Monday, September 26, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½

Hunt for the Wilderpeople takes a troika of familiar story types — the plucky kid, the crusty geezer, the nurturing bosom — and strips them of cliché. Charming and funny, it is a drama masquerading as a comedy about an unloved boy whom nobody wants until someone says, Yes, I’ll love him. Much of the humor comes from the child, who’s at once a pip and a gloriously expressive ambassador for the director Taika Waititi’s cleareyed take on human nature and movies. Waititi knows that we love to cry at sad and bad times, but he also knows that people in pain need to get on with their lives.

The story centers on the soon-to-be 13-year-old Ricky (the irresistible Julian Dennison), a New Zealand foster child who, as the movie opens, is being placed with an older couple who live in a pastoral clearing at the edge of the bush. Ricky rapidly bonds with the woman, who goes by Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata as the nurturer), but he’s kept at arm’s length by her gruff, taciturn husband, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill, perfect as the house geezer). Like hippies time forgot, Bella and Hec live off the land and its bounty, including boar and the possums that she skins one handful of fur at a time.

Waititi works fast, setting a bright, light comic mood that owes something to Wes Anderson but is organically his own. Waititi started out in comedy, shifting to movie directing more than a decade ago with little evident strain. His first features (Boy, Eagle vs. Shark) are imperfect, but also unmistakably of an auteurist piece with strongly defined characters, a deep sense of place and a humorously deadpan view of life’s absurdities. They’re also very sweet. More recently, he and his longtime friend, the comic Jemaine Clement, another New Zealander, directed What We Do in the Shadows, a cheerfully silly mockumentary about vampires living as roommates.

The comedy in Wilderpeople is quieter than in Waititi’s earlier movies, which strengthens the story’s realism. Ricky is a funny kid. He’s amusing to look at, for one thing, what with his fish-out-of-water hip-hop threads, and has a gift for bolts from the blue, like the bad-boy haikus he creates (and recites) as part of his therapeutic training. As a child of social services, he throws words like "processing" around, though Waititi is careful when it comes to Ricky’s history, which is scattered piecemeal throughout. Tragedy touches the characters in Wilderpeople, but it doesn’t define them and they’re not into sharing, caring and closure like their American counterparts.

Sorrow descends on Wilderpeople soon after it opens, leaving Uncle Hec and Ricky first unmoored and then on the run in the bush, where they’re chased by a social services zealot, Paula (Rachel House), and her minion, Andy (Oscar Kightley). Waititi likes to play with types of comedy, but he’s partial to modest exaggeration, whether he’s putting the joke across with slapstick, songs, caricature, lovingly deployed insults or a flurry of tableaulike images. All the characters are funny and idiosyncratic, but because they make you laugh in different ways they also register — with the pointed exception of the cartoonish Paula and Andy — as real people rather than as contrivances.

Drawn in crayon by Waititi, Paula and Andy are burlesques of bureaucratic incompetency. There’s an obvious political dimension to Paula’s fanatical, overblown crusade to flush Ricky and Uncle Hec out of the bush, but her mania is mostly just another clown car that Waititi enjoys taking out for a spin. For the most part, Waititi’s politics are as matter of fact as his humor and expressed through his gritty, singular characters, some of whom happen to be white, others of whom happen to be Maori. (Waititi also wrote the movie, adapting it from the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, a best-selling author and self-styled bushman.)

Waititi’s expansive sense of human beings in Hunt for the Wilderpeople allows his characters to endure loss and hardship without forcing them to be wholly limited by their suffering, as marginalized people too often are in fiction. They’re romantic and pragmatic, eccentric and utterly ordinary. They’re also reasonably flawed, as is this movie, but Waititi transcends most of the narrative bumps and generally dodges the obvious land mines, including cuteness. He’s still finding his way, but he’s already a director who — as he does in a shot of a friendly, undefeated child pausing to wave at a pursuer — can distill a worldview into a single, perfect cinematic moment.

The Shallows **
There’s too much shark in The Shallows. It swims circles around actress Blake Lively, follows surfers in crashing waves and makes its complicated sharkly decisions in anticipation of human moves. By the end, you’ll be convinced that this predator fish could play a game of chess, or at least Clue.

The Shallows is a very earnest woman-versus-shark film. It delivers the requisite thrills, including a surprisingly satisfying resolution. The heroine is capable, and the writers, who trap her on a rock for half the film, find ways to make her situation seem interesting.

But the most important parts, the ones involving the shark, don’t feel genuine. The shark in Jaws was scary because of what we didn’t know. This shark acts like a horror movie villain, as predictably relentless as Jason in a Friday the 13th sequel.

There’s that word again — Jaws. Just as every San Francisco 49ers quarterback will always be unfairly compared to Joe Montana, every shark film forever swims in the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 epic horror/thriller/drama. The makers of The Shallows seem aware of this, and they strip the film down to the marrow. Medical student Nancy (Lively) gets a ride to a remote beach in Mexico, after her party-obsessed companion bails on her at the last minute. She’s attacked by a great white shark the size of a Ford Taurus station wagon and finds safety on a temporarily exposed small rock. But the tide is coming back in. …
Here are a few things that feel genuine in The Shallows.

Our hero is scared: The screenwriters do Lively very few favors, with some awkward Tom Hanks-in-Cast Away exposition-heavy monologues. ("Got to get some blood flowing. Let’s loosen this tourniquet …") There’s a completely unnecessary and unbelievable subplot about quitting medical school. But, working alone in most scenes, Lively sells the terror of the situation.

Mexico is an OK place: The filmmakers finish one drunk, overweight Mexican away from a film 100 percent free of stereotypes. Grading on a curve with other Hollywood films set in Mexico, they get at least a B-plus. Nice job.

It’s a bad idea to surf alone: Even if this were the worst shark film ever made, it would serve as a solid 87-minute public service announcement on the dangers of getting in the ocean without a companion.

Our hero has the world’s worst best friend: You almost want Lively’s character to die, just so her drunken flake of a travel companion, who can’t overcome her hangover, is guilt-racked for the rest of her life. Power through and get to the beach, Nancy’s friend!

The Shallows is a lean 87 minutes, and it would be closer to 67 minutes if it weren’t for all the slow motion. As the shark displays more human-like thought processes, the script goes for broke with a few scientifically questionable but thoroughly satisfying action scenes. This is not an epic film. But in defense of the filmmakers, they probably weren’t trying to make one.

Central Intelligence **
Truth-in-advertising alert: There’s hardly any intelligence to be found in Central Intelligence. Those glimmers that exist come mostly from Dwayne Johnson, who turns in an enthusiastic and witty performance as a one-time high school nerd who has morphed into a guy who looks like The Rock. The film itself is painless, strained, occasionally amusing, and utterly disposable — just another studio buddy comedy/action movie that forgot where it put the script.

The pairing of Johnson (massive and graceful) and Kevin Hart (sawed-off and yappy) is its own visual joke, of course, one that keeps you watching and hoping things will improve. (They don’t.) A prologue set in 1996 uses impressively creepy CGI techniques to juvenate Hart into a high school senior named Calvin "The Golden Jet" Joyner, god of his graduating class, and Johnson into Robbie Wierdicht, a much-bullied fat kid who Calvin rescues from a moment of prime humiliation.

Fast forward to today, and Calvin has lost his BMOC mojo to become an unhappy low-level accountant, married to high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Robbie reappears in Calvin’s life beefcaked up into Bob Stone, a CIA agent who’s either in danger, gone rogue, or off his rocker. There are mysterious computer codes to be retrieved and assassins to be killed; Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) tries and fails to class up the joint as Stone’s grimly efficient agency handler.

Hardly any of this makes sense, and Rawson Marshall Thurber directs the way he did in Dodgeball and We’re the Millers — gamely but without a whit of skill. (The action sequences are a particular hash.) So why am I maybe recommending Central Intelligence for a night when there’s absolutely nothing else available to watch? Because of Johnson, who plays Stone as an action hero who still looks in the mirror and sees a teenage geek with an unhealthy Sixteen Candles fixation.

Who would have thought back in his pro wrestling days that The Rock would someday become one of our more likably nuanced comic actors? The joke of Johnson’s persona is the deftness with which this human cinderblock moves and the wry sensitivity he gives to his line readings. Bob is capable of dispatching legions of Uzi-wielding assailants but around Calvin, his long-ago high school savior, he reverts into a worshipful puppy. It’s as if Duckie from Pretty in Pink had ended up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body.

By contrast, Hart has little to do but schpritz and shriek, which he does ably and to diminishing returns.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates **
In the inevitably inebriated, sometimes stoned, reliably raw and occasionally bodily-fluid-enhanced annals of gross-out wedding comedies (a list arguably topped by The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Wedding Crashers), Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates rates medium on the grossness scale (an all-body, pre-marital naked-Indian-guru-administered massage for the bride with a happy ending, anyone?) and pretty high in crude talk. But it's kind of a dud when it comes to endurance and imaginative moves. The amusing premise of naughty-boy brothers who troll online for dates to their sister's Hawaiian nuptials, only to end up with two babes far more foul than they, delivers enough raunch to satisfy its intended good-times-seeking audience. Still, the repetitive humor is frat boy-level boorish rather than cosmically anarchic, suggesting a quick box-office cash-in instead of a big long haul for Fox in a summer very short on comedy.

Loosely based on the antics of real-life brothers Mike and Dave Stangle, whose adventures advertising for dates on Craigslist led to TV appearances and a book, this frantic, almost desperately vulgar farce panders to its intended audience by following the simple formula of making sure nearly every sentence features three or four dirty words rather than one or two. For a while, the overkill is somewhat amusing, especially when the gals show up and outdo the guys. But when this is basically the only comic stratagem, you're bound to hit the wall sooner rather than later.

Having ruined previous family events with their antics (helpfully glimpsed in some raucous home videos), Mike (Adam Devine, of Workaholics, Modern Family and the two Pitch Perfect features) and Dave (Zac Efron) are commanded by their elders to get actual dates to accompany them to the upcoming wedding of their squeaky-voiced sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard).

Despite their ad going viral and attracting 6,000 responses, the boys end up with two young ladies of genuinely bottomless vulgarity, classlessness and lack of self-esteem. However, the almost permanently sloshed Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) can still recognize a gravy train when they see one and they manage to climb on board without, for once, getting prone even before the double "date" is underway.

"Being a nice girl is hard," complains Alice, who's still reeling after having been jilted at her wedding. But she and born hard-ass Tatiana have agreed not to capitulate before Jeanie's wedding, so you can just about feel screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien (former Judd Apatow cohorts, best known for the two Neighbors features) scouring around trying to figure out what their boys and girls can do to create mayhem without doing the nasty.

The foursome's first outing is a wild ATV ride across the Hawaiian landscape where the dinosaurs first appeared in the original Jurassic Park, except there are no reptiles this time, only heedless nutjobs on wheels. Then comes Jeanie's deluxe massage, followed by a provocative steam room encounter in which Mike and Dave's butch cousin Terry (Alice Wetterlund, very good) takes great pleasure in getting somewhere with Tatiana before Mike does.

But what fizz there is goes flat after about an hour, as TV comedy director Jake Szymanski, on his debut feature, desperately tries to keep a few laughs coming while navigating toward a resolution without getting too pat or sappy. A thankless task it was.

Although both the guys are very vigorously vulgar, Efron has little choice but to play the straight man to Devine's hyperactive stooge; the latter never lets up with his shameless gall, giving Jerry Lewis a run for his money when it comes to making faces. Kendrick and Plaza are somewhat better company, if only because their characters' extremism is initially more surprising and both have more cards to play as performers.

The fancy resort settings notwithstanding, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates has a very cheap look and it doesn't take long to realize that, if Hawaii is to be the cinematic vacation destination, seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall again would have provided a far better time.

The Neon Demon **
Enduring as All About Eve has proven with its musings on stardom, there’s nothing about the jealousy-fueled ruthlessness on display that flat-out makes us gasp. The same is true of, say, Showgirls, unless we’re talking about the awful dialogue. Then there’s The Neon Demon, from director Nicolas Winding Refn (Ryan Gosling’s Drive and Only God Forgives). It’s debatable whether the Danish provocateur is telling us anything new about the fame game — or telling us anything thematically worthwhile, really — with his darkly surreal portrait of LA’s modeling scene. But we do gasp in watching Refn’s visually and viscerally charged exploration of the territory. Actually, retch is more like it — which is precisely what a last-act audience surrogate even cues us to do, as if we needed encouraging.

Elle Fanning is impeccably cast as Jesse, a quiet, sweet-natured ingénue shuttling between sketchy photo shoots and her clichéd newcomer’s digs in a seedy Pasadena motel. Toweling off the blood after one session (don’t ask), she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who part impishly, part sympathetically offers her an intro to the cool crowd. But it takes just minutes for Jesse to run innocently afoul of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), played-out 20-something models as viciously catty as they are statuesquely blond.

Jesse’s tentative navigation of her cold yet seductive new world is hypnotically rendered by Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier. An enigmatic fashion photographer (Desmond Harrington) simultaneously objectifies and exalts her with gold body paint. A cruelly detached designer (Alessandro Nivola), amusingly gulping at the sight of her, taps her to close his otherworldly runway show over humiliated, dehumanized Sarah. To keep the aesthetic from getting too far out there, we also get an earnest beauty shot of Jesse girlishly balancing on a moonlit overlook and, somewhat less beautifully, scenes with Keanu Reeves as the motel’s entertainingly sociopathic manager.

It’s tonally strange, mesmerizing stuff — and about as narratively eventful as a supermodel holding a cover pose. That is, until the final act, as Refn goes wild with the star factory’s propensity for devouring It Girls. Fanning’s character takes a hard turn, Malone reminds us that she’s forever been OK with playing disturbing (remember Bastard Out of Carolina?), and Heathcote and Lee make Malone’s transgressions seem almost tame. After all the earlier trippy languor, Refn suddenly pushes hard to make this a unique statement. Which it is — uniquely repellent.

Warcraft *
Warcraft, the film adaptation of the 1994 Blizzard Entertainment computer game that spawned several sequels (including the massive hit World of Warcraft), throws so many realms and characters at you in its first 15 minutes — Azeroth, Draenor, Gul’dan, Durotan — even George R.R. Martin would beg for mercy.

Here’s the thing, though: The moment you stop trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who, the movie becomes easy to follow, because all the fancy names and references are just window dressing on a plot so simple it could pass for a children’s book. Devoted Warcraft fans will take pleasure in seeing this dense, beloved universe brought to life via the most impressive motion-capture effects since Avatar. The orcs, a race of towering, mostly green-skinned brutes who sport gnarly tusks and wield huge war hammers, have such expressive eyes and faces you buy them as real creatures (the two main orcs are played by Toby Kebbell and Clancy Brown).

They’re so impressive, they highlight how bad the performances by their human co-stars are. Director Duncan Jones, who previously made the minimalist sci-fi drama Moon and the time-travel mind bender Source Code, seems to have been in over his head at the reins of this massive, $160 million production. He has devoted so much attention to the technical aspects of the film — some of the orcs sport bling and piercings on their tusks — that he didn’t notice how badly his human cast was flailing.

The people in Warcraft are all standard fantasy-genre types — the dutiful warrior (Travis Fimmel), the benevolent king (Dominic Cooper), the ornamental queen (Ruth Negga), the powerful wizard (Ben Foster), the studious apprentice (Ben Schnetzer) — without any distinguishing characteristics. The actors, who spent much of their time on the set acting opposite green screens, seem bored and more than a little bewildered (with the exception of Foster, whose odd, drunk performance is out of place and strangely comical, like Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau).

Paula Patton plays the most intriguing character, a half-orc who fights on the side of the humans as they try to prevent the orcs from invading their world via a magical portal. But the script, co-written by Jones and Charles Leavitt, is filled with so much deadly dialogue no actor could save it: "In my entire life, I have never felt so much pain as I do now!" or "If love is what you need, you must be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find it!" Glenn Close pops up in a cameo, mostly to deliver the ominous warning "No one can stand against the darkness … alone." And so on.

Warcraft isn’t a flat-out disaster like Battlefield Earth or David Lynch’s Dune: The movie contains some impressive setpieces, such as a surprise forest ambush by the orcs, and the film wisely spends more time exploring the cultural and political ideologies of the monsters (who are not all evil) than it does hanging around the dull king and his court. The orcs have a great physicality to them — when they swing their giant hammers, you can feel their weight — and the climax piles so many cliffhangers on top of each other that you can’t resist a smile: The movie may not work, but it certainly tries hard. (I did wish Jones had thrown in a scene showing the orcs, with those gnarly teeth, eating dinner; their army is so big, they’d need an entire ranch of cattle to get through a single week).

Warcraft would be easy to relegate to the bargain bin of 1980s B-grade guilty-pleasure fantasy pictures such as Krull or Yor, the Hunter from the Future, except that the game’s popularity guarantees a healthy international box office haul (it grossed $46 million in China in one day alone), and the entire movie is structured as the opening chapter of a much longer saga. The story doesn’t end so much as stop, leaving enough plot threads dangling for at least two sequels. The Warcraft hardcore can rejoice. Everyone else can move along. There’s not much to see here.

Other new DVD releases this week
The Innocents *** Veteran French director Anne Fontaine approaches a spiritually and emotionally complex real-life slice of history with deftness and understated drama.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words *** A fascinating and compelling dive into an artist’s uniquely ticking parts, gives voice to a complex dude and broadens the picture.
City of Gold *** At a moment when public discourse seems so often focused on exacerbating hostile divisions, this documentary’s joyful embrace of human (as well as edible) variety as "the spice of life" seems particularly, well, filling.
Cell * Dated, despondent and pretty much a disaster, this film plays like a series of nods to other science fiction-horror hybrids, notably The Matrix (1999) and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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

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