Monday, June 18, 2018

RBG: Legal Jedi knight

RBG (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

I know what you’re thinking.

A documentary about an 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice? How interesting could that be?

Boy, are you in for a surprise.

During her twin careers as Columbia Law School professor and American Civil Liberties
Union general counsel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was welcomed at the White House by
President Jimmy Carter.
Documentarians Betsy West and Julie Cohen have crafted a film that’s every bit as compelling as a political thriller, and fueled by a subject every bit as captivating as a seasoned Hollywood star. RBG is shrewdly assembled: not merely a biographical study of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but also an absorbing analysis of the degree to which her work has changed the nation in which we live.

The contrast is both droll and fascinating. In person — via clips extracted from various interviews and lectures — the diminutive Ginsburg is quiet and seemingly shy, to the point of near invisibility. You’d expect her to be the timid individual seated by herself in a distant corner, during a noisy party: the person everybody would overlook.

And yet she blossoms into a true Jedi warrior when discussing law and — perhaps more important — justice.

Her age notwithstanding, Ginsburg is indefatigable; she must be one of the lucky souls able to survive on just a few hours of sleep each night. She’s also a quiet hoot, despite the repeated insistence — from many of the individuals interviewed during the course of the film — that her husband Martin is “the funny one” (which is quite true, but still...).

West and Cohen open their film with a hilarious series of voiceover rants about Ginsburg, likely from right-wing radio commentators, who make her sound like the spawn of Satan.

We’re then eased gently into aspects of her daily routine, which include personal appearances, case prep and research, and workout sessions with trainer Bryant Johnson. (Eighty-five and lifting weights! Talk about empowerment!) Her children, Jane and James, supply tantalizing details; a session with granddaughter Clara Spera — as they page through scrapbooks — is quite endearing.

As the film progresses, West and Cohen periodically cut back to the brilliant speech Ginsburg prepared and read, during her confirmation hearings. She was nominated by President Clinton and took her seat as an Associated Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 10, 1993; all these years later, as Clinton looks back, he’s clearly still in awe of her. (Although not his first choice, he confesses that he decided to put her forward a mere 15 minutes after meeting her.)

Equally intriguing is the respect paid by political adversaries such as Orrin Hatch, who was the Republican ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the aforementioned confirmation hearings.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Incredibles 2: Close, but not quite

Incredibles 2 (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.15.18

The frequently delightful and long-awaited Incredibles 2 (14 years!) has much to recommend it, and writer/director Brad Bird obviously used the time wisely; his sequel avoids many of the pitfalls that characterize the often dismaying “sophomore curse.”

When you're taking the baby for a family stroll, confronting a super-villain can be awkward:
from left, Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack decide how best to
handle the subterranean-dwelling Underminer.
That said, this second outing lacks the spark, snap and freshness of its predecessor. The pacing is uneven — the first act is particularly slow — and the balance is off. The numerous sequences with infant Jack-Jack are undeniably hilarious — a hyper-edited encounter with a raccoon could be extracted as a terrific cartoon short — but the baby steals too much focus from the rest of his family ... and, indeed, from the core plot.

As the first film made abundantly clear, the super-heroic Parr family functions best when it functions together ... and this story waits far too long to deliver on that promise.

Events kick off in the immediate aftermath of the previous adventure. Super-powered crime fighters remain illegal: The government and general public still are unwilling to overlook the collateral damage that results when the good guys do their best to bring down super-villains such as the Underminer and his massive conical drill (which broke through to the surface world in the first film’s final scene).

(Geek alert: Given that Bird clearly intended the Parr family as an homage to Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, the Underminer is a similarly droll wink-and-nod to the Mole Man, whom the FF battled in their debut November 1961 comic book.)

Despite the best efforts of Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and adolescent son Dash (Huckleberry Milner), the Underminer’s drill takes out a massive swath of downtown Municiberg. Adding insult to injury, the villain escapes.

Worse yet, longtime colleague and “fixer” Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks), whose Super Relocation Program has helped the Parrs — in their civilian identities — evade public censure, informs them that his division has just been shuttered by the government. Bob, Helen and their children are on their own ... and homeless, thanks to events in the first film. Dicker’s last bit of generosity is a two-week stay in the amusingly droll Safari Court Motel.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ocean's 8: Larkish ladies of larceny

Ocean's 8 (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity, fleeting drug use and mild suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.8.18

As long as reasonable care is taken — sharp script, skilled direction, a competent cast — light-hearted caper thrillers can’t miss.

That’s definitely the case with Ocean’s 8.

With their compatriots "on assignment" at Cartier headquarters, the bulk of the team —
from left, Debbie (Sandra Bullock), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Nine Ball (Rihanna),
Lou (Cate Blancett) and Constance (Awkwafina) — tracks progress via a computer monitor.
If this new film pales slightly when compared to 2001’s sparkling remake of Ocean’s Eleven, it’s mostly because the formula has lost some luster via repetition. Still, the well-designed gender switch compensates for such familiarity, and there’s no question that director Gary Ross — who also scripted this re-boot, with Olivia Milch — assembles the pieces with élan, and then guides them through a devious chess game laden with twists ... at least one of which likely will be a surprise.

Mostly, Ross delivers the necessary level of fun, which was so crucial to the 2001 predecessor’s success. We always had a sense that George Clooney & Co. were playing themselves, as much as their characters — which was absolutely true of the 1960 Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin original — and that added effervescent bonhomie to the action. These were guys with whom we wanted to share war stories over cocktails; the same is true of this Girls Just Want To Have Fun reworking.

And yes — just to be clear — this gender switch is far better, in every possible way, than 2016’s conceptually similar but otherwise misguided remake of Ghostbusters.

We meet Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) — the equally larcenous sister of Clooney’s Danny Ocean — immediately following a prison stretch of five years, eight months and 12 days. Rather than accept this sentence as a lesson learned, Debbie spent the entire time devising, refining and perfecting what she now believes will be the perfect crime: the theft of the Toussaint, a unique diamond necklace valued at $150 million, which stays locked in an impenetrable vault in the bowels of the Cartier mansion.

All she needs is a crew.

Bullock’s Debbie is perky, poised and polished: utterly unflappable, and generally sporting a mildly self-confident smirk that potential marks immediately find disarming. This contrasts nicely with the wary and somewhat hardened Lou (Cate Blanchett), Debbie’s former partner in crime, who is less than enthusiastic when given the opportunity to resume their illicit ways.

Debbie mocks; Lou challenges. Bullock and Blanchett make an excellent team, and the script teases us with the possibility that their relationship might run deeper than mere professional camaraderie.

Hotel Artemis: Make a reservation!

Hotel Artemis (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, sexual references and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Back in the era of double features — when dinosaurs roamed the earth — a prestige “A-picture” frequently was accompanied by a low-budget companion pejoratively known as the “B-picture.”

The Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her newest patient — the local crime lord known as
Wolfking (a bloody Jeff Goldblum) — argue "politely" over chain of command, while the
latter's hair-trigger son (Zachary Quinto, center) watches with mounting impatience.
But a studio’s more modest units often were a training ground for gifted, up-and-coming talents, and it wasn’t at all unusual for a B-film to be more entertaining than the bloated, top-of-the-bill “spectacular” that brought folks into the theater.

Given Hollywood’s current obsession with over-hyped franchises and brain-dead popcorn fare, we’ve once again entered a time when unpretentious indie productions can be far more interesting than their mega-budget cousins. We simply don’t call ’em B-films anymore.

Case in point: Hotel Artemis, which marks an impressive directorial debut by writer/producer Drew Pearce, best known — up to this point — as part of the scripting teams on Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Pearce’s first solo effort as writer/director is a smart, savvy “what if” thriller set in the near future, with an intriguing premise that makes excellent use of ornately moody surroundings and a solid ensemble cast.

The setting is downtown Los Angeles, late on an average evening in the year 2028. (“It’s a Wednesday,” one of our primary characters wearily repeats on occasion, shaking her head each time.) The most violent riot in L.A. history has entered its third night, with the privatized police force pummeling blue-painted protestors whose only demand is clean water ... because the city’s water supply also has been privatized. Those who don’t pay get their bills cut off.

(As has been noted on numerous occasions, the best science-fiction is that which takes place in a near future that doesn’t seem far removed from reality. Frankly — given the degree to which today’s privileged one percent works so aggressively to disenfranchise the rest of us — I find Pearce’s notion disturbingly prophetic.)

One outwardly decrepit building stands undisturbed amidst a chaos that includes police helicopters being blasted out of the sky by weaponized drones: the imposing Hotel Artemis, seemingly a dilapidated relic of a long-ago past, when it might have been filled with movie stars, high-rollers and local aristocrats.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A rip-snortin' space adventure

Solo (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.25.18

Among this film’s back-story revelations, large and small, the one that raises the quickest smile is the origin of Han Solo’s name.

Not yet at home: Han (Alden Ehrenreich, center) reluctantly sits back while Lando
(Donald Glover) and the overly chatty L3-37 pilot the Millennium Falcon to their
next destination.
I’d expect no less from a script co-authored by Lawrence Kasdan, who — let us not forget — collaborated with sci-fi legend Leigh Brackett on 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, arguably still the best of all Star Wars films.

Lawrence and his son Jonathan share writing duties on Solo: A Star Wars Story, which tells the origin (more or less) of the lovable rogue who introduced himself to Luke Skywalker by sliding behind a table at the Mos Eisley cantina, pointing to himself and saying, “Han Solo. I’m captain of the Millennium Falcon.”

Rather plain-vanilla, as character debuts come. How could we have known?

Solo joins 2016’s Rogue One as another side story that “fills in the cracks” between episodes of the primary Star Wars mythos. Unlike that earlier film, though, Solo clearly marks the beginning of its own two- or three-film franchise, given that it concludes quite neatly by dovetailing with a character from 1999’s The Phantom Menace.

Meanwhile, director Ron Howard’s Solo is a thoroughly engaging — and frequently suspenseful — depiction of the people and events that will shape Han into the lone wolf-turned-rebel hero who proves so important in the battle against the evil Empire.

Well, not entirely lone wolf. Kasdan père et fils also supply origin stories for Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and even the Millennium Falcon’s holochess game.

Fans couldn’t ask for more.

As always is the case with the best Star Wars films, this one hits the ground running: Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) do their best to escape the Dickensian White Worm Syndicate on Corellia, where they’re in thrall to a rather disgusting, otherworldly Fagin dubbed Lady Proxima (and voiced by Linda Hunt). This hell-for-leather opening concludes with Han — having no other choice — joining the galaxy-cleansing Empire as a foot soldier.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Club: A good read

Book Club (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for considerable sexual candor and some profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.18.18

Blend four accomplished actresses with a sharp script — particularly if laden with plenty of arch one-liners — and the results can’t help being delightful.

Sharon (Candice Bergen, left) is reluctant to take the "go for it" encouragement coming
from best friends Carol (Mary Steenbergen, center) and Vivian (Jane Fonda). At the same
time, all three are concerned about the romantic progress — or lack thereof — their
mutual friend Diane might be experiencing.
Such is the case with Book Club, a thoroughly entertaining showcase for stars Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. The ribald premise invites — and delivers — a relentless stream of mischievously bawdy dialogue and clever double entendres, all courtesy of co-writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman, the latter also making an accomplished directorial debut.

This film also is a game-changer for Simms, a once-busy actress making an equally noteworthy shift to writer/producer. (She shared behind-the-scenes credit with Holderman on 2015’s adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. This new film is much better.)

Book Club is another welcome entry in the Life Doesn’t End At 50 sub-genre of gentle romantic comedies, following in the recent footsteps of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Meddler. Simms and Holderman’s sweet and saucy script takes a perceptive poke at ill-advised expectations, unwarranted social conventions, and the silent resignation with which far too many people accept less than their fair slice of the romantic pie.

Diane (Keaton), recently widowed after 40 years of marriage, is regarded as just this side of a doddering invalid by her two well-meaning but insufferably condescending daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton). Vivian (Fonda), an enormously successful and wealthy hotel owner, has spent her life limiting male contact to short-term affairs with no strings attached.

Sharon (Bergen), a federal court judge, still hasn’t recovered from a decades-old divorce from ex-husband Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), who — twisting the knife even further — has just gotten engaged to a hotsy-totsy babe (Mircea Monroe, as Cheryl) who could be his granddaughter.

Carol (Steenburgen) hasn’t been able to rekindle the incandescent sexual spark that highlighted her 35-year marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who has become withdrawn and aimless after his recent retirement.

Deadpool 2: Still gleefully gory

Deadpool 2 (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless violence, profanity, gore, sexual candor, tasteless humor and rather bizarre nudity

By Derrick Bang

If it’s true the world is going straight to hell, this film series is pushing us into the abyss.

Having been made an X-Men trainee by the metal-skinned Colossus, Deadpool (Ryan
Reynolds, left) attempts diplomatic persuasion in order to defuse a volatile crisis
involving a rogue mutant. Needless to say, that won't work...
The character of Wade Wilson, known as Deadpool while concealed beneath red and black Spandex, occupies a tasteless subdivision of the Marvel Comics universe. His insolence and appetite for blood-drenched vigilante justice set him apart from superheroes who obey a higher moral calling, and his mutant talent — accelerated regeneration, like a lizard that can re-grow its tail — encourages all manner of gross-out melees.

To its credit (?), the companion film series quite faithfully replicates the vulgar tone, rude banter and hyper-violent carnage. If anything, Deadpool 2 is even more deplorably disgusting than its 2016 predecessor, which — no doubt — will delight the fans who’ve pushed that first film to a ludicrously high IMDB rating of 8.0. 

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the movie-going public.

Needless to say, these films can’t — shouldn’t — be taken seriously. They must be approached vicariously, enjoyed (endured?) as examples of the sick and/or dark-dark-dark humor typical of Pulp FictionBad Santa and both Kick-Ass entries.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying caveat emptor. If your idea of a good time doesn’t include watching our anti-hero groan and crack wise after literally getting ripped in two, bloody entrails dangling from both halves, better go for some other option at the multiplex.

This film picks up more or less where the first one left off, with the hideously scarred Wade (Ryan Reynolds) having settled into his role as masked mercenary and executioner of grotesquely vile criminal dons, drug kingpins, human traffickers and, well, you get the idea. Alas, that sort of behavior cuts both ways, and Wade gets hit where he lives. Literally.

Thanks to a quasi-alliance established with a few members of the X-Men, Wade is rescued from his subsequent funk by the imposing, metal-skinned Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), who — with ill-advised optimism — makes Deadpool a trainee member of the team. Their first mission: to quell a crisis at a home for wayward mutant orphans, where a distressed teenage pyrotic named Russell (Julian Dennison) is carrying out his own scorched-earth policy.