Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury: Much too angry

Fury (2014) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and relentless battlefield violence and gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.17.14

Classic World War II movies, absent the cynicism and despair that later infected so many big-screen depictions of the Vietnam quagmire, laced their stories with honor, chivalry, moral fortitude and an absolute respect for the chain of command.

Frightened and badly out of his depth, Norman (Logan Lerman, left) can't imagine that he'd
be of any use to the Sherman tank team led by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). But this battle-weary
sergeant knows how to inspire his men, even a callow newcomer like Norman, and soon
the kid is executing Nazi scum with the enthusiasm of a seasoned warrior.
The Nazi enemy may have behaved like vicious, amoral swine, but our stalwart boys worked together with courage and righteousness, guided by the innovative strategies of battlefield stalwarts whose ingenuity helped trump sometimes superior forces.

This classic archetype continued for decades thereafter, building to modern classics such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s lavish miniseries, Band of Brothers, both of which gained their power from a rich tapestry of characters about whom we cared very, very deeply.

It would appear that this cinematic model has fallen out of favor.

Writer/director David Ayer’s Fury presents the latter days of the European campaign as the equivalent of an inner-city street fight between drug gangs, with the grunts on our side no better than the animals wearing the Nazi cross. The so-called “good guys” in this unpalatable story seem modeled on the thugs who tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; early on, in fact, we’re granted a sequence of American GIs behaving just that badly with a captured German soldier.

It’s interesting — carrying this observation even further — that this story’s sole act of genuine kindness, of benevolent altruism, is offered by one of those aforementioned Nazi monsters. We could call it dramatic irony, but I’m not willing to give Ayer that much credit.

Three of the five primary characters in this film are one-dimensional brutes granted only a hiccup of actual characterization: superficial affectations implied solely by nicknames such as Gordo, Bible and Coon-Ass.

(Just in passing, I’d love to declare a moratorium on movies with characters who never seem to have real names, but instead are granted stupid monikers better suited to comic book villains. It has become a tiresome and frankly irritating cliché.)

Our other two protagonists, while graced with a bit more presence and personality, aren’t that much more likable ... but we eventually bond with them, to a degree, solely because we’ve gotta care about somebody in this mean-spirited mess.

And “mean-spirited” is this film’s prevailing tone: no surprise, since Ayer is the enraged scripter of nihilistic cop dramas such as Training Day and End of Watch, and earlier this year wrote and directed the offensively deplorable Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Sabotage. Ayer clearly doesn’t think much of his fellow man, and a little of that contemptuous vitriol goes a long way.

Given this new film’s 134-minute length, that’s a very long way.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tracks: An incredible journey of the soul

Tracks (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, fleeting profanity and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang

We’ll probably never truly know why 25-year-old Robyn Davidson arrived in central Australia’s Alice Springs in 1975, and then spent two years learning how to train and manage the country’s remarkable wild camels.

No matter how harsh the environment, Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) resolutely rises each
morning and embarks on another daylong trek across the Australian Outback, accompanied
solely by four camels and her faithful dog.
She had endured a childhood marred by disappointment and tragedy — her mother having committed suicide when Robyn was only 11 — so it’s easy to believe that she had personal demons to exorcise, and things to prove to herself.

Nor are we apt to know what then prompted the young woman to embark on an ill-advised solo trek from Alice Springs to where the Indian Ocean lapped against the West Australian coast, accompanied only by four camels and her beloved black dog, Diggity. The 1,700-mile journey across the harsh and unforgiving Australian Outback took nine months, during which she easily could have died any number of times.

Some people embrace such trials for the sheer challenge; as the saying goes, they climb the mountain or cross the desert “because it’s there.” By her own admission, Davidson seems to have undertaken this trip as a journey of personal discovery: a way to become a better version of herself.

“When there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are,” she has said, reflecting back on her journey, “and there is nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes.”

The truly remarkable thing is that director John Curran, scripter Marion Nelson and star Mia Wasikowska have managed to bring Davidson’s incredible journey to the big screen with equal emphasis on the glorious, majestically inhospitable Australian Outback itself, and the impact it had on this solitary traveler. Their film is both a beautifully composed glimpse of an often barren and yet beautiful land, and an intimate portrait of an angry young woman trying to find inner peace.

And she is angry, as we first encounter her ... impatient, brittle and quick to take offense, and yet also oddly vulnerable: a duality that Wasikowska conveys quite well. She nails Robyn’s surface contradictions: uncomfortable in the presence of other people, probably to the point of anthropophobia, and yet dependent upon them for jobs, favors and money. And resentful of that same dependence.

And yet when Wasikowska manages one of Robyn’s shy, uncertain smiles, it lights up her entire face: easy to see, then, why she and her unlikely expedition attracted the interest of the National Geographic Society, which agreed to fund her trip in exchange for photographic coverage.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pride: A British charmer with a lot to say

Pride (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, and quite stupidly, for occasional sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.10.14

British filmmakers excel at their signature blend of whimsy, gentle drama, sharp social commentary and (sometimes) misfit romance.

Wrap it around a slice of actual history, and the result can be irresistible.

Mineworkers rep Dai (Paddy Considine, second from right) sympathetically explains the
difficulties inherent in a proposal presented by, from left, Jeff (Freddie Fox), Mark (Ben
Schnetzer), Steph (Faye Marsay), Mike (Joseph Gilgun) and Joe (George MacKay).
Potential discomfort aside, though, Mark and the rest aren't about to let conservative
concerns get in the way of a great idea.
Truly, I think the Brits invented, perfected and patented a wholly unique genre: one that deserves its own name. I vote for Brimsy.

Examples that leap to mind include Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham and, perhaps the most successful, Billy Elliot. Not yet released on these shores is One Chance; meanwhile, we can enjoy the sweet, charming and frequently funny Pride.

Director Matthew Warchus and first-time scripter Stephen Beresford have set their dramedy against the debilitating 1984 UK mineworkers strike, which pitted stubborn and increasingly desperate blue-collar workers — and their families — against a resolutely defiant Margaret Thatcher. That this grim scenario yielded an unlikely social miracle, back in the day, is surprise enough; better still is the clever, engaging and joyously triumphant manner in which Warchus and Beresford have turned it into a droll, feel-good film.

The action begins as the shy and soft-spoken Joe (George MacKay), 20 years old and deeply closeted, travels from his suburban Bromley home in order to witness a Gay Pride march in London. He can’t help getting swept up by events; before he knows it, he has become part of a small but rowdy cluster of activists who meet regularly at a Soho bookstore run by the wildly flamboyant Jonathan Blake (Dominic West) and his quieter Welsh partner, Gethin (Andrew Scott).

The group is led, more or less, by the charismatic Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), a hard-charging agitator forever seeking a new means of getting their message across. His newest scheme is purely altruistic: Inspired by newspaper headlines that continue to vilify the striking mineworkers, Mark points out that — sexual orientation aside — their plights are quite similar. Gays know what it’s like to be misunderstood, hated and harassed by jeering figures of authority (i.e. cops).

Why not strike a blow for solidarity, then, by raising funds to help the strikers?

The resulting grass-roots organization — Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) — faces an uphill struggle, first from friends and peers who believe it far more important to raise money for gay rights. But the fledging group persists, only to encounter a bigger problem: No official mineworkers entity wants anything to do with them, regardless of the offered money in hand.

Refusing to be beaten, Mark and his gang bypass union bureaucracy and randomly select the small Welsh mining town of Onllwyn, in the Dulais Valley. They liaise with Dai (Paddy Considine), an uncertain but open-minded resident and local mineworkers rep who agrees to visit London and face the dubious, mildly hostile audience in a gay nightclub.

To everybody’s surprise, Dai’s heartfelt gratitude encourages the crowd, particularly when he mentions that their union symbol — two hands clasped in solidarity — does, indeed, refer to all willing comrades.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Modest but enjoyable

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Kid-oriented family films seem an endangered species these days, because too many Hollywood execs confuse “sweet” with “stupid.” Most so-called family comedies succumb to the sort of wretched excess and mindless slapstick that very nearly destroyed the Disney studio, back in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, foreground left) and his family — from left, Anthony (Dylan
Minnette), Emily (Kerris Dorsey), Ben (Steve Carell), Kelly (Jennifer Garner) and Baby
Trevor — react to the newest calamity during a ghastly day laden with crises.
It really is true: In Hollywood, as everywhere else, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

On top of which, the core premise is flawed: Family films need not rely on the massive destruction of personal property, or on adults made to look inane while in the presence of obnoxious and overly precocious brats. Nor is it necessary to slide into icky sentimentality while delivering a few mellow truths.

Some filmmakers understand this, with the recent trilogy drawn from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books being a prominent example. They carefully maneuvered the fine line between genuine humor and dumb farce, between heartfelt emotion and slushy schmaltz.

Director Miguel Arteta and scripter Rob Lieber also get the proper mix, with their big-screen adaptation of Judith Viorst’s popular children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Full disclosure dictates, however, the acknowledgment that this film shares absolutely nothing with Viorst’s book, aside from its title and core premise. Former kids who remember having the book read aloud to them, back when it was published in 1972, are apt to wonder what the heck happened to their favorite story. And the parents doing the reading are certain to be just as surprised.

Granted, it’s not possible to make a feature-length film from a 32-page picture book; some expansion was essential. But you have to wonder why Lieber messed with details such as Alexander’s two older brothers, who in this film morph into an older brother and sister, along with a bonus infant brother. Part of the original Alexander’s bad day concerned the belittling behavior of his jerky older siblings, whereas Arteta and Lieber go out of their way to emphasize harmony and mutual respect between all members of the Cooper family.

So, okay; that’s a reasonable alternate approach, and it better sets up the calamities that erupt in this very bad day.

To elaborate:

This particular Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, perhaps remembered from the TV series Puberty Blues) endures his personal bad day as something of a prologue, on the day before his 12th birthday. It begins when he wakes up with chewing gum in his hair, and climaxes with a catastrophe in the school science lab, thanks to his efforts to flirt with the girl of his dreams (Sidney Fullmer, appropriately adorable as Becky).

The Judge: Contempt of court

The Judge (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Some stories, despite an engaging premise and a solid opening act, eventually work themselves into an unfortunate corner.

When Hank (Robert Downey Jr., left) reluctantly agrees to help defend his father (Robert
Duvall, center) against a murder charge, he first must undo the damage unintentionally
caused by inattentive local attorney C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard).
Sadly, that’s the case with The Judge, a well-cast and tightly plotted legal thriller that gets considerable mileage from the tempestuous, high-octane pairing of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., as a severely estranged father and son.

Tightly plotted, that is, until the film wears out its welcome with an increasingly contrived and deeply unsatisfying third act ... by which point director David Dobkin’s 141-minute drama has become at least half an hour too long.

Dobkin certainly draws excellent performances from his stars and their supporting players: no problem there. But his writing experience hails from broad slapstick (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) and popcorn action flicks (Jack the Giant Slayer, R.I.P.D.), which hardly makes him ready for narrative territory inhabited far better by the likes of John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Scott Turow.

Dobkin shares the writing chores here with scripters Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, and the result eventually feels overcooked: a high-concept proposal likely sold via a tantalizing 25-word pitch that lacked a solid punch line. Hollywood is littered with the forgotten corpses of such projects: promising at first glance, but ultimately disappointing.

And I’m fairly certain most viewers will be quite unhappy with the way this one ends.

Downey’s Hank Palmer is a slick, big-city defense attorney who makes no apologies for employing every possible legal trick to get his wealthy but clearly guilty clients off the hook. (“They’re the only ones who can afford me.”) Although Hank is troubled by neither scruples nor morals, his surface glad-handing masks an arrogant jerk with a miserable home life shared with a hotsy-totsy younger wife (Sarah Lancaster, in a fleeting and thankless part) poised to divorce him, thus turning their adorable little girl — Emma Tremblay, as Lauren — into a reluctant bargaining chip.

Then, suddenly, a crisis: the death of Hank’s mother, which brings him back to his bucolic (and frankly gorgeous) home town of tiny Carlinville, Ind. (actually Shelburne Falls, Mass.). He abandoned this scene years earlier, no longer able to withstand the belittling treatment from his father, Joseph (Duvall), who happens to be the community’s long-presiding judge.

The reunion is hardly cheerful, despite the obvious bond Hank feels for older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), both of whom remained in Carlinville.

Hank and his father immediately fall into their old, long-established pattern of mutual contempt and rapacious verbal sniping, much to the chagrin of everybody else. It’s a well-established fact that people, no matter how old they get, often revert to a powerless adolescent dynamic when in the presence of their parents, particularly if the setting is a childhood home.

And if the relationship is long-frayed to begin with, the situation is far worse: The unresolved issues that have been held at bay, in the shelter of the well-established lives we’ve built elsewhere, pop right back to the surface.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl: A thriller for the ages

Gone Girl (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual content and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.3.14

Thrillers rarely get the respect they deserve.

Oh, sure; it’s a popular genre that sells plenty of tickets, but such public approbation is viewed with suspicion and scorn, when it comes time to hand out awards. The implication is that thrillers represent empty, pop-culture calories unworthy of serious recognition. Academy Awards go to historical dramas and intimate character pieces.

Back in the day, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) enjoyed a storybook
courtship in their beloved New York City surroundings, notably the bookstores both loved
to frequent. Sadly, many relationships cannot survive a crisis ... and this one is about to
be hit by several.
Oscar hasn’t given its Best Picture prize to a thriller since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.

That may be about to change.

Director David Fincher’s masterful handling of Gone Girl is much, much more than an impeccable translation of its wildly popular source novel (so rest easy, readers; I’m sure you’ll be pleased). This also is a tour de force of cinematic craft: one of those rare films that ingeniously utilizes every aspect of movie-making magic.

Fincher masterminds each detail with the meticulous scrutiny of a master conductor who pays careful attention to every last instrument, even those that play but a single note during an entire symphony. This is bravura filmmaking at its finest.

Fincher wisely has surrounded himself with a talented cadre of actors, all flawlessly cast, and an equally accomplished production crew. Then, too, he has the advantage of working with novelist Gillian Flynn, a first-time screenwriter who has adapted her own book with the same cunning that turned it into a page-turning best-seller.

Even capable novelists don’t always make good screenwriters; they’re entire different sciences. Flynn, clearly, is adept at both.

And that’s what it comes down to: All the aforementioned talent would be wasted, were the core narrative not up to snuff. Flynn’s storyline is mesmerizing, and not just for its deliciously twisty — even macabre — thrillers elements. She also unerringly skewers contemporary society’s bread-and-circuses infatuation with the mindless media “talking heads” who scurry like rats from one overblown crisis to the next, passing judgment without attempting even the most basic research legwork.

Because, at the end of the day, too many of us prefer such vacuous glitter and glitz, and get a vicarious thrill out of feeling superior to the maligned victim of the moment.

This particular victim-in-waiting is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), whom we meet on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary: a milestone that doesn’t bring the pleasure one would expect from a guy who, he always insists, enjoyed a deliriously happy courtship and subsequent marriage with Amy (Rosamund Pike). Instead, as Nick strolls into the downtown bar that he co-owns with twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), he seems ... troubled. Not quite himself.

A neighbor calls; Nick and Amy’s cat seems to have gotten out of their house. Nick returns home, restores their feline friend to indoor safety, and then spots an unsettling mess of upended furniture and broken glass in the living room. And Amy is nowhere to be found.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Is Strange: Poignant glimpse of family values

Love Is Strange (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.26.14

As first-world challenges go, few can be more heartbreaking than the turmoil sometimes created by our nobler instincts.

On the morning of their official nuptials, George (Alfred Molina, left) assures Ben (John
Lithgow) that yes, they will make it to the appointed place on time ... even if they're not
able to hail a taxi.
We like to believe that we’re capable of helping people — particularly friends and family members — much the way we’d hope to be helped, under similar circumstances. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that benevolence generally extends only so far, and no farther ... and then most people are too polite to confront what has become an intolerable situation.

And so the kettle bubbles, until it boils over: the initial generous act inevitably overwhelmed by hurtful confrontations that cannot be taken back, leaving bruised feelings all around.

Put simply, and to quote a telling line from Ira Sachs’ painfully intimate new film, “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”

The speaker is Ben (John Lithgow), whose life has taken a disappointing turn: such a letdown, from the radiant happiness he enjoyed only a few weeks earlier.

Sachs and co-scripter Mauricio Zacharias open Love Is Strange on a triumphant event: After having lived together for 39 years, Ben and George (Alfred Molina) joyfully tie the knot, thanks to New York’s new marriage laws. The morning of, the two men are a study in contrast: Ben, artistic and nervous, fusses over every detail; George, practical and calm, knows that all will be well.

They share both the service and subsequent celebratory party with close friends and family: Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan); Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), the gay New York cops who live together downstairs; and numerous other well-wishers.

Kate makes a truly charming, heartfelt speech: brimming with love.

The elation doesn’t last long.

Ben doesn’t really have a job; he dabbles at painting. George, the primary breadwinner, teaches private music lessons but earns the bulk of their income from his longtime job as choir master at a local Catholic school. Unfortunately, although all concerned have known and tolerated George’s sexual orientation during his entire 12-year stint at this school, the marriage is an “official” act that cannot be condoned by the Catholic hierarchy.

George is summarily dismissed. Absent that income, he and Ben no longer can afford their apartment, nor — thanks to New York’s relentless real estate market — can they find another place to live. They reluctantly call a family meeting and present this news, hoping for the group to offer a stopgap, if not a solution.

The resulting silence, as the various implications settle, is merely the first of this film’s many gut-wrenching moments.