Friday, December 2, 2016

Manchester by the Sea: Drowning in an ocean of grief

Manchester by the Sea (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.16

Some films are constructed so beautifully, and lensed so crisply, that they seem to glow. Life of Pi is a recent example, and it brought cinematographer Claudio Miranda a well-deserved Academy Award.

After being brought back to his home town by the sudden death of his brother, Lee (Casey
Affleck, left) is left with the question of what to do about his now parentless teenage
nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Manchester by the Sea has the same radiant allure, its northern Massachusetts fishing village setting portrayed with such luxurious sparkle that it literally feels like heaven on Earth. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes deserves equal recognition, come Oscar time.

The same came be said for just about everybody connected with this poignant drama. This luxurious, rustic setting is juxtaposed against star Casey Affleck’s heartbreakingly persuasive, all-encompassing depiction of grief. This is one of those assignments that transcends acting; within 10 or 15 minutes, we simply accept the fact that Affleck is Lee Chandler, an estranged native son brought back to his hometown under tragic circumstances.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has an ear for the way people actually talk to each other: true conversation, which often erupts in short-tempered bursts, as opposed to the carefully sculpted “movie talk” that generally passes for dialogue. He’s a methodical and unhurried filmmaker; this is only his third big-screen feature, beginning with 2000’s similarly impressive You Can Count on Me, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo shining in the poignant saga of a woman’s awkward reunion with her younger brother.

It has become clear, with time, that Lonergan is adept at coaxing superlative, quietly lifelike performances from his stars. Affleck is by far the standout here, but he’s in good company; co-stars Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler complete the core ensemble, together enacting a story that illustrates the crippling, pervasive impact of guilt and anguish.

We meet Lee during his daily routine as a Boston-based janitor, solemnly dealing with clogged toilets, recalcitrant radiators and persnickety light fixtures. Some of the lonely tenants in question welcome his presence; others flirt awkwardly; still others are rude. Lee is uniformly stoic, to the point of appearing discourteous; we initially wonder if he’s on the spectrum, unable to properly process social niceties.

But then we realize no, it’s more a case of a man lost in a swamp of despair, and no longer able to navigate. Affleck moves with uncertainty, as if worried that the very ground might trick him into placing a foot wrong. His sleepy eyes fail to register friendly overtures, as if he’s perpetually stoned, yet he takes no drugs. He does, however, drown the remnants of a gray day with a few too many beers at the local tavern, at which point he may become a short-fused, belligerent drunk: picking fights as a means of securing a punishing beat-down.

All of this emerges in a deft, superbly assembled introductory montage; Lonergan is a master of small, character-establishing details.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Allied: Does love bind?

Allied (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, fleeting nudity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.16

At first blush, this feels like an old-style WWII espionage drama of the sort whose absence is lamented by longtime moviegoers — such as my parents — who often grouse that They Don’t Make ’Em Like This Anymore.

Shortly after adopting his cover identity as the devoted husband of Marianne (Marion
Cotillard), Max (Brad Pitt) fears that he may have been recognized by a Nazi officer: a
potential catastrophe that requires a quick solution...
Given the French Moroccan setting, stars with the wattage of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and a swooningly romantic script that even name-checks Casablanca, one almost expects Bogie and Bacall to come strolling in from the surrounding desert.

Steven Knight is a terrific screenwriter, with solid experience in the crime and espionage genres; his highlights include 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises. No surprise, then: He delivers a corker of a first act for Allied, and then swings the plot into an unexpected direction that cranks up the suspense.

Unfortunately, things get messy during an contrived third act, which piles eye-rolling coincidence atop unrealistic behavior, the latter from characters who’ve previously been depicted as far too intelligent, to suddenly turn brainless. Cut to a positively eye-rolling epilogue, and the film squanders the considerable good will that it has built.

Seriously, Steven ... what were you thinking?

In fairness, such climactic, over-the-top melodrama also is old-school, so Knight and director Robert Zemeckis obviously knew precisely what they were doing. I’m simply not sure that today’s savvier viewers will be as willing to forgive such theatrical excess, as was the case back in the 1940s and ’50s.

And it’s a shame, because the first 90 minutes are thoroughly compelling, and — yes — luxuriously atmospheric.

The year is 1942, and the film opens as Canadian airman Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes into the desert outside of Casablanca. His emergency mission, orchestrated by the British Special Operations Executive (BSOE): to assassinate Germany’s visiting ambassador. The groundwork for this mission has been established by undercover French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), who has spent weeks among her Nazi “friends,” waxing eloquent about the beloved husband soon to visit from Paris.

The handsome and affable Max looks and sounds the part ... to a point. As Marianne immediately notices, his carefully rehearsed accent is more Québécois than Parisian, which is a problem: French Moroccans wouldn’t know the difference, but he’d never fool Nazi officials who had spent any time in France.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Rules Don't Apply: Chaos reigns

Rules Don't Apply (2016) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Oh, my.

This may not be Warren Beatty’s worst film — Ishtar and Town & Country still arm-wrestle for that distinction — but it runs a close third.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), hoping to become a Hollywood star, finds herself spending
lots of time with driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who seems a poor substitute
for potential mentor Howard Huges. Initially, anyway...
Much has been made about the “sudden” appearance of this new Beatty project: the first time he has appeared on screen since 2001 (in the aforementioned Town & Country), and the first film he has written, directed, produced and starred in, since 1998’s Bulworth (also far from a classic).

Warren, you shoulda stayed retired.

Alas, too many artists cannot resist the itch to create, long after common sense should have removed them from the stage.

In fairness, even at its worst — and there’s plenty of “worst” to go around — Beatty’s new film reveals traces of the idiosyncratic sparkle that bloomed to perfection in classics such as Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. And, at 79 years young, Beatty himself remains a master of the roguish twinkle and droll double-takes that made him such a memorable screen presence, back in the day.

But Rules Don’t Apply remains a mess.

It’s the worst sort of self-indulgent vanity project: a bloated, bewildering, pointless excuse to shovel several dozen high-profile guest stars into meaningless, ill-defined and under-developed parts. The so-called story is a muddle — Beatty sharing scripting credit with Bo Goldman — and the limply executed result commits the entertainment world’s most unpardonable sin: It’s boring.

Turgid, mind-numbingly dull, I’d-rather-endure-root-canal-surgery tedious.

It’s also superfluous. While Beatty is the right age to deliver his interpretation of Howard Hughes’ tragic final years, there’s no reason to do so. This film’s script offers no information, no character analysis, that wasn’t covered far better by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2004’s The Aviator.

On top of which, the whole Howard Hughes riff apparently is intended as mere framing device for a stuttering courtship between two young lovers caught in the eccentric industrialist’s disintegrating orbit. It’s a clumsy narrative device, and it fails utterly. Those who grimly slog through this film’s interminable 126 minutes still won’t care a whit about any of these characters.

I’m surprised that Goldman returned to this particular well, having won an Academy Award for writing 1980’s far more successful Hughes project, Melvin and Howard. Now, that was a clever, precocious, charming and thoroughly entertaining lark.

All of which are qualities sorely lacking in Beatty’s newest — and undoubtedly final — misfire.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them: A roaring good time

Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.16

Daniel Radcliffe was a great Harry Potter, but Eddie Redmayne is a fantastic Newt Scamander.

When Agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) brings Newt Scamander (Eddie
Redmayne, left) to the Magical Congress USA's Wand Permit Office, they're met by the
Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who regards this newcomer
with obvious suspicion.
Newt is the pluperfect misfit researcher — magizoologist, to be precise — who is far more comfortable with his beloved “fantastic beasts,” than he is with fellow human beings. Redmayne is appropriately disheveled, like an absent-minded professor who dressed in the dark; his bashful gaze is concealed beneath a mop of unruly hair, and he often rushes in blindly where mages fear to tread.

At the same time, he’s puppy-dog adorable, with an aura of vulnerability that proves deceptive, under certain circumstances. He may not be able to look a woman in the eye, but he’ll stop at nothing when one of his critters is involved.

More to the point — and just like the trouble-prone Harry Potter — Newt thinks nothing of breaking the rules, if he honestly believes the reasons are valid. Much to the dismay of the higher-ups at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA).

J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them in 2001, in between the fourth and fifth installments of her Harry Potter series. It actually was one of Harry’s textbooks: required for first-year Hogwarts students, in its 52nd edition when Harry, Ron and Hermione are assigned to read it, and complete with an introduction by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

This “faux” research tome, compiled by Scamander, describes his research into magizoology, and provides detailed descriptions of 85 magical creatures found throughout the world. As an added droll touch, the pages includes scribblings, doodles and often snarky comments by Ron, who apparently suffered through its pages.

The book was a lark on Rowling’s part — something of a “bonus” for her readers — but not a trivial endeavor. More than 80 percent of the cover price of each copy sold benefited the charity Comic Relief, aiding poor children throughout the world.

Flash-forward to 2013, following the conclusion of the Harry Potter film cycle, at which point Warner Bros. announced that “Fantastic Beasts” would serve as a template for a new five-film series, depicting the many adventures and encounters experienced by Newt, as he developed the data that would lead to the debut publication of his textbook.

And the films would be scripted by Rowling herself.

Moonlight: A heartbreaking coming-of-age saga

Moonlight (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for drug use, frequent profanity, sexuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

Some rare, special films — such as this one — are made with a degree of raw intimacy that’s both compelling and painful.

After finding Chiron (Alex Hibbert, right) hiding from bullies in a condemned apartment
building, Juan (Mahershala Ali) tries to get the frightened boy to open up, by treating him
to a meal. The effort is only partically successful, but it is a significant first step.
Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is profoundly difficult to watch at times, its depiction of contemporary inner city black life achingly sad, with its focus on one young man’s struggle to surmount his upbringing, his environment and the crushing realization that the world expects him to accomplish absolutely nothing. Can it be true, in the modern United States, that one is doomed from birth?

And yet Jenkins’ intriguing storytelling method — co-scripted with Tarell Alvin McCraney — offers glimpses of, if not hope, at least peace and acceptance. Although coming-of-age sagas are a familiar cinema staple, this one takes an intriguing approach; it was conceived as a drama school project in a class run by McCraney, a playwright and 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.

Jenkins’ big-screen adaptation is divided into three distinct chapters, reflecting seminal moments in the young protagonist’s life, and with different actors — who resemble each other to an uncanny degree — playing the character as he ages. The film’s atmosphere of authenticity is no accident; both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the South Florida Liberty City housing project where much of this story unfolds.

The picture isn’t pretty, the experience on par with 2009’s Precious, and graced with similarly powerful performances.

There’s another, equally revealing comparison. 1996’s Sling Blade remains famous as the film that turned its star, director and writer — Billy Bob Thornton — into a household name. That film got much of its power from the narrative’s multiple punches. After its protagonist’s first soliloquy, delivered early on, we thought, Damn, Billy Bob peaked too quickly; there’s no way anything else will come close to that scene’s dramatic intensity. And yet, later, Thornton did top it. And we marveled.

Jenkins achieves the same intensity here.

We meet Chiron at age 9, played by Alex Hibbert: a cowed, withdrawn child bullied by schoolmates because of his small size. This earns him the pejorative nickname of “Little,” and classroom torment isn’t even his major problem; at home, he’s alternately coddled and demeaned by his mother, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a crack addict whose parental instincts flicker erratically, at best.

Little is “rescued” one day, in a sense, by Juan (Mahershala Ali), an essentially compassionate man who — unfortunately — happens to be the neighborhood drug dealer. But the boy doesn’t know this, and their developing relationship is the first demonstration — with several more to come — of Jenkins’ skill at building a sensitive character dynamic under unlikely circumstances.

The Edge of Seventeen: Endearing teen-scene traumas

The Edge of Seventeen (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, vulgarity and some bad teen behavior

By Derrick Bang

Aside from the cool kids — the ones never short of friends and flunkies, and who never seem to embarrass themselves — everybody else, up through high school, inevitably goes through a period of misfit insecurity.

After committing the worst possible blunder, in an era when a single click can expose an
ill-advised comment to the entire world, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) bares her soul to history
teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who'd clearly prefer to enjoy his lunch break in peace.
(In truth, it probably happens to the cool kids, as well. But they never let on.)

In Nadine’s case, it started shortly after birth. By the time she hit second grade, at age 7, she already knew that life — God — had dealt her a rotten hand, and that she’d be a loser her entire life. Taunted by classmates. Plagued by a hopeless clothes sense. Forever in the shadow of an all-too-perfect older brother, the apple of their mother’s eye.


Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen comes with one of the best tag lines I’ve seen: “You’re only young once ... is it over yet?” It’s an apt description: Craig has an unerring ear for the catastrophes of a disenfranchised high school girl in the modern world, whose outsider status is a quabillion times worse, in this age of social media status.

This film is endearing, embarrassing, poignant and cringe-hilarious: hard to watch for all the ways in which it looks, sounds and — worst of all — feels familiar. We’ve been there. Experienced the end of the world. And, yet, endured. (That which doesn’t kill us...)

The last bit is what worries Nadine, who genuinely fears that her life Never. Will. Change.

Craig’s savvy script fuels the narrative, but the film gets its heart from star Hailee Steinfeld’s adorable, heartbreaking lead performance. Now grown into a high school junior, Nadine is an angst-laden, long-suffering tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, who manages to be both vulnerable and insufferably self-absorbed. That requires deft acting chops, and Steinfeld delivers.

On the home front, the sibling situation has become worse. Older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a senior, has matured into a muscled hunk adored by all ... including their mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who continues to display a streak of favoritism. But it’s clearly a chicken/egg dynamic: Is Nadine massively insecure because of her mother’s bias, or has Mona gravitated toward Darian because his sister is such a handful?

Nadine has survived this long solely because of longtime BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who became an inseparable companion back in second grade (the two girls bonding over a caterpillar). They do everything together, Krista keenly aware of — and willing to sympathize with — Nadine’s anxiety and lack of confidence.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival: They're here!

Arrival (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.16

Michael Crichton’a The Andromeda Strain pretty much invented the modern sci-fi techno thriller, and it was made into a crackling 1971 thriller by director Robert Wise.

After confronting the alien spacecraft that has terrified the entire United States, linguist
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are garbed in
protective haz-mat suits, prior to their first meeting with the ship's inhabitants.
The tone was pure procedural, with a gaggle of scientists researching and conferencing in labs, to determine why a highly lethal microorganism killed everybody in a small Arizona town, except for a geriatric Sterno addict and a relentlessly cranky baby.

Few films since then have successfully duplicated that formula, because it’s a difficult tightrope walk: too many talking heads, and the result is boring; too much contrivance and coincidence, and audiences roll their eyes in contemptuous disbelief.

Director Denis Villeneuve gets the balance just right with Arrival, easily one of the most intelligent “first contact” movies Hollywood ever has delivered. Scripter Eric Heisserer embraced the challenging assignment of adapting sci-fi author Ted Chiang’s  2000 Nebula Award-winning novella, and the result is impressively faithful: fascinating, clever and suspenseful, with an out-there finale certain to fuel debates as impassioned as those that greeted the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story also boasts one of the most truly unusual alien cultures ever conceived, the depiction of which is likely to forever change most viewers’ perception and understanding of language.

Finally, the film is an uncomfortably timely reminder of the dangerous levels of nationalism and xenophobia currently running amok throughout this country and the globe, and the consequences of failing to recognize that — at the end of the day — we’re a single species sharing this planet, and that it behooves us to behave accordingly.

To cases, then:

Northeastern university professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an internationally respected linguist, is surprised one day to discover that her huge, entry-level language class is almost empty. The reason becomes clear as breaking news reports interrupt all radio and television broadcasts: A disturbingly large something has landed in a deserted Montana meadow.

Actually, “landed” is the wrong word; the semi-cylindrical object hovers about 20 feet off the ground.