Friday, September 23, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Guns a'blazin'

The Magnificent Seven (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat generously, for relentless violence and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.16

This premise has been bulletproof ever since Akira Kurosawa introduced it, back in 1954.

It’s not merely a great set-up for an action epic; it also plays to our idealistic belief that everybody — no matter how bad their behavior — yearns for an opportunity to become heroic in the eyes of people not familiar with their past deeds. A chance at redemption, and generous self-sacrifice.

Having determined to transform a community of farmers and townsfolk into a defensive
army of sorts, the "Seven" grimly assess their recruits. From left, Jack Horne (Vincent
D'Onofrio), Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Goodnight
Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), Josh Faraday (Chris
Pratt) and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee).
Can’t miss.

Nor does it, in director Antoine Fuqua’s muscular remake of 1960’s American adaptation of Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. With Denzel Washington top-lining a cast of scene-stealers every bit as engaging as the characters they play, and some narrative tweaks that make their shot at moral salvation virtually impossible — or is it? — this new Magnificent Seven delivers on the promise of the adjective in its title.

That said — and acknowledging the narrative adjustments made by scripters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk,  in keeping with 21st century sensibilities — all concerned should be ashamed of themselves, for failing to better acknowledge the core story concept by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Pizzolatto and Wenk didn’t concoct this concept out of thin air, and it’s annoying to see them claim sole screen credit during the opening titles, as if the entire inspiration were theirs, and theirs alone.


(But I digress...)

The story begins in the tiny post-Civil War community of Rose Creek — a truly stunning set built by production designer Derek Hill and his crew — where the townsfolk have been invaded by ruthless carpetbagger Bartholomew Brogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who has established a destructive gold-mining operation only a few hundred yards from the local church.

Brogue and his hired thugs have made life unbearable, but that isn’t sufficient; he has decided to destroy the community in order to expand his mining efforts ... and he couldn’t care less that this means driving hard-working farmers off their properties. In a prologue that sets new standards for heinous behavior, Brogue and his men hijack a town meeting and make their point brutally clear.

Do we loathe Brogue, in the space of a few swift minutes? Oh my, yes; rarely will you find a villain played with such callous élan. Sarsgaard is coldly, chillingly vile: a truly memorable performance.

The Hollars: Love and (dis)harmony

The Hollars (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Family dysfunction is a longtime cinema staple, and for obvious reasons: We feel much better about our own lives, while vicariously experiencing the calamities others inflict upon themselves.

John (John Krasinski), seeking a way to re-connect with his mother, Sally (Margo
Martindale), impulsively sneaks a contraband breakfast into her hospital room one
morning: pretzels and ice cream.
But walking the fine line between reasonable character flaws and exaggerated burlesque is a fine art; the personalities in question must remain credible — at least to some degree — if we’re to sympathize, and therefore consent to any lessons the writer may have concealed within the anguish.

Scripter Jim Strouse manages pretty well, with The Hollars. His chaotic family study is both sweetly amusing and, at times, embarrassingly intimate. The latter derives from the fine work, all around, delivered by a top-notch ensemble cast led by the indomitable Margo Martindale.

The film is something of a personal project for John Krasinski, who directs, co-produced and also co-stars. It’s easy to see what drew him to this material, as Strouse includes some perceptive truths — and uncomfortably accurate interpersonal dynamics — amid this serio-comic study of a family in distress.

John Hollar (Krasinski) left his middle-American small town years ago, to seek his fortune in New York City. He lucked into a devoted — if somewhat insecure — girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick); they’re expecting a baby, but remain unmarried. This failure to commit apparently derives from John’s dissatisfaction with a drone-like job endured while he attempts to establish a career as a writer/artist of graphic novels: a dream that just ... isn’t ... happening.

He’s summoned back home by the news that his mother, Sally (Martindale), has been hospitalized with a particularly nasty brain tumor. We get a sense that John, although inherently kind and sensitive, has semi-estranged himself from a tempestuous family environment; he returns to find that the flawed dynamic has blossomed into full-blown crisis and chaos.

His father, Don (Richard Jenkins), is inches away from losing the business he spent a lifetime building, his entire staff unwilling to continue until they’re paid several weeks’ back wages. Don also is hit the hardest by this medical crisis, literally crumbling before everybody’s eyes.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Snowden: A man adrift

Snowden (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for brief nudity and frequent profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.16.16

Oliver Stone’s films have polarized viewers for three decades — ever since 1986’s Platoon — and this one won’t be any different.

Indeed, it’s difficult to find a recent public figure who has divided opinion as much as Edward Snowden (although a current presidential candidate comes close).

Having assembled their information into a series of revelatory articles ready for publication,
the team of unlikely conspirators — from left, documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo),
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald
(Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — discuss, via teleconference,
how best to release the stories.
Stone’s dip into these tempestuous waters — he also co-wrote the script, with Kieran Fitzgerald, based on material gathered from books by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena — isn’t likely to change any minds. Neither will this film’s slant surprise anybody familiar with Stone’s über-liberal proclivities. No question: This is a sympathetic, strawberry-lensed portrait of  — depending on your point of view — one of our country’s most heinous traitors, or one of its most conscientious whistle-blowers.

The issue itself also frustrates fence-sitters. Civil liberties types, with a healthy respect for George Orwell, fear the totalitarian potential of an unchecked government Big Brother. Those favoring security — at any cost — argue that such a position is naïve, at a time when headlines are dominated by the grotesque behavior of terrorists who operate outside of national boundaries.

In fairness, Stone’s film carefully takes no position in that particular argument. The primary goal of any mainstream drama, even one drawn from actual events, is to give a (hopefully) talented cast the opportunity to inhabit engaging characters involved in a compelling storyline.

In this respect, Snowden succeeds, in great part because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s thoroughly convincing portrayal of the title character. Viewers exiting the theater may not agree with Snowden’s actions, but the emotional and philosophical journey that gets him there is presented thoughtfully and persuasively (assuming, of course, that we accept Harding and Kucherena’s vision of the man).

Thematically, this film echoes Stone’s depiction of Ron Kovic, in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. In both cases, we’re introduced to young, true-blue American patriots — believers in baseball, motherhood and apple pie — who shed their idealism slowly, reluctantly, but then completely ... and only after coming to the conclusion that People In Authority have lied to them, and to everybody, for too long.

Stone opens his film in a plush Hong Kong hotel in the spring of 2013, as Snowden takes his first meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto); they’re soon joined by the Guardian’s defense and intelligence correspondent, Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). They’ve assembled to help Snowden “finesse” the disclosure of his stolen classified documents, in a very public manner that will prevent the U.S. government from spinning the revelations into something insignificant.

And, not incidentally, to minimize the chances that Snowden might get kidnapped and/or killed.

(Poitras actually preceded this film by two years; her 2014 documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, along with a slew of other national and international honors.)

Bridget Jones's Baby: A droll delivery

Bridget Jones's Baby (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity and sexual candor, and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang 

There’s much to enjoy about Bridget Jones’s Baby, starting with the welcome return of both Britain’s favorite “singleton,” and the irrepressible Renée Zellweger, who continues to portray her with such ditzy panache.

Two very concerned guys — Mark (Colin Firth, left) and Jack (Patrick Dempsey) — a very
pregnant Bridget (Renée Zellweger) about to pop, and a revolving door: a guaranteed
recipe for falling-down hilarity.
We’ve not seen Bridget on the big screen since 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason — a disappointing film based on, let’s face it, creator Helen Fielding’s weakest novel — and we’ve not glimpsed Zellweger since her self-imposed exile in 2010, after a string of flops in quite rapid succession.

It’s nice to visit both again, particularly since this new film gets back to basics, with Bridget’s original director Sharon Maguire once more calling the shots. (Maguire opted out of the aforementioned first sequel. Wise move.)

Zellweger quickly wins our hearts in this film’s opening scene, as a doleful Bridget celebrates her 43rd birthday in her flat, alone, with only a cupcake, a single candle and some questionable music for company. It’s a heartbreaking moment certain to be recognized by anybody forced to mark a holiday or milestone event, while caught between constant companions.

Fortunately, the melancholy tone turns droll when Bridget defiantly clicks to another track and then pulls a Tom Cruise — his air guitar solo, to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” at the beginning of Risky Business — by bopping about to House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”

It must be noted that the cinematic Bridget now inhabits a parallel reality quite distinct from that of her literary counterpart; this must make Fielding’s life interesting, given that she also co-scripted this third big-screen outing, alongside Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson. Mazer is an unexpected choice, given that his other writing credits are mostly for Sacha Baron Cohen burlesques; his touch perhaps explains some of Bridget’s dumber physical pratfalls here. (Falling face-first into a mud puddle? Seriously? Isn’t that, like, 30 years out of fashion?)

Thompson, on the other hand, is well known for her wit and writing prowess, both of which are well suited to Fielding’s tone and Bridget’s sensibilities. Thompson also has a significant supporting role in this frequently arch rom-com, and — surprise — she gets all the best lines. Wait for the corker concerning guys and pubs.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sully: Flies high

Sully (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.9.16


We are a species of second-guessers.

With precious seconds ticking away, after losing both engines to a bird strike, Capt. Chesley
"Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks, right) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) contemplate
several equally unpleasant options, every one of which carries the risk of killing
hundreds of people.
Even when something has been done properly, with the desired outcome, we often wonder: Might things have concluded even better, with a different set of actions?

Far worse, of course, is when an optimal result is challenged by others who question our judgment. Armchair quarterbacks who insist that, really, it should have gone down this way.

Human nature. Quite infuriating.

At first blush, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger would seem to be the last man on Earth to be confronted in such a manner; he is, after all, the hero who glided the disabled US Airways Flight 1549 Airbus A320 into a flat-out miraculous pancake landing on the Hudson River, on Jan. 15, 2009, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. As any pilot can verify, water landings aren’t nearly as “soft” as a dive into a swimming pool; depending on speed and angle of impact, it’s more like slamming into a brick wall.

Who, then, could argue with Sully’s actions, given the results?

Ah, but that’s the hook behind director Clint Eastwood’s new film, which gains its dramatic tension from a crackerjack script by Todd Komarnicki, based on Sullenberger’s best-selling book, Highest Duty. Komarnicki and Eastwood manage a seemingly impossible feat, by injecting suspense into a narrative whose outcome we already know.

But that’s the point: Most folks don’t know the full story. Granted, everybody watched the amazing events on that January afternoon in 2009, many of us glued to TV sets. But while it’s true Sully saved all 155 people, he wasn’t able to save the plane itself ... and — sad to say — neither Airbus nor its insurance underwriters were going to take the loss of a $70 million aircraft lightly.

Ergo, the second-guessing, and this film’s suspense, as Sully — played with gravitas by Tom Hanks — and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are grilled, after the fact, by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators who insist, armed with computer simulation test data, that the plane could have returned safely to the nearest La Guardia runway, or one at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport.

And we can’t help wondering: Could it be true?

At which point, Komarnicki and Eastwood have us hooked.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: Not bright enough

The Light Between Oceans (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.2.16

Embracing an overblown melodrama requires an act of faith on the viewer’s part: a willingness to sympathize with the protagonists — to understand and accept their behavior as reasonable — even if (when) they yield to ill-advised impulses.

After several failed attempts to start a family, Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia
Vikander) finally are rewarded with a child of their own ... but in a rather unexpected
manner, and one that will have tragic consequences.
But if they cross the threshold of acceptable conduct — if they betray our trust with an act too bewildering, or heinous — then the film’s hold on us is broken. The spell under which we’ve allowed ourselves to be placed, shatters like a broken mirror.

Such is the case with scripter/director Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Australian author M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans. Because, despite the best efforts of its two talented stars, there comes a moment beyond which we cannot maintain sangfroid: a plot hiccup that is, indeed, unforgiveable. Compassion, and the patience to put up with anything that follows, are lost forever.

Mind you, the film’s contrived plot and execution require considerable endurance to begin with. Cianfrance’s lackadaisical approach is old-style Hollywood, by way of Thomas Hardy or the Bronte sisters. He and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw favor extremely tight close-ups, and while Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander respond to that challenge, with nuanced expressions, the technique grows tiresome.

So does Alexandre Desplat’s melancholy orchestral score. Mind you, I’ve been an avid fan of Desplat’s work ever since 2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but his despondent themes here hammer the melodrama; the despair is relentless. And with Cianfrance subjecting us to 132 minutes of this morose character study, it’s just too much.

No doubt everything worked in Stedman’s novel; this sort of saga was born for the literary form. But as a film, with a self-indulgent director who prefers long-suffering gazes to expository dialogue, one can’t help feeling that he’s piling on the schmaltz and noble sacrifice with a shovel.

The setting is the remote edge of Western Australia, immediately following World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), a shell-shocked veteran, has come to the tiny community of Partaguese in order to accept a posting as keeper of the crucial lighthouse, on the isolated and otherwise uninhabited Janus Rock. The island is miles from land, approachable only by boat, although the light keeper’s house has running water and all essential amenities (handy, that).

Tom is quiet, withdrawn and stoic: unable to understand why he was spared, when so many of his comrades perished on the battlefield. The experience has left him uncomfortable in the company of other people; his seclusion on Janus Rock isn’t merely by way of comfort, but to some degree — in his mind — some sort of necessary, self-imposed punishment, for having survived.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax: Deserves a quick death

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Those who’ve ever wondered about the degree to which a single guiding hand can influence a project, need look no further.

By all indications, young Louis (Aiden Longworth) and his father Peter (Aaron Paul) deeply
love each other. But appearances can be deceiving, and this particular family dynamic
includes quite a few uncomfortable secrets.
This is a textbook example of how a bad director can ruin a film.

Mind you, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Several of the primary actors deliver entirely wrong readings of their characters; the story’s overall tone is completely wrong; and there’s no consistent point of reference for viewers to grasp.

But while multiple individuals can be faulted, it all comes down to the guy in charge, in this case Alexandre Aja. He failed to draw better performances from his cast; he couldn’t maintain a consistent atmosphere; and — most crucially — he clearly didn’t understand the material, and didn’t have the faintest idea how to present it properly.

Because — and this is the sad part — there’s clearly a decent story buried in the wreckage of this film. Actor-turned-scripter Max Minghella took a respectable shot at best-selling British author Liz Jensen’s 2004 thriller, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, and the results could have been much, much better. But Aja’s crude sensibilities lie in the realm of gory horror such as Piranha 3D and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes; he lacks the sensitivity required for a tale that requires such delicate handling.

In fairness, the premise is challenging. The story is told (mostly) from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy in a hospital coma ward, and Aja spends much of the film immersing us in the ongoing care of coma patients; that’s a tough, depressing sell. It may have been mostly unusual and intriguing in Jensen’s book; confronted with cinematic visuals, it’s heartbreaking ... and difficult to surmount, as the narrative progresses.

But Aja makes his first significant blunder even sooner, during a prologue in which young Louis (Aidan Longworth) matter-of-factly shares his back-story, growing up as an accident-prone kid who — to his parents’ horror — endured all manner of freak calamities during his tender years. This weird flashback montage is off-putting and fairy tale-esque, with cartoonish touches that suggest we’re in for some sort of fantasy: a notion reinforced by the introduction of a grotesque, deep-voiced sea creature who seems to be the boy’s spirit guide.

But this isn’t a fairy tale, or a parable, as eventually becomes clear; it’s a mystery. Sort of. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s a suspense thriller. Aja obviously can’t decide.