Friday, July 10, 2020

My Spy: License to amuse

My Spy (2020) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.20

A curious cinema sub-genre finds macho action stars slotted into comedies with children.

Vin Diesel turned babysitter in 2005’s The Pacifier. Dwayne Johnson discovered a surprise daughter in 2007’s The Game Plan, and donned a tutu in 2010’s Tooth Fairy. That latter year, Jackie Chan looked after his girlfriend’s three kids, in The Spy Next Door.

Although it breaks every known level of CIA protocol, JJ (Dave Bautista) reluctantly
accepts a dinner invitation from Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) ... in great part because her
daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) threatens to blow his cover if he refuses.
It therefore was inevitable Dave Bautista would follow in their footsteps.

These films rise or fall on the personality of the child(ren) involved; if they’re insufferable, ill-behaved little brats who exist solely to make their adult chaperones look like idiots, the results can be dire. And knowing that director Peter Segal was responsible for Tommy BoyNutty Professor II and a gaggle of overly broad Adam Sandler comedies, did not exactly inspire confidence.

But the Erich Hoeber/Jon Hoeber script is smarter than usual, for such projects, and Segal (mostly) eschews wretched excess. More crucially, young Chloe Coleman is genuinely endearing as Bautista’s pint-sized foil, and she can actually act … as opposed to many of the youngsters who turn up in films like this.

The result is far more entertaining than I expected. Heck, at times even mildly poignant.

Bautista has made the most of his post-Guardians of the Galaxy notoriety, and the WWE veteran has the same gruff, brooding charm that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve fame, back in the day. He also has an imposing physical presence that contrasts amusingly with a storyline that demands his character “get in touch with his inner feelings.”

Hardened CIA operative Jason “JJ” Jones (Bautista), ex-Special Forces, is introduced while “handling” a weapons-grade plutonium trade between the Russian Mafia and a Middle Eastern terrorist. The resulting mayhem appears to conclude successfully, but appearances are deceiving; JJ’s cowboy heroics allow one of the key villains to escape.

Back at Langley, JJ’s boss (Ken Jeong, suitably condescending) is extremely displeased; the terrorist in the wind has half the means to threaten the world with a miniaturized nuclear bomb. While a rival agent gets the plum assignment of tracking the most likely action in Paris, JJ is banished to a nondescript Chicago apartment. His job: to surveil a single mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Coleman).

Kate’s deceased husband was connected to the terrorists, so there’s an unlikely chance that she knows something. In other words, it’s a tedious, likely useless monitoring gig.

Scoob: A doggone hoot

Scoob (2020) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild suggestive humor and fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.20

Scooby-Doo, the nervous Great Dane with a nose for supernatural-style trouble — and a manner of “speaking” borrowed from Astro, on The Jetsons — has covered an amazing amount of territory since solving his first cast back on Sept. 13, 1969.

Our young heroes — from left, Velma, Fred, Shaggy, Daphne and Scooby-Doo — don't
know it yet, but they're about to solve their first mystery.
The character and his human sidekicks have never notbeen ubiquitous on television, thanks to well over a dozen variations on their initial 17-episode run … not to mention numerous direct-to-video films and several (mostly) live-action entries.

It’s safe to say that Scooby-Doo has eclipsed Rin Tin Tin and Lassie as the world’s most famous canine screen hero. (No accident, these days, that we refer to a crime-solving detective’s posse as a “Scooby gang.”)

Director Tony Cervone’s Scoob, debuting on HBO Max and other video-on-demand platforms, is guaranteed to keep the lovable pooch vibrant for additional years to come.

Cervone’s pacing frequently has the frantic intensity of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, and the script — credited to no fewer than six hands — definitely captures the original Scooby vibe, while inserting snarky asides and droll one-liners that’ll keep adults equally entertained. The voice talent is solid, and longtime Saturday morning cartoon fans will have fun spotting all the supporting characters borrowed from other Hanna-Barbera shows.

The film is littered with additional Hanna-Barbera “Easter eggs”; you’ll want to pay careful attention to billboards and street signs.

Scoob also serves as an origin story, of sorts, with a lengthy prolog that shows how a clumsy puppy with hilariously oversized paws chances to meet 10-year-old Shaggy Rogers at California’s Venice Beach. Of course, they bond over a shared sandwich, and thereafter become inseparable best buds.

Halloween arrives shortly thereafter, at which point Shaggy and Scoob meet up with Daphne, Velma and Fred. During a pell-mell attempt to retrieve Shaggy’s bag of Halloween candy from a supposedly haunted house — with Scoob hindering and much as helping — the quintet exposes the actual culprit behind these faux scary doings.

(That’s key; classic Scooby-Doo adventures always seemed to involve dire supernatural events, ultimately revealed — after all manner of pratfalls and red herrings — to be the work of decidedly Earthbound human baddies.)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Spelling the Dream: True word power

Spelling the Dream (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.20

Spellbound was one of the hits of 2002’s film season: an engaging documentary that profiled some of the young competitors vying for the championship in the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

Shourav spends several hours each day studying the computer database of "challenging"
words likely to surface during the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Thanks to that film and other hits — such as 2005’s March of the Penguins and Mad Hot Ballroom — we’ve since enjoyed a welcome Renaissance in cinematic documentaries, which shows no sign of letting up.

Case in point: Spelling the Dream, a new Netflix original that mimics the successful Spellbound playbook, while analyzing the rather striking trend that has dominated the Scripps (no longer Howard) National Spelling Bee, during the past two decades.

Before getting to that, director Sam Rega opens his film with the staggering result of last year’s 92nd annual contest, when — after 20 exhilarating rounds — the judges acknowledged an eight-way tie for first place, after they ran out of words. Those eight kids beat the dictionary.

Simply amazing. Even before last year, this annual contest had become must-see viewing on ESPN.

The provocative detail is that an Indian-American competitor has won for the past 12 consecutive years: one of the longest streaks in sports history. The obvious question: Why? Rega and co-scripter Chris Weller decided to find out, by profiling a quartet of young Indian-American competitors, as they navigate local and regional elimination matches en route to the 2017 finale in Washington, D.C.

The answer, as we quickly discover, isn’t that complicated. These kids work for it. They’re no different than any young athlete who shoots hoops or dribbles a soccer ball for three hours every afternoon; the passion is simply cerebral, rather than physical.

Our candidates also are encouraged by loving parents and — as often seems the case — cheerfully competitive siblings who are equally talented. Rega and Weller quickly emphasize that these aren’t “tiger parents,” drilling kids at the expense of their own childhood; pursuing this dream is a truly collaborative family endeavor.

But yes, these spelling savants do have one advantage: They’re multi-lingual, having grown up in households where English sometimes is an afterthought. That helps significantly, when it comes to studying and understanding word roots.

Artemis Fowl: Quite foul

Artemis Fowl (2020) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for fantasy action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.20

When fantasy goes bad, it goes really bad.

I’m not surprised Disney abandoned theatrical release for this fiasco, in favor of a debut on its Disney+ streaming service.

Things are about to get much worse: Our heroes — from left, Domovoi (Nonso Anozie),
Holly (Lara McDonnell), Mulch (Josh Gad) and Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) — react with
horror as a massive troll prepares to ... well ... eat them.
But I’m frankly astonished that director Kenneth Branagh kept his name on it, because this misbegotten adventure clearly endured post-production tampering that left major chunks of key plot details on the cutting-room floor. What remains makes no sense whatsoever.

You’ll spend half the film — if you’re foolish enough to waste time with it — muttering, “But what about…?”

Matters also aren’t helped by the fact that the title character is an arrogant, thoroughly obnoxious little snot. He’s played by first-time actor Ferdia Shaw, and boy, the inexperience shows. His so-called performance is stiff as a board, and he’s constantly upstaged by everybody else in the cast … not a good thing, for the designated star.

(Seriously, Kenneth? This was the best you could get out of the boy?)

I can’t imagine fans of Eoin Colfer’s popular young adult series liking anything about this film. Scripters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl extracted bits and bobs from the first two books — 2001’s Artemis Fowl and 2002’s Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident — but largely fabricated their own original story; calling the result a disappointment is gross understatement.

Perhaps the biggest sin is that Artemis, Colfer’s feisty “13-year-old criminal mastermind,” has been bowdlerized — in typical Disney fashion — into a “12-year-old devil-may-care genius.” Ergo, this film’s Artemis doesn’t do any thieving; indeed, he’d accomplish very little, were it not for the far more heroic efforts of his colleagues.

He has been sanitized to the point of utter blandness.

Sad, sad, sad.

Branagh opens his film with a ludicrous media throng gathered outside Northern Ireland’s imposing Fowl Manor (actually Antrim’s Dunluce Castle), in the aftermath of some Cataclysmic Event. An imposing figure — we soon learn he’s Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — is spirited away to a remote interrogation facility, where he reveals what occurred via flashback.

Enter Artemis, who prefers surfing to the humdrum routine of school work that doesn’t begin to tax his massive intellect. (Not that the surfing has anything to do with what follows, but it did keep the six members of this film’s “Surf Unit” occupied.)

Friday, June 26, 2020

Irresistible: Aptly titled

Irresistible (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, and perhaps too harshly, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.20

Scathing. Savage. Shrewd. Smart.

And hilarious.

Having decided to enter the local mayoral race, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, left) proudly
introduces a sheepish Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) as his wildly over-qualified
campaign manager.
Everything a biting political satire should be.

Writer/director Jon Stewart’s well-timed broadside is a deliciously blistering indictment of the win-no-matter-what mentality that currently polarizes our country. As with all perceptive parables, the message is delivered via a premise and setting writ small: the better to make the point inescapable.

Add a brilliantly assembled cast, and the result is, well, irresistible.

An opening montage breezes through a series of carefully crafted, insufferably staged photo-ops that place past presidential candidates in cozy Midwestern settings: all intended to demonstrate that, no matter their über-wealthy lifestyles, they’re still “one with the humble folk.” The final shot places Democratic National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) in the midst of the Trump/Clinton fracas, which — as we know — ends quite badly for the latter.

Much to the delight of Gary’s arch-enemy, Republican National Committee strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, deliciously snooty).

Elsewhere, times have grown tough for the small rural community of Deerlaken, Wis. When Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) and the town council reflexively enact cuts that target the local undocumented workers, this proves one callous act too many for Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine colonel who runs a dairy farm with his adult daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).

Jack, clearly not comfortable with public speaking, nonetheless interrupts the town council meeting with a brief, stirring statement advocating that “We all need to look out for each other.” The moment goes viral via social media, and quickly comes to the attention of Gary, still licking his wounds.

Tantalized by the possibility of winning back voters in America’s heartland, Gary flies across the country and makes an unscheduled visit to the farm, hoping to persuade the apolitical Jack to run for mayor.

Da 5 Bloods: A powerful statement

Da 5 Bloods (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, grisly images and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.20

Movie serendipity can be spooky at times.

Back in the spring of 1979, The China Syndrome hit theaters just 12 days prior to Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island almost-a-catastrophe.

Sheer chance has brought them to the right spot: As David (Jonathan Majors, far right)
watches quietly, his companions — from left, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie
(Norm Lewis), Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters) — find evidence of their
long-ago fallen comrade.
And now, director Spike Lee’s savagely compelling new drama, Da 5 Bloods, debuted on Netflix June 12, not quite three weeks after the callous murder of George Floyd ignited a justifiably enraged movement that shows no sign of slowing. Lee’s message couldnt be more timely.

His film warrants such enhanced attention. And then some.

Da 5 Bloods — co-scripted by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott — finds the reliably passionate filmmaker once again in the infuriated mode that characterized his early career. This isn’t a slyly sarcastic (and fact-based) jab at racist buffoons akin to 2018’s BlacKkKlansmanDa 5 Bloods is a bleak, intensely angry rage-against-the-man diatribe, with a slice of magic realism.

And, yes, a few winks and nods to classic Hollywood. Let’s call it a Vietnam parable by way of 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The setting and character dynamics may be different, but the message is identical: Greed destroys.

African-American Vietnam veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) haven’t been too successful, since returning to the world. They’re broken men, beaten down by grief, illness, addiction, financial ruin and divorce. And by regret and shame, knowing that — decades earlier — they were forced to abandon their fallen squad leader, known as Stormin’ Norman.

Haunted ever since by this failure (“Leave no man behind!”), they’ve returned to Vietnam, determined to find, and bring home, their former comrade’s remains.

As it happens, though, their motives aren’t entirely pure. Back in the day — shortly before Norman’s death — the squad was tasked by the CIA to deliver a chest of gold bars to the indigenous Vietnamese who were helping the American war effort. But Norman — passionate about his own people, back home — proposed they bury the gold until they could later reclaim it for the benefit of their own communities.

Friday, June 19, 2020

7500: A pilot's worst nightmare

7500 (2019) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.20

This is a nifty little thriller: great premise, taut execution and excellent use of its claustrophobic setting.

Wounded and trapped in the cockpit with an unconscious attacker, Tobias (Joseph
Gordon-Levitt) nervously watches the cabin security monitor, waiting to see what the
other two terrorists will do next.
It’s also a real-time nail-biter, and those aren’t easy to handle; tension must be sustained credibly. Director Patrick Vollrath pulls it off in his solid feature debut; he shares scripting duties with Senad Halilbasic.

A prolog montage, monitoring activity at an airport security checkpoint, telegraphs what is to come: An overhead surveillance camera lingers briefly on several dodgy men, and we know we’re in for a hijacking.

In the cockpit of a passenger aircraft, pilot Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) and co-pilot Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) run through the pre-flight checklist for their short hop from Berlin to Paris. Friendly chatter is exchanged with Gökce (Aylin Tezel), Tobias’ flight attendant girlfriend; everything is routine.

But not for long.

Minutes after take-off, Gökce brings Michael and Tobias some snacks; she knocks and stands outside the locked security door, waiting to be noticed via the monitor screen inside the cockpit. Michael flips the switch that unlocks the door … and that’s what three Muslim extremists have waited for. They rush forward, armed with knives improvised from broken glass; one yanks her aside, as the other two charge into the cockpit.

The resulting skirmish is furious but brief. The leader, Kenan (Murathan Muslu), mortally wounds Michael, but is overpowered and knocked unconscious; despite getting a nasty slash on his left arm, Tobias forces the younger Vedat (Omid Memar) back out of the cockpit, and re-locks the door.

Michael succumbs to his injury; the distraught Tobias, acting on panic and adrenaline, pushes the body to one side, and ties Kenan to the captain’s chair. He then immediately radios the situation to Berlin air-traffic control (“Code 7500: unlawful interference”) and arranges an emergency landing in Hanover.

Ah, but the terrorists haven’t given up. When it becomes clear that pounding on the security door is useless — the third man, Daniel (Paul Wollin), is absolutely terrifying on the black-and-white monitor screen, as he goes into a berserker rage — they grab a passenger and threaten to kill him, unless Tobias opens the door.

The situation … develops from there.