Friday, April 29, 2016

Sing Street: A joyful noise

Sing Street (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic candor, profanity, underage smoking and other questionable teen behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.16

I’m in love.

Much the way the young star of this indie charmer worships the mysterious girl who lives across the street from his school, I adore the filmmaking chops of Irish writer/director John Carney.

Having worked up the courage to chat up the intriguing girl (Lucy Boynton) who often
stands across the street from his school, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) concocts an
improbable scheme to get her attention. The problem, then, is making good on his
grandiose claims...
He came to our attention Stateside with 2007’s endearing Once, and its music-laden saga of a Dublin busker and Czech immigrant who meet and then bond over their shared love of songwriting and performing. Stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová fell in love during production, and it showed; nothing could have been sweeter than their Academy Awards performance of the film’s signature tune, “Falling Slowly,” which deservedly galloped home with an Oscar.

Carney detoured with a couple of less successful projects before returning to the music world with 2013’s equally appealing Begin Again, which found washed up, Manhattan-based music exec Mark Ruffalo embracing one last career shot by encouraging the efforts of fledgling singer/songwriter Keira Knightley. As with Once, the action unfolds against a backdrop of catchy, radio-ready new songs: another instant soundtrack hit for delighted fans.

Pleasant as it was, though, a certain something was missing from Begin Again: something that has become obvious with the arrival of Sing Street. As a writer, Carney clearly has the most fun exploring his Irish roots; this new film’s hard-scrabble, working-class Dublin setting affords a rich tapestry of young angst and earthy ensemble dynamics.

Carney sets his story in the 1980s, as a bleak employment depression sends ferryloads of young Irish citizens to London, in the (often vain) hope of landing a steady paycheck. Against this backdrop, 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds life at home increasingly distressing. Parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are heading for a messy divorce, heedless of the impact the process is having on Conor, his sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) and their older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor).

Financial stress contributes to the trauma, and one immediate change affects Conor personally. To save money, he’s moved from his posh Jesuit private school to an inner-city comprehensive: Synge Street School, laden with cigarette-smoking bullies barely kept under control by mostly ineffectual priests. The one exception is the smugly authoritarian Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), a tyrannical monster who takes pleasure in humiliating his students.

Barely into his first day, Conor runs afoul of both Brother Baxter and the hulking Barry (Ian Kenny), a vicious older student likely passed from one grade to the next, just so his previous instructors can get rid of him.

Mother's Day: Holiday fatigue

Mother's Day (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and rather pointlessly, for fleeting profanity and mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang

Veteran director Garry Marshall began what could be termed his “holiday merry-go-round” series with 2010’s Valentine’s Day, which blended an impressively diverse ensemble cast with a reasonably clever series of interlocking stories from scripters Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.

When Sandy (Jennifer Aniston, left) brings her sons (Caleb Brown and Brandon Spink)
for their regularly scheduled weekend with their father Henry (Timothy Olyphant), she's
dismayed by his new young wife Tina's (Shay Mitchell) barely there clothing, and by the
lengths she has gone to curry favor with the boys.
It was popular enough to generate a sequel, 2011’s New Year’s Eve, which included a few casting carryovers and a script credited solely to Fugate. Alas, the result wasn’t nearly as satisfying; the intertwining stories weren’t as clever, their outcomes far more predictable.

Despite this, Marshall has gone to the well a third time, with further diminishing returns. Perhaps hoping that new blood would invigorate the premise, Marshall turned this time to scripters Tom Hines, Lily Hollander, Anya Kochoff and Matthew Walker. Frankly, it feels like they worked independently, rather than collaboratively; the episodic narratives link up clumsily, if at all, and Mother’s Day too frequently feels like an average episode of TV’s Love Boat or Fantasy Island.

Which isn’t necessarily bad, I suppose, although that sets the bar rather low.

Yes, some of the arch one-liners will elicit giggles, and it’s still fun to see so many familiar faces in a single project. But the slapstick elements are TV-sitcom stupid, and the core storyline involving racist, insensitive parents churns out a candy-coated happy resolution with ludicrous swiftness (hence the Fantasy Island reference).

So, get your scorecards out...

Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) and Henry (Timothy Olyphant), amicably divorced, have been sharing custody of two young sons (Caleb Brown and Brandon Spink). But the situation’s harmony is shattered when Henry announces his surprise marriage to a much younger hotsy-totsy named Tina (Shay Mitchell). Cutting remarks about cradle-robbing aside, Sandy fears that she’ll be downgraded to “other mother” status: of particular concern, with the impending arrival of Mother’s Day.

At the same time, Sandy hopes to enhance her career as a clothing and set designer by landing an interview with TV shopping network diva Miranda Collins (Julia Roberts), represented by longtime agent and friend Lance Wallace (Marshall perennial Hector Elizondo).

Green Room: Viciously suspenseful

Green Room (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for brutal graphic violence, gory images, profanity and drug content

By Derrick Bang

This is a nasty little chiller ... in the best possible way.

That said, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s gory survival saga definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. The unsettling premise is reasonable enough to be quite scary on its own, and the vicious, suspenseful execution is the stuff of nightmares. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

As Amber (Imogen Poots, far left) looks on with grim satisfaction, Reece (Joe Cole) attempts
to persuade a trapped skinhead into explaining what the hell is going on; the rest of Reece's
friends — from left, Tiger (Callum Turner), Sam (Alia Shawkat) and Pat (Anton Yelchin) —
wait to see what will happen next.
Saulnier burst onto the scene with 2007’s high-camp gore-fest, Murder Party, which evoked pleasant memories of 1992’s Dead Alive, Peter Jackson’s early-career exercise in similar bad taste. (Well ... pleasant memories for those who go for such things, anyway.)

Saulnier got a lot more serious with his second outing, 2013’s Blue Ruin, which made respectable noise at Cannes and numerous other film festivals. Clearly, he was a filmmaker to watch, and Green Room — his newest exercise in nail-biting tension — is further proof. It belongs in the grand tradition of Straw Dogs, Assault on Precinct 13 and even Night of the Living Dead, all of which trap small groups of people in enclosed spaces, vastly outnumbered by evil forces determined not to let them escape alive.

Things begin quietly enough, as we meet the scruffy members of a hardscrabble punk band dubbed The Ain’t Rights: vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole). They’re nearing the end of a road trip/tour that has netted some artistic satisfaction but little in the way of cold, hard cash; they’re tired and discouraged.

This introduction is handled economically by Saulnier, who in a few quick scenes tells us everything we need to know about these twentysomethings. Pat is the philosopher; Sam keeps everybody in line; Tiger and Reece are the hardcore punkers. Minor larceny aside — clandestinely siphoning gas, when they lack the funds to fill up their van — they’re reasonably decent folks: just another enthusiastic quartet of musicians trying to get noticed.

After a potentially lucrative gig falls through, they accept a replacement booking, to play an afternoon set at an isolated, rundown club deep in the Oregon backwoods. Their arrival is greeted with quiet suspicion by the locals, many obviously of the skinhead/white supremacist persuasion, but the club manager — Macon Blair, as Gabe — seems friendly enough.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War — Plenty of fantasy fun

The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence and brief sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.16

This one is leagues better than its predecessor.

2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman was overblown, overwrought and overlong: a textbook example of what happens when a first-time director gets in way over his head. I can’t imagine why such a neophyte was put in charge of a $170 million movie, and he certainly wasn’t helped by the trio of talentless hacks who delivered such a muddled, dreary script.

As Nion (Nick Frost, left) and Gryff (Rob Brydon, right) look on nervously, Eric (Chris
Hemsworth) finds an unusual, jewel-encrusted spear tip: a certain indication that nasty
goblins can't be too far away.
You know things are bad, when someone as talented as Charlize Theron gives a wretched performance: all shrieks and screams, with no emotional resonance whatsoever. That is always the director’s fault.

Given that the film deservedly tanked, with a U.S. box office gross of only $155 million, some might wonder why a sequel even crossed anybody’s mind. Ah, but Hollywood isn’t driven by domestic results any more. This leaden turkey reaped a global total of almost $400 million: more than enough to encourage the suits at Universal’s Black Tower to greenlight a follow-up.

Which — who would have thought? — turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

(Actually, ample precedent exists. As just one example, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture was a bomb, whereas 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was sensational.)

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s new film has everything the first one lacked: characters we genuinely care about, and who interact well with each other; a satisfying balance between fantasy-laden peril and emotional angst; and — most of all — a welcome sense of humor. Nicolas-Troyan also understands that cast-of-thousands battle scenes are intrinsically boring, particularly when we don’t give a whit about any of the faceless warriors involved; his film concentrates on more intimate melees between the story’s core heroes and villains.

And here’s the irony: Nicolas-Troyan, best known as a behind-the-scenes special effects maestro, also is a first-time feature director ... and, quite clearly, far more talented than the previous film’s Rupert Sanders.

Nicolas-Troyan has much better help, as well: a vastly superior script from Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. Both clearly understand fantasy’s first golden rule: Everything must make sense, and remain consistent, within the confines of its own established parameters. You can’t just make stuff up, from one scene to the next; that’s the fastest route to audience disinterest.

Elvis & Nixon: Double Trouble

Elvis & Nixon (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

Kevin Spacey’s marvelous impersonation of Richard Nixon, by itself, is worth the price of admission.

That said, everything about director Liza Johnson’s cheeky little comedy is thoroughly delightful.

To their mutual surprise, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon, left) and President Richard M.
Nixon (Kevin Spacey) discover that they have a lot in common ... including a fondness for
Dr. Pepper.
It’s also based on an actual incident that deserves prominent placement in the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction file: an event that scripters Joel Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes have built into a droll ensemble piece that also would work as an amusing stage play, particularly if staffed as well as Johnson and casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee have done here.

Johnson’s film expands upon the unlikely White House encounter between Elvis Presley and President Nixon, which took place shortly after noon on Dec. 21, 1970. Presley orchestrated the meeting, mostly because he wanted to augment his collection of official police badges with one from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Nixon, in turn, was encouraged to approve this unexpected guest as a means of enhancing his “one of the people” cred, and for the killer photo op. The latter scheme backfired somewhat, when Presley requested that the meeting be kept secret ... which it was, but only for about a year, at which point columnist Jack Anderson published what he had learned.

Which, as it happens, wasn’t as much as one might think. Elvis’ visit took place before Nixon had the Oval Office wired for continuous taping, and our only record of their actual conversation is based on notes taken by Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh.

Which conveniently gives this film’s scripters plenty of room for, ah, embellishment. And they’ve done this with deliciously understated subtlety, matched by Johnson’s equally delicate touch with her cast.

The story begins a few days earlier, as a bored Presley (Michael Shannon), dismayed by the images of civil unrest emanating from the multiple TV sets in his Graceland lounge, impulsively decides that he can do something about this. He flies to Los Angeles to collect longtime friend and handler Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who has left Presley’s employ in an effort to carve out his own career.

This is the first of the film’s strong character dynamics. Presley clearly misses Schilling, in great part because Jerry is one of the few people who likes Elvis for what he is, rather than the superficial wealth and celebrity. Despite that, Presley clumsily tries to “buy” Schilling’s return with offers of expensive gifts: a wistfully ironic touch that Shannon delivers with an endearing, gruff awkwardness.

Miles Ahead: A bizarre, self-indulgent cacophony

Miles Ahead (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, nudity, drug use and flashes of violence

By Derrick Bang

Following an astonishing prolific decade of studio work — with 32 (!) albums released on Prestige, Blue Note and Columbia during the 1950s — Miles Davis hit mainstream acclaim with 1959’s now-legendary Kind of Blue, followed in quick succession by Sketches of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come, the latter inspired by his wife Frances, who was pictured on the LP cover.

Don Cheadle's performance as Miles Davis is so spot-on that it's eerie, down to the
smallest details. Alas, the film that surrounds this superb acting isn't nearly as satisfying.
Those forever remained the go-to albums for many of Davis’ most enthusiastic fans, much to the jazz trumpeter/composer’s ongoing annoyance. He hated looking back, and he absolutely hated being “defined” by his 1950s/early ’60s sound; God forbid that one should even pigeonhole his work by calling it “jazz.”

“Jazz is an Uncle Tom word,” he famously said, during a December 1969 Rolling Stone interview. “It’s a white folks word.” When pressed, he insisted that rock and jazz both deserved to be termed “social music.”

Like most truly inquisitive artists, Davis thrived on exploring and challenging music’s very essence and form. His output during the latter 1960s and early ’70s became increasingly outré, unmelodic and challenging for even the most patient listener: wild, harsh, flamboyant, unrestrained — granted, always technically proficient — dissonant and cacophonous.

As if he were trying to be provocative, and daring people to dislike the result.

The same can be said of Don Cheadle’s aggressively weird “cinematic reflection” on Davis’ life and career ... or, at least, some portions thereof. This project obviously is a labor of love for Cheadle, who directed, stars, co-produced and co-wrote the script (the latter credit shared with Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson).

The result is, by turns, celebratory, random and maddening: as gleefully bizarre and uncompromising as much of Davis’ latter-day music. To be sure, the film is anchored by Cheadle’s flat-out astonishing portrayal of Davis: less an acting challenge and far more some sort of full-immersion experience, as if the actor somehow figured out a way to “wear” Davis, like a suit of clothes.

From the raspy voice to the smug, condescending attitude and flashes of hot-tempered anger; from the often clumsy gait that seemed so unusual, contrasted with the always loving embrace with which Davis handled his horn ... it’s positively spooky.

Whether Cheadle’s riveting performance is sufficient compensation for the bizarre narrative style, though ... that’ll be up to individual viewers.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book: Family-friendly adventure

The Jungle Book (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.16

The CGI tiger in 2012’s big-screen adaptation of Life of Pi was quite impressive.

This one is better.

Although Mowgli (Neel Sethi) often is puzzled by the rule-laden lectures he constantly
receives from Bagheera, the boy is about to discover precisely why some of these
lessons are so important.
Indeed, the myriad faux animals in Disney’s fresh take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book are rendered with jaw-dropping authenticity. Many viewers likely will spend much of the first act trying to decide which (if any) of the critters are real — either in close-up or distant group shots — and which are genius computer animation.

I was convinced that a darling little tree frog was real, as it hopped out of some water, until it brushed itself in an adorable — but decidedly unfroglike — manner. At which point, I simply abandoned the exercise and settled comfortably into an exhilarating experience that Kipling himself never could have imagined.

Justin Marks’ screenplay owes more to Disney’s animated 1967 adaptation than Kipling’s nine short stories about the “man cub” Mowgli, and his adventures with the various creatures — benign and dangerous — that make their home in the Indian jungle. Fans of the earlier animated film will be pleased to see Marks hit all the narrative and character high points, most notably those concerning the fatherly panther Bagheera, the free-spirited bear Baloo, and the utterly malevolent tiger Shere Khan.

Mowgli is played to impressionable, young-kid perfection by 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi, introduced during a bravura chase through the jungle, which is choreographed for maximum breathtaking excitement by director Jon Favreau and editor Mark Livolsi. It’s an impressive prologue: a pell-mell blend of running, jumping and tumbling through jungle undergrowth, up and down trees, and across small canyons.

I can’t imagine how Sethi and Favreau did it, and — of course — that’s the magic of movies. (For starters, the kid must have the world’s toughest feet.)

Back-story eventually reveals that a toddler-age Mowgli was found by Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who brought the child to Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), one of many wolves belonging to a pack led by alpha male Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Although subsequently raised in the way of the wolves — most particularly the chanted law, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” — Mowgli cannot help the blossoming human ingenuity that enables him to “do tricks” (Bagheera’s term) that simplify certain tasks.

Such “tricks,” alas, are met with suspicion by the jungle’s many other creatures.