Monday, February 27, 2017

Bill Paxton gone too soon

Bill Paxton was only 61 when he died mysteriously from what is being called "complications from surgery," whatever the hell that means. I’ve been told it involved a stroke he suffered following heart surgery. I wasn’t even aware of his death until Jennifer Anniston mentioned it last night, just prior to the "in memoriam" segment of the Academy Awards telecast. And, c’mon, the Academy had plenty of time to insert Paxton into that tribute. The fact that it didn’t is, in my mind, the biggest screw up since it failed to mention Farrah Fawcett in a similar tribute the year she died. I am more disturbed by this omission than I was about fumbling the announcement last night of the best picture winner.

Paxton was a much underrated actor, never nominated for an Academy Award. I consider his best performance in the equally under-appreciated A Simple Plan.

I also thought he was gave a flawless performance in One False Move, another film that is not as well known as it should be.

He did receive an Emmy nomination, however, for his performance in the miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, as well as three Golden Globe nominations for the television series Big Love on HBO. He was arguably best known, however, for the movies Twister, Apollo 13 and Titanic.

Paxton was born May 17, 1955 in Fort Worth Texas. He was in the crowd when President Kennedy left the Hotel Texas in the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. You can see him being hoisted on the shoulders of his mother in this picture which is contained in the archives of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.

His family issued the following statement yesterday:

"It is with heavy hearts we share the news that Bill Paxton has passed away due to complications from surgery. A loving husband and father, Bill began his career in Hollywood working on films in the art department and went on to have an illustrious career spanning four decades as a beloved and prolific actor and filmmaker. Bill's passion for the arts was felt by all who knew him, and his warmth and tireless energy were undeniable. We ask to please respect the family's wish for privacy as they mourn the loss of their adored husband and father."

This week's DVD releases


Moonlight ****

Dramatic film has long been fascinated with issues of identity, but they’ve rarely been explored with the degree of eloquence and heartbreaking beauty as in Barry Jenkins’ masterful Moonlight, the best film of 2016 (which, it turns out, is not only my opinion but one shared by the Motion Picture Academy as well, whose voters also selected the film as last year’s best, an announcement embarrassingly made during last night’s Oscar ceremonies). Moonlight is a film that is both lyrical and deeply grounded in its character work, a balancing act that’s breathtaking to behold. It is one of those rare pieces of filmmaking that stays completely focused on its characters while also feeling like it’s dealing with universal themes about identity, sexuality, family, and, most of all, masculinity. And yet it's never preachy or moralizing. It is a movie in which deep, complex themes are reflected through character first and foremost. Jenkins’ film is confident in every single aspect of the way that a critic can use that word. Every performance, every shot choice, every piece of music, every lived-in setting — it’s one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step, and climaxes in a scene not of CGI or twists but of dialogue that is one of the best single scenes in years.

The protagonist of Moonlight reflects the conflicted and fluid masculinity of young African-American men in the United States, even in just the way he’s presented. The film is divided into three chapters —"Little," "Chiron" and "Black" — the three names used to refer to the same person that we follow from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. He’s a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world, which is also articulated by the character being played by three separate, all-remarkable actors.

The film starts with Chiron as a boy, referred to by his bullies as "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert). We meet this youngster running, trying to hide in a boarded up apartment from the kids who want to beat him up. Little is found there by Juan (Mahershala Ali, doing career-best work), a local drug dealer. Juan takes the kid out to eat, even bringing him back to his place, where he meets his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Little could use this makeshift family. His dad is gone and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) happens to be one of Juan’s best clients. Juan becomes something of a father figure, but that might make this relationship sound more predictable than it is. Juan sees something good in Chiron and wants to help this quiet boy, even as he provides the product that’s ruining his home life.

The film jumps to Chiron as a teenager, dealing with more intense bullying and questions about sexuality. These are the years in which everyone claims to be sleeping around and a young man like Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggles to find himself, especially now that all semblance of a normal home life is gone. He literally has nothing, and it takes kindness from his friend Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome at this age) to bring him comfort. But even that is turned in a time, place and age in which compassion is sorely lacking, when young men believe that violence is the answer to what will make them feel better or allow them to fit in.

Finally, we meet Chiron as a young adult, played with remarkable subtlety by Trevante Rhodes. Kevin (now played by André Holland of The Knick) reaches out to a very-different Chiron, and the film’s themes coalesce in a surprisingly emotionally resonant way without monologues or heavy-handed melodrama. In a sense, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a boy often overlooked by society, that little kid not cool enough to hang with the bigger ones and without the support of a family to keep him from simply disappearing into the night.

The trio of performances that make up Chiron from Hibbert/Sanders/Rhodes are perfectly calibrated by Jenkins, who directs them to feel not like imitations of each other but express growth. We can see the sad eyes of Chiron as a boy reflected in Chiron as a man. Moonlight could have easily felt episodic, especially with three actors playing the same character, but it’s stunning how much it never falters in that regard. Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter, even as the cast changes as often as it does. Jenkins also draws great turns from Harris and Ali, playing two of the most influential people in Chiron’s life.

Jenkins and his technical team shoot Miami in a way that we don’t often see, using their setting brilliantly, especially the way that the water and the beach around it can feel like a break from the troubles of the real world. But Moonlight is a film about faces. Chiron’s eyes say so much that this young man has not been taught how to express. He is young, black, gay, poor, and largely friendless — the kind of person who feels like he could literally vanish from being so unseen by the world. During one of the film’s many memorable dialogue exchanges (written by Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney), Chiron speaks of crying so much in his life that he feels like he could simply turn to liquid and roll into the ocean.

While there’s memorable dialogue in Moonlight, it’s what’s unsaid that really resonates. It’s the look of a morally complex father figure when a child asks him why other kids call him a bad word. It’s a nervous glance between two young men who know something is a little different about their relationship but society has given them no words to express it. And it’s in the final scenes of the film — in which Jenkins knows he’s laid the groundwork, trusts his actors and allows the emotions of what’s unsaid to provide the dramatic thrust — that Moonlight makes its greatest impact. Jenkins deeply understands that it is human connection that forms us, that changes our trajectory and makes us who we are.


Doctor Strange ***

Strange comic book fans, rejoice! Your hero has finally made it into the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse and with that comes the potential of reboots aplenty. The shenanigans we saw in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies and the X-Men series may now lie ahead for the Main Marvel Line. Future implications aside, however, Doctor Strange tells a standard tale with just enough cleverness to keep the viewer interested. It is, in superhero parlance, an "origin story" and, as with all episodes falling into that category, it is saddled with a number of obligatory elements.

Because the movie is tasked with telling us how the main character (played with panache by Benedict Sherlock Cumberbatch) becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts, the movie has limited flexibility to do other things. The villain, Kaecilius with the purple eyeshadow (Mads Mikkelsen), is not terribly intimidating. He looks more like a glam rocker than a bringer of darkness. Of greater interest is Kaecilius’ cosmic boss, Dormammu (Cumberbatch again, doing double duty as he did in The Hobbit trilogy), whose special effects-intensive appearance suggests how Marvel might consider rendering Galactus (if they ever get the rights back from Fox). Dormammu doesn’t have a lot of screen time but his confrontation with Strange allows the narrative to try something new (at least insofar as superhero/supervillain confrontations go).

Doctor Strange opens with the introduction of the brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, whose professional skills make him one of the most desired doctors in New York City but whose interpersonal skills (or lack thereof) turn a lot of people off. One evening, while driving his car too fast and paying too little attention to the road ahead, he becomes the victim of a brutal crash. He survives but his hands are shredded. The nerve damage guarantees that he’ll never practice medicine again. Desperate for any strand of hope, he travels to a monastery in Nepal where he trains under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), learning how to bend reality, control time, and create alternate universes. This is all in preparation for the showdown with Kaecilius and Dormammu, which comprises the final act.

This is a highly special effects-intensive feature. There are times when the visuals are dazzling and dizzying but there’s also a sense that we’re watching something created on a computer as opposed to a genuine bending of reality. Possibly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, these scenes also recall the "unreality" of the inside-the-computer realm from the TRON films. They also contribute to one of the most inventive chase scenes in recent motion picture memory in which characters appear to be fleeing through a landscape designed by M.C. Escher, with recursive paths that double back on themselves and where the laws of physics no longer hold sway.

One of the reasons why Doctor Strange works is the respect brought to the pulpy material by a cadre of distinguished actors. How about an Oscar winner and three nominees? None of them show up in Marlon Superman Brando or Anthony Odin Hopkins mode just to pick up a paycheck. They are invested in their roles, especially Benedict Cumberbatch who’s light years better here than as faux Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. The only one who disappoints is Rachel McAdams and that’s because the script doesn’t give her anything substantial to do.

All of the visual razzle-dazzle needs a great score to keep pace but, sadly, Michael Giacchino’s efforts aren’t up to snuff. The music sounds like a slightly reworked version of what he turned in for 2009’s Star Trek. The similarities are so striking that I half-expected someone to start intoning "Space, the final frontier…" It’s jarring to be watching one movie and hear music that’s familiar from another one.

For those who care to play along at home, Doctor Strange posits some ideas about the intersection between magic and futuristic science. Many of the concepts about multiple dimensions and time travel are offshoots of current scientific theory and the film makes a case for the idea that any advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. Is Doctor Stranger a Sorcerer Supreme or has he merely mastered quantum mechanics on a practical level?

Apparently, Derrickson has a deep and abiding love for the character of Doctor Strange and it shows in his treatment. Although this falls far from the 2016 superhero pinnacle established by Deadpool, it’s a significant step up from the two Warner/DC debacles and even Captain America: Civil War. The film understands when it’s necessary to get serious but also contains comedic bits that aren’t forced or artificial. The Avengers are referenced, but they are mostly absent from the movie, allowing Doctor Strange to evolve without their interference. Finally, although the comic book tropes are all in place, the acting, tone, and visual effects keep them from becoming tedious. This is yet another solid building block in the foundation to Marvel’s ever-expanding superhero fortress.


Allied **½
Robert Zemeckis has a vastly diverse slate of motion pictures to his credit, but it’s not unfair to associate him with a certain technological fixation on stunt-gizmo cinema. In nearly 40 years of directing, he has implanted cartoons in the real world (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), inserted actors into newsreels (Forrest Gump), become the rubbery bard of motion capture (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), and used death-defying effects to place audiences on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center (The Walk). Once in a while, though, Zemeckis makes a film that reminds you what a terrific director he can be when he works the old-fashioned way, staging unadorned human drama without the safety net of cutting-edge visual flimflam.

Allied, starring Brad Pitt as a Canadian intelligence officer and Marion Cotillard as a French Resistance fighter who team up for a mission during World War II (and, of course, fall in love), is a high-style romantic espionage thriller that feels like it could have been made in the ’40s (at least, if Ingrid Bergman had been allowed to say the word "f—"). It’s a movie full of Nazis and chandeliers and prop planes and hidden passion. That may strike some viewers as a slightly stodgy turnoff — a fetishization of the past — but Zemeckis, working from a script by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, the amusing and underrated Burnt), is alive to what’s great about old movies: the supple, nearly invisible craft that allows scenes to throb with emotional suspense. Allied isn’t based on a true story; it’s a flagrantly movie-ish concoction. But like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, it’s been made with a so-old-it’s-new classicism that is executed with enough flair to lure viewers in.

How old-fashioned is Allied? It’s so old-fashioned that the film’s entire first section is set in Casablanca — and yes, it’s a Casablanca reminiscent of that Casablanca, a place of "exotic" intrigue and danger that looks, at times, like it’s flaunting the fact that it’s a movie set. In the opening scene, Max (Pitt) parachutes into the dimpled orange dunes of the Moroccan desert, then wanders into the shadowy white-walled maze of a city. Once there, he has to pretend to be the husband of Marianne (Cotillard), who has been hanging out in nightclubs, getting cozy with the chi-chi collaborationist associates of the Vichy government. The lighting is luxe, and so are the clothes — dresses that drape with goddessy perfection, neckties that look like works of art. When Max first shows up in front of Marianne’s friends, the two cuddle like the most intimate of lovebirds even though they’ve never met: a good set-up. Back at their apartment, she tells him her credo: "I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works." She also opens the top buttons of her blouse to test him. If he lunges for her, it’s a sign that he lacks the control necessary to execute the mission.

This is all, of course, the film’s elaborate way to generate some steam heat, and it works. Pitt and Cotillard connect, because there’s a matching toughness to their sensuality. Cotillard acts with a leonine cunning, just the kind of thing that can disarm a seen-it-all conquistador like Pitt. Marianne teases Max, who’s from Quebec, about his lousy Parisian accent (it’s not just teasing, since that could be enough to get them killed), but the viewer has a different reaction: Watching Brad Pitt speak French is a little like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs — more impressive than whether he does it well is the fact that he does it at all.

Max and Marianne belong together because they’re movie-star beautiful, and because these spies share a debonair awareness of what’s happening in any room. Their assignment involves wrangling an invitation to a party thrown by the German ambassador, and the scene where they nail down the invite is full of succulent deception. The party is even better. Zemeckis keeps us in the dark about what, exactly, the mission is, and then it’s revealed: a fiery catharsis that seals their love. How could it not? The couple that does cool explosive wartime Bondian stuff together stays together.

Zemeckis, utilizing the inner glow of Don Burgess’ cinematography, stages this episode with a smoothly framed precision — a fusion of action and feeling — that catches you up. Yet it’s all a big pedestal for the film’s second half, which is set in a London suburb, where Max and Marianne, now married with a child, are doing the closest thing they can to living a cozy domestic life together after the wind-down of the Blitz.

It would be a major spoiler to reveal what happens next, so let’s just say this: It’s possible that Marianne is not who Max thought she was. It’s up to Max to ferret out the truth, and he does it with the doggedness, passion, and unruffled trickery of someone whose very existence depends on knowing the answer. At times, the situation is broadly reminiscent of an earlier Pitt film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but that jokey Brangelina thriller was top-heavy with meta-gossip subtext; that’s what sold the movie. Pitt’s current tabloid role as a disgruntled divorcing dad may not do much to help the fortunes of Allied, but the way that he and Cotillard dance warily around each other creates a far more suggestive vision of marriage as a kind of daily spy zone.

Allied is tense and absorbing, yet the film’s climactic act somehow falls short. Zemeckis and company don’t make any obvious missteps, but the movie, in trying to reach out and tug on our heartstrings, goes soft regarding what the Marianne we’re presented with would choose to do. (It could, and should, have gone darker.) You believe that she loves Max, but there’s another side to her devotion that washes away far too easily. The result is that Allied inspires most of the old-movie reactions it’s going for except one: It never makes you swoon.


Rules Don’t Apply **
Warren Beatty isn’t very interested in Howard Hughes, the man. He announces as much with an opening credit for his Hughes comedy, Rules Don’t Apply. "Never check an interesting fact," he quotes Hughes as saying. Did he actually say that? Who knows? But the rest of Rules Don’t Apply is such balderdash, played for comic effect, that we have to buy into that and forget everything we know about Hughes. The dates, names, incidents and accidents of his legend are so thoroughly jumbled that remembering Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is actually a hindrance.

Beatty, who plays Hughes in the picture, tries to give us a movie as wildly eccentric and asymmetrical as the man himself. He’s concocted a random romantic farce that isn’t romantic or particularly farcical. But random? Yeah. Two hours and nine minutes — Beatty still commands final cut — and at the end, you remember you had to take Grandpa’s Towncar keys away at about the same age (79).

The aim is more towards Melvin and Howard than The Aviator or the Tommy Lee Jones TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes. Co-screenwriter Bo Goldman wrote Melvin and Howard, and he helps Beatty try to find the Hughes of myth — brilliant, mercurial, veering from lucid to loony and flirting with "rich pervert" the whole time. In mashing up events from the 1940s to the 1970s, framing the entire movie in Hughes’ famous early 1970s phone press conference debunking Clifford Irving’s hoax biography of him — and dating that press conference "1964" and changing Irving’s name — Beatty puts the viewer off balance in much the same way Hughes keeps his various aides, assistants, business associates and limo drivers wrong-footed.

One of the latter is Frank Forbes, played with a trademark earnest dullness by Alden Ehrenreich, who underwhelmed in Hail, Caesar! and Blue Jasmine and Stoker. He’s a nice Christian lad from Fresno charged with picking up aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey and her mom from the airport and delivering them to their new home. It’s a showplace over-looking Los Angeles from high on a hill, with The Hollywood Bowl just below. Marla, a virginal Christian from Front Royal, Va., has been picked for a screen test for Mr. Hughes, labeled "The King of Hollywood" even though this is 1958 and his last mark on the movies was made a dozen years before.

"Stella Starlight" is the supposed name of the movie Marla is up for. But as she is driven to ballet classes, acting classes and the like by Frank, she realizes the mysterious Mr. Hughes has filled dozens of houses with young women (Haley Bennett among them) just like her. And as the days turn to weeks, Marla (Lily Collins) doesn’t meet Hughes, doesn’t get her screen test. Her mother (Annette Bening) loses patience. Marla finds herself making an awful lot of eye contact with Frank, which is "against the rules." Hughes hires religious, mostly-married drivers to control his starlets. They’re not allowed to fraternize, date or seduce the young women, as veteran driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) keeps reminding Frank.

When we finally meet Hughes, the first impression is hardly impressive. Handsome? Sure. Aged? Quite. He’s also quite deaf and perfectly daft, a shy man who treats Marla to a TV dinner. Half-known to Frank and Marla, the increasingly reclusive Hughes is fighting for his fortune and freedom against TWA airline investors, bankers and the government. Every crisis of his public life — a plane crash, the Spruce Goose, Congressional testimony, drug addiction threats of consignment to a mental hospital and an urgent need to marry — is packed into a whirlwind year or so of his life.

Collins makes a perky church girl — "Blessed Savior!" is her favorite expletive — whom Hollywood and Hughes will corrupt. Frank is meant to be Marla’s knight in shining armor, whom she might betray once she’s seen the bright lights of the Big City. But the young couple set off no sparks, and the older pairing — ancient lech and virginal daisy — is just creepy. Nobody makes us feel anything in this burlesque of history and botch-job of a romance.

Broderick, plays a 50ish bounder who wouldn’t mind bedding Marla himself. and cameos by everyone from Alec Baldwin and Steve Coogan to Candice Bergen (more that a cameo, she’s Hughes’ secretary) and Ed Harris remind us that Beatty still commands an audience, at least among his AARP peers. Beatty plays the guy very close to himself — rambling, incomplete thoughts, stammered out bits of brilliance and wit wrapped in layers of dizziness. Madness manifests itself in the paranoia of a man who has bugged hotel rooms and insulates himself from the world with legions of do-my-bidding assistants. He repeats himself repeatedly — in memos, and memorably, in his threat to clear his name in front of Congress or go into exile. "I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d LEAVE this country, and NEVER come back. I’d leave this country and never COME BACK." There are shades of Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait and even Bulworth in the performance. They just don’t add up to much more than a goofy sketch, a caricature.

The dialogue is light, but rarely quotable, largely due to Beatty’s disjointed line-readings. And the picture fits together so clumsily that no satisfactory tone emerges, relationships don’t gel and the story loses any sense of "arc." Sure, Rules Don’t Apply to this movie, but all we’re left with is the odd warm and wonderful scene. Marla has waited so long to meet the man that she blurts out her thanks, her dreams, her suggestions and her pleas for advice in a single breathless minute-and-a-half long sentence. Hughes, probably not wearing his hearing aid, devours his TV dinner peas — oblivious — until he starts rambling about TV dinners in the middle of her frantic monologue. Marla sings a song, Rules Don’t Apply, of her own invention — charming first Frank and later Hughes with her voice, her innocence and her first-time-ever drunkenness. Frank finally meets his boss, shows off his own business savvy and tries to keep the perpetually distracted Hughes focused long enough to hear his real estate investment pitch as they eat late night hamburgers on a dock where the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ massive wooden transport seaplane, is parked. The general incoherence cripples the film, but those random scenes give it enough sparkle to make it worth enduring. But worth remembering? Sorry, The Aviator and for that matter Melvin and Howard have it all over Rules Don’t Apply in that regard.

This week’s other new releases
Kate Plays Christine *** There’s an emotional dimension to this movie — an empathy linking an actor to the human headline she’s dressing up as — that’s nearly abstracted into oblivion by the film’s neurotic self-examination.
London Road *** This enchantingly strange movie couldn’t possibly be called naturalistic, but at times it feels somewhat disappointingly normalized.
Chronic **½ While the movie is a depressing sit, it’s a sobering window into the self-sacrifice and psychological strain of the caregiver, as well as a provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about humane assisted suicide.
Wheeler ** Viewers who don’t mind the lack of dramatic tension may appreciate Stephen Dorff’s credible take on his modest, gentlemanly character.
All We HadThe best thing about this movie is Katie Holmes’s stormy portrayal of a desperate, foolishly trusting woman who rushes from man to man seeking security, only to find herself used and betrayed while her daughter looks on with increasing dismay.
Shut In ½* In this achingly inept thriller, you will see Naomi Watts do what she can to sell a plot of such preposterousness that derisory laughter started welling up inside me barely 20 minutes in.
Contract to Kill (no stars) Laughably inept on every technical level and representing the sort of badness that falls far short of being campy fun.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar forecast: Only three categories in doubt


I see only three categories -- actor, foreign language film and documentary short -- where there's any real suspense over who or what the Oscar winner will be when the envelopes are opened Sunday evening.

Throughout most of this Oscar season, I thought Casey Affleck's performance in Manchester By the Sea was easily the best I saw all year and that he would waltz away with the best actor trophy. I still think his performance was the year's best, but I no longer think he will be the Oscar winner. I hope he wins. I really would like to see him win. But I just don't think it's going to happen. I'm also afraid the year's best animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings, will leave the auditorium Sunday night empty-handed.

The foreign language category is a horse race between two films, The Salesman and Toni Erdmann. Any one of three pictures -- Extremis, Joe's Violin or The White Helmets -- could waltz away with documentary short Oscar. (I will also admit Timecode has a legitimate outside shot to win the Oscar for Live Action Short.

It's also worth noting again that Oscar voters rarely choose what is actually the year's best picture to win it's best picture Oscar. It's happened only three times so this century -- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Hurt Locker, and 12 Years a Slave -- and it won't happen again this year. The reason for this is Oscar voters aren't looking to find "the best picture of the year." Their vote is dependent solely on how they feel after watching a movie, compared to what their emotions are after watching the others nominated.

So, without further delay, here's how I see this year's Oscar show unfolding:
Live Action Short: Ennemis Interieurs
Documentary Short: Joe's Violin
Animated Short: Piper
Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America
Animated Feature: Zootopia
Visual Effects: The Jungle Book
Sound Mixing: La La Land
Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Song: "City of Stars," La La Land
Score: La La Land
Production Design: La La Land
Makeup and Hair Styling: Star Trek Beyond
Film Editing: La La Land
Costume Design: La La Land
Cinematography: La La Land
Original Screenplay: Manchester By the Sea
Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
Actor: Denzel Washington, Fences
Actress: Emma Stone, La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Picture: La La Land

For those not keeping count, that's a total of 10 Oscars for La La Land. The only other films I see winning more than one are Fences and Moonlight (the year's best film), and they will only be receiving two each.

Another great is gone



I can count the film critics I’ve truly admired and respected on the fingers of one hand. There’s my all-time favorite, Stanley Kauffman. And then there’s Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and, (I’m proud to say) my close friend Philip Wuntch. The fifth finger is Richard Schickel.

I discovered and started appreciating Schickel during the mid-1960s for his criticisms that appeared in Time magazine. Had it not been for Schickel's review I doubt I would have ever spent the money at the Palace Theater in downtown Dallas in 1968 to see a wonderful, but now largely forgotten, thriller called The Stalking Moon (you can view the trailer below), directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint.

Schickel died yesterday at the age of 84, apparently from a series of strokes.

This week's DVD releases


Manchester By the Sea ****

Manchester by the Sea, about a self-punishing, depressive loner (Casey Affleck) who slowly comes back to life after enduring a series of brutal losses, is the funniest movie about grief ever made. But that's far from the only remarkable thing about it. This film by playwright turned filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan contains multitudes of emotions, people and ideas, in such abundance that if you ask somebody to describe it, you should probably take a seat first.

It's a story about the complexity of forgiveness — not just forgiving other people who've caused you pain, but forgiving yourself for inflicting pain on others. It's a story about parenting, of the biological, foster and improvised kind. And it's a portrait of a tightly knit community that depends mainly on one industry, fishing, and that has evolved certain ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling. And — perhaps the biggest paradox in a movie filled with them — it's a full-blown melodrama, packed with the sorts of events that a silent filmmaker might hesitate to jam into one film for fear of being accused of overdoing it, and yet the characters are so emotionally guarded, at times emotionally constipated, that they rein the movie in and stop it from becoming too much.

Affleck, a specialist at playing reticent, somewhat mysterious men, plays Lee Chandler, a loner who lives in a cruddy basement apartment in Boston and works as a janitor. The death of his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in many generous flashbacks) saddles him with the unexpected responsibility of raising Joe's only son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Redford from Moonrise Kingdom). Patrick's mother Elise (Gretchen Mol, also introduced in flashbacks) is a drug addict who's been out of the family picture for a long time. Lee despises her and is annoyed to learn that Patrick talks to her regularly and holds no grudge against her.

Although Lee's affection for Patrick is well established, starting with the opening scene of grade school-aged Patrick clowning around with Lee on the deck of Joe's boat, it's a mystery to the community why Joe thought such a troubled man would be the ideal candidate to raise his only child. Lee is quiet, depressed, antisocial, a hard drinker, and inclined to fight strangers in bars. He hasn't seen his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) in years, and any time he ventures into Manchester, his old neighbors either whisper about him or glare at him.

While it's abundantly obvious that Lee is a devastated man still picking through the wreckage of a past life, the film takes its sweet time revealing the nature of the disaster that befell him. When we finally find out what it was, we recoil at the realization that it's even worse than we imagined, then understand why Lee not only resists the role his late brother assigned to him, but seems inclined to actively sabotage it.

On the surface this would all appear to be yet another twist on a familiar and often tedious Hollywood formula, the childish adult who's forced to grow up by being forced to take care of a minor. But Lonergan has too much respect for his characters, his audience, and perhaps reality itself to indulge such nonsense. Lee's backstory does confirm that he's essentially a masochist who has spent the last several years walling himself off from any chance at happiness out of guilt. But the same flashbacks that fill in the horrendous details of his past life also show that Lee has certain tendencies that have always been a part of his character and always will be. The movie acknowledges that if, in fact, Joe made him Patrick's guardian hoping to pull him out of his funk or somehow redeem him — and the film itself never makes this clear, preferring to let Joe's motives stay mysterious — then it was a bad call. Everyone, Lee included, seems to realize this.

Nevertheless, he tries the best he can, despite his limitations, out of loyalty to Joe. He navigates the unfamiliar, often infuriating experience of parenting a teenage boy, serving as grumbling chauffeur for Patrick's action-packed social calendar (he has a terrible rock band, plays on a hockey team, and bounces between two girlfriends, played by Anna Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail, and Moonrise Kingdom co-star Kara Hayward) and struggling to balance his work life with the home life he never imagined he'd have. This is hard enough for biological parents and children in non-grim circumstances. These two are partners in mourning, and even though they're too macho and sarcastic to discuss their bond openly, the wounds make themselves visible in other ways, most vividly in arguments about Patrick's complicated love life, the fate of Joe's beloved boat, and how best to dispose of Joe's remains (Patrick wants him buried, but it's a snowy winter and the ground is too hard, so they have to stash him in the freezer at the funeral parlor until spring).

Most of these details make the film sound unbearably dark, but while Manchester by the Sea does sometimes dive into pits of despair, most of the time it's a dry comedy. Lonergan has a fine eye for little indignities that turn tragedy into farce, as when emergency medical technicians repeatedly fail to collapse the legs of a gurney so that they can load it into the back of an ambulance. And his playwright's ear for deadpan exchanges is as keen as ever. Some of the most amusing bits in Manchester by the Sea take a moment to register because they aren't jokes, just records of people talking. "What happened to your hand?" Patrick asks Lee at the dinner table, noting a bloody bandage that Lee applied after smashing a window with his fist. "I cut it," Lee mutters. "Oh," Patrick says, barely looking up from his plate, "for a minute there, I didn't know what happened."

Lonergan has made two other classics, You Can Count on Me and Margaret; the latter was released to theaters in a butchered though still compelling version, so if you haven't seen it yet, watch the expanded cut, which is available on DVD and online. His first film was a compact, perfectly shaped, poignant and hilarious movie about a brother and sister (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney). Margaret, starring Anna Paquin as a young woman who accidentally causes a bus driver (Ruffalo) to kill a pedestrian, is a much grander, messier, more ambitious work, a film of statements as well as poetry, mingling gallows humor, suffering, introspection and hope. If you could somehow extract the experimental structure and darker moments of the second film and merge them with the compassion and wit of You Can Count on Me, you might end up with something like Manchester by the Sea, which carries itself like a traditional, even old fashioned drama set in the real world, but takes all sorts of liberties in arranging its characters and distributing its most crucial bits of plot information. Not every cut, transition or rhythmic gamble works, but it doesn't matter. The movie is so filled with life in all its splendor and awfulness that you're always more interested in finding out what's around the next bend than judging the effectiveness of whatever just happened.

Most of the film's scenes are short. A few clock in at less than 30 seconds. Lonergan and his editor Jennifer Lame stitch them together with an intuitive grace. But mosaic is not the film's only mode. Manchester packs its first half with audaciously placed, surprisingly long flashbacks (some repeatedly interrupting a very brief physical action, such as a character exiting an office), and stocks its second half with boldly theatrical moments of confession and confrontation that are likewise allowed to play out as long as they need to. A conversation between two characters on a street corner in the story's final stretch becomes a duet of mortification and mercy that stacks up with the best of Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies). It goes on for several minutes and consists of nothing more than alternating shots of the characters, but the feelings expressed within it are ratcheted up as expertly as the sense of dread you experience when watching a great horror movie. When the scene pivots and becomes something else entirely, the effect is cathartic.

At times the snowbound or saltwater-blasted images of the town and the soundtrack of soaring classical music, old soul, American songbook standards and jukebox rock seem to be joining forces to express feelings that the characters can't or won't express themselves. One of the film's most devastating moments is captured entirely from the opposite side of a hockey rink; you can't hear anything the characters are saying to each other, but it's fine because their body language tells the story. The contrast between the characters' poker faces and small gestures and Lonergan's sea-etched panoramas turns drama into comedy and vice-versa. It's the kind of movie you'll want to see a second time with someone who hasn't seen it yet, to remember what it was like to watch it for the first time.

Hacksaw Ridge ***
Hacksaw Ridge embraces many of the clichés of the war movie but, instead of laying them out in a rote fashion, the film synthesizes them into a visceral, ultimately inspirational result. This is about heroism, patriotism, and an adherence to convictions — qualities that are increasing rarities in a society where self-interest has replaced self-sacrifice. Although Mel Gibson’s forte as a director is most evident in the battle scenes, he does just enough with the quiet, character building moments for the casualties of shells and bullets to represent more than faceless clones.

Hacksaw Ridge opens by introducing us to two brothers — the wild and competitive Desmond and Howard Doss. (Strangely, this relationship, which initially appears to be a cornerstone of the film, is largely ignored after the first 15 minutes.) The boys’ father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic World War I veteran who, some 15 years after the 1918 armistice, suffers from a combination of PTSD and survivor’s guilt, is prone to violent outbursts. Following Pearl Harbor, both Desmond (played as an adult by Andrew Garfield) and Howard decide to enlist — a move the drives a wedge between them and Tom, who doesn’t want them serving. While Howard opts for a conventional enlistment, Desmond enters the army as a Conscientious Objector, intending to be a medic. Meanwhile, he woos Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), his Florence Nightingale, and promises to marry her on his first leave.

The next segment of the film could be called the "An Officer and a Gentleman piece." It’s a generic basic training episode, complete with a gruff commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), some hazing, and a little macho bonding. Desmond doesn’t fit in because he won’t touch a gun. This earns him the label of a "coward", the ire of some of his fellows, and a Court-Martial. Eventually, with an assist from his estranged father, he gains the right to stay in the army as a Conscientious Objector and, when he arrives on Okinawa and participates in the attack on Hacksaw Ridge — a 400 foot high escarpment — he proves his worth.

As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson has often been drawn to stories of heroism and self-sacrifice and he has never shied from unvarnished depictions of violence. (His The Passion of the Christ was criticized in some circles for its R-rated interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion.) Although the first half of Hacksaw Ridge is unremarkable — a workmanlike but not spectacular establishing of characters, situations, and relationships — the movie hits its stride when the men of the 1st Battalion start their assault. The battle scenes are reminiscent of the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan. They hold nothing back with the horrors of combat being presented unflinchingly. Gibson expertly choreographs each sequence so that, although we get a sense of the bloody chaos that accompanies the fog of war, we are never confused about how the engagements unfold.

Andrew Garfield, whose star has dimmed as a result of his association with the ill-fated Spider-Man reboots, is solid as Desmond. Teresa Palmer has the thankless "love interest" role. She doesn’t do much beyond providing Desmond with a reason to come home. Casting Vince Vaughn in the R. Lee Ermy/Lou Gossett Jr. role initially seems like a mistake — he’s a little too smug and lightweight during the "basic training" scenes — but he grows into the part and is actually quite good once he gets onto Hacksaw Ridge. Other participants include Sam Worthington as Captain Glover, an officer who initially berates Doss, and Hugo Weaving in a limited-but-affecting performance as the troubled elder Doss.

Hacksaw Ridge is based on a true story. Desmond Doss became the first Conscientious Objector to win the United States Congressional Medal of Honor. The screenplay, credited to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, sticks as close to the historical record as the limitations of a two-hour movie allow. At the end, snippets of a 2006 interview with the real-life Doss (who died later that year) are shown. We are given an opportunity to hear his account of some of the events whose dramatization we have just witnessed.

The movie’s verisimilitude is strong, although it’s more emphatic on the battlefield than away from it. Those scenes anchor Hacksaw Ridge in a specific time and place. One of the reasons why Teresa Palmer’s role is so limited is because, in the context of male-dominated combat, there’s no room for a woman. As a result, she appears only in the "home front" sequences.

Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t have any rousing moments to rival those in Braveheart. That’s understandable because the heroism depicted here is of a more subtle kind. It’s about saving lives rather than taking them. It’s about avoiding fire rather than returning it. Viewers should be warned, however, that, like Saving Private Ryan, this movie doesn’t shy from showing what happens when high velocity round meets soft flesh. There’s more gore here than in an average horror movie. It’s not gratuitous but it is graphic.

Perhaps this movie season is devoted to biopics of real life heroes. Hacksaw Ridge joins Deepwater Horizon and Sully in that category. (Depending on one’s perspective, The Birth of a Nation could also be considered.) Gibson has employed his considerable skills as a filmmaker not only to re-create one of World War II’s bloodiest battles but to highlight one person’s acts of selflessness that, although they may not have changed the tide of the war, resulted in many families being reunited with fathers, brothers, and sons instead of having to bury them.

Nocturnal Animals **½
Tom Ford, a filmmaker who first made his name as a fashion designer, hasn’t come out with a film since the 2009 A Single Man. When you see his latest one, Nocturnal Animals, you may understand why. Ford is still, if nothing else, a meticulous arranger of images. As with A Single Man, nearly every frame of Nocturnal Animals has the microcalibrated look of a fashion shoot that took weeks to plan: A drab curtain brushes a grimy windowsill just so, while an active fly or two buzzes in the foreground. A pair of corpses lie artfully entwined on a blood-red couch that’s been dumped as trash (though it’s still a really nice couch), a fantasy death tableau. A sequence showing a distraught Jake Gyllenhaal trying to unwind in a Texas motel bathtub dissolves elegantly into one of a depressed Amy Adams lounging in a much fancier Los Angeles one.

As shot by the gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals is beautiful — or at least arresting — every minute, and it sure isn’t boring. But it’s unclear exactly what Ford is trying to say, though it’s clear he’s trying hard to say something. And that’s the most frustrating thing about this picture: There seems to be some nuance here — something that is possibly very meaningful to Ford — that just can’t break through the movie’s glassy surface.

Amy Adams plays Susan, a sleek and seemingly successful Los Angeles gallery owner who wears lots of chic dark clothes and way too much sooty eye makeup for a fair-skinned redhead. This is our first clue that she’s a woman who has made all the wrong choices: Her hyper-handsome husband (played by hyper-handsome Armie Hammer) has made some bad business deals and lost much of the couple's money. It’s revealed that Susan hates what she does for a living. (The movie’s opening credits feature what we learn later is part of her gallery’s most recent installation, a video series featuring a group of garishly made up, overweight women who are mostly naked except for a few over-the-top red, white and blue majorette accessories. They’re shot so that every lump, bump and jiggle is exaggerated. This is the initial "Just what are you trying to say, Tom Ford?" prompt, the first of many.) And suddenly, a box has landed on Susan's kitchen counter: It contains a novel written by the ex-husband she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. She sits down to read it, and it shakes her to the core.

That part is easy to understand: The novel, dramatized as a mini movie within the bigger one, tells the story of a Texas man, Tony (Gyllenhaal), who sets out on a road trip to Marfa with his wife and teenage daughter, both of whom look markedly like Susan. (They’re played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, respectively.) Tony's plan is to drive all night, but on the deserted highway, he ends up in a terrible, and ultimately tragic, game of cat-and-mouse with a bunch of rednecks. This sequence is the best in the film, tense and beautifully sustained, a suggestion that Ford knows how to shoot action even though he generally favors gorgeously arranged inaction.

Tony is clearly a stand-in for Susan’s ex, Edward, and the novel is his cry of anguish over the death of their relationship. He wants Susan to understand the pain she's caused him, and she gets the message. Nocturnal Animals is a movie about regret, among many other things: Susan reflects on the poor choices she’s made, decisions that have led to true unhappiness. Edward is using his fictional counterpart, Tony, as an expression of anguished, human helplessness (and its subset, anguished male helplessness). Adams and Gyllenhaal do some real acting here: Their characters’ pain feels genuine, even in the midst of all the careful art direction.

If Nocturnal Animals succeeds as anything, it works as a glossy, stylish noir, with elements of vigilante revenge (as well as elements of Michael Shannon, who shows up as an inscrutable, drawling Texas lawman). But there are too many times when Ford’s vision leans dangerously close to self-parody. At the gallery, Susan has a conversation with one of her underlings, Jena Malone, who, being an art-gallery person, has slicked-back hair and is wearing a total-fashion-victim white blouse and leather harness getup. She shows Susan how she watches her newborn all day long via a cellphone app — she’s more entranced with the app than with the baby.

This character is obviously a cartoon, a satirical jab at the way we live now, at least when we live with money. But Ford also makes many of these fancy trappings — Susan’s gorgeously tailored coat and luxe boots, her big, fashionably minimalist glass-box house, or the curvaceous John Currin nude that hangs above her desk — look really nice, like things a person ostensibly might want to own. Does Ford hate these things or love them? How does he want us to feel about them? The signals they send in the context of the story are unclear, no matter how lovingly they’re filmed. In the end, Nocturnal Animals barely feels like a film made by a human being. You could just dub it a "stylish exercise" and call it a day. But I just can’t shake the fact that Ford somehow wants it to be more. The movie feels glazed and remote, a surface with all the identifying fingerprints polished off. What would it look like if Ford had left them on?

Bad Santa 2 *
Billy Bob Thornton revisits his most infamous role with Bad Santa 2, reprising the foul-mouthed, safe-cracking,anal-sex obsessed loser who discovers the true meaning of Christmas from a kid he keeps calling a "re-tard." Yeah, the shock of a politically incorrect, suicidal, drawling dead-ender has worn off in the dozen years since Bad Santa dropped its dollop of strychnine into the holidays. When you’ve elected a "short fingered vulgarian" president, where’s the jolt in Jolly Olde Saint Nick swearing?

The best gag in the film might be the first one. As we left Willie in a hail of bullets at the end of Bad Santa, it’s a shock to see him groomed and confident behind the wheel of a Mustang convertible. Did he get to keep the cash at the end of that botched heist? Then he’s distracted by a woman and a rear-end collision (ahem) brings him and us into reality. He’s just lost another Phoenix job, this one parking cars. The overweight oaf of a kid (Brett Kelly) is now legally an adult, still slow, still thinking of Willie as his personal "Santa." But the return of the treacherous dwarf-crook Marcus (Tony Cox) pulls Willie out of Arizona and into Chicago. Marcus talks him into another heist — this one at a holiday bell-ringing charity in the snowy/Windy City. "Why are you even out of the joint anyway? You know, they used to sterilize guys like you, to keep the world from becoming some negro Land of Oz."

But once the early insults are out of the way, the third partner makes herself known. That would be Sunny, Willie’s long-estranged ex-con mom, played with filth, verve and a covering of tattoos by Oscar winner Kathy Bates.

The mark is this charity run by a rich couple (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men), but to get access to that cash, first the trio has to dress up in red and white and ring a lot of bells. Their cash take on street corners isn’t all that, as they swap gruesome insults about every patron who passes — especially the ones with ugly babies. ("Guess that abortion didn’t take.")

Hendricks gets to play a moral crusader with an inner (sexual) freak, Marcus has to court a plus-sized guard (Jenny Zigrino) with an allegedly open mind, Willie has to work out some nasty mommy issues and the slow kid has to follow Willie from sunny Arizona to snowy Chicago without the good sense to wear long pants.

Director Mark Waters is a long way from Mean Girls, and the one thing he could have brought to this that surprised was talking his Freaky Friday/Mean Girls muse Lindsay Lohan into a cameo. Instead, Octavia Spencer, who has won an Oscar since playing a lowdown and dirty hooker in Bad Santa comes back, and brings her own enema. She remembers Willie’s sexual predilections.

Hendricks’ sex-in-the-alley cat doesn’t have the "Wait, is that a Gilmore Girl getting her Santa freak on?" zing of Lauren Graham’s turn in the first film. We’d expect no less from the busty Mad Men bad girl. Thornton and Cox can still manage those long raunchy riffs that deliver laughs. But Thornton doesn’t let Willie’s desperation show this time. He’s too groomed, too fussy about his hair. Willie’s unlikely sex appeal is a little less absurd. Bates brings little extra or fresh to the table, and the film sorely misses the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac, who played the foils to Willie and Marcus and their schemes. The "villains" here are too lame to name, and will not be putting this on their resume reel.

But the take-away impression from Bad Santa 2 is that the vulgar world has passed it by, that it’s power to shock has dissipated by all that’s been said and done and elected in the intervening years. A drunken, swearing, whoring St. Nick? That’s all you’ve got?

This week’s other new releases
Blood on the Mountain *** By observing the struggle of the miner with a mix of resignation and resolve, the movie hints that this struggle is the struggle of every worker.
Seasons **½ A gorgeous movie that is exceedingly strange — not necessarily in the story it tells, but in the way it tells it.
Speed Sisters **½ Doesn’t ever quite hit the high octane levels as its petrol head subjects but it is nevertheless a very unusual and encouraging representation of social change, defiance and self-determination.
Sophie and the Rising Sun ** It’s a timid, tired but a tender warm-hearted wartime romance that should have more edge than its subject promises.
Marinoni: The Fire in the FrameA slapdash tribute too humdrum to ever whip up a truly inspirational froth.

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

Another example of Trump’s duplicity


As a candidate, one of Donald Trump’s most prominent campaign promises was that he was going to stop the flow of American companies wishing to locate facilities outside the United States. He wanted all those customers from other countries to purchase products "made in America."

However, his recently confirmed nominee for budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is advocating programs to do just the opposite, According to this report by Sharon Lafraniere and Alan Rappaport in The New York Times, Mulvaney is recommending eliminating the Export-Import Bank, which, for the last 80-plus years, has supported American jobs by financing the export of goods and services. It does this by providing guaranteed loans to foreign customers of U.S. products. These loans, according to the bank’s website have "supported 1.4 million private-sector, American jobs in the past eight years, supporting 52,000 jobs in FY 2016." In addition, more than 90 percent of the bank's transactions — more than 2,600 — directly supported American small businesses.

"With approximately 85 other export credit agencies around the world trying to win jobs for their own countries, the Export-Import Bank helps level the playing field for American businesses," according to one bank official. "‘Made in America’ is still the best brand in the world, and Export-Import Bank ensures that U.S. companies never lose out on a sale because of attractive financing from foreign governments."

Yet the bank has long been the target of such hard right-wingnuts as the Koch Brothers and I guess Trump is now more subservient to this segment of the American political scene than he is those who believed in his campaign rhetoric.

It’s interesting to note that one of the heroes of the American right, former President Ronald Reagan, had this to say on Jan. 30, 1984 about the Export-Import Bank: "Exports create and sustain jobs for millions of American workers and contribute to the growth and strength of the United States economy. The Export-Import Bank contributes in a significant way to our nation's export sales."

And another Republican President, George W. Bush, made this announcement on June 14, 2002: "I have today signed into law S. 1372, the Export-Import Bank Reauthorization Act of 2002. This legislation will ensure the continued effective operation of the Export-Import Bank, which helps advance U.S. trade policy, facilitate the sale of U.S. goods and services abroad, and create jobs here at home."

I guess the days of that kind of Republican orthodoxy are long gone.

Mulvaney also wants to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corp, AmericCorps and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, programs that account for less than $500 million in a budget of $4 trillion.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Realizations


The Magic R


Bill Maher argues that if you are a Republican -- especially a politician with that "R" attached to your name -- you can get away with anything. Including treason.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Nailing It


OK, so I know Casey Affleck is the co-favorite (along with Denzel Washington) and my pick to win the lead actor Oscar this year and that Viola Davis is going to beat out Michelle Williams for best supporting actress, but, I gotta tell ya', Williams really delivers the goods in this scene. She really feels these emotions.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The good things Trump has done for America


Here are some excerpts from a superb column by Maureen Dowd that appeared in Saturday’s New York Times.

"Donald Trump has indeed already made some of America Great Again.

"Just not the aspects he intended.

"He has breathed new zest into a wide range of things: feminism, liberalism, student activism, newspapers, cable news, protesters, bartenders, shrinks, Twitter, the A.C.L.U., ‘S.N.L.,’ town halls, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Hannah Arendt, Stephen Colbert, Nordstrom, the Federalist Papers, separation of powers, division of church and state, athletes and coaches taking political stands and Frederick Douglass.

"As Trump blusters about repealing Obamacare, many Americans have come to appreciate the benefits of the law more.

"Trump may even have pierced the millennial malaise, as we see more millennials showing interest in running for office.

"Every time our daft new president tweets about the ‘failing’ New York Times, our digital subscriptions and stock price jump, driven by readers eager for help negotiating the disorienting Trumpeana Oceana Upside Down dimension rife with gaslighting, trolling, leaking, lying and conflicts.

"Similarly, whenever Trump rants about Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him and tweets that Saturday Night Live’ is not funny,’ always a complete hit job’ and really bad television!,’ the show’s ratings go up. They’re now at a 20-year high.

"Ordinarily staid Senate hearings for cabinet choices are now destination TV. As Trump puts forth people who want to plant Acme dynamite in the agencies they will head and as Republicans at the federal and state levels push their conservative agenda, Americans have a refreshed vigor for debating what’s at stake for the environment, education, civil rights and health insurance — and a new taste for passionate, cacophonous town halls.

"Trump has made facts great again. By distorting reality so relentlessly, he has put everyone on alert for alternative facts.

"The pink pussyhats are at the barricades, on the watch for any curtailment of women’s rights and any mansplaining by older white Southern men."

Like I said. There are just excerpts from her column. You can read the entire column here.

This week's DVD releases


Arrival ***½

Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi contact drama is dreamy, freaky, audacious. It skirts the edge of absurdity, as anything like this must, but manages to keep clear, and it includes a big flourish in the manner of early films by M Night Shyamalan, which adroitly finesses the narrative issue of what exactly to do with a movie about aliens showing up on Earth. I have been agnostic about this kind of movie recently, after the overwrought disappointments of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, among others. But Villeneuve’s Arrival is both heartfelt and very entertaining.

As is now expected with this kind of film, the protagonist is a flustered, bewildered civilian with special expertise, brusquely pressed into service by the military, which has got the spacecraft surrounded in the short term. Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, a professor of comparative linguistics with nothing and no one in her life but her work. But as it happens, Dr Banks was once seconded as a military adviser to translate a video of insurgents speaking Farsi. So when a dozen giant spaceships land in 12 different locations on Earth, each looking like a bisected rugby ball standing on end, a bunch of army guys led by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) show up on Louise’s doorstep, demanding she come with them to help translate what the aliens are saying. Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of "deep structure" in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex.

At any rate, Louise’s liaison is the flirtatious Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a military scientist who, in a stereotypical and fallacious way, equates his masculinity with science and affects to despise what he sees as the softer discipline of linguistics. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Halpern, the glowering CIA chief. But unbeknown to them, there is a secret tragedy in Louise’s life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful but illuminating echoes in her mind.

If a lion could speak, said Wittgenstein, we would not understand him. Does the same go for aliens? Spielberg solved this issue elegantly in Close Encounters of the Third Kind by making the form of communication a five-note musical phrase, ending questioningly on the dominant. Villeneuve’s solution is more literal. The aliens have a code which — a little preposterously — Louise finds herself more or less able to crack, with the crowdsourced expertise of the other 11 human-contact teams around the globe. But it is her human intuition, vulnerability and spontaneity that finally enable her to reach out to the visitors.

Inevitably, these "contact" moments are where the film’s real impact and atmosphere have to be. And Villeneuve doesn’t disappoint in sequences of eerie and claustrophobic strangeness — though I concede the film is most effective before the physical form of the aliens is revealed. There are also touches of comedy: Ian and Louise decide, for convenience’s sake, to nickname two aliens Abbott and Costello— maybe in homage to the linguistic misunderstanding in the duo’s famous routine about a baseball team’s positions.

By coolly switching focus to political intrigue and betrayal within the human ranks, Villeneuve keeps a grip on his story and creates ballast for its departure into the realms of the visionary and supernatural. And he also prepares us for the film’s sense that language itself, freed of our usual sense of its linear form, might be more important than anyone thought. (I wonder if Villeneuve has seen the 2010 documentary Into Eternity, by Danish film-maker Michael Madsen, about attempts to devise a new universal language to label underground repositories of nuclear waste — labels whose warnings have to be understood by future humans whose language has evolved away from what we know now.)

Arrival is a big, risky, showy movie which jumps up on its high-concept highwire and disdains a net. And yes, there are moments of silliness when it wobbles a little, but it provides you with spectacle and fervent romance.


The Edge of Seventeen ***
In the best teen films, from Sixteen Candles to Clueless to Superbad to the greatest high school movie of the last 10 years, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the main characters have a way of occupying the moral high ground. Even when they’re outcasts or "losers," their cleverness and wit — the sheer humanity of their alienation — puts us right on their side. But that’s not quite the case with Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the radiantly troubled heroine of The Edge of Seventeen

She’s a creature of intense magnetism who, in theory at least, has all the qualities that an viewer could want. She’s poised and beautiful, with a wardrobe — colorful wedgy sneakers, parochial-school skirt worn as ironic fashion statement — catchy enough to be just this side of fatally hip. She speaks in drop-dead verbal volleys, which she stretches out into entertainingly long and winding sentences, and she surveys the world with an awareness that links her to several generations of precocious movie rebels. When she interrupts one of her teachers, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), during his lunch hour, all so she can deliver a big speech about how she wants to commit suicide, it’s clear that she’s drama-queening whatever’s going on with her. We sit back and chuckle at her over-the-top audacity. It all seems a bit broad, and maybe a bit too familiar.

But Nadine, it turns out, isn’t just an outrageous charmer. She’s a pill, a narcissist who speaks in forked tongue — a girl who uses her God-given brains and humor by turning them against everyone around her. The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (it’s her first feature), with James L. Brooks serving as its lead producer, and it’s a teen movie that starts off funny ha-ha but turns into something more like a light-fingered psychological thriller. The drama is all in Nadine’s personality, in how far she’ll go to act out her distress.

She’s got a major problem with her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a golden-boy jock who’s the most popular dude in his senior class. She can’t stand the fact that he outshines her, so she turns him into her enemy. "Your head is too big for your body," she snaps. "It looks ridiculous, and you’ll never be able to fix it." Handsome as he is, we look at him and think, "She’s kind of right." Therein lies Nadine’s power: She’s so smart that she zeroes in on people’s weak spots, and spouts them, and trumps them. But the one this all leaves in the dust is her.

It takes a certain high-wire daring to make a teen comedy in which the heroine acts like a holy terror, and The Edge of Seventeen all but invites you to gaze at Nadine and think of her as, you know, the B-word. Except for one important qualifier: Deep down, she’s not really out to wound people — she’s trying, almost compulsively, to push them away. Ever since her big-screen debut in 2010, playing Mattie Ross in True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld has gathered confidence as a performer, and The Edge of Seventeen is her breakthrough. She’s a fantastic actress, with a sharpness and verve that belies the catlike softness of her features. She’s like the young Elizabeth Taylor, with playful flexing eyebrows that italicize her every thought. Even when she’s just tossing off lines, Steinfeld makes Nadine a hellion you can’t tear yourself away from. She isn’t just the star of The Edge of Seventeen — she’s its center of gravity.

Why does a girl who looks like such a sweet person behave like she wants to burn the room down? The film explains it all, and it also (mercifully) doesn’t. A flashback reveals that Nadine was always difficult: a 7-year-old who refused to get out of the car to go to school. She was already at war with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), while her pockmarked Billy Joel-loving nerd of a daddy (Eric Keenleyside) doted on her and made her feel protected — until she was 13, when he died (while driving in the car with her) of a heart attack.

You could say that that tragedy unhinges her family, and that she’s never recovered. Yet the quirky, slow-gathering force of The Edge of Seventeen is that it’s not a cause-and-effect melodrama. The fact that Nadine lost her father is part of her unhappiness now, but her crisis is more like a perfect storm of fate, temperament, jealousy, and the era we’re living in. In the midst of a sleepover, her longtime best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), falls into bed with her brother — a far-from-outlandish situation, but one that Nadine can’t deal with. Something in her snaps. She tells Krista that it’s either Darian or her — a totally fascist thing to say — and when the sincere Krista (rightly) chooses love over a friendship that’s starting to look like not so much of a friendship, Nadine is cut loose, on her own. She now has nothing to rely on but the echo chamber of her own personality.

At lunch, she visits Mr. Bruner, played by Harrelson as a seen-it-all saintly cynic who can match Nadine rejoinder for ironic rejoinder. She does a hilarious deconstruction of his baldness (and his salary), and she has a telling moment with him, confessing that she loathes her fellow students because she’s an "old soul," a girl out of time. But it’s a sign of what a strong filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig is that the old-soul line is subtly undercut by the reality we’re shown. Nadine, with her snark and mockery, her way of treating life as a taking-off point for vicious teasing, is anything but an old soul. She’s a pure product of the digital age, though she has a depth that the heroines of films like Easy A or The To Do List did not.

The Edge of Seventeen is often a kick, especially when Nadine gets together with her classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a slyly chivalrous Korean-American animator she reduces, at moments, to a quizzical stutter; the two of them match right up. She also throws herself at Nick (Alexander Calvert), a dreamboat she promises, in a spontaneous text message from hell, to sleep with — though by the time they get together, she has figured how to flip even the object of her affection into a figure of resentment. It’s at this point we realize she’s just going to keep sinking lower and lower, until she hits bottom. Yet the way The Edge of Seventeen works, Nadine’s descent isn’t a downer. It’s darkly hilarious and even necessary. She just has to break through to the other side of it.


Christine ***
In the final moments of Antonio Campos's Christine, the warming theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show is heard, providing a brilliant signoff that's simultaneously droll and tragic. That cheery lite-feminism anthem evokes a 1970s TV career girl tossing her hat in the air as she accepts her single status and takes ownership of her town, nodding to the parallel universe of positivity and achievement that Christine Chubbuck dreams of inhabiting.

Played by Rebecca Hall with an awkward abrasiveness that swings fearlessly between off-putting and affecting, the character is a sad pop-cultural footnote who is now receiving her primetime moment, 42 years after she shot herself in the head, live on camera. How curious today's video viewers will be about that bizarre story remains a big question.

Chubbuck's 1974 suicide on a local news show in Sarasota, Fla., had satirical echoes in the film Network, an earlier teleplay version of which predates her death. In Network, however, the central figure was a nightly news anchorman whose psychotic breakdown and threatened suicide were broadcast ratings manna until his truth-telling rants became inconvenient. The more private events surrounding Chubbuck's death in a much dimmer spotlight are the subject of two films that premieried right around the same time, the other one being Robert Greene's meta-docudrama, Kate Plays Christine.

Having touched on the dark power of video technology in his previous features, Afterschool and Simon Killer, Campos goes deeper into that territory here, working for the first time from a screenplay by another writer, Craig Shilowich. The result is a peculiar film — chilly and uncomfortable, but also steeped in a sly sense of irony. The prickly humor makes some scenes play almost like a King of Comedy-type riff on media culture, fashioned into an extremely muted workplace comedy.

That creates some tonal uncertainty in the first hour, especially given the amount of time it takes to reveal the pathos in Hall's brittle characterization. But the movie gets on firmer ground once the disappointments and frustrations start mounting up, and Christine's gnawing ambition inexorably gives way to a sudden fatalistic awakening. To their credit, Campos and Shilowich never play the senseless death of the protagonist for movie-of-the-week poignancy, nor as trite commentary about the hunger for fame and success. Rather, Christine is an unblinking yet also understated character study of an unstable woman with a consuming professional drive, who hits a wall as her 30th birthday approaches and sees no way around it.

Played out against the unfolding of Richard Nixon's fall from grace on the national political stage, the film juxtaposes that dramatic news fodder with the mind-numbing items Christine is forced to cover on her community-interest beat — strawberry festivals, egg production, zoning disputes. Even when she tries to get her teeth into a story, micromanaging every segment with backup from her supportive cameraperson, Jean (Maria Dizzia), her irascible producer, Mike (Tracy Letts), yawns.

With ratings in the toilet and advertising down, Mike delivers a new mandate calling for juicier stories: "If it bleeds, it leads." But Christine fights him every step of the way, refusing to sensationalize work that she approaches with integrity. Her eventual attempts to compromise, by uncovering some grit in sunshiny Sarasota, are unimpressive. But when word trickles down that station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) is looking to poach talent for a new network in Baltimore, a top-30 market, Christine's bids to play the game become more manic.

To the extent that she has a life outside the studio, it's a series of paradoxes that don't quite fit with the hard-edged professional woman itching to make her mark. She drives around town in a bright yellow VW bug, singing along to John Denver; volunteers at a clinic, performing puppet shows for disabled kids; and spends hours in a girlish pink bedroom plastered with MOR pop posters, cooking up ideas for lead news items that will never happen.

Incapable of a relaxed social interaction, Christine lives with her well-meaning but flaky mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron). Peg loves her daughter but doesn't know how to talk to her, nervously wondering if she's slipping into another funk like the one that caused her to uproot from her previous home in Boston. Along with her obvious mood disorder, Christine suffers from physical pain caused by an ovarian cyst. When she's informed that surgery will lessen the chances of her having children, another empty canyon opens up in her life.

That encroaching desolation is fed also by her unrequited love for the channel's anchorman, George. He's played by Michael C. Hall in a delicious turn as a suave charmer with a cocked eyebrow and a winning smile but not much substance. When George finally gets past Christine's stiffness and asks her out to dinner, what seems at first to be a date ends up turning into a misguided motivational project that rakes up stark truths. To make things worse, the evening ends with Christine absorbing the crushing lesson that nothing succeeds like mediocrity.

While Campos's tone and storytelling are not always the smoothest, and some of his choices are perplexing (that distracting tick-tock music, for instance), he slowly builds a detailed mosaic of his central character and the environment she's so determined to conquer. The fact that it's so cheap and unglamorous (production designer Scott Kuzio's recreation of '70s decor and color schemes is just right) makes Chubbuck's story all the more plaintive.

There's tasty character work, not just from Michael C. Hall, embracing the inherent cheesiness in the caricature of the former golden-boy quarterback rarely troubled by his limitations. Letts is also terrific as the exasperated newsroom veteran with the explosive temper; Veep regular Timothy Simons is funny and endearing as the gangly weatherman; Cullum nails a specific breed of eccentric but unpretentious wealthy businessman; and Dizzia has several quietly moving moments as the colleague who would be Christine's friend if she'd let her.

But the movie rests on Rebecca Hall's capable shoulders, bowed from the chip Christine carries around. Even her walk is clumsy, as if she's so possessed by the need to get somewhere and do something meaningful that she can barely coordinate her limbs. Like the director and screenwriter, Hall refuses to sentimentalize her character by making her a gifted, misunderstood victim of a culture that tends more often to reward women like shapely sportscaster Andrea (Kim Shaw). On the evidence presented here, Chubbuck reads as dour and almost scarily intense on camera, so her professional aptitude is questionable even if her dedication is not. But Hall makes it impossible to look away from this portrait of a woman brought to the heartbreaking conclusion that she's beyond hope.


Bleed for This **½
Bleed for This starts out like a traditional underdog-fighter-makes-good flick, based on a true story, pivots and becomes something else, then goes back to being traditional.

Miles Teller plays Vinny Paz, aka Pazienza, aka The Pazmanian Devil, an Italian-American junior welterweight fighter from Rhode Island. He's a likable, young, working class guy who doesn't take the sport as seriously as he should. He barely makes weight and stays out all night before fights blowing his money on gambling. His domineering dad (Ciaran Hinds) hooks him up with legendary trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), one of the wizards who helped channel Mike Tyson's rage. It's Rooney who recommends that Paz move up one weight class, a bold move. Everyone else in Paz's circle (including his manager Lou Duva, played by gravel-voiced character actor Ted Levine, who's never looked worse or more weirdly compelling) thinks it's a bad idea. But it turns out to be a stroke of genius. Paz becomes not just a winner but a sensation, beating champ Roberto Duran (Edwin Rodriguez, radiating intelligence and focus) and priming himself for stardom.

Then he gets blindsided by life: a car slams into him head-on as he's driving to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut and throws his vehicle into a ditch. His spine is damaged. He has to wear a "halo" to keep his head upright; it sits on his shoulders like scaffolding, but despite the theologically loaded name of the device, director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) and cinematographer Larkin Seiple restrain themselves from playing up the Christ-crucified parallels that are sure to form in viewers' minds. The doctor tells him not only will he never fight again, he'll probably never walk again. Undaunted, Paz charms Rooney into undertaking a secret training regimen in his parents' basement, and the film becomes a recovery story. The emphasis is mainly on what the injury does to Paz's body, and how he manages and transcends the pain: a mind-over-matter narrative.

The problem, though, is that we never get enough sense of Paz's interior life to judge this movie as anything other than a comeback story about a nice guy who got knocked out by the cosmos and hauled himself up. Its modesty is welcome, and its deep knowledge of boxing pictures and sports weepies helps the story glide along. Still, there's a deeper, more powerful tale here that remains frustratingly untapped, maybe because the film knows that if it got too messy, contradictory or raw, it would lose the "inspirational" label and become art.

Many reviews of this film have complained about how predictable the story is, which seems like an odd complaint, given the script's basis in fact. But if you think of Bleed for This in terms of a commercial drama rather than as a simple story of a man rebuilding his life, you might have to admit they're on to something.

The direction, the photography, the editing, the production design and most of the performances are on point. And there are ways in which Bleed for This transcends cliche — mainly in the sociological margins of the story. We get more journalistic details than pictures like this often provide: the scene-setting driving shots of Providence and leafy surrounding counties, the texture of the wood paneled walls in characters' homes, the cigarettes they smoke, the beer they drink, and the cadence of their talk, which often revolves around men expressing love by busting each other's chops. "You get cable with that thing?" Rooney asks Paz, indicating his halo. "You got heart, kid," Duva tells Paz, "but you wear it on your f--n' chin."

The film excels in its portrayal of what it means to be injured. Too many boxing films downplay the fragility of the body, unless a hero is being warned that if he keeps fighting, he'll go blind or suffer brain damage (he always disregards the warning and wins anyway). The middle section of Bleed for This, which focuses on Paz and Rooney's secret rehab project, is an exception. We see Paz sneaking into the basement, gingerly sliding onto his weight bench, and trying to bench-press a barbell he hasn't touched in years, then removing weight after weight until only the bar remains. The first rule of rehab is "start small." It's great to see a movie not only acknowledge this reality, but make the man embracing it seem heroic.

But the movie has major problems. The biggest is Teller, a committed and likable actor miscast as Paz. You're aware of how hard he must have worked to get in shape, sell the accent, get the demeanor right, and so on, but he's never wholly credible as the hero. This performance feels built from without, not found within. Teller lacks the affable meathead quality that made Mark Wahlberg so compelling in The Fighter, the movie that this film's modern, white ethnic, working class setting evokes. He's just right in films like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, playing nonviolent guys struggling with specific personal demons, but I never bought him here as an Italian-American, a guy with a working class sensibility, or a boxer who's driven and skilled enough to win five world titles in three different weight classes (lightweight, junior middleweight and super middleweight). He's bouncy, even chirpy, verging on Tom Hanks or John Cusack in light-comic-lead mode, and while he gets certain signatures right in the ring (such as Paz's whirligig punch) the editing and camerawork often seem to be doing too much of the work for him (when he throws a flurry of combinations, he looks like he's dog-paddling).

To be fair, the writing and filmmaking are probably as much at fault as Teller — actors are only as good as their collaborators and their material — but it's a debilitating strike against the movie. The supporting cast, though, is flawless, especially Katey Sagal as Paz's mom, who listens to fights from the next room because she can't bear to watch her boy get hit on TV, and Eckhart, whose transformation into Rooney is both emotionally and physically complete. He seems to have made himself shorter and changed his bone structure, which is not something they teach you at Stella Adler. When his character appeared onscreen for the first time, I mistook him for Dean Norris. Teller can't keep up with any of them. He's a promising junior welterweight, and this is a heavyweight cast.

The frame the movie puts around Paz's comeback is iffy, too. It's unabashed in telling us that Paz reset his life through optimism, stubbornness and hard work. There's no denying Paz's achievement, but it's one rarely shared by people who've suffered massive physical trauma, and it would've been nice if the film had acknowledged that. As is, there are scenes and moments (particularly during Paz's closing interview, a bewildering mistake) where Bleed for This seems to be suggesting that if Paz did it, you can, too, and if you can't, it's because you didn't try hard enough. That surely wasn't the point, but it's what comes across, and it gives what might otherwise have been a pretty good, occasionally inspired sports movie a sour aftertaste.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk **
"Hey, are you alright?" a fellow movie-goer asked me as I emerged from the theater after seeing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I was wondering the same thing myself, and pondering my recent medical history in doing so. A few weeks ago, while walking my dog, I began to feel terribly dizzy and disoriented and started sweating profusely. I quickly got over it with some sound medical advice from my son. It reminded me of when I went to see Ang Lee’s movie and came out feeling much the same way — disoriented, dizzy and feverish. Did the film literally make me sick?  If so, I can imagine a couple of reasons why.

First, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was shot in 3D at a frame rate of 120 per second (five times the normal rate) at 4K, with the aim of producing a picture that offers far greater clarity and detail than standard movie images. Sony Pictures, though, elected not to go the expense of outfitting theaters so it could be viewed in the way it was shot, so it was seen as Ang Lee intended it in only a handful of theaters in the country. The version I saw was the "normal" version that will be released most places, which prompts a question: Would the "real" version have left me feeling less ill, more ill or about the same?

I would guess more, or about the same, to the extent that the feeling was owed to the movie’s unusual visuals. The experience left me recalling an event I attended back around the year 2000, where several industry experts explained the nature of digital projection, which was soon to be introduced to movie theaters. One noted that film has an innate graininess and lack of definition that digital shooting and projection can eliminate. But, he said, his team did an experiment where they filmed a driver’s-eye-view of a car careening down at a mountain road. Shown as a standard film image, it gave viewers the sense of an exciting rollercoaster ride. But with the graininess of film removed and a hyper-clear digital image put in its place, the same scene was so realistic that it made some moviegoers vomit.

Previously, the most noteworthy proponent of higher-frame-rate movie images has been the legendary cinematographer Douglas Trumbull, who shot 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Kubrick’s sci-fi epic — with its slow-moving planets, spaceships and vast distances — is arguably one of the few examples of a film that benefits from hyper-real images. Used in a standard dramatic movie like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the technique engulfs the viewer’s eye in a surfeit of razor-sharp detail that entail, quite literally, too much information. I don’t know how many people will share this sensation, but for me the effect was akin to a mild case of car sickness.

The second factor, which may be connected to the first, is the film’s main setting. Transpiring in 2004, the story (scripted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain’s novel) follows the members of Bravo Squad, American soldiers from the Iraq War sent on a publicity tour after one of their number, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), is acclaimed a hero for an on-camera attempt to rescue a fellow soldier during a firefight. For most of the single day we observe them, they are at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where they will take part in the halftime show. Though the film recurrently flashes back to the squad’s experience in Iraq, and Billy’s earlier dealings with his Texas family, we are repeatedly immersed in the football stadium’s garish grotesquerie and bizarre artificiality, complete with Jumbotron — an environment that oddly compounds the photography’s dizzying impact.

In an election year four decades ago, Robert Altman made a film called Nashville that X-rayed the ways showbiz leads Americans into thickets of self-serving fantasy and delusion. To an extent, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk seems to have similar things on its mind. The soldiers have a handler/agent (Chris Tucker) who spends much of the story on the phone trying to get a movie deal for them. That effort eventually leads them into the presence of a thoroughly odious zillionaire played by Steve Martin, who seems to be channeling Dick Cheney.

Then there’s the way soldiers are used in the halftime spectacle, when they’re paraded on the field behind Destiny’s Child. (Beyoncé is seen only from behind, as a bod beneath a bouncy wig: surely the movie’s most ridiculous special effect.) Yes, the boys are simply propaganda tools put on display like gladiators in ancient Rome, and it’s here that Billy reaches the climactic memory of his heroic deed, which doesn’t seem so glorious in retrospect: filmed in a single shot, it shows him tangling with an Iraqi fighter, then getting on top of him and sliding a knife into his throat.

The contrast between this grisly reality and the way it’s framed as jingoistic spectacle makes a satiric point that’s a bit too obvious to be effective. But that’s in keeping with the rest of the movie, unfortunately. The characters are paper-thin, the dialogue trite and superficial. And needless to say, this is another movie about the Iraq War that only cares about its impact on Americans, not its causes or, heaven forbid, its effects on Iraqis. The film’s only slight glimmer of political consciousness comes in the character of Billy’s sister (Kristen Stewart, excellent as always), who tries to talk him out of returning to Iraq.

When a book is written some day on "The Semiotics of Cute," surely there’ll be a chapter devoted to actor Joe Alwyn, who boasts cuteness roughly akin to that of Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Even the cheerleader he romances at the big game (Makenzie Leigh) can’t help but remark that he’s "so darn cute." And would the reason for that be that, at a key moment, the audience is supposed to choke up at a giant close-up showing a single tear rolling down his cheek? Do ordinary-looking soldiers stand no chance of tugging at our heart strings?

Ang Lee is a great director whose last film, the Oscar-winning Life of Pi, made ingenious and very effective use of 3D technology. But that film had a much better story than Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which displays many of Lee’s skills but does little to advance the case for high-frame-rate cinematography.

Other new releases this week
The Witness *** Even if it is at times difficult to watch, this documentary remains riveting, and even important, as an honest and unflinching examination of despair.
National Bird *** This documentary shows that war will always be hell, even for those who aren’t on the battlefield. Sonia Kennebeck directs with a cold, distant eye, almost giving her subjects the same treatment they gave all those poor souls they targeted.
Seasons **½ While it features some of the most breathtaking nature photography this side of BBC’s Planet Earth miniseries, this gorgeously cinematic documentary ties said footage to a leaden all-purpose eco-consciousness message that nearly spoils the otherwise timeless experience.
Tharlo **½ A bit of anthropology, offering a glimpse into Tibetan life today, it’s perfectly serviceable.
King CobraA cut above most homoerotic masturbatory screen fantasies, but not by much.
London TownAn awkward merger of wide-eyed innocence and political unrest, Derrick Borte’s sweet, almost sugary picture wants to rock, but never finds the gumption.
Five Nights in MaineA pensively maudlin Hallmark commercial, if such a thing exists, this film aspires to the level of high-minded, heart-wrenching tear-jerkery, and falls short.
PricelessWhile the intentions behind this film might be honorable, the results are much less so.
The Crash ½* Several respectable actors offer dicey performances here, but the screenplay is the real villain, expecting thin references to real-world financial peril to paper over gaping holes in credibility and plain-old drama.

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