Friday, December 13, 2019

Dark Waters: Deadly serious

Dark Waters (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.19

Mark Ruffalo has become this generation’s Henry Fonda. Or Jimmy Stewart.

When corporate attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, right) reluctantly visits the cattle
ranch that has been in Wilbur Tennant's (Bill Camp) family for generations, they're
startled by the sudden apperance of a heifer that appears to be viciously rabid.
Ruffalo’s performances radiate the same intelligence and integrity. The same resolute dedication to a cause. The same anguish at the realization that greed and cowardice too frequently trump benevolence and compassion. The same disbelief over the ease with which people in power feel no remorse over lying, cheating and ill-treating those less equipped to fight back.

The primary difference is that Fonda and Stewart mostly played fictional characters in their iconic films, such as The Grapes of Wrath and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Ruffalo takes it a step further, tackling actual individuals in an expanding roster of fact-based sagas that qualify as searing advocacy cinema.

He earned his third Academy Award nomination for 2015’s Spotlight, while portraying Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe reporter Mike Rezendes, who led the investigative charge that exposed the local Catholic Archdiocese’s cover-up of child molestation cases. The film deservedly won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, and the viewing experience is jaw-dropping, as Rezendes and his fellow reporters uncover proof of the church’s ever-more-heinous behavior.

Dark Waters is even harder to watch.

Much harder.

This new film, also lifted from headlines, depicts defense attorney Robert Bilott’s heroic determination — over the course of two decades — to force DuPont to reveal that it had knowingly poisoned people for even longer. And not only had concealed such monstrous behavior, but defiantly maintained that it had done nothing “legally wrong,” and therefore could not be “blamed” for anything.

That last little detail comes well into a saga that already has become grim viewing. Director Todd Haynes’ approach is methodical and relentless, carefully fueled by the strong character dynamics that he delivered in Far from HeavenCarol and other previous films. 

The information dump is considerable but not insurmountable. In effect, we gradually learn the degrees of DuPont’s perfidy along with Bilott, while he becomes a reluctant investigator in the mold of Rezendes and — reaching further back — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in All the President’s Men.

Or, more closely linked, Erin Brockovich, in the 2000 drama named for that similarly righteous crusader. That case also started with water.

Richard Jewell: Grim slaughter of innocents

Richard Jewell (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Perhaps the most reprehensible lingering disgrace in the ordeal suffered by Richard Jewell — during a lengthy nightmare laden with hourly indignities — is the fact that, to this day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution maintains that it behaved responsibly.

Centennial Park security officer Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, center) points law
enforcement officers to a suspicious-looking backpack that has been abandoned
beneath a bench near the sound-and-light tower adjacent to the performance stage,
where Jack Mack and the Heart Attack are entertaining thousands of fans.
To borrow a phrase from the younger generation, I call BS.

Jewell deserves to be remembered solely as the hero who, while working as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, discovered a bomb-laden backpack and helped evacuate the crowded area before it exploded. He undoubtedly saved many, many lives.

Instead, he’s more likely remembered as the hapless individual who, three days later, was identified as the probable suspect who planted the bomb, thanks to an overzealous FBI investigation, inflammatory “reporting” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the hundreds of media outlets that subsequently fanned the flames. 

Despite being cleared after an 88-day siege by media and all manner of law enforcement, Jewell undoubtedly remained a question mark in the minds of many, particularly since nobody initially was arrested for the heinous crime. It’s easy to imagine the rumor-mongering: “Maybe he did do it, but the FBI just didn’t have enough evidence…”

Even when Eric Rudolph confessed to being the bomber after being arrested in 2003, there was no way to wholly eradicate the avalanche of accusatory publicity that had buried Jewell and his equally hapless mother for 88 days. Retractions and “fresh truth” rarely have the impact of three months’ worth of screaming headlines.

Director Clint Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray — adapting Marie Brenner’s mesmerizing profile of Jewell, in the February 1997 Vanity Fair — have done their best to restore his honor, in a compelling drama fueled by powerhouse performances from Paul Walter Hauser and Kathy Bates, as Richard and his mother, Bobi. The result is a terrifying cautionary tale about the fragility of one’s place in society, and the ease with which an ordinary life can be ruined by authority and bad publicity.

Jewell’s ordeal truly is straight out of Kafka.

Jumanji: The Next Level — Droll derring-do

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy peril, mild suggestive content, and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.19

This sequel definitely fulfills its mandate: It’s fun, fast-paced and exciting.

Not exactly suspenseful — it’s hard to imagine anything really bad happening to these characters — but nonetheless laden with plenty of Perils of Pauline-style danger.

Having (mostly) survived an attack by a herd of killer ostriches, our heroes — from left,
Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Dr. Shelly
Oberon (Jack Black) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) — contemplate how best to
proceed to their dangerous game's next level.
Jumanji: The Next Level isn’t as fresh as its 2017 predecessor, although writer/director Jake Kasdan — with co-scripter Jeff Pinkner — have made some clever refinements. At just north of two hours, the pacing flags a bit; Kasdan should have let editors Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich and Tara Timpone tighten things up a bit. (Why else have three editors?)

A few years have passed since small-town New Hampshire teens Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) “became” fictitious video game avatars in a dangerously haunted old console edition of Jumanji. They survived that adventure — as depicted in the previous film — and have moved on to separate college lives.

Spencer, alas, feels unfulfilled. Juggling classes and a part-time job have worn him down; his long-distance relationship with Martha also has crumbled. Returning to Brantford for a reunion with his three friends leaves him uneasy: a feeling intensified when he discovers that his Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) has become a semi-permanent houseguest, while recovering from hip surgery.

The fact is, Spencer suffers from a syndrome all too familiar to those who’ve survived harrowing, life-or-death experiences; he misses the opportunity to be heroic. He misses the rush.

When Spencer fails to show up for the long-awaited get-together, his friends go looking for him. By coincidence, they find Grandpa Eddie reluctantly hosting a long-estranged friend: Milo (Danny Glover), with whom he once shared a thriving local restaurant business. Martha, Fridge and Bethany are barely inside the door when they hear the characteristic rumbling drums that signal Jumanji-style peril.

Tracing the sound to the basement, they’re shocked to find the malevolent game console … which they all assumed had been destroyed. Worse yet, there’s every indication that it has been re-activated. With Spencer nowhere to be found, the conclusion is inescapable.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Knives Out: A cutting romp

Knives Out (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for brief violence, profanity, sexual candor and drug references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.6.19

I haven’t had this much fun since 2001’s Gosford Park.

From the opening scene — as two large dogs charge ominously across the grounds of a massive secluded estate, accompanied by an unsettling warble of violins from soundtrack composer Nathan Johnson — we’re obviously in good hands.

While Marta (Ana de Armas) watches uncomfortably, private investigator Benoit Blanc
(Daniel Craig) puzzles his way through one of the many inconsistencies in the
"suicide" that he increasingly believes was staged.
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a droll, clever riff on classic, Agatha Christie-style drawing room murder mysteries. It’s not quite a spoof — the plot is powered by a devilishly twisty whodunit — but one nonetheless senses that all concerned had a great time in the process.

The top-flight cast is headed by Daniel Craig, resolutely solemn as debonair Benoit Blanc, a Southern-friend private investigator who channels Christie’s Hercule Poirot by way of Colonel Sanders. (Once again, British actors are surprisingly convincing with their Deep South accents.) Craig almost never cracks a smile — it wouldn’t suit Benoit’s character — but the more gravely earnest he remains, the funnier the performance.

And Benoit certainly has a puzzler for his little gray cells.

As the film opens, world-famous and wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has been dead for a week, his passing written off as suicide: not an unusual a call, given that he was found with the knife that slashed his throat, his fingerprints all over the handle.

As far as local cops Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) are concerned, the case is closed. They’re therefore baffled when Benoit shows up, claiming to have been hired to investigate the “suspicious circumstances” of Harlan’s death; the gumshoe requests re-interviews with the entire Thrombey clan.

At first blush, they seem united in genuine grief … but after even minimal probing, they turn out to be quite the collection of grasping, spiteful, self-centered, back-biting misfits.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Frozen II: Shouldn't have been thawed

Frozen II (2019) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.19

I want to know what this film’s writers were smoking.

Granted, this sequel to 2013’s Frozen has its moments, almost exclusively those involving Josh Gad’s hilarious supporting performance as the relentlessly loquacious snowman, Olaf.

Having just penetrated the strange mist that conceals an enchanted forest, Elsa (foreground)
continues to hear a mysterious voice, although her companions — from left, Sven, Olaf,
Kristoff and Anna — do not.
The rest, however, is a mess.

Folks with a chronic aversion to musicals — and their numbers are legion — generally don’t shun classics such asThe Wizard of OzSinging in the Rain or West Side Story, or later genre refinements such as Cabaret and La La Land. No, such folks hate bad musicals: 1969’s Paint Your Wagon, 1975’s At Long Last Love, 1982’s Grease 2 and many others too numerous to mention.

Musicals with wafer-thin stories that usually make no sense, and which are interrupted constantly when the orchestra swells, an actor or two pauses in mid-sentence, stares heavenward, and we recoil with a sotto voce “Oh, gawd; they’re gonna sing again.”

Musicals with truly atrocious songs, not one of which is memorable enough to linger beyond the end credits.

Frozen II is a bad musical. A very bad musical, with genuinely awful, unmelodic and instantly forgotten tunes. Some of which are heard (endured?) more than once.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez clearly felt they had to match the success of “Let It Go,” their inspirational, Academy Award-winning ballad from the first film. Ergo, most of these seven new tunes are similarly overcooked and overwrought power anthems, not one of which comes within shouting distance of “Let It Go.” The absence of musical variety — particularly during the film’s second half — becomes unbearable.

You could hear the clanking of eyeballs rolling in their sockets, during Monday evening’s preview screening, each time viewers muttered, “Oh, gawd; she’s gonna sing again.”

There’s such a thing as trying too hard.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: A bold, but failed experiment

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This is so not the movie most folks likely are expecting.

Not even 10 minutes in, it feels like we’ve stumbled into the Twilight Zone.

When cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, right) arrives at the Pittsburgh studio
where Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is filmed, he's surprised to be greeted effusively by
Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), as if they were longtime friends.
A couple of clues signal this not-quite-rightness. The film’s aspect ratio is 4:3, as with old television set images (as opposed to any sort of wide-screen format). The visuals appear slightly out of focus, as if we’re watching a VHS tape; director of photography Jody Lee Lipes has re-created 20-year-old television-style cinematography. The result seems “blurry” because we’ve become so accustomed to pristine HD camerawork.

Lipes pans slowly over the familiar, scale-model neighborhood set, complete with toy vehicles — notably the Neighborhood Trolley — moving jerkily among the rows of houses, in the low-budget, pre-CGI fashion. The gentle, equally memorable piano melody rises — Nate Heller’s soundtrack sublimely mimicking the iconic Johnny Costa, whose improvised keyboard work was such an integral part of the show — and Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) enters in ritual fashion.

The jacket comes off, replaced by a red cardigan: zipped all the way up — and then halfway down — with a snap. He sits; the formal shoes yield to canvas boat sneakers. All the while, he softly croons the iconic opening song — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — without ever losing that gentle, inviting smile.

The replication is almost spooky: the stance, the voice, the welcoming expression. More than that, the aura that always radiated from Fred Rogers. The latter must’ve been a challenge: Either that, or Hanks has discovered a way to channel the dear departed.

Right about now, we wonder: Where the heck are we going?

At which point, the merely puzzling sails into the positively weird.

Mr. Rogers shares a picture-board, opening each of the little doors to reveal a photograph beneath. Some are familiar, as with the puppet King Friday the 13th. But the next door conceals a head shot — practically a police booking photo — of Mr. Rogers’ “good friend,” Lloyd Vogel. He looks quite worse for wear, with a black eye and bloodied nose.

Mr. Rogers softly laments the plight of those consumed by anger, unable to forgive the trespasses of others. Whereupon we slide into Lloyd’s life, to witness the events that brought him to this sorry state.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Ford V Ferrari: Turbo-charged!

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

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.15.19

Christian Bale never ceases to amaze.

His performances are “all in” to a degree most actors couldn’t even contemplate, let alone accomplish. Nor is it merely the surface gimmick of his extreme weight losses and gains; Bale never appears to be “acting.” He simply becomesthat person, whether an industrial worker fearing for his sanity (The Machinist); a former boxer turned crack addict (The Fighter); or an ex-neurologist-turned-stock market savant suffering from Asperger syndrome (The Big Short).

Having made yet another series of adjustments, driver/engineer Ken Miles (Christian Bale,
left) prepares to test-drive their high-performance vehicle again, while designer
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) waits apprehensively.
Or, in this case, feisty English sports car racing engineer and driver Ken Miles. Five minutes into this film, Bale ceases to exist. He is this guy. The mannerisms, posture, short temper and pugnacious attitude are wholly unlike any other character he has played, during a career that began when he was 12. 

That said, Bale’s Ken Miles is by no means defined solely by his truculence; the scenes he shares with Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe — also excellent, as Miles’ wife Mollie and their young son Peter — depict a kinder, gentler and loving man wholly at odds with the automotive genius who suffers fools not at all, let alone gladly.

(For the record, Bale dropped 70 pounds to play Miles, after having plumped up for Dick Cheney, in Vice.)

The notion that Bale has yet to win a Best Actor Oscar defies comprehension.

His sublime performance is far from the only high point in Ford V Ferrari, director James Mangold’s consistently absorbing, fascinating and suspenseful depiction of the American automobile company’s hare-brained, mid-1960s decision to challenge Italy’s boutique car-maker in the annual 24-hour Le Mans endurance race. Despite a running time of 152 minutes, Mangold’s film is never less than compelling … and the racing sequences are breathtaking. 

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and a trio of editors — Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt — deserve considerable applause. Sound designer Jay Wilkinson deserves an Academy Award.

Kudos, as well, to scripters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, for bravely tackling the corporate back-story and hijinks that led to this automotive clash. The narrative execution is never less than enthralling, to the same degree that 1976’s All the President’s Men turned plodding investigative journalism into a gripping suspense thriller.

Nor do the writers fill time with the soapy relationship melodrama relied upon by 1969’s Winning and 1971’s Le Mans. This film is cars, cars and nothing but cars … and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re not a racing fan prior to seeing Ford V Ferrari, you certainly will be 152 minutes later.