nothing creepy or remotely scary about this movie. It relies on gross-out scenes to earn the right to be called "disturbing" and seems more interested in delivering schlocky shocks than suffocating the viewer with suspense or dread.

Raw feels unformed — a collage of partially realized ideas and moments that never gel. The movie relies on our inherent revulsion for the consumption of human flesh to keep us from seeing the thinness of the screenplay. When it comes to gore, Ducournau doesn’t skimp — we see scenes of severed fingers being nibbled like mini corn cobbs, brains being sampled, and love bites go beyond the norm. But the characters are incomplete, the scenario is absurd, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Raw feels like a premise in want of a film.

The setup is simple enough: the young protagonist, wunderkind Justine (Garance Marillier), is dropped off at college by her parents. Her school, a prestigious educational establishment for veterinarians, is an ominous-looking place. On her first night, she is subjected to a hazing ritual that culminates in a rave. After enduring her ritual humiliation, Justine encounters her upper classman sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). The next day, as part of the ongoing initiation process, she is required to consume a raw rabbit kidney. As a lifelong vegetarian, she is understandably reluctant but, faced with possible ostracization, she succumbs. This turns out to be a bad move — the consumption of uncooked meat awakens a hunger in her that she can’t control and, when Alexia loses her finger in a freak accident, Justine discovers that family bonds are no barrier to what constitutes food.

To the extent that the movie is about anything other than inappropriate food habits, it focuses on the odd relationship between sisters. As it turns out, that’s about the only aspect of Raw that works. This is partly because of the spot-on performances of Marillier and Rumpf and partly because Ducournau has a better sense of how to handle the human aspects of her characters’ interactions than the unsavory ones. This makes Raw a bizarre outlier — a horror film where the dramatic elements work better than the scary ones.

The pace is slow and the tone is far too serious. There are instances of black humor but, for the most part, Ducournau keeps things somber. Visually, the movie has its share of showy moments. I especially liked the blue+yellow=green exploration of primary colors, and there are a few other arresting images. I never felt as if my stomach was going to rebel, which makes me skeptical about the reports of mass turn-outs (with viewers fleeing for the nearest sink). Yes, Raw peddles blood and gore but, c’mon, we’ve seen worse.

If I was to guess, Raw might be headed for cult classic-dom. It has that sort of feel. As something to watch at home on a normal evening (rather than a midnight screening in the neighborhood theater in about 10 years), it’s a dubious proposition — not bad enough to be interesting and not good enough to be worth paying money for.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

This has nothing to do with a hard rock band

I’m not an engineer so I never really knew, until just recently, there are significant differences between alternating and direct currents (known as AC and DC). I thought they were always considered together as part of the overall fabric making up the blanket I call electricity. As their respective names imply, DC is current that flows in only one direction while AC is a flow of charge that changes direction periodically, which also changes the voltage level.

What I recently learned was that home and office electrical outlets are almost always AC, while most of the electronics plugged into those outlets or that use a USB cable run on DC.

Thomas Edison
What’s more, I didn’t know that the theories behind AC and DC sparked (pardon the pun) an all out battle in the late 19th Century between two American scientific/engineering titans, Thomas Alva Edison, who by 1887 had constructed 121 DC power stations in the United States, and George Westinghouse, who in the following year purchased from none other than Nikola Tesla the patents for AC motors and transmissions. The problem with Edison’s DC at this time was that it could not easily be converted to high voltages. As a result, Edison proposed a system of small, local power plants that would power individual neighborhoods or city sections. Even though the voltage drop across the power lines was accounted for, power plants needed to be located within a mile of the end user. This limitation made power distribution in rural areas extremely difficult, if not impossible.

George Westinghouse
With Tesla’s patents, Westinghouse worked to perfect the AC distribution system. Transformers provided an inexpensive method to step up the voltage of AC to several thousand volts and back down to usable levels. At higher voltages, the same power could be transmitted at a much lower current, which meant less power lost due to resistance in the wires. As a result, large power plants could be located many miles away and service a greater number of people and buildings.

This led to a major battle between Edison and Westinghouse. Edison tried to prove AC was too dangerous for public consumption and he went so far as having his cohorts stage public executions of animals using AC and having two direct employees, Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly, design the first electric chair for the state of New York using AC.

Today, I’m not sure that many people care enough about this historical battle to shell out the bucks to see a movie on this subject, even one with such high-powered acting talent as Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, especially when you consider the educational level of today’s average moviegoer. The filmmakers have come up with a great title for their film, The Current War, in hopes. I’m guessing, to make it seem more relevant while not misleading the public as to the subject of the movie. I have a feeling this could be a very fine film that could very easily and very quickly be nothing more than a dim bulb.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Baywatch"

When it comes to resurrecting defunct TV shows as big-screen events, Hollywood has a less than stellar track record. With only a few exceptions, the results are forgettable and, consequently, forgotten. Despite having a legitimate A-list actor at the top of the marquee, Baywatch isn’t about the change the trend. The waterlogged end product is an example of lazy writing and direction with the vague hope that perhaps the involvement of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson will attract viewers. Regardless of whether Baywatch generates sufficient interest to make it profitable, it represents 2017’s first genuinely awful high-profile box office challenger.

Perhaps the best indicator of what we’re getting with Baywatch could come from examining director Seth Gordon’s track record (at least once he moved past his charming documentary debut, The King of Kong). His one good movie, Horrible Bosses, came out six years ago. He is also responsible for the lackluster Four Christmases and the godawful Identity Thief. The latter has a close kinship with Baywatch, riddled with unfunny humor and pointless, tedious action. Those characteristics define this film and make it, if not unwatchable, a waste of time and money.

It would be foolish to craft a "straight" adaptation of the TV series, which was viewed as cheesy even when it was popular. (Those who watched Baywatch did so for reasons — most of which either jiggled or rhymed with "trough" — other than the writing.) So Gordon and his screenwriters decided to go the 21 Jump Street route of making things openly comedic. However, instead of going for broke and attempting something daring, Baywatch treads water. It adds some raunchy humor that feels desperate and regurgitated, throws in some obvious self-referential gags ("Doesn’t she look like she’s running in slow motion?"), and pulls a lot of punches. Attempts at satire are weak and, although Baywatch frequently pokes fun at itself, the jabs aren’t forceful or vicious.

One key flaw is common in would be action/comedies: too much plot. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the material was compelling but it’s not. It’s a standard order story about a rich villain with megalomaniacal tendencies (the uber-sexy Victoria Leeds, played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) trying to buy all the coastal land to create a private resort. To do that, she’s not above drug dealing, kidnapping, and murder. The Emerald Bay lifeguard corps, led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), and Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), begin an investigation, because that’s what lifeguards do when there’s a dead body on their watch. And, while they’re uncovering Victoria’s dastardly scheme, they’re integrating three new recruits into the team. One is a rolly-polly, athletically challenged geek (Jon Bass), another is a competent, drop-dead gorgeous woman (Alexandra Daddario), and the third is a two-time gold medal winning asshole named Matt Brody (Zac Efron).

In addition to spending an inordinate amount of time on the "investigation" (including by-the-numbers action scenes like a rescue at sea and a speedboat chase), Baywatch devotes far too much effort into humanizing Matt and giving him a redemption arc. If the filmmakers’ intention is to satirize this kind of overused plot device, they fail. The movie uses a lot of old pop songs, but misses the most appropriate one: We Are Family, because that’s what Matt, a product of the foster care system, is looking for. Gag.

Baywatch has a problem with finding a stable tone. It doesn’t know what it wants to be and, as a result, it stinks like an undercooked stew of rancid, mismatched ingredients. There are some funny moments (mostly related to Mitch’s endless list of Boy Band nicknames for Matt) but there might be 20 minutes of attention span-killing tedium between the chuckles. Many of the laugh-inducing bits are in the trailer I have included above, removing any need to sit through the entire film.

The movie acknowledges (how could it not?) that the primary appeal of Baywatch was the eye candy and it has a little fun with this. Daddario and Rohrbach spend most of the movie in bathing suits and a shirtless Efron shows off abs, pecs, biceps, and triceps to rival The Rock’s. The film’s star flashes his white teeth, flexes his muscles, and shows off his charisma, but none of this is enough. David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson have cameos in which they are treated reverentially. (Contrast this with Johnny Depp’s appearance in 21 Jump Street.)

Despite being aware of its existence during the 1990s, I never saw an episode of Baywatch, so I am unable to hazard a guess as to how fans will react to this new incarnation. Viewed as no more than a high-profile late summer home viewing release, however, it disappoints in almost every way, not succeeding at anything it tries and boring viewers in the process. More than lifeguards in spandex are needed to resuscitate this beached whale.

Lady Bird

My Top 15 College Football Teams

Preseason ranking in parenthesis

1. Alabama 1-0 (1)
2. Ohio State 1-0 (2)
3. Clemson 1-0 (3)
4. Oklahoma 1-0 (4)
5. LSU 1-0 (8)
6. USC 1-0 (7)
7. Wisconsin 1-0 (11)
8. Michigan 1-0 (10)
9. Penn State 1-0 (9)
10. Washington 1-0 (5)
11. Auburn 1-0 (12)
12. Oklahoma State 1-0 (14)
13. Stanford 1-0 (13)
14. Florida State 0-1 (6)
15. Virginia Tech 1-0 (18)
16. Colorado 1-0 (25)
17. Georgia 1-0 (23)
18. Tennessee 1-0 (19)
19. Louisville 1-0 (16)
20. Kansas State 1-0 (21)
21. Miami, Fla. 1-0 (15)
22. Notre Dame 1-0 (New)
23. Washington State 1-0 (20)
24. Iowa 1-0 (New)
25. Florida 0-1 (17)
Dropped out: Texas A&M, South Florida

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Beatriz at Dinner *** Directed by Miguel Arteta. A holistic medicine practitioner attends a wealthy client's dinner party after her car breaks down. Selma Hayek turns Beatriz into her own breed of wonder woman, John Lithgow’s character is definitely a super villain of sorts and their head-to-head battle is clearly worth seeing even if, in real life, it has only begun.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie **½ Directed by David Soren. Two overly imaginative pranksters named George and Harold hypnotize their principal into thinking he's a ridiculously enthusiastic, incredibly dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants. The best animated movies for children are sublime. This one generally settles for noisy, though it throws in a positive message at the end.

Fun Mom Dinner * Directed by Alethea Jones. Four moms whose only common ground is their kids' preschool class, decide to get together for a harmless "fun mom dinner." It’s all about both fellatio jokes and falling on love all over again, but it’s so rushed and the characters are so underdeveloped that the film feels frustratingly slight.

It Comes at Night ***½ Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son. Then a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge. There are no zombies in the streets, boogeymen in the basement or witches in the woods — and yet this is one of the most terrifying films in years.

The Mummy ½* Directed by Alex Kurtzman. An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension. The Mummy reboot from 1999, directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Brendan Fraser, was kind of fun. Monster movies frequently are. This one, directed by Kurtzman and starring Tom Cruise, is an unholy mess.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Ghost in the Shell"

Like the greatest screen goddesses, Scarlett Johansson rises above it all. In the thrill-free science-fiction thriller Ghost in the Shell, her character comes at you in pieces, emerging first during the opening credits in the form of a metallic skeleton. It’s a good look — it evokes the original Terminator — but soon the skeleton is being dipped like a chip in whitish goo. This technological soup gives the metallic frame a humanoid cladding, making it more reassuringly and pleasantly familiar, from bosomy top to round bottom. It looks like a giant dream Barbie, hairless pubis and all.

Enjoy these credits because they offer some of the more arresting, inventive images in this visually cluttered yet often disappointingly drab movie. A live-action version of a Japanese manga by Shirow Masamune, Ghost in the Shell is one of those future-shock stories that edges around the dystopian without going full-bore apocalyptic. To that end it is set in a possible future world that looks distant enough to seem exotic and familiar enough to seem plausible. The original manga takes place in what’s described as a "strange corporate conglomerate-state called ‘Japan,’" while this movie unwinds nowhere in particular, just a universal megalopolis filled with soaring gray towers.

Anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or that film’s innumerable 2.0 follow-ups (Strange Days, The Fifth Element) will recognize this Ghost cityscape, with its jumbled forms, neo-noir shadows, patina of art-directed decay and its conspicuous Asian-Hollywood fusion touches. Some of this tickles the eye, like the semi-translucent, pony-size koi fish that float through the air, seemingly just because they look cool. The koi don’t seem to be selling anything other than the movie’s production values and visual concept; elsewhere, enormous spectral human figures loom over buildings like embodied billboards, nicely evoking rampaging movie monsters of the past.

The most important leviathan, of course, is Johansson, whose mysterioso cyborg, Major, effortlessly slides right into this scene, with her preternaturally still face — often as blank as a mask — and the ports in the back of her neck that she uses to jack into cables and other characters. These artificial orifices are pleasingly mysterious and highly suggestive, at once creating a sense of human vulnerability and raising the possibility of the posthuman. Major occasionally stuffs goo in her ports and also uses them to plug into others. About the only part of her that’s human is her soul, or "ghost" in the story’s poetic parlance. The rest of Major is a bendable, mendable shell, which makes her well suited for hard-core tactical work with a police outfit known as Section 9.

As the title suggests, Ghost in the Shell is haunted, including by the original manga, its sequels and several excellent animated movies: the first, also titled Ghost in the Shell, and the entrancingly lovely Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, both directed by Mamoru Oshii. The new Ghost in the Shell was directed by Rupert Sanders, who has made commercials and one other feature, Snow White and the Huntsman. He likes a dark palette and is good with actors, but there’s little here that feels personal, and he mostly functions as a blockbuster traffic cop, managing all the busily moving, conspicuously pricey parts.

That’s too bad, especially because the original Ghost in the Shell is such a delightful philosophical plaything, with pleasures that simultaneously bewitch the eye and enchant the mind. This version, by contrast, ditches the original’s big, human, all-too-human questions, but keeps all the firing guns and car chases, the action clichés and intentional genre stereotypes. Stripped of its deeper-dish musings, the story turns into a perfectly watchable, somewhat bland action movie, tricked out with sharp details, some fine actors and one slumming legend, the director-actor Takeshi Kitano, who plays Aramaki, Major’s boss. He only speaks in Japanese; Major and almost everyone else speak in English.

The characters understand one another, presumably because they’re beyond mere language and, in any event, they sometimes communicate telepathically. At first, the fact that they can speak to one another comes across as an inventive flourish, but like so much in Ghost in the Shell — the toddling geishas, the Asian extras — it helps to reduce an entire culture to a decorative detail. The movie has been widely criticized for casting Johansson in a role that was, of course, originally Japanese, a decision that isn’t offset by an absurd narrative twist that seems to have been created to forestall criticism but will only provoke further ire. This isn’t just appropriation; it’s obliteration.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

All Eyez on Me (no stars) Directed by Benny Boom. The story of rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. One of the most useless music biopics ever made — it’ll be too confusing for newcomers and too underwhelming for those familiar with the work and life of the of the rap prophet.

Austin Found *½ Directed by Will Raée. A woman who is fed up with her mundane lifestyle hatches a scheme to make her family instant celebrities, but not everything goes as planned as her wild tempered ex-boyfriend starts to lose it. The cast is surely capable of sharper comedy, but Raée doesn’t get everyone on the same page. Linda Cardellini and Kristen Schaal offer cardboard caricatures, while Skeet Ulrich, among others, plays it mostly straight.

Band Aid *** Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. A couple who can't stop fighting embark on a last-ditch effort to save their marriage by turning their fights into songs and starting a band. Both leads are excellent together and the movie is good at showing how Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) push each other’s buttons.

Chronically Metropolitan * Directed by Xavier Manrique. First time novelist Fenton Dillane (Shiloh Fernandez) returns unannounced to New York City to confront his family, his ex- girlfriend and a few lingering childhood fears. One longs to praise Manrique for attempting a serious-minded story in this, his first feature. But there needs to be a real reason to embrace it, rather than what’s on the screen.

A Dark Song ***½ Written and directed by Liam Gavin. A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want. Dives into the black arts with methodical restraint and escalating unease.

First Kill ** Directed by Steven C. Miller. A Wall Street broker is forced to evade a police chief investigating a bank robbery as he attempts to recover the stolen money in exchange for his son's life. The movie doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, but there is worse terror-in-the-woods fare out there — rather a lot of it, in fact.

The Last Face (no stars) Directed by Sean Penn. A director (Charlize Theron) of an international aid agency in Africa meets a relief aid doctor (Javier Bardem) amidst a political/social revolution, and together face tough choices surrounding humanitarianism and life through civil unrest. As well meaning as this film is, it is also a turgid, muddled one.

Lowriders **½ Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil. A young street artist in East Los Angeles is caught between his father's obsession with lowrider car culture, his ex-felon brother and his need for self-expression. Cars could easily have been the stars of Lowriders, but the film makes them supporting players in a family drama that’s a mix of strong scenes and shopworn ones punctuated by clichés.

Megan Leavey ***½ Directed by Gabriela Coperthwaite. Based on the true story of a Marine corporal (Kate Mara) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq. If the conclusion doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re way too cynical.

Paris Can Wait * Written and directed by Eleanor Coppola. The wife of a successful movie producer takes a car trip from the south of France to Paris with one of her husband's associates. By the time the final meal is devoured, you’ll be wanting nothing so much as an antacid.

Raw **½ Written and directed by Julia Ducournau. When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her. There’s nothing creepy or remotely scary about this movie. It relies on gross-out scenes to earn the right to be called "disturbing" and seems more interested in delivering schlocky shocks than suffocating the viewer with suspense or dread.

Rough Night *½ Directed by Lucia Aniello. Things go terribly wrong for a group of girlfriends who hire a male stripper for a bachelorette party in Miami. It’s all blithely formulaic and would be more irritating if the performers — who include Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer — weren’t generally so appealing.

Score: A Film Music Documentary ** Written and Directed by Matt Schrader. A look inside the musical challenges and creative secrecy of the film score. This is a movie that is too frenetic and basic to make a substantial impression. I appreciated a kernel of observation here and there, but not enough for me to give it a whole-hearted embrace.

The Wedding Plan *** Written and directed by Rama Burshtein. When her fiancé bows out on the eve of her wedding, Michal refuses to cancel the wedding arrangements. An Orthodox Jew, she insists that God will supply her a husband. Feels less like My Big Fat Jewish Nuptials and more of a faith-based variation on a Disney princess fantasy. Instead of a fairy godmother, God himself will find her Mr. Right.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Boss Baby"

The Boss Baby sounds like a killer concept for an animated caper to attract kids young and old. Hiring Alec Baldwin to lend his calmly melodious-with-a-whiff-of-malice intonations for a tiny tycoon? Right on the money — and kudos to the movie’s makers for sneaking in a Glengarry Glen Ross gag. Add a plotline that pits adorable tykes vs. cuddly puppies in a cuteness competition and what could go wrong?

A lot, it seems. Much like any child, even a supposedly surefire nugget of an idea requires careful nurturing. In this case, The Boss Baby often tries too hard and succeeds too little. Part of the problem is its source material, Marla Frazee’s 36-page picture book from 2010 whose irresistible premise transformed it into a go-to shower gift. It boiled down to a precious metaphor about how a new baby in a business-suit onesie treats his parents like harried employees, conducting middle-of-the-night meetings and squalling constant demands. That novel notion pops up early in the film and produces some of the funnier and more emotionally relatable moments.

Starting off with only enough material for a cartoon short, however, director Tom McGrath (the Madagascar franchise) and writer Michael McCullers (the Austin Powers sequels, Baby Mama) add a sibling rivalry element with a 7-year-old older brother, Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi, grandson of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi of Fritz the Cat notoriety), who resents this usurper of parental love and recasts him in his imagination as a kind of briefcase-toting corporate raider of affection.

This approach borrows from the same genetic material that made Pixar’s Inside Out so popular — which took its cues from the workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind. But that story, partly based on how brains really work, was meticulously plotted. Here, there’s a lack of logic and coherence that is regularly compounded by a slapdash execution as messy as a week’s worth of poopy diapers. In the book, Boss Baby just exists. Here, there is a long and not especially inspired credits sequence involving a conveyor belt that decides whether or not an infant joins a family after taking a tickle test. If no giggles are heard, he or she are declared "management" and become part of an entity known as Baby Corp., a competitor to Puppy Co., where Tim’s mom and dad both work.

If this doesn’t sound exactly like a bundle of laugh-out-loud joy, that’s because it really isn’t.

Efforts, some strained, are made to inject zing both visually and story-wise into the proceedings. The look of old-school Warner Bros. cartoons are emulated, including a stylized nod to German Expressionism. But instead of rightfully milking Baldwin’s bad-ass babe for all he’s worth, there are detours involving action sequences featuring the themes from ‘70s TV shows S.W.A.T. and The Six Million Dollar Man as well as a lame homage to pirate flicks. We learn that Tim awakens every day at 7 a.m. to an alarm clock with a replica of a wizard that is clearly Tolkien-inspired as it declares, "Wake up, halflings!" It’s a cool tchotchke but has little to no useful connection to matters at hand.

The creators of The Boss Baby desperately try to find hooks for all ages to enjoy, inserting the Beatles’ Blackbird as the song Tim’s folks use to sing him to sleep (which leads to a Lennon-McCartney name check). They tease with naked bottoms, tee-hee-inducing pixelated baby privates and a wee fart that results in an expulsion of baby powder. The script even mentions "Baby Jesus" in one of the better jokes. Sure, drop in a power nap reference and feature a magic formula that is an actual baby formula. But as much as I got a kick out of a gathering of chubby Elvis imitators heading to Vegas that uses on-screen subtitles for the slurred Presley-ese being spoken, it has little connection to the race-to-the-end finale.

As Boss Baby and Tim go about finding common brotherly ground, including a weird moment involving mutual pacifiers, some rather familiar voices are heard. They include Tobey Maguire as the older Tim who narrates, Steve Buscemi as a villainous Puppy Co. honcho, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow as Tim’s parents — but none have the memorable impact that Baldwin has. To put matters in perspective, The Boss Baby doesn’t give you that choking on a hairball feeling that last year’s felonious talking-feline movie Nine Lives did. But if pint-size chatter is what you’re after, 1989’s Look Who’s Talking, with its toddler whose thoughts are spoken with smart-aleck verve by Bruce Willis, might make for a more satisfying movie night.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

My preseason top 25 college football teams

1.  Alabama
2.  Ohio State
3.  Clemson
4.  Oklahoma
5.  Washington
6.  Florida State
7.  USC
8.  LSU
9.  Penn State
10. Michigan
11. Wisconsin
12. Auburn
13. Stanford
14. Oklahoma State
15. Miami, Fla.
16. Louisville
17. Florida
18. Virginia Tech
19. Tennessee
20. Washington State
21. Kansas State
22. Texas A&M
23. Georgia
24. South Florida
25. Colorado

Available for home viewing: "Alien: Covenant"

When Ridley Scott released Prometheus five years ago, his stated intention was to explore a new story in the Alien universe. He had limited enthusiasm for continuing the evolution of the xenomorph he first brought to the screen in 1979 but marketing considerations demanded some kind of linkage. So, although Prometheus contained a subplot about the aliens’ origins, it was primarily about the travails of a space exploration seeking to discover something about the beginnings of life. The movie was met with a tepid response and Fox began exploring other avenues to continue the franchise, including an alternate universe concept that would re-write post-Aliens history. However, when Scott indicated a willingness to make another Alien that was more like the original film and less like Prometheus, it didn’t take long for an approval to be forthcoming.

Alien: Covenant is as much a sequel to Prometheus as it is a prequel to Alien. Like the recent string of Planet of the Apes movies, it’s about spinning a tale that’s interesting in its own right while not losing sight of the end goal. Although Alien: Covenant ties up the plot threads left dangling at the conclusion of Prometheus, this story is more about giving birth to the familiar xenomorph than advancing the larger mythology of the universe. The only returning cast member from Prometheus is Michael Fassbender, who plays two roles: reprising his part as the android David and portraying Walter, David’s "younger brother."

Alien: Covenant combines high-minded sci-fi ideas with the visceral horror-inspired shock aspects of a slasher movie. Unable to wed these disparate elements with the competence he showed 38 years ago, Scott risks tonal whiplash. At its best, this film echoes the creepiness and tension of Alien. At its worst, it sinks into the pretentiousness that at times threatened to derail Prometheus. It’s a mix of the good and the bad. One seemingly endless indulgence in tedium, which ends with a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, has the two androids ponder life and play music. Much is forgiven, however, when the real xenomorph (rather than a prototype) shows up and starts killing people. For some of these scenes, Scott borrows from ‘80s horror movies. One couple discovers that it may not be the best idea to have sex in the shower when an alien is on the prowl.

Alien: Covenant opens with the traditional science fiction premise of a deep space cruiser zipping along at sub-light speed on its way to a new world. On board are two thousand colonists, all in hyper-sleep. The only one "aware" is Walter the android, who is able to handle all the day-to-day maintenance tasks without aid — until the ship runs into trouble and he is forced to wake up the crew. Everyone survives the de-freezing except the captain, Branson (an uncredited James Franco), who burns up in a fire. The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), is unprepared to be thrust into a leadership role, and Branson’s wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), struggles doing her job while coping with her loss. Once the repairs are completed, Oram decides that rather than putting everyone back to sleep and finishing the seven years left on the journey, they will take a detour to a potentially habitable planet and explore. Daniels is against the decision but everyone else agrees. The die is cast. The planet is not somewhere even a well-armed group of explorers should be going, especially when communications between the surface and the ship are difficult.

The special effects rival those of Prometheus for the most impressive of the series. Perhaps because it has been seen so often in the other movies (especially the best forgotten Alien v. Predator and its misbegotten sequel), the xenomorph isn’t relegated to the shadows. Scott gives it plenty of screen time and, thankfully, it has regained the toughness it had in the original Alien. Over the years, the creatures have become disappointingly easy to dispatch; the ones in Alien: Covenant aren’t so easily killed. Jed Kurzel’s score is an asset in the way it echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s 1979 music without directly copying it.

The characters are as flat and two-dimensional as in any slasher film. The screenplay struggles to make David interesting but, for the most part, he’s just philosophical and narcissistic. Daniels is intended to be the kick-ass heroine but she comes across as a second-rate Ripley, emphasizing how, although the umbrella series is called Alien(s), Sigourney Weaver may be a necessary ingredient to make everything gel. Perhaps Scott is aware of this — although the voice of the ship’s computer, Muthur, is credited to Lorelei King, it sounds eerily like Weaver.

Most members of the crew are generic and interchangeable. Thinking back to Alien and Aliens, it’s remarkable how effectively those scripts breathed life into characters without much screen time, whether it was John Hurt’s Kane, Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett, Bill Paxton’s Hudson, or Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez. There’s nothing like that here. Billy Crudup’s Oram, for example, is described as a "man of faith", but there’s not much else there. Likewise, although Danny McBride gets a decent amount of screen time, he’s just a skeleton — no flesh on the bones.

Those who watch the Alien films for the gore and action will find Alien: Covenant more satisfying than Prometheus, although it falls considerably short of the high bar established by the first two chapters of the series. Those who appreciated Prometheus’ attempts to inject hard science fiction into the proceedings may be disappointed. Although Scott doesn’t jettison the ideas that underpinned the 2012 episode, he dispatches many in such a perfunctory manner that they’re hard to process. There’s a missing chapter here (although, to be frank, I don’t have much interest in seeing it filled). Alien: Covenant has enough of what made Alien great to deliver two hours of big-budget sci-fi/horror entertainment but it also cements the realization that, as good as the series may have been at its start, it’s not likely ever to reach that level again.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Circle"

The highlight of The Circle is producer-costar Tom Hanks' performance as the CEO of the titular company, a Google- or Apple-styled high-tech octopus that's spreading its tentacles into every nook of our lives. The brilliance of Hanks' performance as Eamon Bailey, founder of The Circle, is that it's not remarkably different from the humble, charming average guy performance he gives as himself whenever he goes on talk shows, accepts awards, or narrates a documentary about the unsung heroes of World War II. For whatever reason, you can't help trusting Tom Hanks. That's why The Simpsons Movie cast him in a voice cameo selling "The New Grand Canyon," a name for the hole that would have been left in the ground if the military went through with its plan to bomb the recently contaminated town of Springfield into oblivion. "Hello, I'm Tom Hanks," he says. "The U.S. government has lost its credibility, so it's borrowing some of mine."

The notion that Tom Hanks, a patriotic emblem right up there with apple pie and the American flag, would be hired to put a smiley face on an American Hiroshima is scarier than a lot of current horror films. You just know that if he ever used his considerable influence for evil rather than good, almost no one would resist him, and the handful that warned against him would not be believed. And yet Hanks has never played a straight-up bad guy who chills you to the bone whenever he shows up onscreen. The closest he's gotten to that sort of character was in "The Road to Perdition," where he played a mob hitman who was more of a morose antihero than a bad guy, and the The Ladykillers, a slapstick comedy that cast him as an obnoxious, bumbling Satan with a Foghorn Leghorn accent. His performance in The Circle as Evil Tom Hanks is the best thing in the picture.

That isn't saying much. James Ponsoldt's film based on Dave Eggers' same-titled 2013 book has a lot of good ideas and a few engrossing sequences, but it never quite finds a groove, or even a mode, and it ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying way. Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young woman who gets a job at The Circle, a cult-like corporation based in the Bay Area that has a campus with man-made lakes and a sky filled with buzzing drones.

You probably have a good idea of where this story is going even if you've never read Eggers' book or seen an anti-tech warning tale before. Mae is handpicked by Eamon and his right-hand man, company co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), to take part in an experiment to glorify a new tiny camera they've invented. She'll wear cameras on herself and plant them all over her apartment and in other significant locations of her life and embrace the idea of "total transparency" hyped by her boss. "Transparency" and "integration" and other multi-syllable words get tossed around a lot by guys like Eamon, who are really interested in getting access to our data so they can monitor our lives, sell us new products, and resell our information to third parties. The Circle gets this and uses it to generate low-level paranoia in every scene, and amps it up whenever Eamon strides onstage to give one of his TED-talk styled addresses to the company or to unveil a groundbreaking new product (such as the tiny spherical cameras that Eamon distributes all over the world, giving the resultant Orwellian surveillance network a granola-crunching progressive label: SeeChange).

The problem is, The Circle never finds a good way to escalate its paranoia in anything other than a tedious, obvious way. And the meat-and-potatoes manner in which Ponsoldt has adapted and directed this material reveals the limits of his talent. A mad visionary stylist who paints with light and sound might've made a memorable film out of this story, but that's not the kind of director Ponsoldt is. He thrives in a low-key mode, telling stories of ordinary people interacting in ordinary spaces; Off the Black, Smashed and especially The Spectacular Now were about as good as intimate character-driven indies could be, and The End of the Tour had its moments, too. There's a Hanks-like decency to the way Ponsoldt looks at human beings.

But this story doesn't have many recognizable human beings in it. They're mostly plot functions with names. Watson's character is The Heroine, really more of a Gullible Ingenue. Glenne Headley and the late Bill Paxton are The Parents (Paxton shakes visibly because his character has multiple sclerosis). Hanks is the Villain, even though he doesn't play him that way, and Oswalt's character is the Scary Right Hand Man, sizing up Mae and pushing her back onto the beaten path whenever she's about to stray. Ellar Coltrane of Boyhood plays her ex-boyfriend Mercer, who warns her that The Circle is evil and that she's selling her privacy and her soul. Karen Gillan is The Friend who hires Mae to work for The Circle, only to become jealous and irritated when the founder selects Mae as the company's poster girl, then worried when the extent of Eamon's exploitation becomes apparent.

What I'm describing here is the cast of a horror movie that traffics in archetypal situations, one in which the characters don't have to be plausible human beings to rivet our attention and merit our sympathy. David Cronenberg and David Lynch, both of whom might've done a brilliant job with this same material, are aces at making films fueled by dream logic and filled with archetypal characters and images. (Just imagine what either of them could do with Oswalt, a reliably excellent comic character actor who unexpectedly radiates power and menace here.) Ponsoldt does not appear, on the basis of this film, to be that sort of director, and that sort of director is what The Circle needed. This movie might represent the least sensible match of filmmaker and material since Sidney Lumet adapted The Wiz.

As you watch the film, the subdued performances, realistic-looking locations and active-but-not-baroque camerawork make you expect a more realistic film about tech, along the lines of The Social Network or Steve Jobs. When the story turns into something akin to a nightmarish cousin of The Truman Show or Network, or the kid sister of Cronenbeg's ExistenZ, you want it to get bigger, wilder, more outrageous, more frightening, and it's too nice and reasonable and conscientious to do that. The result feels undernourished in just about every way, although Hanks's performance, John Boyega's brief role as a founding programmer, and a couple of frightening action sequences break through the tedium. This is one of those movies that has nothing and everything wrong with it. It's frustrating in a singular way.

When is a sequel not a sequel?

One of my all-time favorite films, The Last Detail, was adapted from a novel of the same name written by Daryl Ponsican, who wrote a sequel featuring the same three main characters called Last Flag Flying.

Quaid, Nicholson and Young
 in "The Last Detail"
Now, one of my favorite directors, Austin’s own Richard Linklater, is completing work on a film adaptation of Last Flag Flying, the script of which he co-wrote with Ponsican. However, both Ponsican and Linklater insist the film, unlike the book, is not a sequel even though the story line of the movie essentially follows the story line of the book.

In Hal Ashby’s original film, the three main characters (and the actors who played them) were Badass Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) and Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid). These are the names of the same three main characters in the novel Last Flag Flying. For the film version, however, their names have been changed to Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (who doesn’t have a first name and is played by Laurence Fishburne) and Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell).

Fishburne, Cranston and Carell
in "Last Flag Flying"
Ponsican is publicly proclaiming that while his novel Last Flag Flying was a sequel to The Last Detail, the movie version of Last Flag Flying is definitely not a sequel to The Last Detail and will not be promoted as a sequel even though, except for the name changes and a few other details (no mention is ever made in the new film of the shared event depicted in the original film that bound the three together), the film is a faithful adaptation of the novel.

New editions of both books have recently been published and they contain prefaces from Ponsican on the origins of both the books and the movies adapted from them.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Lovers"

If all middle-aged marrieds were having as much sex as Mary and Michael (Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers, then the ratings for NCIS would go into a tailspin. Yet the extracurricular bonking that they gingerly enjoy — she with a needy writer (Aidan Gillen) and he with a neurotic ballet dancer (Melora Walters) — appears to bring only marginally more pleasure than their sclerotic union.

Sadly, that’s only one problem with this over-determined, fussily managed romance. Falling with a thud between two stools, it has neither the zip nor the zaniness of farce nor the airy vivacity of the best romantic comedies. The sugary, violin-heavy score that elbows its way into virtually every scene might beg to differ, but its cudgeling chords can’t force enchantment when, improbably, Mary and Michael’s jaded passions are rekindled.

That would require a screenplay (by the director, Azazel Jacobs) with sparkle and energy instead of one that takes forever to nudge characters from staring to kissing. No one suffers more from this programmatic approach than Winger, whose warm, loamy sexiness demands roaming privileges. Only watch her in The Sheltering Sky, playing a dissatisfied wife who finds her true self in the middle of the desert. She’s the beating heart of that movie, turning what could have been a sterile exercise in alienation and ennui into something vibrantly human.

Which brings me to a third stool that Jacobs (who also directed and helped to write the smart, adorably prickly HBO series Doll & Em) could have claimed. Beneath its mushy music, The Lovers nurses something altogether more sour and more fruitful: a self-sabotaging desperation that you can sense Winger straining to vocalize. It isn’t love that Mary and Michael are seeking; what really turns them on is sneaking around.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Baywatch ½* Directed by Seth Gordon. Devoted lifeguard Mitch Buchannon butts heads with a brash new recruit, as they uncover a criminal plot that threatens the future of the bay. The waterlogged end product is an example of lazy writing and direction with the vague hope that perhaps the involvement of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson will attract viewers.

Born in China ** Directed by Chuan Lu. The movie, filmed in the wilds of China, captures intimate moments with a panda and her growing cub, a young golden monkey who feels displaced by his baby sister, and a mother snow leopard struggling to raise her two cubs. The film partly confirms what The Lion King already taught ‘90s kids: We should take comfort in knowing that everything in life is natural when seen as part of the "circle of life," as surprisingly effective voiceover narrator John Kransinski reminds us.

Dean ** Directed by Demetri Martin. A comedy about loss, grief, and the redemptive power of love. Dean is a New York illustrator who falls hard for a Los Angeles woman while trying to prevent his father from selling the family home in the wake of his mother's death. A movie with which it is easy to find fault, and if you’re a particular kind of person, you’ll find fault with it without even trying too hard.

A Family Man ** Directed by Mark Williams. A headhunter whose life revolves around closing deals in a survival-of-the-fittest boiler room, battles his top rival for control of their job placement company — his dream of owning the company clashing with the needs of his family. Whenever the movie reaches for poetry it lands somewhere in a chain drugstore's greeting card aisle, trying to choose between one that shows an adorable child laughing in a Photoshopped field of sunlit daisies, one that tries for gallows humor but isn't really that funny, and a third with a quote about mortality and wisdom that only seems thoughtful because it's written in cursive.

My Cousin Rachel  ½* Directed by Roger Mitchell. A young Englishman plots revenge against his late cousin's mysterious, beautiful wife, believing her responsible for cousin’s death. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms. One of the problems with this version of the classic story is that it’s hard to come up with any issue or reason relative to its creation, I’m afraid.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Fate of the Furious"

One of the givens of Fast and Furious is that the latest movie will be bigger and more enjoyably ludicrous than the last. The miniskirts will be shorter, the toys zoomier, the stunts more delirious. Yet, like every successful series, this one delivers its sleek new bits and pieces in reassuringly familiar packaging. James Bond has queen and country. Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto — the monotonal Fast and Furious paterfamilias — has cars and camaraderie, an ideal combo for movies about American outsiders whose home has always been one another.

Family is the most important word in these movies, the one that’s dropped with moist emotion and hushed Sunday-sermon reverence. It’s the idea that has held the franchise together — movie to movie, race to race, prayer to prayer — in an episodic soap about kith, kin and custom cars. It’s what connects this franchise to its fans, another kind of family, though one that pays to sit down at the table. It’s what has always bound Dom to his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and the rest of his crew, most crucially Brian, the cop-turned-soul-partner played by Paul Walker, who died in an off-set car collision in 2013.

The latest movie’s title, The Fate of the Furious, seems like a nod to the lingering existential crisis created by Walker’s death, as do the tears that fall in the story. They’re shed over time but before they are, the movie does what’s expected, which is cut loose attractive characters in different choreographed formations in assorted machines and locales. Directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), this one opens in Havana, where the young local beauties swirling around Dom and Letty move and dress more or less like the other young beauties in the series, as if they were part of a continuing global house party, this time with Che Guevara and prettily peeling buildings.

Gray, an action-movie veteran, gets that party started quickly. Dom and Letty are hanging out in the new Havana, which in this case means chatting in Spanish and English while checking out a vintage car with a boat motor under the hood. It’s a nice emblem of the movie’s old-school opener, which involves some macho posturing that leads to Dom racing in a rusted-out beater. As he drives, ripping past one classic American car after another, he clutches the wheel, the camera pointing up at him. Like a supermodel’s long legs, Diesel’s sculptured, often-bared arms are one of his trademarks, and they do a lot of work, signifying strength and command. Here, though, they shudder.

Both the old cars and Dom’s unsteadiness set up a movie that clearly still needs to contend with Walker’s death even as it delivers the goods. To that end, the filmmakers quickly isolate Dom from his crew (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, et al.) and give him a proxy heartbreak. Elsewhere, the franchise’s increasingly most valuable players, Dwayne Johnson and the bouncy Jason Statham, take care of business, going hard and funny. Kurt Russell shows up as a man in black with a newbie played by Scott Eastwood, whose resemblance to Big Daddy Clint adds intertextual genre frisson. Charlize Theron slinks in as a villainous hacker in silly blond dreads, jetting around while doing a lot of fast, furious typing.

Punctuated by crashes and drums of doom, the movie moves to a dependable blockbuster beat, as a little exposition is followed by an action scene, and more exposition is followed by a bigger, noisier, nuttier action scene. As the cars zig and the story line zags, these sequences grow baroque, defying reason and gravity, which have progressively come under siege in this franchise. In New York, cars swan-dive off buildings or cut corners like rampaging dogs or, outfitted with Bond-like gizmos, harpoon a bucking ride. There’s an odd Melville thing going on here: In a Bond-esque battle in Russia that typifies the franchise’s expanded reach, a submarine breaches like Moby-Dick.

Zoom, crash, repeat with squealing, burning and flaming tires — it’s all predictably absurd and self-mocking, and often a giggle when not a total yawn. The tedium that sets in is a function of the blockbuster ethos in which everything must smash and ignite so that a solitary man can emerge phoenix-like to fight another franchise fight. Yet while Dom endures baptisms of fire, he is never genuinely alone. Part of the draw of the Fast and Furious movies has always been their multicultural cast, but the series’ strength is a utopian communitarianism that insists the group must be greater than any one man or nation. That’s why Dom will only ever be the franchise’s co-pilot; it’s the crew that rules.