Monday, March 6, 2017

This week's home video releases


Jackie ***½

Maybe this is what we need, toward the beginning of America’s "annus horribilis" — a really good cry. But Jackie, the bio-pic built around Jacqueline Kennedy’s days of grief, shock and utter horror following the murder of her husband, doesn’t let us off that easily. Star and Oscar nominee Natalie Portman brings everything the First Lady must have felt in those moments, days and months after JFK’s assassination, his shattered head falling into her lap that day in Dallas. There’s shock — "He had the most wonderful expression on his face." And revulsion — "There was blood, everywhere. I tried to hold his head together."

And then there’s the quiet fury of a mousy-voiced "silly debutante" imposing her will on her fiery brother-in-law, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), the bluff new president, Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch of Zodiac) and indeed America. No, she will NOT change her pink Chanel suit, even though it’s covered in blood. "Let them SEE what they’ve done," she practically spits at Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant). Portman lets us feel the way Jackie’s loss utterly empties her life of meaning and purpose. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain (The Club) lets little John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg) provide the heart-wrenching release, just as he did back at that state funeral in 1963.

Larrain and screenwriter and Today show veteran Noah Oppenheim frame this story in the most blandly conventional way — in the form of an interview with "The Journalist" — Billy Crudup playing someone meant to be Life Magazine’s Theodore White. But writer, director and cast make the interview a brittle, biting piece of journalistic combat. He is there at her request, so she can "tell her story." He can sass her, try to bait and joke about her manipulations of her late husband’s image. She’s not having it. Demure or not, she knows how to put someone in his place. She still has control, final edit, and she’s not above reminding him of that any time something too personal or injurious to her image or her husband’s legacy. "Don’t think for ONE moment I’m going to let you print that," she hisses in that regal, dainty whisper of hers.

The film is built around confessions from the interview, and from post-assassination talks with Bobby, her de facto lady-in-waiting (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt). Jackie, who brought in a historian to help her restore the White House to its historic glory, has the presence of mind to bring him (Richard E. Grant) back when hastily planning a funeral. Don’t think Garfield or McKinley, she says. No, think Lincoln.

The script swallows the "Camelot" myth even as it casts a jaundiced eye on how Jackie cultivated it. And Portman captures the stunning solitude of a woman totally alone with the whole world assaying her grief, threatened from all sides. And she shows the steely resolve of a widow ready to play the widow card as she changes her mind about the scope of the funeral — intimate to epic. The best of those tussles? With LBJ aide and future Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti — struggling to be tactful, bordering on testy (as indeed LBJ supposedly was), helpless when Jackie defiantly demands a walking procession to the funeral through the gun-filled streets of a nation that just shot her husband with a mail-order rifle. Max Casella ably plays Valenti as wily, determined and every bit as brusque as his boss, but no match for the Widow Kennedy.

I love the way Larrain and his crew mimic grainy video and TV film footage of the era, filling in the background with TV reality as the young Dan Rather tells the nation the latest on the tragedy, Jackie flashes back to her famous White House Restoration tour for TV reporter Charles Collingwood (played by a look-alike, with the real Collingwood’s questions and interjections) and Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live TV. Larrain went for a JFK look-alike as the president (Caspar Philipson, too short) and a great actor as his brother (Sarsgaard, too tall and making no effort to match the Kennedy twang). But the emotional distance and dramatic parameters of the story they chose to tell lift Jackie above similar films attempting to capture the tragedy of iconic beauties such as Princess Diana and Grace Kelly.

And Portman, holding the film together with the force of her gaze and the quiet of her whispers, holds us as well. She delivers an impersonation that punches through the cultivated veneer to show a real woman dealing with the unspeakable, struggling every second with the weight of tragedy and the expectations of history as she does. There was steel and calculation behind those sunglasses the world grew to mock, and a grace that went beyond fashion icon, priestess of high culture and the national monument to mourning we wanted her to be.


Moana ***½
Moana would have been enormously entertaining regardless of when it came out, but its arrival at this particular moment in history gives it an added sense of significance — as well as inspiration.

The latest musical extravaganza from Walt Disney Animation Studios follows the adventures of a young woman who finds her own voice and forges her own identity. She chooses to be a forward-thinking leader of her people on her own terms, rather than a stereotypical princess in need of rescue, which the film acknowledges in amusingly knowing fashion. She has both the wisdom to respect her people’s traditions and the bravery to blaze her own trail toward the future.

Moana is on the verge of becoming the first female chief in the proud history of her Polynesian tribe, shattering the glass ceiling under spectacular blue skies. Imagine that.

Sure, you could watch Moana for its dazzling visuals, catchy tunes, enjoyable performances, clever running gags and overall sense of fun. It’s all there, and — except for a few scary moments — it’ll delight viewers of all ages. But for some of us older folks, it’s hard to shake the feeling of wistful possibility in seeing a woman assume the leadership position for which she was destined.

It’s a must-see for girls and boys alike, though. And it features an astonishingly assured, auspicious debut from Auli’I Cravalho, a Hawaiian teenager showing chops and instincts well beyond her experience and years. In lending her voice to the title character, Cravalho radiates grace, great timing and an infectious energy. And the film from the veteran directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and a small army of writers gives her plenty of opportunity to shine both individually and as part of a large, colorful cast of characters.

None is larger than Dwayne Johnson as the muscled demigod Maui, with whom Moana must team up to return a magical stone to its resting place and right an ancient wrong that’s steadily plagued the Pacific islands ever since — including, most pressingly, her home. Being one of the most charismatic people on the planet, Johnson charms with all the swagger you’d expect, and he’s also capable of toying with his tough-guy image as we’ve seen over the years. (A running bit in which Maui’s mass of tattoos comes to life to comment on the action — and mock him — provides a consistently funny Greek chorus.) But Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to connect with more intimate, dramatic moments, and Moana allows him to show off that side of his talent, too.

The two enjoy plenty of highs and lows as they set out on the open ocean, learning to work together to navigate various obstacles and outsmart their foes. (If you’re thinking about watching this with very young children, a giant lava monster might seem frightening to them, but everything else is pretty darn delightful — including a pirate armada of evil coconuts who attack in a hilarious and thrilling sequence that’s straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote several of the songs that help propel the action, including Moana’s girl-power anthem, How Far I’ll Go, and Maui’s bouncy introductory tune, You’re Welcome. The former speaks to her yearning to break free and explore beyond the island’s reef, something her father (Temuera Morrison) and mother (Nicole Scherzinger) have urged her not to do for fear of the dangers that may await. While it (mercifully) lacks the same persistent earworm qualities of the ubiquitous Let It Go from Frozen, its message of female assertiveness makes it infinitely more worthwhile. Another major highlight is Shiny, a campy little ditty sung by Jemaine Clement as a conniving crab with a taste for all things glittering and gold; it’s hard to ignore the modern-day political figure he calls to mind, too.

The details in these production numbers are just decadent; the colors are a million shades of green blue, and the underwater creatures and settings have a wonderfully immersive, tactile quality. Maybe the movie goes for the easy, physical gag a few times too many, as is the case with Moana’s animal pal, a kooky, cross-eyed chicken named Heihei (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who accidentally tags along when she dares to set out on the high seas. But Moana — a strong, curvy girl and not your typical, stick-figure princess — is ready for any challenge that comes her way. Even a wacky sidekick.

This week’s other new releases
Notfilm ***½ A studious, rigorous and surprisingly tender documentary.
Tanna *** This movie is a tremendous accomplishment, especially considering that the cast had never seen a camera before — much less movies — yet still agreed to star in the drama. Their performances are as stunning as the setting, and that’s truly saying something.
Miss Hokusai *** In its ruminations on artistic tradition, creation and vision, this is something close to a minor masterpiece. In its other ideas, although less inspired, also resonate in significant ways.
The Brand New Testament *** While the ultra-clever first act stockpiles sufficient admiration from viewers to sustain the film, the bulk of it concerns itself with director Jaco Von Dormael ‘s most persistent preoccupation: the tug of war between fate and free will.
The Eyes of My Mother **½ Nicolas Pecse’s debut feature as writer-director is a patient, pitiless thriller. A macabre tale set in the rural South where random violence is the stuff of folk legend, and morbid bluegrass ballads.
I Am Michael ** While the performances are compelling, particularly James Franco’s, and the ideas battered around are worth grappling with, much of the storytelling is bogged down by extra details and exposition, and hampered by its unwillingness to take a position on the topic. An interesting story, but unfortunately, rather uninterestingly told.
Trespass Against Us ** Though thematically vague, thinly plotted and without a reliably sympathetic soul to cling to, the movie has a mutinous energy and an absurd, knockabout charm.
100 StreetsUnfortunately the movie’s parts are greater than the whole, forcing it to crash and burn after an absolutely ludicrous third act.
Incarnate * Incoherent mashup of previous demonized tyke films and unfailingly inept pseudo-science and the result is about as devoid of suspense, much less genuine horror, as this specific sub-genre can be.
Man Down ½* This is a bad film, but it’s made even worse by the taste it will leave in your mouth regarding its silly handling of a very serious issue.
Bad Kids of Crestview Academy ½* Animated comic book panels hint at an attempt at style, but bad camera work captures bad performances of bad dialogue.

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

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