Friday, January 12, 2018

Mudbound: Superb character study

Mudbound (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, disturbing violence, profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.12.18

This film likely hasn’t been on most folks’ radar, given its unconventional distribution.

That needs to change.

As their friendship develops, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, right) insists that Ronsel
(Jason Mitchell) ride alongside in the front of his truck, rather than — as local custom
demands — back in the bed. This "familiarity" will not go unnoticed.
Director/co-scripter Dee Rees’ compelling adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound boasts impeccable acting and a narrative too infrequently addressed these days: humble people just trying to get by. Rees’ film shares these sensibilities with classics such as the 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the 1941 adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (both directed by John Ford).

The all-important distinction is that Jordan’s saga gets additional dramatic heft from its depiction of the wary, prickly dynamic that passed for “race relations” in the post-WWII Deep South. Recent films addressing issues of race — 12 Years a Slave, Selma and Birth of a Nation immediately spring to mind — have concentrated on momentous individuals and/or points in history; it’s refreshing to experience a much more intimate, carefully sculpted depiction of jes’ plain folks.

Some of whom, it must be noted, are capable of unspeakable behavior.

Rees and co-scripter Virgil Williams adopt Jordan’s alternating narrative voices while introducing us to two families: the McAllans and Jacksons, both struggling on a remote, hard-scrabble cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. It’s the winter of 1946, with flashbacks filling in crucial pre-war details.

Monsoon-like rains occasionally turn the entire farm into a dispiriting swamp of mud.

We meet Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) as they dig a grave for their recently deceased father, trying to complete this task ahead of another impending storm. Subsequently easing the plain wooden coffin into the grave proves too much for the two men; Henry requests help from their tenant farmers, the Jacksons, as their wagon ambles along the nearby road.

This request elicits palpable tension; we’ve no idea why.

Answers emerge via lengthy flashbacks.

The Commuter: Catch the next train

The Commuter (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice quite reasonably suggests that one can’t believe impossible things, the Queen of Hearts insists that “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The queen would have been right at home with this movie.

When Joanna (Vera Farmiga) — a total stranger — sits opposite Michael (Liam Neeson)
and proposes a mysterious "what if?" scenario, he assumes that she's merely passing the
time during their commute. Increasingly unlikely events quickly will demonstrate that
she's completely serious...
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter is a hilariously ludicrous start to the cinematic new year: a thriller that makes absolutely no sense and survives on momentum alone ... until it doesn’t.

The script — assign the blame to Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle — sails right past improbable and far-fetched, and heads straight into preposterous. It demands a suspension of disbelief far beyond the capability of mere mortals.

Theater ushers will have quite a task after each screening, carefully scooping up all the viewer eyeballs that have rolled right out of their sockets.

This storyline probably began with the intriguing notion that regular commuters — despite sharing (in this case) the same New York train, five days a week, 52 weeks a year — really don’t know much about the folks with whom they exchange cheerful greetings twice each day. What secrets might be concealed behind those superficial smiles?

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) finds out one day, when his late-afternoon trip home is interrupted by an enigmatic woman (Vera Farmiga, as Joanna) who sits in the opposite chair and strikes up a conversation. She behaves like a friendly, flirty psychologist, posing a “What would you do for $100,000?” scenario.

Michael indulges her (already unlikely, on a New York City train).

Perhaps, being well read, he recognizes this riff on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” in which a mysterious man gives a poverty-stricken couple a box with a button, promising $200,000 if they push the button, which will kill “someone whom you don’t know.” (It was filmed as an episode of the 1985-86 revival of The Twilight Zone, and then again in 2009, as the feature film The Box.)

Joanna departs at the next station, with an ambiguous comment that suggests her scenario isn’t all that fictitious. Michael, curious, investigates ... and finds a percentage of the cash, hidden right where she promised. At which point, she calls his smart phone, insists that he now has no choice but to comply with her demands ... lest his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son be harmed.

Michael’s task: to find the person on the train who “doesn’t belong,” is carrying a bag, and answers to the name of “Prin.” Before the train reaches the end of the line.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Molly's Game: All in!

Molly's Game (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.5.18

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s flat-out astonishing.

Molly’s Game is the mesmerizing study of Molly Bloom, who — in a parallel universe — might have been the gold medal-winning Olympics skier that she was trained to become, from an early age.

Having become master of her own high-stakes poker domain, Molly (Jessica Chastain)
strides confidently through the room, fully aware of the impact she has on her all-male
Or, maybe, she’d have blossomed into the high-profile lawyer being nurtured by her academic talents.

In our world, derailed by a freak accident and occasionally hampered by a rebellious spirit, she applied her preternatural intelligence to become — of all things — the “Poker Princess” known in upper-echelon circles for running weekly, invitation-only games for some of the wealthiest high-rollers in Los Angeles and New York.

Her rise and fall — and rise and fall, and rise and fall — is detailed with supernova intensity by famed scripter Aaron Sorkin, also making a splashy directorial debut in this adaptation of Bloom’s page-turning 2014 memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

And yes, the film is as breathtaking as that title.

Perhaps too breathtaking.

As Sorkin’s longtime fans are well aware, his rat-a-tat dialog sizzles with the manic incandescence of classic Hollywood screwball comedies, albeit on a far higher level of dramatic gravitas: often laden with information dumps that demand not only one’s full attention, but (couldn’t hurt) a college graduate’s vocabulary.

There’s a reason Sorkin’s best-scripted episodes of TV’s gone but still much-beloved West Wing clocked in at a fast-paced 45 minutes; most viewers probably couldn’t have endured more. The same narrative ferocity can be found in any isolated 15 to 20 minutes of Molly’s Game, particularly as anchored by Jessica Chastain’s hypnotically alluring starring role, and Idris Elba’s equally powerful supporting performance.

Taken as a whole, though, this 140-minute film is exhausting. Even too many chocolate milkshakes can overwhelm the most enthusiastic palate, and — as director — Sorkin has over-indulged his writing sensibilities. (Tellingly, this fate that did not befall his Academy Award-winning script for 2010’s The Social Network, when his efforts were carefully modulated by director David Fincher.)

Molly narrates her own unlikely saga, Chastain giving these events the stream-of-consciousness passion of a seasoned sportscaster. As is his frequent custom, Sorkin eschews a conventional linear approach for a three-pronged attack divided mostly between the “present” — April 2013 through May 2014 — and the whirlwind events that began a decade earlier. Occasional deeper flashbacks illuminate the childhood training sessions under her disciplinarian father, Larry (Kevin Costner), by profession a clinical psychologist and Colorado State University professor.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

All the Money in the World ... can't guarantee a perfect film

All the Money in the World (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, violence and drug use

By Derrick Bang

This film’s Christmas Day release couldn’t be more appropriate: Rarely has a real-world individual been depicted in a manner so reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

Invitation to catastrophe: Gail (Michelle Williams) and her husband John (Andrew Buchan,
right) assume that being embraced by his father, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer)
will be the best possible thing for their family, and particularly for their eldest child Paul
(Charlie Shotwell). How wrong they are...
Although All the Money in the World draws its stomach-clenching suspense from the uncertain fate endured by its young victim, director Ridley Scott’s film gets most of its juice from Christopher Plummer’s mesmerizing portrayal of billionaire J. Paul Getty: an avaricious, repugnant monster whose breathtakingly awful behavior knows no bounds.

Indeed, each example of cruelty is topped by one that’s much worse. We’re frequently inclined to believe that scripter David Scarpa fabricated this or that jaw-droppingly ludicrous detail ... but no. Getty really was that stingy and parsimonious, particularly with family members, and Plummer’s performance oozes heartless contempt. (How artistically fitting that Plummer recently played Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas.)

Scarpa’s script is drawn from the relevant portion of John Pearson’s 1995 book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. One can’t help feeling that it ain’t easy to be wealthy (although everybody would love to try).

I also can’t help wondering if Scott, Scarpa and Plummer intend this performance as a thinly veiled indictment of the similarly callous behavior currently emanating from the unfeeling über-rich in Washington, D.C.

Plummer is so perfect — so contemptibly vile — that it’s difficult to imagine anybody else in the role. And yet he was a last-minute replacement for the publicly disgraced Kevin Spacey, who had completed work on the film. Assuming Scott and Sony are willing to release that footage, it’ll be fascinating to compare the two performances, once this drama hits home video.

(Actually, 88-year-old Plummer seems a better choice than 68-year-old Spacey, given that Getty was 81 when these events went down.)

All the Money in the World concerns one of history’s most unusual — and protracted — crimes: the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, affectionately known as Paul. He endured half a year of imprisonment, from mid-July through mid-December, while his captors’ demands encountered a brick wall of refusal from the old man.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Shape of Water: Flows exquisitely

The Shape of Water (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Truly adult fairy tales may be the rarest of movie treasures, given how almost everything these days — particularly what emanates from corporate Hollywood — is designed for all-ages audiences.

When things start to go awry in the top-secret facility where they all work, paranoid
government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) interrogates everybody, including
cleaning women Elisa (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer, center right).
We need look elsewhere for thoughtful, intelligent and provocative alternative fare: the cinematic equivalent of, say, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (far more disturbingly graphic — but just as imaginative — as his Coraline or The Graveyard Book).

France’s Marc Caro comes to mind, with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the latter co-directed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, equally adept at the genre, as evidenced by Amélie and Micmacs. Spain’s Alejandro Amenábar gave us The Others.

But they all pale alongside Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, whose intriguing early efforts in this rarefied environment — Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone — were but a prelude to the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth: by far one of the most unsettling and provocative blends of fantasy and real-world horror ever brought to the big screen.

Until now.

The Shape of Water is an entirely different sort of Del Toro masterpiece: a richly detailed parable of lonely people coping with extraordinary circumstances, while confronting the monsters in our midst. The narrative — co-written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor — has the lyrical quality of a gently poignant fable, which nonetheless conceals the sort of savagely ironic message beloved by Rod Serling.

It feels like one thing, upon entry: becomes something entirely different, before we’re allowed to exit.

Best of all, the film is powered by a truly stunning starring performance by Sally Hawkins, who in a few short years has emerged as one of the world’s finest and most sensitively nuanced actresses. She has enjoyed a remarkable year: This film follows her delicately crafted work in summer’s Maudie, and her unforgettable portrayal of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Nobody could have expected a second, equally transcendent performance in the same year. Her character here is similarly disenfranchised, and yet entirely different: a lonely, quietly withdrawn woman who blossoms — like a flower unveiling luminescent colors in bright sunlight — under highly unusual conditions.

The setting is Baltimore; the time is the early 1960s. On the one hand, this is recognizably our reality, as evidenced by familiar clothes, cars and (frequently intolerant) attitudes. People amuse themselves, at home after work, with soporific sitcoms such as Mr. Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Lurid news reports are a daily reminder of post-atomic Cold War paranoia.

And yet other aspects quickly signal that this isn’t quite our world, but in fact a closely related parallel reality.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — Fast-paced fun

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action, mild profanity and considerable blue humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

When it comes to the action comedy genre, the pitfalls awaiting careless directors and scripters are far more dangerous than anything faced by the characters in this film.

Too many dumb jokes. Relentless mugging by unrestrained cast members. Too much slapstick. Eye-rolling vulgarity. Gratuitous property damage. The list goes on.

Conquering one difficult task merely leads to a harder challenge, as this saga's reluctant
gamers repeatedly discover: from left, Dr. Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Jefferson
"Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr. Smolder
Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
Happily, director Jake Kasdan sidestepped all those miscalculations, which is a surprise — frankly — given that his résumé is littered with disposable junk such as Sex Tape, Bad Teacher and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Much-deserved credit also goes to writer Chris McKenna, whose initial story was deftly fine-tuned with help from Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner. And, of course, they all borrowed a bit from the 1995 Robin Williams version, which in turn was adapted loosely from Chris Van Allsburg’s popular 1981 children’s picture book. (Got all that?)

However the gestation played out, this new film is a very welcome surprise: droll, clever, fast-paced, exciting and laden with enough gender-based humor to fuel the next half-dozen relationship comedies. I can’t quite call the result family-friendly, because the PG-13 rating is well earned by risqué one-liners ... but they’re all quite funny, and crisply delivered by a quartet of practiced scene-stealers.

This’ll be a popular repeat-viewing experience, because half the fun is zeroing in on everybody else’s expression — not possible, the first time through — as each verbal zinger is unleashed.

While it’s true that veteran video gamers will most enthusiastically embrace (and understand) the core premise, the learning curve is gentle enough for uninitiated mainstream viewers, who will return home well-versed in jargon such as “game lives” and NPCs (non-player characters).

As those familiar with Van Allsburg’s book know, Jumanji is a “haunted” board game with the disorienting ability to amaze — and endanger — players by bringing actual jungle environments and animals into the real world. No surprise, then, that such a game would adapt to changing times — in order to remain seductively enticing — by re-inventing itself as a late 20th century-style home video game.

The new roster of unsuspecting victims, initially associated solely by their presence in the same high school, includes Spencer (Alex Wolff), a smart but neurotic hypochondriac; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), an overly cocky jock too “busy” to do his own homework; Bethany (Madison Iseman), the school’s condescending, self-obsessed queen bee-yatch; and the outspoken but socially awkward Martha (Morgan Turner). Only after-school detention could bring this quartet together, at which point a make-work assignment to clean up an unused classroom takes a sinister turn, when Spencer finds a dusty, long-unused video game console.

With you-know-what stuck in the game slot. Which we already know is dangerous, thanks to an intriguing prologue set 20 years early.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Greatest Showman: An apt superlative

The Greatest Showman (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for bits of dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

This lavish, opulently stylish musical, based very loosely on the early life and career of Phineas Taylor Barnum, is a slice of magic realism in the style of last year’s La La Land.

First-time director Michael Gracey delivers this splashy romp with a degree of razzle-dazzle that would have delighted Barnum himself. Given Gracey’s earlier credits as a visual effects artist and supervisor, we shouldn’t be surprised by the often stunning production and dance numbers, many of them powered by Ashley Wallen’s breathtaking choreography.

When shameless promoter P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, right) decides to gain some
respect from New York City's aristrocratic elite, he seeks out respected author and
playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). But will this writer of failed plays be willing to
descend from his lofty perch?
As is true of many musicals, some of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s original songs are Barnum-style show-stoppers; others ... sorta-kinda just hang there. The power anthems attached to the best sequences, however, will be remembered long after the lights come up: most notably the title song and “This Is Me,” the latter a triumphant statement of personal dignity, on behalf of the colorful but publicly shunned members of Barnum’s performing troupe.

The film also maintains its momentum thanks to Hugh Jackman’s vibrant performance as Barnum: a role that allows the actor to exercise the singing and dancing chops he displayed so magnificently in the stage musical The Boy from Oz (a side of his talent likely overlooked by those familiar only with various Marvel superhero movies).

Casting directors Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey took care to avoid the mistake made in La La Land, which would have been vastly superior with two stars who actually could sing and dance. Jackman’s spellbinding performance is ably supported by a similarly adept roster of co-stars, beginning with the equally enthusiastic Zac Efron, returning to the genre that made him a star in the High School Musical trilogy.

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script plays fast and extremely loose with Barnum’s actual life, although they certainly get the tone right: a masterpiece of style over substance, with the same wink-wink-nudge-nudge hokum that the celebrated showman practiced himself.

A brief childhood prologue suggests that young Barnum’s impossible ambitions — as the only son of a poor, working-class father — get their momentum from his immediate devotion to Charity, the aristocratic girl who catches his eye, and grows up to become his wife. Their younger selves are played charmingly by Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn, and they share a touching ballad — “A Million Dreams” — that carries the narrative to adulthood and marriage (Michelle Williams taking over as Charity).

Now ensconced in the whirlwind of mid-19th century New York City, frustrated by a series of clerking jobs, Barnum hatches a mad scheme financed by a bald-faced bank swindle: a museum of the unusual and unseen. But it’s primarily a static waxworks show that proves of little interest to passersby.

“You need something living,” his young daughters Caroline and Helen insist (the two girls winningly played by Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely).