Friday, July 13, 2018

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation — A monstrous good time

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.13.18

The jokes never get old.

Many of the sight gags and laugh lines in this new outing are recycled from the two previous films, but we can’t complain when the result remains so entertaining. It has long been fun to exploit the absurdity of classic monsters, going all the way back to 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

To his surprise, Dracula falls head-over-heels in love with cruise ship captain Ericka,
little realizing that he needs to know a lot more about her heritage.
This is director Genndy Tartakovsky’s third crack at this series’ fast-paced humor in a jugular vein, and he has the formula down pat: He and co-writer Michael McCullers divide this new adventure into distinct chapters, each of which presents unique opportunities for hilarity.

While, at the same time, each enhances the (mild) suspense of the story’s core plot.

A brief prologue mines Bram Stoker territory, by depicting the long-running battle between the resourceful Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) and various members of the Van Helsing clan, all of whom have devoted their lives to eradicating monsters. But as we move past the 19th and 20th centuries, and into modern times, all monsters have become sheltered beneath Dracula’s protective cape — as the two previous films have established — where they can safely enjoy themselves in his Hotel Transylvania.

On top of which, Dracula always has been able to make short work of the various Van Helsings, including the most recent, and most persistent: Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan).

Happily ensconced in his hotel, Dracula’s busy schedule has compromised his ability to spend time with vampire daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), her gonzo-mellow human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg), and their precocious 5-year-old son Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). The latter, in turn, can’t stand to be parted from his elephant-sized puppy, Tinkles (who, fortunately, doesn’t live down to his name).

Worried that her father is wearing himself thin, and is unable to spend quality time with friends and family, Mavis secretly books a vacation for the entire gang — Drac’s Pack — on a luxury monster cruise ship. Although initially unimpressed by the notion of spending time on a massive “hotel on the water,” Dracula comes around when he unexpectedly “zings” — the monster equivalent of love at first sight — with the ship’s captain, the dimple-chinned Ericka (Kathryn Hahn).

Little do Dracula and his friends know, however, that Ericka is a Van Helsing, and the cruise actually is an elaborate trap designed to destroy all monsters. Finally. Forever.

Skyscraper: Up in smoke

Skyscraper (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and fleeting strong language

By Derrick Bang

First Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this colossal dud.

If they represent the future of collaborative Sino-American filmmaking, we’re all in a lot of trouble.

At about this point, Will (Dwayne Johnson) and Sarah (Neve Campbell) must be asking
themselves one question: How the hell can we escape this ridiculously stupid movie?
Skyscraper is an inept, Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, noteworthy mostly for the way writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber shamelessly stole elements from far better sources: a little bit of Die Hard, a lot of Towering Inferno, a soupçon of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and a particularly ludicrous lift of the hall of mirrors sequence, from 1947’s Lady from Shanghai.

Frankly, I’m amazed Thurber had the gall to claim scripting credit, since there isn’t a single original note in this cacophonous, failed symphony of an action flick.

This is the apotheosis of lowest-common-denominator junk. Big budgets do not guarantee big pictures.

On top of which, Dwayne Johnson needs to select his starring roles much more carefully. Between this ludicrously silly atrocity and spring’s Rampage, he’s 0 for 2 … and believing yourself bullet-proof is the fastest path to destroying a once-golden career.

A brief prologue introduces Johnson as FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran Will Sawyer, as he heads a mission that goes horribly awry. Flash-forward a decade, and we discover that Will lost a leg but gained a family, thanks to having met Naval surgeon Dr. Sarah Sawyer (Neve Campbell) in the aftermath of said catastrophe.

He now assesses skyscraper security protocols on behalf of insurance companies, having recently been hired to give final clearance to The Pearl, Hong Kong’s fresh bid at erecting the world’s tallest skyscraper. It’s a masterpiece of Jim Bissell’s laughably overstated production design: 3,500 feet and 225 stories tall, towering over the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor, complete with a six-story shopping mall, a 30-story interior park, and more than 100 floors of luxury residential suites.

And a giant golf ball on top.

(Okay, it’s actually — and I’m quoting the press notes here — “an enormous luminous sphere … inspired by the ancient Chinese fable The Dragon Pearl.”)

Still looks like a giant golf ball, resting atop an overstated glass-and-steel tee.

Leave No Trace: Compassionate character study

Leave No Trace (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic tension

By Derrick Bang

Some films are anchored by powerful storytelling, others by delicately shaded performances.

This is one of the latter.

Hoping to evade well-intentioned welfare agents — and police — who are determined to
enforce the structure of a "socially normal" life, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom
(Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) seek a railroad car they can hop, in order to escape the city.
Leave No Trace is another quietly intimate drama from writer/director Debra Granik, best known for 2010’s Winter’s Bone (which, it must be remembered, “introduced” Jennifer Lawrence to the movie-going public). Although lacking that film’s atmosphere of dangerous intensity, Granik’s newest endeavor — also co-scripted with Anne Rosellini, and adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment — is no less compelling, with its thoughtfully sensitive depiction of people surviving on society’s margins.

Rock based his novel on a 2004 article in The Oregonian, published after a man and his adolescent daughter were discovered in Portland’s Forest Park, where they had spent four apparently content years in a homemade shelter. Local authorities, sharing conventional society’s wariness of such “fringe” behavior, attempted to “mainstream” the duo; the rational behind such a decision — and its aftermath — shaped both Rock’s book and Granik’s absorbing big-screen adaptation.

Her film can be viewed as a close cousin of 2016’s Captain Fantastic, with its depiction of a stubborn single father attempting to raise his six children under similarly off-the-grid circumstances. But Leave No Trace eschews the flamboyance of a patriarch as charismatic as Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen; the relationship here between Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) is much gentler and understated.

The dynamic also is different. Despite her youth, Tom is equal parts peer and offspring. She’s able to challenge her father, albeit cautiously; he listens, sometimes acquiescing. Even so, he remains a taciturn closed book. If her questions cut too close to the bone, he turns them around.

“What’s your favorite color?” she impulsively asks, during what seems a mutually candid moment.

“What’s yours?” he replies, after a moment of silence.

The film’s captivating first act — beautifully lensed by cinematographer Michael McDonough — depicts what has become a daily survival routine, in this gorgeously carpeted forest setting: the search for edible vegetation; waterproofing repairs to their shelter; the gathering and shaving of wood, for fires over which to cook their meals; the application of clothing and additional blankets, as nighttime temperatures drop. Their adeptness at these many tasks bespeaks considerable experience, and we wonder precisely how much. Months? Years?

It’s not all work. They play chess, Will coaching his daughter in the game’s complexities. They read whatever books come to hand. Tom speaks well, is intelligent and reasonably well-rounded, given the circumstances. When they need basic supplies and provisions, they carefully depart the park and walk into the city, where Will has established a rather novel method of making money.

Their discipline, while shopping, is uncomplaining: an essential distinction between “want” and “need.”

Friday, July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Diminutive delight

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.6.18

OK, this character is growing on me.

If only a bit.

With FBI agents and criminal mercenaries determined to snatch her father's technology,
Hope (Evangeline Lilly) prepares for battle as the Wasp, while Scott (Paul Rudd)
reluctantly suits up as Ant-Man.
2015’s Ant-Man was a train wreck, due to its insufferably smug tone and an over-reliance on Three Stooges-style farce: a rare miscalculation in the carefully plotted Marvel Universe franchise.

This sequel, having nowhere to go but up, wisely executed a course correction. Star Paul Rudd is less haughty, and therefore more sympathetic; co-star Evangeline Lilly’s considerably expanded role is a welcome change; the characters’ size-shifting abilities are put to much better use; returning director Peyton Reed toned down the gratuitous slapstick; and — definitely a relief — the core plot is grounded in a manner wholly removed from the universe-shattering consequences of recent Marvel entries.

The villains here have sensible real-world motives: greed and self-preservation.

Best of all, the script — fine-tuned by no fewer than five credited writers, along with (no doubt) more behind the scenes — blends the obligatory action with plenty of larkish banter, all well delivered at a slow-burn tempo.

Points, as well, to whoever thought to reference 1954’s Them!

All this said, there’s still a sense that The Powers That Be don’t quite know what to do with this character: that he’s a second-string joke not granted the respect that his abilities should demand. Again, this may be down to Rudd — a credited co-scripter — who rarely looks like he’s taking any of this seriously.

The same could be said of Chris Pratt’s handling of Peter Quill, in the adjacent Guardians of the Galaxy series … but Pratt has a better acting range, and is a helluva lot more charming.


The “busted” Scott Lang (Rudd) remains under house arrest, thanks to his illegal alliance with Captain America, in 2016’s Civil War. Scott is a mere three days away from being freed from the ankle monitor that prevents outer-world quality time with beloved daughter Cassie (cute-as-a-button Abby Ryder Fortson). Happily, relations with ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new companion Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) have improved; they’re now sympathetic to Scott’s plight.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

American Animals: Savvy indictment of youthful privilege

American Animals (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and brief crude content

By Derrick Bang

Real life isn’t merely stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s a lot dumber.

In 2004, a quartet of bored Kentucky college students, seeking a way to inject some spice into their plain-vanilla lives, concocted a preposterous scheme to “make millions” by stealing rare books from the Transylvania University library’s essentially unguarded special collections section.

Surrounded by the fluorescent blandness of a supermarket, Spencer (Barry Keoghan, left)
and Warren (Evan Peters) spin a series of what-ifs into an actual criminal plot.
Yes, books. Bulky, heavy books.

Which the lads expected to transform into cash by passing them along to a fence. In Amsterdam.

The mind doth boggle.

The actual events are jaw-dropping enough, but indie writer/director Bart Layton has enhanced the narrative even further: He blends his film’s dramatic depiction of what actually went down, with on-camera commentary and recollections by the now-adult thieves. It’s a cheeky maneuver strongly reminiscent of director Craig Gillespie’s handling of last year’s I, Tonya, with a similar result: We’re fascinated by the saga, yet left to wonder to what degree these narrators are reliable.

Layton audaciously signals his intentions right from the top, with a variation on what has become the usual introductory disclosure statement, when dealing with fact-based events:

This is not based on a true story

And while we mull that over, an off-camera exhalation — the sound of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake — chases away a few words, so the statement becomes:

This is a true story

Don’t know about the rest of you, but I couldn’t help italicizing the second word, as I scanned that line again.

After a brief flash-forward designed to pique our curiosity, we bounce back several months and meet chums Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). The former is a freshman art major at Transylvania University, the latter blowing off a soccer scholarship at nearby University of Kentucky. When Spencer gets an orientation tour of his library’s $20 million collection of rare books — a glassed-off room supervised solely by librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) — he’s transfixed by an open copy of John James Audubon’s massive Birds of America, residing in its own display case.

Spencer later describes the book — and its “priceless” value — to Warren. One or both of them imagines taking it, selling it, enjoying their subsequent ill-gotten gains.

Layton intercuts between the actual Spencer and Warren, each remembering their plot’s genesis slightly differently, neither quite willing to admit being the one who actually proposed the theft.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? — The gentle power of quiet joy

Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for archival footage of dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.29.18

In an intriguing case of serendipity, I caught this film within hours of learning about the passing of Koko, the western lowland gorilla famous for the depth of her communication skills via modified American Sign Language.

In a quiet response to an ugly example of American racism, Fred Rogers made a point
of sharing a foot bath with renowned African-American opera singer and frequent
co-star François Scarborough Clemmons, in the latter's guise as "Officer Clemmons."
Intriguing, because both this documentary — and the lengthy Los Angeles Times tribute to Koko — mention their 1998 meeting on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Intriguing, as well, because both were uniquely kind and gentle individuals, with a benevolent generosity of spirit that this country sorely lacks at the moment. Indeed, an interviewee wonders — toward the end of this film — just what Fred Rogers would make of our current institutional mendacity and incivility.

I suspect he’d spend a week to address it with the warmth, candor and calm moralizing that characterized every one of the 912 episodes that aired from Feb. 19, 1968, through Aug. 31, 2001.

Documentarian Morgan Neville’s heartfelt portrait of Rogers is as endearing as its subject: an engaging blend of Neighborhood clips, archival footage, interview excerpts with the man himself, and observations/reminiscences from those who lived and worked with him.

Neville has a knack both for selecting captivating subjects, and illuminating them in a manner that’s both instructive and fascinating. His nonfiction film work dates back to the mid 1990s; recent highlights include 2011’s Troubadours, which traces the lives and careers of Carole King and James Taylor; and 2013’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, an enchanting depiction of the mostly anonymous back-up singers who make pop stars sound as good as they do.

Plenty of famous faces visited Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during its lengthy run, but Neville clearly wasn’t interested in a string of fawning accolades (no matter how sincere). Won’t You Be My Neighbor instead tackles its subject “from the inside out,” focusing on interviewees such as Rogers’ widow, sister, two sons and “Neighborhood” folks such as François Scarborough Clemmons (“Officer Clemmons”), producer/assistant director Margaret Whitmer and floor manager Nick Tallo (quite a hoot).

What emerges is the revealing evolution of an ordained minister who — literally at the last second — abandoned plans for church service and instead navigated a unique course in the uncharted waters of public television’s children’s programming. He was appalled by the soul-crushing cacophony that characterized network “kiddy TV” in the 1960s: the violence, the cruelty, the hyper-editing, the complete absence of redeeming social values, and — most of all — the noise.

Believing little children to be America’s most priceless treasure — a radical view at the time — Rogers wanted to be a positive, nurturing force. 

Hearts Beat Loud: The healing power of music

Hearts Beat Loud (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity and mild drug references

By Derrick Bang

Unexpected little charmers, such as this one, are the reason I love this job.

The core premise has been can’t-miss ever since Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made the immortal suggestion — “Hey, kids; let’s put on a show!” — back in 1939’s Babes in Arms.

Whatever else might be happening in their lives, Frank (Nick Offerman) and his daughter
Sam (Kiersey Clemons) always experience joy when making music together
The format shifted a bit over time, these days generally attaching itself to gentle relationship dramas, where a shared love of music paves the way toward love, reconciliation and/or inner peace. Recent examples include director John Carney’s delightful trio: Sing Street (2016), Begin Again (2013) and the incomparable Once (2007).

Director/co-scripter Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud definitely belongs in their company.

Haley has quietly been building an indie career characterized by unabashedly sentimental dramas such as I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero: gentle little films no doubt mocked by condescending viewers who sprinkle cynicism on their breakfast cornflakes, but which are adored by those of us seeking relief from lowest-common-denominator Hollywood bombast.

Haley makes films about people: folks you might know, and certainly would like to know. And if they happen to have an artistic streak, well, that just makes them more interesting.

Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) owns a one-man record store in Red Hook, Brooklyn: a relic more than a generation out of date, whose shelves are lined solely with vinyl. Customers are a long-vanished species; the shop is approaching the final few seconds of the last track on Side B. Frank has just informed his landlady, Leslie (Toni Collette), that he’s packing it in.

The decision kills him, because music has long been in his blood. He met his wife while both performed in clubs: She sang, he played backup. She’s years deceased, under tragic circumstances that Haley and Marc Basch’s script reveals cleverly, subtly, delicately.

Their daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is the second apple of Frank’s eye: an ambitious, hard-working student with plans for medical school. She has thus far spent the waning days of her final summer, before college, cracking the books in an effort to get a head start in what she knows will be a highly competitive environment.

It’s a double loss for Frank: his shop and his daughter.