Friday, February 15, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel — Exciting futuristic thrills

Alita: Battle Angel (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, despite relentless violence and gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.15.19

When we get sci-fi world-building on a scale this visually spectacular, there’s no doubt that James Cameron must be involved.

Hugo (Keean Johnson) rushes forward, hoping to prevent a catastrophe, when a
potentially violent encounter prompts Alita's (Rosa Salazar) battle instincts to kick in.
In fairness, director Robert Rodriguez deserves equal credit for this energetic, post-apocalyptic adventure. Where Cameron’s epics generally have a serious tone with underlying real-world political elements, Rodriguez is more willing to just have a good time. That’s certainly the case with Alita: Battle Angel, which sometimes displays the youthful, wide-eyed breathlessness that was typical of his Spy Kids series.

But we must remember that Rodriguez also is the gritty, down ’n’ dirty maestro behind From Dusk Till Dawn and the Sin City chillers, and he stretches this new film’s PG-13 rating waypast the breaking point.

Alita: Battle Angel is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, which successfully blends elements from previous classics: a little bit of 1975’s Rollerball, a taste of 1982’s Blade Runner, a soupçon of 2013’s Elysium and a whole lotta 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Considerable credit also goes to Yukito Kishiro, creator of the 1990 cyberpunk manga series Gunnm(translated on these shores as Battle Angel Alita). Kishiro’s series ultimately went to nine volumes, after which Cameron optioned the property … way back in 2000.

Although originally intending to direct a big-screen adaptation, Cameron got distracted by Avatar; meanwhile, he “borrowed” some of Kishiro’s concepts for the 2000-02 TV series Dark Angel, which made a star of young Jessica Alba. Numerous twists and turns later — notably, after Rodriguez was brought in, initially just to trim Cameron’s overlong screenplay — all the elements fell into place, and here we are.

We should be grateful for this long gestation, because it allowed special effects technology to catch up with Kishiro’s wildly imaginative premise and setting. Senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and production designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner have delivered a jaw-dropping degree of futuristic wonder: a wholly immersive dystopian setting that feels persuasively authentic, down to the tiniest detail.

Rodriguez also makes excellent use of Bill Pope’s 3D cinematography. You’ll want to experience this film at least twice: once for its exciting, pell-mell storyline; the second time to better appreciate the meticulous effort that has gone into every frame.

Mind you, elements of the complex plot are insufficiently addressed by the script — credited to Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (the latter known as the creator of TV’s Altered Carbon) — but Rodriguez and editors Stephen E. Rivkin and Ian Silverstein maintain enough momentum to carry us past dangling questions.

Arctic: Absolutely riveting

Arctic (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

Drama can’t get more elemental than this.

Director/co-scripter Joe Penna’s Arctic is a grim survival saga anchored by a sensational performance by Mads Mikkelsen. It’s minimalist acting stripped to its basics: Almost no dialog emerges during this 97-minute nail-biter, for the obvious reason that Mikkelsen’s character has nobody to talk to.

Whenever the harsh weather relents, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) leaves the shelter of
his downed plane in order to complete the "chores" necessary for his ongoing survival.
Unfortunately, his daily ritual is about to change, and quite suddenly.
And yet we intimately bond with him during cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson’s stark opening tableau, and thereafter — our teeth clenched, breath held, heart in mouth — every resolute step of the way.

The bleak question hovering over such films is obvious: Will a courageous struggle be rewarded with rescue? The recent track record is mixed. 2003’s Open Water tortured us before a thoroughly reprehensible outcome; 2013’s All is Lost put Robert Redford — and us — through hell before a more satisfying conclusion. (2015’s The Revenant had many more characters in play.)

It must be noted, though, that the two ocean-bound thrillers involved people who weren’t well equipped to deal with their catastrophic circumstances. That isn’t true of Mikkelsen’s Overgård, introduced well into an extended crisis (weeks? months?) that — so far — he has been managing reasonably well.

He’s a pilot, perhaps part of a search-and-rescue unit, whose plane apparently crashed during some earlier operation. Penna and co-scripter Ryan Morrison don’t bother with flashbacks that might explain such details, as they’re inconsequential. The plane can’t fly with a crippled wing, but the intact fuselage provides adequate shelter … albeit unheated.

The passage of time is maintained, in this snow-blasted landscape, by a watch set to beep at meticulously recorded intervals. Overgård’s daily rituals are marked by ice fishing, at which he’s quite proficient; shoveling snow off a massive SOS, easily visible to any aircraft that might pass overhead; carefully tending to a curiously small pyramid of rocks; and dutifully sending a distress signal via a hand-cranked generator. 

In a sense, he’s no different than the sole inhabitant of a desert island. On the plus side, he’ll never want for water; on the other hand, he’s slowly being crippled by frostbite.

The landscape is beautiful in its ice- and snow-blasted emptiness; we can tell, from Overgård’s occasionally admiring gaze, that he hasn’t lost his appreciation for these surroundings. (The film was shot on a volcanic plateau in the highlands of Iceland, reputed to be the harshest survivable environment on Earth. I don’t doubt it.)

At the same time, Mikkelsen’s expression is calculating; we understand that Overgård continually analyzes and weighs his only two options: stay … or try to walk out.

Then, suddenly, the decision is made for him.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The 2019 Oscar Shorts: Quite a gut-punch

The 2019 Oscar Shorts (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Unrated, but the live-action entries are patently adult material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.8.19

I have serious issues with the folks who selected this year’s nominees for live-action short films.

But let’s set that aside, for the moment.

The nominees for 2018’s animated shorts, as often is the case, reflect a delightful variety of subjects, approaches, tone and animation techniques: ranging from thoughtful to satiric or poignant; from traditional hand-drawn cels to the computer-rendered exquisiteness of the ubiquitous Pixar entry.

The latter, director Domee Shi’s Bao, likely will be familiar; it preceded screenings of last summer’s The Incredibles 2. It’s the touching story of an aging Chinese mother who, grieving during a devastating case of empty-nest syndrome, gets another chance at motherhood when one of her hand-rolled dumplings springs to life as a giggling infant boy … with a dumpling-shaped head.

It sounds bizarre, but Shi’s narrative approach is so gentle and heart-warming — so universal, in its depiction of the battle between protective parents and headstrong children — that we quickly fall under its spell. More to the point, Shi builds her film to a deliciously surprising and touching conclusion. Her rounded animation style — no hard edges — also perfectly suits this whimsical little tale.

One Small Step, the other CG entry, is an equally heartwarming little tale from co-directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas. The computer tools notwithstanding, their tender drama adopts the look of old-school, hand-painted cels to tell the story of Luna, an enthusiastic Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. She lives in a big city with her doting father Chu, who supports them with the humble shoe repair business that he runs from his garage.

As Luna grows into teenager and then young adulthood, he’s always attentive to her footwear: even after she has forsaken the lovingly crafted “moon boots” of childhood, for casual flip-flops. This is a sweet tale of believing in dreams, and of parents who — behind the scenes — do their best to make such dreams come true.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part — Poor construction

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Well, it was inevitable.

I can’t really say this is a case of the sophomore curse, since The LEGO Batman Movie arrived in between, and it was quite entertaining.

Even though their beloved Bricksburg has been blasted into post-apocalyptic rubble,
cheerful Emmet has lost none of his optimism ... much to the annoyance of gal-pal Lucy.
But The LEGO Movie 2 is a serious disappointment: a clumsy mess with little of its 2014 predecessor’s charm and cheeky creativity. This sequel suffers from all the flaws inherent in bad animated films: poor pacing; a random storyline that lurches from one scene to the next, with little effort at rational continuity; and a gaggle of truly dreadful songs … including the ill-advised decision to undercut the first film’s anthem, “Everything Is Awesome.”

By far the worst sin, though, is the way this new LEGO entry violates the first film’s ingeniously constructed divide between “our” world, and the realm inhabited by these delightful brick characters. This barrier was an important clue to the powerful weapon — the “Kragle” — wielded by the “evil” Lord Business.

I’ve hammered this point many times before, while denouncing poor writing: Fantasy mustadhere to its own established set of rules. Failure to do so, results in a loss of suspense and viewer involvement. There’s no reason to worry about potential peril, if slipshod writers just make stuff up as they go.

And I’m surprised, because this film’s scripters — Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — are veterans of the first film. They should know better.

Lord, Miller and director Mike Mitchell err further by devoting too much screen time to real-world activity. That was the first film’s big reveal — that there was a “real world” — and, granted, it’s true they couldn’t pull off that surprise a second time. And although — in fairness — there is an important underlying message in these real-world activities, it’s blindingly clear early on.

Which all-too-quickly turns this limp sequel into a tedious case of overstating the obvious.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Cold War: Can love conquer all?

Cold War (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Literature is laden with swooning sagas of lovers who never quite get their timing right: They’re from different social strata; he’s available, but she’s married; she divorces, but he has moved to another country; and so forth.

As they settle into a relationship, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) realize
that they want different things out of life. Alas, that will become a growing problem, as it
also becomes clear that they cannot live without each other.
Director/co-scripter Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Poland’s Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, cleverly sets that timeless plot device against that country’s emergence from the ruins of World War II. The narrative takes place over the course of roughly 15 years, and is based on the lives of Pawlikowski’s parents, who — in the filmmaker’s own words — “spent 40 years together, on and off, breaking up, chasing and punishing each other on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

“They were both strong, wonderful people. But as a couple, they were a never-ending disaster.”

Indeed, this film’s characters — Zula and Wiktor — are named after Pawlikowski’s mother and father, who died in 1989: in a final slice of heavy irony, just before the Berlin Wall came down.

No surprise, then, that Pawlikowski’s approach has the sweeping, unapologetically dreamy atmosphere of classic Hollywood gothic tragedies such as Wuthering Heights. But Pawlikowski also gets considerable gravitas from the ominous and repressive geo-political environment in which this love story takes place, and which gives his film its title.

The saga begins in 1949, as skilled pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and music ethnographer Irena (Agata Kulesza) tour their country’s devastated villages and hamlets, collecting folk songs as a means of preserving regional heritage. They also have a much grander goal: to use this music as the basis for a song and dance performance ensemble, appropriately costumed, to share such culture with a broader national audience.

They subsequently establish a rigorous school of performing arts, where talented young men and women will be groomed for what comes to be known as the Mazurek Ensemble. Wiktor and Irena’s activities are supervised by Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), a manager of sorts — handler? watchdog? — soon to become an authoritarian apparatchik.

During auditions, Wiktor is struck by the spirit, presence and radiant beauty of teenage Zula (Joanna Kulig). Irena, not fooled for a moment — she and Wiktor have been a casual item — tolerantly agrees to accept the girl into the company. By the time the students have been trained into an accomplished unit routinely performing to enthusiastic, sell-out crowds, Wiktor and Zula have become impassioned lovers.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Stan & Ollie: A warm, heartfelt tribute

Stan & Ollie (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were enormously popular film stars for roughly a decade starting in 1927, in great part because they were among the very few comedy actors who successfully navigated the transition from silent films to talkies.

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan, left) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly, right) are dismayed
when their British manager/handler, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), explains that
they'll be stuck playing small, run-down theaters ... at least, for awhile.
(Indeed, some of their later one-liners remain gems to this day. “You can lead a horse to water,” Stanley observes, in the 1930 short Brats, “but a pencil must be led.”)

Credit for teaming the slim Englishman (Laurel) with the corpulent American (Hardy) goes to early motion picture impresario Hal Roach, who made them an official double act with the 1927 silent short, Putting Pants on Philip. They became indefatigably busy thereafter, with a résumé that boasts 32 silent shorts, 40 sound shorts — including 1932’s Academy Award winner, The Music Box — and 23 features.

They never quite cracked the list of Top 10 American film stars — by box-office receipts — but they were among the Top 10 international film stars in 1936 and ’37. Their gentle brand of humor, and their films, were universal.

Director Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie is a warm and deeply poignant tribute to what would become their swan song: an ambitious UK tour in 1953 and ’54, undertaken despite their declining health. After that final curtain, they never again appeared together; Hardy died in 1957, and Laurel survived him by another eight years.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope plays fast and loose with a few historical details, but the core narrative is reasonably faithful: most notably the bond between two men who had worked together for so long, that their relationship was far more deep than that with respective wives over the years. Pope’s tone is heartfelt, and Baird’s direction is impressively delicate; at no time does this often melancholy story become mawkish, nor is there any sense that the duo’s memory is being exploited unduly.

Mostly, though, the film is driven by superlative performances from Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly (Ollie, more affectionately known as “Babe”).

Coogan is particularly impressive, clearly having studied Laurel meticulously enough to perfectly mimic his impeccably timed pantomime. It’s not merely a matter of reproducing the stage bits performed before an adoring public, but also mastering the doe-eyed, less-is-more dancer’s grace with which Stan carries himself, behind closed doors.

One of the key points of Pope’s script, however — adapted from A.J. Marriot’s 1993 book, Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours — is that Stan’s outwardly mild manner conceals a creative talent chafing at the contractual restraints imposed by Roach (Danny Huston, suitably imperious). As depicted here, Ollie is content and complacent, cheerfully willing to do as he’s told; Stan is ambitious, desiring the greater freedom that he knows will make them even more successful.

This dichotomy will resurface later, under less than ideal circumstances.

The Kid Who Would Be King: Not much future

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity, fantasy action and scary images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.25.19

Although handsomely mounted and well intentioned, this (mostly) gentle British fantasy won’t make much of a ripple in the cinematic pond.

At least, not on our shores.

The Wizard Merlin's younger self (Angus Imrie, center) prepares to enchant the sword
Excalibur, as his young allies — from left, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Alex (Louis Ashbourne
Serkis), Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and Lance (Tom Taylor) — watch expectantly.
British writer/director Joe Cornish’s contemporary, kid-oriented spin on the King Arthur mythos lacks the spunk, snark and momentum that made his big-screen debut — 2011’s Attack the Block — far more satisfying. The dialog here is too relentlessly earnest, the pacing too relaxed; at just north of two hours, this film is at least one faux climax too long.

Cornish definitely didn’t let editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss do their job.

Doctor Who fans will understand when I compare this film to a double-length episode of British TV’s family-friendly companion series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Same tone, same frequently breathless speeches, same setting in a quaint, vaguely retro British suburbia that likely hasn’t existed for decades (if indeed it ever did).

Young American viewers are apt to find The Kid Who Would Be King too corny, too silly and much too placid: more akin to Hollywood’s feeble Percy Jackson adaptations, than the superior Harry Potter series. Which is a shame, because there’s certainly nothing wrong with Cornish’s approach here; like its central character Merlin, it simply inhabits a time stream of its own.

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are the newest, youngest and smallest students at Dungate Academy middle school, where they’re irresistible targets for older and taller bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Alex has grown up with no real memory of his father, who gave the boy a lovingly inscribed book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Alex’s mildly overwhelmed mother (Denise Gough) does her best as the single parent of a precocious, fairly geeky son.

The other three kids apparently have no home lives; we never meet any other parents.

A routine encounter with the thuggish Lance and Kaye leaves Alex dazed — but otherwise unharmed — at the bottom of a civic enhancement construction site. Upon checking his surroundings, lo and behold, he spots a sword thrust into what appears to be a chunk of concrete. Surprise, surprise: He has no trouble pulling it out.