Monday, July 18, 2016

This Week's DVD Releases


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½



Were you one of those lucky viewers who were watching TV, in 1987, when The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones aired? Did it give you a craving for crossovers so ravenous that not even Alien vs. Predator (2004) could sate it? Well, your time has come. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is out on DVD. You could argue that the Avengers movies beat it to the punch; to the purist, however, those are not so much authentic crossovers as kindly support groups, where people with a wide range of personality disorders can meet under the Marvel banner and exchange thumps. Batman and Superman, on the other hand, are ideally matched: numbly heroic, bulging in all the right places, and bent on busting crime in the permanent hope that nobody will notice how dull they are. Unless you count the time when they went to the same dry cleaner to get soup stains out of their capes, they have never been introduced. Until now.

Superman is played, as in Man of Steel (2013), by Henry Cavill, whereas Ben Affleck is a novice in the part of Batman. A curious choice, especially in the light of Hollywoodland (2006), where he excelled in the role of George Reeves, who starred as Superman on TV in the early 1950s, loathed the experience, and died of a gunshot to the head. It was hardly a movie to brighten one’s faith in comic books. Since then, Affleck has become a director of steady and satisfying thrillers, including The Town and Argo, so why risk this backward step into the realm of beefcake? Maybe he relished the gleam of the supporting cast — Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Costner, with Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jesse Eisenberg as a jittery Lex Luthor, and Jeremy Irons taking over from Michael Caine as Alfred, the venerable butler-cum-weapons designer to Bruce Wayne.

It’s quite a lineup, and not one of them goes unwasted. All are sacrificed to the plot — the usual farrago of childhood trauma, lumps of kryptonite, and panic in the streets — or, rather, to the very loud noises that the plot creates. The director is Zack Snyder, who was responsible for 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), Man of Steel, and other Chekhovian chamber pieces, and whom I suspect of having worked for NutriBullet before he joined the movie business. When in doubt, he simply slings another ingredient into the mix, be it an irradiated monster, an explosion on government premises, or the sharp smack of masonry on skull. Then, there’s the music. Hans Zimmer, seldom the most placid of composers, is joined on this occasion by Junkie XL, and we should give thanks for their combined efforts, which render large portions of the dialogue, by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, blessedly inaudible. The drawling Irons does, now and then, signal his fatigue at the whole enterprise ("Even you’ve got too old to die young," Alfred says to his master), and there is one other good line, but it’s stolen from Cole Porter, so that doesn’t count.

When fans flock to the video store for this movie, it will be not for Batman or Superman alone but for the sake of the preposition in the title. To be blunt: how big is that "v"? You can’t accuse Snyder of tamping it down; his chief promoter is Luthor, who calls it "the greatest gladiatorial contest in the history of the world," and suggests a number of suitable tags — blue vs. black, dark vs. light, Coke vs. Pepsi, and so on. In the event, the bout is like any other slugfest, with Batman warned by the referee for using nasty green krypto-gas in the fourth round, and his opponent hitting back strongly in the ninth. The winner, on points, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who crashes the party and leaves them both dumbfounded, not least because she has the wit, and the wherewithal, to confront evil while wearing a conical bustier. And that is that, except that the film, determined to hit the two-and-a-half-hour mark, has fifteen more minutes to fill. These are jammed with peekaboo teasers for sequels, since DC comics, like Marvel, require that movies do their own marketing. The Dawn of Justice may be over, but the lunchtime of justice is still to come, and after that the cocktail hour of revenge. I can’t wait.


Elvis & Nixon **
If you want to know about the tone of Elvis & Nixon, if you want to have an idea of its comedy, just look at the casting of Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. Here’s an actor more suited to playing Lurch on The Addams Family than the King. He’s tall and menacing. He has a cold stare. He’s not charming, but alarming, all of which makes him ideal for this movie, which is more like an absurdist lampoon than a straight account.

In real life, when Elvis told President Richard Nixon that he wanted to become an undercover agent, he probably just seemed silly. When Shannon says it, he seems downright insane, and were it not for the historical record, we might fear for Nixon’s safety, especially the fairly sympathetic Nixon we find here, played by Kevin Spacey. This Nixon is practically being held hostage by a lunatic, and the situation is definitely rich enough for a terrific sketch on Saturday Night Live. But for an 86-minute feature film, it’s a stretch.

Written by Joey and Hanala Sagal, as well as the actor Cary Elwes (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), Elvis & Nixon is based on the real-life meeting of two titans at the summit of power, each destined for a dramatic fall. In December 1970, Elvis showed up at the White House, unexpectedly, with a letter for President Nixon and a request for a meeting. Alarmed at the direction of a youth culture that was growing away from him, Elvis wanted to work as an "agent at large" for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Freud might theorize that Elvis felt angry at the decline of his cultural relevancy, and so he acted on an unconscious impulse to arrest and punish people for no longer being his fans. Moreover, he wanted to attribute their disaffection not to movies like Clambake, but to the influence of narcotics. That he fantasized about working undercover speaks to the extent to which he felt outside of things.

In any case, the Nixon administration — colossally out of touch — thought that a photo of the president with Elvis might speak to America’s youth. (This is, by the way, just seven months after the shootings at Kent State.) And so they granted the meeting.

But in the film, nothing happens right away. Basically, anything worth watching in Elvis & Nixon either involves Elvis, or Nixon, or both of them. But there isn’t enough material for a whole movie, so everything must be stretched. When stretching isn’t enough, the movie must find another source for drama outside of Elvis and Nixon. And so it finds one in the dilemma of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a former member of Elvis’ inner circle, who is recruited by Elvis to accompany him to Washington.

Jerry is torn. He feels affection for Elvis, and he is drawn to the Elvis way of life. But he has a fiancee, and on the day the movie takes place, he is expected back in Los Angeles at night for an important dinner with the girlfriend’s parents. He’s going to ask if he could marry her.

You see the problem, don’t you? Jerry’s dilemma is very small, and even worse, in a movie about Elvis and Nixon, he’s not Elvis or Nixon. There’s something else, too. Jerry’s loyalty for Elvis was predicated on Elvis’ actually being recognizably human, as he certainly was in real life. But Shannon’s Elvis is a farcical figure, an intentionally comic creation, ideal for the scenes with Nixon, but not someone to inspire devotion in an underling. In this way, the two strains of the movie — the Schilling strain and the White House meeting — are in conflict.

What we’re left with is a film that has some good comic moments, but also dull stretches in which viewers may find themselves checking out or unexpectedly fighting fatigue. Shannon is worth seeing, and so is Spacey — hunched over, doing a funny impression of Nixon’s voice and body language. But this time the actors are better than the material.
 

Miles Ahead **½
Because improvisation is the heart of jazz, a few new biopics of storied trumpeters are seeing fit to mess with the facts. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a problem: With this music, it’s not what you play but how you play it. As told in the current Born to be Blue, the Chet Baker story more or less remains within the realm of nonfiction, but Miles Ahead, a passion project of its director, co-writer, and star Don Cheadle, is plumb made up. And it dares you to object.

Again, not necessarily a problem, since Cheadle is never not worth watching and doubly so as late-period Miles, a force of barely banked murder beneath an electric shock of hair and industrial-strength shades. It’s the late 1970s and the great man hasn’t released any music in half a decade. Is he burnt out? Doped up? Has he lost his lip, his nerve, his mind? The suits at Columbia records are getting antsy and a reporter for Rolling Stone is at the door.

The reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), is a British-born bottom-feeder who needs a scoop and realizes he may have one if he can separate Davis from a reel of tape containing the jazz icon’s first recording session in years. That reel becomes the movie’s talisman, the thing everyone wants to get their hands on, and Miles Ahead crisscrosses a few days in New York — plus a few decades of flashbacks in Davis’s mind — as he fends off what seems like a city of hustlers. The way Cheadle tells it, Davis was the king of that city because he figured out how to hustle art.

It’s a phantasmagoric, impressionistic version of a legendary life, and sober-sided jazz historians will probably hate it. About the only real-life musician name-checked besides Davis is Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover), who orchestrated the great run of late-’50s albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. There’s a pianist who looks sort of like Bill Evans and someone else who might be Herbie Hancock, but that’s not the point. Very little penetrated Davis’s fierce protective shell, and Cheadle seems to want to look at the life from the inside out.

He gives a great performance. The actor rasps his dialogue from what feels like the bottom of an ashtray, and a sequence in which Davis stalks into the Columbia executive suite with a pistol and a grudge is a choice piece of grandstanding. It almost doesn’t matter that it never happened; the movie convinces you it should have. The modern-day scenes have a pungent, day-glo urgency — they’re coked up — while the flashbacks are cool and craftsmanlike, as controlled as any of the cuts on Davis’s timeless 1959 album Kind of Blue.

The story in those earlier scenes is that Miles wooed and won the love of his life, the ballet dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi, centered and graceful), then let his need for control overwhelm the marriage; this is a familiar and ugly picture, and Miles Ahead doesn’t shy from it. But neither does Cheadle connect it to the modern-day story line in any meaningful way. The movie is vibrantly all over the map, and the star doesn’t direct so much as over-direct, cramming in as many camera moves, flashy cuts, and ducks down the metaphorical alley as he can manage. Cheadle’s to be commended for climbing out of the cramped biopic box, but he hasn’t figured out what the new box should be made of, nor what should go in it and what should get left out.

The music is fine, with trumpeter Keyon Harrold dubbing in the licks over Cheadle’s trained fingering and a lot of actual Davis in the background. If you want, you can see Miles Ahead as a bandstand cutting session, with the leader allowing for sharp solo turns by McGregor, Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg as a smug thug of a promoter, and the fine up-and-coming actor Lakeith Lee Stanfield (Selma, Short Term 12) as a nervous young rival with a horn.

It’s all deeply felt and just as deeply unfocused, and that, more than the invented story line, betrays the movie’s subject. See it for Cheadle — for his performance and his ambition — but know that his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach does a disservice to the man whose life he’s telling. Davis always understood that the notes he didn’t play were as important as the ones he did.


OTHER RELEASES THIS WEEK

Kill Zone 2 ***
 Far from being the convoluted mess it could have been, incoming director Cheang Pou-soi crafts a tight, swiftly paced action yarn that ensures viewers won’t be pining for the presence of the first film’s stars, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung.

A Perfect Day **½ By the end, thanks to Leon de Aranoa’s steady direction and the actors’ slow-building character work, this film manages to coalesce into a reasonably tough-minded, compassionate vision of the difficulties and rewards of trying to do the right thing in an intractable situation, though it has to overcome more than a few flat, indolent stretches to get there.

The Perfect MatchAn attractive and appealing cast helps this formulaic pablum go down easy, but the genial tone buffs the edge out of every element.

Rio, I Love You ½* Despite its connotation of sun-drenched sensuality, this is a dispiritingly dull affair.

Underdogs * In a memorably bad summer for children’s films, this, surely, is as low as things can sink.

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

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