Monday, September 12, 2016

This week's DVD releases

De Palma ***½

De Palma begins with Hitchcock, which is only right.

There hasn't been a contemporary director more indebted to and influenced by the Master — and happy to acknowledge it — than Brian De Palma. And so, this immersive and illuminating documentary about the man who made Carrie and Blow Out, The Untouchables and Scarface, begins with a scene from Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Technicolor dream of sexual fantasy, fetishes, and mystery.

Which is precisely the stuff many of De Palma's own titles trade in (Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, to name a few).

De Palma, a big bear of a man, is 75 now. His age is addressed in the movie — he addresses it himself, allowing how directors historically do their best work in their 40s and 50s. (Is he making excuses for his later, arguably wobblier work?)

Seated before the camera, De Palma goes through his career, chronologically, from his early days in New York shooting with a fresh-faced gang (including a ridiculously boyish Robert De Niro) to his move to Hollywood and the team of "rebels" he joined in the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg.

And onward, into the '80s, the '90s, and the '00s. There are blockbusters and bombs and a seminal music video — Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark — as well.

De Palma, co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is awash in great clips: a few more from Hitchcock, from Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut — but mostly, of course, De Palma's own, and they are killer, in more ways than one. And if the subject of this must-see documentary didn't say so himself, it quickly becomes obvious: This is a man who thinks visually, who constructs a scene before he constructs the characters in it.

A giddy maestro of mayhem, De Palma offers commentary on some signature work: the train station shootout in The Untouchables, the shocking locker-room bullying of Carrie, the creepy cross-dressing carnage of Dressed to Kill.

It's great to hear a director talking candidly about the actors he's worked with, dishing out good, juicy stuff (about De Niro, about his Carrie ingenue, Sissy Spacek) and bad, juicy stuff (about Cliff Robertson, all wrong in Obsession, and an unhappy Sean Connery in The Untouchables), and just strange, juicy stuff (Sean Penn's serious goading of costar Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War).

And that criticism about De Palma's misogyny? About the way his cameras linger on, and leer at, the beautiful women he casts? About the violence he subjects them to?

He dismisses the charges with an I-am-what-I-am shrug.

One movie De Palma hasn't made, but maybe should: a thriller about a kid who suspects his highly regarded orthopedic surgeon dad of having an affair, following him to the trysting place, where he finds his father with another woman. That's a story the director tells in De Palma. He was a boy on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a student at Friends' Central, his father a teacher and doctor at Thomas Jefferson University.

His father, too, traded in blood. Real blood. The blood in De Palma's movies is fake, of course — but he's made the most of it.

Captain America: Civil War ***

Hubble's Law of the expanding universe? Ha! That's nothing compared to Disney's Law of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With every new installment of the comic book franchise, the scale gets bigger, relationships get trickier, new forces enter the fray. In Captain America: Civil War, the 13th title in Disney and Marvel's systematic plan for global domination, a dozen superheroes come and go, lining up on either side of a tumultuous ideological dispute.

This may be the first film since Avatar that truly necessitates viewing in a gargantuan format: On a plain old normal-size TV screen all these superhumans could get lost in the crowd, and in the accelerated blur of action, mayhem, and snappy quipping.

In Captain America: Civil War, the superdudes' (and dudettes') crisis of identity, of purpose, begins with an earnest attempt on the part of a squad of Avengers — Steve Rogers' Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff's Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson's Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda Maximoff's Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — to thwart a plan to steal biological weapons from a lab in Lagos.

Poor Wanda, still struggling to master her hex powers (lots of waving of hands and wrinkling of forehead), and lacking a cool costume like her peers, wields more hex than she should, resulting in the death of 11 innocent people.

When news — and news footage — of the calamitous combat is broadcast around the world, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt with a mustache) convenes a meeting at Avengers HQ back in New York.

Are you heroes or vigilantes? he asks Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Captain, and the crew, informing them that 117 countries have agreed to sign "the Sokovia Accords," which will establish a governing body to monitor — and approve the missions of — the superheroes. No more pro-active interventions.

And, in theory, no more collateral damage.

Stark and Romanoff agree to go along with the plan, Rogers and his pals don't like it. It's Team Cap v Team Iron Man — let the games begin.

This issue — well-meaning mighty saviors of mankind, or rogue players wreaking havoc? — has long been at the heart of the comic book world. It's a debate that the X-Men have had to contend with and that provided the motive and momentum behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you want to get hifalutin about it, it's also an issue that's been running through the presidential campaigns: Should the U.S. act unilaterally in conflicts and crises overseas, or should some group like the United Nations determine when and what actions are necessary?

But let's not get hifalutin. Instead, let's go looking for an uber-baddie with a German accent, which is who we'll find pulling the strings in Captain America: Civil War. He is Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a madman bent on destroying the Avengers who uses a series of trigger words ("Longing," "Benign," "Freight train") to unleash the thawed "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) on the world.

Bucky, formerly the Captain's sidekick and one of the so-called "Winter soldiers" who've been hanging out in a cryogenics chamber, has been programmed a la The Manchurian Candidate. The Bucky doesn't stop here — he's everywhere, doing evil stuff.

If you haven't read or watched or heard anything about who shows up in Captain America: Civil War — and if you care — you may want to stop right now and go on to the next review below.

Perhaps the most significant introduction in sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo's all-but-inevitable blockbuster is that of T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, the African superhero who is played by Chadwick Boseman and who is getting his own stand-alone movie, coming in 2018, to be directed by Creed's Ryan Coogler.

A new Spider-Man also rises, although Downey's Iron Man aptly cracks that he should be called Spider-Boy. Young Tom Holland gets the role. His Spider-Man: Homecoming is set for next July.

Oh, and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man shows up, but then he morphs into Giant-Man.

They can do stuff like that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who's going to stop them?

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping **½

Conner4Real, played by Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg, performs many songs in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but my favorite is Humble, in which the chorus is a repeated, "I'm so humble." Conner performs the song with "humble" spelled out in giant letters behind him, and the song includes the refrain, "I say that with no ego!"

Popstar gets to satirize not just music, but also celebrity culture in a way that a movie such as Spinal Tap never could — because, well, the internet and 24-hours news cycle didn't exist in 1984.

But when Popstar has to do more than lampoon the cultural climate — namely, be a movie with a plot — it can't sustain the momentum to keep up what's essentially a one-joke film.

Structured as a mockumentary, Popstar follows Conner, a Justin Bieberesque superstar who's on the verge of releasing his second solo album. He's a white rapper from Sacramento who fakes a hard authenticity by covering himself with tattoos and reveling in his celebrity trappings. He came to fame as a member of the Style Boyz with his buddies (played by Samberg buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who also co-direct). Then he slowly alienates them as he strikes out on his own.

The movie is full of cameos of stars playing themselves. Questlove and Ringo Starr act as talking heads in the faux documentary. Pink sings a song with Conner that's a send-up of Macklemore. The frequency with which these celebs appear and the brevity of their parts could be thought of as a comment on the ephemeral nature of the cultural wash cycle, but they also make for good jokes — and that's really what matters. (Comics Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman, who play actual characters, are among Popstar's high points.)

Samberg produced Popstar, and he cowrote the script with Taccone and Schaffer. The three also work together as the comedy trio Lonely Island. (Those viral digital shorts that SNL used to produce? Those were by the Lonely Island guys.) The humor in Popstar fits squarely into their brand, which can be crude, but also winningly funny.

And that's what Popstar is, half the time — purposefully stupid and gleefully silly. (In a review of Conner's second album, for example, Rolling Stone rates it with a poop emoji, while Pitchfork gives the album a minus-4 out of 10.)

But then Conner learns a lesson about the value of friendship and humility, or something akin to that. That's when Popstar stops being fun and starts to feel as thin as it actually is.

The Conjuring 2 **½

As a filmmaker, James Wan plays to the reptilian brain of his audience, orchestrating such autonomous body functions as heart rate, breath and goosebumps like a maestro. In movies from Saw to Furious 7, and now The Conjuring 2, a sequel to his ghostly 2013 hit, the filmmaker bypasses higher brain function, plugging directly into the peanut-shaped circuit board — buried deep beneath your to-do lists — that makes you jump out of your skin when you hear a loud noise.

If The Conjuring 2 is not quite the achievement of the original (and what sequel is?), it nevertheless manifests a canny understanding of what modern audiences expect from a ghost story, delivering slowly mounting dread, punctuated by alternating bursts of terror and laughter.

Set in 1977 England, and inspired by events that have come to be known as "the Enfield Haunting" (from the North London borough in which they took place), the film centers on a working-class family of five. Single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are terrorized by the ghost of a former occupant of their shabby house, Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), after her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), opens the door to the underworld by messing around with a Ouija board.

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen the spirit-board gimmick used to invite a malevolent entity to pass through the veil between this world and the next. Working from a script Wan co-wrote with The Conjuring sibling screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes and David Johnson (Orphan), the filmmaker demonstrates that he is not averse to reusing dusty old tropes: a creepy mechanical toy, levitation, a seemingly possessed television set — all these cliches and more are trotted out in service of the desired effect, while exhibiting only minimal signs of wear. (One doesn’t fault Brahms for using the same notes as Beethoven, does one? It also should be noted that the real Hodgsons are purported to have triggered their poltergeist attack with an ill-advised Ouija session.)

Other aspects of the story are less faithful, although, to its credit, The Conjuring 2 does include a character (Franka Potente) who exists merely to debunk the Hodgsons’ claims of haunting. Accusations of a hoax have swirled around the Enfield case since the 1970s, and it helps that Wan acknowledges this, inoculating the film — if only a tad — against charges of excessive credulity.

It takes a while for the film’s real stars to show up. After a brief prologue set in Amityville, New York, in 1976 — during an investigation of that infamous haunting by professional ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — the Warrens finally get invited to Enfield. By that point, things have gotten out of hand. Janet seems to be possessed by the spirit of Bill Wilkins, who for unexplained reasons wants the Hodgsons out of "his" house, threatening to kill them— and the Warrens — if they don’t leave.

Of course, if you’ve seen the film’s trailers (or any of Wan’s Insidious films), you already know that there’s more going on here than a poltergeist infestation. One of Wan’s weaknesses is a predilection for demons that borders on religious obsession. To his mind, one measly old ghost is never enough. Where The Conjuring 2 goes off the rails a bit is in its insistence on dredging up a monstrous satanic entity — in a nun’s habit, no less, wearing deranged clown makeup that makes him look like Marcel Marceau on a murder spree — to supplement the level of malevolence generated by Wilkins. Another shortcoming is the story’s inability to clearly differentiate between the world of apparitions and our material one. What ghost, for instance, drops a set of real dentures?

At the same time, The Conjuring 2 satisfies more than it disappoints. As Wan’s story swells to its inevitable, almost operatic crescendo, playfully balancing the hush of your own held breath with the kettle drum of your heart beating against your rib cage, one thing becomes evident: You’re not the viewer for this symphony of terror; you’re the instrument.

Other DVDs to be released this week
The Fits **** This is what independent moviemaking should be and can be in this country. Like its heroine, it’s slight but it’s built to last.
The Measure of a Man *** It’s a small film that touches on large issues: the world of work, and how it defines us. You finish watching it feeling you’ve met someone, and wishing him well.
Standing Tall ** Director Emmanuelle Bercot's setting out to make both a character study of a troubled young man wasting his potential, and an examination of a system trying desperately to do right by its charges, despite the immense difficulties and occasional bureaucratic red tape that tie their hands. It's more successful at the latter than at the former.
MaraudersLays out a scenario in the first 40 minutes or so that, oddly enough, makes you think "this is not an entirely uninteresting premise for a thriller." But after that, things devolve into "this is extremely far-fetched" and, finally, "this is goofy."

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

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