Monday, February 6, 2017

This week's DVD releases

Loving ***

As straightforward "based on a true story" movies go, Loving is a strong account of the key factual events that led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-miscegenation laws. Effectively acted and occasionally moving, the film both benefits from and is undermined by writer/director Jeff Nichols’ no-frills approach to the circumstances leading up to the court case. Although it could be argued that Loving does little more than bring life to a Wikipedia entry, it does so with tact and craftsmanship, teaching a history lesson while offering a cautionary message for current and future generations.

Most movies set in the 1960s focus on the cultural and sexual revolution — hippies, drugs, rock & roll, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. For Loving, those things are far removed and of little consequence. Nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery, the South remains gripped by deep-rooted bigotries that disallow people of color to do many things, including intermarry with whites. Legal prohibitions have never been effective at stopping people from falling in love and that’s no different in the case of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga). When we first meet them, they have been together for some time — long enough to have conceived a child. Now, with this unborn baby on the way, they have to decide how to move forward.

Virginia does not allow interracial marriage so a wedding at home is impossible. To legitimatize their union, they travel to Washington D.C. where a justice of the peace is more than happy to name them man and wife. They return to their small town and resume their lives, staying with Mildred’s family while Richard, a builder, prepares to craft the house that will become their home. But the secrecy surrounding their marriage doesn’t last. Someone says something and the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) show up in the middle of the night to arrest the couple. Their lawyer arranges a plea bargain and the judge agrees to suspend their sentence if they leave Virginia immediately and stay away for the next 25 years (they can return separately but can’t both be in the Commonwealth at the same time). The sentence, which is difficult for Richard, proves intolerable for Mildred and it’s only a matter of time before they violate the terms of their probation and place their freedom in jeopardy.

Loving chooses to focus on the domestic aspects of the Lovings’ marriage. The legal part of the story, which might make for a fascinating movie in its own right, is of secondary concern. Nichols introduces the two ACLU lawyers, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), but they never evolve into more than secondary characters and their arguments in front of the Supreme Court (with the Lovings not in attendance) are only briefly excerpted.

The screenplay’s shortcomings are largely the result of time pressures. Even with a two hour running time, Loving needs to cover a decade’s worth of events and this doesn’t allow for it to "breathe" the way it should to cross the threshold into greatness. The narrative is comprised of key vignettes that take place over the course of the 1957-1967 period. The characters are not well fleshed-out, although a strong performance by Edgerton and an even better one by Negga help to overcome that hurdle. Where Loving does a good job is in illustrating the prejudices that surround both the inter-racial marriage and the decision to fight the statue that prohibits it. (Some of the secondary characters are represented as stock, stereotypical "’60s-era Southern racists" but I’m perfectly willing to accept that this may be a valid choice considering the setting.)

As Richard, Edgerton inhabits the character of a taciturn, reclusive man whose forte isn’t verbal communication. Richard isn’t warm or easy to like but there’s no doubt that his devotion to Mildred is genuine. Edgerton makes him marginally sympathetic without resorting to the usual tropes. Richard isn’t galvanized by circumstances to become a "new man." He doesn’t suddenly exhibit hitherto hidden charisma nor does he become a great orator. He’s pretty much the same man at the end as in the beginning. On the other hand, Mildred blossoms, transforming from a shy girl to a strong, determined woman who embraces the media attention because of what it might mean for the case. Negga’s performance places Mildred at the film’s emotional center. Her acting radiates authenticity and her expressive face fills in gaps left by the dialogue. She’s the best thing about this good film.

Nichols’ understated approach deflects melodramatic pitfalls but it keeps us at arm’s length. Historical authenticity is obviously one of Nichols’ primary goals and there’s no question he achieves that. The movie reflects the period, right down to the vintage Corelle dishes that Mildred uses. Loving’s emotional impact is more erratic, however. There are times when Nichols has difficulty balancing the personal story of a family’s struggles with the bigger picture of history-changing events and this results in pacing issues. Loving is an important and interesting motion picture but it’s not always as involving as it might have been.

Trolls **

I’m shocked, if not exactly appalled, that it took Hollywood more than half a century to bring the trolls phenomenon to the screen. To be sure, the little ugly dolls with crazy long hair are featured in the Toy Story films. But the poor critters, who were introduced to the American market in the early 1960s, ain’t ever had a film of their own.

In comes DreamWorks Animation and its shiny new mass market product, the computer-animated 3D family musical adventure Trolls, a $120 million tentpole extravaganza featuring a nicely varied selection of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and folk songs produced by pop god Justin Timberlake, who sings quite a few himself. Timberlake does a rousing rendition of Can't Stop the Feeling! and has several memorable duets — with Anna Kendrick on True Colors and September and with Gwen Stefani on What U Workin' With? — while he and Stefani are joined by Ron Funches for a funny Hair Up. Other vocalists include Zooey Deschanel and Ariana Grande, and there’s even a fun, slightly spooky version of Paul Simon’s The Sounds of Silence sung by Kendrick.

As for the story, Timberlake and Kendrick lead the cast as a pair of young trolls named Branch and Poppy who team up to save Troll Village, despite having fundamentally opposite views of the world. Branch, who is given a wonderfully woebegone tone by Timberlake, is a prickly pessimist, a grouch who’d rather hunker down alone in his hovel than take part in Troll Village’s joy-stuffed daily routine. His lack of joy makes him an outsider, an outcast. See, most trolls are like Poppy, psychotically happy, boundlessly optimistic airheads who spend their every waking hour hugging, singing, laughing, and tripping the light fantastic under a really big groovy disco ball.

Trolls are small, defenseless beings who live in a secret corner of the forest. But when Poppy throws a particularly loud bash, their location is discovered by the Bergens, an ugly race of monsters whose only joy in life is the taste of raw troll, sushi-style. An evil Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) swoops up the revelers one by one into her fanny pack. Only Poppy and Branch escape. Convinced their fellow trolls will be kept alive until the Bergen royal family can prepare a public feast, they journey to the lion’s den with a daft rescue plan.

Despite the competent animation, the great tunes, and funny voice work by costars Russell Brand and John Cleese, Trolls is a lackluster entry. The story is clichéd and predictable. Overall, the film has no real magic. It doesn’t have the silly-yet-profound soul of DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda films, the heartbreaking artistry of animated masterpieces like Spirited Away and The Illusionist, or the madcap inventiveness of Disney's Frankenweenie and Zootopia.

What rankles is the fact that DreamWorks could have made a perfectly magical fable had they simply told the story of how the troll dolls were invented. The unisex toy, which has sold millions if not billions of units, was the brainchild of Thomas Dam, a Danish fisherman and woodcutter from a small town, who had fallen on such hard times in 1959 that he didn’t have money to buy a Christmas present for his beloved daughter Lila. As the story goes (it’s a factual tale with a bit of myth mixed in), Dam came up with the concept of the Good Luck Troll, as he called it, using ideas from folklore and his own imagination. He hand- carved the doll from wood, hoping the ugly little creature would bring Lila joy and luck. It sure did: Soon, other kids the fishing town of Gjøl wanted one, and orders came flooding in. Dam eventually founded a factory and began mass-producing the troll using vinyl and eventually plastic.

I’m not sure if anyone at DreamWorks bothered to read this wonderful little origin story. It’s a tale about real-world magic, about love and hope in the face of despair, about children’s relationships with their parents, about fishing, woodcarving. Man, it’s all there, a treasure trove of narrative ideas worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. But no, we get disco tunes, disco balls, troll-eating villains, and a Mission: Impossible rescue. Shame on you, DreamWorks!

American Pastoral *½

One poorly thought-through action can have a devastating ripple effect. So learns Mary Levov, the 16-year-old domestic terrorist in Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral, and so, I fear, has Ewan McGregor, who decided an adaption of this rich, layered and elusive text would be good material for his directorial debut.

McGregor directs himself as Seymour "The Swede" Levov, the golden boy of 1940s Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark, N.J. A living, breathing example of excellence and assimilation, Swede was the sports titan and pillar of local industry who attained legendary status with his peers when he married Dawn, a non-Jewish former Miss New Jersey. Taking over his father’s glove factory in downtown Newark, Swede earns enough to buy a piece of American paradise — a small farm just a short drive from the city. Here Dawn can raise cows and their daughter Mary can frolic in sun-dappled meadows. As Woody Allen once joked "had I been born in Poland or Berlin I’d be a lampshade right now," but everything seems to have gone the right way for Swede.

But if American Pastoral is about anything it’s about how perception is just guess work. What we think we know is likely wrong, and no amount of examination, extrapolation or investigation is going to get at the actual truth. So who knows why young Mary, whose pre-teen years are marred by stuttering and perhaps some confused sexual feelings toward her father, became a raging, angry left-wing radical. Sure, it was the 1960s and those Jefferson Airplane records and copies of Rampart’s got a lot of kids’ blood boiling, but not everyone blew up the local post office and killed a man.

The bulk of the film dwells on Swede and Dawn dealing with the after effect of their daughter’s actions and subsequent disappearance in the hard left underground. The closest thing to exciting film-making comes once Swede is approached by a young woman (Valorie Curry) who knows of Mary’s whereabouts and shakes him down for some cash. These tawdry scenes are quite effective as they give McGregor something active to do to show his frustration, guilt and grief. The rest of the movie consists mostly of people just talking.

That won’t be too surprising to readers of the book, as part of its strength is how it plays with time and reliability. Those unfamiliar with the source material or how Roth can dwell on one concept for paragraphs at a time with some of the greatest prose in the English language may find themselves making the "get on with it gesture" on their couches. When we do meet up with Mary again in her third act persona, Dakota Fanning, who is quite strong as the angry bleeding-heart teen, is quite out of her depths masquerading as a ghostly spiritual being.

What we have on our hands is a dud, but there are a few grace notes that save it from being an unmitigated disaster. (As far as terrible idea Roth adaptations, Ernest Lehman’s Portnoy’s Complaint’s position is secure.) Swede’s glove factory ends up being at the epicentre of the Newark race riots and while McGregor’s reliance on newsreel footage is cheesy (and sets up similar shots of the Moon landing, Woodstock and another use of Buffalo Springfield’s For What Its Worth on the soundtrack, so help us all) it does touch on how well-meaning liberals react in the face of potential revolution. Swede proudly boasts his factory employs "80 percent Negros," but yanks his daughter back in fear when she tries to give a black power salute to a group of men who may or may not be forming an angry mob.

The best moment in the entire film is when Swede proudly shows how a glove is made, from dark leather shipped from Africa, turning a white girl’s hand a similar shade to one of his devoted black workers, who then tests it out by making a fist. There are signifiers flying all over the place and McGregor is wise enough to let them stay in the background. The unfortunate thing is that it’s the foreground that’s so dull. Jennifer Connolly acts her guts out in a monologue sequence that is airless and uninspired. And as the movie drones on the most engaging thing is trying to figure out just what is up with McGregor’s accent. American excellence may be an unattainable dream, but sometimes the facade will appear real to outsiders. This production is not such a case.

Other Releases This Week
Little Sister *** A slight, sweetly cynical indie drama about family and belonging and the ways we cope with life’s disappointments.
The Alchemist Cookbook *** So compelling is writer-director Joel Potrykus’s unnerving scenario — with its largely ambiguous tone of horror dramatically offset at times by explicit frights — that a viewer isn’t necessarily bothered by a lack of basic story information about who, what, where, when and why.
The Eagle Huntress *** A stunning location and a winning character are cannily deployed to create a likeable film in which viewers will need little persuasion to cheer the triumph of the underdog.
Burn Country **½ There’s plenty of intelligence and atmosphere in play here. But the prevailing tone is of pressure applied and nothing released, a genre exercise that plays as educational rather than exhilarating.
Antibirth ** Although often narratively cryptic and stylistically uneven, this could serve to establish director Danny Perez’s reputation in low-budget horror.
Frank & Lola ** Despite being played by two charismatic and more than capable actors (Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots), the title characters never click in the way they need to. They’re too cool and vague for the volcanic story they enact.
Almost Christmas ** The film’s energy can be relentless, but the feelings are real, and they’re wrapped in a dysfunctional-family package that’s so venerable and endearing as to seem a little bit new.
Desierto ** What should have been a solid B-movie thriller with a premise torn from today’s headlines is instead as arid and desolate as the land between Mexico and the United States in which it is set.
The TakeImitating the Bourne capers rather than establishing an identity of its own, this is a strictly by-the-numbers political thriller that fails to capitalize on Idris Elba’s formidable screen presence.
NerdlandWith a scuzzy style to match its sleazeball vision of spotlight desperation and depravity, this Tinseltown satire — led by the voice work of Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt — revels in the foulness of 21st-century pop culture, albeit to a degree that’s ultimately both exhausting and redundant.
The 9th Life of Louis DraxThis is a intriguing but uneven thriller that doesn’t fully establish the tone and style that would be needed for a viewer to accept its supernatural plot.
Life on the Line ½* Underappreciated occupations deserve better than this cliché-clogged, utterly predictable film, a terrible move about the workers who keep the electrical grid functioning.

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

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