Friday, March 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Stick to the original

Beauty and the Beast (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.17.17

This is a curious beast.

Try as she might, Belle (Emma Watson) cannot dissuade Gaston (Luke Evans) from
attempting to win her hand in marriage. Sadly, this dynamic will become quite
uncomfortable, once Gaston becomes vengeful.
Every frame of director Bill Condon’s film looks terrific. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is breathtaking, from the gingerbread quaintness of Belle’s adorable town of Villeneuve; to the Lovecraftian opulence of the Beast’s labyrinthine castle, with all of its brooding corridors and shambling minarets; to the darkly spooky, wintry forest that separates the two.

Visual effects producer Steve Gaub seamlessly integrates the live-action characters with their enchanted comrades, and the voice acting is superlative: Ewan McGregor as the ever-gracious candelabra, Lumière; Emma Thompson as the kindly teapot, Mrs. Potts; Ian McKellen as the blustery mantel clock, Cogsworth; Stanley Tucci as the defiant harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza; Audra McDonald as the operatic, overly enthusiastic wardrobe, Madame de Garderobe; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the coquettish feather-duster, Plumette.

The primary characters are equally well cast, their performances admirably suited to the story’s fairy-tale atmosphere. Luke Evans steals the show as the arrogant, boorish Gaston, determined to wed Belle by any means necessary; the always impish Josh Gad — apparently Disney’s new secret weapon — gets all the best lines as Gaston’s snarky sidekick, LeFou.

Kevin Kline is sublime as Belle’s doting father, Maurice: a role that easily could slide into cliché, with all of the aging gentleman’s quirks, eccentricities and easily flustered nature. But Kline surmounts such stereotyping with a persuasive blend of dignity, devotion and vulnerability; he sets a new standard.

It’s difficult to determine how much credit Dan Stevens deserves, as the Beast, given that he’s completely concealed beneath Jenny Shircore’s extraordinary make-up. But we’re seeing plenty of evidence of Stevens’ extensive acting chops, on TV’s Legion, so I’m willing to believe that he deserves plaudits for the credibility of the Beast’s complex emotional swing. And Stevens certainly does a lot with his eyes and voice, giving us the very definition of a tragic, doomed character.

And then there’s Belle, the story’s anchor, played with pluck, sincerity and resourcefulness by Emma Watson. Belle is delightfully bookish and ingenuous as the story begins, and yet bold enough to reject Gaston to his face; Watson’s early scenes with Evans are marvelous, as Belle struggles to remain polite while her eyes convey utter disgust for this boastful creep.

The Last Word: How do we wish to be remembered?

The Last Word (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for blunt profanity

By Derrick Bang

Once the characters are introduced, and the core premise established, most folks will be able to anticipate all the plot beats coming in Stuart Ross Fink’s script.

Doesn’t matter. The execution is charming, from start to finish.

Small-town newspaper reporter Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried, left) is astonished when
take-charge Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine) barges into the publisher's office and
insists on commissioning — and fine-tuning — the obituary that'll run after her death.
Actors lucky enough to achieve milestone birthdays often are rewarded with the opportunity to play eccentric and/or cantankerous oldsters who leave a trail of shell-shocked victims in their wake: a stereotype that rarely fails to entertain. Indeed, such character portraits often result in nominations and awards. (Just for starters: Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van; Rolf Lassgård, A Man Called Ove; Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Grumpy Old Men; Art Carney, Harry and Tonto.)

Which brings us to tart-tongued, obsessive/compulsive Harriet Lauler: a once successful advertising executive whose world has contracted to the confines of her spacious, beautifully appointed — but empty — house, and who now marks the passage of each grindingly slow day with boredom and frustration. And who is played, with waspish delight, by Shirley MacLaine.

The Last Word — terrific title, by the way — finds Harriet adrift in a lonesome existence of her own making: completely isolated from the family members, former friends and colleagues that she has annoyed, offended, insulted or merely exasperated. Whether this seclusion is deserved, is beside the point; our heartbreaking introduction to Harriet finds her at low ebb, MacLaine wordlessly conveying the woman’s hushed despair during a somber montage accompanied solely by soft notes from Nathan Matthew David’s score.

This is by no means the first film to preface its narrative by mining gentle chuckles from a character’s ill-conceived suicide attempt. Goldie Hawn won an Oscar for doing so, back in 1969’s Cactus Flower; poor Lassgård’s similar efforts kept getting frustrated, in the aforementioned A Man Called Ove. The worst part for Harriet, after hospital treatment, is that she’s embarrassed to have revealed a weakness in her unswerving refinement.

But the act also prompts an epiphany, when she happens to glance at a random obituary in the local newspaper. Suddenly concerned about how she’ll be remembered in a few similarly short paragraphs, after her passing, Harriet impulsively decides to control the situation. She therefore hires the young journalist in question — Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) — to write her obituary. Now, while she’s still alive.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island — Plenty of thrills!

Kong: Skull Island (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and a bit generously, for intense fantasy violence and action, and fleeting strong profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.10.17

Every generation has its Tarzan, its Three Musketeers, its Sherlock Holmes.

And its King Kong.

Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Weaver (Brie Larson) discover — quite unexpectedly —
that Kong isn't the only massive creature to worry about, on Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island is a rip-snortin’ monster movie in the old-fashioned mold: a thrill-a-minute B adventure that boasts A-level action and special effects. Sure, the script — by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly — is formulaic and familiar, but it delivers on all counts; you really couldn’t expect more from this sort of roller coaster ride.

And, as befits 21st century sensibilities, we also get a gentle reminder of the importance of bio-diversity and species management, and the crucial role played by a top predator. Rather heady stuff for an exhilarating monster flick, and certainly welcome.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and editor Richard Pearson waste little time; they hit the ground running with a clever prologue, and then — after introducing the primary characters just long enough so we can bond — drop everybody into utter chaos.

Mention also must be made of the slick title credits sequence: always a good sign. (I’ve long believed that a director who insists on clever credits, will pay equal attention to all other aspects of his film.)

The action is set in 1973 in Southeast Asia, as the Vietnam war is winding down, leaving dedicated soldiers such as Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) somewhat adrift. Irritated by having been pulled out of a war that he views as “abandoned,” Packard — who commands a helicopter military unit — is delighted to receive one last mission: to escort a team of scientists who wish to chart a hitherto-undiscovered South Pacific landmass glimpsed by NASA’s orbiting Landsat 1.

Packard’s loyal, battle-hardened and tough-as-they-come “sky devils” include Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Slivko (Thomas Mann) and Reles (Eugene Cordero).

They’re the most visible of several dozen soldiers, but we don’t get to know any of the others. Which, yes, is suggestive...

Friday, March 3, 2017

Before I Fall: A thoughtful little fantasy

Before I Fall (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, dramatic intensity and considerable bad behavior by teens

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.3.17

This could be subtitled Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day.

The party is going well, which means that Lindsay (Halston Sage, far left) and her posse —
from left, Sam (Zoey Deutch), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) — already
have humiliated a fair number of peers. Sadly, the worst is yet to come.
But while there’s considerable truth to that mash-up designation, Maria Maggenti’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel is reasonably inventive in its own right; the narrative doesn’t succumb to potential pitfalls, and a third-act twist is a clever surprise. Director Ry Russo-Young draws credible performances from her young cast, and the result is a solid improvement over her earlier efforts (the little-seen Nobody Walks and You Won’t Miss Me).

But Russo-Young and Maggenti partially sabotage their efforts with superfluous voice-over narration and a wholly unnecessary flash-forward framing device, both of which imply that we dumb viewers aren’t savvy enough to follow the story on its own merits. While this likely is an effort to replicate the inner thoughts of the central character in Oliver’s book, film is a different medium. Contemplative narration that works on the page falls flat on the screen, feeling too much like a New Age sermon. (“Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow...”)

All concerned should have more faith: The core gimmick isn’t that hard to follow, and Zoey Deutch’s heartfelt performance easily anchors the action.

She stars as Samantha (Sam) Kingston, who wakens on what she assumes will be an average day ... which is to say, another opportunity to behave like the other condescending, insufferably spoiled bee-yatches in her posse: Ally (Cynthy Wu), Elody (Medalion Rahimi) and most particularly the hateful Lindsay (Halson Sage). All four wear upper-class entitlement on their designer sleeves. (Indeed, everybody in this community seems to have more money than God.)

This particular day is marked at the local high school with a pre-Valentine’s Day celebration dubbed Cupid Day, when single roses are sent by secret admirers. Alas, this is just another cruel exercise in marginalization: The most popular kids compete to see who can amass the biggest armload of roses, while those left out feel even more unloved.

Which, in turn, gives Lindsay another opportunity to taunt those she despises: notably “weird girl” Juliet (Elena Kampouris) and punkish lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson). Sam, Ally and Elody go along with such spiteful behavior because, well, that’s what friends do.

Everything about this day is difficult to endure — for us, as viewers — because of the relentless, self-centered arrogance. It begins when Sam wakes up, and contemptuously dismisses a sweet gesture by little sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay), and is scheduled to conclude after an unsupervised, late-night party, when she loses her virginity to boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley), a self-centered lout in his own right.

Logan: Beneath contempt

Logan (2017) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rated R, and generously, for relentless profanity and strong, brutal violence

By Derrick Bang

Discussing the big-screen adaptation of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, back in late 2014, gave me the excuse to indict Suzanne Collins’ reprehensible source novel as a complete betrayal of her characters, and of her readers: a needlessly nasty finale that cruelly (and pointlessly) killed major supporting characters while turning resourceful Katniss Everdeen into a sniveling victim.

When their attempt to enjoy one restful night is interrupted by a squadron of gun-toting
killers, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Laura (Dafne Keen) do their best to survive.
It was the most senseless, deliberately mean-spirited betrayal of a heroic franchise — by its original author, no less — that I’d ever encountered.

Until now. This film is even worse.

Logan doesn’t merely trash the long-beloved character of Wolverine, played here (for the ninth time!) by Hugh Jackman; director James Mangold and his gaggle of co-writers defecate all over the entire X-Men franchise and, by extension, the broader Marvel superhero universe. All this, with the apparent blessing of the parent company, given the familiar pre-credits Marvel Entertainment logo.

Shame on everybody involved.

Whereas 2014’s exciting X-Men: Days of Future Past cleverly employed backwards time travel as a means of re-booting the franchise — with smiles all around during the unexpectedly happy ending — Logan takes the opposite approach, moving the action forward to 2029. The tidings are grim: All of Logan’s X-Men comrades are dead, via some horrific event that apparently involved both Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and an evil scientific genius named Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant).

I say “apparently,” because while the film repeatedly references this ghastly occurrence, we never get details.

A despondent Logan, his once-invulnerable body being poisoned by the adamantium enhancements to his skeletal frame, is drinking his days away while earning chump change as a limo driver. His lair, across the border in Mexico, also serves as a hideout for Xavier, stricken with Alzheimer’s, senile dementia or some other brain disorder. Their sole companion is the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who fears that he’s doing little but watching his two friends die. Slowly.

Unlike the rival DC universe, which occasionally indulges in such canonical mischief by branding the results “imaginary stories” or “elseworlds tales,” Mangold makes no such reassurances here. This is the way things are ... and they’re about to get worse.

Table 19: Book elsewhere

Table 19 (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity, drug use, sexual candor and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

Wedding guests often receive inconsequential little favors: tchotchkes that may draw a smile or two in the moment, but are quickly forgotten.

This movie is just such an item.

The misfits at Table 19 wonder what they've done, to be abandoned in the wedding
reception's far corner: clockwise from left, Bina and Jerry Kemp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig
Robinson), "Nanny Jo" (June Squibb), Walter Thimple (Stephen Merchant), Rezno
Eckberg (Tony Revolori) and Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick).
Filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass are known for modest, character-driven comedies — such as Baghead and Jeff, Who Lives at Home — that feature eccentric folks who don’t quite inhabit the real world. They’re somewhat familiar, in a that-quiet-guy-next-door manner, but you’d probably avoid them in a social situation.

Table 19, alas, is so insubstantial that it would blow away during a soft breeze. The premise is droll but cramped, barely able to drag its way through a mercifully short 85 minutes. Indeed, the film pretty much runs out of gas after the first act, leaving its cast adrift in uncharted waters.

Maybe that’s why the Duplass boys, who generally helm their own material, farmed this one off to director Jeffrey Blitz. Who, to be fair, does the best with what he’s got. Individual moments of Table 19 are quite funny — co-star Stephen Merchant is hilarious throughout — and the core plotline builds to a an unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

But the film too frequently struggles and flounders through awkward silences, much like the half-dozen strangers thrust together at the “misfit table” during a wedding reception that pretty much ignores them.

Until the last moment, Eloise (Anna Kendrick) was the maid of honor for best friend Francie (Rya Meyers), eagerly helping with all wedding and reception details. Eloise also was in a steady relationship with Francie’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), serving as best man. But that was then; after being dumped by Teddy — via text, no less — Eloise was relieved of her duties and transformed into an instant persona non grata.

(Which, just in passing, seems shallow on Francie’s part ... just as it seems weird that the best man would be her brother. But I digress.)

Defiantly determined to attend the blessed event anyway, Eloise duly arrives to find herself consigned to the Siberia of reception regions: the dread, distant corner Table 19.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A United Kingdom: A stirring, heartfelt drama

A United Kingdom (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for racial epithets and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.17

This film’s arrival couldn’t be more timely.

We need it. Desperately. And others like it.

Having met only recently, but nonetheless mutually smitten, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)
and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) spend every free moment together ... despite the
knowledge that responsibilities soon will force him to leave England.
Director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is a sensitively handled, deeply moving account of the turmoil that erupted in 1948, when Seretse Khama, the new young king of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), had the ill-advised audacity to fall in love with — and marry — Lloyd’s of London office clerk Ruth Williams.

It’s a helluva story. Their union became a headline-making scandal in both his homeland and Britain, despite the latter’s (somewhat) more tolerant attitude toward the color barrier. But broadmindedness had nothing to do with the British government’s reaction, which was shaped solely by nervous anxiety over South Africa’s decision, that same year, to implement apartheid ... which, among many other cruel decrees, banned interracial marriage.

South Africa viewed the existence of just such an interracial couple, directly across its northern border, as a provocative insult. Britain, deeply in debt following the war, desperately needed to maintain the influx of cheap South African gold and uranium, and also worried about the havoc and economic ruin that would result, should South Africa choose to invade its smaller neighbor.

Guy Hibbert’s screenplay — adapted from Susan Williams’ 2006 book, Colour Bar — certainly doesn’t shy from the political and economic issues that prompted such bad behavior by so many individuals in the British government, up to and including Winston Churchill, when he began his second term as prime minister in 1951. At the same time, the new young king faced equal censure from his own people, already chafing under intrusive British “guidance,” and therefore deeply resentful of this white female interloper who knew nothing of their culture, history or deeply rooted national pride.

But Asante never allows such controversy and international fallout to overwhelm the two people at the heart of this saga, and that’s where this film gets its core strength. Stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are both terrific, depicting their respective characters with dignity, grace, intelligence and firm resolve. Rarely have two people been forced to confront such harsh barriers to the peace and happiness they shared, in each other’s company.