Friday, May 17, 2019

A Dog's Journey: A slightly milder tail-wag

A Dog's Journey (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for brief peril and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.17.19

Utterly shameless.

Relentlessly manipulative and sentimental.

Also adorable and poignant.

CJ (Kathryn Prescott) remains oblivious to the fact that best friend Trent (Henry Lau)
has been sweet on her since they were 10 years old; her far more perceptive dog,
Molly, wonders why they don't simply lick each other and get it over with.
Author W. Bruce Cameron has made quite the cottage industry of his Dog books, with two core novels having blossomed into an additional four one-offs, half a dozen young reader Puppy Tales, and an entirely separate story trilogy, all during the past decade.

Director Lasse Hallström transformed 2010’s A Dog’s Purpose into a cinematic charmer two years ago, with a writing assist from Cameron (and rather a lot of co-scripters). He and most of the same writing team have collaborated anew on the script adaptation of that book’s sequel, A Dog’s Journey, this time placing their faith in indefatigable, Emmy Award-winning TV director Gail Mancuso (everything from Scrubs and 30 Rock to Man with a Plan and Modern Family).

Her touch doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot of compelling pathos and gentle humor that has characterized Hallström’s career — notably in Chocolat and The Cider House Rules — and gave his Dog its special radiance. He has an affinity for heightened reality that makes it seem not only credible, but reasonable. Mancuso is a sitcom director: Her approach is broader, with supporting characters who feel more like exaggerated burlesques than actual people, and a more obvious reliance on comedy (particularly with respect to canine one-liners). 

This film therefore leans in the direction of TV’s fast-paced artifice, rather than the naturalistic verisimilitude of its predecessor. The emotional content isn’t as authentic, and a few elements have a whiff of calculated contrivance.

In fairness, that’s also because Cameron’s sequel novel isn’t nearly as fresh as its predecessor. It’s hard to pull off the same clever trick twice.

The gimmick is that Cameron’s alpha canine is a regenerative soul that remembers all of its past lives and responsibilities. This begins in the first film when 8-year-old Ethan gets his first dog: a rambunctious Golden Retriever puppy dubbed Bailey, who becomes his best friend. Dog’s lives being so cruelly brief, Bailey soon leaves a heartbroken Ethan behind; ah, but after a series of subsequent bodies and owners, Bailey is reunited with an older Ethan (Dennis Quaid), now as a Australian Shepherd/St. Bernard cross.

The Sun Is Also a Star: Shines sweetly

The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s refreshing to see a young adult romance that doesn’t involve people who are white and wealthy.

And aren’t suffering from some exotic, debilitating or fatal disease.

Despite her analytical cynicism, Natasha (Yara Shahidi) finds it hard to resist the charm
assault that Daniel (Charles Melton) mounts so effectively.
Director Ry Russo-Young’s The Sun Is Also a Star is a sweet little charmer, graced with the comfortable chemistry between stars Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton. Scripter Tracy Oliver hits the essential plot beats of Nicola Yoon’s best-selling 2016 novel, although the faith-oriented content is absent (likely viewed as one subtext too many, in a film already laden with considerable emotional baggage).

Russo-Young and cinematographer Autumn Durald also deliver a dreamy portrait of New York City at the bustling height of its melting-pot boisterousness: a vibrant, richly diverse cacophony of cultures, languages, colorful storefronts and wonderfully bizarre public art. It’s a side of the city far removed from Manhattan’s chic opulence, and much more exciting for this absence of aristocratic hauteur.

Jamaica-born Natasha Kingsley (Shahidi) is in a panic, desperately trying to reverse a deportation order mandating her family’s immediate return to their native country. Her father brought them to the States illegally almost a decade earlier, hoping for the better life of an American dream; a random ICE sweep now threatens to rip 17-year-old Natasha from the city she loves, and the educational opportunities that mean so much.

It’s literally the last day before they must return to Jamaica. Natasha leaves their apartment, hoping to get an early morning appointment with a U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) case handler.

Elsewhere, first-generation Korean-American Daniel Bae (Melton), college-bound and carrying the weight of family expectation, heads off for a crucial final interview that could determine his entry to Dartmouth. His doting parents (Keong Sim and Cathy Shim) have long desired that he become a doctor — a plan emphasized via Korean ritual, when Daniel was but an infant — but he’d far rather be a poet.

Natasha is pragmatic to the point of cynicism, believing solely in reason, science and logic; if it can’t be quantified and/or manipulated, it doesn’t exist. Daniel is creative, passionate and open to the mysterious, mischievous vagaries of fate, destiny and dreams. He firmly accepts the caprice of deus ex machina improbability (and when’s the last time a film made an ongoing metaphor of that literary phrase?).

Friday, May 10, 2019

Tolkien: Not entirely Hobbit-forming

Tolkien (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.10.19

Aside from outliers such as Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, most writers lead rather ordinary lives.

And what they do — crafting humble words into mesmerizing stories, generally in isolation — is hardly the stuff of engaging cinema.

Surrounded by the notes and illutrations that he feverishly sketches while playfully
creating entirely new languages, John Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) nonetheless cannot shake
the feeling of not really belonging in his highbrow Oxford surroundings.
That said, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s back-story is more provocative than most.

Director Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien hits the myriad heartbreaking high points of Tolkien’s youth and young adulthood, and star Nicholas Hoult persuasively conveys the curiosity, intelligence, facility with languages, and almost magical gift for storytelling that later would inform his literary career.

David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s sensitive script clearly is well-intentioned, and Karukoski’s touch is sincere.

And yet…

The pace is dreadfully slow, and the decision to employ Tolkien’s horrific World War I experiences as a framing device is questionable, to say the least. We’re apparently expected to recognize that this is the devastating Battle of the Somme; context for this portion of the film is utterly absent. Every so often, Karukoski drags us back for another grim interlude, as Tolkien wanders through the body-strewn trenches in a daze, under the watchful gaze of a young private (Craig Roberts) who worries that his companion is about to drop dead.

The apparent point of these sequences is that the disoriented Tolkien — suffering from an acute case of debilitating trench fever — hallucinates the battle carnage into symbolic smoke- and shadow-laden warriors and monsters that later will inform the mythic creatures he concocts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Well … no.

It’s a clumsy, contrived device that simply becomes tedious as the film proceeds. It’s also superfluous; we’ve already seen that young Tolkien was inspired by his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), who — as a means of distracting her two young sons from their “impecunious” existence — excels at spinning fantastical narrative adventures with the aid of a slowly spinning shadow lamp festooned with magical patterns. This sequence is far more magical — and persuasively credible — than the repeated bounces back to the trenches.

The Hustle: Small-time con

The Hustle (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for crude sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Office workers from the pre-digital era will recall that making copies of copies was an exercise in rapidly diminishing returns.

The results became increasingly smudgy. Less distinct.

Having agreed to a May The Best Woman Win grudge match, Josephine (Anne Hathaway,
right) seethes quietly when Penny (Rebel Wilson) blunders into a posh casino in the
guise of a blind American tourist.
Less acceptable.

Ergo, the news that we were getting a remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — which itself is a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story — was greeted with a gimlet eye (at best).

In fairness, director Chris Addison’s modest little comedy has its moments, most involving the Laurel & Hardy pairing of Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. The gender reversal is an inspired touch, with Hathaway and Wilson standing in for Michael Caine and Steve Martin (1988), and David Niven and — believe it or not — Marlon Brando (1964).

The core plot beats have been retained, with full acknowledgment to original writers Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning and Dale Launer. Scripter Jac Schaeffer has punched up this new film’s incidental sight gags, in order to tailor them to these femmes most fatale.

The premise remains the same: Sophisticated con artist Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway), a seductive Brit with a penchant for fleecing gullible wealthy men of their expensive jewelry, has fashioned a glamorous lifestyle that includes an opulent home in the French Riviera’s Beaumont-sur-Mer.

Half a world away, low-level grifter Penny Rust (Wilson) rips off neighborhood bar low-lifes (making a point of targeting shallow jerks with a visible antipathy to her plus-size presence).

Collectively, they’re a welcome switch in this #MeToo era. God knows there are plenty of piggish men — of all social standings — who deserve serious comeuppance.

But whereas Josephine’s stylish scams have been honed to polished perfection — with the assistance of her urbane butler, Albert (Nicholas Woodeson), and the cheerfully corrupt local police captain, Brigitte Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver) — Penny’s sloppier, smash ’n’ grab approach has its drawbacks. Forced to flee the long arm of legitimate law, she impulsively winds up in Beaumont-sur-Mer.

Where Josephine is less than pleased to see such a vulgar, low-rent opportunist on her turf.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Long Shot: Genuinely unlikely

Long Shot (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, drug use and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.19

An engaging premise — with some shrewd topical jabs at our real-world political dysfunction — beats within the heart of this fitfully entertaining romantic comedy.

As proximity encourages increasingly intimate contact, Fred (Seth Rogen) finds his
childhood dream coming true, as Charlotte (Charlize Theron) begins to share his
romantic feelings.
Too bad the charm is so frequently buried beneath vulgarity, relentless profanity and jaw-droppingly lunatic bursts of physical slapstick.

It’s a shame, because — absent such wretched excess — scripters Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling could’ve had a keenly observed little parable. 

Instead, in the hands of apathetic director Jonathan Levine — who most recently gave us 2017’s Amy Schumer/Goldie Hawn train wreck, Snatched — we have yet another failure that tries to satisfy wildly divergent target audiences, and succeeds at neither.

Not that it’s entirely Levine’s fault. Plenty of blame also falls on his frequent acting collaborator, the forever unrestrained Seth Rogen, who rarely misses the opportunity to ruin a scene with his own inimitable brand of overkill. This overly protracted 125-minute disappointment could be a much more manageable 100 minutes, if Levine and editors Melissa Bretherton and Evan Henke were more disciplined about not holding the camera, while Rogen mugs and mumbles interminably.

He simply isn’t as funny as he believes.

Nor does he possess one-tenth of the sharp, savvy comic timing of co-star O’Shea Jackson Jr., who rocks every one of his (lamentably) too few scenes.

Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a hot-headed, otherwise talented journalist who frequently sabotages his own sharp commentary by succumbing to a strident tone and raging, ultra-left-wing sensibilities that leave no room for negotiation. He’s his own worst enemy; when his beloved alternative newspaper is absorbed into a conglomerate run by international media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), Fred quits in a huff, rather than allow himself to be laid off by a sympathetic editor, thereby retaining unemployment benefits.

Any resemblance between Wembley and Rupert Murdoch is purely intentional. But as is typical of their feeble script, Hannah and Sterling don’t give Serkis enough material with which to make this under-written parody really sizzle. Apparently, we’re supposed to be sufficiently impressed by the make-up work. (Not hardly.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

Avengers Endgame: Epic in every respect

Avengers Endgame (2019) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sci-fi action and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.19

Like, wow.

When reflecting on what has brought us to this point — 21 cleverly interlocking earlier films, starting with 2008’s Iron Man, all of them stitched together with the meticulous expertise of a master weaver — we can only shake our heads in wonder.

In desperate need of some good news, the remaining Avengers — from left, Natasha
Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark
Ruffalo) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) — are startled by what has just descended
from the night sky.
The flow chart alone must’ve been a nightmare.

The Marvel Universe series has delivered impressive highs and regrettable lows, but even the latter have maintained the all-important continuity. And with respect to the former, one team has stood proud since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier; co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, allied with co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They subsequently brought us 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and both halves of the all-stops-out Avengers blockbuster that concludes with this skillfully crafted Endgame.

As the saying goes, this one has it all (and them all). Thrills, chills and spills. You’ll laugh; you’ll grit your teeth; you’ll be on the edge of your seat; you’ll cry. Indeed, you may cry a lot, depending on the degree to which you’ve bonded with this galaxy of characters.

Few of today’s so-called epics can justify a protracted length that feels self-indulgent long before the final act. Ergo, the mere thought of this one’s 181 minutes might be intimidating. Don’t worry. Russo & Russo, working closely with editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, make every minute count. They understand the crucial importance of quieter, character-enhancing moments.

I haven’t been this satisfied with a marathon finale since 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (And that was even longer, at 201 minutes.)

This isn’t merely a lot of tedious sturm und drang, like most of the grimly dour, landscape-leveling entries from the competing DC universe. Markus and McFeely work on our hearts; the awesomely huge cast makes us care. They believe in these characters; as a result, we can’t help doing the same.

One crucial element becomes more obvious, as this film proceeds. Despite the fact that Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans) has long been teased as the Avengers’ quaintly clichéd rah-rah, always quick to offer corny pep talks, he’s not the heart and soul of this franchise. That position belongs to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, who has always — as he does again here — brought just the right dignity and spirit to these ginormous adventures.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Mustang: A thoroughbred

The Mustang (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug content and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.19

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre isn’t afraid to minimize dialog.

The impatient Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) gets absolutely nowhere during his early
sessions with the wild buckskin he has named Marquis. The reason is simple: The
horse isn't about to yield to a man who radiates such impatience and anger.
More than most, the Paris-born filmmaker understands the dramatic impact of silence and ambient sounds; she trusts her actors, cinematographer (Ruben Impens) and editor (Géraldine Mangenot) to shape and tell the story.

De Clermont-Tonnerre recognizes that cinema is a visual medium, where the accomplished manipulation of image is just as important as anything else … if not more so. This isn’t radio, where long speeches are necessary to convey context.

A good film director lets us see it, digest it. And confidently expects us to get it.

Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), halfway through an 11-year sentence for domestic violence at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, has resisted rehabilitation efforts. We meet him during a session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), who can’t get much out of him. Roman is stoic, wary and uncooperative.

“I’m not good with people,” he finally mumbles.

She therefore assigns him to the prison’s “outdoor maintenance” program.

As we learn during an introductory text screen, the public rangelands in our 10 western states are home to roughly 100,000 wild horses that struggle to survive in an environment that can comfortably support roughly one-quarter that many. To help stabilize the population and prevent habitat destruction, thousands are captured each year by the Bureau of Land Management; the lucky ones are adopted, while many spend the rest of their lives in long-term holding facilities.

(Watching a herd rounded up by helicopter, as the film begins, is a jaw-dropper. Who knew?)

Since 1990, a few hundred have been sent every year to the Wild Horse Inmate Program, where they’re trained for sale at public auction.

The results are impressive — astonishing, even — for both men and mustangs. As dog lovers already know, an animal’s unconditional love, and obvious lack of judgment, can reassure and help a damaged individual learn how to re-socialize.