Monday, August 22, 2016

This week's DVD releases


Weiner ***½

Once again, truth proves stranger than fiction in the raucous and provocative documentary Weiner. This absorbing, entertaining film takes a decidedly warts-and-all look at disgraced, seven-term Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner and his propulsive if ill-fated 2013 run for mayor of New York City.

Toward the end of the movie, Josh Kriegman, who directed and produced with Elyse Steinberg, bluntly asks the beleaguered Weiner, "Why have you let me film this?" It’s a question that viewers are likely to be wondering throughout as the filmmakers’ cameras capture Weiner, perhaps best known for his career-crippling sexting scandals of 2011 and 2013, in a plethora of awkward, squirm-inducing, shameless, even clueless moments.

If the unfortunately named Weiner’s purpose was to somehow help vindicate himself for cyber-cheating on his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, by showing what a warrior of the people he was — and still could be — he may have partially succeeded. As seen here, Weiner’s steely self-possession, unflagging drive, scrappy charm and, it seems, genuine desire to make a difference add up to the kind of politician you want on your side. In these dizzying days of Donald Trump, Weiner’s flaws can seem a bit quaint.

Still, Weiner’s mayoral bid, coming so soon after his 2011 resignation from Congress in wake of his massively covered and derided scandal (highlighted here by a raft of cringe-inducing, yet funny, Weiner-bashing tabloid spreads, cable news clips and late-night TV talk show bits) was the kind of uphill climb that makes for a riveting documentary narrative. The filmmakers appear to judge via some of their editing choices, but the story pretty much wrote itself; they just needed to shoot it.

And shoot it they did with a kind of joyful abandon, thanks to what feels like an all-access pass to all things Weiner. Whether prowling his turbulent campaign headquarters with its coterie of sweating staffers, the comfy Manhattan home he shares with Abedin and their toddler son, or the many personal, public and backstage dramas that erupted along the way, Kriegman and Steinberg, who co-wrote the film with Eli Despres, enjoyably sweep us into the hugely idiosyncratic ride that was Weiner’s stab at political reinvention.

Though we already know the campaign’s outcome, the film builds palpable tension as it bobs and weaves up to and through election day and, especially, election night. That’s when Weiner must escape the camera-ready clutches of former phone-sex buddy Sydney Leathers, who’s lying in wait for a 15-minutes-of-fame showdown with the man whose online identity was "Carlos Danger."

Viewers hankering for a deeply examined portrayal of Weiner may be disappointed; it’s not that kind of doc. There are no staged talking-head pundits or observers dissecting the politician’s psychosocial makeup; no chats with friends or family members to support, decry or help enlighten us about Weiner; no youthful history to foretell his adult proclivities. Weiner himself, for all the screen time he receives here, does little beyond the mea culpas and let’s-move-on requests to reveal what winds his clock.

Yet, there are enough fly-on-the-wall moments, including a funny riff by Weiner about what that phrase even means, that we feel more intimate with the film’s star than we may have the right to. Sleight of hand? Maybe. Then again, this is a film about politics.

As for Abedin, who was game to participate at all here, she mostly just glowers and simmers at her husband’s gaffes, outbursts and other dubious tactics. Her highly visible presence, however, does help effectively hammer home one of Weiner’s key defenses: No one other than his wife was hurt by his transgressions which, as others have pointed out, never included any actual physical contact — so get over it.


Maggie’s Plan ***
The writing was never a problem in Rebecca Miller’s movies, but it has taken a while for her to become a director. Her earlier films, such as The Ballad of Jack and Rose, had many good scenes, but they didn’t cohere or land with any accumulated impact. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) was a strong step forward for Miller, but her latest film, Maggie’s Plan, is a step beyond that. She’s a genuine director now, not just a writer who directs, and it’s officially time to start looking forward to Rebecca Miller movies.

Her achievement in Maggie’s Plan has many aspects to it, but they boil down to two — how smooth and easy it all is, and how messy and wrong it might have been.

It’s a story with several shifts in time and mood, with characters whose ambitions, affections and motives change, almost without warning. But at no point does the viewer ever feel lost, left behind or pushed into some unearned perception. The film could have seemed clumsy, and it’s anything but. There’s also a lightness in the tone that yet allows for real emotion and impressive performances. Maggie’s Plan doesn’t quite transcend the limits of the romantic comedy genre, but it pushes at them.

At the center of it all is Greta Gerwig, who radiates niceness and authenticity, even as she is playing a character that could be easily misperceived as a control freak. At the start of the film, Maggie has given up on the idea of finding a lifelong partner, but she knows she wants a baby. She also knows the sperm donor she wants — a mathematician turned pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmel).

Even as she is planning that, she is trying to fix the life of a professor at the New School, a ficto-critical anthropologist who aspires to be a novelist. John (Ethan Hawke) is a married man, with a high-powered academic (Julianne Moore) for a wife, and Maggie becomes his chief reader and cheerleader.

It would be so easy, and so wrong, to think of Gerwig as merely a charming personality, someone quirky and appealing, who just stands in front of the camera and acts like herself. Actually, she’s brilliant. Take a look at the long close-up during which Maggie talks to John about her parents. Gerwig seems to be acting five things at once, experiencing sadness, humor, a desire to connect, regret and conflicting impulses to reveal and conceal. But what she’s really doing is getting out of her own way and experiencing all the richness of the moment, and letting us see it, in all its complicated emotionality.

Not everyone can do that, nor can they build, from what might have seemed a character of erratic impulses, a portrait of emotional courage. Gerwig — and no doubt, Miller — makes Maggie into someone with an uncomplicated yet sophisticated capacity to know what she feels, to admit what she feels and to act on her feelings. This makes her a little like a child, but wise.

It also makes Maggie someone who maybe should be planning other people’s lives. Over the course of Maggie’s Plan, Maggie improvises her own course and those of others, and as the movie goes on, the filmmaker’s relationship with the whole notion of planning isn’t simple. While the characters onscreen keep insisting that some things can’t be planned, the movie seems to be arguing something else — that making a grand design for your life is possible, but only if you’re able to face what you want and accept the consequences.


The Nice Guys ***
The Nice Guys opens with a shot of the Hollywood sign, from the back, in the dark, the giant letters dilapidated. Pretty soon, a car goes crashing off a hillside road. The local news warns of a Stage 2 smog alert.

This is not the shiny Los Angeles of now.

It's the funky Los Angeles of 1977, in which a couple of stumblebums — a freelance enforcer by the name of Jackson Healy and a single dad and unlicensed private detective, Holland March — meet up and knock around in pursuit of a missing girl, and maybe a bigger caper, a conspiracy involving a porn king, the mob, who knows what else.

Healy and March are played, respectively, by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and the actors have an instant, jostling, riffing rapport. They meet cute — Healy sucker-punching March, busting some bones — and take it from there.

If there's a straight man, it's Crowe, but he's pretty funny in a deadpan, brute-force kind of way, while Gosling displays a surprising knack for slapstick. Watch him try to protect himself — and what little dignity he has left — in a men's room stall. Watch him do a kind of Lou Costello flabbergasted thing. Watch him swimming in a see-through pool with mermaids.

Yes, mermaids.

Like Shane Black's directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Robert Downey, Jr., his The Nice Guys borrows from noir traditions and pulp fiction, throwing a fresh coat of smart-alecky comedy over the whole thing. And like Black's earlier screenwriting efforts, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, in The Nice Guys, the momentum comes not simply by way of screeching cars and ricocheting gunplay (although there's plenty of that), but from the banter and bickering between the two leads.

Cowritten with Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys finds ways to keep its running gags running along (about Nixon, about killer bees, about a porn flick called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?).

It also finds time for Angourie Rice, one of those kid-actor naturals. She is Holly, March's precocious daughter, and she joins her dad and his new partner as they go private eyeing around town, to swinging soirees and to confrontations with a trigger-happy heavy named John Boy (Matt Bomer — and yes, there are Waltons jokes).

The detective duo also has business with a Department of Justice official. She is played by Kim Basinger, who drove off into the midday sun with Crowe at the end of L.A. Confidential. Their relationship is a little frostier this time around.


Wiener-Dog **½
Wiener-Dog isn’t so much a cohesive movie as a collection of four disjointed shorts. Divided into two groups of two by a jaunty musical intermission, the segments are connected by a worried-looking brown dachshund that shows up in every story. Tone is the other constant: a sardonic sense of melancholy you’d find in any movie by writer-director Todd Solondz (Happiness).

Wiener-Dog opens with a man offloading the title character at an animal shelter. Finding itself inside a small crate alongside the pens of other castaways, the dog paces aimlessly. Around and around it goes, and the camera doesn’t budge.

That’s another hallmark of Solondz: forcing the viewer to linger well beyond what’s expected or what’s even comfortable, holding focus, for example, on a young boy staring at the sky while lying in his backyard. The fact that the kid doesn’t blink gives the disconcerting impression that he may not, in fact, be breathing. Not to worry: His name is Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) and he becomes the new owner of Wiener-Dog, a surprise gift from his father (Tracy Letts). Remi is instantly smitten. His mother (Julie Delpy) is less enthused.

"Now who’s going to walk it?" she spits at her husband. She’s more patient with her son, even though he’s prone to interrogations, asking questions about everything from canine reproductive urges to faith. "What does it feel like to be put to sleep?" he asks, after learning about dog euthanasia. "It feels good!" his mother says, cheerily. "Like forgetting everything." Upon hearing that his family doesn’t believe in God, Remi wonders what they do believe in. "Truth, compassion, love," his mother responds angelically, without even a hint of irony.

Another story revisits two characters from Solondz’s 1995 breakout feature Welcome to the Dollhouse, this time with different actors: Greta Gerwig as former grade-school nerd Dawn Wiener, and Kieran Culkin as the former bully Brandon. After running into each other at a convenience store, the two end up taking a impromptu road trip together, along with her dog, this time named Doody. (The name is inspired by "Howdy Doody," although most people think it’s something else.)

Then there’s the lonely screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito), who’s practically invisible. In the final installment, Ellen Burstyn plays a salty, ailing woman who’s cruel to her freeloading granddaughter and only slightly kinder to her dog, Cancer.

This segment takes a turn for the surreal when several identical little girls show up to explain to the woman all the different people she might have become if she’d made different choices. But it’s still firmly rooted in the director’s particular brand of earthiness. The camera holds steady as Burstyn swills gulp after gulp of Kaopectate, straight from the bottle, until long after you’re sure the container must be empty.

Solondz is an acquired taste, but at least he’s consistent. The same way Wes Anderson serves up elaborate set pieces — not to mention elaborate sets — Solondz revels in rusty minivans and moth-eaten couches. His characters aren’t stylish, or even all that appealing. They’re just everyday people going about their lives. You wouldn’t exactly call the movie a thrill, but it’s curiously engrossing all the same.


The Huntsman: Winter’s War *
One trick of great fantasy storytelling is establishing the rules of the world — in The Lord of the Rings, hobbits fear adventure; in Harry Potter, Muggles can't perform magic; in Avatar, humans can't breathe on Pandora. From those limitations come sympathetic characters and a story with a real sense of peril.

There are no discernible rules in the world of The Huntsman: Winter's War, a dreadful sequel to 2012's darkly appealing Snow White and the Huntsman. In the pale update, nearly every major character dies and comes back to life at least once and a convoluted narrative yields not a single, palpable moment of drama.

Not even the considerable charm of Chris Hemsworth, who plays the seemingly immortal, ax-wielding title hero, or Emily Blunt, as an ice queen with head-scratching motives, can save this dull mash-up of fantasy genre cliches, which wastes its A-list actors, stunning costumes and computer-generated artistry on a fatuous story with zero stakes.

The 2012 film, directed by Rupert Sanders, mostly succeeded as a visually rich retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with Kristen Stewart playing Snow White as a brave warrior princess and Charlize Theron delivering a deliciously over-the-top evil Queen Ravenna.

The new movie, written by Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos and directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, leaves out Stewart's role. Really, it's a Snow White movie without Snow White — can you imagine Iron Man putting up with that?

Set both before and after the events of the first film, The Huntsman: Winter's War stars Blunt and Theron as Freya and Ravenna, a pair of rivalrous royal sisters — think Frozen's Anna and Elsa with better eye makeup and worse attitudes. Ravenna mostly stares in the mirror and makes malevolent declarations. Freya, who starts the film in love and quickly suffers a trauma, begins shooting ice out of her hands, wearing metallic headpieces and training an army of child soldiers.

Hemsworth's Eric and Jessica Chastain's Sara emerge as the most talented fighters in Freya's army. Speaking in muddled Scottish accents and wearing cute leather hunting outfits (perhaps they're hunting for the plot?), Eric and Sara fall in love and try, unsuccessfully, to escape Freya's icy grasp.

Over the next hour, Hemsworth swashbuckles through six or seven plot reversals and multiple inscrutable fight scenes. He is joined by some bickering dwarves, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), and becomes determined to capture Ravenna's magic mirror. Wait, is Ravenna dead? Who's alive? Who knows? Who cares? It's raining and cellos are playing so something bad must be happening.

Though the cast are all pros who do their darndest to deliver the bewilderingly bad dialogue with conviction, even an Oscar winner like Theron can't sell lines like, "A humble pawn can bring down kingdoms."

Nicolas-Troyan, who had been the visual effects supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman, is making his directorial debut here, and there are moments that help explain how he got the job. When Eric and his merry band end up in a computer-generated forest, it's a gorgeous, magical place, where giant, moss-covered tortoises roam and butterflies flutter. If only we could linger here on the mossy forest floor and forget the dizzying subplots swirling in our heads.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who earned her 10th Oscar nomination for her work on the previous Huntsman film, delivers the drama the story lacks, this time via exquisite metallic gowns and headpieces. She drapes Theron in a kind of molten gold dress and Blunt in multiple ice crystal-inspired frocks.

At one point, when the two sisters appear on-screen talking conspiratorially in their glittering garments, I fantasized about what the actresses might have whispered to each other between takes: "Do you have any idea what's happening right now?"

"No. Did you read this script before you agreed to it?"

"No. But the good news is, we look fabulous."


Other DVD releases this week
Paths of the Soul **** Filmed in simple documentary fashion and performed with immaculate conviction by a non-professional cast, this movie, directed by Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home) is a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life.
Sunset Song *** It is a rare director who dares to embrace the slow, meditative rhythms of a classic novel without feeling the need to modernize or accelerate it, but Terence Davies uses the measured pace to unfold his poetic vision of the Scottish peasantry and their attachment to the land.
The Other Side **½ There are moments when this film seems to traverse into arts-ploitation territory, and it’s ultimately hard to tell if the movie is trying to render its subjects with some humanity or otherwise if it's taking advantage of all these poor, beautiful losers.
The Man Who Knew Infinity ** The film tells a great story. It’s just that it’s a little too by-the-book to make anything other than a so-so movie.
Hard Labor ** Teeters uncertainly between horror and social commentary. It feels as if the directors tried to imagine what Bunuel would have done if he had made a horror film.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong ** The two stars (Jamie Chung, Bryan Greenberg) are attractive, and Emily Ting, who wrote and directed, makes the city look great, but during their endless strolling Ruby and Josh never get much beyond shallow banter.
Beautiful SomethingBits and pieces of this gay-themed drama feel real and essential. But this slow-going film often suffers from a forced, navel-gazing quality that can prove exasperating.
ClownDirector Jon Watts does nothing with the scarily funny notion of a respectable professional who suddenly refuses to shuck a party costume.
The DuelThe story is an intriguing twist on the western genre, but in piling on other subgenres and story elements, including a dangerous and charismatic cult, it dilutes the essential nature of what could have been a potent revenge tale.
Outlaws and AngelsDespite worthy performances from the entire cast, this movie’s a prime example of a director admiring some great movies but only having a cursory, superficial understanding of what it was that made them work.
How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town * Despite its provocative title, this film isn’t particularly sexy. More troubling, it’s not very funny either.
Ratchet and Clank ½* In a golden period for both animation and children’s filmmaking, here is a head-splitting reminder of just how bad those two things can get.


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

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