Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Uncle Frank: One of the year's best

Uncle Frank (2020) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.20 

I haven’t been this nervous since Anne Hathaway reached for the microphone, in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married.


Although she has adored him her entire life, Beth (Sophia Lillis) begins to realize that
there's a lot more to her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) than he reveals to most people.

Writer/director Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank — an Amazon Prime original — is a deeply personal and sensitively handled character study, brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast headed by Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis and Peter Macdissi. Ball deftly walks the razor’s edge that often separates comedy from tragedy, delicately developing circumstances that set up a third-act revelation/confrontation that raises our anxiety to the screaming level.


We know an emotional train wreck is coming.


A lengthy prologue — set in 1969, in tiny Creekville, S.C. — introduces the Bledsoe clan during a rowdy birthday party for elderly patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). Three generations are present: Daddy Mac, his wife Mammaw (Margo Martindale) and Aunt Butch (Lois Smith); adult children Frank (Bettany), Neva (Jane McNeill) and Mike (Steve Zahn); the latter two’s respective spouses, Beau (Burgess Jenkins) and Kitty (Judy Greer); and a rambunctious passel of grandkids.


Fourteen-year-old Beth (Lillis) stands out as a quiet observer, keenly attuned to the moods of others. Alas, she isn’t quick enough to prevent an irate Daddy Mac from explosively chewing out the younger kids: an eyebrow-raising moment that reveals a truly nasty temper.


We also don’t notice Frank right away; like Beth, he seems somehow removed from the noisy celebration. The exchange of gifts reveals a guarded dynamic between Frank and his unpleasant father. We assume it’s the former’s outsider status; unlike everybody else in the room, Frank long ago left Creekville for the Big Apple, where he has become a revered literature professor at New York University (NYU).


Frank escaped the vicious cycle of high school pregnancies that trap Creekville 16-year-olds into a lifetime of drudge jobs: a fate he hopes Beth also can avoid. He’s her favorite adult: the only one who treats her like a person, and not a child, listening attentively to her every word. But she fears her limited options, given family circumstances.


Don’t settle for who people expect you to become, he advises; become who you want to be.


That sentiment caps an achingly sweet and poignant chat on the porch, an entire world removed from the noisy clan on the other side of the wall: staged by Ball with carefully nuanced sensitivity, and delivered with touching persuasiveness by Bettany and Lillis.


This film is bookended by an older Beth’s off-camera narration, much in the manner of the adult Scout, in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (A bit later, Ball cheekily has Beth admit that Harper Lee is one of her favorite authors.)


The Croods — A New Age: Feels somewhat primitive

The Croods: A New Age (2020) • View trailer
Three stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.20

The Croods: A New Age — now playing in whatever theaters are open, and available via video-on-demand closer to Christmas — is akin to its 2013 ancestor … only much more so. 


Eep displays her strength by hoisting new best friend Dawn aloft, while the others — from
left, Ugga, Grug, Guy, Hope and Phil — watch with a blend of admiration and concern.

Director Joel Crawford eschews the subtler wit that filmmakers Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders brought to the original, instead favoring relentless pacing and a shrieking tone; both prove exhausting before this new film is even half over. These characters rarely chat; they’re always yelling, screaming, bellowing, howling … well, you get the point.


We’re once again in an imaginary prehistoric past, set — as DeMicco and Sanders cheekily suggested — somewhere between the Jurassic Age and the “Katzenzoic Era.” The entire voice cast has returned; the cave-dwelling Croods consist of father figure Grug (Nicholas Cage) and his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener); their teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), adolescent son Thunk (Clark Duke) and toddler Sandy (still not speaking); and Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman).


As before, Grug maintains an inflexible set of rules intended to ensure their survival, most notably that the pack (which is to say, the family) Must. Stay. Together. Alas, this is becoming less likely, because Eep and Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the young man they came across in the first film — have become a serious item, and are thinking about starting their own pack. 


It’s every father’s nightmare, and Cage once again is hilarious in full-tilt exasperation mode.


This sequel grants Guy a back-story, during a prologue that picks up years before the first film’s events, when — as a young boy — he’s orphaned during a close encounter with a tar pit (a rather grim opening for a family-friendly animated film). His parents’ final words direct him to “follow the light, to find tomorrow,” so the boy wanders … and wanders … and wanders.


Along the way, he finds the cuddly three-toed sloth, Belt, that becomes his constant companion and fashion statement. Years pass, and they eventually meet up with the Croods, and so forth.


Moving forward, the search for food remains a constant challenge that hasn’t gone well of late. The pack therefore is astonished to discover an idyllic, impressively farmed, food-laden paradise sheltered behind tall wooden walls. This proves to be the home of the aptly named Bettermans: Phil (Peter Dinklage), wife Hope (Leslie Mann) and teenage daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Friday, November 20, 2020

Rebecca: A rather pointless remake

Rebecca (2020) • View trailer
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, fleeting nudity and dramatic intensity

Just as every generation gets its own version of The Three Musketeers, we seem destined to get a fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca every few decades.


The new Mrs. de Winter (Lily James, seated), wholly unfamiliar with her new aristocratic
surroundings, is easy prey for the waspish, scheming housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers
(Kristin Scott Thomas).

It’s hard to top Alfred Hitchcock’s first crack at the novel, back in 1940. For my money, it’s the only adaptation that looks right, thanks to George Barnes ominously moody monochromatic cinematography (which won a well-deserved Academy Award). This is a truly gothic tale; it requires black-and-white cinematography, to highlight all the dark corners and foreboding shadows of one of literature’s most infamous estates.


No fewer than six television adaptations followed, the most notable arriving via PBS; in 1979, on Mystery, and in 1997, on Masterpiece Theatre. Although both are excellent, with terrific casts, they’re too “pretty,” thanks to the color cinematography.


The same is true of this newest adaptation, which arrives as a Netflix original. The cast is strong, with excellent performances from Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer. But Laurie Rose’s opulent cinematography once again is too lush; his outdoor vistas — particularly a breathtaking establishing shot of a beach, from a vantage point out in the ocean — have the striking, painterly quality of a postcard.


This would be fine, if Rose supplied sufficient contrast with the mansion’s many interior sequences. But he doesn’t; nor does director Ben Wheatley seem sufficiently interested in adhering to the story’s gothic atmosphere. He and his scripters — Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse — fail to understand that the Manderley estate is as much a character as its inhabitants.


That said, this film is true to the story’s 1930s setting, which is equally essential. 


Following a fleeting prologue, during which James gives us the novel’s famous opening line — “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” — the story emerges as a lengthy flashback.


She stars as a young woman — never granted a name — introduced as a “paid companion” to the insufferably condescending Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). They’re vacationing in Monte Carlo; the young woman is reminded constantly of her lower social status by her mean-spirited patron, who spends considerable time sharing gossip with equally vacuous female aristocrats.

Friday, November 13, 2020

On the Rocks: Piquant, with a twist

On the Rocks (2020) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.20

Folks love to speculate about what Bill Murray’s character whispered to Scarlett Johansson’s neglected young wife, at the end of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.


What's the best, subtlest way to follow a philandering husband? In a noisy, bright red
Alfa Romeo, of course!
Or, digging even deeper, whether the two of them might have been able to establish some sort of long-term relationship, perhaps on a father/daughter level.


Coppola gives us an answer, of sorts, in On the Rocks, an Apple TV+ exclusive.


This time, Murray’s Felix is father to Rashida Jones’ Laura, although we don’t meet him right away. Coppola spends a lengthy prologue depicting Laura’s routine: devoted wife to husband Dean (Marlon Wayans); full-time mother to young daughters Maya and Theo; a practical, down-to-earth approach to things.


It’s easy to mock certain aspects of the New York City lifestyle, and Coppola occasionally succumbs: notably when Laura bundles Theo into a stroller each morning, and then walks Maya to a tony private school, where they join a queue of similarly posh parents waiting for the teacher to show up. (Laura wears Vans sneakers while carrying a Chanel bag.)


In a running gag that gets funnier with each fresh exposure, Jenny Slate is a hoot as Vanessa, a self-absorbed chatterbox waiting in the same line; she discusses her personal life in hilariously tedious detail, oblivious to the fact that Laura isn’t paying attention.


But this is mere background gloss. Coppola’s focus is more relationship-oriented, as was the case with Lost in Translation. Dean has been working longer hours of late, trying to get a start-up business off the ground; he’s therefore not around as much, to handle his share of home chores. Laura is tired — indeed, Jones often looks wan and exhausted — and feels taken for granted. Disconnected.


She’s an author — who made the mistake of selling a book she hasn’t even started — and is crippled by a severe case of writer’s block. No surprise, since she spends so much time picking up actual blocks, toys and clothes that the girls abandon throughout their apartment.


Coppola is astutely gifted at recognizing the little gestures, comments and expressions that characterize a given thought, moment or desire; Jones deftly conveys this wealth of nuance.

Emma: Love's labours crossed

Emma (2020) • View trailer
Four stars. Rated PG, for brief partial nudity

Jane Austen, like Dickens and Shakespeare, never gets old.


Director Autumn de Wilde’s lavish adaptation of Emma was one of the early COVID casualties, initially scheduled for theatrical release in late February. The loss of that traditional debut is unfortunate, since the sumptuous efforts of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Alexandra Byrne screamed for a big-screen showcase.


The unworldly Harriet (Mia Goth, left) hangs — like a worshipful puppy — on every
morsel of guidance supplied by Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy). Alas, as we're destined to
learn, Emma isn't worthy of such trust.
The film’s arrival on HBO is nonetheless welcome, and Eleanor Catton’s faithfully droll screenplay works just as well on a home screen. But there’s no question the lavish estate settings would have been even more stunning in a darkened movie theater.


We’ve not had a straight American adaptation since the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead role — and a nod to 1995’s Clueless, as a loose modern translation — so it’s definitely well past time to spend a few hours with Emma Woodhouse and her various friends, family and suitors.


Be advised: You may want to take notes, as quite a lot of characters are involved in this light-hearted period dramedy.


Anya Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the aristocratic Emma, not quite 21 years old, whose self-assurance is matched only by her determination to gift everybody with the benefit of her wisdom. Although culturally polished and well-intentioned, her inherent kindness often is overshadowed by a relentless tendency to meddle.


Indeed, her older sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, technically too young for the role), likely would call Emma insufferably arrogant … but he’s too polite and refined to do so. Instead, they bicker and banter in a manner that allows maximum exposure to Austen’s piquant and slightly snarky dialogue. (She was so far ahead of her time.)


As the story begins, Emma’s longtime friend and former governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), has just “married well,” and become wife to the aristocratic Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). Having initially introduced them to each other, Emma takes credit for this successful union, and — after returning home, to the family estate at Hartfield — decides that she’s a born matchmaker.


Her next “project”: new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a 17-year-old pupil at a nearby girl’s boarding school. (When she and her fellow students parade about in their scarlet coats — which occurs numerous times, as this film proceeds — one can’t help thinking of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, with its “…twelve little girls in two straight lines.”)

Friday, November 6, 2020

Let Him Go: Riveting, but flawed

Let Him Go (2020) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.20

Kevin Costner has matured well.


He projects an aura of calm self-assurance, leavened with a dry sense of humor, and a gaze that can shift — in a heartbeat — from tenderness to flinty anger. He excels at characters who may have yielded to baser instincts, back in the day, but who subsequently gained insight and patience … while retaining a hard edge.


Having traveled far in order to see their grandson again, Margaret (Diane Lane) and
George (Kevin Costner) are delighted when the little boy appears: a mere prelude
to what rapidly becomes an unselling situation.

He’s perfectly cast in the ongoing TV series Yellowstone, and the same is true of the role he plays here, in director/scripter Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of Larry Watson’s 2013 novel. Let Him Go opens today in operational cinemas.


Bezucha’s treatment is long on characterization — particularly the quiet moments that define a relationship — and, regrettably, short on detail; the first act, in particular, omits all manner of necessary back-story, and leaves several key questions unanswered. One gets the impression that several expository scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.


Alternatively, this may have been deliberate; Bezucha focuses on his two protagonists, and how they respond first to tragedy, and later to an unexpected — and horrific — challenge. The genre is amorphous: equal parts thriller, mystery, latter-day Western and character drama, leavened with a subtle slice of social commentary.


At its core, though, this is a story about mothers and sons.


The setting is Montana, in the early 1960s. Retired sheriff George Blackledge (Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) share their ranch home with their adult son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter), and the couple’s newborn baby, Jimmy. Margaret and James break horses for a living; the income is modest, but enough to keep them comfortable.


We sense that Lorna is an uncertain new mother, easily intimidated by the far more capable and assertive Margaret, who — in turn — isn’t sufficiently attentive to her daughter-in-law’s insecurities. Such subtleties hit the back burner when James suddenly dies of a broken neck, when thrown from his horse.


Bezucha abruptly flashes forward three years, to the day Lorna marries Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). (Where did he come from? How did they meet?) Donnie joins the Blackledge household, but the fit feels wrong; Margaret’s suspicions are confirmed during a visit to town, when — unseen — she witnesses Donnie striking both Lorna and Jimmy (now played, alternately, by twins Bram and Otto Hornung).


Some brief period of time passes, at which point George and Margaret waken one morning to discover that Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy are gone, having departed in the middle of the night. (Why then? Given what subsequently transpires, why would Donnie have waited even a day to run off with his new family?)

Clouds: A ray of sunshine

Clouds (2020) • View trailer
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.20

John Kennedy Toole was 25 when he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. He committed suicide six years later, having long suffered from grief, escalating paranoia and (very likely) despair over having failed to get his book published.


Zach (Fin Argus) and Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter) noodle their way through the first
few lines of a song-in-progress, little realizing where this creative burst will
eventually lead.
His mother found a carbon copy of the lengthy novel in his effects; she, too, struck out with several publishers before Louisiana State University Press accepted the manuscript. The book was published in 1980, became a best-seller and — the following year — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: a level of recognition Toole was long past being able to enjoy.


Zach Sobiech, on the other hand, didget to watch one of his songs become a hit.


But only briefly.


Director Justin Baldoni’s deeply moving Clouds depicts Sobiech’s final tumultuous year — as a high school senior — after having battled osteosarcoma (bone cancer) for several years. Baldoni’s heartwarming film is a dramatized expansion of an episode of the documentary series My Last Days, which he produced in 2013, and which featured Sobiech.


This film’s screenplay — by Kara Holden, Casey La Scala and Patrick Kopka — is adapted from the memoir Fly a Little Higher, by Sobiech’s mother Laura. The scripters have taken a few liberties — shortening the key timeline, adding a bit of dramatic tension and a few “movie moments” — but the core story is quite accurate.


Accurate enough, in fact, to have earned the approval of Zach’s family and close friends (many of whom pop up in various background shots).


Fin Argus, best known for the TV shows The Commute and Total Eclipse, makes a solid feature starring debut as Zach. It’s a challenging role; under Baldoni’s careful direction, Argus deftly navigates the extremes of stubborn determination — without becoming some sort of overly cheerful poster child for cancer sufferers — and, alternatively, bouts of grinding despair.


The family dynamic also feels wholly natural, notably the good-natured teasing and jostling that takes place with older siblings Alli (Vivien Endicott Douglas) and Sam (Dylan Everett), and younger sister Grace (Summer H. Howell). The interactions between Argus and Howell are particularly strong, and one of their later scenes is a killer.