Friday, March 16, 2018

Tomb Raider: Stylish thrills, chills and spills

Tomb Raider (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and breif profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.18

Most big-screen adaptations of video games have been an eye-rolling waste of time, but Lara Croft always had an advantage: She was created, back in 1996, as the kick-ass female answer to Indiana Jones ... and we all know how well that franchise turned out.

Having run afoul of some young Hong Kong thugs determined to rob her, Lara (Alicia
Vikander) evades pursuit in the most flamboyant manner at hand.
Lara is similarly alive and well, in her newest cinema outing. Alicia Vikander is perfect for the part — radiating intelligence, spunk, resourcefulness and the never-say-die stamina of the Energizer Bunny — and this film should please both fans and mainstream newcomers. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug has delivered a rip-snortin’ adventure with just enough back-story and character development to mildly stretch the acting chops of a cast that treats this popcorn nonsense with respect.

Indeed, it’s marvelous to note that the current generation of upper-echelon Hollywood talent is willing to swing between serious fare and light-hearted thrills. Jennifer Lawrence continues to honor her X-Men and Hunger Games roots; Viola Davis popped up in Suicide Squad; Eddie Redmayne has embraced the Harry Potter franchise; and now Vikander has become the new Lara Croft. They’re all Oscar winners, and more power to them.

Just as every generation seems to need a new and youthful Spider-Man, Lara has been re-imagined not quite a generation after Angelina Jolie first donned the boots, shorts and tank top back in 2001 and ’03. Vikander adds a playful sparkle to the role — Jolie, good as she was, always felt a bit too grim — and this film’s script touches all the essential franchise ingredients.

We must remember that Lara is a tragic heroine, and Vikander deftly handles that duality. Lara’s cheerful exterior can’t quite mask the pain behind her eyes; as this story opens, her beloved father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for seven years. He had a habit of swanning off on unspecified “missions” that had little to do with the stuffy corporate stuff typical of his public face; he never returned from the last one.

Refusing to believe him dead, resisting entreaties from Croft Holdings solicitor Yaffe (Derek Jacobi) and business executive Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) to accept the corporate control that would make her financially secure, Lara instead lives hand-to-mouth as an underpaid East London bike courier. This position certainly sharpens her reflexes; it also leads to the film’s first way-cool action sequence, in the form of a captivating bicycle race assembled slickly by editors Stuart Baird, Tom Harrison-Read and Michael Tronick.

Love, Simon: Utterly adorable

Love, Simon (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual references, mild teen misbehavior and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Director Greg Berlanti’s teen-oriented charmer reminds me of how much I miss the great John Hughes years: the decade marked by Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and numerous others.

Masters of all they survey (well ... maybe not): Simon (Nick Robinson, second from left) and
his friends — from left, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Leah
(Katherine Langford) — chat while heading toward drama class, and another rehearsal
for the high school musical.
Back when movie teenagers displayed some intelligence, chatted using words of more than one syllable, and fell in and out of love in a manner that felt genuine.

No cheap vulgarity or offensively exploitative nudity. And none of the terminally ill — or already dead — kids who’ve been populating a recent sub-genre.

Indeed, Berlanti’s handling of Love, Simon feels like an engaging cross between Gregory’s Girl — now, there’s a classic — and Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, albeit reconfigured for the social media age. Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have delivered a marvelous adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; their script is funny, poignant, shrewdly perceptive and — on several occasions — devastatingly, hide-behind-your-hands shattering.

I wanted to sink through the movie theater floor at least twice. Been there, imagined that. Never made public mistakes quite so catastrophic, but hey: could have.

To cases:

Seventeen-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) lives a perfect life, blessed with kind and progressive parents — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner, as Jack and Emily — and a doting younger sister (Talitha Bateman, as Nora) to who he is equally devoted. The comfortably secure family lives in a gorgeous home, complete with dog.

Simon has his own car, with which he collects his posse each school morning, stopping en route for a coffee fix shared with longtime BFF Leah (Katherine Langford), best guy friend Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and comparative newcomer Abby (Alexandra Shipp). We don’t see much in the way of routine class work, but everybody is involved with the drama group production of Cabaret.

This musical’s haphazardly talented cast — drama teacher Ms. Albright (Natasha Rothwell) having been instructed to accept all students, regardless of thespic or singing ability — includes Martin (Logan Miller), the socially inept class clown who always says and does the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. Somebody to be pitied, but also somebody to be avoided.

Life couldn’t be better, right?

Well ... no, not really.

7 Days at Entebbe: An offensive affront to history

7 Days at Entebbe (2018) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

I cannot recall ever having endured such an egregious example of directorial miscalculation.

This isn’t a movie; it’s a jaw-droppingly clumsy blend of cinema, experimental theater and performance art, orchestrated by director José Padilha in a manner that undercuts the drama at every turn. Such a mash-up might be right at home in an opulent fantasy akin to La La Land or The Greatest Showman, but definitely not for a supposedly fact-based re-telling of the 1976 hostage crisis that took place from June 27 through July 4 at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.

Gung-ho German "revolutionaries" Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann
(Rosamund Pike) repeatedly, endlessly discuss what they'll eventually have to do with
the terrified hostages awaiting their fate at Uganda's Entebbe Airport.
This should be a taut, edge-of-the-seat nail-biter akin to Paul Greengrass’ United 93, but with the far more triumphant outcome that deservedly retains its reputation as the most audacious rescue mission in modern history. But this film’s script — Gregory Burke, hide your head in shame — is undercut constantly by laughably melodramatic dialog, tedious talking-heads debates, and an insipid boyfriend/girlfriend sidebar.

But that’s not the worst. The film opens, closes and is frequently interrupted — even during the climax! — by rehearsals for Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s 1990 work, Echad Mi Yodea, presented by the Batsheva Dance Company. It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which this ruins the tension, robs the suspense, and pulls us completely out of the narrative.

It’s akin to having the members of the dance troupe Stomp! commandeer the stage in the middle of the famous battlefield speech from Henry V (not that Burke is fit to sharpen Shakespeare’s quills).

Events begin when an Air France passenger plane is hijacked by four terrorists: two members of the so-called Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, allied with two sympathetic German revolutionaries. We never get much of a bead on the Palestinians, instead spending far too much time with the Germans: Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike).

At first blush, they seem hard-hearted and dedicated to the task at hand. But once the plane is diverted to Entebbe, and Böse and Kuhlmann are placed in charge of keeping the hostage passengers compliant, cracks begin to emerge. They almost become cartoon terrorists: wannabe revolutionaries joining the cause because it’s “cool.”

Brühl’s Böse is a former bookseller: too quick to yield to compassion; too willing to identify with the hostages; too obviously unfamiliar with the gun he wields. “I want to throw bombs into the consciousness of the masses!” he proclaims, trying to sound tough when challenged by one of his Palestinian colleagues. Not even Brühl can sell such a creaky line, and his “terrorist with a heart of gold” aura is simply offensive.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time: Crumpled beyond recognition

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.9.18

Many reasons exist for this book’s failure to be adapted to the big screen, during the half-century since its publication in 1962, all of which director Ava DuVernay and scripters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell attempted to ignore, evade or surmount.

Their well-intentioned effort clearly is heartfelt; it’s just as clearly a failure.

Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), younger brother of Meg (Storm Reid), has the ability to
"know things." Ergo, he's not surprised by the unexpected appearance of the decidedly
unusual Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon).
Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning fantasy was quite unusual for its time: a loquacious children’s novel that blends discussions of quantum physics and upper-echelon mathematics with a Christian subtext likely inspired by C.S. Lewis. It’s a “head” story, with much of the narrative probing the thoughts and interactions of its protagonist, who — also quite unusual, for its time — is a young teenage girl.

That latter detail no doubt has made the book more attractive to today’s potential filmmakers, and I guess DuVernay can be applauded for bravery. But her handling of A Wrinkle in Time is ponderous, boring and weird, with characters too frequently placing so much weight on flowery speeches, that I’m surprised the words don’t sink beneath the story’s many unusual landscapes.

Much of the acting is stiff and clumsy, and Ramin Djawadi’s relentlessly maudlin orchestral score — which never, ever lets up — makes one want to scream for relief.

DuVernay practically begs her audience to regard this film as Momentously Important, and — needless to say — that’s the death of successful drama. (Indeed, she did beg, during the uncomfortably awkward on-camera appeal that preceded Tuesday evening’s preview screening.)

The many disappointing performances notwithstanding, Storm Reid is an exception. She stands tall as the saga’s heroine, Meg Murry, a brilliant but self-conscious social outcast who has come to believe that she’s nowhere near the best version of herself. Since that insecurity is worn like a shroud, she’s naturally a target for mean-spirited classmates.

Reid handles this role with delicacy, her flickering, downcast eyes often half-concealed by a hairstyle she wears as a shield. She blends the awkwardness of departing childhood with the coltish grace of impending womanhood, her face often on the verge of tears that Meg likely couldn’t explain. At the same time, Reid exudes the perception and ferocious intelligence at the core of this girl. She’s a marvelous heroine.

Adolescent angst notwithstanding, Meg has good reason for her unrelenting despair: She grieves the loss of her father (Chris Pine), a scientist who simply ... vanished ... four years earlier. He and his equally brilliant wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) — they’re never given first names, and are addressed simply as Mother and Father — had been working on a high-falutin’ concept of instantaneous space travel via what’s dubbed a “tesseract.”

Gringo: South of the border fiasco

Gringo (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity, violence and sexual content

By Derrick Bang

If the rest of this film were as accomplished as David Oyelowo’s starring performance, it would be far more entertaining.

Who knew Oyelowo could be so adorable and laugh-out-loud hilarious? It’s quite a surprise from the actor who brought such dignity to memorable roles in A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe and Selma (the latter playing no less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Harold (David Oyelowo, left) grows increasingly suspicious when his bosses —
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron) — insist on joining him for what
should be a routine visit to their pharmaceutical company's Mexican manufacturing plant.
Clearly, true acting talent knows no genre boundaries.

Alas, Oyelowo is by far the best part of Gringo, which otherwise is a mess. Scripters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis appear to be going for the uneasy blend of crime thriller and dark-dark-dark comedy that was pulled off so brilliantly by 1993’s True Romance, but that’s a hard act to duplicate. That film was scripted by Quentin Tarantino, and — frankly — Stone and Tambakis aren’t fit to clean the keys of his laptop.

The elements are in place here; Stone and Tambakis simply don’t know how to blend the ingredients into a suitably tasty final product. They badly misjudge some character development, overlook some obvious plot twists, and build to a resolution with at least one (perhaps two) deeply unsatisfying outcomes.

Nash Edgerton’s direction doesn’t help; his handling of the film’s tone is all over the map, and he lets co-star Charlize Theron get away with a truly dreadful performance (something I wasn’t aware she was capable of). Edgerton is a former stunt man and director of video shorts with only one prior big-screen feature to his credit — 2008’s so-so The Square — and I can’t help wondering if his presence here has less to do with having paid sufficient dues, and more to do with his relationship to better-known younger brother Joel Edgerton, who also co-stars in this uneven thriller.

In Hollywood, it truly does pay to have friends in high places.

The story is complicated, so get out your notebooks:

Harold Soyinka, an intelligent but naïvely loyal manager at the pharmaceuticals firm Promethium, is blindly unaware that his boss and (supposed) best friend, Richard Rusk (Edgerton), is a rapacious corporate shark who is cheerfully willing to screw anybody in service of further fattening his bank account. Indeed, Richard is screwing company co-owner Elaine Markinson (Theron), a jaw-droppingly crass, vulgar and profane bitch who casually employs sex as a weapon.

Theron’s initial scenes are a perfect example of Nash Edgerton’s poor direction. Her crude, bad-mannered put-downs and liberal F-bombs look and sound contrived, as if Theron isn’t comfortable delivering them, or doesn’t believe in her character ... or something. Whatever the reason, her performance is off-kilter, and remains so; the film never recovers from Elaine’s behavior.

Richard also is sleeping with Harold’s wife, Bonnie (a miscast and badly used Thandie Newton), because ... well, just because. Neither Bonnie nor this sidebar affair is well developed.

Thoroughbreds: Bad breeding

Thoroughbreds (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and disturbing content

By Derrick Bang

Watching two teenage sociopaths chat their way up to a homicide isn’t my notion of a good time.

Writer/director Cory Finley obviously feels otherwise, since that dynamic is the sole raison d’être for Thoroughbreds, a thoroughly dull and unpleasant little study in girls behaving very badly.

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, background) feigns innocence, sweetness and light, but — as this
film progresses — we begin to wonder if she's even more twisted than her sorta-kinda
best friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke).
Not that such a topic can’t generate an absorbing or even fascinating storyline. But Finley hasn’t the skill for such an exercise; his film lacks the darkly snarky impudence of Heathers, or the alluringly warped fantasy elements of Heavenly Creatures, or the hypnotic creepiness of Stoker. All three are unsettling — and far more successful — studies of young women dabbling in murder.

Thoroughbreds is Finley’s first effort at writing or directing, and it shows. He stretches a 15-minute premise way beyond endurance — even at an otherwise economical 92 minutes — and his relentless reliance on talking-heads set-ups too frequently makes this feel like a boring stage play. Indeed, it could have been such, except for Finley’s fondness for cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s languorously long and sweeping tracking shots through the hallways and stairwells of the opulent home wherein one of our protagonists resides.

The talking heads in question belong to Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), two insufferably spoiled white-bread bitches whose parents clearly have more money than God. As introduced, Amanda is “troubled,” while Lily is the “noble spirit doing a good deed” via tutoring lessons. But it’s not that simple, and appearances are deceiving.

Actually, they aren’t. It’s pretty obvious, from the start, that both of these girls are warped Bad News.

Amanda, at least, appears to have an excuse. She’s clinically, emotionally barren: unable to experience joy, sorrow or anything in between. She’s therefore brutally blunt and candid during casual conversation, puncturing and stepping beyond all protective levels of social decorum.

Cooke plays this role persuasively, with an intense, owl-eyed stare and vocal delivery that lacks all inflection. We’d think Amanda compromised by an excessively high drug regimen, except that her perceptive gaze misses nothing, and her seemingly detached observations are uncomfortably frank. But that shtick wears thin, as does her black, dead-eyed stare; Finley overuses both.

Cooke may be remembered for her winning turn in 2015’s under-appreciated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; she’s also soon to star as Becky Sharp in the Amazon/ITV miniseries adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. One hopes she can put this current effort behind her as quickly as possible.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow: Flies high

Red Sparrow (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, torture, graphic nudity, profanity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang

Red Sparrow has the crisp, nefarious and extremely nasty verisimilitude of actual spycraft, and with good reason; it’s based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, who spent 33 years with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where — as acknowledged in a 2015 New York Times interview — he recruited and managed foreign agents, “often in places where such activity was forbidden.”

Having endured a regimen of vile and debasing treatment while at a specialized spycraft
school, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) now feels nothing but contempt for her
Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who she once naïvely assumed wanted
only the best for her.
Justin Haythe’s screenplay adaptation has the slow burn of a complex John Le Carré espionage thriller, which must please Matthews, a fan of both that author and Ian Fleming. Frankly, I’m astonished; Haythe has no obvious experience with spy thrillers, and is most recently known for junk such as The Lone Ranger and the execrable A Cure for Wellness. It’s nice to see this significantly more polished side.

Austrian director Francis Lawrence obviously has developed a rapport with star Jennifer Lawrence, having helmed her final three Hunger Games outings. Red Sparrow is far more serious stuff: a thoroughly absorbing saga of regret, duplicity and reprehensible manipulation, set in a clandestine zone of prickly, real-world geopolitics.

Matthews must be congratulating himself for prescience: Such scheming cloak-and-dagger stuff seems even more credible now, at a time when Russia’s destabilizing activities have become daily front-page news.

Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a talented member of the Bolshoi Ballet, introduced as she takes the stage for a standard performance (if anything done by Bolshoi dancers can be considered “standard”). Francis Lawrence cross-cuts from these scenes to others involving the late-night exchange of information between deep-cover CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and a mole buried deep within upper-level Russian security operations.

Both sequences go awry. Dominika suffers an on-stage accident that destroys her career — an early, horrifying example of this film’s willingness to shock — while Nate’s meeting is exposed by the chance arrival of Russian police officers.

For Dominika, it’s a shattering, end-of-the-world catastrophe, and not merely because she spent her entire childhood training to be a dancer. She’s the only child of an invalided single mother (Joely Richardson) to whom she is devoted, and whose care — and the reasonably nice apartment in which they live — have been funded by her Bolshoi career.

Salvation — if it can be termed thus — comes from Dominika’s Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has kept a protective gaze on his deceased brother’s family. But Vanya’s interest is far from benign; his “solution” to Dominika’s plight involves drawing her into his realm of spycraft, with the specific goal of molding his niece into a seductress able to corrupt Westerners into betraying their country.

Hardly a healthy attitude for an uncle to have about his only niece.