Monday, July 25, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Barbershop: The Next Cut **½

Arriving 14 years after the original Barbershop, and 12 after Barbershop 2: Back in Business, Barbershop: The Next Cut is saddled with the task of taking a familiar property and bringing it up to date. In the hands of writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, and director Malcom D. Lee, the strategy is to get political, with the issue of shootings and gang violence in Chicago as the galvanizing force around which the barbershop rallies. Leaving aside the humorous cultural escapism of the early aughts, The Next Cut faces the racial and political issues of 2016 head on.

Ice Cube returns as Calvin, a successful small business owner, married, with a teen son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), just trying to keep the wild bunch at the barbershop in check. With the exception of Terri (Eve) and Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), it's a whole new crew in the shop, including Calvin's best friend Rashad (Common), nerdy cute Jerrod (Lamorne Morris), "Bollyhood" barber Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar), as well as entrepreneurial One Stop (J.B. Smoove) and uncensored Dante (Deon Cole).

On the other side of the shop is a ladies salon, managed by Angie (Regina Hall), featuring outlandishly dressed flirt Draya (Nicki Minaj), and the soulfully conscious Bree (Margot Bingham). The girls vs. boys layout allows for heated debates and banter covering everything from gender to presidential politics.

The barbershop in this film is a hub of the community where issues of all types are hashed out. Right away, that issue becomes gang violence and shootings in their community. Calvin's concerned about his son, and considers moving the business to the North Side. But with the threat of an ominous "enclosure" to stem the violence, soon to be voted on by city council, and an increase in tensions, the crew decides to take it upon themselves to promote a 48-hour cease-fire, with free haircuts for the duration, hoping to inspire peace talks and community bonding.

There's a lot of rhetoric about "taking care of your own business," saving your own community and placing the power on the individual to affect change. The neo-liberal ideas are espoused most vehemently by Raja, the son of Indian immigrants who chased the American Dream — though the lively debaters in the shop are quick to point out that the playing field isn't level for African-Americans.

Less successful is the subplot about infidelity suspicions between Terry, Rashad and Draya. The quickly escalating drama and cheesy reconciliations aren't as interesting as the spirited discussions about relationships on the floor of the shop, and feel shoehorned in to give Eve and Common something to do. The relationship that feels the most fresh, funny and contemporary is between dorky Jerrod and enlightened Bree. Lamorne Morris as Jerrod is the low-key MVP of the film, a comedic standout.

The cease-fire seems strangely ineffective, a short term solution that doesn't effect real change. But Barbershop: The Next Cut stays on message about community pride, family values and personal responsibility. It's a wholesomely entertaining film, though some of the political discourse is a bit fast and loose with neo-liberal notions of individualism and respectability politics (Ice Cube, of all people, admonishes his son about baggy pants), and wants to be simultaneously both pro- and anti-government. It's a mixed message, but that perfectly encapsulates the confusion of 2016 American politics.

The Boss *½

Melissa McCarthy is funny. Just by existing — the way she carries herself, spastic with energy, swearing with vim — she can elicit a chuckle, even when the material doesn’t live up to her talent.

And does this material ever not live up to her talent. The Boss, written and directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and creative collaborator, has crafted for the comedian a high-concept character rich with comedic possibility and riotous social commentary and given her absolutely nothing to do. The script occasionally lets her off the leash for bursts of fun chaos, but the sum total is a controlled studio pic with little to recommend it beyond audience fealty to McCarthy and the fervent desire to see her talents put to better use.

McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, the 47th wealthiest woman in America and a self-styled financial and lifestyle guru with a short, shellacked, blazing red Suze Orman coiffure. All ego and brass, Michelle packs arenas with working women eager to worship their hero and her venal, take-no-prisoners, get-rich program. It’s as if the aforementioned Orman mind-melded with Martha Stewart and burned away all traces of kindness and empathy. (Not that she doesn't have reason to be so distrusting; an opening montage shows the difficult girl being returned to her Catholic orphanage by exasperated foster parents.)

Her empire crumbles when she’s sent to federal prison on insider trading charges — an arrest orchestrated by her one-time lover, lifelong nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage). Her mercenary ways have left her short on friends, and with her assets liquidated and nowhere else to go, she turns up on the doorstep of her long-suffering ex-assistant and single mother Claire (Kristen Bell).

In the throes of couch-surfing depression, inspiration strikes when Michelle takes Claire’s young daughter to her Dandelions meeting, where the Girl Scout-like troupe celebrates their cookie-sales numbers. Michelle wants in on the racket and devises Darnell’s Darlings, a leaner, meaner operation with salesgirls dressed like militant communist youth peddling Claire’s homemade brownies, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to a college fund to empower the girls to grow up educated, successful women. It’s an inspired bid for image rehab, and one that seems to be working until someone says the dreaded F-word: Family.

And that is this movie’s biggest failing. Michelle Darnell is high-concept, irreverent and R-rated while the PG world she inhabits is predictable and feel-good, armed with life lessons about building relationships and sticking together.

Every other character in the film is a misfire. Claire is such a cipher that not even Bell’s bubbly charisma can imbue her with any weight or purpose. Kathy Bates is cast as Michelle’s estranged mentor and given a single, brief scene with no gags. And who knows what fever dream gave birth to Dinklage’s Renault, a wannabe samurai with dumb hair, a katana collection and an assistant who hand-feeds him milk while he plots taking over the brownie business; it’s as if they threw a handful of weird quirks in a blender and called the resulting sludge a character.

There are brief bursts of hilarity, and they are all, without exception, owed to McCarthy’s innate charisma and comedic timing. The Boss does McCarthy such disservice that a crass physical gag of a hide-a-bed hurling her into a wall starts to feel like a metaphor.

Hardcore Henry **

Hardcore Henry has to be the most video-game-like movie yet made, taking the concept of a first-person shooter to the extreme. It’s akin to the famous FPS sequence in previous video game feature Doom, but for a whole movie, and with way more imagination and energy and gonzo bloodshed (including one of the most violent credits sequences ever).

It’s shot in first-person perspective, largely through a fish-eye GoPro, to put the viewer in the protagonist’s skin. It’s an innovative storytelling step down the path to virtual reality. But is it more drama or Dramamine? The answer is yes.

Hardcore drops you into the body of amnesiac Henry, late of some super-soldier program that luckily makes him able to withstand all manner of mayhem. There are lots of fistfights and shootouts and copious Sharlto Copleys (the actor tests his versatility in a number of guises) and a bunch of the inexplicable things that happen in video games, which you shrug at and keep firing your weapon.

The plot has something to do with Henry’s wife being kidnapped by a bad guy with unexplained powers and Henry regaining his memory. Nothing new in the story, but the experience is full of entertainingly grisly moments.

As in John Wick, the stunt team earns its hazard pay. The filmmakers don’t run out of amusing ways to destroy a human body. First-time feature director Ilya Naishuller relishes his R-rated fun.

However, the jittery camera work makes The Blair Witch Project look like something out of Kubrick. This is a real concern, as I, for one, fought some pretty sharp motion sickness while watching.

If one can accept the story’s video-game logic and cope with the kinetosis, Hardcore is often exhilaratingly extreme.

Sing Street ***

If you were not a chronicler of music in the 1980s, John Carney’s Sing Street is likely to beguile you with the sweet, universal energy of youth. By the same token, if you were one of the select few in that profession during that much-maligned decade, the movie might make you feel old and a little cranky. Don’t get me wrong. As a 21st-century moviegoer, I was touched by this pop fable. But as a grizzled survivor of the age of Duran Duran, I found myself picking nits about its musical choices (most of which are three or four years out of sync with the plot) and occasionally resisting its winsome, cheeky, post-punk spirit.

That’s my problem, and it’s a problem less with the film — an autobiographical tribute to Dublin, hair gel and the power of lip-syncing — than with the passage of time and the tiny schisms that open up within a single profession’s experience. The narcissism of small differences, you might say. Envy and regret, you might say.

In any case, the charms of Sing Street should not be underestimated. Partly because its manner is unassuming and its story none too original — a young man’s coming-of-age amid the chaos of home, the rigidity of school and the riot of stirring hormones and budding ambition — it’s easy to overlook Carney’s ingenuity and sensitivity. A songwriter himself, he specializes in movies about striving tunesmiths who fuse dreams of glory with the drive for love, connection and authenticity.

In Once, his overachieving breakthrough feature and Begin Again, its overreaching follow-up, the musical idiom was sincere and acoustic. Sing Street, in contrast, embraces the high artifice and self-conscious irony of early and mid-80s mostly British pop, a music replete with cheesy keyboard effects, cotton-candy harmonies and pouty posing. Its hero is not a striving professional, but rather an ardent amateur, a 15-year-old boy who decides to start a band because he wants to impress a girl.

His name is Cosmo, and he’s played with a perfect blend of diffidence, confidence and sly charisma by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Cosmo lives with his brother and sister and their bickering parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) whose financial worries force Cosmo to change schools. He lands in an institution run by the Christian Brothers. The school, on Synge Street — an address that lends its name to both the film and Cosmo’s band — is a rougher scene than he’s used to. The bully takes a special interest in him, and so does the autocratic, creepy headmaster.

Cosmo, meanwhile, is smitten with Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a slightly older girl who lives in a nearby group home. She wants to run off to London to become a model, and he offers her a starring role in a music video. This promise leads to a scramble: The young swain needs songs, and also musicians, musical instruments, a video camera, and costumes.

All of that appears, if not quite by magic then by the kind of grace that operates in movies like this one. A pipsqueak sidekick becomes Sing Street’s manager and helps Cosmo recruit a songwriting partner with a houseful of equipment. Before long, a quintet takes shape and the tunes — written by Carney, with an uncanny ear for the styles of the era — start to flow.

Cosmo is tutored in music by his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor, looking like an Irish Seth Rogen), a college dropout with an extensive LP collection and a surfeit of rock ’n’ roll wisdom. The band cycles through a range of available influences — the Jam, the Cure, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates — and Cosmo’s style of dress changes accordingly. The costume design, by Tiziana Corvisieri, is generally flawless. All those puffy sleeves and acid-washed denim.

The sound mix may be a little too polished for a schoolboy combo cutting demos on a push-button cassette recorder, but Sing Street’s videos and songs feel like the plausible products of a precocious sensibility. For its part Sing Street is generally up-tempo and sentimental, but its nostalgia is rarely cloying and its plot doesn’t feel overly contrived. There is an undercurrent of darkness and frustration rippling under the bright optimism. Around the edges of the story is a penumbra of real trouble: alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse, stalled careers and broken marriages.

Such trouble inspires Cosmo’s fantasy of escape, and also grounds the escapism of Sing Street itself in a recognizable reality. The movie understands how enchantment and disappointment go together, like the A and B sides of a single that won’t leave the turntable.

Other DVD Releases This Week
Born To Be Blue **½ This is a curious mixture of fact and fiction, cliche and originality, style and emotion — it never truly soars but by throwing the ingredients of jazz great Chet Baker’s life together and producing something different, it’s never less than intriguing.

Criminal * Struggling to generate much tension, the film opts for sensory battery in the action scenes, rendering gunshots as loud as cannon fire and splashing blood every which way.

L’Atessa (The Wait) ** What this movie needs is more: more story, more character, and more reason to grieve with the women in it. Because what these women have to grieve is worthy of time and attention, yet these qualities are frustratingly absent from this film.

Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked ** As ever, the paradox of Verhoeven’s style is that it seems to wallow in tastelessness and transgression even as he remains one of the most classical movie craftsmen.

The Russian Woodpecker *** This documentary is provocative, spooky and just a little nutty.

A Strange Course of Events ½* A film about ordinary people doing nothing is a tricky thing, quickly numbing the viewer to sleep unless the screenplay is electrifying and the actors greatly appealing. Unfortunately, neither of these is true in this film, which is anything but strange and eventful.

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

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