Monday, February 13, 2017

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.

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

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