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Hot Movies for Summer’s Dog-Days: Comedy, Drama, Thrills, Murder, Superheroes, & War-Zone Chaos


These Dog-Days of summer are a good time to hit the cineplexes. Milk Duds, Goobers, a tub of “buttery” popcorn, and a bottomless iced cold drink, a chaise lounge experience in posh [anti-bedbug] leather seats, and A/C. What more can you ask for? And, unlike most summer Augusts, there’s much to shout about at cineplexes.

The days are long, and some of the best films are short. The studios aren’t waiting for late October roll-out of prestige films. They’re putting them out weekend after weekend – often with three/four openings on a Friday. Some making a big impact at box offices are indies. There’s comedy, drama, romance, murder, superhero thrills, war-zone chaos, one determined dude on a snowmobile, and a new action goddess.

Oscar-nominee Taylor Sheridan (Deputy Chief David Hale, TVs Sons of Anarchy; Danny Boyd, Veronica Mars) of Hell or High Water fame has sneaked in with the season’s sleeper, crime thriller Wind River, which he wrote. Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner is letter perfect as rough and tumble game tracker of mountain lions and coyotes who prey on livestock on a remote Wyoming Native American reservation. He’s also no slouch on snowmobiles! Already in the stark winter of their discontent, the poor natives are devastated by a second murder of a young woman, found viciously beaten and raped multiple times. This is not savory going -- especially when Renner is called upon to assist urban (Las Vegas via Ft. Lauderdale) FBI Agent Elizabeth Olsen (Captain America: Civil War’s Scarlett Witch). We’ve seen directors handle flashbacks many ways, but Sheridan, no slack when it comes to inventiveness, introduces a new and seamless approach. The estimable Oscar nominee Graham Greene is featured as the girl’s father. In a brief but memorable seduction scene, HOHW’s Gil Birmingham – showing different sides of himself, will have a lot of audience members swooning.

MoviesDogDaysSummerCompositeIn the U.S., a child goes missing every 40 seconds. You never think it’ll happen to you. Until it does. In Kidnap (Aviron/Di Bonaventura Pictures), when mom, Oscar winner Halle Berry, returning to the big screen after three years, catches a glimpse of the abductors speeding away, she begins a high speed pursuit across Louisiana highways, byways, and bayous, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. The nappers messed with the wrong mom! TV veteran, 10-year-old Sage Correa delivers a masterful performance during the marathon chase that had to be shot with great care. Pay no attention to the red herons, as they don’t deliver pay dirt. The only delivering is done by indefatigable Halle Berry. The ending is powerful, but, on second thought, it would’ve been interesting to have another motive behind the kidnap other than the crackers out for ransom, that include long-time character actress Chris McGinn – move over (Misery’s) Kathy Bates!

There’s another Man in Black and, alas, he’s not Johnny Cash. The mind of Stephen King has no limits when it comes pulp fiction, but his works have proved to be a mixed bag when brought to the screen. Nikolaj Arcel’s brave attempt to adapt his seven novels and a short story published over 30 years [with homages to Robert Browning, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Sergio Leone] in Dark Tower (Columbia Pictures) falls into that category. It’s a box office champ, but no critics’ darling. However, who needs critics? Idris Elba is the last gunfighter in an alternate land out to keep the world from colliding; and Matthew McConaughey is evil incarnate as the Man in Black, with whom he’s locked in eternal battle.

Oscar winning director/and co-producer Kathryn Bigelow proved her mettle with Best Picture The Hurt Locker, and followed with a Best Picture nomination for Zero Dark Thirty. She and ZDT collaborator Mark Boal know a thing or two about war zones. This one is stateside, 1967 Detroit (Annapurna Pictures/MGM), where a police raid and a number of murders set off a literal African-American rebellion that set off a night of turbulence that segued into one of the nation’s largest race riots. The film is docudrama realistic, raw, disturbing, engrossing, brutal. A writer aptly summed it up: “The degree of terror and carnage is so strong that ‘based on a true story’ is too tame to do the film justice.” Not for the faint of heart, and in these Dog-Days of summer, certainly not a date movie. There are lessons that should have been learned and weren’t. John Boyega, John Krasinski, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith headline a huge cast.

Director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (Warner Bros.), a sweeping 70-mm IMAX epic [with the help of CGI] restaging of the 1940 evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops [French, British, Belgian, Dutch] in fast retreat from the Western Front at Dunkerque, France. Penned in by the Germans, they’re stranded due to a lack of transport. Fionn Whitehead, in a near silent role, delivers a shattering performance. There’s also Sir Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and, in his acting debut, Harry Styles. Except for Branagh, you may find it hard to spot the others. Olivier, BAFTA, Oscar, and Tony winner Mark Rylance gives a solid performance helming his boat, which joins the civilian watercraft armada aiding the rescue. Though you never see blood, the gore as Germans strafe and use their U-boats in unconscionable torpedo attacks, is harrowing– but something’s missing. At 1:45, there’re no humanizing back stories to motivate audiences to care instead of just being blown away. The Dunkirk headlines were instrumental in getting FDR to aid the U.K. to avoid a conditional surrender to Germany.

How does a sweet gal with the name Lorraine become a bad-ass spy? In Atomic Blonde (Focus Features), adapted by Kurt Johnstad from Anthony Johnston’s graphic novel series The Coldest City, illustrated by Sam Hart, Charlize Theron is an agent sent to walled Berlin to retrieve a list of spies destined to fall into the hands of Russia for Britain’s MI6 military intelligence group. It seems like a set-up, because she’s a marked woman upon arrival; but like Berry in Kidnap, Lorraine isn’t to be messed with. With almost 90% of the 115 minutes so bloated with mortal combat, karate chops, all manner of guns, and objects for body blows, it begins to get monotonous, sometimes ridiculous, and lacks a core.  The story gets muddled with the intro of a lesbian [it appears] French spy, played by Sofia Boutella – but it also gets rather steamy. Numerous flashbacks don’t help the film’s coherence. That said, Theron is, indeed atomic as a spy who doesn’t know when to come in from the cold. Kudos to director and veteran stunt coordinator David Leitch (John Wick), fight coordinator Jon Valera, and crew. Without their precision choreography, bloodied, bruised Theron and cast mates wouldn’t have come out of this alive. James McAvoy co-stars. John Goodman and Toby Jones are featured.


MoviesSpiderHComingGirlsTripThere’s nothing sanitized about the raucous, crass R-rated comedy about female friends bonding, nonetheless is non-stop hilarious [and probably would be just as hilarious with less F-bomb raunch and sexual innuendos and more creative expletives], Girls Trip (Universal), made for $20-mill, rolled in out of the blue and has swept up $86-mill. In addition to stellar performances by Regina Hall and tiny dynamo Jada Pinkett Smith, brilliant comic Tiffany “Shake it ‘til it brakes” Haddish, better known to TV audiences, has had the big-screen break-out role of the year; and the gals have found a new crush in former Off Broadway actor and now hunk Mike “The Arm” Colter (who’s been gym-pumping since his Good Wife Lemond Bishop days).

It’s been a good summer for superheroes. In Spider-Man: Homecoming (Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios), director Jon Watts does a high dive, forgets the past, and begins anew. Tom Holland (Lost City of Z) soars to new heights in the third reboot of the webby franchise by not taking himself seriously and being adept at slapstick. He’s superbly abetted by Oscar winner Michael Keaton’s intense menace– some of the film’s best moments are when Fresh-faced kid Vs. Grizzled villain, and guest star Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Peter Parker wasn’t alone waking up to the full potential of power. In Wonder Woman (Warner Bros) Gal Gadot (a prime asset of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) spectacularly segues with gusto from princess of the Amazons to discover her true destiny as guardian of the world. With global grosses in the multimillions, it’s no wonder sequels are in the pipeline.

August '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

King Arthur—Legend of the Sword

(Warner Bros)
Guy Ritchie’s turgid version of the Excalibur legend favors the supernatural elements—witches, monsters, the Demon Knight—over the battling humans, with the unfortunate result that this spectacle is more enervating than entertaining. And, despite solid work by a cast that actually looks right—Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou and Annabelle Wallis, for starters—Ritchie unsurprisingly slathers CGI over everything, allowing several rousing battle sequences to overwhelm the characters that are at the center of this timeless story. The film looks great on Blu-ray; extras are several featurettes.
Beyond the Darkness
Bag Boy Lover Boy
Lovers of gory flicks will be in heaven with these new releases, starting with Beyond the Darkness, Italian director Joe D’Amato’s pulverizingly nasty 1979 thriller that features incest, necrophilia, dismemberment and other fun things to keep its target audiences reasonably entertained, especially a sequence that includes a post-mortem eye operation. Bag Boy, conversely, is a shoddy mess that tells the tale of a slow-witted Manhattan hot-dog vendor who moonlights as a fetish model, enabling him to lure several of the most unsuspecting to their deaths. Both films look fine in hi-def; Darkness extras are a D’Amato documentary, location updates and interviews, while Bag extras are a commentary and short films.
Jane’s Addiction—Ritual de lo Habitual Alive at Twenty-Five 

(Rock Fuel Media/MVD)

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of its seminal album Ritual de lo Habitual (even though it was released in 1990), Jane’s Addiction—fronted by singer/songwriter Perry Ferrell—tears through a superbly-paced 85-minute set at this 2016 concert at Southern California’s Irving Meadows Amphitheatre. The incredibly tight band comprises guitarist Dave Navarro, bassist Chris Chaney and drummer Steven Perkins, and Ferrell is in top vocal shape throughout, with standouts being the opener “Stop!” and audience favorite “Been Caught Stealing.” The hi-def image and especially audio are top-notch; the three-disc set also includes the concert on DVD and CD.
Steve Gordon’s tongue-in-cheek 1985 horror flick is loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft novella, but blood, guts and the ick factor are ramped up to eleven. There’s an amusing schadenfreude watching various characters meet their deaths, only to be brought back to life as zombies that are quite unlike George Romero’s. Despite the lunacy, there’s a healthy sense of dark humor, a no-brainer when you’re dealing with a reanimated doctor who carries around his own decapitated head. Standing out in a game cast is Barbara Crampton as our hero’s beautiful fiancée. Arrow’s thorough set includes two cuts of the film, audio commentaries and featurettes, all encased in an attractive box that even has a selection of postcards.
DVDs of the Week 

In the Shadow of Women

Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman
He’s been a critics’ and film festival darling for decades, but French director Phillippe Garrel makes films that strike me as amateurish, half-baked explorations of relationships, and his latest In the Shadow of Women continues his string of stiffly-acted, superficial dramas. Leading man Stanislas Merhar is less talented than the director’s mediocre son Louis, whose merely dull presence is sorely missed. In Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman, the late Belgian director’s 1997 self-portrait, she begins by reading from a text about her problems making this film, then shows clips from her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, along with several others. Non-fans will find it self-indulgent, but your mileage may vary if you’re an admirer.
(IFC Films)

A star Manhattan high school basketball player juggles a pregnant girlfriend, a gambling dad, a clueless mom and his own college prep in Bart Freundlich’s one-note melodrama which reaches its nadir in a contrived one-on-one game between father and son that pales next to a similar scene scene in The Great Santini. What Freundlich lacks in expressive writing he compensates for in casting and location scouting: Michael Shannon (dad), Taylor John Smith (son), Carla Gugino (mom) and Zazie Beetz (girlfriend) are all admirable, and the famed Greenwich Village basketball courts provide vital atmosphere.

Theater Review—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances through August 13, 2017
Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez in A Midsummer Night's Dream (photo: Joan Marcus)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always tricky to stage, as Shakespeare juggles several disparate subplots that almost, but not quite, mesh together. There’s the enchanted world of the fairies, the low-brow bumbling of the “mechanicals,” and the frolicking pairs of lovers from the regal Athenian court, all set loose in a magical forest. It would seem perfect for an evening in Central Park, but director Lear deBessonet has flattened everything out so that, though it all flows nicely on the surface, the play’s disturbing undercurrents are left, well, undisturbed.
The production certainly looks handsome. David Rockwell’s judicious set design visualizes Shakespeare’s “wood” with a few twisty trees, which enchantingly play off the park’s surrounding greenery. Clint Ramos’s spectacularly colorful costumes are loud in the best possible sense, and Tyler Micoleau’s adroit lighting rounds out a delightful visual trifecta. Added to that is Justin Levine’s jaunty New Orleans-jazz influenced music, with songs belted out smashingly by Marcelle Davies-Lashley, even if she’s been shoe-horned into the proceedings as the “fairy singer.”
DeBessonet capably choreographs the characters’ movement, from the nerdily comic mechanicals rehearsing their play to the royals from both Athens (Theseus and Hippolyta) and the forest (Oberon and Titania). But the director must shoulder the blame for the ridiculous idea to cast elderly performers as the fairies—Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, etc.—nonsensical even considering that Puck, who does Oberon’s bidding, is played by the ultimate stage ham Kristine Nielsen, the least puckish Robin Goodfellow since Kathryn Walker in Julie Taymor’s 2014 mess at Theater for a New Audience.
Then there are the lovers, who are a well-oiled machine of athleticism and hilarity, led by Annaleigh Ashford’s Helena, a true spitfire. She might be too broad in her interpretation of the most desperate of the quartet—which includes Shalita Grant’s Hermia, Kyle Beltran’s Lysander, and Alex Hernandez’s Demetrius, each physically agile if histrionically undernourished—but the actress has a unique way of speaking her lines that seems to work for anything, from Sondheim to A.R. Gurney to Shakespeare, and her peerless physical skills allow her to get more out of a single gesture than others do by mercilessly camping it up.
The only other cast member on Ashford’s level is Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom, a part filled with immortal comic scenes. But Burstein, unlike most park performers, doesn’t completely force-feed a diet of extraneous bits to an audience all too willing to swallow them. Instead, he’s funny and poignant and realistic and fantastical simultaneously, which is what deBessonet’s Dream, despite some splendid moments, ultimately isn’t.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

August '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Going in Style

(Warner Bros)
This remake of the 1979 oldster heist movie with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg is an innocuous but entertaining vehicle for Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, who play octogenarians planning to rob a bank.
Director Zach Braff consistently takes the obvious route to every lame old age joke or schmaltzy twist, but his cast—which includes a still gorgeous Ann-Margret as Arkin’s love interest and an hilarious John Ortiz as a crook who gives our trio some robbery tips—is ingratiating enough to make this a smooth 95-minute ride. The hi-def transfer sparkles; extras are Braff’s commentary and deleted scenes.
Crashing—Complete 1st Season
Too bad Pete Holmes is so dull and unfunny: not that this lackluster Judd Apatow would have succeeded anyway, but a better lead might have given the series a chance to be amusing, pointed and even poignant.
Whenever someone with superior comic smarts appears—like Artie Lange or Sarah Silverman—Crashing sporadically turns into something humorous, but that’s not often enough. The series looks fine on Blu; extras are featurettes and Holmes’ HBO stand-up special.
The Sea Chase 

Blood Alley

(Warner Archive)
Two lesser John Wayne films showcase his passable acting in two wartime roles. In John Farrow’s barely adequate water-logged actioner, 1955’s Sea Chase, the Duke is a German U-boat pilot who loathes his Fuhrer and falls for Lana Turner.
In William Wellman’s nearly embarrassing Blood Alley (1948), Wayne is a merchant marine who ferries Chinese refugees with China’s navy hot on his tail, as white performers (unsurprisingly but eye-rollingly) play several Asian characters. Both films—shot in Cinemascope—look terrific on Blu-ray; Alley extras are newsreels and featurettes.
Where the Boys Are
(Warner Archive)
This mildly cautionary 1960 tale follows horny college kids to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break, where it’s suggested that they’re having sex, losing their virginity and even (in one shocking instance of honesty) being raped.
The attractive and charming cast is led by the gals, especially Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis. The Cinemascope compositions look superb in hi-def; extras include Prentiss’s audio commentary and two featurettes.
DVDs of the Week 


(Film Movement)

Barbet Schroeder’s latest, Amnesia—a slow-boiling drama about an German woman whose isolated existence is disturbed by a young man whose appearance leads to terrible revelations—is anchored by Marthe Keller’s lovely, understated performance in the lead.

Based on the 2011 treacly smash-hit French comedy The Intouchables, the Argentine version, Inseparables, is even more sentimental and crude in its story of a wealthy paraplegic and the working-class assistant who brings excitement into his life. The lone Amnesia extra is Your Mother and I, a fine short by British-Canadian director Anna Maguire.

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