Friday, February 23, 2018

Annihilation: Slow death

Annihilation (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, profanity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.23.18

Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.

Author/editor/literary critic Jeff VanderMeer apparently prefers cellular madness.

After narrowly surviving an encounter with an unexpectedly oversized alligator, cellular
biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is disturbed to find that its mouth contains far too
many rows of teeth.
His Nebula Award-winning 2014 novel, Annihilation, is — to say the least — a challenging but thoroughly fascinating read.

Director/scripter Alex Garland’s big-screen adaptation is thoughtful, absorbing, unsettling and even scary. For a time.

Unfortunately, he lets everything go to hell in the third act. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.

Certain science fiction films suffer from this problem: a terrific premise and suspenseful development, with — ultimately — nowhere to go. Garland’s take on Annihilation reminds me strongly of 1974’s Phase IV, a low-budget little flick that began with a similarly captivating premise but concluded with a nonsensically metaphysical climax (literally) that only could have been concocted by somebody on mind-altering substances.

The major problem here is that Garland was hell-bent on delivering a resolution that’s wholly at odds with VanderMeer’s novel ... which is only the first book in a trilogy. Garland’s “solution” to this dilemma isn’t merely unsatisfying; it makes total hash of what takes place during the first two acts.

Garland is best known as the writer/director behind 2014’s brilliant Ex Machina, a deliciously unsettling sci-fi saga that holds together superbly, up to a disturbing final scene that perfectly enhances everything that has come before. Too bad he couldn’t bring that rigorous logic and plot coherence to this one.

Former soldier-turned-cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) has mourned the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), for a full year. Flashbacks and passing remarks reveal that he’s active military, subject to abrupt special-ops missions that he’s not able to share with his wife. Now long missing after having deployed on ... something ... Lena reluctantly believes him dead.

Until he turns up in their bedroom one day, disoriented and with no apparent memory of how he got there, or where he has been, or who he was with, or ... anything.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Black Panther: Sleek and polished

Black Panther (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for considerable action violence and (you gotta love this) a "brief rude gesture"

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.16.18

Marvel’s superhero movies have come in a variety of flavors thus far:

• Rip-snortin’ excitement (The Avengers, Captain America);

• Shakespearean high melodrama (Thor);

• Goofy adventure (Guardians of the Galaxy); and even

• Vulgar insolence (Deadpool).

This one’s different yet again.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, left) is dismayed by an unexpected challenge to his
birthright, which comes from N'Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan) and takes place at
Warrior Falls (inspired by South Africa's majestic Oribi Gorge).
Black Panther is the first superhero film steeped with honor, nobility and heritage, while still delivering the requisite dollops of action, along with a soupçon of humor. Careful attention is paid, as well, to introducing a culture defined equally by its spiritual, mystical and technological elements.

On top of which, director Ryan Coogler and co-scripter Joe Robert Cole wrap the entire package with a thoughtful discussion of a contemporary Big Issue.

Add a star and supporting cast who bring dignity and grace to their respective roles, and you truly couldn’t ask for more.

The roster is led by Chadwick Boseman’s impeccably gracious and regal portrayal of T’Challa, reluctant new king of the little-known African country of Wakanda, which has been concealed for centuries — by design — from the rest of the world. This kingdom’s essential back-story is provided during an economical prolog, via a fascinating style of “shifting sand” animation later revealed as Wakanda’s signature means of telecommunication.

Boseman’s stance, manner of speech — his very aura — bespeak graciousness and a compassionate ruler’s tendency to suffer over difficult decisions. He rarely raises his voice — never needs to — and there’s no doubt, even when he dons his super-heroic suit and becomes the Black Panther, that he’s the smartest, kindest and most perceptive person in the room.

Well, maybe not the smartest. That honor falls to his sassy, über-cool younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), the tech wizard who out-dazzles James Bond’s Q and Batman’s Lucius Fox. Her enthusiastic gadgetry genius aside, Shuri gets all the best one-liners, and Wright has a smirk to die for.

But make no mistake: Shuri also is as ferociously protective of her older brother, as T’Challa is of his entire kingdom.

Early Man: Aardman lite

Early Man (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

According to the whimsical minds behind Early Man, soccer’s origins go way back.

No matter how much trouble Dug gets into, he can depend on his best friend — his
pet prehistoric pig, Hognob — to save the day.
British director Nick Park and his Aardman production team, best known for claymation superstars Wallace and Gromit, go prehistoric with their newest project: a gentle comedy set at the dawn of time, when cave folk tremble from exploding volcanoes, woolly mammoths and Jurassic-size ... ducks.

The droll production is a smooth blend of Park’s traditional puppet animation and scale-enhancing computer effects. All the characters can be recognized as Wallace’s great-great-great-many-more-greats ancestors: most particularly buck-toothed Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), the most curious and idealistic member of a small Stone Age tribe led by genial Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall).

They’re a motley bunch of meek eccentrics unwilling to hunt any game larger than rabbits, despite Dug’s insistence that tackling a mammoth might keep food on the table a bit longer.

It’s important to note, just in passing, that no rabbits are killed or otherwise injured during the course of this story ... although Mother Nature isn’t nearly as kind to Dug’s even more prehistoric ancestors, during a prologue that reveals How Soccer Came To Be.

This is merely the first of many fanciful touches emanating from Park and co-scripters Mark Burton, James Higginson and John O’Farrell. The humor is typically British: dry and mildly snarky, often relying on anachronistic touches. As an example, when confronted with a plate of sliced bread, one fellow enthuses that “That’s the greatest thing since...” and doesn’t really know how to finish the sentence.

At times, one senses the spirits of Monty Python hovering overhead.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Little films, big topics

2018 Oscar Shorts (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, with some of the live-action entries probably too intense for children

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.9.18

The live-action Academy Award-nominated short subjects are an ideal bellwether of national and international anxiety, and this year’s crop is no exception.

Hollywood responds slowly to social angst and hot-button political topics; feature films can’t help their lengthy gestation period. Short subjects, on the other hand, can be planned, produced and released quickly enough to tap into current events.

Three of this year’s five nominees make it clear that violence — particularly racial and religious violence — remains a subject of deep concern to filmmakers.

The animated nominees, as also often is the case, offer the relief of gentle humor.

American writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett, the stand-out live-action entry, dramatizes the dreadful incident that took place in Money, Miss., at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was hauled out of bed by brutal white racists. The 20-minute film is anchored by L.B. Williams’ dignified starring performance as Mose Wright, the 64-year-old sharecropper and preacher forced to watch, helplessly, as his nephew was driven away.

Wilson relates the story economically, deftly sketching the loving relationship between Mose and his wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy), and their delight over hosting Chicago-based Emmett (Joshua Wright) for a visit. Laura Valladao’s cinematography is terrific; Mose’s early evening trek to a water pump is framed beautifully against the setting sun.

The script is subtle, with just enough foreshadowing to alert savvy viewers — even those unfamiliar with history — about what is to come.

The atmosphere of nervous tension morphs rapidly into full-blown terror during a savage climax, after which Wilson cuts to archival footage of the actual Mose Wright, while he begins to recount what happened that night (a clip taken from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, and readily available online).

Friday, February 2, 2018

Call Me By Your Name: An incandescent depiction of love

Call Me By Your Name(2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for nudity, frank sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.2.18

One cannot imagine more perfect circumstances under which to fall in love.

Or a more lyrical and sensitive depiction of same.

Meals at the Perlman home invariably take place outside, surrounded by the estate's lush
orchards: genial gatherings during which Professor Perlman and his wife (Michael
Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, left) make newcomer Oliver (Armie Hammer, second from
right) feel at home, while their teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) keeps his
thoughts to himself.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s sweetly poignant Call Me by Your Name captures the jokey, nervous, wary and (ultimately) full-throttle rush of falling in love: not of first love, necessarily, but rather of true love. The bond that proves life-changing: the one that we instinctively know, deep down, will be remembered — savored — forever, regardless of how long it lasts.

Credibly conveying this flurry of complex emotions on the big screen isn’t easy, because — in real life — so much of such intimate surrender is private, and wordless. Movies are great when it comes to playful eroticism or naked lust, but attempts to convey genuine passion — and goodness, such attempts are legion — too often are cluttered with relentless (and unnecessary) dialog.

Guadagnino and scripter James Ivory understood this, and deftly rose to the challenge of adapting André Aciman’s 2007 novel. Ivory just collected a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

The setting is Northern Italy; the year is 1983, before computers and Smart phones would become ubiquitous thieves of shared personal time. Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a distinguished scholar in the field of Greco-Roman culture, traditionally spends summers with his wife, Annella (Amira Casar), and their son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), in the family’s 17th century villa.

It’s a long, lazy busman’s holiday of sorts, with research interrupted frequently by biking, outdoor sports, swims in the nearby lake, and languid, wine-fueled meals. Seventeen-year-old Elio, an accomplished pianist, takes after his father; the boy reads voraciously, transcribes music, and flirts with the numerous local girls, most notably Marzia (Esther Garrel). Clothing is sparse; sex is in the air.

The villa is surrounded by trees, all laden with fruit as ripe as the lithe young bodies.

As is his custom, Perlman invites a graduate student to share his research during a six-week sojourn. This summer’s arrival is 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is pursuing his doctorate.

Oliver is hip, flip and immediately — confidently — at ease in these new surroundings. Elio, amused and annoyed by this brash newcomer, manifests teenage aloofness and mild condescension. Oliver, in turn, responds with slightly mocking indifference.

Or maybe something else is going on.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Post: Fast-breaking drama

The Post (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for profanity and brief war violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.19.18

Although Steven Spielberg’s riveting new film gets most of its dramatic heft from the democracy-threatening events that swirled around the release of the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971, we’re most emotionally involved with the plight of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham: at the time, the only woman in a position of power at a major national newspaper.

The entire Washington Post editorial staff — including executive editor Ben Bradlee and
publisher Katharine Graham (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, third and fourth from left) —
reacts with stunned silence after learning that The New York Times has been forced, by
a federal injunction, to cease reporting on the Pentagon Papers.
As the film begins, and as we’re introduced to Graham via Meryl Streep’s thoroughly engaging performance, the poor woman is hopelessly — helplessly — out of her depth.

We spend almost the entire film waiting for her epiphany, and for the “Meryl Streep moment” when the actress — Graham finally having found her spine — verbally eviscerates one of her patronizing male colleagues.

It’s a long wait ... and well worth the anticipation.

The Post isn’t opportune merely as a reminder — at a time when the White House is occupied by an infantile gadfly who defends his lies by screaming “Fake news!” — of the crucial role played by our Fourth Estate. Scripters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer couldn’t have known, as their film was being shaped, that its parallel focus on Graham would resonate so well at a moment when American women have risen en masse to challenge male hegemony.

The resulting drama serves both mindsets, while also taking its place alongside top-drawer journalism dramas such as All the President’s Men and Spotlight (the latter having brought Singer — also a veteran of TV’s West Wing — an Academy Award).

The sequence of events taking place during just a few days in the early summer of 1971 almost defy credibility. The film opens on a sidebar issue, as Graham prepares for a presentation to The Washington Post Company board of directors, in anticipation of raising badly needed capital via a stock offering when the paper goes public, on June 15.

Streep’s Graham is nervous and flustered, despite having solid notes prepared with the assistance of longtime friend and confidant Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts, nicely understated), a former Wall Street lawyer and chairman of the board. Even before knowing anything about this woman, we feel for her; Streep makes her anxiety palpable.

We therefore groan inwardly, when — her moment having come — she’s too tongue-tied even to speak, and her carefully prepared details are introduced by Fritz.

This is before Graham learns, a few days later, that the stock offering could be scuttled by her paper’s growing involvement in the nation-shattering spat between Richard Nixon and The New York Times: the first time, in the history of the republic, that a U.S. president has attempted to silence a national newspaper.

12 Strong: An enthralling, fact-based war drama

12 Strong (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for war violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s easy to see why Jerry Bruckheimer and his co-producers were drawn to author/journalist Doug Stanton’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller. The title alone is an eyebrow-lifter:

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.

Despite his best efforts, Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, left) has trouble gaining
the trust of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), who doubts that such a
young American, who lacks "killer eyes," can become a true warrior.
Stanton’s book details the jaw-dropping, just-then-declassified exploits of the 12-man Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 Green Berets team, one of the first American units sent to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. (Bruckheimer obtained the book in galley format, prior to publication.)

This big-screen adaptation, saddled with the appropriately gung-ho title of 12 Strong, is a suspenseful and riveting depiction of the events that took place during the 23 days that the ODA 595 team was “in country.” Director Nicolai Fuglsig, scripters Ted Tally and Peter Craig, and a solid cast appropriately honor the actual men, while delivering a thoroughly entertaining film that frequently feels like a slice of old-style Hollywood, while building to one helluva climax.

Indeed, this film stands tall alongside “impossible odds” classics such as Seven Samurai, Blackhawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and, most particularly, 1964’s Zulu. The latter also focuses on the mis-matched resources — albeit the other way ’round — that prompted this famous on-site quote from Afghanistan’s Capt. Will Summers: “It was as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones.”

Add more than a passing nod to Lawrence of Arabia, and you’ve got a genuinely awe-inspiring war epic.

Tally and Craig have changed the names, and no doubt other details have been amplified for cinematic impact. But the core mission, the manner in which it went down, and the outcome are impressively faithful, and why not? This saga was made for splashy, big-screen treatment.

The drama is anchored solidly by Chris Hemsworth, who has emerged as one of cinema’s most stalwart and charismatic actors. His rise is quite impressive: only six years since an attention-getting supporting turn in The Cabin in the Woods, and now sliding with equal persuasiveness from the comic book larkishness of Thor and Ghostbusters, to more serious dramatic fare such as In the Heart of the Sea and, now, 12 Strong.

We believe it, utterly, when one of Nelson’s men tells him, with complete sincerity, “I’d follow you anywhere.” Hemsworth’s Nelson radiates that level of command charisma.