Friday, March 27, 2020

Stargirl: Shines bright

Stargirl (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.20

One can’t help being amazed by the synchronicity between Grace VanderWaal and Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 young adult novel.

When Leo (Graham Verchere) finally works up the courage to introduce himself to
Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal), he finds her inquisitive candor even more enchanting
than her colorfully eccentric wardrobe choices. Not to mention her pet rat.
The heroine of Spinelli’s deservedly popular best-seller is a cheerfully nonconformist high school girl who — among other quirks — brings a ukulele to school each day, in order to sing “Happy Birthday” to deserving classmates (whether or not they desire such attention).

Sixteen years later after that book’s debut, VanderWaal won American’s Got Talent at age 12 (!), by performing her original songs … accompanying herself on ukulele.

As far as I know, she never has claimed direct inspiration from Spinelli’s book … which makes her having been cast in the film adaptation, well, quite inspired.

The obvious question: Can she also act?

Oh, my, yes.

Director Julia Hart’s big-screen adaptation of Stargirl, available via the streaming service Disney+, is a tender coming-of-age saga: charming, poignant and bittersweet by turns. The screenplay — by Hart, Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz — is faithful to the spirit and tone of Spinelli’s book, along with its core plot beats. That said, they’ve softened some of its harsher sequences, while bringing the story into the social media present (which, as we all know, can be brutal in its own way).

VanderWaal and co-star Graham Verchere, just two years older than she — and isn’t it nice, to see these characters played by age-appropriate actors? — are splendid on screen together. They’re natural, uncomplicated and unfussy: endearingly authentic as high school students, even given her character’s eccentric nature.

But that’s getting ahead of things. We’re introduced first to Leo Borlock (Verchere), who as a younger adolescent lost his father and — ever since — has cherished the absent parent’s whimsical porcupine necktie. In an effort to forge a new life for them, Leo’s mother (Darby Stanchfield) moves them to the serene desert community of Mica, Ariz.

Leo’s initial exposure to Mica High School cruelly demonstrates the folly of standing out from the crowd, and — during the next several years — he slides into quiet conformity. It’s easy to do at this school, where absolutely nothing happens. The football team never has won a game; the hallway trophy case displays nothing but spider webs; the school marching band — wherein Leo plays trumpet — is absolutely dreadful (wincingly so).

Hart and editors Shayar Bhansali and Tracey Wadmore-Smith economically sketch this back-story material in montage, while an off-camera Leo narrates his own saga (from something of a remove, we realize, which is telling).

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Photograph: Sharply focused

Photograph (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and absolutely needlessly

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.20

Sometimes relationships sneak up on us, under the most unlikely circumstances.

Photograph — not to be confused with The Photograph, released in mid-February — is a warm-hearted little fable from Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra, who made such an enchanting feature debut with 2013’s The Lunchbox. His new feature is streamable via Amazon Prime.

Much to the surprise of Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), his grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar,
right) becomes quite enchanted by the young woman (Sanya Malhotra) who has agreed
to feign being his fiancée, in order to preserve family harmony.
As with that earlier film, Photograph’s gentle saga unfolds against a thoughtfully instructive depiction of tradition, class divide, prejudice, family expectation and the inexorable tug of modern sensibilities, all taking place in the tumultuous, crowded and wildly colorful neighborhoods and street markets of Mumbai.

The language on display is an equally rich brew: a vibrant blend of Hindi, English and Gujarati, the latter commonly spoken in Mumbai. Characters weave in and out of all three, sometimes within the same sentence (and thank goodness for subtitles).

The story begins at the bustling Gateway of India, a tourist landmark also popular with locals, and swarming with street photographers who eke out a living by offering instant snapshots to passersby. The middle-aged Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is one such entrepreneur, having long ago traveled to Mumbai from a small farming village, in order to earn money to pay off an old family debt.

As we gradually learn, this is an impossible task, the goal receding more rapidly than his ability to reach it.

Sheer caprice allows Rafi to cross paths with Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a young woman just departing from a pleasure boat outing with her family. He extends his usual sales pitch; lost in her own thoughts, she shyly accepts.

Once the photograph is taken and developed — and what a fascinating gadget Rafi has in his backpack, for that part of the procedure! — Miloni suddenly has second thoughts. Perhaps she realizes that an invisible barrier has been breached; she’s a middle-class Mumbaikar, divided by religion, cultural background and even skin color. Rafi, one of the “unseen,” has more in common with Rampyaari (Geetanjali Kulkarni), the “low-class” maid who cooks and cleans for her parents.

Perhaps surrendering to doubt, Miloni quickly departs, failing to pay Rafi for her picture.

And, not too much later, feels guilty for having done so.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Truly inspirational

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.20

Since many (most? all?) of us are housebound at the moment, and movie theater screens will remain dark for the near future, this is an excellent opportunity to investigate noteworthy options available solely via streaming platforms.

Having grown up in a village without running water, one of William's (Maxwell Simba)
frequent chores involves hauling up buckets of the precious liquid from the local well,
so that his mother can prepare meals.
Unfortunately, absent a review such as this, you’d likely never know such films even exist. Said streaming outfits put all their publicity efforts and house ads into hot new shows and popular Hollywood product; “quieter” offerings aren’t even a blip on their radar … which is extremely frustrating.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a masterful directing and scripting debut by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, was the British entry for last year’s Best International Film Academy Award, although it wasn’t selected as one of the five nominees recently vying for that Oscar. (Frankly, it should have been.)

Ejiofor’s compelling and heartwarming adaptation of William Kamkwamba’s 2009 memoir is another vivid reminder that human inspiration and resourcefulness know no bounds, and that true stories can be more powerful than fabricated drama.

The setting is Malawi, a small southeastern African country bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. Even in the early 21st century, electricity and running water remain luxuries enjoyed by only 2 percent of the country’s population: a fortunate few that don’t include the farmers who eke out a living in the tiny village of Kasungu.

Trywell Kamkwamba (Ejiofor) and his family — wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), 13-year-old William (Maxwell Simba), his older sister Annie (Lily Banda) and a newborn infant — farm harsh, unforgiving land in a manner that probably hasn’t changed for millennia, with folks forever worried about drought and beholden to infrequent rains.

What has changed is the influx of private businesses eager to exploit Kasungu’s natural resources, offering one-time cash payments to farmers willing to sell their land. To Trywell’s horror (and ours), many of his desperate neighbors do so, whereupon logging operations immediately begin to fell the trees that protect the village farms from flooding.

When a curious William follows the buzz of chain saws, and witnesses the carnage, the impact is sickening.

Friday, March 13, 2020

I Still Believe: Worship overload

I Still Believe (2020) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.20

Faith-based films defy conventional commentary. 

They’re a breed apart, with but one goal in mind: targeted specifically to the reverential fans who pack Christian music concerts by the thousands, their eyes closed during each song, one arm raised, palm open, toward heaven.

Why attend classes, when you can sit on the quad and make music? Despite herself,
Melissa (Britt Robertson) can't help being attracted to the relentlessly cheerful
Jeremy (K.J. Apa) and the songs that flow effortlessly from his fingers.
Discussing such films in the usual manner can’t help feeling mean-spirited … but when one wanders into the mainstream market, that certainly makes it fair game.

I Still Believe is based on powerhouse Christian musician Jeremy Camp’s 2003 memoir of the same title — written when he was but 25 — and this film clearly takes a deferential approach to his story. Those familiar with Camp’s career won’t be surprised by any of the major events that occurred during his early 20s; uninitiated — but savvy — mainstream moviegoers likely will anticipate the significance of this film’s title.

Scripters Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn set this saga in a world of perfect harmony, where people never get angry or argue with each other; where everybody calmly expects and accepts the inevitability of destiny; and where almost everybody is white. Even in Southern California. (Which, it must be said, is ridiculous.)

We meet Jeremy (played with sincerity by New Zealand’s K.J. Apa, currently hot as Archie Andrews on TV’s Riverdale) as he’s about to leave his Indiana home to attend Calvary Chapel Bible College, in Murrieta. Money is tight, but Jeremy’s parents — Tom (Gary Sinise) and Teri (Shania Twain) — nonetheless send him off with a gorgeous new guitar.

Freshly arrived at college, Jeremy has no trouble evading security to get backstage at a concert by Christian rock/worship band The Kry, where he impulsively chats up lead singer Jean-Luc LaJoie (Nathan Dean); he immediately takes a shine to this brash young fellow, and allows him to be part of the off-stage crew.

(Hey, it could have happened that way. Right?)

During the concert, Jeremy locks eyes with an adoring fan — Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson, at 30 a bit long in the tooth for this role) — and boom, that’s it. When they subsequently flirt, and she gently rebuffs his eager overtures, he pulls out the ultimate response: “What if God wants us to be together?”

In the real world, that line would earn a scornful glance and quick departure. (It certainly garnered an “Oh, brother” from viewers during Tuesday evening’s preview screening.)

The Hunt: Deplorably tasteless

The Hunt (2020) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for relentless profanity, gore and strong bloody violence

By Derrick Bang

To coin a phrase — quite aptly, since a little porker figures in this grisly exercise in sadism — you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

The only thing worse than a gratuitously brutal horror flick, is one that attempts to “justify” its mayhem with a clunky political subtext.

Kidnapped and dumped in the wilderness for no apparent reason, a group of strangers —
from left, "Staten Island" (Ike Barinholz, back to camera), "Trucker" (Justin Hartley),
"Big Red" (Kate Nowlin), "Yoga Pants" (Emma Roberts) and Don (Wayne Duvall) —
wonder what they're supposed to do with an armory of weapons.
Rubbish is rubbish, no matter how it’s dressed.

In a better film, scripter Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s jabs at “elites” versus “deplorables” could have been suspenseful and uneasily relevant: a cheeky update of Richard Connell’s classic 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” most famously filmed in 1932 with Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks.

But director Craig Zobel’s horror-porn sensibilities are so gratuitously low-rent, that any semblance of social commentary is lost amid gore-laden blood, guts and entrails. Most of the so-called “characters” are too one-dimensional; the intended-to-be-astute remarks are too lame, obvious and random. This is filmmaking by arrested adolescents who enjoy pulling the wings off flies, and who delight in sharing the experience with us.

Let’s plunge in:

Eleven people, all with their mouths painfully collared, regain consciousness in random spots of a forest that surrounds an open meadow. They gradually assemble around a huge crate which, when opened, proves to contain a piglet in a T-shirt (don’t ask) and a weapons rack (a rather blatant swipe from The Hunger Games).

Alas, these hapless victims barely have time to contemplate whether they even know how to use such artillery, when they start getting picked off by explosive, high-powered rifle fire from a distant, well-stocked duck blind.

Not exactly sporting. Less “The Hunt,” and more “The Slaughter.”

Zobel and his scripters obviously enjoy toying with us, because in veryshort order, cinematographer Darran Tiernan’s systematic designation of such a film’s traditional survivors — the cute girl, the stalwart guy, etc. — is rent asunder. Within minutes, the group has been whittled down to just a few.

No surprise, since these poor souls aren’t even granted names, and instead are designated (but only in the press notes) as “Yoga Pants” (Emma Roberts), “Trucker” (Justin Hartley), “Big Red” (Kate Nowlin), “Vanilla Nice”(Sturgill Simpson) “Staten Island” (Ike Barinholtz) and “Dead Sexy” (Sylvia Grace Crim).

Considering what happens to the latter, her label is beyond offensive.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Onward: Bumpy journey

Onward (2020) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.20

Despite the traditional Pixar gloss — their films always look spectacular — Onward
is oddly dissatisfying.

Even though the clock is ticking, Barley, left, and Ian enjoy an unexpected moment of
levity with their partly resurrected father.
Director Dan Scanlon moves things along at an engaging pace, with a savvy blend of drama and humor; the voice talent brings agreeable emotional weight to a plot that focuses on the importance of family bonds.

But the story itself — by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin — is something of a mess. More critically, it’s not the slightest bit innovative.

The best Pixar films — Monsters, Inc.The IncrediblesRatatouilleWALL-E and Inside Out leap to mind — are built from audaciously clever concepts and unique twists: deviously fresh ways of employing unusual characters to impart gentle lessons about the human condition. Onward, alas, merely mimics existing pop culture, rather than forging its own path.

The elements are not only overly familiar; they’re also assembled clumsily. Nothing new here … and, coming from Pixar, that’s disappointing.

Elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced wistfully by Tom "Spider-Man" Holland) lives in an outlying suburban neighborhood of New Mushroomton: populated by sprites, centaurs, gnomes, satyrs, trolls, pixies, unicorns and all manner of creatures from mythology, folklore, fables and fantasy fiction. But the environment is decidedly modern: At some point in the not-so-distant past, a bright spark realized that switching on a newly invented light bulb was much easier than casting a complicated fire spell.

As a result, magic has all but vanished from the land, which — aside from its unusual inhabitants — now resembles a typical human metropolis replete with high schools, freeway traffic jams and callous developers determined to replace historic magical landmarks with multi-story sprawl.

(A “modern” world that has all but eradicated conjuring. How many dozens — hundreds? — of fantasy books and series have been built of this premise? Been there, done that.)

The Way Back: Sports as life

The Way Back (2020) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for frequent profanity 

By Derrick Bang

Well-crafted underdog sagas are can’t-miss cinema.

Redemption sagas are even better.

This film deftly blends the two, with inspiring results.

Former basketball great Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck, right) initially finds little to love
when confronted with the lackadaisical members of the Bishop Hayes High School team;
even so, he soon spots untapped potential in some of the squad members.
Director Gavin O’Connor has an affinity for such material, having previously helmed 2004’s Miracle and 2011’s Warrior; just as crucially, he has an eye and ear for the interpersonal dynamics of people under stress. Given that The Way Back dives deep into the self-destructive anger that arises from unfathomable anguish, O’Connor and co-scripter Brad Ingelsby are blessed by a stand-out performance from star Ben Affleck.

Jack Cunningham (Affleck) works heavy construction by day, just this side of somnambulance after having collapsed into bed, dead drunk, each previous night. He consumes a case of beer during dinner, spends the rest of every evening at his favorite dive bar — where it obviously isn’t good that “everybody knows his name” — and by day conceals straight vodka in his stainless steel travel mug.

He’s taciturn, withdrawn and quick to anger: a barely functioning, late-stage alcoholic.

Family gatherings are tense, more so because of the hostility radiating from his sister, Beth (Michaela Watkins). She’s brittle and critical, neither of which ameliorates the dynamic; we sense her lack of patience results — in part — from long-simmering sibling rivalry. At the same time, we cannot miss the pain in Watkins’ gaze; Beth nonetheless loves her brother, and chafes at her inability to help.

O’Connor and Ingelsby are patient; answers do come, but only eventually and organically, as situations evolve.

Absent some sort of intervention, Jack is on course to drink himself to death. Then, unexpectedly, the fateful phone call: from Bishop Hayes High School, where — 25 years earlier — he was a basketball phenom granted a full university scholarship. Father Edward Devine (John Aylward, making the most of his congenial gruffness) is in desperate need of a replacement basketball coach. 

Remembering Jack’s glory days, and unaware of the mess he’s made of his life since then, Father Devine offers him the job.