Friday, September 22, 2017

Stronger: A quiet triumph

Stronger (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity, graphic injury images, and fleeting sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.22.17

Some things transcend their real-world existence.

Football is a crowd-pleasing spectator sport; baseball is ... something more. Baseball inspires myth-making films such as The Natural and Field of Dreams. You simply can’t imagine football doing the same.

Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a few tentative steps on his new prosthetic legs, much to the
overly eager delight of his helicoptering mother (Miranda Richardson, center), and the
cautious concern of his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
Los Angeles and Chicago are cities. New York and Boston are ... dreamlike.

Boston’s intangible, ferociously indomitable spirit (“Boston strong!”) has much to do with the triumphant, fist-pumping exhilaration that powers Stronger, but director David Gordon Green’s fact-based drama likely will be remembered best for its quieter, intimate moments. Two will linger in my mind for a long time: one for its near-silent emotional intensity; the other for the heartbreaking wallop of an unexpectedly personal story, related by a late-entry supporting character.

Both are staged, lensed and performed impeccably; both are moments of pure cinema magic. And if the rest of Green’s film doesn’t live up to those high points, it nonetheless remains inspirational and thoroughly satisfying.

Stronger, based on Jeff Bauman’s best-selling 2014 memoir of the same title, depicts his agonizing emotional and physical struggle after losing both legs during the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His saga captivates for all sorts of reasons; his being a survivor at times seems incidental.

Jeff’s presence at the finish line was sheer caprice; he “showed up” in an effort to win back the on-again/off-again girlfriend (Erin Hurley) who was running the race. In the blast aftermath, he likely would have died, were it not for the rapid intervention of Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican-born American peace activist who attended the marathon for his own deeply personal reasons.

Immediately upon regaining consciousness after surgery, still intubated and unable to speak, Jeff indicated — by writing — that he’d seen one of the bombers; his description of Tamerlan Tsarnaev helped police and FBI narrow down the suspect list.

All of which gives this film a hefty emotional center, although scripter John Pollono wisely focuses on the all-important relationship between Jeff and Erin. Everything else flows from that bond.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle — More cheerfully deranged spyjinks

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, frequent profanity, drug content and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

This is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle is just as hyperkinetically loopy as its 2014 predecessor, and I mean that in the best possible way. Both films are deranged riffs on the 1960s spy craze: from the colorfully mod sets to the manic gadgets and weapons. Think Our Man Flint or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ... on steroids.

Waitaminute ... isn't he dead? Having tracked the nefarious Golden Circle's drug-dealing
enterprise to a huge lab concealed beneath a mountain ski chalet, Eggsy (Taron Egerton,
left), Galahad (Colin Firth, center) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) plan their assault.
The Kingsman films are over the top in all respects, which includes frequent profanity and outrageous dollops of violence, the latter guaranteed to whiten the faces of sensitive viewers. (Consider this ample warning.)

But none of this should be taken seriously. These are comic book-style comedies, even if Vaughn and co-scripter Jane Goldman repeatedly crash the boundaries of good taste. Actually, this sequel is more palatable in one key respect: It lacks the first film’s vulgar sexuality, which is a blessed relief.

On the other hand, this second outing does suffer from bloat. At 141 minutes, Vaughn and Goldman overstay their welcome by at least one frenzied action sequence. Too much of anything becomes tedious.

Following a brilliantly choreographed, pedal-to-the-metal prologue that nearly claims the life of Savile Row-garbed Kingsman agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton), Vaughn and Goldman kick this second global adventure into even higher gear, with an unexpectedly vicious housecleaning: a purge reminiscent of how 1996’s first big-screen Mission: Impossible began. When the dust settles, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the organization’s fastidious Scottish tech guru, are left standing.

Forced to activate their organization’s emergency “Doomsday Protocol,” Eggsy and Merlin are guided to the plains of Kentucky, and the massive Statesman bourbon distillery: actually a front for an even more massive compatriot spy organization that clandestinely protects the civilized world. In its own, inimitably American fashion.

2014’s Kingsman milked considerable humor from the class divide that initially separated Eggsy — introduced as a wayward, uncouth, working-class bloke — from Harry Hart/Galahad (Colin Firth), the seasoned operative who brought the young man into the fold. This film does the same, with even funnier results, as the now-suave Eggsy and (always suave) Merlin confront their rougher, gruffer American counterparts.

Kentucky is cowboy country, and everything about Statesman adheres to that model, starting with boots, pronounced drawls and plenty of denim. The primary Statesman field agents are Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal); their tech guru — Merlin’s counterpart — is Ginger Ale (Halle Berry).

As for the group’s leader, who else but Jeff Bridges would be cast as Champagne? He has a great time sending up his various cowboy roles, down to little gestures such as Champ’s habit of wiping his mustache with a finger moistened in bourbon.

Brad's Status: On life-support

Brad's Status (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Inevitability is the death of drama.

Ten minutes into Brad’s Status, it’s blindingly obvious where writer/director Mike White will take his story, and precisely how he’ll get there.

Brad (Ben Stiller, right) and his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), time their visit to Harvard so
they can catch a classical music concert by one of the latter's former high school friends.
And that journey is pretty damn dull.

Mind you, the premise would have been a tough sell, even under more optimal circumstances. A middle-class, mid-life crisis feels unpalatably narcissistic these days, and casting Ben Stiller in such a project is way too on the nose. Much of his career has involved playing self-absorbed mopes, and this story’s Brad Sloan finds Stiller treading his own well-worn ground.

A 101-minute self-pity party isn’t my idea of a good time. Particularly when White’s plot bumps are so predictable.

Brad and his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) lead comfortable lives in suburban Sacramento; he runs a nonprofit that matches worthy causes with like-minded angel investors, while she pulls in “real money” with a government job. Their 17-year-old only child Troy (Austin Abrams) is college-bound, prompting a father/son trip across the country, to check out the universities likely to extend offers on the basis of the lad’s strong transcript and solid extracurriculars.

It’s a milestone event for Brad, which triggers all sorts of memories, long-buried desires and Big Questions. Am I successful? Have I done everything in life, that my impassioned, idealistic college-age self intended?

Trouble is, White saddles Brad with some rather insensitive dialogue right off the bat, during the sleepless night before the trip, in the form of a financially themed chat with the patiently exhausted Melanie. Right away, we don’t like Brad. He sounds and behaves like a whiny jerk, and Stiller never does much to change that snap judgment.

Which is a problem, because we’re definitely supposed to identify — even sympathize — with this guy. That’s an uphill struggle, likely impossible for some.

Matters aren’t helped when Brad constantly shares his innermost thoughts, via a constant sulky voice-over. I’ve long found unrelenting off-camera narration a potential red flag in cinematic storytelling; very few writers and directors know how to use it properly. White isn’t one of them; the technique merely slows his already dull fill to a lifeless crawl.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Mother! — A nauseating miscarriage

Mother! (2017) • View trailer 
No stars (Turkey). Rated R, for strong and disturbing violent content, sexuality, nudity and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.15.17

I never would have believed that the same calendar year could produce another mainstream film as self-indulgently loathsome as February’s A Cure for Wellness.

Actually, this one’s worse.

As her companion (Javier Bardem) inexplicably tolerates the intrusive presence of ever
more strangers in their huge home, our increasingly helpless heroine (Jennifer
Lawrence) wonders — and worries — where it'll all end.
Darren Aronofsky has pushed the borders of good taste — and any semblance of rational narrative structure — ever since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. When tethered to somebody else’s (reasonably) coherent script — as with The Wrestler and Black Swan — his worst tendencies remain checked. He also can be a gifted actor’s director, having guided stars to Academy Award nominations and victories.

But when Aronofsky directs and writes ... look out.

Case in point: Mother!

Whether allegory, parable or primal scream, this blast of wretched excess is overwrought, insufferably distasteful and — once we reach the dog-nuts third act — vile beyond words. This abomination is guaranteed to enrage patrons into demanding refunds, after which they’ll stumble home, scarred for life, and in desperate need of a shower. And a means to sterilize their brains.

Alas, some things can’t be unseen.

On top of everything else, Aronofsky is guilty of stretching facile symbolism way past sustainability. Mother! might’ve made a decent 25-minute short subject; as a 121-minute assault on viewer sensibilities, it’s an exercise in mind-numbing overkill.

I carefully avoid spoilers, because even bad movies — well, most of them — deserve a chance to impress or surprise. But there’s simply no way to discuss Mother! without revealing Big Secrets. For which I apologize, in advance.

No characters are named. Our heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) shares an imposing mansion — isolated in a field, surrounded by a forest, far from any semblance of civilization — with her husband/lover/keeper (Javier Bardem). The place is a fixer-upper; she paints, plasters walls, handles plumbing and wood-working chores. She has been working thusly for quite some time, essentially re-building what had been a fire-gutted ruin.

He’s a poet, suffering the damnation of writer’s block. She’s patient, sympathetic, nurturing. She prepares his meals, encourages him to try, try again.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River: A compelling, smoothly flowing drama

Wind River (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, rape, profanity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

The narrative in writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s superbly mounted Wind River is driven by equal parts grief, loyalty and justice ... the latter not necessarily to be confused with the rules of law.

Having back-tracked a fleeing young woman's progress through the harsh landscape of
the snow-covered mountains near Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and FBI agent Jane Banner
(Elizabeth Olsen) make an unexpected discovery.
In three short years, actor-turned-filmmaker Sheridan has established an impressive reputation for thoughtful, riveting dramas that place characters in situations — and environments — where the American dream is little more than cruel irony.

His scripting debut, with 2015’s Sicario, becomes more relevant by the day: its grim, uncompromising depiction of drug violence along the U.S./Mexican border an unhappy reminder of the degree to which American demand is responsible for Mexican supply. Last year’s Hell or High Water perceptively explored the callously unjust circumstances that drive disillusioned men to criminal activity, when they’re on the wrong side of the wealth/poverty divide in West Texas; Sheridan earned a well-deserved Academy Award nod for that one.

He also has been fortunate to see his projects embraced by strong casts delivering some of their finest work: from Emily Blunt’s naïve and idealistic FBI agent in Sicario; to the cat-and-mouse chase between Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, in Hell or High Water. Good or bad, noble or ignominious, the characters are always fascinating: often bearing the burden of some degree of failure.

Sheridan also has an ear for both dialogue — the way people actually talk to each other — and, even more crucially, the way they behave with each other.

And now, with his quietly powerful Wind River, he has zeroed in on what remains of America’s frontier, which — sadly — also is a damning indictment of American history, and the utter failure to properly address past sins.

The setting is the snow-enshrouded, late winter/early spring environment of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) routinely employs his tracking skills to eliminate predators — wolves, mountain lions — caught killing livestock. He’s an honorable man, liked and respected by ranchers and just-plain-folks within and bordering the reservation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

It: A horrific good time

It (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for bloody violence, frequent profanity and crude behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.8.17

This one has teeth.


Having determined that their supernatural tormentor's home base is the very-very-very
creepy haunted house at the outskirts of town, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) advises an
all-for-one-and-one-for-all assault: a suggestion met with incredulous unwillingness by,
from left, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Bev (Sophie Lillis),
Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs)
Director Andy Muschietti’s handling of Stephen King’s It is that rarest of creatures: a film adaptation that is superior to its source novel.

Despite being undeniably scary, King’s 1986 chiller is a bloated, self-indulgently over-written mess at 1,138 pages: a slog even for the author’s most dedicated fans. Scripters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman have pared down the book quite deftly, discarding the parallel narratives and retaining only the (far superior) kid-centric half of the saga.

The result plays like a coming-of-age blend of Stand By Me and TV’s Stranger Things, albeit far nastier ... as befits the storyline. Muschietti and his writers retained the essential plot beats from King’s novel, while accelerating the thrills and chills by subjecting the key characters — and us viewers — to a relentless barrage of impressively scary/creepy tableaus.

This campaign of terror is orchestrated by one of King’s finest creations: Pennywise the Clown, played here with viscerally shocking intensity by Bill Skarsgård. Between his, ah, behavior, and the way Muschietti choreographs said activities, impressionable viewers likely won’t sleep well for weeks.

I don’t say this lightly. Since 1979’s Alien, I could count — on the fingers of one hand — the films that have well and truly frightened me. Muschietti’s adaptation of It makes the list, and with good reason: He understands the true nature of fear. Unlike too many contemporary horror filmmakers content to repulse viewers, short-term, by wallowing in gore, Muschietti messes with our minds ... which is as it should be.

Anticipating the worst — not knowing precisely what’s coming, albeit having a dismayed notion — plants a much more powerful anxiety bomb in our nervous little heads. Muschietti plays us like a fiddle.

Which is not to say that this It is without its gruesome moments. Hardly. Muschietti bares his atmospheric fangs right from the start, which (of course!) leaves us unsettled for the rest of the ride.

That’s only half of the equation. This film’s success also derives from the exceptional work by its young ensemble cast, which brings a level of emotional resonance — even poignancy — that is likely to surprise folks. Genuine pathos in a horror flick? That’s an unusual combination ... and that’s precisely why the story grabs us so persuasively.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Patti Cake$: Baked too long

Patti Cake$ (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude behavior, and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.1.17

An endearing saga of empowerment beats within writer/director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature, but it’s too frequently buried beneath crude behavior, relentless vulgarity and a wildly uneven tone.

As the enigmatic Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) listens warily, Patti (Danielle Macdonald)
outlines a plan for a rather unusual rap group with her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty).
Jasper can’t get out of his own way. He makes the rookie mistake of larding his film with twitchy cinematography, tight-tight-tight close-ups, and a surfeit of artistic aggression undoubtedly intended to mirror his protagonist, but which too frequently feels like an assault on our senses.

A mere 15 minutes into this flick, I wanted to bolt the theater. Patience proved a virtue, as Jasper eventually found his footing, and his film — and its star — ultimately won me over. But not everybody was as generous, during last week’s preview screening; several people abandoned ship. It was hard to blame them.

Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a plain, plus-size 23-year-old member of America’s working poor, ekes out a marginal existence in her dilapidated New Jersey home town. When not enduring insults during late-night shifts as a bartender in a seedy establishment populated by local losers, she’s stuck at home with a bitter, bitchy, boozy mother (Bridget Everett, as Barb) and a wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, as Nana).

Patricia’s fantasy escape route is fueled by her fixation on famed rap god O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), whose posters fill her bedroom walls; she dreams of stardom under the alias of Patti Cake$ or — better still — Killa P. Truth be told, she’s a talented poet and nimble rapper, but nobody takes her seriously: particularly not Danny Bagadella (McCaul Lombardi), the swaggering townie who dominates the local rap scene, and cruelly calls her “Dumbo” and “White Precious.”

Patti isn’t entirely without allies; she shares her passion for rap with BFF Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a subdued young pharmacist by day, who blossoms into a wildly enthusiastic R&B crooner after hours. He believes in her, far more than she believes in herself. But faith isn’t enough, particularly when — at home — Patti must contend with her larger-than-life mother, who still resents the now grown result of an unintended pregnancy that derailed her own music career.

Everett’s Barb is frankly scary: a formidable force of nature so intimidating that one must credit Patti for having the chutzpah to stand up for herself. The uneasy mother/daughter dynamic is established early on, when Barb wades into the bar on karaoke night, and demands three quick shots from Patti: the latter two poured with long-suffering resignation, and full awareness of what is to come.