Friday, October 19, 2018

Private Life: Painfully raw, deeply revealing

Private Life (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, nudity and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Obsession takes many forms.

Richard and Rachel Biegler (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) want a child. The artsy Manhattan-based couple delayed starting a family because Rachel — an author — always had a fresh publishing deadline. Now, having slid into middle age, the “process” has become more complicated.

Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, center), obsessed with their desire to
"become pregnant," are delighted by the distraction offered by their niece, Sadie
(Kayli Carter), when she asks to crash in their apartment for awhile.
Or perhaps things always would have been complicated. Rachel’s eggs apparently aren’t top-quality, and Richard has only one testicle: a detail quickly tossed into any discussion of the topic — even with friends — much to his ongoing embarrassment. (And the first indication of the degree of “sharing” we’re in for.)

“Embarrassment” is plentiful in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ intimate Private Life, much of it radiating from us viewers, who can’t help feeling like voyeurs. This is one of the most ferociously personal, deeply poignant dramedies I’ve ever seen, and also one of the most painfully, hilariously insightful. We laugh a lot, but often self-defensively: hoping that Jenkins — and her terrific cast — won’t go that one more private step further.

But they always do.

We meet Richard and Rachel well into what already must have been dozens (scores?) of sessions with their specialist, Dr. Dordick (Denis O’Hare, a stitch as the sort of tone-deaf male doctor who tries for humor at all the wrong moments). The film opens as Richard jabs his wife in the buttocks with another hormone shot, the actors bravely bared just as much physically, as emotionally.

We get a sense, as details emerge, that this process is being driven primarily by Rachel, and that Richard is doing everything he can to help and support. Both are weary after months on numerous emotional roller coasters. The hormones make her crazy, alternately bitchy or despondent; he’s exhausted, trying to anticipate and keep up with her moods, without saying or doing something that prompts an unexpected eruption of fury.

Rarely has the phrase “walking on eggshells” been more apt.

Unfortunately — unhappily — it quickly becomes clear that they’ve moved beyond “reasonable” options, and strayed deeply into the realm of fixation. Artificial insemination failed. An attempt to adopt went cruelly awry, as revealed during an absolutely heartbreaking flashback.

Halloween: All trick, little treat

Halloween (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence, gore, profanity, brief drug use and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.19.18

You can’t go home again … but boy, the Hollywood sausage-grinders do keep trying.

Hollywood has unleashed 10 sequels, remakes or re-boots of John Carpenter’s modest — but undeniably ground-breaking — 1978 chiller, and not oneof them has anywhere near the original’s intensity or suspense. Instead, they’ve all succumbed to the ever-increasing gore quotient much more reminiscent of the deliberately disgusting Friday the 13th series that kicked off two years later.

As Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has just discovered, not even a heavily fortified home
can stop a homicidal maniac crafty enough to punch through a window.
This one’s no exception.

The butchery here adheres to the usual formula: exercises solely designed to challenge the imaginations of make-up and special effects crewmembers. Of particular delight is the carving knife thwocked into the back of a woman’s skull, the blade’s front emerging between her agonized eyes; and the head that gets stomped into hamburger beneath a heavy boot. Tasty.

Carpenter must be of two minds. On the one hand, he’s likely pleased that every one of these misbegotten offspring have made his first film look ever better with time. On the other hand, he’s gotta be dismayed by what that film has wrought, and how it keeps getting blamed — unfairly — for all the gruesome “doomed teenager” franchises that have erupted in its wake.

The saddest part is that director/co-scripter David Gordon Green hasn’t even tried to make this new film halfway decent. He and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley merely introduce a sizable stable of one-dimensional doofus characters who exist solely to be slaughtered. I mean, really: With almost no exception, these are numbskulls who’d wander into night-time freeway traffic, in order to marvel at all the pretty headlights.

Factor in the first resort of lazy horror-franchise filmmakers — the idiot plot, which lurches forward only because each and every individual behaves like an idiot at all times — and there’s very little to recommend this early Thanksgiving turkey.

Green and his cohorts probably would argue that such behavior is expected of the characters in horror flicks, and that this adds a desired note of dark humor. In the first place, that’s nonsense; in the second, I’m not willing to credit them with that much insight. This is hack work, plain and simple.

This Halloween rebelliously insists that none of the other franchise entries existed, save Carpenter’s first film. (That’s somewhat essential, since Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode was killed toward the beginning of 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, and yet here she is again.)

Forty years have passed — as actually is the case — during which the homicidal Michael Myers has been locked up in a reasonably comfortable mental facility, where he has been carefully studied by psychiatrist Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer, standing in for Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis, in the first film). Michael hasn’t spoken a word the entire time.

Friday, October 12, 2018

First Man: A troubled landing

First Man (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.12.18

Director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer jump into their film with an edge-of-the-seat sequence: the highest of solo pilot Neil Armstrong’s numerous test flights in the X-15 rocket airplane.

While Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) putters in the kitchen, her husband Neil (Ryan Gosling)
and their elder son Rick (Gavin Warren) work on a jigsaw puzzle during a rare moment
of family bonding, unaware that a phone call is about to bring disturbing news.
It’s a savagely cut cacophony of images: the shuddering and jouncing aircraft; the roar of the rocket engines that blast Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) up to 207,500 feet; similarly jittery close-ups on his determined expression.

And then utter silence, as the engines switch off (intentionally) ,and Armstrong gets a panoramic view of the blue globe below, against the dark-night contrast at the edge of space.

Totally, amazingly breathtaking.

But that’s just the preamble. Armstrong’s return to Earth goes awry when the X-15 begins to “bounce” off the upper atmosphere, sending him even higher into the mesosphere above. Utter chaos, as he tries to compensate while mentally plotting a new landing spot, having zoomed past the planned touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base.

Like, wow.

First Man is laden with sequences even superior to this one, given a degree of verisimilitude — by visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert — wholly on par with the we-are-there reality viewers experienced while watching 2013’s Gravity. It becomes clear that Armstrong had more lives than a cat, and also possessed seat-of-the-pants math and physics calculating skills that made him just this side of a walking computer. (A good thing, too, given the limitations of 1960s mainframes.)

If only this film’s quieter moments were handled as well.

Singer’s script is adapted from James R. Hansen’s 2005 best-seller, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the pilot/astronaut’s only official biography. The film’s intimate “family” element takes place in between stunning piloting events that could be considered myth, were the details not so well known: the aforementioned 1962 X-15 flight, the 1966 Gemini 8 crisis, the 1968 mishap with one of the Earthbound Lunar Lander Research Vehicles, and — the reason for this film’s existence — the 1969 Apollo 11 mission.

Considerable time is spent with Armstrong’s home life, particularly early on, as he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) agonize over the final months of their 2-year-old daughter, Karen, who died while being treated for a malignant tumor at the base of her brain stem. This is a lot to take in, so quickly, and explanations are minimal. 

The presentation of this chapter establishes the style Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren use throughout the film: lots of tight close-ups and jiggle-cam tracking shots, like one would expect from home movies. This suggests documentary-style authenticity — which Chazelle likely intended — but it also assumes considerable pre-existing knowledge of the part of the viewer, and repeatedly leaves questions unanswered.

I got a sense, heightened as the film continued, that this 141-minute drama has been distilled from a longer director’s edit. Details are left unexplained; scenes cut abruptly to unrelated events.

Bad Times at the El Royale: Well titled

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity, drug content and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

It begins with such promise.

During the first hour, I couldn’t wait to see this film a second time.

Traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, left) and touring soul singer
Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) are just as surprised as desk manager Miles Miller
(Lewis Pullman), when their check-in procedure is interrupted by a brazen newcomer.
Shortly thereafter, my enthusiasm began to wane. Ninety minutes in, it was obvious that one viewing would be sufficient.

By the time this interminable slog had concluded, I wanted my 141 minutes back.

Yes, it’s that long. No, the length isn’t justified. Not by any means.

I suspect writer/director Drew Goddard intended Bad Times at the El Royale to be a similarly snarky and dark-dark-darkblend of this past spring’s Hotel Artemis and Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. The preview certainly suggested as much, and Goddard’s pedigree is solid; he was the guiding hand behind 2012’s ferociously clever The Cabin in the Woods, and he cut his teeth writing and directing episodes of cult TV faves such as Buffy, the Vampire SlayerAngelAlias and Lost.

What could possible go wrong?

Well … a lack of self-discipline, for starters. An inability to recognize when “mischievous” veers into “tasteless.” And a failure to perceive that although his script has a great set-up and premise, the execution leaves much to be desired. By the bonkers third act, at which point the film has gone completely off the rails, one gets a sense that Goddard was hastily scribbling fresh pages as he went along.

Such a disappointment.

That said, there’s no denying the skill with which Goddard toys with us, during the ingeniously twisty first hour.

It’s January 1969: a time of momentous upheaval, as the last vestiges of the debonair, Rat Pack jazz era are buried beneath the rock ’n’ roll-fueled counter-culture revolution. Richard Nixon has just been inaugurated as the 37th president of the United States, and a new decade beckons.

But on the border between California and Nevada, the once-glorious El Royale still seems time-locked in the 1950s. The resort is cheekily built to straddle both states, with a fat red line dividing the two wings of rooms, and running right down the middle of the spacious lobby. The establishment offers warmth and sunshine to the west, and hope, opportunity — and gambling — to the east. Once upon a time, this Tahoe hot spot catered to the country’s most famous celebrities and politicians; now it’s just this shy of being a ghost.

(The El Royale is inspired by the actual Cal Neva Resort and Casino, which similarly straddled both states.)

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Star Is Born: Loses some sparkle

A Star Is Born (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, sexuality and nudity, and substance abuse

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.5.18

This saga is as sure-fire as The Three Musketeers, and it has been brought to the big screen almost as many times.

Jackson (Bradley Cooper) is at his best when he stops drinking long enough to noodle
a new song on the piano. Unfortunately, as Ally (Lady Gaga) soon discovers, such
moments are becoming increasingly rare.
The original William A. Wellman/Robert Carson story set the template back in 1937, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March starring in the alternately exhilarating and melancholy tale of a wannabe actress’ chance encounter with a sympathetic veteran: her star on the rise, and his on the wane. Ships passing in the night from opposite directions, their encounter incandescent and mutually beneficial … but all too brief.

Shifting the narrative to the music industry was a brilliant touch, as took place in subsequent remakes of this rock-solid story. That solidified the formula, because there’s always a new diva-to-be waiting in the wings, as musical taste evolves.

So yes, this 2018 edition of A Star Is Born has much to recommend it: most notably an impressive big-screen dramatic debut by Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga.

Definitely a (dare I say it?) star-making performance.

She’s a standout during this film’s first act, as her character reels from wary vulnerability to giddy enthusiasm, not quite willing to believe the opportunity that has dropped into her lap. She’s touching, bubbly, feisty and wholly convincing as a nervous neophyte singer/songwriter who’s terrified of exposing herself to public censure: quite remarkable, for somebody with Lady Gaga’s actual performance chops.

You’ll detect a definite echo of 1968’s Funny Girl, where — in its first act — the already quite accomplished Barbra Streisand similarly conveyed the panic of inexperience. (In a droll touch, Lady Gaga’s Ally also is self-conscious about the size of her nose.)

It’s difficult to ascertain if Lady Gaga’s acting ability is instinctive, or whether first-time director and co-star Bradley Cooper coaxed something magical from her; we won’t know until she has more film work under her belt. But there’s no denying the result: She’s equally powerful whether delivering a song, or during a particularly heartbreaking dramatic moment.

Too bad Cooper didn’t trust her more.

He makes several mistakes, as a first-time triple-threat hyphenate (also co-credited for scripting, alongside Eric Roth and Will Fetters, with a nod toward Wellman and Carson). The screenplay isn’t deep enough — sidebar characters are shamefully underused — to justify a running time of 135 minutes. He should have let editor Jay Cassidy do his job. 

(In fairness, the 1954 Judy Garland version is even longer, at 154 minutes.)

Cooper also is too self-indulgent. He favors slow reaction shots, particularly with his own character; it often feels like he’s struggling to remember his lines. And yes: Even for a quasi-musical, and even given the strength and appeal of the original songs by Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga herself, there are too many of them. This is supposed to be a melodrama, not a concert documentary.

Colette: A not entirely satisfying quest for identity

Colette (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Dick Francis’ fans were astonished to discover, in late 1999, that all the novels by the former champion jockey-turned-thriller author had received “substantial input” from his wife, Mary.

When Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) balks at her husband's demand that
she "ghost" another novel that he can publish under his own name, he locks her in the
study until she begins to produce.
Depending on opinion, said input ranged from research and editing to full-on ghost-writing. I favor the latter theory: Francis’ lone solo effort following Mary’s death on September 9, 2000 — 2006’s Under Orders — was substantially weaker than all that had come before. No surprise, then, that his final four books were collaborations with his son, Felix.

I’ve often thought about Mary Francis, working in absolute secrecy on 38 novels and a baker’s dozen of short stories, over a period of almost four decades. Did she regret being absent from the spotlight that so illuminated her famous husband? Was she amused to know the truth?

Such thoughts resonated anew while watching director/co-scripter Wash Westmoreland’s biographical depiction of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French novelist known solely by her last name. Her most popular novel, 1944’s Gigi, was made into a French film five years later, and transformed into a 1951 stage production starring newcomer Audrey Hepburn — chosen by Colette herself — and then, of course, the Academy Award-winning 1958 Hollywood musical with Leslie Caron.

But all that came much, much later. Westmoreland’s film — co-scripted by Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz — focuses on the roughly two decades Colette was married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, during which time she produced her first four novels … all of which were published under her husband’s name.

And therein lies the tale.

Colette depicts the creation of the young author as her own entity and (more or less) emancipated woman, although it could be argued that Westmoreland is equally obsessed with her budding bisexuality. The film’s second half spends considerable time with enthusiastic bedroom coupling and Colette’s blossoming relationship with the scandalously “butch” Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, affectionately known as “Missy.”

(In the press notes, Westmoreland waxes enthusiastically about his “progressive casting philosophy” of hiring trans actors for cisgender roles. Methinks his focus is a bit skewed.)

Even so, we never lose sight of the growing degree to which Colette wishes to control her own literary destiny, and free herself from the invisibility of uncredited authorship.

In this regard — actually, in all respects — the film’s strongest asset is the gifted starring performance by Keira Knightley. She smoothly navigates the transition from na├»ve country girl to an accomplished sophisticate wholly at ease among the snooty, avant-garde intellectuals with whom her husband socialized. 

The Old Man and the Gun: Quite a pistol!

The Old Man and the Gun (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Right from the start, we’re obviously in the hands of a savvy filmmaker.

It’s not merely the grace and charismatic star wattage with which Robert Redford strolls into the opening scene, although writer/director David Lowery deserves credit for stepping back and letting the 82-year-old actor — his blue eyes still sparkling with charm — carry the moment with the on-screen magnetism that has made him a Hollywood icon for more than half a century.

Having successfully eluded police pursuit after robbing a bank, Forrest Tucker (Robert
Redford) furthers his camouflage as "just a guy" by stopping to help a stranded
motorist (Sissy Spacek).
No, it’s what happens next, when Redford’s Forrest Tucker — having just robbed a bank with the calm, congenial politeness of somebody purchasing a movie theater ticket — hops into his getaway car. Cinematographer Joe Anderson tracks the vehicle as it crisply takes a few corners. Ambient sounds are accompanied by our eavesdropping on police scanner chatter, as all officers are alerted to be on the lookout for a white sedan.

Tucker’s car heads toward the camera, then turns left (our right) and vanishes into some sort of alleyway. Anderson, positioned at the foreground of this city block, slowly pans along the cross-street, momentarily focusing on two children playing. In the background, we hear the sounds of a car stopping, the door opening and closing as somebody exits, a pause, and then another car door opening and closing, and the sound of a different engine roaring into life.

Anderson’s camera slides along and reaches the hard-packed dirt of a vacant lot — all of this having been one continuous shot — just as Tucker bursts onto the street, now driving a fresh vehicle.

Absolutely brilliant use of the cinematic medium.

I settled back, knowing we were in for a treat. Lowery doesn’t disappoint.

The Old Man and the Gun is a mildly — but only mildly — romanticized dramedy based on the audacious life of Forrest Tucker, a career criminal first arrested for car theft in Stuart, Florida, in 1936. He was 15 years old. Over a span of decades that found him in prison as often as out, he ultimately developed a method enhanced by his advancing age, and rehearsed with the care and precision of a Royal Shakespearean actor.

Frightened tellers nonetheless commented on the old guy’s almost apologetic deference, and the fact that he smiled with such equanimity. They practically wanted to help him rob their bank. It was early 1980, and the George Burns/Art Carney crime dramedy Going in Style still was playing in movie theaters. As a result, when police officers in Texas and Oklahoma compared notes regarding a series of similar bank hold-ups, the as-yet-unidentified Tucker was dubbed head of “The Over-the-Hill Gang.”

(Actually, The Over-the-Hill Gang is an occasionally charming 1969 Walter Brennan Western. But I digress.)

Clearly, Tucker’s life was made for the movies. I’m surprised it took so long.