Friday, October 13, 2017

The Foreigner: Not to be ignored

The Foreigner (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and some sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.13.17

This film likely isn’t on your radar.

It should be.

Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, right) is kind enough to grant some
time to Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan), who hopes to learn the identity of the terrorists
who killed his daughter, back in London. The meeting ... does not go well.
Director Martin Campbell and scripter David Marconi have transformed prolific British thriller author Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel, The Chinaman, into a crackerjack espionage drama: an absolutely perfect vehicle for star Jackie Chan, shrewdly playing a character his actual age (63 years young).

And while it’s true that the beloved martial arts sensation no longer hurls himself out of trees, or through multiple plate-glass windows, he still has moves. Plenty of them.

Marconi’s script is a clever update of Leather’s novel, which was written while the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s brutal bombing campaign was climaxing (and which, mercifully, would conclude with a cease-fire in 1997). This big-screen adaptation benefits from taut direction, crisp editing and a devious narrative laden with twists and double-crosses.

And, most of all, from Chan’s captivating portrayal of a character who completely wins our hearts and minds.

The contemporary setting introduces Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) as a quiet London restaurateur, who dotes on his teenage daughter, Fan (Katie Leung): the sole family member left after a couple of earlier tragedies. Campbell and Marconi deftly sketch their loving relationship during a prologue that feels ominous because of its mundane normality.

Our fears prove justified, when Fan’s enthusiastic dive into a dress shop turns tragic as a terrorist bomb goes off. Credit for the heinous act is claimed by a group calling itself The Authentic IRA.

Although swept into in a maelstrom of grief that threatens to drown him — Chan’s expression and body language are heartbreaking, during these early scenes — Quan patiently, doggedly navigates “proper channels” in an effort to secure a piece of information that he deems naïvely simple: the name, or names, of the bombers.

He finally gains a chat with Commander Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), head of the British anti-terrorist task force charged with investigating the attack. Although sympathetic, Bromley assures Quan that his team is doing everything possible, and sends him home. But Quan cannot let it rest, much to the mounting concern of his restaurant partner, Lam (Tao Liu), who clearly loves him.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: A few notes shy of wonderful

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity, brief nudity and fleeting graphic images

By Derrick Bang

Although persuasively acted, sensitively directed and reasonably faithful to established fact, writer/director Angela Robinson’s take on comic book heroine Wonder Woman most frequently feels like a giddy endorsement of unconventional sexual lifestyles.

Flush with the "forbidden" delights of their blossoming three-way relationship, Elizabeth
Marston (Rebecca Hall, left), her husband William (Luke Evans) and their "plus one"
Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) unwisely fail to consider how their behavior will affect
fellow Tufts University faculty and students.
Goodness knows, the actual saga tops the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction List, as recently revealed via comprehensive feature stories from National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine and The New Yorker, along with — most particularly — Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating 2015 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Robinson had no shortage of research material, from which to draw.

But while the world’s best-known female superhero has been made the selling point of this unusual big-screen biography — the character’s status having accelerated exponentially, thanks to summer’s smash-hit film — Wonder Woman is mostly incidental to the story being told here. Robinson had other things on her mind.

The saga begins in 1925, as Harvard-trained psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) begins teaching a large assemblage of young women at Tufts University. His wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is a ubiquitous presence, forever perched in the classroom window seat. An equally accredited psychologist and lawyer, she sharply observes — and records, via jotted notes — how the students respond, individually and as a group, during her husband’s lectures.

William and Elizabeth are a prickly but passionately devoted team, in and out of the classroom. He’s smooth, intelligent and seductively persuasive: a silver-tongued orator who’d have made a terrific snake-oil salesman. She’s bluntly combative, judgmental, sharp-tongued and even more ferociously smart. They constantly challenge each other, even as they love and collaborate in numerous endeavors ... not the least of which is the development of a functional lie-detector device.

In class, William’s gaze is drawn to the radiantly gorgeous Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a senior who becomes his research assistant ... which is to say, she becomes their research assistant. William ostensibly insists that Olive is the perfect subject with whom to explore the active/passive aspects of a “DISC theory” — dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — that he believes governs all human behavior.

In reality, he just wants to bed Olive. Which Elizabeth realizes full well, and about which she’s ambivalent. At initial blush, William’s desire seems a non-starter; the quietly shy Olive, a seemingly conservative sorority girl, is engaged to a Nice Young Man.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Future imperfect

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.6.17

I suppose we should be grateful that things haven’t deteriorated nearly as much as the original Blade Runner suggested ... given that it was set in 2019.

That said, the film’s envisaged weather anomalies no longer seem as unlikely.

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Kay (Ryan Gosling), pausing for a quick meal,
little realizes that he's about to be approached by a trio of seductive "doxies"
interested solely in the photographs that he has been studying.
It’s also amusing to recall that Ridley Scott’s magnum opus was a critical and audience bomb upon release in 1982: wholly bewildering to viewers who couldn’t wrap their brains around retro sci-fi noir, and who were disturbed by the notion of Han Solo/Indiana Jones playing such a morally conflicted character.

Funny, how things can change. Blade Runner now is regarded as one of the all-time great sci-fi classics, praised for the same distinctive vision and thoughtful narrative complexity that originally baffled folks. Scott has tweaked and re-edited the film more times than I can remember, fine-tuning it to match his original vision (which was compromised by unwelcome eleventh-hour editing, prior to release).

While his film didn’t necessarily beg for a sequel, the setting and core premise certainly invite fresh examination. Few filmmakers are better equipped to do so than director Denis Villeneuve, who helmed last year’s marvelously meditative Arrival, and co-writer Hampton Fancher, who helped adapt Philip K. Dick’s source novel into the first film. Fancher is assisted this time by co-scripter Michael Green, and they’ve definitely retained the brooding atmosphere that makes the setting so compelling.

The setting’s persuasively chilling authenticity, in turn, comes courtesy of production designer Dennis Gassner and visual effects supervisor John Nelson, carrying forward the arresting tableaus designed for the first film by Douglas Trumbull and David Dryer. No other word suffices: This new film looks amazing.

And very, very unsettling.

The story is again based in Los Angeles, although the narrative expands to include the entire state. Every square inch of land in Central California has been covered by massive hydroponic facilities necessitated by a climate shift — nothing but furious rain, dust and snow storms — that has destroyed any semblance of a natural growing season. Such enhanced output also is required to feed an expanding population with an exponentially huge homeless faction: The disenfranchised no longer camp out merely on sidewalks; they also squat in apartment corridors, jeering at those fortunate enough to have their own residences.

Advertising has run even further amok, further amplified by a salacious element that suggests the complete absence of spiritual content. There’s a sense of society’s very fabric coming unstitched, with order barely maintained by officers working for the immense police department building that looms above all else.

Well ... almost all else.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: A match made in heaven

Battle of the Sexes (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.29.17

An estimated 90 million people around the world parked in front of TV sets on Sept. 20, 1973, in order to watch what became a defining moment in sports, American culture and — most particularly — the rising momentum for women’s equality.

When she agrees to the challenge issued by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Billy Jean King
(Emma Stone) also gamely endures the media circus that precedes the historic event.
At the same time, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” was pure circus.

On top of which, one of the participants was struggling with sexual identity, at a time when such matters scarcely were tolerated in this country, let alone allowed to go public.

That’s a lot of baggage for a single two-hour film to handle, and its success is a tribute to pedigree: Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), along with Academy Award-winning scripter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), have concocted a thoughtful, perceptive and thoroughly entertaining dramedy that blends tender romance, historical context and an undercurrent of sly outrage over the degree of unapologetic chauvinism that was fashionable a mere four decades ago.

Add two stars who skillfully adopt the identities of their real-world counterparts — to a frequently spooky degree — and the result is quite engaging.

The story begins in 1971, as Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and good friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) — a hard-nosed PR and tennis maven — confront longtime tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the insulting disparity between the financial prizes earned by male and female champions. Kramer holds firm with the prevailing view that women aren’t “worth” parity.

In response, King and Heldman — with considerable assistance from King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell) — form their own nascent women’s league (which, within a few years, would become the Women’s Tennis Association). It’s a gutsy move, since Kramer immediately expels them from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. The players — which include King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and half a dozen others — nonetheless adopt a spunky guerrilla spirit, booking their own venues, posting promotional banners, and selling their own tickets.

Matters improve when the group receives full sponsorship from Philip Morris, for what becomes known as the Virginia Slims Tour.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), decades removed from his professional championships in the 1940s, frets over his own obsolescence. He chafes behind a useless desk job, supported by a wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who is losing her tolerance for his chronic gambling habit. But as a longtime hustler and media-savvy opportunist, Riggs smells publicity after learning what King and her cohorts are up to.

And so comes the challenge, from the man who proudly promises to keep the “show” in chauvinism.

American Made: The satiric veneration of a scoundrel

American Made (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

The only thing more unsettling than this film, is the possibility that the truth is even worse.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise, left) hands an envelope stuffed with cash to Manuel Noriega
(Alberto Ospino, right), in exchange for a folder containing unspecified intel: merely one
of various questionable activities that Barry undertakes on behalf of the CIA.
The notorious Barry Seal’s jaw-dropping career has long screamed for big-screen treatment, and director Doug Liman’s American Made wisely casts the saga as a personality-driven dark comedy that transforms Seal’s illicit activities into the stuff of overstated burlesque. Tom Cruise is absolutely perfect for the role, his ear-splitting grin and smug swagger delivering the charisma that everybody acknowledged was Seal’s greatest asset.

At the same time, there’s no question that Gary Spinelli’s script — he acknowledges none of the existing books about Seal — sugar-coats a lot of bad things, time-shifts others, baldly fabricates events, and outright ignores some of his subject’s worst character deficiencies. The result would play well on a double-bill with Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which similarly turned the heinous behavior of opportunistic swindler Jordan Belfort into the stuff of dark farce.

Both films are slick, fast-paced and thoroughly engaging: no question, a lot of fun to watch. Both also add an eyebrow-raising layer of sophisticated exhilaration to the illicit behavior of their respective subjects, as if to suggest they’re modern updates of E.W. Hornung’s debonair gentleman burglar, A.J. Raffles.

To be fair, Liman and Spinelli have the added advantage of what could be termed the “Barry Seal mystique”: the ongoing uncertainty that revolves around the degree to which his activities were — or weren’t — tolerated, if indeed orchestrated, by various U.S. intelligence, drug and government entities. No question: This film will be loved by conspiracy theorists, and particularly by those willing to assume the worst of the Reagan-era administration.

Spinelli goes all in, accepting and expanding upon rumors that Seal operated with the full awareness and cooperation of everything from the CIA to the DEA and those involved with Nancy Reagan’s “war on drugs.” Along the way, the saga suggests Seal’s intimate involvement with everybody from Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega, to Bill Clinton, Oliver North and the Iran/Contra scandal. Even a young George W. Bush gets a brief but telling moment (with a line of dialogue guaranteed to raise a smile).

Cruise’s distracting strut aside, careful attention must be paid to the way Liman constructs his film, most particularly with respect to the implications of his framing device. The bulk of the narrative may feel like an intoxicating roller coaster ride, but Liman carefully maintains an undertone of anxiety and outright danger.

Victoria and Abdul: A revealing friendship

Victoria and Abdul (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic elements and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

History is laden with fascinating incidents and anecdotes, and — here’s the amazing thing — more pop up all the time.

Having been granted the privilege of serving "the jelly" — at the request of Queen Victoria
(Judi Dency) — Abdul (Ali Fazal, center) does his best to maneuver the wobbly dessert,
while Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) watches nervously.
You’d think, given the tireless methodology of modern research, that we’d have uncovered pretty much everything by now. Chances are, not even close.

Case in point: The unlikely, all but unknown — and (deliberately) mostly concealed — camaraderie that bonded Britain’s Queen Victoria and a former Muslim Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. The saga came to light in 2010, with the publication of research journalist Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant; the details were assembled from the hitherto undiscovered journals of both Abdul and Victoria, the latter written in Hindustani Urdu (!).

The narrative immediately demanded even wider exposure, and this thoughtful big-screen translation comes courtesy of director Stephen Frears: an apt choice, given the similar sensitivity he brought to the depiction of Elizabeth II, in 2006’s The Queen. Scripter Lee Hall has adapted Basu’s book with grace and the sly wit at which the British excel, particularly when they’re poking gentle fun at themselves.

The thoroughly captivating result is anchored by the venerable Judi Dench, taking a second crack at the role she first played in 1997’s Mrs. Brown (which, rather intriguingly, details a similarly “imprudent” incident in Queen Victoria’s life). But while Dench dominates this new film — how could she not? — Ali Fazal also deserves credit for the elegance with which he has brought an equally compelling character to life.

This is late during Queen Victoria’s reign, when she has become — in her own words — fat, lame, cantankerous and impotent (along with several other marvelous pejoratives that I couldn’t jot down quickly enough). The regal routine, and life itself, have become tedious things to be endured, rarely enjoyed. She suffers fools not at all, let alone gladly; each day begins with chiding admonitions about diet and “movement” from the royal physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins).

Dench always has excelled at withering glances, and they get plenty of exercise here. Victoria is well aware of the obsequious jockeying that takes place behind closed doors, as her many children — led by heir apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — and court hangers-on curry favor and snipe at each other. No conversation comes close to actual candor; she can’t trust anybody to be sincere, and she’s well aware that everybody is waiting for her to die.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Stronger: A quiet triumph

Stronger (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity, graphic injury images, and fleeting sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.22.17

Some things transcend their real-world existence.

Football is a crowd-pleasing spectator sport; baseball is ... something more. Baseball inspires myth-making films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams. You simply can’t imagine football doing the same.

Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a few tentative steps on his new prosthetic legs, much to the
overly eager delight of his helicoptering mother (Miranda Richardson, center), and the
cautious concern of his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
Los Angeles and Chicago are cities. New York and Boston are ... dreamlike.

Boston’s intangible, ferociously indomitable spirit (“Boston strong!”) has much to do with the triumphant, fist-pumping exhilaration that powers Stronger, but director David Gordon Green’s fact-based drama likely will be remembered best for its quieter, intimate moments. Two will linger in my mind for a long time: one for its near-silent emotional intensity; the other for the heartbreaking wallop of an unexpectedly personal story, related by a late-entry supporting character.

Both are staged, lensed and performed impeccably; both are moments of pure cinema magic. And if the rest of Green’s film doesn’t live up to those high points, it nonetheless remains inspirational and thoroughly satisfying.

Stronger, based on Jeff Bauman’s best-selling 2014 memoir of the same title, depicts his agonizing emotional and physical struggle after losing both legs during the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His saga captivates for all sorts of reasons; his being a survivor at times seems incidental.

Jeff’s presence at the finish line was sheer caprice; he “showed up” in an effort to win back the on-again/off-again girlfriend (Erin Hurley) who was running the race. In the blast aftermath, he likely would have died, were it not for the rapid intervention of Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican-born American peace activist who attended the marathon for his own deeply personal reasons.

Immediately upon regaining consciousness after surgery, still intubated and unable to speak, Jeff indicated — by writing — that he’d seen one of the bombers; his description of Tamerlan Tsarnaev helped police and FBI narrow down the suspect list.

All of which gives this film a hefty emotional center, although scripter John Pollono wisely focuses on the all-important relationship between Jeff and Erin. Everything else flows from that bond.