Friday, July 14, 2017

Maudie: Portrait of an unlikely artist

Maudie (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.14.17

Film, despite the potential of its myriad elements, rarely delivers the intensity of a powerful stage performance.

Everett (Ethan Hawke) can't understand why Maudie (Sally Hawkins) puts so much
painstaking — and painful — effort into her delicate watercolor paintings. As far as he's
concerned, they only interfere with her primary purpose: to feed him on time.
There’s something electrifying about being in the presence of a truly charismatic actor: one who slides wholly into a role with an authoritative snap that crushes any thought of looking elsewhere. Every move, gesture and sentence are riveting; we’re simply spellbound.

You don’t very often get that from a film performance.

Here’s one.

Sally Hawkins’ title role in Maudie is the stuff of cinematic legend: not merely a role that should bring her an Academy Award, but one destined to be remembered for a long, long time. It’s a delicately crafted, sensitively delivered characterization that transcends the term “acting,” and becomes something truly wondrous.

That said, this Canadian/Irish co-production doesn’t make it easy on Stateside viewers unfamiliar with Maud Lewis, a humble 20th century Nova Scotia woman who — unexpectedly, astonishingly — became one of Canada’s most famous folk artists. Director Aisling Walsh and scripter Sherry White dump us — without title credits, preamble or any sort of back-story — into the drab, day-to-day frustration of Maudie’s thirtysomething routine.

It’s the mid-1930s. Maudie lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the tiny community of Digby: a “kept” existence arranged by her condescending brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), her only sibling. He calls her “Sister,” unwilling to grant her even the small dignity of her own name. Both their parents are dead; Charles arrives one morning to inform Maudie that he has sold the family home — without bothering to consult her — to settle outstanding debts.

He dumps her meager belongings, including a set of paintbrushes, and departs. Hastily.

He’s ashamed and embarrassed by her, and believes that she cannot care for herself. Maudie suffers the debilitating after-effects of childhood rheumatoid arthritis, which has left her body wracked with pain and twisted at odd angles.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming — A tangled web

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s both ironic and yet appropriate that this newest incarnation of Spider-Man — let’s call it Spider-Man 3.0 — works best when young Peter Parker is out of costume.

Try as he might, Peter (Tom Holland) can't seem to make things work properly ... either
in his personal life, or as the web-slinging would-be hero, Spider-Man.
As originally conceived by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, way back in 1962, Peter was an angst-ridden high school outcast: a nerd long before that word became a fashionable descriptor. Eternally abused by campus tormentor Flash Thompson, ignored by all the cool kids, Peter took solace from his scientific curiosity and the protective embrace of home life with his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

British actor Tom Holland — so powerful as the eldest son forced to help his family cope with a tsunami’s aftermath, in 2012’s The Impossible — persuasively nails this all-essential aspect of Peter’s personality. He has a ready smile that falters at the faintest slight, real or imagined; he’s all gangly limbs and unchecked, hyperactive eagerness. Peter frequently doesn’t know how to handle himself, because he doesn’t yet possess a strong sense of what his “self” actually is.

That said, director/co-scripter Jon Watts’ update of Peter gives the lad a firmer social grounding that he possessed in all those early Marvel comic books. He’s a valued member of his school’s academic decathlon squad, where he’s routinely thrust alongside teammates Flash (Tony Revolori), crush-from-a-distance Liz (Laura Harrier) and the aloof, slightly mysterious Michelle (Zendaya, the effervescent star of TV’s engaging K.C. Undercover).

And — oh, yes — Peter is a-bubble with enthusiasm over the secret he cannot share with anyone: his recent trip to Berlin, supposedly as a science intern for Stark Enterprises, but where he actually joined Iron Man and other super-powered associates and went mano a mano against Captain America (recent back-story details supplied via a clever flashback).

Impetuously assuming that he’ll therefore be made a member of the Avengers, Peter is chagrined when days and weeks pass without a word from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) or his right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). I mean, Spidey deflected Captain America’s shield, right? What the heck is Tony waiting for?

Retrieving stolen bicycles and helping little old ladies may establish cred as “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” but it hardly stacks up against saving the world from super-powered bad guys. Peter chafes at being abandoned on the sidelines, and thus makes the mistake that Stark anticipated.

Wholly contrary to the essential divide between civilian and costumed life, Peter begins to employ his alter-ego as a crutch: a means to enhance his social status.

“But I’m nothing without the costume,” he eventually wails, in genuine torment, to Tony.

“If that’s true,” Tony replies, “then you don’t deserve it.”

The Big Sick: Just what the doctor ordered!

The Big Sick (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.7.17

Stand-up comics have a significant advantage, when it comes to autobiographical projects; they’ve fine-tuned such material during years of comedy club appearances.

As their relationship blossoms, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) spend
more and more time together, even as both continue to insist — with diminishing
conviction — that this "isn't anything serious."
The results can be terrific, as demonstrated by (for example) Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays.

The Big Sick is a similarly delightful experience: by turns sweet, funny and poignant, with a gently instructive cross-cultural moral that we desperately need these days.

The film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, perhaps best recognized from his starring role on HBO’s Silicon Valley. He co-wrote The Big Sick with his wife, Emily V. Gordon; the film depicts their real-life courtship, which started when, as a grad student, she attended one of his stand-up appearances at a Chicago comedy club.

The relationship gets off to a shaky start. Although Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) enjoy each other’s company, neither is looking for a relationship. She’s focused on finishing a master’s degree in couples and family counseling, in order to begin a career as a therapist; he’s enduring the grueling, grinding ordeal of trying to hone a stand-up set in front of frequently unforgiving audiences.

Then there’s the other issue. She’s a modern American white gal; he belongs to a conservative Muslim family, with parents — Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) — who expect him to enter into a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. Like they did, and like his older brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) did, with his wife Fatima (Shenaz Treasury).

Kumail faithfully has dinner once a week with his family: chaotic affairs with (in his own words) “five different conversations going on, people talking over each other, and everyone’s very loud.” Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that Kumail’s mother always sets a sixth place at the table, in case an eligible young Pakistani woman “happens” to drop in. Which one always does.

Bearing a photo and résumé. Which Kumail dutifully takes back to his apartment, once dinner concludes, and tosses into a cigar box laden with similar profiles.

So yes, there’s a strong echo of Greek Wedding, albeit from a Pakistani perspective. But there’s also a significant difference, because Kumail can’t work up the courage to tell his parents about Emily (whereas she has shared everything about him with her folks). He’s paralyzed by anecdotes about adult children and other relations banished from their families, for similar “transgressions.”

Unfortunately, Kumail also doesn’t share his lack of candor with Emily: a nagging secret that eats at him, as their didn’t-want-a-relationship blossoms into a genuine love affair.

This can only end badly ... but Kumail can’t imagine how badly.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Beguiled: Not beguiling enough

The Beguiled (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang

As a setting, Southern Gothic is a character in its own right: drooping, moss-draped trees enclosing antebellum mansions, their white paint edged with gray and slightly peeling; a keening, high-pitched whine of insects driven into a constant frenzy by shimmering heat; the miasma of humidity so unrelenting that everything — flora, fauna and dwellings — sags beneath a soggy layer of warm moisture, and the mere act of drawing breath is a weary challenge.

Sensing that Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is self-conscious about her appearance,
McBurney (Colin Farrell) lavishes praise about her features and deportment, knowing
full well that she'll melt under such flattery.
A sense that evil spirits prowl during a night so enveloping that stars and fireflies do little to keep the darkness at bay.

Director/scripter Sofia Coppola’s fresh adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s The Beguiled certainly wins points for atmosphere. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd frames every inch of production designer Anne Ross’ tableaus — interior and exterior — with the reverence of a painter agonizing over each individual brush stroke.

The characters in this unsettling morality play also are well cast, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell delivering a level of quiet intensity more frequently experienced with a live Broadway performance. Which also feels appropriate, given that the story’s claustrophobic setting could be realized equally well on a theater stage.

Coppola directs her cast with a sure hand, coaxing performances that fascinate just as much for their protracted silences, as for carefully selected snatches of dialog. Kidman, in particular, conveys a wealth of emotion during moments of circumspect silence.

If only Coppola’s script equaled the rest of her film’s carefully assembled elements.

The tale unfolds in 1864, midway through the Civil War, within the confines of the Farnsworth Seminary, a Southern girls’ boarding school nestled deep in the Virginia woods. The institution is run by Miss Martha (Kidman) and her colleague Edwina (Dunst); they share classroom instruction and the daily reading of prayers.

The student population has dwindled to five, all girls with nowhere else to go. Amy (Oona Laurence), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard) are adolescent, vulnerable and trusting; teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning), hastening the onset of a womanhood she has no means of embracing, carries a whiff of temptress about her.

These seven have become a family, Miss Martha just as much a surrogate mother as a formal teacher. The dynamic, with its daily rituals, feels timeless; they may have sheltered in this vast mansion for mere months, or perhaps years. (The action actually takes place at the Louisiana-based Madewood Plantation House, also borrowed by Beyoncé for her “Sorry” music video.)

Despicable Me 3: Third time isn't the charm

Despicable Me 3 (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

One should avoid going to the well too often.

At first, Gru (left) is delighted to finally meet Dru, the long-estranged twin brother he never
knew existed. But Dru's wealth, charm and swooningly handsome good looks quickly
prove annoying, particularly since Gru's life and career have bottomed out.
The Despicable Me franchise is showing its age, and for a variety of reasons. Although Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have scripted all three films — which should ensure continuity of tone and narrative style — they’re clearly running out of ideas. Yes, this third installment is funny (for the most part); and yes, it zips along quickly enough to prevent viewer restlessness.

I’m sure children will be entertained by its colorful wackiness.

But their parents ... not so much. And that’s a shift, because the first two films played far more successfully to all ages.

This film just feels tired, much like bad guy-turned-good guy Gru, referenced by the title. Poor Gru has a constant case of the mopes this time out. Let’s face it: He was a lot more captivating as a villain, when he was, yes, despicable.

Perhaps more insidiously, Gru has been overshadowed by his banana-hued, pint-size subordinates. The Minions are a more fun — and a lot funnier — than anything Gru offers here. And poor Gru seems to know it.

Over at Blue Sky, Chris Wedge and his team have been careful not to let Scrat take over their Ice Age series, instead keeping the prehistoric squirrel/rat on the sidelines, as occasional slapstick relief. Paul, Daurio and returning Despicable co-director Pierre Coffin haven’t been equally cautious, and the result is obvious: The Minions now control the franchise.

Leaving poor Gru a somewhat listless afterthought.

The “despicable” character this time out is Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker), a former TV child star who peaked with an evil character his adolescent self played for several seasons in the 1980s. He came complete with signature phrase — “I’ve been a baaaaaad boy!” — and wreaked fictitious havoc on a weekly basis.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver: What a ride!

Baby Driver (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.17


Blend the hyper-driving acceleration of Gone in 60 Seconds with Quentin Tarantino’s bad-ass dark humor, add a touch of the most superbly choreographed music-and-motion sequences ever concocted for classic Hollywood musicals, and you’re getting close to this audacious cinematic experience.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, left) has spent years working off his unusual debt to Doc (Kevin
Spacey), motivated — in part — by the hope that, eventually, this servitude will end.
But will this urbane crime lord really be willing to part with such a valuable asset?
Because the result still must be filtered through the impertinent sensibilities of British writer/director Edgar Wright, he of the manic blend of thrills and whacked-out comedy found in his cult-classic “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End).

Baby Driver is no mere film; it’s a bold, edge-of-the-seat vision from an auteur who deftly, irreverently exploits the medium’s every aspect to the max. From the attention-grabbing prolog to the suspensefully exhilarating climax — not to mention one of the best aw-shucks Hollywood endings ever added as an epilog — Wright holds our attention to a degree most filmmakers can only dream about.

You dare not even breathe, at risk of missing something way-cool.

Not that you should worry about it, because everything about this flick is way-cool. Not to mention quite impressive, considering the way Wright slides from accelerated, throat-clutching intensity to larkish meet-cute romance — and back again — in the blink of an eye.

To cases:

Music means everything to Baby (Ansel Elgort), who developed a horrific case of tinnitus during a childhood accident, and drowns out the incessant whine by orchestrating every waking moment to paralyzingly loud music pumped into his brain, via the ubiquitous ear buds connected to one of a dozen iPods he carries at all times. Nor is he content to rely on the Top 40 power anthems of today and yesterday; he also mixes his own mash-ups of samples, beats and even offhand chatter captured via pocket digital recorders.

Aside from serving as the perpetual home-grown symphony to which he dances and sashays through even the most mundane activities — such as making lunch — this constant aural companion also propels Baby’s occasional occupation.

Some people drive. Baby drives.

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.