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.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying: Long may it wave

Last Flag Flying (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude remarks

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.17.17

This may be the most unusual road film I’ve ever seen.

The genre is characterized by a trip undertaken by two (sometimes more) individuals who initially don’t get along, and often bond — if only to a degree — by journey’s end. “Great truths” about the travelers are revealed along the way; the more thoughtful scripts also include perceptive social commentary, sometimes speaking to the human condition.

When another snag interrupts their melancholy journey, Sal (Bryan Cranston, right)
naturally drags his companions — Richard (Laurence Fishburne, left) and Doc (Steve
Carell) — to the nearest bar.
The approach can be straight drama, high comedy or a combination of the two. The best examples employ gentle laughter to illuminate human foibles.

Director Richard Linklater has co-scripted — with Darryl Ponicsan — a deeply moving road film that builds to an almost unbearably poignant conclusion. Last Flag Flying has much to recommend it, starting with a clever narrative that is punctuated by often hilarious dialogue. Linklater also draws deeply moving performances from his three stars, and equal mention must be made of the two key co-stars.

But the film is too long at 124 minutes, the pacing too deliberate, many of the slow takes too lingering. Whether in cars, bars, restaurants or trains, this is essentially a “talking heads” experience, and — no matter how well sculpted the drama — that’s hard to sustain for two full hours.

Which is a shame. Tightened by even 10 to 15 minutes, this film might have been a classic for the ages.

The story, set in 2003, begins when soft-spoken New Hampshire family man and former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) unexpectedly shows up at the Norfolk, Va., bar owned by alcoholic former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Three decades removed from their shared tour in Vietnam, Sal doesn’t immediately recognize his former buddy; once past that snag, smiles abound.

Doc asks a favor; Sal doesn’t hesitate a blink before accepting. Doc drives them a few hours away, where they’re just in time to catch a church service led by Pastor Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a mutual comrade-in-arms remembered as an unrestrained Marine tear-away. The unexpected dichotomy is almost more than the giggling Sal can stand.

Later, sharing a sumptuous meal prepared by Richard’s wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), Doc confesses the purpose for this reunion. He has just learned that his only son, a young Marine, has been killed in Iraq; Doc hopes that his two friends will accompany him on a road trip to attend the 21-year-old Larry Jr.’s burial at Arlington Cemetery. They agree.

This process begins with a brief “coffin ceremony” at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, where military coffins are de-planed clandestinely, to avoid the public glare (a shameful media blackout orchestrated at the time by the Bush administration, in an effort to recast the Iraqi conflict as a “good news” story).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Signs of the Times?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s savagely dark assault on mainstream sensibilities is both a blistering burlesque and a painfully raw depiction of despair, frustration and unchecked rage. Much of this film obviously cannot — should not — be taken seriously; unfortunately, quite a lot also feels excruciatingly real.

Although troubled by the rather drastic step that Mildred (Frances McDormand) has taken,
in an effort to achieve closure regarding her daughter's long-unsolved murder, Police
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) checks his emotions while explaining the
frustrating circumstances behind the case.
And not all that unlikely.

The film is powered by Frances McDormand’s sensational starring performance, an acting tour-de-force even more persuasive — more believably, subtly grounded, even within exaggerated circumstances — than her Academy Award-winning work in 1996’s Fargo. And I never, ever expected to write those words.

Her Mildred Hayes is wracked with grief and unresolved anger: a single mother pushed to the edge by her teenage daughter’s gruesome rape/murder, which remains unsolved after nine months. (Given that everything in McDonagh’s scripts always means something, that length of time raises an eyebrow.) Fed up with what she perceives as investigative apathy, Mildred purchases messages on three long-unused billboards standing alongside the quiet road leading to her home.

The three-part message is a direct and controversial challenge to local police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Many of the residents in bucolic Ebbings regard Mildred’s provocative act as profoundly unfair. Tellingly, Willoughby isn’t all that bothered. But second-in-command Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature, racist, violence-prone mama’s boy who wouldn’t know prudence if she kissed him, gets ugly. Repeatedly.

The subsequent unraveling of McDonagh’s vicious narrative is laden with revelations, which is much of the fun: You simply cannot anticipate the twists and U-turns, and there’s no sense trying.

Casting is the first surprise, because Harrelson has built his career — in great measure — on a series of unbalanced and even dangerous misanthropes; we naturally expect the same here. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Willoughby is the story’s most rational, thoughtful and level-headed character: a decent man who wins our respect, because he responds to Mildred not with hostility, but kindness and sympathy.

It’s an absolutely cold case, he gently explains, after the billboards go up. No telling evidence. No DNA hits. Nada.

Harrelson exudes good-natured pragmatism and intelligence; he’s genuinely endearing. We all should be so lucky, to have such a thoughtful police chief.

Mildred is unconvinced; Willoughby acknowledges this as her right.

Justice League: And so it begins...

Justice League (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

Seeing director Zack Snyder’s name attached to this film was not happy news, given the degree to which he ruined both 2013’s Man of Steel and last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Having responded to the bat-signal illuminated by Police Commissioner Gordon (J.K.
Simmons, far left), the newly formed Justice League — from left, Wonder Woman (Gal
Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Batman (Ben Affleck) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) —
learn that Gotham City is, once again, in serious trouble.
Snyder has much in common with director Michael Bay, similarly notorious for the Transformers franchise. Both favor bloated, soulless, humorless slugfests that wreak havoc on landscapes and cityscapes, while casually snuffing hundreds (thousands?) of civilian bystanders. Their films are the very definition of mindless product over art.

On the other hand, I was cheered to note Joss Whedon as co-scripter on Justice League. As the writer/director of 2012’s The Avengers, Whedon established the template for solid, successful superhero epics. Fans have recognized Whedon’s gift since television’s Buffy slayed her first vampire, back in 1996: He has an unerring talent for blending action fantasy with a (frequently droll) human element, which eases our suspension of disbelief.

And is a helluva lot more fun.

It’s easy to spot Whedon’s touch in Justice League, which is most successful during its first and second acts, as the stage is set, and the players assembled. It’s equally easy to see that the third act belongs to Snyder ... but not entirely. Even here, we get the vicarious relief of the unmistakable Whedon touch.

Justice League picks up in the immediate wake of Batman v Superman. The latter is dead, having perished at the hands of a Kryptonian monster genetically engineered by the villainous Lex Luthor. The country (the world?) is sliding quickly into anarchy, humanity apparently having abandoned hope after losing its gallant symbol for truth, justice and the American way.

(Ah ... but is Big Blue really, truly dead?)

Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Diana Prince (the Amazon Wonder Woman) are doing their best to stem the lawless tide, but they operate in the shadows; they’re not “living symbols” in the manner of Superman. Worse yet, Batman has been encountering winged “parademons” — very hard to kill — that seem to be seeking something.

Mindful of the need for additional super-powered allies, in order to hold off whatever comes next, Bruce and Diana reach out to three promising individuals: Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a twentysomething nerd transformed by a lightning strike into The Flash; Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), dubbed Aquaman, and heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a once-promising college football player nearly killed in a horrific accident, and “saved” when his scientist father Silas (Joe Morton) employed alien tech to transform his son into the biomechanical Cyborg.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: A misdemeanor offense

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief violence and mild dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Many actors long to play Hamlet.

Others look forward to taking a crack at Hercule Poirot.

When an avalanche delays the London-bound Orient Express, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth
Branagh) is in the perfect position to solve a heinous murder ... because the killer still
must be somewhere on the train.
Kenneth Branagh is a marvelous Poirot. He nails Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian private detective: from the meticulous OCD tendencies — stroking his perfectly coifed mustache, sizing up the comparative height of his twin breakfast soft-boiled eggs — to the narrowed gaze and waspish tone that indicate crime scene analysis undertaken by his “little grey cells.”

Branagh definitely deserves placement alongside David Suchet and Albert Finney, as cinema’s greatest Poirots.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the vehicle in which Branagh’s Poirot inhabits. Screenwriter Michael Green’s attempt to turn Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express “relevant” for modern viewers makes a shambles of her ingeniously plotted 1934 novel. His adaptation commits the cardinal sin of telegraphing the twist so early, that he gives away the game before we’re even halfway through the film.

Green was an odd choice for this assignment. He’s into excess and exploitation: a sci-fi/horror guy whose credits include Green Lantern, Logan, Alien: Covenant and television’s Gotham and American Gods. He obviously lacks the subtlety and sly British wit required of a Christie mystery, which demands the touch of somebody like Peter Morgan (The Queen, television’s The Crown) or Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey and his own marvelous Christie pastiche, 2001’s Gosford Park).

Green struggles mightily to transform this story into an action-oriented adventure akin to director Guy Ritchie’s recent re-boots of Sherlock Holmes, and it simply doesn’t work. Murder on the Orient Express is a mostly tranquil drawing-room mystery ... except that it takes place aboard a train.

Branagh also directs, and succumbs overmuch to long tracking shots and other visual flourishes, which further diminish the story at hand. One sequence, inexplicably shot from above the characters’ heads as they enter a train compartment, is incredibly distracting.

Branagh seems to love the camera trickery made possible by contemporary CGI effects, and misses no opportunity for stunning vistas of the eponymous train, as it navigates the mountainous regions from Here to There: undeniably gorgeous, as is Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography ... but rather beside the point.

The story takes place in 1934. Green opens the film with a droll prologue that hasn’t a thing to do with Christie, but nonetheless deftly establishes everything we need to know about Poirot. A last-minute change of plans interrupts an intended vacation in Istanbul, and prompts him to board the lavish Orient Express en route to London via Italy, Switzerland and France.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wonderstruck: Very well titled

Wonderstruck (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particularly reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.10.17

This one is pure magic.

Wholly enchanting.

Elaine (Michelle Williams) marvels, each evening, that her son Ben (Oakes Fegley) has
crammed even more stuff into the amateur natural history museum disguised as his
bedroom.
Director Todd Haynes orchestrates this slice of fantasy with the exquisite touch of a master conductor who understands the importance of each note played by every instrument. The music analogy is apt, because this film’s many delights include Carter Burwell’s amazing score: a continuous symphony of drama and delight that tells the story just as skillfully as the talented cast.

Haynes uses everything: images, sounds, music, color, puppetry, sketches and much, much more. All are blended with grace, whimsy and a true sense of wonder (with apologies for riffing on the title).

Such a talent for imagination — along with a delicate touch — are essential for anybody embracing the challenge of bringing a Brian Selznick book to the big screen. Martin Scorsese succeeded masterfully, with his 2011 adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (the film title shorted to Hugo). Now Haynes has duplicated this feat.

Selznick adapted his own book this time, and we shouldn’t be surprised by his skillful scripting debut. His “bookmaking” novels, replete with illustrations, are de facto screenplays to begin with: presented with a master raconteur’s gift for filling the readers’ minds with their own private movies.

I hesitate to explain anything, because Haynes and Selznick coyly tease and toy with us viewers: establishing little mysteries that surround the two primary characters, while mischievously using the cinematic form to dangle clues via sidebars, dreams, flashbacks and all manner of narrative trickery.

Our protagonists are Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), rebellious young adolescents somewhat askew from social norms. Both are lonely; both have transformed their bedrooms into veritable museums of stuff, all carefully notated, indexed and catalogued. Both are curators — an important term, for what follows — of their possessions, and of their discontent.

Rose endures a privileged life with a disciplinarian father (James Urbaniak) who shows her the warmth he might bestow upon a house plant. She finds solace by filling her bedroom with impressively detailed cityscapes constructed from paper and glue, and by scrapbooking the career of actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Ben, having just lost his mother to a traffic accident, chafes at having to live with his aunt, sharing a room with his snotty cousin. Flashbacks reveal the bond that Ben shared with his free-spirited mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), and the patience with which she puts up with his bedroom having grown into what feels like a branch of the nearest natural history museum.

But she stayed mute on one subject that dominates Ben’s thoughts: the identity of his father, who remains a nameless, faceless unknown. She knew, but always put Ben off, promising to reveal all “when the time was right.” Now, of course, the “right” time never will come.

Ben lives in the rural Minnesota community of Gunflint Lake; it’s the summer of 1977.

Rose lives in Hoboken, New Jersey; it’s early autumn in 1927.