Friday, June 23, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight — Should be junked

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rated PG-13, for relentless sci-fi action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.23.17

This isn’t even a good video game.

As a movie, it’s a $260 million disaster.

When Col. William Lennox (Josh Duhamel) inexplicably decides that the über-evil
Megatron might help U.S. forces find some all-important Transformers tech, he okays
the release of a ferocious quartet of evil Decepticons. Which immediately start fragging
every human being in sight. Like, anybody expected otherwise?
Actually, the term movie doesn’t even apply. Movies have plots. And characters. This cacophonous monument of soulless wretched excess has neither.

I’m frankly astonished that Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan and Akiva Goldsman have the audacity to claim credit for a script. The spoken lines in this junkyard dog are so sparse — often limited to monosyllabic exhortations such as “We’ve got to go!,” “Hang on!,” “Good job!” and “Jump!” — and the action so haphazard, that one could watch the entire 149-minute mess with the dialog track eliminated entirely, and have just as much success trying to extract meaning from the bonkers narrative.

That also would spare us from the faux profundities in the film’s hilariously overwrought voice-over narration. The Monty Python gang, at their prime, could not have concocted more ludicrously silly monologues. But helmer Michael Bay intends us to take them seriously.

Bay began his career as a director of music videos, and it could be argued — particularly during the past decade — that he never shifted gears. Such video shorts are no more than a series of flamboyant, hyper-edited visuals solely in service of the music; with very rare exception, there’s no such thing as “story” or “character.”

The same could be said of Transformers: The L(e)ast Knight, fifth entry in this increasingly dismal franchise, which is no more than an overlong showcase reel for numerous special effects companies. Bay couldn’t care less about story, and he obviously couldn’t care less about character; his notion of an “emotional moment” starts and stops with a tight-tight-tight close-up of a given actor’s face, always bearing a silent, stricken, gape-mouthed expression. Pause and hold for what seems an eternity.

Tears are optional (but desired).

The result would be laughable, if the process of watching the damn thing weren’t so relentlessly repetitious, predictable, exhausting and tediously dull.

Bay doesn’t make movies; he makes product. Noisy, lowest-common-denominator trash designed for an indiscriminate international market.

Expensive and impressively mounted trash, to be fair ... but trash nonetheless.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Book of Henry: A fascinating read

The Book of Henry (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.16.17

Films don’t surprise me much any more.

This one did.

The Book of Henry is a captivating convergence of premise, cast and execution: a beguiling “little” drama filled with big ideas, carefully shepherded by a director and writer who maintain unerring control throughout.

While Mom's away, the boys will play: Armed with a vacuum cleaner, toilet plungers,
goggles and gallons of packing "peanuts," Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, left) does his best
to put a smile on the face of younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay).
Trust is in short supply these days, from all sorts of quarters. It seems like people and things too frequently disappoint us, and that’s equally true of films that betray our faith and intelligence. Not so The Book of Henry. Barely half an hour in, it became clear that scripter Gregg Hurwitz wasn’t going to miss a step with his enchanting narrative, and that director Colin Trevorrow’s guiding hand would monitor all the elements with the precision of the Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions concocted by the story’s title character.

In short, I gave my trust to Hurwitz and Trevorrow, and they didn’t let me down.

Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) shares a bedroom with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in a pastoral suburban town in upstate New York. Their mother Susan (Naomi Watts), a single parent, toils as a waitress at a tiny diner, alongside co-waitress and feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman).

Susan is forgetful, immature and only mildly educated: still stuck in post-adolescence, all these years later, and more big sister than parent. The preternaturally serious Henry, in stark contrast, has the family well in hand; he’s charismatic, shrewdly intuitive and super-smart. (He prefers the term “precocious.”)

On a typical weekday evening, Susan spends hours playing video games; Henry sits quietly at a table, paying all the bills and keeping an eye on the stock market.

He also keeps an eye on Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the girl next door who sits at an adjacent desk in his classroom. Normally a friendly, cheerful lass, of late she has grown quiet and withdrawn, frequently half-concealing her face beneath her hair. Her step-father Glenn (Dean Norris) — also a single parent, and the local police chief — seems ... well ... tightly wound.

All three kids are creative. Christina dances; Henry and Peter spend lots of time in their tree house, in the woods behind their home. This kids’ heaven has been assembled from all manner of found materials — no doubt engineered by Henry — and filled with toys, gadgets and discarded junk waiting to be transformed into something spectacular. Best touch: the tree house entrance is a re-purposed refrigerator door, complete with bottles held within its shelves.

Rough Night: A misbegotten mess

Rough Night (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for raunch, profanity, crude sexual content, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang

Well, this one lived down to lowest expectations.

And then some.

The calm before the storm: Jess (Scarlet Johansson, center) bubbles during a cheerful
call from her fiancé, while her friends — from left, Blair (Zoë Kravitz), Alice (Jillian Bell),
Pippa (Kate McKinnon) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) — try to hasten the chat, so they
can continue their debauched evening.
Director/co-scripter Lucia Aniello’s unholy mash-up of Bridesmaids and Weekend at Bernie’s is a ghastly failure on all levels; it’s a forced and thoroughly tasteless comedy, which repeatedly attempts to mangle humor from material that never could have seemed funny on the printed page, let alone on the big screen.

This is a desperation flick ... as in, every cast member looks desperate at all times, no doubt seeking the nearest exit.

“Dying is easy,” Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swann insists, in 1982’s My Favorite Year, as he quotes an apocryphal Hollywood chestnut. “Comedy is hard.”

The actual attribution remains in question, but the sentiment is truer now than ever, because far too many of today’s so-called comedy writers take the lazy way out. As with horror films that splatter gore on the screen in an effort to conceal their inability to induce actual terror, Aniello and co-scripter Paul W. Downs clearly believe that relentless dollops of vulgar, randomly inserted remarks about bodily functions, along with repeated glimpses of penis-shaped sex toys, represent the height of humor.

Not. Even. Close.

When an actress of Scarlett Johnasson’s skill can’t make headway with the steady barrage of clumsy one-liners that pass for dialog in this film, All Concerned should have recognized the failings of the source material.

A brief college-days flashback illuminates the sisterhood bond between Jess (Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer). A decade later, life and careers have frayed this connection. Blair has become an immaculately dressed, high-profile businesswoman; Frankie is a hyper-politicized, save-the-whales activist; Alice is — by her own definition — a much-loved schoolteacher.

The image-conscious Jess, running for Congress, is losing ground to an opponent who gains favorable media bumps for tweeting dick pics (a scenario which, sadly, isn’t far removed from reality). Jess is engaged to marry nice-guy Peter (also Downs), which gives micro-managing Alice the perfect excuse for the “ultimate” bachelorette party, in flesh- and sin-laden Miami.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Megan Leavey: A doggone good tale

Megan Leavey (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.9.17

Next time my parents grouse that movies aren’t like they used to be, I’ll point them toward this one.

Newly deployed in Fallujah, Iraq, Cpl. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) and her explosives-
sniffing dog, Rex, are assigned to detect the improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
hidden in and alongside the road on which their vehicles need to travel.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey is a straight-ahead drama with plenty of heart, told in the uncomplicated manner that marked family-friendly movies back in the day ... and I mean that as a compliment. Scripters Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt tell this story efficiently and poignantly, without needless emotional angst, and Cowperthwaite ensures that the narrative doesn’t slide into manipulative bathos.

Best of all, this is a true story: one likely to be remembered by those who followed the saga’s final chapter in 2012. While events have been compressed — as often is the case, with big-screen adaptations — Cowperthwaite and her collaborators hit the essential high points; the result is a thoroughly engaging and deeply poignant drama. And if you’re not moved by the final scene, you’re truly made of stone.

On a sidebar note, it also marks a solid star turn by Kate Mara, who has spent the last decade impressing TV viewers with memorable supporting roles in 24, American Horror Story and House of Cards. She hasn’t been as lucky with big-screen work — and probably wishes that 2015’s Fantastic Four hadn’t happened — but this new film should enhance her profile, and deservedly so.

Her Megan Leavey is introduced here in 2003, as an aimless, desperately unhappy 20-year-old New Yorker taking up space in her bedroom. Her mother, Jackie (Edie Falco), has become disgusted by this daughter who, we can assume, probably has been a nightmare child for many years. Then again, Jackie is no prize; Falco makes her such a believably horrid shrike that Leavey’s actual mother might have grounds for character assassination.

At low ebb and with no other plans, Megan impulsively joins the Marines, surviving boot camp and subsequently attending military police school at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton. But her “wild child” tendencies haven’t quite been eradicated; an ill-advised night of misbehavior results in a week of scut detail in the camp’s kennel unit ... and the promise of a dishonorable discharge, if she screws up one more time.

Not to worry. Megan is immediately fascinated by the K9 unit, and particularly by a massive, apparently unruly German shepherd named Rex. Gaining permission to have anything to do with this dog, however, means buckling down in all sorts of ways, before the K9 unit’s gruff Sgt. Gunny Martin (Common) will give her even a second glance.

The Mummy: Should've stayed buried

The Mummy (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for relentless violence, scary images, dramatic intensity, partial nudity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Tom Cruise is on solid ground when he concentrates on straight action epics, such as the always entertaining Mission: Impossible series.

Nick (Tom Cruise) and Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) can't believe what they're seeing: probably
fresh script pages that make even less sense than what they've endured, thus far, in this
laughable mess of a movie.
But when he attempts to blend adventure with light humor, the results can be dire. He’s a far, far cry from the breezy comedic charisma of — to pull out an appropriate name — Brendan Fraser.

In fairness, Cruise can’t take all the blame for the lamentable mess of The Mummy; there’s plenty to go around. This debut entry in Universal Pictures’ highly touted “Dark Universe” classic monster revival series is a grave disappointment, from Alex Kurtzman’s lackadaisical direction, to a breathtakingly bonkers script credited to no fewer than six (!) people. It would appear that too many cooks spoiled the broth.

This is a kitchen sink mess, with elements borrowed (or stolen) from all over the place, then clumsily stitched together in a manner that only Dr. Frankenstein could love. Cruise swans about, one scene to the next, not even trying for characterization — not that he’s given much — and adding absolutely nothing to these daft proceedings.

Hell, co-star Jake Johnson gives a more engaging performance. And he’s dead most of the time.

This abysmal monster mash clearly was compromised by the need to serve too many masters. I’m surprised the ego-laden Cruise even signed up, because he isn’t the significant element in this ghoul-laden thrill ride; he’s merely window dressing, as the stage is set for future installments involving the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the aforementioned Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Establishing all of that pulls focus from the adventure at hand, to its additional detriment.

Mostly, though, this Mummy simply isn’t well conceived. It’s one of those make-it-up-as-we go contrivances, with random, Perils of Pauline-style dangers interrupting microscopic moments of plot. The story also suffers from a malady quite common to modern adventure epics: a villain so strong, so evil, so world-manipulatingly powerful, that there’s simply no way our ordinary, flesh-and-blood heroes could prevail.

Except that the script says they must, and, well, that’s that.

My Cousin Rachel: Relatively dreary

My Cousin Rachel (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sexuality and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Oi ... such a yawn.

This fresh adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is a true Masterpiece Theater melodrama: sweeping English countrysides, coastlines and quaint villages; slow, silent glances exchanged between artificially polite aristocrats; and soft-spoken dialog pregnant with implication.

Having come to believe that his earlier impression of Rachel (Rachel Weisz) was
unjustified, Philip (Sam Claflin) decides to show her the letter — from his deceased
guardian — that prompted such mistrust.
But absent Jane Austen’s verbal wit and sparkle, or the suspense and directorial snap that Alfred Hitchcock brought to his 1940 handling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, this period piece is a rather dull affair ... particularly since Sam Claflin’s protagonist is such a callow, foolish and unforgivably whimpering weenie.

It’s impossible to sympathize with somebody so relentlessly naïve, and who possesses so little personality. He’s like unfinished clay, at the mercy of whoever chooses to mold him.

Nor does director/scripter Roger Michell — who did so much better with Venus and Notting Hill — bring much to these proceedings.

Du Maurier had a habit of giving her protagonists no more than their first names, and thus this saga focuses on Philip (Claflin), orphaned since childhood and raised by his guardian, Ambrose Ashley. The boy grows up on a large country estate on the Cornish coast, where the only women permitted within the walls are the many farm dogs. (Surrey’s West Horsley Place, a lucky find, has just the right mid-19th century ambiance.)

Such details are revealed in a brief narrative flashback, as a grown Philip returns home following a university education that left no significant impression. He finds the estate bereft of its owner, Ambrose’s “health issues” having sent him on a lengthy trip to Italy’s warmer climate. Contact is maintained via letters that Philip shares with his godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), and Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger).

Louise is sweet on Philip, but he’s oblivious to such affection, having no experience in such matters (to a degree that becomes increasingly difficult to credit).

The letters continue; Ambrose writes of meeting and marrying a distant mutual cousin named Rachel. They remain in Italy, and then the tone of his letters changes; it seems clear that Rachel has some sort of unhealthy hold over Ambrose. A final letter begs for Philip’s presence, with haste ... but his arrival in Florence is too late. Ambrose has died, and Rachel has left; all such details are revealed during a curt exchange with Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), a “friend” of Rachel’s whom Ambrose clearly mistrusted.

Back in Cornwall, Philip learns from Kendall that Ambrose never changed his will; Philip remains sole heir to the estate, which will come to him upon his rapidly approaching 25th birthday. This scarcely cheers the young man, enraged over his belief that Rachel somehow caused the death of his beloved guardian. When she sends word of an impending visit, Kendall and Louise caution against “rash” behavior.

They need not have worried. Even in widow’s black, Rachel (Rachel Weisz) is a vision. Philip, cowed by her politeness, deferential manner and apparent fragility, retreats to the cordiality demanded by his upbringing.

Which — right there — is a transition that Claflin can’t begin to sell. Righteous rage to cowed silence, in the blink of an eye? Seriously?

I think not.

And, in turn, all subsequent developments become contrived and equally unpersuasive.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Amazon goddess gets her due

Wonder Woman (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.2.17

It’s darn well about time.

During the big-screen superhero eruption that began when Christopher Reeve first donned Superman’s iconic blue-and-red garb back in 1978, no super-heroine has been able to carry her own film.

Although Diana (Gal Gadot, center) reluctantly allows Steve (Chris Pine) and Etta (Lucy
Davis) to dress her in the fashion of the day, she's unwilling to abandon the sword and
shield that define her as an Amazon goddess ... which presents a bit of a problem.
Until now.

(Misfires such as 2004’s Catwoman and ’05’s Elektra are best left forgotten.)

We caught a glimpse of Gal Gadot’s interpretation of Wonder Woman in last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and there’s no question: The 5-foot-10 Israeli actress sold the outfit and the essential regal bearing. But that soulless film gave her no opportunity for anything approaching emotional gravitas, so the jury remained out.

Until now.

Director Patty Jenkins’ thoroughly engaging depiction of Diana — first daughter of the sheltered Amazonian island of Themyscira — owes its heart to both Gadot and a respectful script from Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. The narrative honors the character’s origin, as laid down in October 1941, in issue No. 8 of DC’s All Star Comics.

Much more crucially, this film blends its myth-making and furious action with just the right touch of humor: a droll undertone that has been lamentably absent in recent Batman and Superman entries. Much of this wit derives from Diana’s fish-out-of-water reaction to so-called civilized society, which Gadot displays with a charming balance of innocence and sparkle. She definitely catches her character’s (ahem) sense of wonder.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Diana’s story begins on Themyscira, where — rather oddly — she’s the only child amid hundreds of Amazon warriors. She’s a precocious child (adorably played by Lilly Aspell), eager to battle-train, but her mother (Connie Nielsen, as Queen Hippolyta) rejects the very notion. Diana thus practices in secret, under the tutelage of champion warrior Antiope (Robin Wright).

The years pass; Diana achieves maturity. Fate places her on a high island cliff just as a strange object — a crippled plane — penetrates the invisible “cloak” that conceals Themyscira from the outer world. The craft crash-lands and sinks rapidly beneath the ocean waves; the quick-thinking Diana rescues the lone pilot just in time, thereby getting her first glimpse of a man.