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DVD reviews: 'Stonewall' is nothing short of a mess

I had very much been looking forward to “Stonewall” (2015 / Lionsgate / 129m /$19.98 / R) but I have to admit seeing Roland Emmerich cited as director on the box when it arrived set me back. I should have seen it as a warning. The director is best known for effects laden films with simplistic (to put it kindly) storylines such as “Independence Day,“ “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”). The film deals with Danny (Jeremy Irvine) who is kicked out of his home and ostracized in his small Midwestern town when he’s exposed as gay. The film is set in 1969 but some things have not changed much in small towns with small minds. Heading to Manhattan (he has a scholarship to a college there) he lands in Greenwich Village – Christopher Street to be precise – apparently by homing instinct. Temporarily homeless he’s adopted by drag queen prostitutes who have no compunction about throwing bricks through shop windows to obtain items of apparel. All of them frequent the Stonewall Inn, a bar run by a sleazy gent (Ron Perlman, now deeply in anything for a paycheck mode), who has no problem abducting young men off the street and forcing them into prostitution.

Filled absolutely full of unlikeable characters and so wildly inaccurate about the period that you could play count the anachronisms, “Stonewall” is nothing short of a mess. It surely shouldn’t take a film purportedly about the famous riot nearly all of its running time to get to the event and then dispense with it after one of its several nights and instead go to an overlong epilogue. What leads up to that is pure soap opera with clichéd situations and stick figure characters. (And in many ways it replicates the plot of an earlier film with the same title.) Emmerich is one of the most financially successful out gay filmmakers and reportedly this was a self-financed project. I’d like to applaud him for that and his movie but this thing is a stinker.

I was expecting better things, too, from “UnREAL” (2015 / Lionsgate / 440m (2 discs) / $26.98 / TV-MA) based on the previews I’d seen. This look behind the scenes of a fictional reality show (though much based on “The Bachelor”) appeared to be a savage satire. When a character says of the trash in progress, “Let’s make great TV,” what else could be intended? One of the plot lines even resembles a situation on that champ of TV satires, “Episodes.” Instead it purports to be a drama, though not a very dramatic one – it’s simply played too light to score in that way. I couldn’t help but think of what Robert Altman would have made of this cast of characters (or Susan Harris, who created TV’s “Soap,” for that matter). The characters are as vicious a bunch of sharks as you’d care to encounter and seem designed for lampooning but instead it seems we are supposed to care about the romantic and career lives of these shallow, self-absorbed predators. Given one of the creators once worked on one of the so-called reality series perhaps something in the way of an expose was intended. But is anyone surprised to know that these shows are heavily manipulated? If “UnREAL” could have found the humor in its subject something interesting might have eventuated instead of the blah result that’s neither amusing nor dramatic.

Given the youthful protagonists I have to assume that “Battle for SkyArk” (2015 / Lionsgate / 88m / $19.98 / PG-13) was made for young adult audiences. Earth has been invaded by monsters so humanity has taken refuge in a giant space station in the sky. (Just how this is protection against alien invaders – or how it was rigged up in the midst of an invasion – becomes clear at the end.) Totalitarianism rules on SkyArk and anyone branded an insurgent is killed in front of his children who are then exiled to earth where they are murdered (possibly eaten) by the monsters. The children seen in the film (it is implied there are other enclaves) live in a makeshift “fortress” made of various disused items included portions of an airplane. They hope for the day when a hero – who will be known by 13 marks on his arm (everyone inexplicably seems to have several) – will arrive and lead them on a rebellion against the corrupt leaders of SkyArk.

Well there’s more to struggle against than those pesky monsters. When the hero (Caon Mortenson) does arrive he turns out to be more than reluctant – in fact he’s a coward. Actually the worst thing the youthful cast of this low-budget production faces is one of the most poorly written scripts I’ve encountered in ages. The dialogue is just thumpingly bad so it’s no wonder none of the actors can manage a remotely believable characterization. I’ll grant that it just might be they’re not terrifically talented but even Ian MacKellan would come a cropper with this writing. Simon Hung’s direction is no better than his scripting; there are too many drawn out moments, too many pointless diversions (and a surprise ending that’s anything but). Perhaps all this will be more acceptable fare for teen viewers but I’d suggest you steer them to something better.

Budget is no problem for “Everest” (2015 / Universal / 122m / $49.98 BR 3D + BR + DVD combo / PG-13), a story already told in “Into Thin Air.” The only reason I can think of to visit it again is that director Baltasar Kormakur had the chance to do it in Imax 3D and with lots of help from the CGI guys. That means that much of what made the film work in theaters (the spectacle) will not work on any home screen no matter how large. “Based in a true story” the film tells of a tragic ascent (well, actually the descent) of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on our planet and the goal of numerous climbers since Sir Edmund Hillary first scaled it back in 1953. Now I suppose there must be professional mountain climbers but the 1996 crew represented here were largely weekend thrill seekers (one was a postal worker) who make the climb with gear and safety precautions of which Sir Edmund hadn’t the advantage, such as an advance party preparing the way with ropes and ladders (the latter for crossing crevasses) and pre-planted oxygen tanks. But nature always has the last word and a violent snowstorm complicated the return trip; many of the climbers and their guides lost their lives.

To its credit, the film doesn’t try to work the tearducts by dragging these scenes out; most of the doomed simply slide off the mountain to oblivion – and it’s quite startling to see a whole rescue party, tethered together, do so. The demise of expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clark) takes longer; he was trapped and froze to death and had several radio conversations with his wife while dying. His death has some impact because he is the most fully developed character aside from Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin); all the others are barely sketched at best (did they really need to bring in Jake Gyllenhaal for the nothing role he’s given?). “Everest” can’t even give us much of an inkling why these people do what they do – maybe they don’t even know, as revealed in an early scene where none of the climbers can answer that question posed by Hall. There’s little of substance here just a lot of impressive and formidable vistas (and knowing that a certain amount of computer trickery is involved robs the film of much of its impact for me) and cardboard characters meeting their demises just like in some Irwin Allen disaster flick. I will give it this, it was an experience watching this the same weekend as our snowpocalypse.

There’s substance to spare in Tom Stoppard’s film version of his play “Rosencrantz and Are Dead” (1990 / RLJ Entertainment / 116m / $29.98 BR / PG). Stoppard is a writer whose work is perched somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Monty Python. Here he has taken two exceedingly minor characters from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and placed them center stage. They are unaware as they wander the halls of Elsinore, passing time between their scenes that they are in a play and that their comings and goings – and their fate – are preordained. They are even uncertain which of them is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern (Tim Roth and Gary Oldman respectively, or possibly vice versa). Reality shifts frequently (night will abruptly become day in mid-scene and a doorway leading out of a room opens back into it) as this existential Laurel and Hardy bumble their way through what remains of their existence.

Stoppard has invented gobs of business to make the proceedings visually interesting (and it’s a beautiful film to behold) but he’s not entirely successful in translating his work to the screen. There is so much dialogue (and rich, lovely dialogue it is too) that there’s no escaping that what we’re watching is a filmed play and things too often bog down into “Words, words, words,” to quote the prince of Denmark. The dialogue and the breaking of the “fourth wall” work better on stage than they do on film – though if you’ve never seen the show live you may get more good out of it. Roth and Oldman, unknowns at the time of filming, are quite good; some critics have missed the point that the characters are dullards (who else would toss a coin over 160 times to see if it continued to come up heads?). It’s not the actors who are dull, it’s the characters. Of course it can’t be denied that Richard Dreyfuss as The Player (of the travelling acting troupe Hamlet invites to stage the play that will expose his father’s murder) wipes both off the screen every time he appears with a bravura performance.

“Experimenter” (2015 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 98m / $26.98 / PG-13), inspired by the experiments of Stanley Milgram, is proof that basing a film on something that actually happened needn’t be deadly. Milgram set up a situation where one subject would administer electric shocks to another whenever the latter gave a wrong answer, the voltage increasing with each error. No matter how much the recipient might scream with pain the person administering the shocks was prompted to continue on and on. Actually the subject supposedly being tormented was one of Milgram’s team and the real study was of the person giving the shocks. Milgram wanted to determine what percentage of people would continue to follow the orders of perceived authority even when it was contrary to what are usually considered basic human values. Milgram, who was Jewish, was trying to fathom why people, such as those who carried out Nazi commands during World War II, would commit acts clearly harmful, even fatal, to their fellow human beings. Milgram’s study was (and remains) controversial because of the supposed emotional harm it did to those who thought they were administering the pain.

Michael Almereyda’s unorthodox and surreal film plays with illusion and reality just as Milgram’s experiment did. He has Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) addressing the audience directly as he’s followed down a hallway followed by an elephant and stages scenes with patently obvious rear-projected or green-screened backgrounds. This is  not a documentary and I’m not even sure it could rightly be called a docudrama or a biopic (though it does cover the period of Milgram’s most infamous experiment, the controversy that followed and some of his later work). Rather Almereyda wants us to think about the experiment (and/or its implications) and draw our own conclusions. The director (who also scripted) may be testing us as much as the psychologist did his subjects. Sarsgaard carries the movie nicely with excellent support by Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife – and keep your eyes peeled for the likes of Anthony Edwards, Kellan Klutz, John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert and Anton Yelchin in cameos. “Experimenter” doesn’t always work (some of the monologues are just too extended and downright dry) but I can’t help but applaud a director who takes the kind of risks Almereyda does here.