Monday, August 1, 2016

This week's DVD releases

The Lobster ***½
When the end credits roll in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos' hypnotically strange and suggestive movie, you may find yourself scanning a bit more intently for the usual reassurance that no animals were harmed during production. There is, for starters, an arresting early scene in which a woman drives out to a remote field and puts three bullets in a donkey’s brain. Sometime later, a rabbit is caught in a trap and presented to a lover as a gift. And in between, there is one act of animal cruelty so chillingly unmotivated, you might be reminded of one of those haunted-house freakouts where it doesn’t pay to get too attached to the family pet.

As it happens, The Lobster is very much its own brand of horror movie, as well as a deranged thought experiment, a stealth love story, and a witty dismantling of the usual barriers separating man from beast. I mean that last part quite literally. Lanthimos (who wrote the screenplay with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou) has imagined a curious dystopian parable in which society is divided between the romantic haves and have-nots, and those who fail to land a spouse within a designated time frame are transformed into animals and cast into the wild.

Our test subject for this procedure is David (a sublimely morose Colin Farrell), to whom we are introduced just as his wife is leaving him for another man. To remedy this sad situation he is sent to a countryside hotel, where he is questioned upon arrival about his sexual preference and the animal he would like to be turned into should he fail. (His answer and his astute rationale for it give the movie its title.) From that point on, David has 45 days to scour the premises for a proper mate, the criteria for which turn out to be highly specific to say the least.

It’s a wondrously silly premise, and one that Lanthimos, not unlike those great cine-surrealists Luis Buñuel and Charlie Kaufman before him, executes with rigorous illogic and immaculate formal control. He also operates with the straight-faced conviction that even his most fanciful conceits are no more absurd or arbitrary, really, than the accepted but always-evolving rites of modern courtship.

Much of the fun of The Lobster derives from figuring out those conceits, which are methodically unpacked by the hotel manager (a superb Olivia Colman), and elaborated upon by some of David’s fellow inmates, who approach their own conquests with varying degrees of calculation (Ben Whishaw) and cluelessness (John C. Reilly). And then there are those who forge their own destiny, like the hotel guest credited only as "Heartless Woman" (a terrifying Angeliki Papoulia), whom David unwisely latches onto as a potential soulmate.

In reimagining the dating game as a sort of endless work convention from hell, Lanthimos unapologetically takes aim at the cherished ideal of monogamous commitment, as well as the ingrained tyranny of any society that regards the single life with contempt or (worse) pity. Even in a time of unprecedented personal and sexual freedom, where marriage and children are increasingly regarded as an option rather than a necessity, The Lobster’s ruthless vision of human coupling as a system of mercenary acquisitiveness can't help but strike a nerve.

But the perversity of the movie — and the pleasure it generates, and mostly sustains, over two steadily absorbing hours — runs deeper than its most obvious application points. Those who have seen Lanthimos’ prior films — including the unnerving Dogtooth (an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film) and the chilly, formalist Alps — may marvel at how fluidly and recognizably his sensibility translates to a broader, more ambitious canvas. While this marks the first time the director has worked outside his native Greece (the picture was shot in Ireland), it is scarcely the first time he has brought his deadpan, diorama-like sensibility to bear on a tale of physical and psychological captivity, as he did in Dogtooth.

The Lobster, for all its mordant humor and spasms of cruelty, is a gentler, less assaultive piece of work, which doesn’t mean it won’t get under your skin. To watch it is to experience an eerie, prolonged immersion in a world governed by utterly bizarre codes of behavior, which are enforced not only by the reigning authorities, but also by the exacting particulars of Lanthimos’ style. The deliberate pacing, the actors’ odd, herd-like formations and the meticulously composed images (shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis) at times convey the uncanny sensation of peering into a zoo enclosure, the better to study the mating habits of a vaguely familiar and frankly preposterous species.

It doesn’t take long, of course, to realize that the TV screen in this case is not just a window but a mirror. And the images we see reflected back at us, while harsh and unflattering, are also streaked with tenderness and compassion. Farrell’s finest performances (in films like In Bruges and Cassandra's Dream) have always de-emphasized his charisma and brought out his natural vulnerability, and here, rocking spectacles, a mustache and a slight paunch, he becomes a moving avatar of hangdog desperation and romantic yearning. And he’s matched, beat for melancholy beat, by Rachel Weisz as a downcast yet luminous Ms. Right who chooses exactly the wrong time and place to materialize.

That encounter occurs deep into the film’s rich but wobbly second act, which finds David fleeing the hotel and taking refuge in the nearby forest with a group of militant singles called the Loners, whose leader (a sharp Léa Seydoux) offers a sly reminder that even liberation can be a trap. Fittingly enough, it’s at this point that the film seems to box itself into a corner. The dense green overgrowth makes for a striking change of scenery, but just when they should be accelerating, the ideas begin to thin out, and the new twists that develop mostly seem to be treading water.

Weisz’s appearance introduces a vital but tricky variable in an emotional equation the film can’t quite bring itself to solve. Lanthimos, in attacking the rigid machinery of social conditioning, exerts his own overly controlling hand, stifling the ardent and unruly romanticism that we sense is just beginning to take root beneath the film's fastidious surface. But even that suppression is very much to the story's point: In a pinch, turning into a lobster might well be preferable to the curse of remaining human.

Louder Than Bombs ***
In Louder Than Bombs, his English-language debut, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) revisits the themes of his previous two movies — coming-of-age, creativity, depression, suicide — with great eloquence and furious, delicate beauty. The story revolves around an upcoming exhibition of the work of the war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died a few years earlier in a car crash.

Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and her oldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), know Isabelle committed suicide by driving into the path of an oncoming truck. But her youngest son, Conrad (Devin Druid), who is now a teenager, still believes it was an accident. A journalist (David Straithairn) who worked with Isabelle is writing an advance of the exhibit. He warns Gene that his story will reveal the truth about her death.

The bulk of Louder Than Bombs, which Trier co-wrote with his collaborator Eskil Vogt, takes place during the few days leading up to the publication of the article. But the movie spans several years in the family’s life, with artful flashbacks and surreal montages — storytelling techniques that come off as crutches in most other films — gradually filling in the events that led to the dysfunction that has paralyzed Gene’s relationship with his two sons.

Even though the narrative becomes smaller and more specific as the movie unfolds, the emotional intensity of Louder Than Bombs grows stronger as we come to understand its damaged, searching protagonists. Here is a drama about a troubled family that builds not to a crescendo of screams and confrontations, but toward empathy and understanding. Trier has a gift for capturing the complexities of human behavior with the depth of a novelist. In Oslo August 31st, a recovering drug addict is so overcome by disappointment he commits suicide, overlooking the importance he played in the lives of other people.

Louder Than Bombs presents us with a woman who takes her life because she’s aware of how much her husband and sons love her. The fact that we’re able to understand that contradictory impulse is a testament to the movie’s compassion. Trier, who turns 42 this year, is young enough to be steeped in popular culture — the role-playing video game Skyrim plays a critical role in the movie — but he has an old soul: Jonah’s unspoken panic about becoming a father, or Gene’s reaction when he confirms his suspicion that Isabelle was unfaithful, feel personal and lived-in. But the most intriguing character in the movie is the confused, tormented Conrad, who initially comes off as the kind of troubled adolescent who will end up riddling his classroom with bullets. By the end of Louder Than Bombs, he’s just one of us — someone who simply needs to love, and be loved in return.

High-Rise **½
What a beautiful and bloody mess of a movie. High-Rise is a surreal, trippy, sex-drenched, blood-spattered, adult variation on Lord of the Flies (with a touch of Brazil and even Metropolis), peppered with provocative allegories but eventually sinking under the weight of its own overly artsy, semi-smug self-consciousness.

Based on the 1975 dystopian novel from J.G. Ballard, High-Rise is set in an ultra-modern, luxury high-rise where the tenants revert to savagery and a kill-or-be-killed mentality when accepted social mores are stripped away and class resentment kicks in.

British director Ben Wheatley lenses with aggressive flair and fills the screen with stark, sometimes shocking visuals, as if he had watched all of Stanley Kubrick’s and Quentin Tarantino’s films just before filming commenced.

Tom Hiddleston, continuing a string of performances leaving no doubt he’s one of our most versatile actors, shines in the leading role as Laing, a doctor residing in one of the nicer apartments in the high-rise. When we first meet Laing, he’s barbecuing on the balcony of his posh pad. But wait, what’s that on a spit? It appears to be the leg of a canine. And it looks as if a good-sized bomb has blasted the building. Cue the flashback graphic: "THREE MONTHS EARLIER." Before all the chaos ensued.

Having just moved into a pristine, intimidatingly huge high-rise on the outskirts of London, Laing is sunbathing nude on his balcony when a glass comes crashing down from an apartment above him. The startled Laing jumps to his feet, looks up — and there’s Sienna Miller’s Charlotte, sauced out of her mind and giving Laing the once-over while she fends off the advances of a neighbor.

"You’re an excellent specimen," Charlotte tells Laing, who flashes a wicked grin in return. This new building, with all the amenities one could hope for and plenty of attractive people milling about, has plenty of promise. Plenty of promise indeed.

High-Rise seems to be set in the future but in the mid-1970s as well. The fashion, the hairstyles, the cars and the overall vibe scream 1975, but the quartet of monstrously tall high-rises jutting into the sky on the far edges of the city and the interiors of Laing’s particular building have a futuristic feel. This looks like a movie from the 1970s imagining what 2016 might be like.

Although most of the adults in the building have jobs in the outside world — every morning they march in unison out to the seemingly endless parking lot, get in their cars and presumably drive to London — the high-rise is something of a self-contained universe. The stay-at-home mothers and the children seem to never leave, as if they’re under some sort of home confinement.

The attractive couples and the well-off single people live in the higher floors of the building, while the working class and the families with multiple children are on the lower floors — steerage, if you will. The upper class enjoys all the perks, while the Lower Floor People are lucky if they can get running water and working electricity.

Meanwhile, the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) lives a kingly existence in the penthouse and rules the building and its tenants like a benevolent dictator. The architect didn’t just design a building, if you’ll hear him out. His plan was to design a better way of life for mankind.

Suffice to say that’s not how things play out. We go from orgiastic, coke-fueled Restoration costume parties featuring a string quartet playing ABBA to horrific scenes of violence and cruelty and destruction. Director Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump are clearly playing much of as pitch-black satire, but High-Rise keeps hammering home the same points, and not even the wealth of strong performances from Hiddleston, Miller and Irons are enough to salvage the day.

Keanu **½
Putting a tiny kitten in an action film sounds like a bonkers idea. That is, until you see the bizarrely wonderful sight of a tiny kitten in an action film.

The little guy in director Peter Atencio’s action comedy Keanu) is fast and furious — and furry — and complements the culturally relevant comedy of stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They bring their talent for creating entertaining character duos from television to a theatrical release for the first time, though Keanu doesn’t on the whole match the sheer hilarity and brilliance of the Key & Peele TV sketch show.

Peele, who co-wrote the script with Alex Rubens, stars as Rell, a newly dumped guy who is in a serious funk until a small cat shows up at his door. His milquetoast cousin Clarence is an L.A. corporate team-builder type told by his wife (Nia Long) to "be himself" while she and the kids are away for the weekend, and he’s also enamored with this ball of fur that Rell has named Keanu.

After a night out at the movies, the pair return home to find Keanu gone and Rell’s apartment ransacked. They find out from the drug dealer next door (a gonzo Will Forte) that the 17th Street Blips are to blame, and Clarence and Rell go undercover as violent killers to get Keanu back from the Blips’ leader Cheddar (Method Man).

Key and Peele showcase their skills in a series of progressively worse situations for Clarence and Rell. From a strip club with the fitting name HPV to a shootout at a palatial mansion, the two middle-class African-American dudes have to be as hardcore as possible, even though they’re usually the geekiest guys in the room. "You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy," Rell tells Clarence after one of his early gangsta-speak misfires.

It’s a sketch-type conceit stretched to movie length that wears thin at times. When the stars are on their game, though, they keep the laughs coming — Key's Clarence teaching a trio of thugs about the wonders of George Michael is priceless, as his musically tinged drug trip, and Peele also has some nice moments with Tiffany Haddish, who plays Bliptown tough girl Hi-C.

Keanu borrows stylistic references and slo-mo moves from action movies such as Bad Boys and Point Break (that other Keanu's presence is felt in multiple scenes), although the film's most special effect is its title critter. The kitten gets a decent amount of screen time, scratching up a photo of Rell’s ex and cuddling in Cheddar’s tattooed forearms, but he’s missed when he’s not around. For sure, he’s a joy to behold in the climactic action sequence, with his spindly legs flying amid adorable meows as bullets whiz past him.

As watchable as he is, so are Key and Peele, and while Keanu isn't their best work creatively, they show the potential to claw their way to the top of the comedy ranks.

The Bronze *½
Imagine a gymnast with the scrappiness of Kerry Strug (and the Olympic medal to prove it) but with the tongue of a sailor, the warmth of Don Rickles and the judgment of Lindsay Lohan. Meet Hope Ann Greggory, the main character in The Bronze, an R-rated sports comedy that is built on an interesting idea — but which, unlike Strug, can't quite stick the landing.

The whole hit-or-miss exercise is the brainchild of Melissa Rauch, the Big Bang Theory co-star who wrote and stars in director Bryan Buckley's film, and it's easy to see why the Duplass brothers signed on to executive-produce and their fellow New Orleanian Stephanie Langhoff to produce. The idea that America's sweetheart is really a tart-tongued, pill-snorting nightmare is one that is ripe for satire, subversion and — if nothing else — some good, naughty laughs.

While frustratingly light on the satire and subversion, The Bronze does at least deliver its share of naughty (and some very naughty) laughs. Unfortunately, rather than coming from a place of genuine wit, most of those laughs come from the shock value of hearing Rauch — in her tiny, Strug voice — let loose with a constant string of eyebrow-singing vulgarities.

While it's funny the first time Hope does or says something off-the-charts off-color, it's a little bit less funny the second time, and even less the third time. By the time The Bronze hits the 15-minute mark, one is left to wonder if that's all it has to offer.

For the most part, it is, as it becomes a one-joke movie, albeit it with a slightly more substantial plot than most one-joke movies.

Along the way, Rauch and company seem to be trying just a bit too hard to be edgy and not enough to build a sympathetic main character. What else can be said about a film in which the opening scene involves the sight of that character engaging in — how shall I put it? — an intimate moment with an old video of her Olympic heroics?

It's not the act itself that's so problematic. Movie laughs have been built on far more unexpected (though equally intimate) juxtapositions. I'm thinking American Pie, for starters. Rather it's in Hope's choice of viewing material during said act, which introduces her right off the bat as someone pathetic at best, and creepy at worst.

Granted, generating sympathy for a character at a film's outset is perfectly fine — desirable, even. Anyone who is being honest with themselves can relate to losers on a certain level. But making that main character downright icky? Not the most endearing of traits for the lead character in a comedy.

Admittedly, that scene alone doesn't torpedo Buckley's film, but it is representative of the overall misjudged tone of The Bronze. The longer it goes on, the more despicable Hope becomes, eventually transforming her into something dangerously close to irredeemable.

When we meet her, it's clear Hope is holding on dearly to her glory days. It's been more than a decade since she earned that bronze medal back in the 2004 Games, but she still caresses it fondly. She still wears her Team USA warm-up every day. She's still committed to the bangs-centric gymnast hair-don't she wore back in the day. (Props to key hairstylist Charlotte Parker; she totally nailed it.)

Hope also still gets maximum play out of the hometown hero status she is still afforded in tiny Amherst, Ohio — right down to the reserved parking spot in front of the downtown soda shop and the free mall pizza at Sbarro's.

Enter the new kid in town, the effervescent Maggie (played by an adorable Haley Lu Richardson). Not only is she America's next great gymnastic hope, but — given that she's also from Amherst — she threatens to rob Hope of the one thing she has to hold on to: her small-town celebrity status.

When Hope is pressed into training Maggie for the big games, you can imagine what happens next. Which is another of the problems for The Bronze. There's just not really a whole lot of suspense in what ends up being a fairly predictable story.

Of course Hope is going to try to sabotage Maggie's path to glory. And of course she's going to have a third-act change of heart.

But as despicable as she's proven to be to that point, by the time Hope gets to that transformative moment on which the whole movie hinges, most viewers will have decided to stop trying to care.

Mother’s Day (no stars)

The unofficial conclusion of an unofficial trilogy of holiday-themed multistar comedy vehicles directed by the late Garry Marshall, Mother’s Day has its perfunctory heart exactly where any experienced viewer would expect it to be. That is, in a fantasy world where, among other things, one older mother’s lifetime of bigotry can be cured by half an afternoon spent with a mixed-race child.

The major players in this movie of intertwined story lines include Kate Hudson as a daughter and mom addicted to secrets; Jennifer Aniston as a frazzled divorced mom super-irritated by her ex, played by Timothy Olyphant (who’s clearly dying to star in a biopic of Billy Bob Thornton); Julia Roberts as a high-powered childless career woman; and Britt Robertson as a young single mom who’s loath to marry her winsome British boyfriend because of her ambivalence about having been adopted. You will guess, immediately, who her mom turns out to be.

The movie, a goopy, glossy mess with 10 times more respect for contrived sentimentality than for film grammar, is bereft of genuinely amusing jokes. Which is not to say the film lacks entertainment value. There’s unusual imagery, in the form of Roberts’s recycled wig. (Perhaps she had hoped to pass for a Julia Roberts impersonator.) There’s suspense, as when Jason Sudeikis, playing a single dad, sings The Humpty Dance for a roomful of children, and you wonder if he’ll make it to the line "I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom." And there are laughs, albeit inadvertent; the biggest comes courtesy of the production’s no-doubt overworked sound department, when Robertson utters "I have abandonment issues" without moving her mouth.

Other releases this week

April and the Extraordinary World ***½ An all-too-rare example of steampunk done right — which also acknowledges that, however pretty industrial imagery might seem from afar, actually living in such a world would be kind of horrible.

Marguerite *** Writer-director Xavier Giannoli offers up an amusingly entertaining portrait of fortune, infamy and severe melodic dysfunction in this polished French period dramedy.

Last Days in the Desert **½ At times a beautiful wandering, at other times an admirable character study, but rarely a powerful whole.

The American Side **½ While it may not quite achieve the classic thriller tone to which it aspires, the film does create an enjoyably hard-boiled world.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me **½ The restrained performances and luscious location photography are enough to make this a film worth renting or streaming, though it might not be a bad idea to down a few caffeine-rich drinks before settling in to watch.

Difret **½ Quietly compelling, but lacks finesse in its characterization and dogged denunciation of the Ethiopian justice system.

Sea Fog **½ This directing debut by Shim Sung-bo offers a cynical vision of human nature, but the characters lack dimensionality and psychological depth.

The Trust ** Nicolas Cage supplies a stream of tension-defusing laughs while the script steadily applies the screws, but this disposable exercise in comic nihilism offers only a modest payoff at best.

The First Monday in May ** This documentary gathers together some of the most influential and radical contemporary figures in fashion, offers a comprehensive view into the creation of a groundbreaking fashion exhibition, and profiles one of the most exclusive figures in the world. And yet, somehow it all feels incredibly familiar.

High Strung In the end, you'll either succumb to the silliness of it all and cheer the hero on to his green card or, more likely, be in desperate need of your own exit visa.

Puerto Ricans in Paris Luis Guzmán and Edgar Garcia give the project much more than it ever gives them, sustaining viewer interest and generating mild amusement more or less through sheer force of will as they amble through a threadbare plot.

Dough The challah may be extra special, but the humor found in John Goldschmidt's direction and the conventional script by Yehudah Jez Freedman and Jonathan Benson is disappointingly stale.

Manhattan Night Adrien Brody does his sturdiest work in years as the morally compromised Porter, and Yvonne Strahovski makes for a fittingly seductive temptress with ambiguous motives. The film's pedestrian style and affected atmosphere, however, make it a routine descent into the black heart of a city and its shady inhabitants.

Lazer Team The comedy is sophomoric and sort-of spoofy; satire happens here and there.

Meet the Blacks ½* Even by the standards of raunchy, comic spoofs, director and co-writer Deon Taylor’s film feels especially scattered.

Septembers of Shiraz (no stars) Another vacuous melodrama/thriller that doesn’t lay a glove on the era’s historical complexities.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
(no stars) Abysmal

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