Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jabs, no knock-out in this boxing pic

A split-decision on the latest boxing movie, Hands of Stone.

With a drastically exceeding hairline, a thinning crop of gray hair and an almost frail appearance, Robert De Niro finally gives a real performance as legendary trainer Ray Arcel in Hands of Stone, a quick-hitting biopic about Roberto Duran, the Panamanian champion whose career peaked in a ferocious bout with Sugar Ray Leonard.

Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz presents Duran's story in a series of punchy if familiar episodes. A hungry street kid acquires wealth in the boxing ring, falls into the bloat of dissolution, loses sight of what's important and only finds renewed purpose by realizing that he must once again put on the gloves.

Any director who decides to make a boxing movie inevitably must shadow box with some heavyweight movie history, recent efforts such as Creed and, for contemporary audiences, the touchstone: Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, which featured one of De Niro's greatest performances as boxer Jake LaMotta.

Jakubowicz may have thought that he was expanding the genre simply by focusing on a non-American boxer whose personality was formed in the mean streets of Panama. He also ties Duran's story to tensions between the US and Panama as Panamanians seethe with desire for true independence.

The story's arc generates enough momentum to make Hands of Stone watchable, but I'm not sure that Jakubowicz takes us deep inside Duran's story, which features a raw, energetic performance by Edgar Ramirez (Carlos) as Duran.

Ramirez leaves us with the impression that Duran was a man of recklessly expressed aggression, rage that stemmed from anger at a father who abandoned his family. As an impoverished kid, Duran was motivated by hunger, the kind that comes from missing meals. We're not talking metaphors here.

Much of the training provided by De Niro's Arcel involves trainer and boxer in a tug of war in which Arcel tries to persuade his charge that boxing involves more brain than brawn and that the best fighters employ strategy in their efforts. You need a plan for a fight that goes beyond jumping into the ring and letting the punches fly.

Arcel's approach often chafes against Duran's bravado and impatience, traits that allow him to win the love of a school girl (Ana de Armas) he meets on the streets and whom he sweeps up in a whirlwind courtship.

De Armas evolves from schoolgirl to embittered wife during the course of the movie with Jakubowicz eventually pushing the relationship into a furious, Raging Bull-style confrontation that suggests more than it delivers. It peters out quickly.

Subplots arise, but mostly come across as skimpy. John Turturro plays a New York gangster who wants to control the fight game. Ellen Barkin does what she can with a small and somewhat thankless role as Arcel's wife. With blonde hair and a thick voice, she might be taken for the embodiment of the Bronx, circa 1955.

Ruben Blades signs on as Carlos Eleta, a wealthy Panamanian who becomes Duran's manager. He handles the money end of Duran's career; Arcel does the training. Elena shoulders most of the blame for agreeing with promoter Don King (a credible Reg. E. Cathey) to a rematch that didn't allow the hard-partying Duran enough time to get himself back into shape.

Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher) comes across as a more stylized boxer who, at first, allows Duran to get inside his head. Duran insults Sugar Ray's wife with a crude taunt. It's all part of the fight game that culminates with a Las Vegas rematch in which Duran famously quit in the middle of the bout.

If you're hoping to come away with a greater insight into what made Duran throw in the towel, you may be disappointed. He knew he wasn't prepared? He didn't care? Winning the welterweight championship in the first fight diminished his drive?

It's reassuring to see De Niro give a full-bodied performance as a trainer with a clearly defined ethos about the sport of boxing. De Niro's scenes with Ramirez have real fire, and Ramirez makes you feel the burn in Duran's hunger.

So a split decision. Hands of Stone holds our interest, but never quite delivers the punch that would have made for a great boxing movie.

Maybe it's because we're in late August, but in the world of boxing movies, this one feels like an undercard bout i rather than a main event.

The moral: Be careful who you rob

Don't Breathe is effective, but not without some of the baggage of contemporary horror.

I'm generally of two minds about most contemporary horror. On one hand, it's easy to admire the extreme efficiency and imaginative daring that's required to freshen a well-worn genre with brutal, new twists.

On the other hand, I'm usually wary about the degrading violence that can crop up in such endeavors, and I often find myself wondering why I'm being asked to watch characters who are being terrorized in obviously twisted ways.

The new movie, Don't Breathe, may be more of a thriller than a display of gory horror, but it's the latest example of a movie that struck both nerves with me.

The good news: Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) has made a movie that boasts imaginative twists (the perpetrators of a crime become victims) while setting off a chain reaction of taut suspense.

The premise: Three would-be burglars encounter a fierce homeowner, a blinded Iraq war veteran who has some $300,000 hidden away in his Detroit home. The money is a payout the man won when his only daughter was killed in an automobile accident.

The trio of robbers (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) have been invading homes with some degree of success because Minnette's Alex has a father who works for a security company. Alex knows when homes will be vacant and how to stymie security systems.

As the three young people confront the blind vet (Stephen Lang), they're constantly trying not to run into him. They'll turn a corner, and he's there -- armed, dangerous and serious about killing these invaders. The creak of a floorboard can prove fatal. The ability to remain frozen becomes imperative.

To add additional flavor, Alvarez sets the movie on a street where all the houses but one are abandoned. Alvarez uses the worst parts of Detroit to set a tone. It's worth remembering that what's happened to some of Detroit's neighborhoods constitutes a real horror, one that Alvarez might have used to greater thematic advantage.

The three burglars are locked in the house by the veteran, who has a vicious Rottweiler and secrets that are best discovered in a theater. Let's just say, the basement (where else?) provides a stage for some disturbing sights.

The characters are given only rudimentary motivations, but Don't Breathe shouldn't (and won't) be confused with a character study. It's a thrill machine that wants to work an audience over -- and it does. We're locked in the house with the invaders and the infuriated veteran who's trying to get rid of them.

All well and good for those who like their suspense tainted with horror, particularly if it doesn't involve supernatural mumbo jumbo.

But then there's the sick part, which includes a wince-inducing scene involving a turkey baster. No, I'm not going to say more.

Put another way: Alvarez doesn't quite transcend the genre trappings he so gleefully embraces, but if you like this sort of thing, you'll find yourself in capable hands.

A relationship that will make history

Michelle Robinson and Barak Obama get to know one another in this sweet but insightfully imagined version of their first date.

Other reviewers have played this game, but it's irresistible. Think about which presidents you might want to imagine on a first date with their future wives. George H.W. Bush and Barbara? George W. and Laura? Bill and Hillary? Well, you don't need to imagine much about that because Bill used the Democratic National Convention as a platform to talk about his first encounter with Hillary in the Yale Law School library.

Still, none of those sound intriguing in the same way that we might regard a first date between Michelle Robinson and Barak Obama. Jackie and Jack Kennedy were a fantasy. Michelle and Barak Obama seem real enough to make imagining their first date a plausible endeavor.

Writer/director Richard Tanne introduces us to a young Michelle and a young Barak in Southside With You, a sweet and telling look at two extremely bright young people who spend the better part of a day together in Chicago.

Michelle Robinson works at a high powered corporate law firm, but still lives with her parents. Her father suffers from MS, and she wants to be there for him. Obama is spending a summer between semesters at Harvard Law as an intern at the firm where Michelle plies her trade. She's been assigned the task of being his mentor. He'd like to expand the definition of the word.

So what happens?

Nothing really. He's asked her to accompany him to a community meeting, hoping that he can transform a collegial outing into a date. She resists because she doesn't want to mix work with her personal life.

He picks her up in his dilapidated car with a hole in the floor and the stale aroma of too many cigarettes. They attend an exhibit by black painter Ernie Barnes, have lunch in a park and find their way to the promised community meeting, which gives Obama an opportunity to show off his speaking abilities in front of an appreciative crowd. They then have a drink and see a movie, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

Obama is confident and smart. She's confident and smart. There's a bit of sparring, and some sharing about their respective backgrounds. The day has its ups and downs, and Obama persistently works at turning an afternoon of cautious friendship into a date.

The movie also reminds us that these two know what kinds of obstacles they'll face as high achieving black professionals.

Both Tika Sumpter (as Michelle) and Parker Sawyers (as Barak) do fine work, although I'm not sure we're ever able to see them as just a couple of kids on a date. Let's be real: It's impossible not to squeeze everything that happens in Southside With You through the filter of hindsight.

When Sawyers delivers a speech before a community group that has just suffered a setback, you can close your eyes and believe you're listening to the president as a young man flexing political muscle and developing a philosophy of realistic incrementalism. He may not get everything he wants, but he'll get as much as he can. The plan: Keep working.

Sumpter captures Michelle's wariness and her discomfort about the gossip that might spread among her colleagues if they knew she and Obama were seeing each other socially. She's forceful, but he knows how to be flexible and patient, flexible and patient enough to overcome her resistance.

Far be it from me to give advice to the president (or anyone else) about affairs of the heart, but I wonder if Obama might have made even more headway with his future wife had he broken out the Al Green imitation he used at a fundraiser at the Apollo a couple of years ago.

Just sayin'.

Exploring the making of a fascist

Actor Brady Corbet sets his strangely evocative movie at the end of World War I.

The Childhood of a Leader immerses itself in a volatile moment in history without trying to replicate it.

Instead of recounting real events at the end of World War I, first time director Brady Corbet takes a highly interpretive look at the conditions that might give rise to a fascist totalitarian leader. To accomplish this task, Corbet focuses on Prescott (Tom Sweet), a boy who's living outside of Paris with his parents, a German mother of chilly disposition (Berenice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Liam Cunningham) who's working on the Treaty of Versailles for President Wilson.

Corbet divides his slowly evolving tale into three chapters titled Tantrums 1,2 and 3.

It's worth pausing to consider these titles as we watch an often unpleasant boy react to a harsh and loveless world that's full of disquiet. It's almost as if Corbet, who co-wrote the screenplay with Norwegian actress Mona Fastvoid, wants to tell us that authoritarian leadership amounts to a kind of sustained tantrum, an unleashing of puerile anger from a dictator who believes the world deserves to be smashed and brutalized.

Much of the movie's discordant feeling derives from an avant-garde score by Scott Walker.
Nowhere is Walker's influence more evident than in opening newsreel footage that serves as a prologue for what's to follow. The black-and-white images of diplomats gathering in Paris to determine the shape of Interwar Europe are accompanied by a soundtrack that might be suitable for a horror movie. And, in some ways, The Childhood of a Leader is a horror movie. Corbet turns over the soil in which bad seeds can grow.

We first see young Prescott through a window at night. Dressed as an angel, he's about to participate in a Christmas pageant at the local church. No sooner has the pageant ended, than Prescott races into the woods, finds a perch and begins throwing rocks at the local priest.

Other adults in Prescott's world include a tutor (Stacy Martin) and a maid (Yolanda Moreau). Only the maid demonstrates anything resembling affection for the boy.

At times, Prescott -- with long locks that his mother refuses to trim -- is taken for a girl. His mother won't let him be a boy, which signals trouble for his pending manhood.

Robert Pattinson does cameo duty as a journalist who has periodic discussions with Cunningham's character and who may be a secret lover of Bejo's character.

Corbett infuses his dimly lit movie with a sense of dread as he allows scenes to play out in often-ambiguous fashion. By no means an inviting movie, The Childhood of a Leader can seem unremittingly harsh, even forbidding.

The Childhood of a Leader, which takes its title and perhaps some inspiration from a 1939 short story by Jean Paul Sartre, has been compared to the austere work of Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon). Corbet, who acted in Haneke's American version of Funny Games, obviously knows the director's work.

Wherever Corbet finds his influences, it's clear that he wants to speak in his own voice as he explores the murky origins of fascism. And if we're uncertain about his intentions, Corbet emphasizes the point with an eerie postscript, a brief look at the trappings of a fictional fascist state in which the now-grown leader has ascended.

It's possible to argue that Corbet leaves too much unstated in his depictions of daily life or that he moves too slowly. And, yes, watching The Childhood of a Leader requires patience, but Corbet deserves credit for imbuing his movie with an unquestionable seriousness of purpose. He makes you want to probe its mysteries.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ben-Hur's chariot rolls again

An oft-told tale that didn't need repeating.

When a happy-go-lucky Jewish kid from a well-to-do family gets crosswise with the authorities, his life turns upside down.

No, not another Philip Roth novel. I'm talking the first century A.D., and that young man is none other than Judah Ben-Hur, the hero of an 1880 Lew Wallace novel that has spawned a variety of Hollywood movies. William Wyler's 1959 version remains the most notable big-screen effort, starring Charlton Heston as a revenge-seeking Judean who discovers forgiveness when he realizes, through exposure to Jesus, that there's more to life than getting even.

Now comes the 2016 version from director Timur Bekmambetov, who brought us Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No further comment seems necessary.

In what may have been an effort to relate to contemporary audiences, a screenplay by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley on occasion displays a tendency to blur the line between the language of 33 AD and 2016.

During the fabled chariot race, Ben-Hur tries to defeat Messala, a man who was taken in by Judah's family, but who grew up to become a powerful Roman centurion.

Sheik Illderim (Morgan Freeman in dreads) watches the race from the sidelines.

"Good move, Judah,'' says Illderim, as Judah executes a particularly tricky maneuver.

Why not, "Way to crush it, Judah, baby?"

Freeman, by the way, is the most recognizable name in a cast of largely unknown actors who probably haven't helped themselves make it to the A-list with what amounts to a drab sword-and-sandals march through the dawn of Christianity and Roman oppression of Judea.

Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell play the main roles in this Ben-Hur. Huston, who appeared behind a mask that covered half his face in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, is more fully exposed here as Judah Ben-Hur. Huston tries to create a Judah of life-sized proportions.

After the granitic renderings of Heston, it's an understandable choice, but one that reduces Judah's stature in epic-shrinking ways.

Kebbell, in the role played by Stephen Boyd in the 1959 version, doesn't fare much better as Messala.

This time, we see more of Jesus, who is played by Rodrigo Santoro. Given the recent spate of faith-based movies, I wondered whether an enlarged role for Jesus represented an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to appeal to that part of the audience that seeks out Christian-oriented entertainment.

But in this outing, Jesus' words serve mostly to italicize the meaning of the entire enterprise, which can be reduced to a single word, "forgive."

Judah, of course, has a long list of affronts that require forgiveness. His mother and sister were taken by the Romans. He was separated from his loving wife Esther. He spent five years as a galley slave, pulling on oars while a Roman behemoth pounded relentlessly on a drum.

In short, he was unjustly stripped of his aristocratic privileges and made to suffer.

Now, as for the great chariot race, the piece de resistance of any Ben-Hur movie ...

I saw Ben-Hur in 3D, which didn't make the race any more exciting than the one that Wyler served up more than 50 years ago, a more or less severe indictment in the age of CGI. Besides, Wyler's version boasted considerably more pomp.

Bekmambetov's fervid approach to editing is far too choppy for my tastes, and even the movie's pleasures of scale aren't first rate: the great stadium carved out of rock in which Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) stages chariot races and a sea battle in which vessels ram each other with harrowing force, for example.

In all, Ben-Hur is an uninspired work that appears toward the end of an already disappointing summer. Worse yet, it's a movie that demonstrates how far we've come from the days when movies could become events that tended to dominate the cultural conversation.

Ben-Hur may not become a legendary box office failure, but as an aspiring epic it feels like ... well ... just another movie -- and not a very good one, at that.

Selling arms for fun and profit

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill team for a comic thriller about gun runners.

It's impossible to watch War Dogs without thinking about such recent movies as The Big Short, American Hustle and maybe even Wolf of Wall Street. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy) has made a movie about a couple of buddies who wind up trying to outsmart the US government with a $300 million arms contract that involves faulty and illegally shipped bullets.

Making a movie about amoral characters isn't easy, even when that movie has an infectiously jaunty spirit. Because we spend a lot of time with the buddies played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, War Dogs puts us in the awkward position of rooting for a couple of gun runners without asking that we give much thought to the ramifications of their business.

Hill plays Efraim Diveroli as an overweight hustler without qualms. Teller portrays David Packouz as a person who hasn't entirely lost his moral compass, but the movie is best as a conventional bromance that deals in stark incongruities: A couple of ill-prepared novices trying to cross Iraq's "triangle of death" with a shipment of Berettas and a guide named Marlboro, for example.

The partners' trip to Iraq qualifies as an exception to their standard business practice, which involves reaping as much profit from war as possible without leaving their Miami offices. The idea is to make money without getting shot at.

As explained in the movie, Diveroli understood that serious money could be made by bottom feeding; i.e., landing the small contracts that the big arms dealers ignored. Lots of small contracts added up to big money.

A lot of what the two men did was perfectly legal -- until it wasn't.

Hill -- not exactly a physical specimen to begin with -- has put on weight as if to demonstrate that Diveroli is encased in his own gluttony. He loves money, cocaine and prostitutes. Hill gives good sleaze, complete with slicked back hair and a high-pitched, near maniacal laugh. A poster of Al Pacino as Scarface hangs above Diveroli's desk.

As the more conventional of the two, Teller's David has a wife (Ana de Armas) and small daughter. Initially, David hides his business from his wife, who thinks that he's selling high-quality sheets to Florida homes for the retired. David did try his hand at that business until Diveroli invited him to join his lucrative venture.

Diveroli's arms operation -- his company is called AEY -- is financed by a dry cleaner and Orthodox Jew played by Kevin Pollack. Pollack's character believes -- or wants to believe -- that he's investing in a business that supplies arms to Israel.

Following a well-worn path, Phillips shows the exhilarating kick of making large amounts of money. The partners move up in the world, buying fancy Miami apartments and indulging in ample amounts of high living.

Credited to three writers including Phillips, the screenplay focuses mostly on Teller's David, a man who starts the movie as a masseuse. David's early picture financial failures make him vulnerable to Efraim's advances.

The two men knew each other as kids, and were best friends at the local Yeshiva. David also serves as the movie's narrator, our guide through this tainted world.

You probably know from previews of coming attractions that War Dogs makes room for Bradley Cooper. Cooper plays Henry Girard, a shady arms dealer whose name appears on the terrorist watch list. After what appears to be a chance meeting in Vegas, Gerard offers to sell Efraim and David 100 million rounds of bullets for AK-47s, allowing them to bid on a contract that would result in their biggest score ever.

It's a bit late in the review to mention it, but War Dogs is based on a true story that derives from a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, who wrote also tackled the subject in a book, Arms and the Dudes.

Despite his penchant for gross-out comedies, Phillips has directorial chops, and he uses them effectively in scenes set in Jordan, Iraq, Albania, Las Vegas, and Miami. Phillips proves capable of handling the globe hopping this kind of comic thriller requires.

What's missing from War Dogs, which can be entertaining, is a real sense of an arms trade that inflicts considerable harm on large numbers of people. It's a war movie without casualties.

Phillips may be too addicted to fun to go all the way to seriousness. For all of War Dogs' antic energy, I couldn't help wishing Phillips had taken a bigger step in that direction.

Don't look for equity on Wall Street

A drama that takes a look at women in the world of high finance.

When it comes to the pursuit of money, we probably shouldn't be surprised that people have a tendency to behave badly.

The new movie Equity is full of people who act as if such bad behavior constitutes a form of obligatory service, mostly because they're focused only on serving their own interests.

But Equity isn't a typical Wall Street movie that takes aim at greed by penetrating the environs of a big-time investment bank as it watches the characters try to smash each other to bits.

Instead, it's a telling look at problems women face as they're absorbed into a business that once was a preserve for men only. The women in Equity are smart and strong, but they're subject to problems that the men in similar positions don't face, being hit on by clients who they can't afford to offend, for example.

Working with a fine cast, director Meera Menon has made a thought-provoking drama that centers on Naomi (Anna Gunn), a powerful woman who's trying to recover from a bad professional experience. An IPO that Naomi was handling went bad, something that hasn't helped her chances for advancement at her firm.

Much rides on Anna's launch of Cache, a buzz-worthy company that provides Internet security and seems destined to become one of the year's hottest new stocks.

Confident and competent, Naomi has a no-nonsense approach that fits her job, but she's up against many obstacles: an ambitious assistant (Sarah Megan Thomas) of questionable loyalty and an equally ambitious prosecutor (Alysia Reiner) who's looking into the activities of Naomi's lover (James Purefoy) -- not to mention an insufferable client (Samuel Roukin) who believes his wallet should grow to match his ego in size.

Thomas' character, by the way, is pregnant, a condition that the movie presents as a clear liability among high-stakes business people who are jockeying for advantage. Will she overcompensate by being even more treacherous than she might have been were she not soon to give birth?

Equity might have fit on today's small screens as well as in theaters, but it's willing take a women's point of view without turning its characters into avatars for obvious feminist point scoring.

And despite the affluent trappings of a high-powered business world, Equity isn't afraid to expose the ugliness beneath the gloss of success.

For Gunn's Naomi, even falling asleep next to her lover, who also works at her firm, poses a business risk. He's liable to take advantage of her slumber by trying to access the data in her cellphone.

What could be more illuminating? In Naomi's world, nothing -- including the bedroom -- is immune from competition.

Herzog probes the mysteries of the Internet and a look at the work of Richard Linklater

Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Lo and Behold, isn't really a documentary at all. For me, it makes more sense to think of Herzog's exploration of the mysteries of the Internet as a cinematic essay, a wide-ranging and sometimes disjointed look at the issues and people that seem to have captured the director's interest. Divided into chapters, the movie begins with the founding of the Internet, and moves steadily toward the darker side of global interconnection. Toward the end, Lo and Behold becomes an ominous cautionary tale about the havoc that would befall the world if a major solar flare wiped out all interconnectivity. Pay attention to the movie's subtitle -- Reveries of the Connected World. It provides a clue about the movie's structure and fascinations. Herzog being Herzog, you probably won't be surprised that Lo and Behold sometimes strives for mind-bending kick. An example: Herzog asks one expert whether the Internet can dream? It's impossible to watch any Herzog film without being stimulated and provoked and Lo and Behold fills that bill, even if it's successes arrive in piecemeal fashion.


Director Richard Linklater (Slackers) qualifies as a true pioneer of Indie cinema, although the director occasionally swims in mainstream waters (School of Rock). Richard Linklater: The Dream is Destiny examines what now has become a fairly prolific career. Director Louis Black (a co-founder of the Austin Chronicle and of SXSW) makes little attempt to conceal his admiration as he interviews Linklater about his work. Black supplements the director's comments with interviews from such Linklater stalwarts as Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey and Julie Delpy. If you're a Linklater fan, Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny also serves as a review of the director's body of work -- from Slackers to Before Sunrise to Boyhood to Everybody Wants Some. There's plenty to be learned about filmmaking in the '90s, about working outside of Hollywood in Austin and about Linklater's approach to material. The movie notes some of Linklater's less-well-received works (The Newton Boys, for example), but it's mostly an appreciation. Wherever the movies have been or wherever they may be headed, we're lucky that Linklater is around to make his contribution. If you needed reminding of that, Dream is Destiny will do the job.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Summer isn't a total loss. A look at a diverse week of movies: reviews of 'Florence-Foster Jenkins,' 'Hell or High Water' and 'Indignation

The movies always have been a kind of crazy quilt of ambition, accomplishment, disappointment and joy, a collection of individual offerings that have little in common other than a desire to encourage audiences to purchase tickets. As an example, consider this week, a movie moment in which offerings range from the bawdy humor of Sausage Party, an animated feature for adults, to the supposedly instructive bromides dispensed by Pete's Dragon, a movie with a dragon that looks like a cuddly stuffed animal. Said dragon saves the life of a boy who's left to his own devices in a forest after his parents die in an automobile accident, the abandoned child syndrome being a Disney common denominator dating back to Bambi.

It's also the week in which Meryl Streep plays the late Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite whose passion for music and performance were indulged by those in the rarified social circles in which she circulated. The only problem: Jenkins had a hideously bad voice.

Jenkins' solicitous and morally frayed husband (Hugh Grant) protected his wife's delusions. Maintaining Jenkin's image of herself became his occupation.

Because Jenkins raised money for a variety of New York musical endeavors, no one had the courage to tell her that her private recitals were so painful, they could have induced the most saintly of innocents to confess to the most heinous of crimes.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest film from director Steven Frears, who began his cinematic journey with what now seem like films from some fading Pleistocene age: The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Launderette (1985); Prick Up Your Ears (1987) and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (also 1987). Those movies -- practically a British New Wave in themselves -- seem like ancient eruptions from a director who hasn't exactly mellowed, but who, in this outing, focuses attention on a woman whose self-created grandeur is beautifully captured by Streep.

In Streep's hands, Jenkins pretensions are delivered with the piercing exactitude of a soprano's high C.

Jenkins' singing becomes both amusing and painful, particularly as she prepares for a 1944 concert at Carnegie Hall. Jenkins readies herself for the big evening with help from her tutor Cosme McMoon, a deliciously bemused Simon Helberg.

Because Jenkins had contracted syphilis from her first husband, her marriage to Grant's St. Clair Bayfield was chaste. To compensate, Bayfield carried on an affair with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson).

Grant finally has found a perfect role as he ages out of the British prince charming phase that mostly has served him until now. He's playing an honorable cad.

There's little I can say to prepare you for Streep's attempts at operatic singing. Let's just say that she makes Susan Alexander Kane, the woeful opera singer in Citizen Kane, seem like Joan Sutherland. If screeching were an art form, Jenkins would have been its foremost practitioner.

Thankfully, Frears hasn't totally yielded to the temptation to make a feel-good comedy. He charts Jenkins's inevitable march toward disaster -- albeit not without making note of her pluck and fortitude in the face of a monstrous lack of talent.

I suppose one is obligated to say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a small movie enlarged by big talents.
But two other small movies (both enlarged by big concerns) also open this week.


Hell or High Water belongs in a genre that might be dubbed the neo-western. Set in West Texas, the movie spreads bank robbery, sibling loyalty and violence across a Texas landscape that grows its own form of justice, rolling it out like wind-blown tumbleweeds.

Director David Mackenzie, working from a screenplay by the gifted Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), introduces us to Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), brothers who rob small banks in forgotten towns that seem to shriveling in the Texas heat.

At first, the brothers seem to be another pair of mismatched hoodlums. Toby has a steady hand; Tanner quickly establishes himself as the movie's wild one, an uncontrollable weed sprung from parched Texas soil.

Still most familiar as Captain Kirk in the reborn Star Trek series, Pine gives what might be his best performance yet. As Toby, he must hold things back. Divorced and crippled by a past in which much has gone wrong, Toby is trying to right a very specific wrong.

Looking at iMDB, I was surprised to see that Foster already has 51 movies and TV appearances to his credit. You may remember him from The Messenger, a mournful 2009 story about an Army sergeant assigned to deliver the ultimate bad news to spouses and parents of fallen soldiers.

You have to reach the end of Tanner's trail to realize what's driving this irredeemable bad boy, but Foster is one of those rare actors who can scare you just by showing up. He can put a look in his eyes that turns them into bullets just waiting for something to trigger their release.

Jeff Bridges, whose voice has taken on the roughness of weathered leather, plays Marcus, a Texas Ranger who's on the verge of retirement. Marcus hunts the brothers with his Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who has learned to live with Marcus' racist taunts.

It's not easy to tell whether Marcus is a racist or just a guy who tries to needle his way under the skin of anyone with whom he feels close.

The story takes us in unexpected directions and gradually builds to a confrontation that's as much about character as it is about violence.

The Scottish-born Mackenzie, who directed the searing prison drama Starred Up, proves that he can handle drama with drawl and something on its mind.

Birmingham's Alberto sounds the chord that plays behind the solos that the rest of the characters deliver. The whites came and took the land from the Indians, and now, in what can be interpreted as a form of karmic retribution, the banks are taking the land from whites.

Mackenzie leads us to a conclusion that feels wise in a way that's far more complex than a movie like this has any right to be.

Like the juice from a wad of sour chewing tobacco, you may to savor the movie's bitterness before you think about spitting it out.

The violence in Hell or High Water doesn't happen without motivation, but there's another kind of violence, the violence of cruelty that's embedded in observation of characters who are pinned to a writer's unforgiving wall. No matter how much they struggle, they'll never be free.

That brings me to Indignation, an adaptation of a small (and some would say "minor") 2008 novel by Philip Roth.

Indignation marks the directorial debut of James Schamus, who has written screenplays for director Ang Lee (Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain) and who, as an executive, helped create movies such as Lost in Translation and Milk.

Though presented in straightforward style, Indignation requires contemporary audiences to take an imaginative leap back to 1951, a time when a young woman who'd perform oral sex on a man might be labeled a slut by young men who still kicked around questions about whether they'd marry a woman who wasn't a virgin.

In adopting Roth, Schamus pits the Newark, N.J., of Roth's imagination against life in at small Ohio school called Winesburg College. If you're familiar with Roth, you'll immediately know that part of the story's tension centers on moving from a mostly Jewish world into a less-welcoming WASP society.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus, a young man who wants to break from the stultifications of Newark life, which means living at home and occasionally working in his father's kosher butcher shop.

Marcus is the '50s definition of a good Jewish boy; i.e., he's a straight A student. Academic achievement might be the only thing Marcus fully understands. Once grades no longer serve as a standard, he'll likely be lost.

At the college, Marcus meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a troubled young woman who introduces him to hand jobs and fellatio, neither of which Marcus is fully prepared to accept.

The movie's best scene involves an extended confrontation between Marcus and Dean Caudwell. During the course of 18 minutes Lerman and Tracy Letts (as Caudwell) play verbal tennis. In essence, Caudwell attempts to persuade Marcus to aspire to WASPishness. Marcus isn't strong enough to resist for the right reasons; he's indignant, but unformed.

As Marcus' complicated but demanding mother Linda Edmond makes the most of her time on screen. During a visit to Winesburg, she warns Marcus off his emotionally distressed shiksa, who once tried to commit suicide. She's certain no good can come of such a relationship.

To raise the stakes, Marcus' coming-of-age drama plays out against a contrivance, a backdrop in which a false move might expose him to the draft and land him in Korea, an unsafe place for young men in the '50s.

The question with all Roth adaptations involve Roth himself. How do directors compensate for Roth's missing voice? Indignation has finely wrought moments, good performances and demonstrable intelligence, and yet, it doesn't always spring fully to life. It's Roth under glass with Marcus ripe for being quashed like a bug.

There is no transition that can take me from Philip Roth to Pete's Dragon, where I began all of this.

That movie seems aimed at young children, so I'll say only this. When a movie wants to make room for magic, it should feel more magical than Pete's Dragon. Kids probably will respond to this good-natured story about a wild child's circuitous route back to civilization, but it also could appeal to adults who want to compare it to the 1977 original or who've been hankering to see Robert Redford play a character who tells stories to kids, presuming there any adults in either of those two categories.

One raunchy 'Sausage Party'

This hunk of adult animation earns its R rating.

When I tell you that the animated movie, Sausage Party, involves walking, talking hot dogs and buns, you don't have to work too hard to surmise that the humor will be sexual and that it won't be subtle.

That's not to say that the splashy, adults-only animation in Sausage Party is not without trace elements of wit or that some of the jokes aren't funny, providing you're not put off by a slew of "F" and "MF" bombs that are thrown around so casually, they seem like accepted parts of speech.

And when I tell you that the villain in this ribald piece is a character named Douche (Nick Kroll), you should have all the information you need to know that Sausage Party is brash, impolite and damn proud of it.

Brimming with ethnic stereotyping and building toward an orgiastic finale that would be rated NC-17 if it didn't involve grocery store perishables, Sausage Party tells the story of hot dog Frank (voice by Seth Rogen). Frank falls for a bun named Brenda (Kristin Wiig). Frank and Brenda lust for one another, but can't do anything about their desires until they're liberated from their respective packaging.

The movie's characters give you some idea of what directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon have in mind.

In addition to Frank and Brenda, we meet Sammy (Ed Norton), a bagel who sounds very much like Woody Allen, and Lavas (David Krumholtz), an Arab hunk of pita who believes that eventually he'll be rewarded with 77 drips of extra virgin olive oil. I didn't even mention Teresa (Salma Hayek), a taco shell and Latin bombshell with lesbian leanings.

Sexual preferences aside, Sausage Party also immerses us in a story about the way faith functions to keep folks under control. The perishables at Shopwell, the supermarket where the story takes place, believe that when they're purchased they'll find eternal bliss in what they call "The Great Beyond." After being wheeled out of the store in shopping carts they'll be eternally happy.

Not so fast, says Honey Mustard (Danny McBride), a return item who has seen The Great Beyond, and knows that his perishable brothers and sisters will be sliced, diced, boiled, fried and otherwise "murdered" by hungry humans.

We follow some of the characters into The Great Beyond, notably little Barry (Michael Cera), a hot dog who hasn't grow to full size and who learns the horrible truth: The faith on which Shopwell runs is hokum.

Perhaps in a spirit of fairness, the screenplay also includes some non-perishable items, most prominently Firewater (Bill Hader), a native American bottle of liquor whose wisdom seems to derive from massive inhalations of marijuana.

Come on, you thought you'd make it through this kind of movie without a pot joke?

I don't know what it says about me, but I laughed at the wad of gum (Scott Underwood) that rides around in a wheel chair and talks in a voice that resembles the electronically produced voice of physicist Steven Hawking. Gum, we learn, became smart because he spent years stuck under the desk of a brilliant scientist.

Too much? Probably, but Sausage Party thrives on tossing out too much of everything.

In the right crowd, Sausage Party might be fun. It may not run out of energy, but it does sometimes run out of comic gas, and it's not always fall down funny.

By the time, the big orgy arrives, I'd had enough, which made me wonder whether Sausage Party's hour and 29 minutes might have been better had it been served as a snack rather than a full-course meal.

A plot to kill a top Nazi

Anthropoid is not the latest horror movie to roll off the Hollywood assembly line -- at least not in any conventional way in which we use the word "horror." Rather, Anthropoid takes its title from a World War II code name for a Czech-conceived operation designed to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the worst members of a Nazi hierarchy in which competition for the title was pretty stiff. Anthropoid doesn't entirely do justice to the story of a duo of Czech fighters (Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy) who parachute into their country to kill Heydrich, a.k.a., the Butcher of Prague. The two Czechs, who had been living in London, are housed with a local family, and begin to associate with a variety of members of the Czech resistance. Both young men develop relationships with women, one with the daughter of the family that's hiding them, the other with one of the daughter's friends. Most of the cast is British, which means much of the dialogue is delivered with accents. Director Sean Ellis stages the assassination long before the movie ends, which means that much of Anthropoid's second half deals with attempts by the characters to escape capture by the SS. Heydrich died shortly after the assassination attempt, and the Germans unleashed brutal reprisals on the Czech population. The story culminates with a lengthy gun battle in which German soldiers try to wipe out resistance members, who, by this time, are hiding in a church. If the battle feels interminable, that's probably what Ellis intended. This intensely depicted and appropriately exhausting bit of warfare brings the movie, which has its longueurs, to its sad conclusion, but decent and often restrained work from Dornan (as Jan Kubis) and Murphy (as Josef Gabcik) can't quite lift the movie out of its earlier doldrums. Anthropoid serves as a rudimentary introduction to a neglected World War II story, but it should have accomplished more.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Super villains invade the summer

Lots of action, no real traction in Suicide Squad.

Into the endless flow of comic-book movies comes Suicide Squad, the latest entry from DC Comics to hit the nation's multiplexes. Cluttered and chaotic, the movie tells an inconsequential story about a group of super baddies who are recruited to fight evil.

There may not be 12 of them, but Suicide Squad functions as a kind of Dirty Dozen of the comic-book world, taking on a supposedly desperate moment when Superman isn't around, and Batman operates on the crime-fighting fringe; i.e., Ben Affleck has a cameo.

Heavily promoted and cast for cash, Suicide Squad does a reasonably good job of introducing its characters -- with featured work from Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Viola Davis.

Too bad the movie eventually turns into a muddle that pits our heroic villains against a powerfully angry witch who wants to ... er .... well ... wreak havoc.

Suicide Squad advances an idea that isn't exactly novel, something about fighting fire with fire. Adopting a strictly business attitude, Davis plays the government official who decides that there's only one way to combat a villain that has invaded the subways of an American metropolis called Midway City. She assembles a task force of equally malicious combatants.

The movie's much seen trailer and its strong opening scenes ignite hope for an adventure in which Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) will try to control the unruly misfits who must be released from imprisonment to form Task Force X; a.k.a., the Suicide Squad.

There's Headshot, a crack marksman played by Smith; the beautiful, crazy and scantily clad Harley Quinn (Robbie); and Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a tattooed character who shoots flames from his fingertips.

Diablo's uncontrollable temper has led him to commit a monstrous act. He attacked his wife and kids, a foul deed that seems too malignant even for a comic-book movie that wants to take its evil seriously.

About that evil: Let's just say that The Enchantress, the witch played by Cara Delevingne, fails to work her way into the ranks of indelible comic-book antagonists.

Other members of the Suicide Squad include Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a reptilian creature who's at home in sewers; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie assassin who takes out his opponents with (what else?) a boomerang; Slipknot (Adam Beach), a man with climbing skills; and Katana (Tatsu Yamashiro), who's skilled with a sword and pretty much an afterthought in the overall proceedings.

And while we're on the subject of afterthoughts: The movie also features an appearance by The Joker (Jared Leto). Metal teeth and maniacal laughter don't make The Joker as wild as the movie might have hoped.

The Joker's around mostly to work his evil ways on Harley. Once a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, Harley has been turned into a bat-wielding maniac and sex toy by the Joker.

Lots of blurry and over-extended action alternates with scenes that give members of the Suicide Squad a chance to deliver snide dialogue, but audiences that compare Suicide Squad to Deadpool (a far more successful take on good/bad guys), likely will be disappointed.

Director David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch) may have the chops for a comic book movie, but he has written a darkly hued script with little capacity to wink at its well-worn genre and a story that builds toward a second-rate display of pyrotechnics. Get the point? Suicide Squad just isn't much good.

Four sisters, one beautiful movie

Japan's Our Little Sister is a quiet gem.

Many of the life-changing events that determine the shape of the Japanese movie Our Little Sister take place before the movie begins, shattering personal developments that the characters already seem too have incorporated into their very beings.

Those with a taste for deliberately paced cinema with a deep humanistic streak will find ample pleasures in director Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest, the story of three grown sisters who attend their father's funeral and learn they have a 14-year-old half sister. The three women hadn't seen their father for 15 years.

As the story unfolds, we come to understand that the three sisters grew up on their own. Their late father fell for another woman and moved to another city. Overwhelmed by her husband's departure and daunted by the task of raising three children, Mom took off, as well.

As it turns out, the three sisters have settled into a routine. Haruka Ayase plays Sachi, the oldest and take-charge sister. Masami Nagasawa portrays the second oldest sister, a woman who works in a bank and seems to have questionable taste in men. Kaho, an actress and model, plays the youngest and most free-spirited sister.

Once Dad's funeral concludes, Sachi invites half-sister Suzu -- who faces life with a step-mother she can't stand -- to live with the sisters. Suzu's mother evidently passed away, leaving Dad to marry for a third time.

Suzu quickly adjusts to life in a new city, the coastal town of Kamakura. She makes friends and continues to develop bonds of affection with the sisters who clearly provide her with an emotionally supportive environment she very much needs.

Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son) makes it clear that young Suzu is learning how to be a woman from her three sisters, who also manage to charm an audience as much as the cherry blossoms that become the movie's symbol of renewed life and fleeting beauty.

A relationship between Sachi, the responsible older sister, and a married pediatric surgeon brings the movie close to a melodramatic plot twist, but Kore-eda remains far more interested in the rhythms of ordinary life than in romantic developments.

So when the characters gather for a meal at the local diner, run by an old and reliable friend, we're happy to be there with them. We're reassured when they carry on the family tradition of making plum wine.

Our Little Sister is like a reflecting pool: The surface may be calm, but emotions ripple deep beneath its surface and can be savored long after this lifelike portrait reaches its satisfying conclusion.

You'll have to make up your own mind about Yoko Kanno's lush score. I remain undecided about it, but I'd still insist that Our Little Sister feels as effortless as a summer breeze and should provide just as much relief for cinema-parched audiences. We should be grateful.

Comedy is fun -- isn't it?

Conflict emerges in a group of improvisational comics in Don't Think Twice.

Don't Think Twice introduces us to a group of improvisational comedians trying to make it in the highly competitive world of New York-based show business.

Comedy may aim for laughs, but as a business, it's not all yucks. That means we shouldn't be surprised that Don't Think Twice contains some of the year's more painful moments as it skillfully assess success, failure and the hairline difference between the two.

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia, who also appears in the movie, tells the story of The Commune, men and women comics who share a New York City apartment. They're one big happy family -- until, of course, they're not.

Group solidarity runs into trouble when The Commune faces the loss of its performance space. On top of that, troupe members Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) have been invited to audition for Weekend Live, a big-time comedy show that looks a lot like Saturday Night Live.

Jack's sudden rise to recognition, throws the rest of the group into turmoil. He promises to help the others get auditions or writing jobs, but we know that it's probably an empty pledge. Nothing like a splash of success to undermine a one-for-all spirit.

And for every upward arc, a corresponding downside lurks. Bill (Chris Gerhard), for example, has been working at comedy for a while, and isn't convinced that he'll ever have a breakthrough moment. He's also dealing with a disapproving father, who has been diagnosed with a serious illness.

Look, one of the saddest things in life involves watching people who keep striving long after their expiration date has passed. And some of these characters are right on the cusp of such failure.

To the extent that The Commune has a leader, the job falls to Birbiglia's Miles. Miles once auditioned for Weekend Live, but didn't make the cut. In addition to his work with The Commune, Miles teaches improv. He tries to convince himself that his approach involves a purity that he couldn't maintain if he actually were to get a shot at the world's best-known comedy TV show.

One of the troupe's members winds up delivering a piercing rebuke to Miles, who eventually reunites with an old high school classmate (Maggie Kemper) with whom he'd like to begin a relationship.

It's easy to be dismissive about the characters in Don't Think Twice. Who in his or her right mind really believes he or she can make it in the cut-throat world of comedy? And don't we have bigger problems to worry about, anyway?

We do, but at its best, Don't Think Twice makes us feel for those who must abandon long-held dreams, a phenomenon not unknown outside the world of comedy. It's difficult for everyone to reach the point at which youthful hopes begin to fade.

So credit a canny Birbiglia -- a comic -- with knowing the milieu he's depicting and for doing it in ways that never become such an in-group exercise that we lose touch with the characters.

Don't Think Twice may not be a momentous movie, but it's perceptive and honest enough to demand what the best comedies require: Occasionally, it wants to be taken seriously.