Monday, November 28, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Don’t Breathe ***

At its best, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is a tight, confined thriller — the kind of morality play that toys with audience loyalty and works to convey its protagonists' predicament by making us feel claustrophobic right alongside them. For long passages, the movie plays out in real time, and Alvarez and his team have a remarkable sense of film geography, established in a beautiful unbroken shot that defines the space for this largely one-setting exercise in terror. Alvarez was also wise to reunite with Evil Dead star Jane Levy, an actress who can do a lot with very little in terms of character development and is remarkably fearless physically, and even wiser to cast Stephen Lang, a fantastic character actor for decades who has been given one of his most memorable roles here. Like a lot of films of this breed, Don’t Breathe gets a little less interesting as it proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, replacing tension with shock value, but it works so well up to that point that your heart will likely be beating too fast to care.

Rocky (Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and wishes-he-was-boyfriend Alex (Dylan Minnette) rob houses in the wealthy suburbs of Detroit. Alex’s dad manages a security company and therefore has access to keys that allow for a lot less "breaking" in breaking & entering. Rocky has a horrible mother and a baby sister that she’ll do anything to get out of their dysfunctional and dangerous home. Tired of quickie jobs that net a few nice watches and some jewelry, Money stumbles on a possible crime that would truly change their lives. Deep in the desolate, rundown heart of Detroit — on one of many blocks with no neighbors and few active utilities — lives a blind man (Lang). A few years earlier, his daughter was killed in a car accident and he received a massive cash settlement that Money believes is in a safe in the house. Rocky, Money and Alex will just go in and take it. He’s a blind veteran who lives alone. How hard could it be?

The men of Don’t Breathe are given almost no defining character traits whatsoever, and that’s to the film’s detriment. You can feel Alvarez rushing to get to the centerpiece when he could have taken a beat or two to give us a reason to care about Money and Alex beyond the former being a tough guy and the latter being the nice one. Rocky/Levy fares a little better, as the actress imbues a few very short scenes with a palpable dose of urgency. She doesn’t rob for profit or need; she is stealing money that’s just sitting in a safe to save her life and that of her sister. She’ll get the cash, they’ll all flee Detroit to California, and everyone will live happily ever after. The complex morality of Rocky’s dilemma is one of the most interesting narrative elements of Don’t Breathe. In theory, we shouldn’t be rooting for a young lady to steal money from a blind man, but we do.

And that moral complexity takes a sharp turn when things go wrong in the main event of Don’t Breathe. Without spoiling nearly as much as the previews do, let’s just say that these three low-level criminals vastly underestimate both the current situation in their target’s home and its resident’s certain set of skills. The MVP of this midsection is arguably cinematographer Pedro Luque, who works with Alvarez to very clearly define the blueprint of the house and where our characters are within it. Unlike a lot of modern horror, which uses quick cuts and shaky camerawork to induce fear, Alvarez and Luque understand that we’ll relate to the predicament of Don’t Breathe the more clearly we can define what’s going on. As Lang and Levy play a game of cat and mouse through this maze, it’s best to know where the walls are. And, of course, it’s more effective when Alvarez and company pull those walls away in a basement that feels like a neverending series of shelves, replicating the protagonist’s confusion and fear.

There’s a significant twist in Don’t Breathe (again, don’t watch the previews) that produces shock value (and allows for even more disturbing material later on) but it almost feels like a misstep in that it pushes Lang’s character towards a definitive villain role. I like the idea of a battle of wills — in a home within an abandoned neighborhood — between characters that occupy grayer areas in terms of morality. There are also a few plot turns in the final act that require more suspension of disbelief.

At the heart of the film, as young people who made a very bad decision try to survive long enough to get out of a house that has turned into a fortress, Don’t Breathe is tense and even relatable. There are millions of young people, especially in Detroit, trying to escape their bad decisions. Don’t Breathe becomes a battle of wills between two people who have done very bad things but justified their actions to themselves. The talented Levy and Lang allow us to understand their characters' polarizing choices, and place us right there in the house — with the petty criminal and the man with the dark secret, holding our breath.

Pete’s Dragon ***
In case you're thinking the new Pete's Dragon is another one of those Disney schmaltz-fests that only the most naïve kid could tolerate, snap out of it. Unlike the stupefyingly dreary 1977 musical version of the same name with Jim Dale and Helen Reddy, this one has a real filmmaker at the helm. His name is David Lowery, whose indie drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) had a bruising poetry that made a lasting impression. You won't be bruised much by a tale of orphan boy and the dragon that befriends him. But as family fun goes, Pete's Dragon fills the bill without sending adults into sugar shock.

When we first meet Pete, he's a reading a picture book in the backseat of a car driven by his parents. Then a deer darts out of nowhere, the car veers off the road and the parents are dead. (What is it with the Disney habit of killing off moms and dads?) Alone in the forest in the Pacific Northwest with wolves on his tail, Pete is protected by a green dragon he calls Elliot. It takes years for the now-10-year-old feral kid (Oakes Fegley) to be discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (an appealing Bryce Dallas Howard), who can't see this occasionally invisible dragon. At least, not yet. It's Grace's father, Mr. Meacham (a warm and nicely understated Robert Redford), who claims to have encountered the creature in his youth. He's a believer. You will be too, mostly because Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks ease into the story without getting sucked into the quicksand of cutesy. And when Elliot reveals himself in all his 21-foot, computer-generated, furball glory, he's a fuzzy delight with floppy ears like a pup and a charming clumsiness that's irresistible.

The movie flags when the grownups, such as Grace's rigid fiancé (Wes Bentley) and his bad-guy brother (Karl Urban), drag in every cliché about the cynical outside world. When the movie soars — and it does where it counts — is in the scenes with Pete and Elliot. Kudos to the visual effects masters at Weta, Peter Jackson's company, for making this dragon such a dazzler. Thanks to Lowery's humanizing magic, Pete's Dragon is that rare family film you really can take to heart.

The BFG **½
There, I’ve gotten it out of the way — the obligatory mention of the classic 1982 collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison that every critic will make when reviewing The BFG. The truth is, however, that the two films have little in common beyond the concept of an atypical friendship between a human child and a fantastical creature. Contrasting The BFG to E.T. does the new film a disservice, and it’s mediocre enough that it doesn’t need the comparison to emphasize its shortcomings. In recent years, Spielberg has become a hit-and-miss filmmaker and this is closer to a "miss" than a "hit."

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the source material. Roald Dahl’s The BFG is not inherently cinematic. The structure of the story is such that it’s impossible to develop into a traditional three-act format. As a result, the movie peaks around its midpoint and slides into anticlimax from there. The second hour isn’t bad but it has a meandering quality. There’s an extended comedic sequence followed by a straightforward resolution that generates little in the way of excitement or interest.

The film takes place in what must be a parallel universe. The opening scenes feel like excerpts from Dickens, with orphanages and 19th-century-ish cobbled streets. Later, we get walkie-talkies and modern-day helicopters. Our hero(ine) is a resident of the orphanage, Sophie (Ruby Barnill), who looks out the window one night and is surprised to see a giant (Mark Rylance), whom she later names Big Friendly Giant (or BFG for short), wandering the streets. He spies her and, fearful that she will tell people about him, abducts her King Kong-style and carries her off to his home in the Land of the Giants. Lacking roots in her world, she decides she wants to stay but there are problems. Most giants (with names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater) aren’t nice like BFG and they view girls like Sophie as tasty morsels. Sophie devises a plan to defeat the giants but it requires that the BFG present himself before the Queen (Penelope Wilton) — something he is profoundly unwilling to do.

The story, although lacking in excitement and immediacy (especially after the midpoint when the bad giants raid BFG’s home), is never unengaging. But there’s a bigger omission than that of a traditional structure: the film’s emotional component is strangely muted. Returning to E.T., one of the reasons why that film worked (and it’s not alone among Spielberg films) is that we cared so much about the central relationship that, when the "happy ending" forced the protagonists to sacrifice being with each other, we as viewers were torn. The feelings generated by The BFG aren’t nearly as intense. Although we develop an attachment to Sophie and BFG and become invested in their friendship, the connection is neither deep nor lasting and this limits the film’s power.

Spielberg succeeds in crafting a land of strangeness and wonder but, although his methods are flawless, they’re not unique. Hailed for his groundbreaking use of CGI in Jurassic Park all those years ago, he has been surpassed over the years by others who have pushed at the edges of the special effects envelope. The BFG does a good job making us believe in the title character and his world but the film doesn’t have the awe-factor that accompanied Jurassic Park.

The best things about The BFG are the lead performances. Plucky and immediately likable, Ruby Barnhill is perfect as Sophie. This 11-year old British actress’ performance, her feature debut (although she previously appeared the TV series 4 O’Clock Club), will put her on many critics’ "people to watch" list. Mark Rylance, working for a second time with Spielberg after winning an Oscar under the director’s guidance for Bridge of Spies, conveys a gentle, genial spirit with perhaps a hint of sadness. It’s a surprisingly unexpectedly complex performance for a special effects-enhanced character.

Although there are many things about The BFG that I admired, and I laughed frequently during the dinner scene, I found myself strangely unsatisfied by the experience. Perhaps as viewers, we have unrealistic expectations from a director of this stature and expect greatness from everything he produces. The BFG is flawed and perhaps the problems are exacerbated because of the talent of the man behind the camera. This is pleasant, passable entertainment but nothing more — and unlikely to excite the imagination in the way many of Spielberg’s classics have.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **
After the off-putting Entourage movie and that second, egregious Sex and the City film, I'm stunned to report that the latest small-screen transfer to hit the home video market, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, occasionally justifies its merrily low comic existence.

It helps, of course, when you have Joanna Lumley, that epic dame, and her uniquely piquant pronunciation of the word "fabulous," spoken without moving her lips, as if savoring a liqueur-flavored marble in her mouth. Also, it's a treat to watch Jennifer Saunders break into a trot while lugging more handbags, jewelry and accessories than seems humanly possible to lug.

This is not a movie for Ab Fab newbies. With little or no foreknowledge, director Mandie Fletcher's update on the travails of hapless publicist Edina "Eddy" Monsoon (Saunders) and her voracious pal Patsy Stone (Lumley) may seem more remote to U.S. audiences than the creatures in Star Trek Beyond. Also, real life is doing Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie no favors this month. In one scene the ladies careen in a scooter down a French Riviera boulevard, scattering pedestrians right and left, and after the terrorist attack in Nice, an uninspired bit of physical comedy tastes miserably sour indeed.

The whole thing feels a bit desperate. Eddy finds herself in career trouble, at odds with London's high fashion and red carpet scene, and generally rudderless as she rounds the bend of 60. Her straight-laced daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) and granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) view Eddy and Patsy with wary affection at best, strained patience at worst. The plot cooked up by screenwriter Saunders has Eddy writing her memoirs, only to be rejected by a publisher. What she needs is a hot PR client, and her pursuit of supermodel Kate Moss (played by Kate Moss, convincingly) leads to the apparent accidental drowning of Moss in the Thames, which sends Eddy and Patsy fleeing to the south of France, hiding from the cops.

The cameos are relentless: Joan Collins, Jon Hamm, Dame Edna (Barry Humphries, who adds a substantial cameo as a skeezy old flame of Patsy's) and gossipmonger Perez Hilton. The laughs are sporadic. The skill set of Saunders and Lumley remains astonishing. Yet the jokes about washed-up, worn-out social climbers and boozehounds feel a decade or so out of date, and I found Eddy's self-loathing streak to be wanly pathetic, as opposed to touchingly sardonic. Fans of the series may feel a certain obligation to look in on it. It's a casual lark that does the drinking for you.

This week’s other DVD releases
The Intervention ** The film is no embarrassment, and any time a woman is allowed to direct a film benefits the cause. But if Clea DuVall’s purpose was to provide a snapshot of her generation, she should have sharpened her focus and dug a little deeper.
The Wild Life * The colors are vibrant, the sea, palm trees, birds, bird-feathers and Robinson Crusoe’s red hair are almost photo-realistic. But as a kids’ cartoon, this is a an utter dud. It’s a comic version of the tale told from the point of view of the animals on board various ships, and on the island where Crusoe (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) is shipwrecked. And there isn’t a single laugh in it.

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

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