Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns: Plenty of magic

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.18

Even in a Hollywood environment driven by short-term greed, some films have managed to remain revered, thou-shalt-not-remake-or-sequelize classics (although that hasn’t stopped people from thinking about it).

Having magically entered the world painted on the outside of a Royal Doulton china
bowl, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, center) encourages her companions — from left,
Georgie (Joel Dawson), Anabel (Pixie Davis), Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and
John (Nathanael Saleh) — to join her for what surely will be a remarkable ride.
Gone With the WindCasablancaSome Like It HotLawrence of Arabia and The Godfather come to mind. (The latter was OK, because Francis Ford Coppola handled the trilogy himself.)

It’s not merely a function of great cinema; such films also are a product of their time — where we were, as a country and as a people — which further complicates efforts to re-visit them.

Mary Poppins made that list, and deservedly so, for more than half a century … although Disney’s failure to capitalize on their 1964 hit likely had less to do with leaving well enough alone, and more to do with the fact that author P.L. Travers loathed the film, and — since she lived until 1996 — likely blocked any efforts to draw additional water from the well.

But tempus fugit, and a couple of decades further down the line, Disney decided to attempt the impossible — no doubt with fingers crossed and breath held — and thus we have Mary Poppins Returns.

The studio certainly took pains to assure success. Director Rob Marshall, a veteran of opulent stage-to-film translations of Chicago and Into the Woods, is an excellent choice as guiding hand. He shares scripting credit with David Magee (Finding NeverlandLife of Pi and the under-appreciated Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and John DeLuca. Truth be told, their shared vision hews much closer to the subversive edge present in Travers’ eight books, and which was missing from the 1964 film’s cotton candy tone.

The casting is equally choice. Emily Blunt steps primly, saucily and posture-perfectly into Julie Andrews’ immaculately polished shoes, and this saga’s three children — Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — are every bit as precociously adorable, and talented, as the original’s Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.

Most crucially, Broadway phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda is bloomin’ terrific as Jack, the amiably optimistic lamplighter who stands in for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep. The enthusiastic and athletic Miranda steals the show, and that’s no small feat; there’s much to admire in this ambitious and opulent musical fantasy. 

Marshall & Co. deliver a fresh, richly entertaining bit of razzle-dazzle, while honoring — and slyly referencing — the original.

Mortal Engines: High-octane thrills

Mortal Engines (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13 for dramatic intensity and sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

This one’s relentless.

Director Christian Rivers’ exhilarating adaptation of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines is sci-fi world-building on a scale we’ve not seen since Lord of the Rings and Avatar. This impressively ambitious, post-apocalyptic saga hits the ground running — literally — and doesn’t let up during a bravura 127-minute adventure that barely seems long enough to contain its opulent wonders.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire? Tom (Robert Sheehan) and Hester (Hera Hilmar,
right) are moments from a fate worse than death, when they're snatched away by the
enigmatic Anna Fang (Jihae). But is this a rescue ... or something more sinister?
Scripters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson have done an impressive job of condensing Reeve’s 2001 young adult novel into a slam-bang romp that faithfully follows roughly half the book and hits most of the key plot beats. (That said, Walsh & Co. deviate seriously during the climax, likely in the interest of anticipating a sequel.)

These events take place a millennium after what has come to be known as the “Sixty Minute War,” when Western nations unleashed a cataclysmic weapon that destroyed much of civilization, while causing planet-wide geological upheaval. Forced to adapt to earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities that continued for hundreds of years, metropolitan centers were retrofitted with massive wheels and engines, in order to become mobile “traction cities”: a steampunk method of survival known as Municipal Darwinism.

Countries have vanished; civilization per se has developed into cooperative bands of peaceful small-town traders, constantly on the alert for fast-moving, scavenger settlements.

Along with the biggest threat of all: the massive predator city of London, which hunts, pursues and dismantles (devours) other cities for resources.

All this by way of back-story, because Rivers opens the film without preamble, as the massive bulk of London chases down a small mining community known as Salthook. Production designer Dan Hennah, cinematographer Simon Raby and a huge visual effects team — Ken McGaugh, Kevin Smith, Luke Millar and Dennis Yoo, take a well-deserved bow — swoop the camera in, around and through London’s jaw-dropping hugeness and complexity, layered with bits and bobs clearly snatched from countless earlier captures.

It’s an absolutely amazing, stunning sequence, particularly as many of London’s thousands of residents gather at their city’s layered edges, cheering the pursuit with the bloodthirsty savagery of heartless nationalists (an allusion to current real-world behavior, in which this film frequently indulges).

Salthook has maneuverability and quick turns in its favor, but it can’t compete with London’s stronger engines. The outcome is inevitable, with one of the smaller community’s residents — a young woman with a red scarf concealing part of her face — watching with (we’re surprised) what appears to be mixed feelings.

Spider-Men: Into the Spider-Verse — A needlessly tangled web

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG for frantic animated action violence

By Derrick Bang

In today’s pop-culture entertainment world, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

When Marvel’s initial Amazing Spider-Man comic book becomes a smash success, the next move is obvious: Start publishing another dozen (or two) Spider-Man titles. If this cuts into the sales of the character’s flagship title, no matter; the combined overall sales are bound to increase.

Having barely gotten a sense of the whole web-slinging concept, young Miles discovers
that swinging between city buildings is a lot harder than it looks.
And if Spider-Man himself is a major part of the allure, then the next move is equally obvious: Concoct a storyline that creates more Spider-heroes. Thanks to one of sci-fi’s most overworked clichés — the notion of multiple parallel universes, where things are familiar but (tellingly) not quite the same — that’s a snap.

On top of which, the beauty of alternate realities is that writers can do something drastic — such as kill off a beloved character — without damaging continuity in our “core” reality.

The ultimate means of eating one’s cake, and having it too.

But care must be taken. If the original franchise — and character(s) — are diluted too much, everybody loses interest in the whole enterprise.

In fairness, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman have done a mostly commendable job with the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Rothman and co-scripter Phil Lord deftly navigate the physics-challenged complexities of the alternate universe premise, while granting a solid origin story to a younger, equally captivating, but woefully inexperienced Spider-Man.

That would be Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager who debuted in a complicated 2011 Marvel Comics storyline, and has remained popular enough to earn his own ongoing series.

But he’s not the character with whom this fast-paced, audaciously twisty saga begins. We’re instead (re)introduced to good ol’ Peter Parker, our one and only Spider-Man, who extols his uniqueness during a narrated prologue that cleverly references previous comic book adventures, along with iconic scenes from the live-action films that began in 2002 (most notably that sexy upside-down smooch with Mary Jane).

Poor Peter has his hands full, because the nefarious Wilson Fisk — better known as the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) — has teamed up with a theoretical physicist, in order to access the “multiverse” for a deeply personal reason. But Peter is enough of a scientist himself, to know that Fisk’s reality-bending device will have drastic consequences, and therefore must be destroyed.

The Favourite: Far from it

The Favourite (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R for strong sexual content, profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang

Director Yorgos Lanthimos relishes his outré sensibilities, as survivors of DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred Deer and — most particularly — The Lobster can attest.

Having no desire to return to her formerly penniless existence, Abigail (Emma Stone, left)
does her best to become a valuable part of Queen Anne's entourage ... and, after hours,
an equally essential part of the queen's bed chamber.
The Favourite is cut from the same cloth. While the (more or less) historically accurate setting lends bite to a script laced with delicious bile, snark, betrayal and Machiavellian palace intrigue, the laborious execution quickly becomes tedious. Rarely have 119 minutes passed so agonizingly slowly.

Lanthimos also delights in overwrought directorial self-indulgence, which — through excessive repetition — becomes insufferably annoying. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fondness for panning “around corners” with a fish-eyed lens is one such affectation; the assortment of thumps, twangs and screeches that passes for a score is even worse. An extended presentation of two plucked notes on guitar (?) persists for what feels like forever, linking several lengthy scenes; one cannot help wanting to dash into the projection booth and eviscerate the audio track.

Tellingly, no composer is credited for anything that approaches actual music. No kidding.

A director who delights in calling so much attention to his tics, hiccups, quirks, whims and eccentricities does his film no favors. Lanthimos’ approach distracts and rips us out of the story; he’s like a little kid who, vying for attention, repeatedly screams, “Don’t pay attention to them; look at me! Look at me!”

Rubbish.

Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script has its basis in fact, with events set during the first decade of the 18th century, midway through the reign of Great Britain’s Queen Anne. She was not a happy or healthy ruler, and was ill-suited to the throne; timidity and chronic ailments made her miserable. Despite 17 (!) pregnancies, she failed to produce a surviving heir, and became the final monarch from the House of Stuart.

Anne was quite pliable, and had the misfortune to rule just as Great Britain was embracing an acrimonious two-party political system, with the Whigs and Tories squabbling over how best to handle an ongoing war with France. It’s perhaps fortunate that Anne’s most trusted confidante was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who — it has been strongly suggested — essentially ruled from behind the scenes. Although clearly governed by her own agenda, and inclined toward decisions and acts that favored her husband — John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough — Lady Sarah was intelligent, astute and decisive.

She also may have been Anne’s lover, and this is the film’s jumping-off point; Davis and McNamara boldly run with that sexual element. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Minor-key melodramas

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R for strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.18

Anthology films — also known by the far niftier term “portmanteau films,” with interior short subjects usually linked by genre, author, premise or even star — have been mini-fads at various points in cinema history.

Having unwisely left the wagon train in search of her wayward little dog, Alice
Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is terrified to discover that she and her sole companion have
been spotted by a band of angry Native American warriors.
They became something of a vogue during the 1940s, starting with 1942’s Tales of Manhattan. That was followed by 1943’s occult-laden Flesh and Fantasy; 1945’s deliciously spooky Dead of Night; 1948’s Quartet, with its four Somerset Maugham stories; 1950’s Trio and 1951’s Encore (Maugham again); and 1952’s O. Henry’s Full House.

Occasional one-offs notwithstanding, portmanteau films didn’t become popular again until 1968’s The Illustrated Man — with its selection of Ray Bradbury tales — led to a series of horror entries: The House that Dripped BloodAsylum and Tales from the Cryptad infinitum to this day.

High-tone entries included 1989’s New York Stories, with segments directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen; and 1995’s Four Rooms, with Roald Dahl short stories loosely adapted by directors Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

This brings us to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which gathers half a dozen short concepts they’ve had kicking around for the past quarter-century. The tales are linked by their setting in the American West, which rarely has looked more vicious; and by a clever framing device that “lifts” each yarn from the pages of a vintage hardcover book, complete with gorgeous color illustrations whose captions — in each case — give a dramatic clue to what we’re about to see.

As always is the case with portmanteau films, the contents vary from excellent to good to not such a much. But since we’re dealing with the Coen brothers, even the lesser entries are worth viewing for tone, acting, cheeky directing, and Bruno Delbonnel’s lush cinematography.

The segments also have a few things in common: a darkly comic, even macabre tone; unexpected bursts of gruesome violence; and — in most cases — an atmosphere of grim despair.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Green Book: An inspirational journey

Green Book (2018) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.23.18

Period biographical dramas rarely are this amusing.

Comedies rarely are laden with this much shrewd social commentary.

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, left), having promised to write frequent letters to his wife,
is surprised when Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) expresses more than a casual
interest in the process.
Sharply etched characters rarely are portrayed so precisely — so perfectly — by the actors cast to play them.

In a word, Green Book is superb: a thoroughly engaging slice of gentle filmmaking that veers from droll, to instructive, to heartbreaking, to laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a richly entertaining, feel-good experience that plays, at times, like a perfect blend of Driving Miss Daisy and The Odd Couple.

But such a simplistic elevator-pitch descriptor does a disservice to director/co-scripter Peter Farrelly’s marvelous road picture, and the two memorable, lovingly depicted characters who actually made this trip together, in the real world.

Talk about your “journey of discovery.” That phrase carries a lot of weight here.

The time is 1962. Bronx-born Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) — who goes by Tony Lip — is an imposing, well-dressed bouncer at New York’s Copacabana Club. Thanks to a facility for calculated charm that blends well with his capacity for rough stuff, Tony has managed to straddle this realm of celebrities and mob honchos, where he’s respected without getting wholly co-opted by the latter.

He’s a classic Damon Runyon archetype who might have stepped out of the era popularized by Guys and Dolls. Tony is far larger than life — literally, as Mortensen gained 30 pounds and an impressive paunch for the role — but still, at the end of each night shift, a devoted family man who returns home to his beloved wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two young sons.

Their home is the locus for a noisy, extended Italian family that chatters, bickers and fills a room with the boisterous revelry of a 24/7 party. These sidebar relations are deftly and memorably defined: the curmudgeonly father, the smart-ass brother, assorted cousins and spouses. Utter chaos delivered via thick Bronx accents.

When the Copa closes for renovations during the final two months of the year, Tony is left without employment (aside from occasional wagers, details of which are best left discovered as they occur). Potential financial relief arrives with an unusual job offer, as chauffeur for a certain Dr. Don Shirley. Tony dresses up for the interview, expecting a medical office and some sort of world-famous surgeon.

Instead, he’s escorted into a posh private apartment directly above Carnegie Hall, where Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) turns out to be a world-famous concert pianist.

And is African-American.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Widows: Revenge with style

Widows (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, nudity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.16.18

This one hits the ground running — literally — and never lets up.

Director Steve McQueen’s skillfully constructed crime thriller boasts a top-flight ensemble cast and a sharp script — from McQueen and Gillian Flynn — along with slick editing (Joe Walker) and creative cinematography (Sean Bobbitt), which a camera that frequently crouches and prowls around walls and cars. The latter two elements contribute to a rising level of nail-biting tension that becomes nearly unbearable by the explosive climax.

Veronica (Viola Davis, center), grieving over the sudden, violent loss of her husband, is
comforted by political candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who insists that she get
in touch if she ever needs anything. She'll find cause to hold him to that promise...
Everything that a taut suspenser should be.

McQueen’s film is adapted and updated from an equally hard-boiled, six-part 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante, best known on these shores for having created DCI Jane Tennison, in the riveting Prime Suspect franchise. La Plante set the narrative in London; McQueen and Flynn transplant the action to Chicago, while adding a strong — and brilliantly integrated — political element.

(Chicagoans must wonder whether their city ever will escape its corruption-laden reputation.)

The story kicks off on a heist-in-progress gone violently awry, as a four-man crew led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) attempts to escape in a van, while police cars descend from all directions. This sequence is intercut with glimpses of earlier, calmer moments between the men and their four wives: Harry and Veronica (Viola Davis) in bed, deeply in love with each other; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), arguing finances with the evasive Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a Polish immigrant bride nursing another black eye inflicted by the abusive Florek (Jon Bernthal); and Amanda (Carrie Coon), happily nesting and co-parenting a newborn infant.

Back in the moment, Harry screeches the van into their warehouse hangout, two of his accomplices tending to the badly wounded third. But it’s a trap; surrounding police unleash a fusillade of gunfire. The van explodes and burns hot, leaving nothing but charred remains.

Meanwhile…

Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a legacy candidate running for alderman in Chicago’s 18th Ward, pays a visit to the modest campaign headquarters of Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the African-American opponent whose poll numbers have begun to climb. Jack’s family has run (and looted) the 18th Ward for generations, and Jack isn’t about to let that change on his watch; his viciously racist father, Tom (a savage, venom-spewing Robert Duvall), wouldn’t tolerate it.

This superficially cordial tête-à-tête between Jack and Jamal bristles with veiled threats and razor-sharp dialogue (which McQueen and Flynn continue to pen throughout the film). Jack clearly is as crooked as a spent match, dogged by accusations of having “extracted” $5 million from various phony public works projects. But it quickly transpires — after Jack departs — that the seemingly virtuous Jamal is no better.

Worse yet, Jamal’s interests are safeguarded by his homicidal younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, recognized from last year’s Get Out), a psychopath with a fondness for using guns and sharp knives to extract information … or eliminate “problems.”