Friday, October 21, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back — Deftly paced popcorn thrills

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, plenty of action violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.16

All right; he’s growing on me.

Lee Child’s fans know darn well that — as a physical specimen — Tom Cruise couldn’t be further removed from the author’s depiction of honorable loner Jack Reacher. (Cruise: 5-feet-7, 148 pounds; Reacher: 6-feet-5, 210-250 pounds, with a 50-inch chest.)

Having learned that Samantha — a girl who might (or might not) be his daughter — is in
danger, Reacher (Tom Cruise) and Turner (Cobie Smulders) rush to her home ... only
to find signs of violence, and no trace of the teenager.
In Child’s novel Never Go Back — on which this film is loosely based — Reacher is said to have “a six-pack like a cobbled city street, a chest like a suit of NFL armor, biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue.”

Sounds more like The Incredible Hulk, right? On his best day, it would take three Tom Cruises to make one Jack Reacher.

That said, I’ve gotta give Cruise credit (even if that seems superfluous, since his name pretentiously appears three times in the title credits, before the movie even starts). He’s an impressively fit 54-year-old, and he handles this film’s action scenes and stunt work with reasonable élan. And he’s still a dynamic sprinter, which he demonstrates a few times here.

(Tom Cruise action movies always have running scenes. He obviously believes he looks good doing them.)

All right, all right; enough joshing. Cruise’s second outing as Reacher is more satisfying than its 2012 predecessor, thanks to engaging supporting characters who do much to humanize the narrative. The primary plot is supplemented by a solid secondary mystery, and Cruise has softened the at-times laughably stoic manner he gave Reacher the first time.

I credit director/co-scripter Edward Zwick, who has a history of blending action epics with compelling character development, in films such as Glory, Blood Diamond and Defiance. Zwick and Cruise also worked together on The Last Samurai.

They chose this film’s source material wisely. Cruise’s first Reacher film was based on Child’s ninth novel, One Shot, a rather grim affair that did little but drip with testosterone, and frequently emphasized the many ways that Cruise didn’t look or sound like Reacher. This new film is adapted from Child’s 18th book — Zwick sharing scripting credit with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz — which is a much shrewder choice, with better mainstream audience appeal.

Zwick opens with a prologue of sorts, which allows Cruise to display the calm assurance with which he greets all perilous or life-threatening situations. It also establishes his connection to Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has inherited his desk at the headquarters of his former unit, the 110th MP in northeastern Virginia. Zwick deftly establishes that the two have been trading intel and phone calls for awhile, but have yet to meet.

(In Child’s series, this long-distance relationship begins with the 14th book, 61 Hours.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Accountant: Right on the money

The Accountant (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.16

Characters who defy expectations are a lot of fun.

Accountants toil in the back rooms of office obscurity, burdened further by a reputation for blandness: a pejorative they hardly deserve. The finest accountants are akin to ace detectives, concocting novel methods of financial wizardry, or uncovering corporate impropriety.

Having turned over the results of an analysis that required several months, Dana (Anna
Kendrick) is astonished to return to work the next morning, and find that Chris (Ben
Affleck) has cross-checked, enhanced and sourced the anomaly in question ... all
in a single day.
Link that profession with the savant and socially awkward characteristics of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man, or Christian Bale’s character in The Big Short, and the results can be captivating.

At first blush, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) fits the bill perfectly. We meet him assisting an elderly couple, Frank and Dolores Rice (Ron Prather and Susan Williams), through their tax prep, gently “steering” them into answers that formalize a home business with advantageous deductions. It’s a droll scene, all the more so because of Chris’ stoic, near immobility: his rigid posture, his failure to smile, his reluctance to meet his clients’ gaze.

We’re familiar with these signs: Chris is on the spectrum.

He returns home each evening to a stabilization ritual in the privacy of his bedroom: a bright light, ear-splittingly loud music, and methodical exercise, all timed to a specific schedule. Chris’ primary tic: He must finish anything he starts, otherwise he loses control.

Actually, the situation is more complicated. During flashbacks to Chris’ childhood — the character played here by Seth Lee, persuasively distressed — we see a boy in full-blown meltdown, unable to interact with an environment he finds too chaotic. Younger brother Brax (Jake Presley) watches helplessly, as their parents argue over treatment. Mom (Mary Kraft) favors intervention in the nurturing environment of a special needs school; Dad (Robert C. Treveiler), career military, insists that it’s more realistic to confront their elder son with a world that’ll never go out of its way to treat him fairly.

But wait: The situation is even more complicated.

Elsewhere, back in the modern day, U.S. Treasury Department Crime Enforcement Division head Ray King (J.K. Simmons), soon to retire, recounts an unlikely tale to recruit Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). King shares a shadowy photo trail of a mysterious somebody — known only as “The Accountant” — who gets hired, somehow clandestinely, whenever the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations need their finances vetted.

Somehow, even more improbably, this “Accountant” survives these encounters, remaining available for the next summons by, say, the head of a drug cartel.

King wants to know who this “Accountant” actually is, before he retires. Medina reluctantly accepts the assignment.

Denial: Profound courtroom drama

Denial (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

This film fascinates in all sorts of ways.

Most notably — and, obviously, the reason it was made — director Mick Jackson’s absorbing, rigorously faithful drama shines a necessary spotlight on longtime Holocaust denier David Irving, and the shameful lengths to which he went, in an effort to legitimize his odious beliefs.

As Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) watches nervously, QC Richard Rampton (Tom
Wilkinson, standing) prepares to address another of sham historian David Irving's
deplorable claims.
American viewers — at least, those who didn’t devour the escapades of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey — will be equally intrigued, possibly even astonished, by this film’s well-crafted depiction of the British legal system, and specifically how it differs from the U.S. court system, with respect to libel suits.

Most impressively, though, scripter David Hare — adapting historian Deborah E. Lipstadt’s memoir, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial — has crafted a parallel dilemma that focuses on Lipstadt herself, played superbly here by Rachel Weisz. Lipstadt’s struggle to remain true to her own conscience and principles, and her reluctant recognition that she must — simply must — have faith in others, is just as compelling as the courtroom duel that dominates the film’s second half.

The title, therefore, is deliberately double-barreled: As well as signifying Irving’s standing as an unrepentant Holocaust denier, it also represents the tremendously difficult choice that must be made by the passionate, fiery and independent Lipstadt, to swallow her pride and deny a public outlet for her own righteous indignation.

We know the legal outcome; it’s obvious — given Hare’s source material — even for viewers who didn’t follow the case, while it unfolded during the final four years of the 20th century. But few outside of Lipstadt’s friends and inner circle would have known how this case affected her on a personal level; Hare and Weisz give us an intimate and thoroughly absorbing view of how Lipstadt faced this challenge, and — with the help of a superb legal team — ultimately triumphed.

The case began with a whisper in 1993, with the publication of Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust. She acknowledged Irving within those pages, briefly but trenchantly, labeling him a Holocaust denier, a racist, and a falsifier of history.

(It’s important to understand that although Irving’s charitable views of Hitler and Nazism never were taken seriously by mainstream historians, he was a tireless writer, having published more than two dozen books. Regardless of how he was regarded by the world, Irving viewed himself as a serious academic and valid historian.)

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Birth of a Nation: Strong delivery

The Birth of a Nation (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, cruelty, rape and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.7.16

It’s telling — likely for all the wrong reasons — that the Nat Turner slave rebellion hadn’t yet been dramatized in an American film.

Having viewed a solar eclipse as a sign — of a black man's hand reaching to obscure the
sun — Nat Turnet (Nate Parker, foreground) gathers an increasingly large band of
equally enraged slaves, in order to begin a movement that he hopes will gather strength
and build, from county to city to state.
Aside from earning a chapter in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots — which got a few key details wrong — the event has gone unacknowledged by mainstream visual media.

Until now.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; without doubt, its arrival is timely. But tapping into the current combustible zeitgeist is ephemeral; relying on that sort of serendipity has consigned many films (and books, and plays) into the basement of forgotten relics.

The question is whether Parker has made a truly good film: an honorable, balanced and historically truthful document that will stand the test of time, and resonate with future viewers. On balance, the answer is yes: This shattering drama falls somewhat short of the bar set by 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, but it’s worthy competition. Thanks to these and other recent entries such as Selma and Fruitville Station, we’re experiencing an alternate — and equally valid — depiction of events which, in some cases, have remained shamefully overlooked.

ALL drama is compelling, particularly when experienced from differing viewpoints. Variety — as ever — is the spice of life.

Granted, Parker’s Birth of a Nation occasionally is guilty of grandiloquent excess. (The angel imagery is a particular overreach, as is his tendency toward unnecessary close-ups.) The indiscriminate butchery fomented by Turner is glossed over; no matter how justified the rage, it’s difficult to condone the slaughter of children (a detail Parker simply disregards).

The Girl on the Train: Runaway directorial excess

The Girl on the Train (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, nudity, sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang


“One more close-up,” I grumble, to Constant Companion, “and I’m gonna throw something through the screen.”

Wanting to help an increasingly confused Scott (Luke Evans), Rachel (Emily Blunt) explains
what she saw one recent morning commute, when she glanced out the train window. But
in truth Rachel isn't certain herself, and this indecision will come back to haunt her.
Truly, by now I can catalog every pore on Emily Blunt’s face. Rarely has a cinematographer been ordered to provide so many tight-tight-tight close-ups, to the serious detriment of his film.

Nor is this the only one of director Tate Taylor’s transgressions. He also relies on lengthy pregnant pauses, as if worried that we viewers are unable to keep up with the story.

Then there’s the matter of the changing first-person narratives, and the frequent flashbacks, all of which are labeled in portentous capital letters (i.e. SIX MONTHS EARLIER). This technique may have worked in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel — “the thriller that shocked the world,” the film poster modestly proclaims — but it’s a serious hassle on the big screen.

Employing flashbacks or alternating points of view would have been fine; doing both simultaneously was beyond Taylor’s ability. At times, it’s difficult to determine whether we’re experiencing flashbacks belonging to Rachel, Megan or Anna.

All of which is a shame, because these intrusive directorial tics and hiccups detract from star Emily Blunt’s impressive performance. Her Rachel is a tapestry of disorientation, shame, fear and uncontrolled bursts of fury. Blunt persuasively handles Rachel’s many moods and transformations, making this poor woman, by turns, despicable, vulnerable and heartbreaking.

And by this point in the film, things are beginning to make sense; Rachel’s savage mood swings no longer seem random.

Which, sadly, points to Taylor’s most serious miscalculation. His pacing is so leaden, his extended takes so prolonged, all those pregnant pauses so protracted, that he telegraphs the story’s “big reveal” by giving us too much time to deduce it.

In a nutshell, Taylor has destroyed the suspense present in Hawkins’ book. He made the story boring.

The Dressmaker: Leaves us in stitches

The Dressmaker (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang 

Revenge is a dish best served with needle and thread.

Metaphors aren’t the only things mixed in director/co-scripter Jocelyn Moorhouse’s deliciously savage adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel. The Dressmaker starts as a tart-tongued Aussie burlesque populated by small-town eccentrics: something of a cross between Tim Burton’s sensibilities, and arch British films such as Cold Comfort Farm and Death at a Funeral.

Returning to her home town after an absence of two decades, Tilly (Kate Winslet,
standing) finds that her first chore is to restore order — and cleanliness — to the
grotesquely messy house in which her mother Molly (Judy Davis) is living.
But just as you’ve settled into what seems a comfortable — if rather scathing — groove, the story takes a jaw-dropping third-act lurch and turns dark. Very dark. Pitch-black gallows humor.

All of which continues to work, even as we gasp for breath. Ham had a lot to say about small-minded, small-town snobbery — “suspicion, malice and prejudice,” in her own words — and such concerns are the thread from which this cutting tapestry is woven. Moorhouse and co-scripter P.J. Hogan (who brought us Muriel’s Wedding) faithfully retain both the tone and essential plot points from Ham’s book, and the result is a tasty blend of social commentary, mystery and oh-so-sweet revenge saga.

The time is 1951, the setting the tiny community of Dungatar, a one-horse town deep in the wheat belt of southeast Australia. The film opens late one night, as a mysterious woman arrives by bus. This is Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet): poised, polished and professional.

And the last person most folks in Dungatar ever wanted to see again.

Moorhouse slyly parcels out brief, sepia-hued flashbacks. As a child, Tilly was hated by the one-room schoolteacher; was the butt of every other child’s prank; was despised even by local adults. The distraught little girl lacked the sophistication to realize that she was being “punished” for being an illegitimate child, her mother Molly (Judy Davis) having defied social convention by remaining in town to raise her daughter alone.

Now, 20 years later, and having been trained in France to become a haute couture designer, Tilly has returned to Dungatar. Ostensibly, she has come back to care for her ailing and now wildly peculiar mother; under the surface, though, Tilly wants answers.

She also wants payback.

The first task, though, may prove impossible. Molly, a bitter recluse with a particularly nasty tongue, won’t even acknowledge Tilly as her daughter; the early confrontations between these two women are hilarious. Davis never has been more wily, Winslet never more grimly determined. Cackling eccentrics are an actor’s dream come true, and Davis milks the role for all it’s worth.

Were it not for my fear that this little film won’t attract any attention, Davis would be a shoo-in for a supporting actress Academy Award nomination, if not the statue itself. Yes, she’s that good.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Queen of Katwe: Check and mate!

Queen of Katwe (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for occasional dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.30.16

Inspirational stories don’t come much more heartwarming than this one.

Queen of Katwe depicts the unlikely saga of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan slum girl who, despite overwhelming odds both cultural and socio-economic, grew up to become one of her country’s first titled female chess players. And — mind you — she’s only 20 years old, as these words are typed.

As Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, standing) watches expectantly, Phiona
(Madina Nalwanga, far left) plays a telling game of chess against Benjamin
(Ethan Nazario Lubega, far right).
Director Mira Nair’s fact-based account of Phiona’s rise to chess glory is earnest and uplifting, while also unflinching and uncompromising. Our immersion in the Ugandan slum of Katwe can’t help drawing anguished gasps: this despite the fact that scripter William Wheeler — adapting Tim Crothers’ January 2011 ESPN Magazine article and subsequent book — clearly has glossed over some of the grimmer details.

This is, after all, a family-friendly Disney drama; unduly horrifying the target audience would have been a serious mistake. But Nair and Wheeler nonetheless make their points, most notably the tragedy that results every time a child’s inquisitive mind is blunted — or shut down — by environmental circumstance.

We can but wonder: How many other Phiona Mutesis are Out There, waiting to have their respective passions nurtured? Each and every one left unfound, uninspired, is an incalculable loss.

Nair is blessed further by a talented roster of performers, beginning with stars Lupia Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga; rarely has the input of a casting director — in this case, Dinaz Stafford — yielded such impressive results. While it’s true that Nair is a gifted director with the skill to extract nuanced performances from her actors, these efforts clearly are easier when granted such gifted raw materials from which to sculpt the characters.

Nair has a long and productive history with ensemble dramas that place their protagonists at a cultural crossroads, from Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala to Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. We can’t help identifying with the characters in her films, who struggle with grace and dignity to navigate generational gaps, language barriers and institutional hurdles, all while trying to remain true to themselves.