Monday, September 19, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising **

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has too many talented people involved in it for it not to be at least a little bit funny. But that’s all it is, a little bit funny. Over the course of its hour and a half running time, it inspires maybe three loud guffaws, a few modest chortles, a subsonic chuckle and a handful of silent smiles. That’s not enough to make it a worthy — or even worth-making — sequel to the 2014 comedy Neighbors.

The movie’s problems are peculiar because they almost seem contradictory. On the one hand, the set-up is so obvious, so designed to re-create the dynamics of the original movie, that it seems either a purely cynical exercise or so blatant a cynical exercise that it qualifies as a bold comic gesture: In the previous film, a newly married couple had to contend with a fraternity moving in next door; this time, a sorority takes over the same house.

The jokes are as coarse as the strategy is deliberate. As the movie begins, we see the young married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) having sex, and then she throws up on him. Actually, it’s one of the best laughs in the movie, as well as a cautionary example. Had she been on the bottom, she might have died from aspiration, and that wouldn’t have been funny.

Yet for all the movie’s boldness, its coarseness, its in-your-faceness, Neighbors 2 is constrained by political correctness. The sorority is at least as bad as the fraternity ever was, but, because the couple is fighting girls, the movie has less fun with it. The girls act like villains, but the screenplay is unwilling to present them unsympathetically. The upshot is that Neighbors 2 is mostly unpleasant without being funny or ultimately satisfying.

The screenplay ties itself into a knot from the start, when it presents the founding of the nasty sorority as a feminist event. Young Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is disheartened to find out that sororities, under national Greek rules, can’t throw parties. She is further disillusioned when she attends a frat party and finds the experience sexist and degrading. And so she joins forces with three new friends to establish a new sorority, independent of the Greek system.

In the new sorority, they throw parties that are just as loud and lewd and awful as the frat parties, though the movie expects us to recognize a difference that isn’t there. In any case, the parties are a source of misery to next-door neighbors Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne), who don’t realize that what’s keeping them up at night isn’t mere raucousness, selfishness and noise but burgeoning feminist assertion. Meanwhile, the movie makes it plain that this is coming at the worst possible time for the couple: They’ve bought a new house and need to sell the old one, which they’re currently occupying. But the sorority has made their property unsellable.

In Neighbors, the culprits were young men, and so director Nicholas Stoller and the screenwriters felt at liberty to present them as slobs — not evil, but ridiculous. By treating the sorority sisters of Neighbors 2 with kid gloves, they rob them of humor and, inadvertently, make them more culpable (and therefore more dislikable) with every awful thing they do. They’re just not funny. And neither is Zac Efron as Teddy, who was the fraternity leader last time and here is presented as pathetic and needy.

Yet even with so-so material, Rogen is funny, and so is Byrne, whose comic facility was the revelation of the first Neighbors. But they’re so sympathetic that there’s little joy in witnessing their victimhood.

Free State of Jones **
A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. As if afraid to offend anyone or put a wrong foot in an era of racial hypersensitivity, writer-director Gary Ross tiptoes as if through a minefield in relating the fascinating tale of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who had the temerity to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of a growing number of renegade slaves. Serious and upfront films about slavery have been scarce enough through the decades that it's notable to have at least two of them in 2016, this one and Nate Parker's impactful but also problematic Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation, set for theatrical release on Oct. 7 and bound to be the bigger audience-pleaser.

Returning to action four years after making the first Hunger Games installment, Ross opens well with sobering scenes of Civil War carnage, as Confederate troops are systematically mowed down while being marched directly into Union lines of fire. Ross underlines the butchery with dialogue footnotes about Dixie's class divide, as the poor do the fighting on behalf of rich landowners, who are exempt from military service if they own at least 20 slaves.

There could scarcely be a more sympathetic member of the Confederacy than Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic who's both anti-secession and anti-slavery; he's a reb by geographic happenstance alone. The quick death of a youngster he's taken under his wing is the last straw for the aging farmboy, who deserts and, back home, tries to protect his wife Serena (Keri Russell) from the illegal confiscation of most of their possessions; she soon sees no choice but to flee. More provocations send Newt fleeing to an impenetrable swamp where, in league with a small band of escaped slaves, he begins his career as a maverick marauder against his increasingly beleaguered Southern brethren.

In its sober and considered way, the film is absorbing at first, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of the war. Americans fighting Americans delivers a sharp sting, and Ross succeeds in establishing a thoughtful, non-sensationalistic tone as he lays the foundations for Newt's unintended career as a leader of disenfranchised men.

Twenty-five minutes in, the focus abruptly shifts to a courthouse scene in the late 1940s, in which a Caucasian-looking man is seemingly being accused of being part-black and, therefore, vulnerable to charges of miscegenation. Some sort of related link to the Civil War story is clearly in the offing.

In a gradual, Seven Samurai-like manner, Newt builds a belief in his hitherto subservient and downcast new allies that they can strike back against their longtime tormentors. "Nobody done nothin' like that for them before," remarks Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave at a nearby plantation who ends up doing many favors for the renegades and eventually becomes Newt's common-law wife. The first order of business is getting a dreadful iron necklace with upward-pointing spears removed from Moses (Mahershala Ali), the clear leader among the "collective." The second is for Newt to teach them all how to shoot; they learn very quickly.

But just as the film seems like it's about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.

Still, Ross is more attentive to what is historically known of Newt Knight and his times than to the imperatives of good drama; the veteran screenwriter has neglected to write any interesting or emotional scenes between Newt and Rachel, dialogue is devoted far more to issues than to quotidian banter and the Reconstruction-era scenes jump from one increasingly negative historical moment to the next. The Ku Klux Klan is born, plantations are restored to their former owners, apprenticeship becomes a euphemism for slavery, voting rights for blacks are squelched and "emancipation" is a term that must be enclosed within qualifying quotation marks. As the characters recede, the final stretch becomes a checklist of setbacks for racial fairness and equality, a build-up that concludes with a consequent outrage in the resolution of the 1940s court case.

Well before it's over, then, Free State of Jones (which never really does satisfactorily address the issue of the three relevant Mississippi counties ever having been declared a "state") has devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments. Despite endowing Newt with a right-amiable manner and an easy way with speechifying, McConaughey doesn't get the opportunity to create a fully dimensional man — he's given precious few intimate moments and no flashes of self-doubt. Ali is charismatic and his character's arc is the most eventful and tragic, but Mbatha-Raw is given little opportunity to flash the talent she's suggested previously.

Shot entirely in Louisiana, the film benefits from its lush rural locations and the lived-and-died-in look of its sets and costumes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows *½
In 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the title characters, on meeting the journalist April O’Neil, comment with aggressive enthusiasm on her good looks. They subsequently learn that April cared for them when they were just regular turtles, and, hence, is kind of like a big sister. At that point, a viewer might expect the fellows to stop hitting on her, but this reboot of the whimsical superhero franchise is partially produced by Michael Bay, so, no.

In the new movie, April, played again by the attractive, pouty Megan Fox, does not hesitate, in the first 10 minutes, to use her sexuality to extract data from two men. She even concocts a sort of schoolgirl outfit to get close to a target. Apparently, the one note that today’s studio executives will not give to filmmakers is, "Think of the children."

Out of the Shadows finds the named-for-Renaissance-artists protagonists contending with both an apocalyptic villain from another dimension and an existential crisis (that is, what does it mean to be normal when you are a mutated superpowered turtle?). This movie is, it happens, easier to sit through than the 2014 film. The action, overseen by the director Dave Green, is not wholly incoherent. The production values (showcasing new mutants and many gear-heavy extra-dimensional machines undreamed of in any actual engineering philosophy) are ultrashiny. And there are even a couple of amusing, albeit unmemorable, sight gags and one-liners.

Will Arnett is back, and game, as April’s unctuous former colleague. Newbies include an amiable Stephen Amell as a hockey-stick-wielding good guy, Tyler Perry as a mad scientist and the great Laura Linney, who plays a police captain, and sometimes smirks as if enjoying a joke nobody in the audience has been let in on, at least not explicitly.

Other new DVD releases this week:
Under the Sun ***½ The truths revealed in this film have more to do with the North Korean government’s self-consciousness about how they’re perceived by foreigners. Here, they seem desperate to appear productive, congenial, devoted, and above all, happy.
Sunday Ball ***½ Captured more for poetry than for clarity, the topography of penalties and free kicks can be impossible to follow. But Léo Bittencourt’s photography has flash and flair, and hardscrabble determination on a real-life field of dreams has a narrative all its own.
Collidng Dreams *** Directed from the center-left with an ear to parties on both sides of the West Bank separation barrier, it’s knowledgeable and unhysterical, openhearted without seeming naïve. Those on the extremes will probably hate it.
Wedding Doll **½ Nitzan Gilady, a documentarian making his fiction feature debut as a writer and director, over-stacks the deck with this belabored if artfully shot story.
The Blackout ExperimentsNeither scary nor shocking.
Pele: Birth of a Legend * Who knows what the could have been had it tapped more into that mysterious life force and the true messiness in harnessing it and making it glorious. Instead we get what the man himself was canny enough to ignore: a familiar game plan tediously followed.
ma ma * Julio Medem’s film is a smiling-through-tears saga whose generally tasteful execution can’t ultimately salvage a whopping load of maudlin contrivance, all designed to burnish the halo around Penelope Cruz.
Sacrifice ½* A unique kind of very bad movie. The spectacle of this misbegotten thriller is not amusing enough to recommend to fans of casual movie cheesiness, but it’s the filmmaking choices that made me laugh out loud.

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

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