Monday, October 10, 2016

This Week's DVD Releases

The Infiltrator **½

It's hard not to think of Breaking Bad while watching The Infiltrator. And not just because Bryan Cranston stars in both — as Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-mad-meth-king in the groundbreaking series, of course, and as Robert Mazur, an undercover G-man who burrows deeply, dirtily, into the world of drug cartels and international money-laundering in Brad Furman's true-crime picture.

Cranston was iconic, a walking tornado of moral crisis, in the former. And he's pretty convincing, too, in The Infiltrator, based on the book by a U.S. Customs agent who rubs up so close to Colombian cocaine kings and corrupt bank barons that when the epic bust finally happens, he feels almost like a traitor.

But the real reason to hold Breaking Bad and The Infiltrator side by side is to consider how much more satisfying the latter might have been as a multipart TV piece.

Teeming with colorful, cutthroat, complex characters — thugs and sophisticates, killers and con artists, straight-arrow feds and shiftless informants, and a hero who jeopardizes his real life (and wife, and kid) as he digs himself deeper into the deception — this is a story that needs time to unfold.

Within the confines of a two-hour feature, elaborate dramas are reduced to rapid-fire sketches. Real people become generic thumbnails — especially when they start hanging out at strip clubs. (Is it possible to make a movie set in the world of drugs and big stacks of cash without the obligatory lap dance scene? Probably not.)

Furman, who directed the hugely enjoyable The Lincoln Lawyer, in which Cranston and his Infiltrator partner John Leguizamo also appeared, replicates Reagan-era South Florida with convincing flair here. There are tracking shots that bring to mind Brian De Palma — specifically the over-the-top Miami mayhem of De Palma's 1983 coke-and-carnage epic, Scarface.

Cranston's Mazur — alias Bob Musella, a name he finds on a gravestone — starts climbing the ladder that he hopes will lead to the inner circle of the Medellín Cartel and the banks that handle its millions. He confabs with mobsters and money men. He's vetted by a voodoo shaman. And he's partnered with a newbie agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who volunteers to pose as Bob's fiancée.

The pair insinuate themselves into the world of Pablo Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (a gentlemanly Benjamin Bratt), gaining his trust, his friendship, seats at the family table, on his private jet.

Blood and brains get splattered along the way. There are setbacks, betrayals, panicky moments when a slip of the tongue or a faulty attaché case snap (concealing a tape recorder) could blow the whole operation. An anniversary dinner with his real wife (Juliet Aubrey) turns into a nightmare improvisation for Mazur when a gangland contact comes over to say hello.

"That was the most degrading, vicious, and disgusting thing I've ever seen," his wife tells him, driving home in the miserable aftermath. Caught in the headlights ahead: a vision of their marriage falling apart.

True to its "based on a true story" source material, The Infiltrator's end credits run head shots of the real bankers and drug czars and undercover narcs portrayed in the film, with accompanying prison sentences and career updates. But as solid as Cranston, Leguizamo, Kruger, Bratt, and all the rest are, the built-in constraints of the movie format don't do their real-life counterparts full justice.

Even when justice was served.

Ghostbusters **½

Let me begin this review of the 2016 Ghostbusters remake by pretending there was no 1984 iteration. How enjoyable would the film be if it didn’t have such enormous baggage, if it didn’t emerge under the long shadow of a beloved predecessor? The answer to that hypothetical is disappointingly prosaic: this is a mediocre horror/comedy that deserves neither high praise nor disparagement.

Ghostbusters is pretty much what you would expect from a collaboration between several ex-SNL comedians and the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. It’s fitfully amusing, features decent chemistry among the leads, enjoys two richly comedic performances (from Chris Hemsworth and Kate McKinnon), and is dragged down by an overreliance on special effects and some boring action scenes. Perhaps the thing that hurts Ghostbusters the most isn’t the recasting of the leads but Paul Feig’s decision to spend so much of his budget (and screen time) on battles between the Ghostbusters and their supernatural foes. Because there’s too little humor and even less excitement in those scenes, they offer little more than eye candy and that stuff gets old fast.

Did I laugh during the film? Yes. Chris Hemsworth is hilarious — not exactly what one would expect from an actor known for playing hunky roles like Thor and The Huntsman. Kate McKinnon has her moments; her weirdness is occasionally irritating but, more often than not, it adds a spark. (Oddly, the two "big" names, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, are almost understated.) The script isn’t as clever as it could have been but it delivers enough laughs to make things palatable.

For some reason, however, the filmmakers believe that we as viewers will be excited/astounded by the Ghostbuster-on-ghost action. But 2016 is long past the time when even the most impressive special effects can inspire awe. We expect them. As a result, the lovingly crafted sequences of ghost mayhem in New York City provoke no more than a shrug. And, when it comes to battles, we yawn. It’s not as if we believe any of characters are in danger or that the world might actually end. So why spend so much time and money on the disaster film material? Because they can? Because it’s expected in a seasonal blockbuster? It drags out the running length and distracts from those aspects of Ghostbusters that work.

That brings us to the road-block likely to keep many potential viewers from enjoying anything this film has to offer. This is an unnecessary remake. It’s not the first or last of those. They come along as frequently as falling nuts in the autumn. In this case, however, the filmmakers have (possibly inadvertently) desecrated what some consider to be sacred ground. For me, the 1984 film was nothing more than an enjoyable diversion but, for some of my generation, it’s a seminal movie — a classic that should be approached with care and consideration. Neither of these qualities is evident in this treatment. No one set out to offend fans — in fact, many of the players involved in the original movie are back in one capacity or another. Ivan Reitman is the co-producer and Dan Aykroyd has an Executive Producer credit. Akyroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Annie Potts make cameos (along with a bust of Harold Ramis and Ramis’ son, Daniel). The movie tries hard to provide as many call-backs as possible, including homages to some of the original spirits and a nod to the Marshmallow Man.

It’s curious why the decision was to make Ghostbusters a "re-imagining" with all-new characters rather than a soft reboot with new characters coming in alongside (to eventually replace) the old ones. As we saw with The Force Awakens, that’s the way to extend a franchise because it excites the fan base rather than alienating them. In a tone-deaf publicity move, certain members of the cast and crew rebutted this hostility by playing the "misogyny" card (and making disparaging remarks about nerds still living in their parents’ basements). Although it’s true that a minority of those lambasting the movie sight-unseen are offended by the gender change of the leads, most are angered for one simple reason: their Ghostbusters are nowhere to be found. The newcomers could have been all male or all marsupial and the reaction would have been as virulent. You’d think people in Hollywood would understand that the best way to inflate the box office isn’t to insult a portion of the potential audience. It’s such a head-scratchingly dumb move that it’s hard to believe it happened.

All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided with a more clever script. The leads could have still been McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, except now fans would have been able to enjoy the limited appearances of Aykroyd, Murray, and Hudson as "mentors" (and maybe participants in the final battle). No need to change much. So why wasn’t it done this way? Who knows. Hindsight is 20/20 and maybe enough people will be interested in the concept of an all-female Ghostbusters quartet to put aside any reservations they may have.

One last note… I agree that the new cover of the Ghostbusters theme song is an atrocity. However, its use in the movie is limited. The original Ghostbusters song has at least as much screen time, being utilized for both the opening and end credits. The movie has endeavored to placate both those who love Ray Parker Jr.’s (or, as some might argue, Huey Lewis’) ‘80s version as well as those who prefer a "modernization."

I wish I could say the resultant product was a home run that will make all the concerns invalid. It isn’t. But it’s not terrible and shouldn’t be avoided just because it isn’t a continuation of an old franchise. Reboots happen all the time and, compared to some, this one is relatively successful. The new Ghostbusters work well together. They have a strong rapport and exhibit no difficulty commanding the screen for about two hours. The movie is too long and not funny enough but that puts it in the same category as many recent comedies.

My advice is that if you hate the idea of a Ghostbusters remake, don’t rent or stream this. There’s no reason to endure a movie you’re predestined to dislike. If, however, you have no investment in the original, Ghostbusters will provide what most of this year’s other seasonal movies have delivered: sporadic entertainment followed by a vaguely hollow feeling that it could have and should have been better.

The Legend of Tarzan *½

Like its titular character, trying to reconcile being both the fifth Earl of Greystoke and the once and future King of the Jungle, The Legend of Tarzan wants to be both modern and traditional, hip and classic. It’s a tough balance to strike, and this film can’t manage it.

Which is too bad, because actor Alexander Skarsgard, the latest iteration of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character filmed dozens of times since Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth in 1918, turns out to be an exemplary Tarzan. It’s a given in this age of intense training regimens for actors that Skarsgard has the physique for the part, looking lean and sinewy enough to actually do the breathtaking vine swinging that is in fact accomplished by a CGI character modeled on a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist. Even better, however, is that the actor, best known for HBO’s True Blood, has the fine-boned features that enable him to project a quite gratifying air of dignity, stillness, even repose, making him the very model of an unflappable jungle monarch.

Having David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter epics, in charge here no doubt helped with this picture’s large-scale action sequences. But even his skill and that of Potter collaborators like production designer Stuart Craig, editor Mark Day and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke can’t heal this film’s split personality.

As written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, The Legend of Tarzan alternates between a brazenly contemporary sensibility and quietly time-honored events. Unfortunately, almost all of the former are awkward while the latter still ring true. A few of Cozad and Brewer’s ideas are interesting, like referencing Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose exploitative personal ownership destroyed the Congo that was the King of the Jungles home. Also, this iteration of Tarzan begins some years after the man in question has married Jane (Margot Robbie) and left Africa for London, where as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, he apparently divides his time between serving in the House of Lords and hybridizing coconuts.

Meanwhile, back in Africa, we meet King Leopold’s worse-than-evil envoy Leon Rom (the always villainous Christoph Waltz), who does things with a rosary the church never taught and has made a devil’s bargain with Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), chief of the powerful and sinister Mbolonga tribe. This worthy adversary, who controls some fabulously wealthy diamond mines, has been nursing a grudge against the erstwhile vine swinger, and he tells Rom that if he produces Tarzan he can have all the gems he and Belgium’s greedy king desire. John Clayton, knowing none of this, allows himself to be convinced to return to Africa, and when wife Jane demands to go along, he takes her with him. Big mistake.

All this sounds promising enough for a Saturday matinee movie, and in fact the parts of The Legend of Tarzan that work best are the flashbacks to Tarzan's well-known jungle origins and his bonding with the fierce Mangani gorillas he thinks of as family.

But this film yearns to be contemporary, which means, among other things, hollow and out of place 21st century dialogue lines like "how do you want to play this" and "tell me something I don't know," as well as what the MPAA rating guidelines accurately describe as "brief rude dialogue."

Even less satisfactory, Tarzan excepted, are the characters who speak this language. Actress Robbie tries hard as Jane but she is too ostentatiously modern and feisty to be at all convincing. Faring even worse is Samuel J. Jackson, who plays George Washington Williams, a swashbuckling American who convinces John Clayton to take him along when he reveals himself to be a secret anti-slavery crusader. Part comic relief, part valued ally, Williams is an altogether puzzling script component, and Jackson's habit of sounding like he just stepped out of Pulp Fiction does not help things.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of The Legend of Tarzan is that though it is chock-a-block with jungle animals, all of whom seem to know Tarzan personally, they are exclusively created via CGI effects. Some of these moments are quite effective, but quitting while it’s ahead is not something that’s in this film’s vocabulary.

Other DVD releases this week
Sherpa **** Jennifer Peedom’s film is stunningly photographed (how could it not be?) and brilliantly sly: she gives the tour guides and their rich, self-absorbed charges just enough rope to hang themselves, and they duly oblige. But it’s also a heartfelt tribute to the resilience of a people.
Life Animated *** It wonderfully explains elements of life with autism, offering a primer for the uninitiated, while profiling a family that was rewarded for its willingness to approach an obstacle with patience and love.
Breaking a Monster *** What makes Luke Meyer’s documentary interesting isn’t so much the music or even the incipient stardom, but rather the push-pull between high-stakes music business pressure and subjects who — being 13 years old or so — hardly have the attention spans for the drudgery and minutiae a "career" requires.
Blood Father **½ Operating for much of its running time with an equal balance between guilty pleasure grittiness and decent father/daughter drama, the film’s conclusion tips toward the latter in an unconvincing shift toward sentimentality and Life Lessons that not only is out of place, but betrays the father’s own code of stoic endurance.
Len & Company **½ The film proves more than its conventional story presumes. We’ve seen its depiction of mid-life and quarter-life crises — many times with the music industry at its back — but this newest iteration possesses an authenticity rendering it worthwhile nonetheless.
Approaching the Uknown ** Too high-minded to ever stoop to suspense or fun, Approaching The Unknown is almost completely interiorized, unspooling in voice-over narration that sounds like a writing exercise that got out of control.
Ice Age: Collision Course * Overstuffed with meandering, unnecessary micro-storylines, far too many new characters, and an obvious lack of focus, none of which should impact the movie’s target demographic, kids under 10.
Hilary’s America (no stars) As a documentary determined to damn the Democratic Party, Hillary’s America is a profound failure of unprecedented proportions, an embarrassment for Republicans, Americans and pretty much the rest of humankind. As a parody of right-wing conspiracy theorists, this knotted spiderweb of ideological garbage is practically Citizen Kane.

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

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