Monday, November 21, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Hell or High Water ***½

There are no tumbleweeds in Hell or High Water, but there might as well be. The Texas terrain, as bleak and barren as any landscape this side of Tombstone, is a constant presence, as forceful a character as any played by a human actor. It speaks of poverty, lost opportunities, and desperation. Alternating with the shots of a cowboy’s dream gone bad are indelible images of refineries and oil rigs, visual blights that obscure the horizon. One character, a half-Comanche, puts it in perspective when he matter-of-factly observes that, 150 years ago, all this land belonged to his people. Then, the grandparents of the current residents drove them out. Now, the banks are doing to them what they did to the Native Americans.

Echoes of the Coen Brothers are impossible to ignore, especially No Country for Old Men. I’m sure the presence of Jeff Bridges, a veteran of couple of Coen Brothers outings, has something to do with it. But it’s more because of the tone, the attention to detail, and the gallows humor injected into the dialogue. This is a thriller but it’s not a Hollywood thriller. Immersed in the overwrought rhythms of a season’s worth of blockbuster "action", I had almost forgotten how satisfying a slow-burn approach can be. Hell or High Water doesn’t feel the need to rush things along and director David Mackenzie isn’t tied to the leash of multiple cuts per second. He prefers extended takes and tracking shots and it’s hard to argue that there’s a better approach because what he achieves is damn near perfect for this material.

The story begins with a low-key bank robbery committed by brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). Although their approach seems amateurish, there’s a method to their madness. And, although Toby is devoted to non-violence, we’re not so sure about Tanner. Two robberies later, although we have gotten to know the criminals, their motivations, which involve reverse mortgages, oil drilling rights, and Toby’s estranged sons, remain murky. This is intentional. Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (with a strong follow-up to his 2015 writing debut, Sicario) are content to allow the information to emerge organically rather than providing it via an exposition dump.

To balance things, Hell or High Water provides us the other side of the story as well — that of the law enforcement officers charged with investigating the bank robberies. In this case, the Texas Rangers are represented by retiring officer Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his earnest sidekick, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). These two share a companionable enmity with Marcus using Alberto as a verbal punching bag for a variety of insults then cheering the younger man on when he lands a return jab. As lackadaisical as Marcus may seem, however, he’s actually a savvy lawman — exactly what’s needed when Toby (if not Tanner) proves to be smart and slippery.

In fact, Tanner is the weak link in Toby’s plans, although the former’s temper occasionally bubbles to the surface in the more grounded brother (consider how he reacts to a perceived threat at a gas station). Initially, it appears that Tanner is the guiding force behind the crimes but we soon learn that Toby is the brains of the operation. The brothers steal only loose bills to avoid dye packs. They have chosen their victim (Texas Midlands, with no branches outside its home state) to avoid FBI involvement. The getaway cars are driven into a grave. Other, deeper wrinkles in their scheme are revealed as the plot unspools.

Strong acting is one of the film’s strengths. Pine, who has become synonymous with the new James T. Kirk, is given an opportunity to show that he can act when not struggling in William Shatner’s shadow. Pine, who usually chooses leading man/action hero type roles, makes us question whether he might not be a better character actor. He’s excellent here in part because the weight of the movie isn’t resting on his back. Foster, who co-starred with Pine earlier this year in The Finest Hours, portrays Tanner as a loose cannon whose traumatic past has left him unhinged but whose love for his brother is his saving grace. Bridges adopts a Columbo-esque laid-back attitude — sort-of a parallel universe version of The Dude if he had become a Texas Ranger. Underneath the seemingly lazy exterior, however, there’s a bit of Sherlock Holmes at work.

Hell or High Water is more of a drama than a thriller, although there are "thriller-type" elements in place (the bank robberies and some chase and close-call elements as law enforcement closes in). The film is more about characters than suspense. Mackenzie takes great pains to provide a compelling, credible motive for Toby and Tanner and to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the men pursuing them. From a purely narrative perspective, there’s nothing new here but like a new arrangement of a familiar tune, the slight changes make it fresh and enjoyable.

Kubo and the Two Strings ***½
It has often perplexed me why there have been relatively few fantasy adventure animated films. With their mix of monsters, magic, and heroism, they would seem to be an ideal fit to captivate the imaginations of children and adults alike. Putting aside the fact that Kubo and the Two Strings is saddled with a terrible (albeit accurate) title, this is not only the first serious fantasy adventure animated film since the How to Train Your Dragon sequel but the best animated feature (at least thus far) of 2016, beating out such impressive contenders as Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Secret Lives of Pets. (The less said about Ice Age: Collision Course, the better.)

The story transpires in a mythological feudal Japan — a setting that allows for an unconventional milieu and look. Although the movie was made with a strong Eastern flavor, its producer is U.S.-based Laika, whose previous credits include Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Like those earlier productions (for which Kubo director Travis Knight was the lead animator), this one employs stop-motion animation (as opposed to the more popular CGI) and represents the most polished example of this style to-date. The stop-motion is smooth (with only very occasional jitter being evident) and richly textured. Although CGI often provides greater detail, stop-motion offers a stronger "tactile" experience.

Kubo begins with a prologue that introduces a young woman with a baby arriving on a desolate coast following a harrowing sea voyage. Events flash-forward about a decade. The one-eyed baby Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) has grown into a self-sufficient boy who cares for his mother and uses a strange sort of magic to breathe life into origami creations. He employs these as characters in stories he tells to the inhabitants of a local village. However, when Kubo violates one of his mother’s key rules — never to stay out after dark — forces from his past erupt to claim him. Led by his two aunts (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather, The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, no less fearsome than as Voldemort), Kubo’s family seeks to sever him from his mother. To save himself, he must go on a quest for the three items (a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet) that, when combined, will allow him to stand against The Moon King. His only companions on this dangerous journey are an animated monkey talisman (Charlize Theron) and a human/beetle hybrid (Matthew McConaughey).

Kubo’s action scenes occur with sufficient frequency that the proceedings never threaten to become ponderous. Many involve monsters — a giant animated skeleton, underwater eyestalks, a flying dragon, and a few other nasties — and all are fast-paced an impeccably rendered. Exposition is seamlessly incorporated; we never feel like we’re being subjected to an information dump. Although most adults will be able to guess the movie’s surprises, that doesn’t diminish the viewer’s pleasure. There’s also humor to be found, especially in the interaction between Monkey and Beetle, whose arguments often sound like those of an old married couple.

Although it incorporates themes about the importance of family and choosing the right path, Kubo is not as light and airy as a Finding Dory or The Secret Life of Pets. An entire village is destroyed and Kubo must learn, like Bambi and Simba, that death is a part of life. Although it’s difficult to determine a cut-off age for children, the movie plays "older" than many animated titles and may frighten or disturb some in the under-7 crowd. However, Kubo’s appeal may be stronger for older children.

Lacking the marketing push of a Disney or Universal, Kubo will undoubtedly be rented or streamed by smaller audiences and the expectations for its video receipts should be modest. However, this is as good as or better than any animated film to reach screens this year. The action doesn’t seem designed to feed into a video game. The narrative scope is epic without losing sight of the importance of interpersonal relationships. The voice cast features two Oscar winners (Theron and McConaughey) and two multiple nominees (Fiennes and Mara). And the images on screen, while not as "perfect" as those generated by Pixar or Illumination, are entrancing. Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical motion picture in every sense of the word.

War Dogs **
War Dogs is a film about horrible people that refuses to own the horribleness. It's too enamored with its glib arms dealer heroes, and although it's packed with scenes that might have inspired moral whiplash in works like Scarface, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street — to name three superb films about guys who get equally high on drugs and the adrenaline rush of living outside the law, and that War Dogs references constantly — they're always softened by Hollywood special pleading: Aren't these guys adorable and funny? Don't you love what good friends they are? Don't you admire their audacity? Look at how troubled the hero seems — don't you feel for him?

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) would seem to be an ideal, or at least promising, person to tell this tale of a couple of pipsqueak Miami arms dealers who make a fortune providing guns and bullets to the U.S. military during the height of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But War Dogs, which is based on a Rolling Stone article and a subsequent book by Guy Lawson, lacks the courage of its convictions. Tone-wise, it's all over the map. Sometimes it seems to stare pitilessly at its hero and narrator, former massage therapist and bed sheet dealer turned arms trafficker David Packouz (Miles Teller), and his friend and boss Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), and recognize them as greedy, expedient men who only care about fattening their bank accounts. But other times it seems inordinately concerned with whether David and Efraim will stay pals once things turn south — as if it's a straightforward, un-ironic buddy flick about badass dudes doing badass things, sometimes in slow-motion, instead of a twisted and conflicted parody of that kind of film.

Worse, War Dogs presents David's barely-developed wife Iz (Ana de Armas) as a voice of conscience who's horrified by her husband's lies and furtiveness, never anything more. Whenever the movie concentrates on Iz and David's marriage problems, it confirms its softness. Every time it asks us to care deeply about whether David will lose Iz — who chastises David for his dishonesty, then supports him, then turns against him again, always according to the needs of the plot at that moment — it exposes its sweet-creamy Hollywood center. Henry and Karen Hill these two ain't.

Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, which co-starred Hill, drew critical fire (like Goodfellas and Scarface before it) for making its wheeler-dealer protagonists as fun to watch as they were morally repulsive; but that was part of the movie's design, and whether you thought Scorsese and writer Terence Winter succeeded or failed, it was obvious that you were supposed to feel torn about the characters and question if you should be having fun watching them get over. It was a variation on the gangster film attraction-repulsion strategy, where you share the hero's power trip fantasy and then feel the sting of reality slapping him in the face. War Dogs keeps the Scorsesean arrogant-macho banter (which can be very funny, thanks to the relaxed interplay between Hill and Teller) but it loses the ugly undertow that makes non-sociopathic viewers feel slightly dirty for feeling so excited. The detailed breakdowns of the fine points of arms deals come across as a guns-and-ammo version of hedge fund guys bragging about a haul.

The choice of storyteller is a big part of the film's problem. David, whose real-life equivalent served as a technical advisor and has a cameo, is depicted as nearly as big of a blank as his poor wife. He's a nice guy who was just going about his business when Satan showed up in the form of Efraim, rather than a quick study who ditched his two day jobs and within a matter of weeks was able to manage a soon-to-be-multimillion dollar business built on Beretta pistols and AK-47 shells bought on the cheap and shipped into war zones.

The best thing about War Dogs is the characterization of Efraim, as embodied by Hill. This actor portrays blobby, sarcastic, volatile men better than anyone since the late, great Chris Penn, and he's terrific here, using the character's squeaky laugh as an exclamation point at the end of a tense moment, and letting us see the calculations happening in Efraim's reptilian brain by letting his eyes go cloudy. There are moments where you can spot the exact moment when Efraim decides to betray or destroy someone; often the moment occurs when Efraim is insisting that he's all about loyalty and trust. If War Dogs had put Efraim at its center, it might have gotten closer to its apparent wish to be a scathing, Scorsesean take on arms dealing during the War on Terror — half madcap comedy, half expose. At the very least, it would have inoculated itself against claims that it's a safe film on a dangerous subject. Efraim is a slobbish but confident con artist who trudges through life in baggy leisure wear and expensive sunglasses, puffing up his ego with money and guns and telling David, "I'm not pro-war. The war is happening. This [business] is pro-money." At one point he even describes himself to an Iraqi as an "ugly American," frankly claiming a stereotype that he knows he embodies from head to toe.

You get the sense that Efraim knows full well what he is but has decided not to worry about it, a scenario that's considerably more chilling than all the scenes of David worrying that Efraim has gone too far but is too good a friend to abandon. Every time Efraim appears onscreen, the audience and the movie have to reckon with him. But War Dogs chooses instead to hang on David and take his exculpatory narration at face value, as if both Phillips and the audience are as gullible as Iz.

Phillips knowingly cites Goodfellas through various formal techniques (chatty narration, scary-funny violence, freeze-frames) to the point where you pretty much have to buy the idea that David is a 20-something, 21st century Henry Hill. But War Dogs doesn't have the bravura visuals and electrifying coldness of Scorsese in gangster-scumbag mode. And you never get the sense, as you do in the best narrated Scorsese films, that the narrator is shading things to make himself seem more glamorous, or less culpable in horror than he actually was (as exemplified in the Goodfellas scene where Hill calmly describes the ramifications of a mob footsoldier killing a waiter on a whim, but the movie shows us closeups of the character looking appalled and distressed).

War Dogs, in contrast, wants us to take David at face value, as a nice guy who made a few mistakes and got in way over his head before coming to his senses but is still basically decent. In the end, he comes off as guilty mainly of loving and trusting his friend, and there's hardly anything in the film to suggest that this might not be the whole story. Efraim, meanwhile, comes across as more of an outrageous, hot-tempered clown than a grubby visionary pig whose lack of education and refinement are eclipsed by a predator's cunning. The film turns him into glorified comic relief, so funny that he can't be properly frightening. Most of the characters in the first Hangover seemed more disreputable and unpredictable than this guy, and Phillips seemed not to care if we liked them as long as we found them funny and interesting; here he wants us to like his slimy people, too — or at least the film wants us to like David, and root for him to stay friends with Efraim and win back Iz's love. It's a brief in David's defense that sometimes plays as if it was written by David himself.

Hands of Stone **
Some of the best biopics are the ones that focus on a pivotal point in a major figure’s life and use that period as a prism through which to understand what makes that person tick, what makes that person matter. Che Guevara’s road trip in The Motorcycle Diaries and Steve Jobs’ product launches in Steve Jobs immediately come to mind. They don’t try to give a celebrity the complete cradle-to-grave treatment, but rather provide a more intimate, specific look.

Hands of Stone, about the legendary boxer Roberto Durán, could have used such an approach. It’s clearly there in his rivalry with American Sugar Ray Leonard. Their back-and-forth in and out of the ring is just tantalizing — the most compelling part of the whole movie. And Edgar Ramírez and Usher Raymond bring these very different fighters vividly to life.

Instead, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz depicts Durán from his impoverished youth as a scrappy kid on the streets of Panama through his rise in the sport, his thrilling capturing of the welterweight title against Leonard in 1980, his fall in the famous "No Mas" rematch and his subsequent, triumphant return as light middleweight champion at Madison Square Garden.

That’s a lot of ground to cover. Jakubowicz also skips around in time to cram in Durán’s family life with his wife and five kids, the turmoil that rocked Panama during Durán’s early years, the swelling sense of national pride as the Panama Canal returned to the country’s ownership and the resentment Durán carried as an adult over the American father who abandoned him as a child. He also tells the whole tale from the perspective of Durán’s trainer, Ray Arcel, a legend in his own right with his own backstory and baggage.

Robert De Niro, whose deeply Method-y portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull gave us one of cinema’s most indelible performances, plays Arcel, which theoretically should be exciting in itself. De Niro dials it down here and does some of the most honest and understated work of his late career. But he’s stuck over-explaining everything in voiceover — about Durán, about Arcel’s decades-old mob troubles, about this historical period, about boxing in general — which only contributes to the sensation that we’re watching yet another paint-by-numbers biopic. In trying to encompass way too much, Hands of Stone ends up feeling superficial and unsatisfying.

The performances are really strong, though. That’s what’s so frustrating; you just know there’s a better movie in here waiting to burst free. Ramírez may look distractingly too mature at first to be playing a 20-year-old Durán in 1971, but his swagger is electrifying, from his flirtation with the woman who would become his wife (Ana de Armas) when she was just a teenage schoolgirl to the way he trash-talks Leonard in Montreal leading up to their big showdown. But Ramírez also has the depth to depict Durán’s darker moments: his pent-up anger, hunger and self-indulgent tendencies once he becomes rich and famous. It’s enough to make you wish it were all in the service of a better script. De Armas, meanwhile — who also appeared in a similarly underwritten supporting role as Miles Teller’s fiancée in War Dogs (see above) — has a hugely charismatic presence. But except for a couple of showy moments, she gets little to do besides function as the dutiful wife in a sexy array of disco-tastic costumes.

Durán’s more influential relationship is with Arcel, who functions not only as his trainer but also as a father figure, even though he promised the mob (represented in a couple of scenes by the always-welcome John Turturro) that he’d walk away from the sport. That organized-crime element of the story never feels like a real threat; similarly, the introduction of Arcel’s daughter about halfway through the movie comes out of nowhere and never gets developed. The two other men who were major early forces in Durán’s life — a Fagan-like figure who taught him how to survive on the streets and his first trainer — barely get fleshed out, either.

The real missed opportunity, though, was in choosing not to make the Durán-Leonard rivalry the center of Hands of Stone. The actors playing them present such an intriguing clash of styles — Ramirez is all bravado and machismo, Raymond is all coy, cool charm. The boxing scenes themselves are shot and edited in a rather standard (if somewhat choppy) manner, but it’s the way the relationship between these two men developed outside the ring that gives Hands of Stone any sort of real punch.

Other DVD releases this week
Homo Sapiens ***½ Each individual shot creates a fission of desolation that resonates far beyond the facile irony suggested by the movie’s title.
Chicken People ***½ This beguiling documentary proves that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often more poignant and illuminating as well.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World *** We want the rambling Werner Herzog to follow his muse into strange corners — let lesser documentary filmmakers stick to virtues like coherence. Herzog’s latest, ostensibly about the internet, is divided into 10 sections, each taking on a blend of awe and uneasiness at a radically changed world that’s increasingly lived online.
Silcon Cowboys *** Director Jason Cohen, whose Facing Fear was among the 2014 Oscar nominees for documentary short, lends this classic David versus Goliath story a playfully retro feel complete with old TV clips that look like they were recorded on VHS and a beep ’n’ blip-heavy electronic score by Ian Hultquist that could have easily come from a vintage Nintendo game.
Harry and Snowman *** In this documentary about Harry deLeyer, who raised horses and taught riding at a girls’ school in Long Island, a student of deLeyer’s recalls some of his advice: "Throw your heart over the top, and your horse will follow." This film makes you want to do the same.
Palio *** This documentary, while high-spirited and often hilarious, adheres to a formulaic sports movie structure, as 28-year-old upstart jockey Giovanni Atzeni trains to defeat reigning champion Luigi Bruschelli in a four-century-old horserace held semiannually in Siena, Italy. Atzeni’s racing for glory, not money, naturally, but it's hard to consider this absurdly handsome, bright-eyed, rather cocky kid an underdog. And while director Cosima Spender spends enough time with both new and retired jockey legends to collect a gold mine of macho, bullheaded rapport, you wish she delved deeper into the more sinister, behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings.
The Nightmare **½ This is a different kind of documentary, shelving the usual experts and talking heads for a more personal experience of the title subject. That's good and bad.
The Childhood of a Leader **½ Scott Walker’s score for this film is a work of dark, twisted genius, skin-crawling and bombastic in equal measure, and first-time director Brady Corbet does his damnedest trying to mount a movie to deserve it. And, miraculously, he eventually pulls it off with the epilogue, a left turn into dystopian nightmare. If only for a few minutes, it becomes its own film, a tour of the printing presses, paternoster elevators, and mazes of power that ends with a convulsive blur of bodies crowding in a public square. A viewer can’t help but think, "What took so long?"
The Greasy Strangler ** Pure uncompromising yuckiness is what this comedy delivers. A grossout smack in the face. Deplorable. Unspeakable. Often funny.
Sneakerheadz ** Some collectors' pre-EBay anecdotes about the lengths they went to in procuring rare sneakers prove memorable, but the film is more lifestyle puff piece than journalism, as filmmakers David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge seem to glorify their subjects. The film places some blame for shoe addiction on media hype, yet it's also culpable of feeding that frenzy.
The Land ** The Cleveland locations — along with some memorable visual flourishes via skateboard tricks — show that writer/director Stephen Caple Jr. has a unique eye and a strong sense of place. Here’s hoping that next time he applies them to a fresher story.
Mechanic: Resurrection * Despite some of the most picturesque locations money can buy, and some not unimpressive looking movable props (yachts with helipads and such) and so on, this movie suffers from a storyline and script that strains credulity and insults intelligence even by the low bar set by the majority of contemporary action movies.
 I.T. ½* Let’s just say director John Moore’s thriller should be lost in cyberspace — not filling up an hour and a half of your life.
Yoga Hosers ½* This is lazy, unfunny, and self-indulgent. It should have been binned the second the (literal) smoke cleared, and while it's been clear for some time that Kevin Smith is either incapable of making a good movie or simply doesn't care to, Yoga Hosers may very well be the film that finally convinces audiences the emperor has no hockey jersey.

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

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