Friday, April 21, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Fails to find its rhythm

The Lost City of Z (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, violence, disturbing images, nudity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.21.17

Toward the end of this ambitious historical drama, a key character observes that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.

As Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, front) guides their boat ever deeper into uncharted
Amazonian waters, his companions — from left, Manley (Edward Ashley), Murray
(Angus Macfadyen) and Costin (Robert Pattinson) — warily watch for unfriendly tribesmen.
Sadly, that’s precisely the case with director/scripter James Gray’s disappointing The Lost City of Z. He’s simply unable to wrap his arms around the enormity of this saga.

The film’s subject, Lt. Col. Percival Harrison Fawcett, certainly deserves to be brought to the attention of modern audiences. The early 20th century British geographer, artillery officer and explorer, most famous for his eight mapping and archaeological expeditions to Brazil’s Amazon region, was fictionalized by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle, in a series of Professor Challenger novels and short stories published between 1912 and ’29.

Much more recently, Fawcett is rumored to have inspired a certain Indiana Jones.

By all accounts, Fawcett took his work more seriously than these pop-culture counterparts, but that’s no excuse for Gray to deliver such a grim, dreary and bloodless depiction of the man’s exploratory career. Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal of Fawcett is withdrawn and stoic; even the man’s moments of triumph feel muted, as if Hunnam can’t figure out how to depict genuine excitement.

His Fawcett simply isn’t very interesting.

This can’t be Hunnam’s fault; he has demonstrated plenty of charisma and thespic talent in projects that range from his lead role in 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, to his popular Jax Teller in TV’s Sons of Anarchy. The blame for Hunnam’s subdued performance here belongs fully to Gray, who obviously wished Fawcett to be presented in what often seems a trance-like state.

Actually, much of the film feels like a fever dream, thanks in great part to Darius Khondji’s shimmering cinematography and Christopher Spelman’s understated, almost hypnotic orchestral score. Both contribute to the film’s atmosphere of surreal obsession: a Joseph Conrad/Heart of Darkness tone that was captured far better by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo).

Despite Gray’s passive depiction of Fawcett, at least we learn something about the man, and what drives him ... although it could be argued that our knowledge mostly springs from what we observe during his interactions with his progressive wife, Nina, played with spunk and effervescence by Sienna Miller. She gives the film some desperately needed emotional vigor.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: Over-revved

The Fate of the Furious (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for relentless, excessive violence and destruction, and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.14.17

Well, here’s a reason not to get a car with computer-controlled ignition and navigational systems.

Dismayed by the realization that their buddy Dominic has gone rogue, the rest of the
gang — from left, roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Little Nobody
(Scott Eastwood), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and
Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) — ponders the next move.
You just never know when an evil megalomaniac bent on world domination might hack the vehicle, to crash it — and hundreds of others — into a Russian ambassador’s armor-plated limousine, in order to steal a suitcase containing the launch codes for all of his country’s nuclear missiles.

(Hey. It could happen.)

Although there’s some vicarious delight to be experienced from this and the many other big-ticket sequences in director F. Gary Gray’s newest installment in this franchise, The Fate of the Furious is a textbook example of wretched excess: too little substance, too much spectacle.

Way too much. At 136 minutes, this gas-guzzling behemoth is at least one spectacular action set-piece too long. Probably the final one, which races on and on and on.

Something important also has been lost, since this series debuted in 2001. Back then, the stunt driving was awesome, the gear-shifting thrills delivering plenty of accelerated excitement. But the newer films — and particularly this one — make it difficult to admire the efforts of stunt director Spiro Razatos.

It’s patently obvious that all the vehicular skirmishes have been sweetened (or perhaps fabricated entirely) by CGI wizards. The spectacle feels no more real than the outer space battles in the Star Wars franchise. Granted, the result remains suspenseful ... but it’s a lot more fun to be impressed by golly-gee-wow stunt drivers, than by a gaggle of artists hunched over computer keyboards.

The adrenaline-laden thrill has been lost.

As has some of this series’ humanity. As several characters in this new film repeatedly remind us, the most important thing — the only important thing — is family. That means characters interacting with each other, at something beyond a superficial level. The banter may be droll in Chris Morgan’s script, but Gray too frequently cuts away from potential emotion, in order to showcase yet another vehicular chase or smack-down fist fight.

The one exception is poor Dominic (Dom) Toretto, who gets put through the wringer this time. To the credit of star Vin Diesel, we definitely feel the guy’s anguish; even within his limited acting range, he’s adept at quiet despair and seething, barely repressed fury.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gifted: A thoughtful cinematic present

Gifted (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

Stage parents aren’t confined to Broadway theaters.

Indeed, they’re cropping up everywhere these days: from AYSO fields to reality TV shows — Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson’s parents really should be jailed, for child abuse — and from Suzuki music institutions to public school “gifted child” programs stalked by hyper-obsessive mothers and fathers.

When the obsessive/possessive Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) meets granddaughter Mary
(McKenna Grace) for the first time, she immediately tries to bribe the little girl with a
laptop computer: a gesture that her son Frank (Chris Evans), Mary's uncle and guardian,
finds all too familiar.
Somehow, in far too many cases, the child becomes either a commodity, a cash cow, or the instrument by which the parents live out their unfulfilled dreams. Either way, a tragedy.

All of which makes Tom Flynn’s charming, astute and frequently heartbreaking original script for Gifted quite well-timed. It feels authentic, with the perceptive savvy of somebody who has Been There. Indeed, he acknowledges — in the film’s press notes — growing up with a sister who was “the most unassuming, ridiculously smart person you’ve ever met. When she was 5, everyone in the family was afraid of her, she was so determined.”

Director Marc Webb must’ve been on the same wavelength, because he has coaxed an extraordinary performance from young Mckenna Grace.

We meet 7-year-old Mary Adler (Grace) on the opening day of first grade, as she reluctantly boards a bus after considerable coaxing by Frank (Chris Evans). He’s not her father, as we soon discover, but her uncle; they live modestly in a tiny community along the Florida coast, where he repairs boats for a living. They share their home with a one-eyed, orange-and-white cat named Fred.

Best. Movie. Cat. In. Years. (Just sayin’.)

Mary is no ordinary child, which becomes apparent to teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), during a math segment tailored for children accustomed to the basics of 3 plus 3.

No big deal, Frank hastily insists, when Bonnie later asks him about Mary’s ability to multiply large numbers in her head. It’s a trick; she uses the Trachtenberg System.

But Mary’s precocious nature — her best friend, aside from Frank, is their landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer) — also comes to the attention of the snooty school principal, Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel). Annoyed by Frank’s unexpected insistence that Mary remain in this school, as opposed to being transferred to a high-profile academic institution that’ll “better suit her gifts,” Ms. Davis digs into their past.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Going in Style: A stylish romp

Going in Style (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for drug content, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.7.17

Remakes rarely live up to their predecessors.

This is one of the exceptions.

Once Jesus (John Ortiz, second from right) realizes that his three new "friends" — from
left, Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) — are serious
about their desire to rob a bank, he does his best to save them from rookie mistakes.
Director Zach Braff’s re-booted Going in Style charms from beginning to end, thanks to scripter Theodore Melfi’s savvy update of the 1979 original. That film seriously misled audiences with an advertising campaign that promised droll hijinks from its veteran cast — George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg — when, in fact, it was a serious downer that became progressively more depressing.

Braff and Melfi learned from that mistake. Their new Style makes ample comedic use of its fresh trio of veteran scene-stealers — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin — while supplying some trenchant social commentary, which was absent the first time around.

It’s also obvious, in the wake of the Wells Fargo scandal and other recent examples of greedy, soulless financial skullduggery, that banks — and bank officers — are likely to spend the next several years competing alongside Nazis, as go-to movie villains. I can’t imagine a more fitting punishment.

Best friends Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) live across the street from each other in a fading Brooklyn neighborhood. Willie and Albert share one home, their combined pension and Social Security payments just enough to keep them in modest comfort. Joe has taken in his daughter and beloved granddaughter, Brooklyn (Joey King); his monthly pension check is barely enough to meet the mortgage.

Or it was, back when the checks still arrived. They’ve been absent of late, thanks to “restructuring” by the company that has absorbed Semtech Steel, where the three men spent their working careers.

The first body blow comes with a warning notice that the bank holding Joe’s mortgage is about to foreclose; the killing punch follows quickly, when a (very brave) Semtech flack gathers employees and retirees, and announces that the new corporate owners have moved all operations overseas. And that all pensions will be dissolved in order to help cover outstanding debt.

Adding insult to injury, this heartless financial rape will be overseen by the very bank holding Joe’s mortgage.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife: Holocaust heroine

The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief sexuality, nudity and moments of extreme dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.31.17

I marvel at the wealth of previously undisclosed stories that continue to emerge from the Holocaust, particularly with respect to the bravery of ordinary citizens who risked their lives while defying Nazi oppressors.

As Antonina (Jessica Chastain, seated on the stool) and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford)
enjoy a rare peaceful moment with the Jewish refugees concealed in their basement —
from left, Magda (Efrat Dor), Urszula (Shira Haas) and Regina (Martha Issova) —
they're startled by an unexpected knock at the front door, upstairs.
New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose thoughtful and sensitive films have included The Whale Rider and North Country, has delivered an equally compelling adaptation of poet/naturalist Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The resulting drama, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s luminescent starring performance, is touching, suspenseful and at times flat-out horrific, revealing yet another layer of atrocities committed in pursuit of Nazi “cleansing” and “species enhancement.”

Ackerman’s book was constructed primarily from the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska (played here by Chastain), who with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) directed Poland’s unexpectedly progressive Warsaw Zoo during the years leading up to World War II. Most of the animals were kept not in cages but in habitats resembling their natural environments; numerous critters also wandered among or even lived in the spacious, cheerfully chaotic on-site home with Antonina, Jan and their young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford).

The fascinating complexity of Chastain’s performance is immediately apparent. On the surface Antonina seems vulnerable, slightly withdrawn and oddly fragile: a woman not quite comfortable with the trappings and protocols of so-called refined society. But in the company of the zoo’s wildlife she blossoms into something transcendent: an empathetic “animal whisperer” practically capable of communicating with all the birds and beasts.

We eventually learn the reason for Antonina’s wariness: She’s a Russian-born Pole, and as a child saw her parents killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Trust does not come easily, which also explains her greater comfort among animals.

The Żabińska’s social life is lively, varied and bohemian, their circle of friends including artists, professionals and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. The subtle viper in their midst is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a colleague who visits frequently in his capacity as director of the Berlin Zoo. Even in these early scenes, there’s something predatory about Heck’s gaze, particularly when it lingers on Antonina; it feels as if Brühl’s eyes turn reptilian and beady.

Antonina makes the rounds of the zoo each morning on a bicycle, a young camel trotting alongside enthusiastically. Should a particular critter appear to desire company or need assistance, Antonina will kick off her shoes before entering the habitat barefoot, like some sort of forest-born wild child.

None of this is the slightest bit affected or risible under Caro’s careful guidance, and Angela Workman’s finely tuned script. Nobody here channels the childish fantasy of Doctor Dolittle; if Antonina has any cinematic ancestor, it would be Audrey Hepburn’s mysterious Rima, in the 1959 adaptation of William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions.

Ghost in the Shell: Lacks the proper spirit

Ghost in the Shell (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, dramatic intensity and chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang

The tantalizing nature of identity — of soul —  has again become a hot sci-fi topic, particularly in the wake of HBO’s recent expansion of Michael Crichton’s Westworld concept.

After her cyborg body is slightly damaged during a skirmish with nasty assassins,
Major (Scarlett Johansson, right) patiently waits while new artificial skin is grafted onto
her left arm, listening as Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) reminds her that, cyber-
enhancements notwithstanding, she's not invulnerable.
Since art so often mirrors life, it’s tempting to relate the current revival to the rampant insecurity, paranoia and uncertainty sweeping our nation: the rising doubt over what it truly means to be “American.”

Be that as it may, this new Western adaptation of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is quite timely, although I can’t help wondering what took so long. Masamune Shirow’s original manga graphic novel debuted in 1989, followed quickly by several sequels, a wildly popular 1995 animé adaptation (and several big-screen follow-ups), and a 2002 animé TV show (again with several continuation series).

All of them explored and expanded upon Shirow’s thoughtful observations about social evolution and its philosophical consequences, and particularly the manner in which rapidly advancing technology affects our concepts of consciousness and humanity.

Director Rupert Sanders’ new live-action film covers the same high-falutin’ philosophical territory, but this ho-hum Jamie Moss/William Wheeler script mostly resurrects a question that nagged at me, back when Ghost first materialized: I’ve always wondered to what degree Shirow might have been influenced by Robert Ludlum.

Because there’s no question that the core storyline is a cyberpunk spin on Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, and the many books and films subsequently spawned by that 1980 novel.

Which explains why — despite this new film’s dazzling depiction of our mid-21st century future — the action-packed plot seems so familiar. To paraphrase a famous song from an equally famous musical, Looks: 10, originality: 3.

The story takes place in a Pan-Asian metropolis that feels like a cross between the cityscapes of Blade Runner and Minority Report: opulent high rises and corporate towers jostling for space alongside blocky apartment complexes whose futuristic lines cannot conceal the dilapidation that speaks of their overcrowded, working-class residents.

The most striking visuals are the massive holographic advertisements that fill every millimeter of available space: a shrewdly prophetic — and frankly terrifying — depiction of what we could expect, if the corporate thugs behind our already distracting LED billboards continue to bully (or bribe) city council members into compliance.

The Boss Baby: Goo-goo-good!

The Boss Baby (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Many of Hollywood’s sharpest, wittiest scripts continue to be written for animated features, and The Boss Baby is no exception.

After discovering that his new baby brother has the voice, comprehension and experience
of an adult, Tim is warned not to reveal this information to their parents ... lest his new
sibling really turn the screws during some ramped-up sibling warfare.
Scripter Michael McCullers uses Marla Frazee’s popular 2010 children’s “board book” as little more than inspiration, for a laugh-a-second saga with the rat-a-tat pacing of a classic Road Runner cartoon. Although plenty of savvy humor is milked from the obvious premise — the tsunami-scale chaos that a newly arrived infant inflicts on an unprepared household — McCullers boldly takes this notion where no baby has gone before.

Director Tom McGrath and editor James Ryan keep the action fast and furious; although things sag a bit during the third act — 97 minutes might be a tot too long — all concerned have built up enough good will to surmount potential viewer restlessness. Besides, the story’s characters are cleverly conceived and well cast, with shrewdly selected voice actors: particularly the scene-stealing Alec Baldwin. It’s fun simply to spend time with them.

The story is narrated by an adult Tim (Tobey Maguire), looking back on his long-ago days as a 7-year-old only child who enjoyed his doting parents’ full attention, up to the multiple hugs, stories and songs requested each evening at bedtime. Life couldn’t be better.

It’s important to note, up front, that Tim (now voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi) has a hyperactive imagination worthy of Bill Watterson’s comic strip star Calvin, and therefore qualifies as a wholly unreliable narrator. You’ll not want to forget that crucial detail, as the droll and quite clever story progresses.

The news that he’s able to have a baby brother sends Tim into a tizzy: on the one hand fearful that his stranglehold on parental affection might be compromised; on the other hand genuinely curious about where babies “come from.” Cue the first of the film’s genius montages, as Tim envisions a heavenly assembly line process that progresses through numerous stages — the application of diapers, booties and binkies, and so forth — before a final shuttle-gate separates the infants into two categories.

Most swoop downward into the loving arms of waiting parents. A select few, however, are judged to have a greater desire for business than nurture, and therefore wind up in functionary or management positions at Baby Co., which runs the entire operation.

Which explains, when Tim rises the next morning, why his new baby brother arrives via taxi, wearing a three-piece suit (details that don’t seem to bother his parents).