Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Galaxy-spanning excitement

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.15.17

The newest installment in the Star Wars franchise certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is by far the longest chapter in George Lucas’ originally conceived three-trilogy ennealogy. (I had to look that one up.)

Having been sent on a desperate mission to the obscenely opulent gambling planet of
Canto Bight, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) have decidedly different
views on how to locate their quarry.
It’s also the grimmest, with an emphasis on the word “Wars” that echoes last year’s Rogue One. The middle chapter of a trilogy inevitably is the most dire, as was established in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. This new film’s solely credited writer/director, Rian Johnson, clearly took that precedent seriously. We hit the ground running, with few pauses for breath.

But they’re important pauses. Johnson understands the value of dramatic highs and lows, and — most crucially — of leavening dire doings with well-timed dollops of humor.

When last we left our various heroes, the Nazi-esque First Order — having risen from the ashes of the evil Galactic Empire — was eradicating the peaceful New Republic, world by world. Aside from wishing to dominate the universe, the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) employed the Darth Vader-esque Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to seek out and destroy all traces of the Jedi order.

The plucky Rey (Daisy Ridley), imbued with the mysterious Force, has journeyed to the remote oceanic planet Ahch-To, in order to find and train with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Former Stormtrooper-turned-good guy Finn (John Boyega), badly injured during a lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren, lies comatose in a medical stasis bed. Impetuous pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid, BB-8, joined the Resistance forces commanded by Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), as they celebrated the destruction of First Order’s massive Starkiller Base.

If all this seems a voluminous information dump, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg; subplots and sidebar characters reference everything back to 1977’s very first film. Four decades later, it’s extremely difficult for new viewers to jump into this saga, and even longtime fans may need an Internet refresher course.

(This being the era of binge viewing, I suppose the tried-and-true are expected to power-watch the previous seven films before embracing this one. That’s asking a bit much.)

Darkest Hour: A shining achievement

Darkest Hour (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and war sequences

By Derrick Bang

Even knowing the outcome, thanks to the obvious historical record and ongoing pop culture reminders, director Joe Wright and scripter Anthony McCarten maintain a remarkable level of stomach-clenching suspense during every moment of this enthralling drama.

As Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) pauses attentively, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman)
parses words in order to place the desired emphasis on what will be one of the most
important speeches of his career.
Scene by scene, amid political clashes and confrontations, we endure palpable panic: Are our memories faulty? Will it all go wrong?

No, of course not. But the total, we-are-there immersion is quite impressive.

Darkest Hour takes place during a tempestuous several weeks in the spring of 1940: from May 10, when 65-year-old, hard-drinking Winston Churchill is named to replace Neville Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister; to June 4, in the aftermath of the Dunkirk miracle that gave additional weight to Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons.

Fans of this period in British history are enjoying an embarrassment of riches; we’ve now experienced these events from strikingly different points of view, thanks to summer’s Dunkirk, television’s The Crown and now Wright’s Darkest Hour.

As depicted by McCarten — a double Oscar nominee, as scripter and producer of 2014’s The Theory of Everything — Churchill’s rise to that galvanic speech was anything but assured, and Chamberlain was far from disgraced and impotent, after being shunted aside. He and Viscount Halifax (née Edward Frederick Lindley Wood) remained relentless in their quest for appeasement by offering a treaty to Hitler, even as — particularly as — Western Europe’s countries fell, like a row of dominoes, against the Nazi assault.

And Chamberlain’s influence was considerable, as he still controlled the Conservative half of the House of Commons, all of the members fully prepared — in blinkered, knee-jerk fashion — to vote party over conscience, thereby stripping Churchill of his new position. (And boy, doesn’t that resonate these days, on this side of the pond!)

The political infighting is both fascinating and horrifying, but the film’s true power comes from Gary Oldman’s sublime portrayal of Churchill: one of those rare performances that is so thorough, so all-consuming, that it ceases to be acting. As far as I’m concerned, Wright and McCarten somehow found the means to resurrect Churchill, so he could star in his own story.

Wonder Wheel: Far from wonderful

Wonder Wheel (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Toward the conclusion of Woody Allen’s newest dive into the pool of mid-century nostalgia, Kate Winslet’s Ginny — having descended into full-blown Norma Desmond madness — responds to an accusation by petulantly whining, “Oh, God; spare me the bad drama.”

My feelings precisely.

As the summer progresses, Mickey (Justin Timberlake) begins to realize that Ginny
(Kate Winslet) is placing far too much emotional weight on their clandestine affair.
Wonder Wheel is Allen’s homage to shrill, over-the-top melodrama: a contrived piffle that seeks to outdo the likes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Boulevard, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and their ilk. On top of which, the story is told by a character who — having informed us that he’s a budding poet and playwright given to florid exaggeration — clearly is an unreliable narrator.

Even allowing for all that, Allen’s film wallows in a swamp of soggy excess that surpasses the worst afternoon television soaps.

Which is a shame, because there’s much to recommend Wonder Wheel, starting with Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography and Santa Loquasto’s impeccable period production design, which deliver a level of visual opulence rarely seen since Douglas Sirk’s lavish 1950s melodramas (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and others).

Even though all these characters recognize that their Coney Island home is past its prime, things still look terrific, in a fading-glory sort of way. The film takes its title from the massive Ferris wheel always standing vigil in the background, like a silent Greek chorus.

Ginny, pushing 40 and prone to migraines, works a dead-end job as a waitress in the Boardwalk clam shack. She’s married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a recovering alcoholic who manages the merry-go-round in the amusement arcade. They live in a ramshackle apartment directly above the shooting gallery, the incessant pop-pop-pops frequently aggravating her debilitating headaches.

They bicker, snipe, squabble and quarrel in the manner of Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners — also very 1950s — but with very little mitigating affection. It’s the second marriage for both, and we sense they’ve remained together mostly due to weary resignation.

They do a poor job of managing her bratty adolescent son, Richie (Jack Gore), a bad-seed monster and budding pyromaniac who loves setting fires below the wooden boardwalk. Everything concerning this little twerp seems to have migrated in from an entirely different film; his presence adds nothing to the core narrative, and his dangerous “hobby” is just sorta cast adrift during the third act ... rather sloppy, even for Allen.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird: Truly soars

Lady Bird (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Well into writer/director Greta Gerwig’s accomplished filmmaking debut, the story’s protagonist is complimented — by her high school counselor — on the depth of feeling she expresses, in a college application essay, for the city in which she has grown up: a city from which she’s eager to escape.

As the high school senior prom approaches, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, left) brings her
mother (Laurie Metcalf) along when she tries out a series of dresses: an excursion that
takes place amid the organized clutter of Sacramento's massive Thrift Town store.
The city is Sacramento, where Gerwig herself grew up, and her film exhibits the same reverence. Indeed, I doubt Sacramento ever again will be the subject of such a heartfelt cinematic valentine.

Lady Bird can’t help feeling semi-autobiographical; Gerwig’s characteristic personality shines throughout, easily recognized from her starring roles in quirky indie dramedies such as Lola Versus, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Her filmmaking debut is both an engaging and painfully raw coming-of-age saga, and a respectful appreciation for the environment that shaped her as an artist.

A kiss on Sacramento’s cheek, and an earnest Thank You.

But that’s merely the narrative portion of Gerwig’s film. She also deserves credit for coaxing persuasively intimate performances from her stars: most notably Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who deliver one of the most tempestuous, complicated and deeply loving mother/daughter relationships ever depicted on camera.

The year is 2002, as the United States enters a new national mindset in the wake of 9/11. We meet Ronan’s Christine McPherson on the eve of her senior year in high school, which she’s horrified to discover will be spent at a Catholic school. She’s a rebellious young adult, with strikingly dyed hair and an insistence that everybody — even family members — refer to her as “Lady Bird”: a name she has given herself, as opposed to the one that was thrust upon her.

She has little use for her post-college brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), both of whom share the small, cramped house which is all that Lady Bird’s parents — Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) — can afford. Lady Bird is deeply ashamed of living on “the wrong side of the tracks”; it’s one of the innumerable “slights” that she takes personally, and for which she — unjustly, and immaturely — blames her parents.

She’s a teenager, in every horrific sense of the term: stubborn, selfish, shallow, spiteful and short-tempered.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: He deserves better

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Denzel Washington’s work here is sublime: absolutely one of the finest — if not the finest — roles of his already impressive career.

It’s a shame writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film isn’t worthy of such talent.

In his own mind, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is
one of the finest legal minds ever to stride Los Angeles'
mean, inner-city streets. And he's right ... but he's also
inherently unable to wield such talent.
Gilroy’s résumé is dominated by action-oriented popcorn flicks such as Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Island. Nothing indicates he has the sensibilities for a quiet, deeply intimate drama of this nature ... and, in fact, he doesn’t. Worse yet, his story gets its momentum from a plot contrivance that is blindingly unbelievable: an event we simply cannot accept when it happens, and which taints everything that follows.

Washington, brilliant as he is, cannot overcome such a narrative blunder.

He stars as the title character, a lawyer and legal scholar with a savant’s gift for tireless research and perfect recall: the “unseen half” of a two-man firm headed by celebrated civil rights attorney William Henry Jackson. The latter is the front man, who for nearly four decades has garnered all the fame for meticulously precise courtroom arguments that Roman prepared behind the scenes.

This has been sufficient for Roman, who has greatly valued the voice that Jackson has given to their shared passion for defending the disenfranchised.

We never meet Jackson; the film begins as he suffers a fatal heart attack one morning, off camera, leaving Roman with the necessity of handling the day’s case load. Just show up and request continuances, instructs the firm’s devoted secretary, Vernita (Lynda Gravátt). Don’t do — or say — anything else.

This seems an odd request, although not for viewers who’ve been paying attention. Roman’s attire is decades out of date, his manner of walking awkward and ungainly, his head bobbing slightly like a nervous bird. He’s never without the massive, battered briefcase that bulges with his most prized accomplishment: the career-long construction of a class action lawsuit with the potential to establish federal precedent ... if only somebody will co-author and file it for him.

He uses far too many words to answer simple questions, his attention forever wandering, his gaze — in the presence of other people — oddly unfocused.

I find it intriguing that this film’s press notes avoid the use of the terms autistic or spectrum, because there’s absolutely no doubt that Roman is such an individual. He has no filter and is blunt — and truthful — to the point of cruelty: self-righteously idealistic to a degree that prevents compromise on any level. Small wonder Jackson carefully kept him in a back office.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco: A tasty treat

Coco (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.17

This one’s deceptive.

At first blush, Pixar’s Coco feels like the saga of a little boy who desperately wants to embrace melody and song, but is thwarted by parents and relatives with a deeply rooted aversion to music.

As his faithful dog Dante watches attentively, Miguel prepares to receive a blessing from
his long-deceased Mamá Imelda: a necessary ritual, lest the boy be forced to remain
forever in the Land of the Dead. Alas, the blessing will come with strings attached...
That’s accurate enough, but merely the entry point to this wildly imaginative, gloriously colorful and unexpectedly poignant saga of family bonds. Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina — who also co-scripted the story, alongside Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich — have ingeniously employed Mexico’s annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration to illustrate the importance of honoring — and remembering — past generations.

The narrative takes place during a single fast-paced day and night, and is laden with gentle messages that range from To Thine Own Self Be True, to There’s No Place Like Home.

In the tradition of Pixar’s best films, the tone veers between droll comedy and heartbreaking pathos, and from larkish excitement to edge-of-the-seat suspense. At the same time, we’re dazzled by the animated equivalent of phenomenal production design, and charmed by some cleverly integrated songs, including an endearing ballad written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Academy Award-winning team behind the power anthem “Let It Go,” from Frozen.

The rather complex narrative defies an elevator pitch, and opens with a prologue that cleverly establishes back-story via Día de los Muertos paper-cut flags. We then meet 12-year-old Miguel (voiced with earnest sincerity by young Anthony Gonzalez), who chafes at the limitations imposed by a jovial clan of shoemakers.

This family business has become the pride of Santa Cecilia: a calling that began with Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda, as a means of survival when her husband abandoned the family — including toddler daughter Coco — in order to follow his dream of becoming a famous musician. Mamá Imelda’s subsequent ban on music has been enforced strictly by subsequent generations, much to Miguel’s dismay.

He dreams of growing up to be a celebrated musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, who became the most famous musician in Mexican history: conquering pop charts, movies and concert stages.

But thanks to the disciplinarian edicts of his grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor), the frustrated Miguel believes that he’s backed into an either/or corner: He must choose between his passion for music, and his love for his family. Efforts at persuasion merely harden Abuelita’s position, and so Miguel — having accidentally stumbled upon a family secret — yields to an ill-advised impulse, as night falls on Día de los Muertos.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: Clever take on a holiday chesnut

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

This is a droll bit of seasonal mischief.

Les Standiford’s scholarly, quasi-biography of Charles Dickens — 2008’s The Man Who Invented Christmas — seems an unlikely source for a mainstream, holiday-themed film; scripter Susan Coyne deserves credit for an unusual (if hardly original) approach.

As Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, seated) struggles to work his way through the five
"staves" of his new book, he's helped — and hindered — by his imagined personification
of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
The result proceeds briskly under the capable guidance of British film and TV director Bharat Nalluri, perhaps best known on these shores for 2008’s charming Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Nalluri and Coyne similarly concentrate on whimsical character dynamics here, presenting us with a 31-year-old Dickens — played with agreeably feverish anxiety by Dan Stevens — beset by all manner of troubles.

The film begins with a brief prologue in 1842, with Dickens celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, his stage readings standing-room-only sell-outs in the wake of his wildly popular novels Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Flash-forward a year and change, and Dickens is in dire financial straits after three published flops, including — most particularly — the unloved Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens is at wit’s end: unable to pay the craftsmen appointing his luxurious new home; forever harried by his spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce, as John Dickens); and newly panicked by the news that his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) is expecting their fifth child. Worse yet, he’s months into a ferocious case of writer’s block, the public disdain for his recent output having paralyzed his creative juices.

Best friend and sorta-kinda agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) isn’t much help, his advice limited to little beyond “Well, just write another book.” Dickens’ publishers — Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage) — are similarly useless: actually worse than useless, when they reject the pitch for his next book.

They hardly can be blamed, as it’s a crazed notion: a vaguely defined story about Christmas. Nobody writes about Christmas; nobody cares about Christmas. As the boorish husband of one of Dickens’ aristocratic readers sniffs, Christmas is “just an excuse to pick a man’s pocket once a year.”

If that line sounds familiar, you’ve recognized one key element in Coyne’s script.

The narrative conceit here is that Dickens overhears and jots down names, comments and possible plot contrivances from family, friends and random strangers. (Young Irish housemaid Tara — winningly played by Anna Murphy — helps him come up with the name “Scrooge.”) It’s a delightful notion, particularly for those well-versed in A Christmas Carol’s characters and quotable lines.