Friday, January 20, 2017

Split: This uneven thriller should do just that

Split (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for dramatic intensity, violence and gruesome behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.17

Color me surprised.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest little shocker truly is a cut (or chomp) above his other recent efforts.

While Marcia (Jessica Sula, left) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) watch nervously in the
background, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) attempts to persuade their captor's (James McAvoy)
youngest personality to help them escape from his other, more vicious selves.
But since we’re talking about the guy responsible for Lady in the Water (unrelentingly silly), After Earth (jaw-droppingly awful), The Visit (utterly repulsive) and The Last Airbender (quite possibly the worst mainstream fantasy ever made) ... that’s damning with very faint praise.

It must be difficult to hit a stadium-clearing home run the first time at bat — as with, say, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and John Carpenter (Halloween) — and then spend the rest of a steadily declining career trying to top, or even match, that first triumph. Pursuing that rainbow destroyed Welles, and has turned Carpenter into a pathetic remnant of his former self. (Anybody remember Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Prince of Darkness or Ghosts of Mars?)

Thus, pity poor Shyamalan, forever toiling in the shadow of The Sixth Sense.

Since then, he has demonstrated an unerring knack for concocting an intriguing premise, failing to exploit it credibly, and then flushing away any marginal good will during a bonkers-ludicrous third act.

Split follows that pattern; its modestly saving graces are a better-than-usual starting point, and a bravura performance from his leading man. (Or should I say performances?)

Shyamalan wastes no time, opening with a frighteningly credible kidnap scenario that leaves high school teenagers Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the mercy of an eerily calm guy (James McAvoy) with a shaved head and military bearing. The girls wake up in a basement cell, albeit one appointed with an unexpectedly clean and polished bathroom.

Claire and Marcia, best buds, are among the most popular girls at school; Casey is the quiet outcast everybody whispers about. Thus, the savage separation of status prevents the trio from bonding into a proper team (a shrewd psychological handicap).

Their captor’s various tics include an obsessive/compulsive fixation on neatness; he’s also a sexual deviant, as evidenced by a brief but distasteful encounter with Marcia (mercifully left off-camera).

Friday, January 13, 2017

Patriots Day: Triumph snatched from tragedy

Patriots Day (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for graphic violence, frequent profanity and some drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.13.17

It seemed too soon.

Mounting a big-screen project based on a recent real-world tragedy carries the whiff of tawdry, opportunistic network TV movies, which almost always exploit such events in pursuit of viewership ratings.

As FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, left) and Boston Police Commissioner
Ed Davis (John Goodman, right) watch hopefully, veteran policeman Tommy Saunders
(Mark Wahlberg) scrutinizes area surveillance footage, trying to anticipate which
cameras had the best chance of recording a glimpse of the bombers.
Not quite four years have passed, since the Boston Marathon bombing. Transforming that ghastly — albeit, ultimately, victoriously bonding — crisis into a high-profile mainstream drama, this quickly, couldn’t help raising eyebrows.

Ah, but I should have trusted director/co-scripter Peter Berg. He demonstrated appropriate restraint and respect, while crafting last year’s Deepwater Horizon into a solid suspense drama, and the same is true here. Although he rather shamelessly yanks our tear ducts in the final few minutes, supplying on-camera interviews with the actual people depicted in the preceding film, by that point Berg has earned enough good will to get away with it.

And besides: The interviews are cathartic, and well deserved in their own right.

Berg and his four co-scripters wisely designed their film as a straight-ahead police procedural, emphasizing dogged, ground-level detective work — and, eventually, indispensable public support — while carefully handling the actual bombings. The result is a tribute to both the impressive resources brought to bear, in the aftermath, and the stirring “Boston Strong” solidarity that united the first-responders and investigative entities.

Events begin on April 14, 2013, the day before the marathon; onscreen time and location stamps introduce a wide variety of individuals soon to be linked by circumstance. Some are immediately recognized by name and/or reputation: Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played here by John Goodman), FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and marathon watchers Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky (Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan).

A few others are likely to remain a mystery, at first, to all but those who followed every detail of the unfolding situation, back in 2013: MIT policeman Sean A. Collier (Jake Picking), and Chinese-American college student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang).

These preliminary sequences are casual, even light-hearted: Patrick tries to teach his wife Jessica how to speak with a proper Boston accent; Collier flirts with a couple of university women, trying to cajole them into joining him at an upcoming concert; Meng explains the virtues of a newly designed delivery app to a potential investor.

Live by Night: Not very lively

Live by Night (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and occasional sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night is a huge, Prohibition-era crime epic that deservedly won the 2013 Edgar Award for novel of the year, its 432 pages charting mobster Joe Coughlin’s rise to power from Boston to Florida, and ultimately to Cuba.

Filmmaker Ben Affleck’s big-screen adaptation is a maddeningly pale shadow of the book.

Shortly after arriving in Florida's Ybor City, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, center) and his
right-hand man Dion (Chris Messina, left) pay a "courtesy call" on Chief of Police Figgis
(Chris Cooper), who patiently explains what he is — and isn't — willing to turn a
blind eye to.
Affleck clearly bit off more than he could chew, aggressively assuming the roles of not only director and star, but also co-producer and — here’s the problem — screenwriter. His approach to Lehane’s sprawling novel is a series of disconnected sequences linked by voice-over narration: a clumsy abridgment that too frequently feels as if we’re being told the story, rather than experiencing it.

The result plays like 128 minutes of random chunks from a 10-hour miniseries (and, it should be noted, Lehane’s novel probably deserved that sort of long-form treatment). The tragic consequence: Affleck has made Lehane’s enthralling narrative boring.

The story’s moral focus concerns the corruptible power of evil, and whether a larcenous but essentially kind-hearted individual can remain “good” among companions who respect only ruthless behavior. It’s a venerable character arc that dates back to early Hollywood crime dramas, interpreted by scores of film stars ... most of whom did so far more persuasively.

Nuanced acting never has been Affleck’s strong suit, and his character’s handling of what should be a series of soul-deadening, increasingly agonized choices too frequently looks like bland, unsmiling indifference.

Coughlin is this story’s hero — or, more accurately, anti-hero — and we’re clearly intended to feel for the guy. We don’t.

Indeed, Affleck — as director and scripter — makes a fatal mistake: Coughlin is by no means the most interesting character in this story ... but he should be. While it was smart to populate the film with a host of powerful, scene-stealing co-stars, Affleck’s performance pales by comparison.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Monster Calls: An enchanting fable

A Monster Calls (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and scary images

By Derrick Bang

Some children’s books — even incredibly popular ones — are structured in a way that resists big-screen adaptation.

As Conor (Lewis MacDougall) grows more concerned about his mother's increasingly
frail condition, the visits from a parable-spinning monster become more serious,
intense ... and dangerous.
(Consider, as one of the most famous examples, how much time has passed since Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time debuted back in 1963. We finally have an adaptation scheduled for release in the spring of 2018.)

A Monster Calls was published in 2011; the illustrated children’s novel — story by Patrick Ness, art by Jim Kay — went on to win Britain’s prestigious Carnegie and Greenaway medals. It’s a poignant, deeply thoughtful and at times elliptical fantasy about a boy working his way through extreme grief; as such, it’s also an instructive and extremely clever parable for readers seeking similar solace.

The book has a sobering back-story, having been conceived by British author Siobhan Dowd during her unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. She died before being able to write it; her editor passed Dowd’s notes along to Ness.

It’s a sensitive and delicate tale, enhanced in great part by Kay’s often ragged — but always beautiful — black-and-white illustrations. The mere attempt to bring such a story to the big screen is audacious; that director J.A. Bayona has done such an exemplary job, with Ness adapting his own book, is nothing short of remarkable.

We meet 13-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall, in a sublime starring debut) as he wakens from what obviously has become a recurring dream: one in which the landscape surrounding his home is rent asunder, and he’s unable to save his terrified mother (Felicity Jones) from falling into a bottomless pit. Conor always wakens just as he loses his grip on her clutching hand.

As a typical day then begins, we note unusual independence: Conor makes his own breakfast, which he eats alone; he runs a load of wash and dresses for school. In the background, at one point, we hear a feeble, deeply congested cough. The inference is easy.

School, sadly, is its own waking nightmare. Although isolated at the rear of his various classrooms — teachers giving him a wide berth, making allowances for his solemn failure to participate — Conor nonetheless is an ongoing target of the sadistically cruel school bully, Harry (James Melville, impressively nasty). Then it’s back home, where his mother, wan but feigning cheer, is up and about. They share a movie, but she’s unable to stay awake to the conclusion.

Hidden Figures: The female frontier

Hidden Figures (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.6.17

A film that moves its audience to cheers and applause, as the screen fades to black, is an exhilarating experience for the patrons involved.

But a film that also prompts such a response several times during the course of its story?

When John Glenn (Glen Powell) arrives at the Langley Research Center, he makes a
point of greeting members of the West Area Computing team: from left, Dorothy Vaughan
(Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle
Monáe, partially obscured).
That’s a rare gift.

Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures isn’t merely a crowd-pleasing slice of actual history; it’s also a sly social statement, and a rich showcase for its three starring actresses. Melfi and co-scripter Allison Schroeder have turned Margot Lee Shetterly’s absorbing nonfiction book into an engaging drama that charms and fascinates in equal measure.

More than anything else, though, I remain stunned by the fact that half a century has passed, before this jaw-droppingly amazing story has been brought to our attention. What the heck took so long?

The setting alone is an eyebrow-raiser that somehow missed being discussed in any of my history texts. Much of NASA’s initial efforts during the early days of the space race, playing catch-up after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 and several subsequent spacecraft, took place at Virginia’s Langley Research Center, then very much a part of the Jim Crow South.

The campus included a remote, fully segregated arm known as West Area Computing, staffed entirely by African American women — all mathematicians — somewhat dismissively dubbed “computers.” When a group in the larger, posher east end of the center needed numerical verification (basically arithmetic scut-work), a lead engineer — all of said engineers being white and male — would send for “a computer,” much the way a temp secretary would be requested.

Shetterly’s book profiles four such women: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden. The latter has been omitted from this film; the other three have been brought to glorious life, respectively, by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

(A quick bit of back-story not included in the script: The World War II-era recruitment of women allowed Vaughan, originally a mathematics teacher, to be hired in 1943 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA. Jackson and Johnson, also mathematicians, were hired in 1951 and ’53, respectively.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fences: Built to last

Fences (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.16

Big-screen adaptations of famous plays can be problematic; it’s often difficult to “open up” the drama, in order to avoid a claustrophobic sense that the result is simply a filmed stage production.

Although Troy (Denzel Washington, center) has long promised to enclose his back yard
with a spiffy wooden fence, best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, left) cheerfully
expresses his doubts that it'll ever happen. Wanting to demonstrate otherwise, Troy orders
teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to start sawing the lumber.
As a director, Denzel Washington and production designer David Gropman haven’t done much to expand this play’s original stage tableau; most of the action still takes place in the back yard of the tiny home that Troy Maxson shares with his wife Rose, although the film also brings us inside, where we see how hard she works to keep things clean and tidy. Occasional establishing shots give a sense of mid-1950s Pittsburgh, and we spend a bit of time with Troy and best friend Bono, making their rounds as garbage collectors.

But it really wasn’t necessary to enhance any of these settings, because the film’s secret weapon is the same element that made the play a Tony Award-winning hit during its initial 1987-88 Broadway run, and subsequently led to a Pulitzer Prize: playwright August Wilson’s mesmerizing dialogue. Many of the lines — particularly those spoken by Troy — have a lyrical, attention-grabbing cadence that transfixes us just as much as the drama itself.

Fences was revived for a 13-week Broadway run in the spring of 2010, once again earning multiple Tony Awards, including a pair for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They’ve reprised their roles for this film adaptation, and remained utterly faithful to Wilson’s original script: No “adaptor” has messed with the dialogue.

The result is an enormously powerful showcase for Wilson, Washington and Davis.

The two stars have numerous impressive scenes, and it’s difficult to cite one over the others. But, days later, I remain drawn to a moment when Troy shares an incident from his childhood: an event that precipitated his running away from home, at age 14, to escape from a dangerous father who might have killed him. In a role that’s given to deliciously baroque, self-indulgent speeches and explosions of short-tempered anger, Washington’s handling of this scene resonates for its contrast.

He relates the anecdote quietly, its impact still affecting Troy deeply, so many years later. As an audience, we dare not even breathe: just as transfixed as the characters listening to Troy speak. I’ve not seen a moment to match this degree of softly narrated trauma since Billy Bob Thornton’s first soliloquy, in 1996’s Sling Blade.

Lion: Roars too softly

Lion (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Saroo Brierley’s personal saga is the stuff of harrowing Dickensian melodrama: a deeply emotional and ultimately triumphant journey recounted in his 2014 memoir, A Long Way Home.

Waiting to reunite with an older brother who fails to return for him, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny
Pawar) boards a parked train, assuming that it eventually will take him back home. Sadly,
and alarmingly, he's in for a nasty surprise.
The story screamed for big-screen treatment, but the result disappoints. Poet and novelist Luke Davies’ script focuses only on the beginning and end of Brierley’s chronicle, ignoring a lengthy middle segment and — as a result — leaving viewers with all sorts of questions. Perhaps more crucially, the film’s powerful first half completely overwhelms what follows; first-time feature director Garth Davis lacks the skill to hold our attention during the increasingly tedious and dull second act.

On top of which, Dev Patel — who plays the twentysomething Brierley — is badly overshadowed by young Sunny Pawar, who plays 5-year-old Saroo.

Pawar’s performance is stunning. Patel ... not so much.

The film clearly has been a marketing challenge, given the various posters created to pique viewer interest. None is very dynamic, perhaps the most misleading dominated by large close-ups of Patel and co-star Rooney Mara, staring into each other’s eyes, thus implying a romantic focus that’s only a very small part of the narrative.

All of which is a shame. Davies didn’t adapt the story very well; Davis brought nothing to the table; and the Weinstein Company bungled the marketing. Brierley deserved far better.

We meet Saroo as an adorably precocious little boy, completely devoted to older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). They live in cruel poverty, in the Ganesh Tilai neighborhood of rural India’s Khandwa, in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh. The boys beg, scuffle for odd jobs, and steal coal from moving trains, to supplement the meager wages earned by their single mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), who moves rocks at construction sites.

When Guddu gets word of potential work a short nighttime train ride away, Saroo demands to tag along, insisting that he’s strong enough to do anything his brother can do. Guddu relents, but the journey proves exhausting for the little boy; Guddu leaves him to rest on a platform bench, promising to return soon.

But he doesn’t.