Friday, September 13, 2019

Official Secrets: Thou shalt not lie

Official Secrets (2019) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.13.19

This fact-based drama could not be better timed.

More than ever, we must be reminded of the imperative necessity of speaking truth and integrity to power.

Once exposed and arrested, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) is allowed a brief visit from
her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri). In a touching act that feels genuine, he brings her a
thick jacket, because he knows the jail cell will be cold.
Along with the value of the Fourth Estate, and its role in exposing the filthy secrets of power-mongers who believe they can get away with anything.

And of the foolishness of reflexively relying on a crutch such as Spell check.

Director Gavin Hood makes smart, thoughtful films that don’t get near enough attention in the mainstream market. Folks who stumbled across 2015’s Eye in the Sky were mesmerized by its intriguing depiction of a wartime conundrum — do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? — as it related to the potential civilian fatalities that would result from a drone strike targeting a suicide bomber.

Hood’s film had the intensity of an intimate stage drama, and it was comforting (if naïve) to imagine that the civilian/military chain of command actually might ponder such consequences. At the end of the day, though, Eye in the Sky — however provocative — remains a mere philosophical exercise, because it’s fictitious. 

That’s not the case with Official Secrets

Hood’s newest film isn’t merely a depiction of actual events; it illuminates an impressively brave act that should be a humiliating footnote in this country’s reckless 2003 invasion of Iraq. Instead, the incident is all but unknown on this side of the pond … which, frankly, is shameful.

It made far more noise in England, where — to this day — people debate whether Katharine Gun is an honorable patriot on par with our own Daniel Ellsberg … or a traitor to her country.

That should be enough to get you into a movie theater. Better still, Hood and his co-scripters — Gregory and Sara Bernstein, adapting Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s nonfiction book, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War — have crafted their film with the clever precision of a multi-act suspense thriller.

Somewhere toward the middle, you’ll begin to wonder: How the hell could we not have known about this?

Add a terrific ensemble cast of top-notch British actors, and you couldn’t ask for more.

Hustlers: Don't be conned

Hustlers (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for nudity, pervasive sexual content, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes the elements simply don’t gel.

The whole winds up less than the sum of its parts. And in the case of Hustlers, the parts aren’t that engaging to begin with.

Having fleeced hundreds of thousands of dollars from drugged marks, the gals — from
left, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and
Destiny (Constance Wu) — treat themselves to some party time.
Director/scripter Lorene Scafaria’s lurid little drama is “inspired by” Jessica Pressler’s lengthy December 2015 feature article in New York magazine. Scafaria actually strip-mined Pressler’s piece quite extensively; in terms of detail, the resulting film is much more authentic to its source than most claiming to be “based on actual events.”

But that’s far from satisfying. The major problem is that both Pressler and Scafaria have hitched their respective narratives to highly unreliable narrators. Pressler wisely adopted a clinical journalist’s approach, putting more faith in details subsequently verified by police investigations.

Scafaria, in contrast, constructed a story inhabited by characters who — if not sympathetic — would at least be interesting.

In this, alas, she failed. 

More than anything else, Hustlers — with its quartet of scheming escorts — is boring. Extremely boring. It also falls into a trap common to films that attempt to illuminate exploitative behavior: It becomes relentlessly exploitative.

On top of which, it’s difficult to ignore the cynicism of this film’s creation. It’s clearly a vanity project for Jennifer Lopez, who — in her parallel role as producer — ensures that Jennifer Lopez (as star) gets plenty of exposure. That descriptor is deliberate; there’s no question that Lopez wants us to be impressed by her 50-year-old body, much the way Demi Moore strutted her stuff in the 1996 adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease.

So, okay, yes: Lopez is in phenomenal shape. Truly stunning. No argument.

But therein lies another problem: Her presence overwhelms this tawdry saga. It’s always Jennifer Lopez, walking, talking and stalking. At no time does she transcend her own self in order to become Ramona, ringleader of a coterie of cuties who graduate from pole twirling and lap dancing to the unpalatably larcenous — and, for a time, highly successful — fleecing of wealthy Wall Street jerks.

Friday, September 6, 2019

It Chapter Two: Two much of a good thing

It Chapter Two (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, profanity, highly disturbing violent content and gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.6.19

This impressively creepy chiller delivers a relentless 100 minutes of gruesome, appalling, terrifying, look-between-your-fingers heart-stoppers.

Having made their way into the heart of Evil's lair, our heroes — from left, Bev (Jessica
Chastain), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) and Ben (Jay Ryan) — are confronted by yet another
in an endless wave of ookie-spooky monstrosities.
Director Andy Muschietti and scripter Gary Dauberman leave no horror movie cliché neglected — no phobia unexploited — in their handsomely mounted, atmosphere-drenched conclusion to Stephen King’s 1986 best-seller.

Unfortunately, this film runs 169 minutes.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re discussing chocolate milk shakes or cinematic shocks; indulge too much, and the result simply becomes bland.

Which is ironic, because the best part of 2017’s It was the clever way in which Muschietti and his writers — Dauberman was assisted that time by Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga — stripped away the over-written dead flesh of King’s 1,138-page exercise in diminishing returns. With this second “half” of King’s saga, they’ve succumbed to the same self-indulgent excess.

Quite a pity. Particularly since the first two acts are — no question — macabre and terrifying at every turn.

Doesn’t matter what irrationally frightens or repulses you; Muschietti and Dauberman tap into it. Spiders? Claustrophobia? Disgusting flying bugs? Long, dark hallways? Slithery, worm-like nasties? Naked old people?


Clowns with massive, jaw-stretching, needle-sharp teeth? (The better to eat you with, my dear…)

There’s actually much to admire in this grim fantasy’s concluding installment, starting with an ensemble of well-cast actors who persuasively feel like grown-up versions of the first film’s adolescent heroes. Dauberman also manages the clever feat of integrating this sequel with its predecessor’s events, while simultaneously making it a coherent stand-alone experience for anybody unfamiliar with that 2017 entry. (Likely no more than one or two of you, but still…)

Brittany Runs a Marathon: An inspiring effort

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief drug content

By Derrick Bang

We’ve often heard that artists suffer for their work.

Jillian Bell suffered more than most.

When Brittany (Jillian Bell) enters her first actual race, she winds up pacing
Seth (Micah Stock), who quickly becomes her comrade-in-agony.
She pulled a Christian Bale before and during the filming of Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is highlighted by her effervescent — and, at times, quite brave — performance in the title role. (Bale notoriously dropped 63 pounds when he made 2004’s The Machinist.)

Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s indie charmer is the sort of “modest” film that rewards discovery, and deserves to be enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible. The icing on an already delectable cake: It’s based on a real-world woman’s actual journey of self-discovery and accomplishment.

As much as Bell owns this film, she’s surrounded by a wealth of engaging supporting characters, all brought to captivating life by an equally talented ensemble cast. Their diverse personalities are thoughtfully constructed; the resulting duo and group dynamics are spot-on; and Colaizzo’s script drops plenty of hilarious one-liners without making these individuals seem any less real-world.

That’s a neat trick.

On top of which, Colaizzo inserts some perceptive — and desperately needed — jabs at the too-frequently-cruel narcissism of the social media generation.

New York-based Brittany Forgler (Bell), 27 and feeling more like 37, has lost control. Her life — hard partying, chronic under-employment and ghastly “relationships” — is the stuff of an immature high school or college student, with no thought of adult responsibility. And, yes; she has let herself go physically, and it’s catching up with her.

All of which has become a serious concern to her older sister, Cici (Kate Arrington), and brother-in-law, Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery), who essentially raised Brittany following a nasty parental divorce. But sibling disapproval isn’t sufficient; Brittany isn’t brought up short until she tries to score some prescription Adderall, and instead gets a gentle reprimand from her doctor (Patch Darragh, in a brief but telling role).

The message: Get healthy. Before the downward spiral becomes dire.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Fanatic: Nothing to admire

The Fanatic (2019) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for violence, gore and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.30.19

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Seeing John Travolta starring in a tawdry little flick such as The Fanatic is disheartening enough; further noting gifted cinematographer Conrad W. Hall’s involvement qualifies as an out-of-body gob-smack.

Moose (John Travolta, left) cannot understand why his proximity to the house belonging
to his favorite movie star — Devon Sawa, as Hunter Dunbar — is cause for such a
nasty outburst. All he wants is an autograph...
Fred Durst’s dreary thriller is the sort of ham-fisted junk that once got sold directly to late-night cable. These days, thanks to the rise of indie cinema and vanity production companies with more cash than common sense, such films sometimes get unwarranted movie theater play … as is the case here.

The recent explosion of pre-title production company logos has become a joke, and this lurid fiasco is no exception. Seriously, would you expect anything worthwhile from an effort “presented” collaboratively by MFC, VMI, Wonderful Media, Quiver Distribution and — my favorite — Pretzel Fang?

It has been said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie; things just go wrong along the way. After enduring this one, I’m not so sure. It’s clearly a vanity project for Durst, best known as the face of the rap/rock band Limp Bizkit; he wrote the story, co-scripted (along with Dave Bekerman) and occupied the director’s chair. It’s not his first rodeo; he previously directed a string of music videos and two big-screen features that didn’t make much noise (2007’s The Education of Charlie Banks and 2008 The Longshots).

I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and — in fairness — he has a confident sense of mood and atmosphere (although I suspect Hall deserves the credit for most of that).

But this is his first story/script credit, and let it be said: The man cannot write. He has no feeling for the way people talk to each other; no concept of plot logic; no understanding of the need for a consistent narrative tone; no grasp of the means to develop and maintain suspense. The Fanatic is a clumsy mess, which makes it a terrific model for teachers of film studies classes, on how not to make a movie.

According to pre-release hype, the premise is based on an actual incident from Durst’s music career, when he had to deal with an overly aggressive fan who crossed the line of acceptable behavior. If so, that makes this story’s jaw-droppingly weird and deplorably brutal climax even harder to understand. If it’s wish fulfillment, Durst’s time would be better spent in therapy.

On top of which, we’ve been here many times before. Lauren Bacall was targeted by an obsessively unhinged Michael Biehn, in 1981’s The Fan; all-star baseball player Wesley Snipes ran afoul of the equally deranged Robert De Niro, in 1996’s The Fan. (Not much originality in titles, eh?)

And didn’t Stephen King make the ultimate statement with Misery, which brought Kathy Bates a well-deserved Academy Award for her 1990 portrayal of poor James Caan’s “Number One Fan”?

The Bacall flick is nothing to write home about, but Durst managed to top its deficiencies. No small feat.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon: Utterly captivating

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, brief violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.23.19

Precious few films deserve to be mentioned alongside Mark Twain’s richly evocative, character-driven prose.

This is one of them.

Determined to take advantage of Rule No. 1 — "Party!" — Zak (Zack Gottsagen, left) and
Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) dip rather too enthusiastically into a jug of moonshine bestowed by
an obliging store owner.
The comparison runs deeper than tone and atmosphere. Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz deliberately evoke the spirit of Samuel Langhorne Clemens as their endearing, deeply heartwarming tale proceeds. It’s easy to imagine Twain having concocted just such an intimate,  transformational fable, had he settled in the swampy, reed-filled inlets and quiet sandy beaches of North Carolina.

Nilson and Schwartz’s mythical saga has a similar sense of otherworldly timelessness, ingeniously leavened with a dollop of contemporary social consciousness. The script — and precisely crafted dialog — never put a foot wrong.

The result is utterly charming.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome, chafes in a nursing home for senior citizens in the final stages of life: the only facility willing to accept him, after being abandoned by his original family. Despite an inherent optimism and outward cheerfulness, he’s restless and miserable in an environment clearly not suited to his needs.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an empathetic volunteer who has tried to be a friend; at the very least, she’s closer to his age than anybody else. Zak appreciates the effort, and promises that she’ll be one of the privileged few invited to his next birthday party.

Zak’s only joy comes from endlessly re-watching an old promotional videotape starring his longtime hero: a professional wrestler dubbed the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). More than anything else, Zak dreams of traveling to Florida, in order to enroll at his idol’s wrestling school.

Elsewhere, personal tragedy has left Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) unable to cope with the world. At the loosest of ends, sleeping rough and incapable (unwilling?) to hold a steady job, he survives solely by stealing the caged catches of other crab fishermen. But that’s a dangerous gamble, when everybody similarly scrambles to stay alive; Tyler runs afoul of rival fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Southern rapper Yelawolf), who threaten to kill him.

Zak, no stranger to escape attempts, finally succeeds one night with some assistance from his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern, enjoying a late-career Renaissance playing feisty old coots). Alas, the effort leaves him clad solely in briefs. Stumbling barefoot and shirtless in the dark, he finally hides beneath the tarp in a dockside skiff … which happens to belong to Tyler, who has just compounded his problems with a stupid and spiteful act.

Forced to flee by boat into the reedy inlets, with Duncan and Ratboy in vengeful pursuit, Tyler is well away before he discovers the stowaway.

Angel Has Fallen: A devilishly good time

Angel Has Fallen (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

The third time’s definitely the charm, for this series.

Were it not for A-level casts toplined by Gerard Butler’s indestructible Mike Banning, 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and 2016’s London Has Fallen would have vanished from the face of the planet, due to their outrageously stupid scripts, unforgivably cowardly characters, and offensively jingoistic political undertone.

On the run, and with almost nobody to trust, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) chances a
phone call to his wife, knowing full well that the FBI has tapped his home phone.
Both typified the exploitative action swill that Cinemax programmed in late-night time slots, back in the 1980s.

Given that series creators Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger have been on board throughout, this third entry was approached with more than a little skepticism. But I’m happy to report that Angel Has Fallen is vastly superior to its predecessors; indeed, you’d never believe it came from any of the same folks. Credit likely belongs to new co-scripters Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, the latter a seasoned veteran who has written and co-written crowd-pleasing hits as diverse as The Karate KidThe Fifth Element and the Transporter series.

In short, Kamen knows how to concoct and pace an effective thriller. More to the point, his stories always have heart, and this new Fallenentry is no different; it includes a level of emotional gravitas that was completely absent in the first two films, whose characters had the depth of tissue paper.

On top of which, the core plot is an always reliable chestnut invariably tapped during the third or fourth season of successful television investigative dramas: the ol’ “We’ve all trusted this guy for years, but now — solely because of circumstantial evidence — we’re gonna believe that he’s been an evil bastard all along.”

Contrived, yes. But undeniably effective, because it puts our hero in the situation beloved by Alfred Hitchcock: on the run from good guys and bad guys.

In fairness, said circumstantial evidence is quite formidable. While keeping President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) company during a restful fishing trip in the middle of a freezing-cold lake, Banning and his Secret Service team are attacked by a phalanx of explosive drones. Thanks to quick thinking, Banning saves Trumbull’s life, but only barely; the president remains hospitalized, in a coma. Recovering is uncertain.

Banning, in turn, awakens to find himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. As he stares in disbelief, FBI Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) coldly informs him that he’s the lone survivor, the entire rest of the Secret Service team having been wiped out. Far more damning, the tech-laden van from which the drones were fired has been found, and it’s laden with Banning’s DNA. The cherry on top: $20 million in a clandestine account under his name, with the funds traced back to — we pause, for emphasis — the Russians.

(How’s that for election interference?)