Monday, January 12, 2015

This Week’s DVD Releases


A real busy week.
(Click on title to see the film’s trailer)

Love Is Strange ***½ Directed by Ira Sachs. John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei. After 28 years together, Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) finally get hitched. But when the marriage raises controversy at the school where George works, he’s fired. Unable to afford their New York City apartment, the couple is forced to live apart. One of those lovely little movies that starts out being about a handful of people and ends up being about all of us. That’s a tricky act to pull off and the talented writer-director Sachs stumbles occasionally over moments of self-conscious lyricism. But when the film recovers its balance, looks at its characters with fondness and with faith, it quietly soars.

The Strange Little Cat ***½ Directed by Ramon Zürcher. Three generations of a middle-class clan gather in a Berlin flat during the course of a day. This kind of vérité surrealism doesn’t come along very often, and the glorious oddness that Zürcher manages to infuse into even the most routinely domestic activities is really the gift the film keeps on giving.

Gone Girl ***½ Directed by David Fincher. Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward. With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent. A rare movie: a delicious thriller that provides plenty of titillation and gruesome pleasure while offering a dollop of social commentary. It’s smart, twisted, bloody, and almost guaranteed to satisfy anyone with a penchant for the macabre.

Wetlands *** Directed by David Wnendt. When an embarrassing shaving accident lands rebellious teen Helen (Carla Juri) in the hospital, she develops an unlikely bond with her male nurse (Christoph Letkowski) who she seduces with stories of her sexual adventures while using her illness to reunite her divorced parents. Even though Wetlands is absolutely, brutally unrelenting in its depictions of bodily functions and searching adolescent sexuality, it’s also an inventively sharp, briskly edited, spectacularly-acted post-adolescent coming-of-age story.

Keep on Keepin’ On *** Directed by Alan Hicks. A documentary that follows jazz legend Clark Terry over four years to document the mentorship between Terry and 23-year-old blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin as the young man prepares to compete in an elite, international competition. One of the delights of this documentary is hearing Terry tell stories. Watching the movie feels as if you’ve sat down in someone else’s living room to hear tales of other legendary jazz musicians, such as Count Basie or Miles Davis.

Expedition to the End of the World *** Directed by Daniel Dencik. A three-mast schooner packed with artists, scientists and ambitions worthy of Noah or Columbus sails to the rapidly melting massifs of Northeast Greenland. The movie reveals some of the most stunning landscape cinematography imaginable, while everyone on the isolated ship waxes philosophical (which I guess I would do as well had I been in their place).

Middle of Nowhere *** Directed by Ava DuVernay. After her husband is sent to prison for eight years, medical student Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) shelves her studies to focus on her partner’s welfare as he serves his time. Nothing is easily resolved in this complex drama, which makes it all the more honestly moving. More than anything, this is a film about a woman on a journey of self-discovery, finding her way gingerly. (This film was released originally in 2012. It is coming out on DVD now to capitalize on the fact that DuVernay directed Selma, which is currently receiving a lot of Oscar buzz.)

Bird People *** Directed by Pacale Ferran. Josh Charles, Anais Dumoustier. In an airport hotel on the outskirts of Paris, a Silicon Valley engineer abruptly chucks his job, breaks things off with his wife, and holes up in his room. It’s a tricky proposition that will surely ruffle the feathers of many viewers, but one that also makes a curious, if lasting, impression, thanks in part to strong turns from Demoustier and Charles.

The Two Faces of January **½ Directed by Hossein Amini. Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst, Oscar Isaac. A con artist, his wife, and a stranger flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective. A sun-splashed noir that loses its appeal in the last act.

Jimi: All Is By My Side **½ Directed by John Ridley.André Benjamin, Hayley Atwill, Imogen Poots. Chronicles Jimi Hendrix’s rise to fame and the personal demons he battled along the way. At times the movie feels absolutely authentic. More often, though, it’s meandering and melodramatic, with far too many scenes of Hendrix jabbering and squabbling with two key female figures in his life, and not enough of the music.

Honeymoon **½ Directed by Leigh Janiak. Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway. Soon after arriving at a secluded woodland cabin, a honeymooning couple sees their bliss evaporate when a sleepwalking incident leads to increasingly odd behavior by the bride. It waffles between dramatizing youthful self-absorption and succumbing to it, and this tonal instability comes to effectively mirror the domestic discord that’s revealed to be its real subject.

Finding Fela! **½ Directed by Alex Gibney. A documentary that looks at the life and music of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti. As a portrait of a great artist and activist, Finding Fela is worth a look, but it’s Gibney’s weakest work as a filmmaker.

Memphis **½ Directed by Tim Sutton. A strange singer with "God given talent" drifts through the mythic city of Memphis. This is a bold and bewildering conjuring act, that might mean nothing at all, but the sleight of hand is worth the price of a rental.

Bad Turn Worse **½ Directed by Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins. Three Texas teens hope to make a break for it and escape their dead-end existence in a cotton-mill town but get sucked into the seedy underbelly of organized crime when one of them steals from a gangster. Though its influences (Badlands, early Coens) are writ large, and the denouement disappoints, the performances convince, the dialogue captivates and the sense of backwater boredom is overpowering.

A Walk Among the Tombstones **½ Directed by Scott Frank. Private investigator Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is hired by a drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife. Unlike his tough guy roles in Taken or Non-Stop, Neeson is at least given some good dialogue. And he’s a lot more world-weary than kick-ass here.

21 Years: Richard Linklater ** Directed by Michael Dunaway, Tara Wood. The godfather of independent film is profiled in this survey of the first 21 years of the director’s career. It’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t more Linklater documentaries out there, considering how substantial, influential, and plain brilliant his body of work is. In the meantime, this one will have to do.

Young Ones ** Directed by Jake Paltrow. Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee. As Earth withers in drought, farm owner Ernest (Shannon) defends his property and his children, Mary (Fanning) and Jerome (SmitMcPhee), from the harsh frontier. But Mary’s manipulative suitor plots to take Ernest’s land for a devious scheme, and Jerome is forced to fight back. The way it reaches to find the humanity in a place devoid of hope shows admirable attempt at a singular vision. But Paltrow overestimates the timeless nature of the story.

Alien Abduction ** Directed by Matty Beckerman. North Carolina’s Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon provides the grist for this saga that follows the vacationing Morris clan, whose camping trip becomes a living nightmare after a wrong turn leads to an encounter with aliens. Despite a neat narrative twist delivered during the end credits, this is ultimately a by-the-numbers enterprise that will please only the most undemanding renters.

Men, Women & Children Directed by Jason Reitman. Examines the countless ways the online landscape affects the relationships, communication and self-images of digital-age adolescents, whose parents try to contend with the pitfalls. Both heavy-handed and ham-fisted, this is a self-important morality tale where you can see everyone’s uppance coming long before it arrives.

Jessabelle Directed by Kevin Greutert. Recuperating at her father’s Louisiana home from an accident that’s left her unable to walk, Jessie (Sarah Snook) finds a gift from her long-dead mom and an angry ghost. The too-infrequent scare techniques are mostly by the book, rarely developing sufficient dread to heighten the film’s rather unremarkable climax.

The Culture High Directed by Brett Harvey. Joe Rogan, Snoop Dog, Sir Richard Branson, Wiz Khalifa. A documentary that explores the deep moral divisions and scientific controversy that fuels America’s political debate regarding the legalization of marijuana. Harvey has gotten the documentary look and format down pat, complete with generic and gratuitous nature and cityscape shots. Where he shows an amateurish hand is in the term-paper-like voice-over narration and the inclusion of underqualified talking heads.

Revenge of the Green DragonsDirected by Wai-Keung Lau, Andrew Loo. Two best friends rise through the ranks of New York’s Chinese underworld in the 1980s. In Lau and Loo’s telling, the off-the-boat indoctrination of young, undocumented Chinese families into vicious gangsterism is overstated and cartoonish, like The Warriors trying to pass itself off as a docudrama.

Viktor * Directed by Phillippe Martinez. Gerard Depardieu, Elizabeth Hurley. Viktor Lambert is serving a seven-year sentence for an art heist in his native France when, just months before his release, he learns of his son’s murder. Would be campy fun if it wasn’t so relentlessly tedious.

The Identical * Directed by Dustin Marcellino. Seth Green, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta. Follows young Ryan Wade (Rayne) as he pursues a musical career, unaware that he’s the twin brother of a rock superstar. Embarrassing and weird.

Fugly! * Directed by Alfredo De Villa. John Leguizamo, Rhada Mitchell, Rosie Perez, Griffin Dunne. Fame proves elusive for comic Jesse Sanchez, who reflects on life from the bottom of a bathtub. It’s a comedy that’s so broad and cartoony that the occasional dramatic pivots seem diminished and ridiculous, like performing a soliloquy on a Chuck E. Cheese stage.

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