Monday, September 5, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Love and Friendship ***½
Over 25 years and a handful of minor classics, writer-director Whit Stillman has distilled and modernized the spirit of Jane Austen so ably that it’s a wonder he has taken so long to go to the source. Love & Friendship is based on an early, lesser-known novella by the maid of Hampshire, but it has the wise, worldly wit of Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — movies in which streams of glittering chatter course over riverbeds of joy and pain. It’s a film true to both the adaptor and the adapted, and it’s wonderful.

Lady Susan was written as a series of letters when Austen was still shy of 20; its heroine is unusual for this author in that she’s something of a villain. As played with sly fire by Kate Beckinsale, Lady Susan Vernon is closer to a Restoration Era minx than a proper Regency gentrywoman. Recently widowed of an older and unloved husband, Lady Susan is on the prowl for a new catch through the drawing rooms of London and the country mansions of the aristocracy. She’s a notorious scandal, but she has more than enough beauty and charm to compensate.

And she has prospects, even though most of them don’t know it yet. There’s the rakish Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), but he’s inconveniently married. There’s the profoundly idiotic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) — more about him later. And there’s the young and ardent Reginald De Courcy, the brother-in-law of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, who’s played by Xavier Samuel in what can only be called a spirit of Early Firth.

To add to the confusion, Lady Susan has a teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), gentle, pure-hearted, and good. Her mother has no idea what to make of her. Love & Friendship introduces all these characters with droll visual cameos at the start and then proceeds to play mix-and-match. Reginald is dazzled by Lady Susan — to the diplomatic horror of his family — but is the daughter his true partner in temperament and morals? Sir James is besotted with Frederica, but his title, riches, and general stupidity make him attractive to the mother as well.

Sniping from the sidelines is Lady Susan’s closest confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chlöe Sevigny), a visiting American whose stuffy husband (the great Stephen Fry) is worried that she’s spending too much time with the temptress and who keeps threatening to pack her back to the wilds of Connecticut. ("You could be scalped!" cries Lady Susan.)

The novella brought us into the minds of these characters through the letters they wrote; Love & Friendship, by contrast, dramatizes their interactions. More properly, Stillman comedicizes them, fascinated by the way true intent can be expressed, gleaned, implied, or end-run through the polite clockwork of social conversation. Because so little can be directly said in Austen’s universe, the art and endless pleasure comes from the ways in which people speak their minds and hearts indirectly, until such time as they can no longer box up their emotions and all is revealed in a climactic blurt — Darcy declaring his love for Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice being the classic example.

So Love & Friendship is a film to make an action fan tear his or her hair out; it’s all walking and talking. But what talking! Of her friend Alicia, Susan says, "She has none of the uncouthness one expects of Americans but all of the candor"; of Alicia’s husband, she murmurs sympathetically, "too old to be governable, too young to die." Beckinsale rises to a splendid occasion, making us privy to Lady Susan’s manipulations while presenting a glamorous front that blinds all of the men. The women, of course, see everything.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but pride of place goes to Bennett’s Sir James, an upper class twit of Pythonesque proportions. Rarely has a character this moronic been this happy. Pushing his vegetables around a plate, Sir James crows, "Tiny green balls! What do you call them?" ("Peas," replies a perplexed Reginald.)

Love & Friendship accomplishes miracles on a meager budget; only the makeup seems out of place every so often, with Beckinsale looking unaccountably tan for a Regency aristocrat. The film ends, too, not with an Austenesque bang — order restored and all in its place — but with a reasonably satisfying whimper. Stillman is less interested in punishing the bad here than in honoring the good. That’s more than good enough.

A Bigger Splash ***

A Bigger Splash takes place on the Italian island of Pantelleria, but the movie looks like it was shot in an alternate universe where the sun is brighter, the water is bluer, the music is louder and everyone exudes a carnal, sultry pull — it’s an open-air hothouse. This is the second collaboration between Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, and it’s a reversal from their previous film, I Am Love. That one took place inside opulent mansions, sported a discordant score by John Adams and had a rigorous, formalist style that reflected the psyche of its heroine, a trophy wife suffocated by her wealthy, orderly life.

In A Bigger Splash, everyone is still gorgeous, the camera still captures scenes from unexpected angles and the images still radiate an unnatural splendor — you want to jump into the screen. But the tone is different, the subject matter more specific and the energy is inverted. I Am Love built to a crescendo of a woman’s spiritual and physical liberation; A Bigger Splash is a gradual sink into a swamp of moral quandaries and ambiguities, an exhilarating, sensual downer.

The premise is simple: The rock star Marianne (Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery and has come to Pantelleria to vacation with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks like Viggo Mortensen’s younger, hunkier brother). Marianne is under doctor’s orders not to speak for two weeks, so the couple spends their time sunbathing nude, having sex and slathering each other’s bodies with sea mud, all things that don’t require much talking.

Then Marianne’s ex, the record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls to say he’s vacationing on the island with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and could they all get together? Paul acquiesces with furrowed brow. Father and daughter grab spare bedrooms in the mansion the couple was renting. Marianne and Paul’s romantic getaway has become an extended get-together with friends, although they still manage to squeeze in some private sexy time here and there.

But Harry, who seems a little too animated and happy, begins to commandeer the vacation. One day, while the group is chilling indoors, he starts dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and becomes so enraptured by the music that he winds up outside, reaching to the sky, gyrating with such wild, spastic energy you wonder if he’s praying to some pagan god. In this scene, as in several others, Fiennes goes so far over the top he comes back around the other end; you have never seen this side (or so much) of him.

His daughter Penelope is the opposite, a cool, observant beauty with cruel eyes who always seems to be working out some kind of plan inside her head. "My trouble is that I fall in love with every pretty thing," she tells Paul with such disingenuous innocence that you wonder why she didn’t think to be sucking on a lollipop when she said it.

Through quick flashbacks, the movie gives us just enough details to understand the nature of Marianne and Harry’s former relationship, how it contrasts to their current state and why Harry wants her back. Emotional schisms begin to form (the island, we are told, is filled with volcanoes); snakes literally start slithering across the vacation home’s outdoor deck, like serpents in the garden; the TV blares news reports about hungry Tunisian refugees making landfall; a strange tension begins to coil underneath the movie’s ravishing beauty.

A Bigger Splash was inspired by the 1969 French drama La Piscine, in which Alain Delon and Romy Schneider played the vacationing couple. But Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich expand on the original film, pulling the material in different directions. The movie is filled with indelible, throwaway little moments: Harry and his daughter getting a little carried away (ahem) while singing at a karaoke bar; the world's creamiest, most appetizing ricotta; an anecdote recalling the worst suicide note ever; a car hurtling down a highway at unsafe speed during a rainstorm; a meal at a mountainside restaurant that makes you want to hop on a plane and fly there right now; a police detective (Corrado Guzzanti) pausing his investigation to compliment Marianne on her purse.

In its last half-hour, A Bigger Splash becomes a specific kind of story, and it’s not as pleasurable or strange as what preceded it: It makes you long for the earlier hedonism. But maybe that’s the point. Guadagnino is a bit of a prankster, and even when he’s being dead serious (such as a long overhead shot depicting some suspenseful business that stretches on without cutting away, making you catch your breath), he’s showing off, too.

Guadagnino is preparing to direct a remake of Suspiria as his next project (Swinton and Johnson are on board to star), and that may well turn out to be his masterpiece, a delirious horror movie wild enough to accommodate his lavish, outsized vision. He is a filmmaker incapable of crafting a boring shot, and he has a devilish sense of humor, too. He casts Swinton, one of the best actors on the planet, in his film and then barely lets her speak. When she does, it’s mostly in raspy croaks — except for a moment in which she has to scream.

The Meddler **½

Susan Sarandon pours on the New Yawk accent in The Meddler, an ingratiating semi-autobiographical comedy by Lorene Scafaria. Correction: Sarandon is actually channeling the signature New Jersey drawl as Marnie Minervini, a recent widow who moves to Los Angeles to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). A compulsive advice-giver, dropper-by and barger-inner, Marnie isn’t a helicopter mom. She’s a Black Hawk mom, continually offering advice, help and guidance whether the recipient wants it or not.

For Lori, this means it’s time to "set some boundaries," which prompts Marnie to visit her daughter’s therapist. When her daughter travels to New York for work, Marnie sets her sights on other potential beneficiaries, including a friend of Lori’s, played in an amusing turn by Cecily Strong, who never got the storybook wedding she wanted, and an Apple store clerk (Jerrod Carmichael) who is considering law school.

Just when you think Marnie’s grating, un-self-aware Lady Bountiful act couldn’t get more patronizing, The Meddler morphs into something tender, even poignant. What at first looks like a massive case of overcompensation and denial instead becomes a portrait of loneliness, unresolved grief and a courageously persistent generosity of spirit.

The Meddler is a movie of modest charms. It unfolds as a series of vignettes rather than a structural whole; it has a tendency to feel schematic and forced, such as in a bit involving the Apple store guy and one of his relatives that feels like a gratuitous non sequitur. Scafaria — who made her directorial debut in 2012 with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — doesn’t have the ease or rhythmic command of such peers as Noah Baumbach or Nicole Holofcener. But she does evoke a yielding, expansive tone that pleasantly ambushes viewers who reflexively expect the worst for the slightly out-of-it Marnie.

Once the accent settles in, Sarandon delivers a spirited, brash performance as a woman just coming into consciousness about how she’s really feeling (other than the "just great" she repeats like a chirpy mantra). And she’s ably supported by Byrne, who exudes flustered sympathy as a young woman sorting out her own jumble of mixed feelings, and J.K. Simmons, who channels his inner Sam Elliott to become a seductively persuasive love interest.

It’s been an interesting season for upper-middle-aged women in cinema: No sooner was Helen Mirren literally and figuratively commanding the military thriller Eye in the Sky than Sally Field made the best of a ditheringly thankless role in Hello, My Name Is Doris. Sarandon’s Marnie is a welcome addition to that field, a woman whose instincts may not be entirely foolproof but wind up creating their own kind of luck. What seems cringe-worthy at first in The Meddler winds up as a warm, forgiving embrace — of the movie’s characters and viewers, as well.

Money Monster **

Big money Wall Street gets bashed by big money Hollywood in Money Monster, a timely, moderately engaging real-time thriller about a live-TV hostage drama that unfortunately lacks any suspense whatsoever. George Clooney romps gleefully as a Jim Cramer-like broadcast financial commentator until a disaffected young intruder straps an explosive vest on him, forcing Julia Roberts, as the show's producer, to try to save the day while the whole country watches.

One of the scarier impressions created by Jodie Foster's peppy, upright film is that more people may take their financial advice from a guy like Clooney's cynical, clown-like Lee Gates — who issues glib pronouncements on the market while enacting pranks and showing clips from monster and horror films — than from more sober-minded analysts. Too rich himself to even care anymore, Gates has made finance into just one more branch of the entertainment industry, where any misguided predictions can just be tossed aside and forgotten like yesterday's bad joke.

Unfortunately for him this time, a fan who has taken his advice too much to heart decides to exact revenge. Working-class stiff Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) has lost all his money — $60,000 — based on Gates' enthusiasm for an outfit called Ibis Clear Capital, whose stock has just tanked overnight. About 10 minutes into the film, Kyle manages to slip into the studio and suddenly has Gates looking like an ISIS captive, ready to be blown up in front of a worldwide audience if Kyle doesn't like what comes out of the older man's mouth. Much better to be victimized by Ibis than ISIS, the TV pundit might have quipped.

The unsteady Gates has an advantage in being equipped with a virtually invisible earpiece, which allows producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) to feed him instructions and advice on what to say and how to behave. At first, of course, they have to play ball with Kyle, to figure out what he really wants and how he reacts. As he seismically conveyed in the British prison drama Starred Up three years back, O'Connell is great at conveying bottled-up anger as well as its shocking release. Part of the problem in the script by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf is that Kyle explodes at the beginning and, having shot the works, soon lets his anger subside. By the final stretch, he has very little to say at all, leaving it to the rich and famous to sort things out.

Although the virtually real-time format is maintained (there would seem to be a bit of cheating here and there, given the variety of locations and time zones introduced), the story fans out as Patty bears down by phone on Ibis' communications director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), whose job it is to protect the reputation of her jet-setting CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) but whose official stories about the boss soon crumble as his chronic lying becomes irrefutable.

The real-time conceit is ready-made to serve the cause of suspense, and it should be remembered that Clooney has shown a rare predilection among contemporary artists for the format, having done live broadcasts of both E.R. and Fail Safe for television. Unfortunately, as a director, Foster shows no knack or instinct for building tension; her style is strictly presentational, brisk and efficient, but with no sly trickery, desire to surprise or to forge technique that suggests an imaginative approach to storytelling. There's nothing subversive or disquieting in the imagery or editing, which is to say that she learned little about creating suspense from working with the likes of Scorsese, Demme and Fincher.

Money Monster therefore emerges as a pretty ordinary film about an extraordinary predicament, one in which the writers contrived to bring all the principals together down on Wall Street. The wrap-up, and the way it too easily employs both comeuppance and tragedy, is rather too neat for real life, and there's a feel-good aspect to it as well in the way the sneaky, morals-free culprit is forced to be held to account in the most public and embarrassing way possible. It's a fantasy, in other words.

While pointed at times, the script should have been a couple of notches wittier and more caustic than it is, and a few vivid character actors surrounding the big stars would have been welcome as well — the sort of things that the old Hollywood provided as a matter of course.

Clooney doesn't play a doofus here as he has done repeatedly for the Coen brothers, but his Lee Gates could be a smarter, more successful but jaded second cousin to those rascals. Attached to a phone or microphone most of the time, Roberts has little to play other than on-point efficiency through most of the tight running time, and her best scenes involve her exchanges with the fellow female executive intriguingly played by Balfe (intriguing in that the actress makes you aware that there's much more to her character than meets the eye or that is touched upon in the script). West has no trouble letting the audience feel all the scorn it can summon for the heedlessly amoral, and criminal, big-money guy, by which time poor, working-class Kyle has been frustratingly sidelined in favor of the fat cats.

Now You See Me 2 *½

Two of the stars from 2013’s magician caper Now You See Me, Isla Fisher and Mélanie Laurent, have pulled a smooth disappearing act for the sequel. In Fisher’s case, this had something to do with a pregnancy before cameras rolled, but one begins to smell a rat: perhaps a silicone fake belly, or planned adoption?

They must have figured out what new cast member Daniel Radcliffe has not: that the best attitude to Now You See Me 2 is simply to go nowhere near it.

This inane franchise treats its audience like patsies — essentially casting us as the gullible, whooping masses it puts on screen during its glitzy Vegas conjuring shows, where a trickster posse known as the Four Horsemen keep staging appearances, while finessing simultaneous heists across the world. Like a coloured ribbon whipping through one ear and out the other, the plot bypasses your brain with overconfident flourishes that can’t disguise how amateurish it all is.

The ridiculous fame of these characters — Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco are now joined by Fisher replacement Lula (Lizzy Caplan) — already makes them hard enough to like. But they also come across as certifiable, with their mad banter about false sleeves, bird tricks and habit of endlessly flicking cards about during passages of downtime.

If the camera pulled back to reveal this whole charade as a high-concept production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you wouldn’t be wholly surprised.

The Nurse Ratched trying to quash these bizarre antics is "magic debunker" Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman), who got shafted at the end of the last one, and is now in prison. For circuitous reasons, Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent (who’s in on the games, remember? You don’t? Never mind) has to bust Freeman loose, but the movie completely bails on the Houdini possibilities of a prison break. He’s granted leave to walk right out — where’s the fun in that?

Meanwhile, the other four are whisked without their knowledge to Macau, where Radcliffe’s Walter Mabry, the tech tycoon son of Michael Caine’s insurance bigwig, makes them an offer they can’t refuse: they have to steal some all-important data-mining chip from under a casino, or else.

Radcliffe makes a good first impression — he’s so darn likeable as an actor, almost embarrassingly sincere, that it briefly looks like he’s going to charm the film out of trouble. It’s tediously inevitable, though, that the boy wizard has to turn bad here, and duplicitous egomania isn’t something he does nearly as well.

So many sequences — take the five straight minutes of ensemble card-palming needed to purloin that chip — make no sense even by the film’s own flashy logic. Just when we thought Eisenberg had reached a nadir of up-himself tomfoolery as Lex Luthor, he makes rain stop in Greenwich and vanishes into the pavement.

Meanwhile, Harrelson has to play his character’s twin brother, with false teeth and a curly wig, for double unamusement. When we're bored during dialogue scenes, looking at Franco’s will-this-do face becomes oddly hypnotic, if depressing.

Constructed to fool the viewer with layer upon layer of lame cheats and moth-eaten devices, the film has nothing on its mind but sinking you gently into an in-flight stupor.

Other new releases this week
Neon Bull ***½ The film is filthy with nuanced moments of fierce, sweaty intimacy, all shot with a precise eye for detail. At the very least, it will make you rethink your next rodeo.

What Happened, Miss Simone? *** Features some of the best concert footage and musical performances in recent music documentary memory, even if it never quite answers the question in its title.

From Afar *** The movie’s disquieting tone unfolds with a familiar kind of naturalism — devoid of soundtrack, it develops an engrossing reality filled with pregnant pauses and fragmented exchanges. There’s a palpable despair to this scenario rooted in the authenticity of its environment.

Tale of Tales *** Director Matteo Garrone has created a world of both rich and ugly textures — visual, narrative and imaginative — that transports, delights and imparts disturbing lessons.

Hockney **½ There are beautiful moments from David Hockney’s home-video stash in this thoughtful documentary..

The Ones Below **½ A creepy genre exercise by a craftsman finding his groove.

Genius ** Not nearly as smart as it should be.

Buddymoon ** This is the kind of buddy comedy where you have to take a giant leap of faith just to believe these two characters would ever be friends.

EqualsIts few saving graces are some decent shot-making, a rather great score and the loveliness of its lead actors' faces.

Compadres ½* This is a movie which you’d call a god-awful mess.

Nina ½* The whole endeavor seems like a bad idea badly executed, and one can only imagine that Nina Simone, a fierce advocate of black pride and empowerment, would be aghast at this cheesy rendition of the later years of her life. Strange that this misfire is released the same week as a better-made documentary about the singer.

The Darkness ½* This is pretty much a total bust — it isn’t scary, it isn’t exciting and it plods along at such a snails pace that even though it clocks in at just over 90 minutes, it plays like it runs at least twice that.

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

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