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BAYWATCH: BEACH BUMMER

No one expects Shakespearean dialogue or plotting in a movie based on the jiggly TV series of the 1990s, but even the breeziest summer escapism shouldn’t be this stupid. Dwayne Johnson is quickly established as the ultra-dedicated lifeguard chief of Emerald Bay. (If anything, he takes the role too seriously.) We also meet his team, including Alexandra Daddario, disgraced ex-Olympic swimmer Zac Efron, and the wannabes who aspire to join up—some for altruistic reasons, others so they can be near the great-looking guys and girls in swimsuits. A well-meaning sad sack (Jon Bass) starts to hyperventilate just being around a friendly blonde babe on the staff (swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach). But wait: there’s a mystery to be solved involving a greedy developer (played in one-note…

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Boring. That’s how I’d describe the latest Pirates of the Caribbean enterprise, subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales. Apparently, live men tell leaden tales like this, overstuffed with subplots and uninteresting characters. Still, this seems to be what audiences want to see; four previous entries in the series have been enormously popular. As the movie opens we meet Javier Bardem, leader of a band of bloodthirsty ghost pirates who seek revenge on those seafarers who still live. Meanwhile, a young lad (Brenton Thwaites) and a spirited young woman of science (Kaya Scodelario) risk their lives to search for the all-powerful trident of Poseidon. Caught in the midst of these elaborate schemes is the shipless and shiftless Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), whose most immediate goal is…

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WAR MACHINE: A NOBLE NEAR-MISS

War Machine has a lot going for it, including a stellar performance by Brad Pitt and an insider’s view of military life in the Middle East that rings all too true (at least to an armchair observer like me). In adapting the late Michael Hastings’ whistle-blowing book The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan writer-director David Michôd has drawn on his own experience as a journalist to good effect. (He made a bold and successful career change with the Aussie crime-family drama Animal Kingdom.) It’s too bad that a handful of flaws work against War Machine’s complete success. It opens with a glut of narration—rarely a good idea, especially here because we can’t see or identify with the narrator,…

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THE FORGOTTEN ARTWORK OF SILENT FILMS

By now most film buffs know how good silent movies looked, in contrast to popular opinion based on the scratchy, washed-out excerpts shown on television for years. But in watching Olive Films’ Blu-ray release of William S. Hart’s Wagon Tracks (1919) I was thunderstruck by its sheer physical beauty. Not only does Joe August’s camerawork bring this story of an 1850 wagon train—and one man’s quest for revenge—to vivid life, but the narrative title cards are artfully illustrated. At first, these “intertitles,” as they have come to be called, were strictly functional. Some of them bore the logo of the releasing company (Keystone, American Biograph, D.W. Griffith), but over time filmmakers realized there was no reason not to make them attractive. Thus began a tradition…

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BRYAN CRANSTON TESTS HIMSELF IN ‘WAKEFIELD’

Bryan Cranston’s career has gone into overdrive since he caught fire on Breaking Bad. Having recently brought screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and President Lyndon Johnson to life on film, he’s now tackling a fictional character unlike any he’s played before. Wakefield is an admittedly odd but consistently intriguing film. Cranston plays a successful insurance man who commutes every night to the suburbs of New York City through Grand Central Station. One evening he forgets his keys, but instead of trying to get into his house he seeks refuge in his garage. As he looks at his wife and daughters through a second-story window he begins an interior dialogue that reveals long-suppressed resentment, jealousy, and pent-up anger at his beautiful spouse (well played by Jennifer Garner). As…

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ALIEN: COVENANT

The alternate title for this latest space thriller might be Alien: Again, for while it provides plenty of scares and visual effects, it is basically a retread of what we’ve seen before…not only in Ridley Scott’s original Alien but his most recent prequel, Prometheus. An intrepid (and well-cast) crew explores an unknown planet only to find themselves victimized by gruesome monsters who invade their bodies and emit lots of goo. Another lesson already learned in Prometheus: don’t trust Artificial Intelligence, even if it is cloaked in the form of Michael Fassbender. The new movie introduces us to his souped-up superior, a lookalike who conducts philosophical conversations with his dangerous doppelganger. There is an air of pretension to this aspect of the film, especially considering that…

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THE DEATH OF VHS—AND WHAT WE’VE LOST

Amidst the various “in memoriam” pieces for 2016 one name was missing: not an actor or a filmmaker, but a format familiar to all of us–vhs. Several sources reported that the manufacture of videocassette recorders, or vcrs, was discontinued by Funai Electric of Japan, which sold its products under the Sanyo brand here in the U.S. Sales had dropped to 750,000 the previous year. That doesn’t seem like such a tiny number but it was small enough to discourage the company from continuing. With the demise of video recording devices comes the eventual extinction of the tapes they played. Most companies stopped producing commercial tapes in 2003. That doesn’t mean that tapes have disappeared. Millions of people still own and use them. Like many of…

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PARIS CAN WAIT: C’EST SI BON

Not every film is intended for a wide audience, and I don’t expect everyone to be swept away by Eleanor Coppola’s romantic travelogue Paris Can Wait. It focuses on people of a certain age and takes its time meandering around France at its most picturesque . The set-up is simple: a charming fellow escorts a movie producer’s wife from Cannes to Paris, taking every possible detour along the way. They stop to admire beautiful scenery and indulge in sumptuous meals; after enjoying an impromptu picnic, they even imagine themselves recreating Manet’s painting “Le Dejeneur sur l’Herbe.” Being of that certain age and highly susceptible to the charms of Diane Lane, who plays the female lead, I enjoyed this attractive bon-bon and suspect that others of my…

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SNATCHED FROM THE JAWS OF COMEDY

A film starring two A-list comediennes should, at the very least, be funny. Snatched fails on this count but also seems to have other ambitions. It wants to impart some thoughts about mother-daughter relationships and the contrasting goals of women of two generations. This frustrating movie was written by a smart woman, Katie Dippold (whose credits include Parks and Recreation, The Heat and the new Ghostbusters) and directed by savvy filmmaker Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, Fifty-Fifty, Warm Bodies). So how did it go so terribly wrong? I can’t begin to guess. Amy Schumer plays an obnoxious person who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. With two non-refundable tickets to Ecuador and no friends who are willing to travel with her, the only solution is to…

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New And Notable Film Books: May 2017

  MAKEUP MAN: FROM ROCKY TO STAR TREK, THE AMAZING CREATIONS OF HOLLYWOOD’S MICHAEL WESTMORE By Michael Westmore with Jake Page; foreword by Patrick Stewart (Lyons Press) Here is a highly entertaining memoir by one of the leading practitioners of makeup artistry in Hollywood. His family once dominated the profession; that story was detailed in The Westmores of Hollywood, published some forty years ago. Michael recounts the highpoints of that family saga but then moves on to tell his own colorful story. From The Munsters to Rosemary’s Baby, from the original Rocky and Mask to an amazing run of 600 Star Trek episodes (in its forms), he has seen and done it all. Patrick Stewart writes in his foreword, “We respected and adored Michael. He…

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