Friday, November 29, 2013

Philomena: Grace and forgiveness

Philomena (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.29.13

Some of them sneak up on us.

At first, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) agrees to investigate the intriguing
tale related by Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) because he smells a potentially great
story. As time passes, however, her refined behavior — and generosity of spirit —
awaken a reaction that he never expected: He begins to care.
At first blush, Philomena seems the sort of mildly detached, urbane dramedy that the Brits deliver so well: a “two-hander” that places a prim, proper and deeply spiritual old woman in a car with a cynical younger journalist. It’s a road trip, a genre with which we’re quite familiar: These two disparate characters will get to know each other, achieving mutual respect and trust as the journey continues. Cue the inevitable happy conclusion.

Except that Philomena isn’t like that at all.

Director Stephen Frears’ new film is an acting showcase for star Judi Dench, who delivers yet another mesmerizing performance. Co-star Steve Coogan is a revelation in a dramatic role: a quite impressive change of pace for a confrontational British comic actor who has been nothing short of irritating in gawdawful projects such as Hamlet 2 and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

They’re marvelous together, displaying an oil-and-vinegar dynamic that leaves us wondering, as the story proceeds, which one will get fed up first, and tell the other to sod off. Now, that's dramatic tension.

And, oh my goodness, the story. Shattering, unforgettable, deeply moving and laced with surprises, right up to the final scenes that deliver a truly unexpected — and frankly heart-stopping — portrait of vicious, unrepentant evil.

If that didn’t pique your curiosity, nothing will.

Coogan doesn’t merely play a featured acting role; he also co-produced and co-wrote (with Jeff Pope) the film, having been deeply touched by the book on which this factual story is based: Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Up to this moment, Coogan’s writing oeuvre has been similarly comic, often of the shrieking variety; with Pope’s help, he nonetheless delivers a sensitive, restrained and genuinely touching script.

Clearly, Coogan recognized that he need not oversell the material with florid dialogue or acting histrionics; the story’s core facts deliver their own emotional wallop. Besides which, Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and many others) is too accomplished a director to allow that sort of nonsense. He guided Helen Mirren to an Academy Award; he may well have done the same for Dench here.

Nebraska: A memorable trip

Nebraska (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

I’ve been waiting 40 years for Bruce Dern to snag this sort of role.

And so, I would imagine, has he.

When David (Will Forte, left) insists on seeing the house where his father Woody (Bruce
Dern, center left) grew up, the building's sad, dilapidated and abandoned state aptly
mirrors Woody's dismay over the lifetime of disappointment that haunts him. Woody's
wife Kate (June Squibb) takes advantage of this excuse to dredge up unpleasant
memories, while David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) warily watches his combative
parents, wondering if they'll flare into another squabble.
The American film industry has no shortage of unsung and underappreciated actors, male and female. Some carve out respectable careers as supporting players: familiar faces who, with their mere presence, immediately raise the quality of a given movie. Jack Warden, George Sanders, Joan Cusack, Shelley Winters and George Kennedy come to mind.

Others work just as hard but never quite achieve name-brand recognition: forever hoping for that one golden shot that’ll make all the difference, usually retiring into obscurity without having had that chance.

Thanks to Nebraska, Dern is one of the lucky ones.

Until now, he has been the stalwart second banana in projects as varied as Smile, The Great Gatsby, All the Pretty Horses and Coming Home, the latter earning him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Leading roles have been few, but I’ve never forgotten the intensity of his essentially solo turn in 1972’s Silent Running (a sci-fi entry dismissed as preposterous at the time, which has become more uncomfortably prophetic with every passing year).

Dern brought life not only to his own role in that cautionary tale, but also to the three boxy, robotic “drones” that — thanks to his persuasive performance — developed their own individual personalities. No small feat, decades before CGI magic was even a gleam in anybody’s eye.

Even then, Dern was a master of earnest, heartbreaking passion, imbuing his sad-sack characters with the forever chagrined intensity of the eternally downtrodden and disenfranchised. Men who nonetheless cling to even the faintest hope, no matter how preposterous.

A great work of art doesn’t emerge from an empty canvas, of course; Nebraska also owes its deliciously biting charm to its rich script from newcomer Bob Nelson — a remarkable big-screen debut — and the sensitive, perfectly modulated direction of Alexander Payne, who has delighted us with misfit sagas such as Sideways, Election and The Descendants.

Payne usually writes or collaborates on the scripts for his film; Nebraska marks the first time he has fully surrendered the screenplay chores. But it’s easy to see why; Nelson’s droll premise and mordant execution display the same slow-burn humor and slightly left-of-center sensibilities, while granting us a central character every bit as stubborn, irascible and resolutely unlovable as Jack Nicholson’s title character in Payne’s About Schmidt.

Tone is everything in Payne’s films, and Nebraska could be considered Fargo on downers: somewhat quieter and slower, but every bit as rich with Midwestern quirks and slow-drawlin’ ambiance.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Delivery Man: Return to sender

Delivery Man (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.13

In a case that was argued before a Kansas judge just a few weeks ago — having wound its way through the court system for roughly a year — sperm donor William Marotta is fighting an order by the state that he pay child support for a little girl he “fathered” four years ago.

As the newly pregnant Emma (Cobie Smulders) watches the uncontrolled little children
at a neighborhood park, lamenting that she hasn't the faintest notion of how to become
a mother, David (Vince Vaughn) insists that she'll be the perfect parent. He should
know, given the rather massive secret that he can't bring himself to share with her...
Marotta responded to a Craigslist ad placed by two women back in 2009; the three drew up a contract that absolved him of any responsibility to or for the child. The same-sex couple subsequently split up, which forced the custodial parent — Jennifer Schreiner — to obtain $6,000 in public assistance, to help pay her family expenses.

Kansas state law requires that a licensed doctor perform artificial insemination. Seizing a legal loophole because — wait for it — Schreiner and then-partner Angela Bauer used a catheter and syringe, with no doctor present, the state filed suit and thus far has spent well in excess of $6,000 to recover this sum from Marotta. Hovering in the wings, as Marotta’s attorney suggests, is the certainty that conservative Kansas lawmakers — the state approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2005 — are using this case to reaffirm their position on “family values.”

Although a decision is expected by the end of the year, that won’t be the end of it; both sides are expected to appeal an unfavorable verdict.

I’ve absolutely no doubt that an incisive, scathingly satirical film could be made from this bizarre scenario, and it would have been far funnier, and much more satisfying, than Ken Scott’s Delivery Man.

This Vince Vaughn vehicle has been re-shaped somewhat from the 2011 Canadian dramedy Starbuck, which Scott also directed and co-wrote with Martin Petit. That film was enormously popular in its native country, winning a series of Canadian cinema awards and making a splash at regional film festivals.

(In a fascinating case of life imitating art, a month or so into Starbuck’s production, the news broke of Michigan’s Dr. Kirk Maxey, who had fathered roughly 400 children after donating semen twice a week between 1980 and ’94. He subsequently lobbied for stricter sperm bank regulation. You think?)

I’ve not seen Starbuck, and therefore cannot comment on its merits. But I suspect it’s far more entertaining than Delivery Man, which can’t decide what it wants to be, when it grows up.

Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Years a Slave: A brilliant, timeless drama

12 Years a Slave (2013) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rating: R, for grim violence, brutality, nudity and brief sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.15.13

Some films transcend their big-screen confines.

The story is so compelling, the direction so deft, the performances so persuasively real, that we cease to see the screen or the acting, and simply become immersed in the experience.

As Epps (Michael Fassbender, center) expresses far too much appreciation for the
cotton-picking skills of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gradually
recognizes the unpalatable, one-sided "understanding" between this master and his
attractive slave ... but, of course, can neither do or say anything.
12 Years a Slave is such a film.

I remember, years back, getting wholly caught up in a stage production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. At one point, the fragile Laura Wingfield stepped outside the front door and onto the porch of the simple but effective set, and I grew concerned; she wasn’t dressed warmly enough, and surely she’d get cold out there, late at night.

That’s how invested I was in British director Steve McQueen’s sensitive, unflinching and utterly mesmerizing handling of this film.

John Ridley’s note-perfect screenplay is adapted from Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, a rare 19th century memoir by a man who lived what he wrote — no, make that endured and survived — and what we now see on the screen. Northup’s saga is brutal, horrifying, even unbelievable at times. We civilized, 21st century citizens of the world cannot comprehend men — and women — behaving so callously, so cruelly to their fellow men and women.

Horrific times, we think, seeking solace. Nearly two centuries ago. Surely, we’ve become better in the meantime.

But then I reflect on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, with the often willing participation of “good Germans,” and I reflect on young Malala Yousafzai, nearly killed by Taliban thugs who’ve promised to keep trying, just as they bomb schoolchildren and continue to maim and behead others who’d encourage education, and I realize what McQueen clearly intends to demonstrate.

This film isn’t a portal to another time, another place. Sadly, it’s a mirror to the here and now.

The year is 1841, in pre-Civil War United States; we meet Solomon Northup (a simply astonishing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a dignified gentleman living with his family in Saratoga, N.Y. He walks assuredly among his white peers, treated with respect whether on the street or conducting business in a shop.

Although, even here, we get a flash of underlying tension: a flicker of ... something ... in the eyes of one white aristocrat who registers Solomon’s presence, his station, and says nothing, but silently speaks volumes.

Dallas Buyers Club: A smart investment

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Some heroes are born. Others are made.

Kicking, screaming, scratching and spitting every step of the way.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, right) initially reacts with knee-jerk contempt
when the cross-dressing Rayon (Jared Leto) offers to help establish a rather unusual
business model. Soon, though, "just business" grows into something a great deal
more profound.
Ron Woodroof’s unexpected saga wasn’t nearly as poetic or dramatically mesmerizing as is suggested in Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, but there’s no doubt that the real-life Woodroof was an unlikely champion for the disenfranchised, much the way Oskar Schindler found his calling during World War II.

Texas born-and-bred Woodroof was a hard-living, harder-drinking electrical contractor when he was blindsided by an HIV diagnosis in 1986, and given sixth months to live. (Vallée’s film shifts this life-changing moment to 1985, to tie the unfolding drama to Rock Hudson’s announcement, that July, that he had AIDS.)

Not one to blithely accept a death sentence, Woodroof went into the research tank and emerged a year later to found what became known as the Dallas Buyers Club: an underground source of drugs not approved by the FDA for use in the United States ... but, in many cases, legal in other countries and known to be helpful for HIV-positive patients, and those with full-blown AIDS.

Woodroof’s story, and the Dallas Buyers Club, were profiled in Bill Minutaglio’s compelling article in Dallas Life Magazine, published on Aug. 9, 1992. Woodroof died not quite a month later, on Sept. 12. During the seven years he ran his guerrilla drug network, there’s no question he helped prolong the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of desperately ill people ... just as he prolonged his own life.

Interesting, then, that we’ve waited two full decades for a film to be made about this feisty, foul-mouthed, oddly charismatic Texas renegade.

Vallée’s film is powered by a galvanic performance from Matthew McConaughey, who notoriously dropped 47 pounds in order to convincingly play the emaciated Woodroof. That’s obviously a drastic move, but it certainly lends considerable verisimilitude to what we see onscreen, just as Christian Bale’s similar weight-loss routine brought jaw-dropping realism to his portrayal of crack-addicted Dicky Eklund, in The Fighter.

But the intensity of McConaughey’s performance here derives from a great deal more than his painfully thin frame; he charges through this role with a level of desperation that matches his character’s angry struggle to stay alive. And anger is the right word, because Woodroof quickly comes to believe that the U.S. medical establishment is, at best, moving much too slowly to battle a disease primarily killing the nation’s “expendables”; or, at worst, actively conspiring with Big Pharma to develop and deliver piecemeal treatment in a manner designed solely to maximize profits.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor, The Dark World: Another rich superhero soufflé

Thor: The Dark World (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for rather grim action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.8.13

One must give considerable credit to the master planners behind the current Marvel Comics movie franchise.

After Thor (Chris Hemsworth, right) reluctantly frees Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from his
Asgardian cell, Jane (Natalie Portman, foreground center) angrily warns the "god of
lies" that she'll go postal on him, if he even thinks of betraying the good guys. The
Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander), carrying a long-term torch for Thor, keeps
her own wary eye on Loki.
Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, and with no missteps, they’ve delivered a consistently entertaining blend of action, light humor and engaging character drama: no small feat, given the supplementary requirement of making these films accessible both to longtime comic book geeks and “regular folks.” Some films have slipped a little; others — notably The Avengers — have been excellent. All things considered, we’ve been having a rollicking good time.

(The X-Men and Spider-Man series have been equally well mounted, and kudos to them, as well. But — thus far — they’ve not been integrated into the current tapestry that showcases Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, the Avengers and SHIELD.)

Credit a blend of savvy directors, carefully calibrated scripts and strong casts, with equal attention paid to the all-essential supporting characters. It’s not easy to construct action epics this massive — with an ever-expanding back-story — while also penning droll, slightly mocking one-liners that demonstrate a willingness not to take things too seriously.

I haven’t seen that formula applied so capably since Sean Connery’s early James Bond escapades.

All of which brings us to Thor: The Dark World, which benefits from equally suitable acting talent. Broad-shouldered Chris Hemsworth is every inch the Asgardian warrior, absolutely fit to wield that marvelous magic hammer, and he also manages to look imperial — rather than silly — in that ridiculously ornate outfit. Anthony Hopkins brings regal Shakespearean sincerity to the florid dialogue we expect from Odin, ruler of Asgard; and Natalie Portman is a refreshingly brave, intelligent and resourceful human sidekick ... anything but a stock “girl in trouble.”

And as also was the case with Thor and The Avengers, this film is darn near stolen by Tom Hiddleston, so perfectly cast as the villainous, duplicitous trickster god, Loki. Speaking of the Bard, Shakespearean actors have long known that the bad guys have the best parts and get all the grand lines, and Hiddleston’s Loki has become the modern template against which all future fantasy baddies will be judged. He’s simply marvelous.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ender's Game: Well played

Ender's Game (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.1.13

Celebrated sci-fi author Orson Scott Card was 26 when his first work, a novella titled “Ender’s Game,” was published in the August 1977 issue of Analog. In 1985, with much more ambitious plans for that tale’s young protagonist — and with the security of a rapidly blossoming literary career — Card expanded his debut effort into a novel that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

While Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) watches warily, the thuggish Bonzo (Moises Arias) angrily
warns Ender (Asa Butterfield) to stay out of his way. But Ender isn't one to remain on
the sidelines, which Petra senses immediately; things are destined to get quite ugly
between these two boys.
Today, the so-called “Ender series” encompasses — are you sitting down? — a dozen novels, a dozen short stories and roughly four dozen comic books (some adapting existing novels, some with entirely new material).

Obviously, fans can’t get enough.

More significantly, for our purposes, those same fans — and the general public — will thoroughly enjoy director/scripter Gavin Hood’s big-screen adaptation of the novel that started it all.

The South African-born filmmaker is an impressively shrewd choice for this material, having burst onto the scene with 2005’s Tsotsi, which traces a week in the life of a young Johannesburg street thug who wrestles with his conscience after finding a baby in the back seat of a car he steals. The grim drama won that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and Hood — a USC film school grad — went on to an eclectic career as a director, writer and actor.

Ender’s Game also focuses strongly on the warring conscience of a boy, while contemplating several big-ticket philosophical issues that include state-sanctioned child abuse, planetary resource depletion and the novel’s most controversial theme: the notion of meeting a bully’s brutality with a savage response designed to prevent ALL subsequent attacks.

The setting is a futuristic Earth, decades after our planet just barely repelled an invasion by an insectoid alien race dubbed the “Formics.” Expecting that these swarming monstrosities have returned to their home world in order to mount an even larger assault fleet, Earth’s united military force has pinned its hopes on a multi-national “Battle School” designed to train our best and brightest military tacticians:

Carefully selected children.

Young minds are much more agile and adaptable; we know this in our own real world. It therefore stands to reason that young minds weaned on a diet of strategy-laced computer games might be nurtured into becoming the next Patton, Napoleon or Hannibal.

(Needless to say, this rather disturbing notion — and the possibility that modern nations might be acting on it — is a helluva lot more timely today, than it was back in 1977. Among his many other talents, Card deserves credit for scary prescience.)

Last Vegas: A reasonable bet

Last Vegas (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

Old pros are a Hollywood treasure.

They make everything look effortless, bringing warmth and depth even to ordinary material, transforming simple scenes into memorable dramatic moments.

Safely deposited in a trendy Las Vegas hotel/casino, our heroes — from left, Sam (Kevin
Kline), Archie (Morgan Freeman), Paddy (Robert De Niro) and Billy (Michael Douglas) —
wonder how to begin their "fabulous weekend." As it turns out, a poolside bikini contest
will become the perfect ice-breaker.
The bonus, in the case of Last Vegas, is that Dan Fogelman’s script isn’t merely The Hangover for the geezer set; his little story is alternately funny and poignant, with mildly earthy touches that draw laughs while never straying into vulgarity.

As the cherry on top, we even get a solid moral: Life ain’t over unless we lay down and give up. Every new day, no matter what our age, brings the potential for fresh magic and unexpected delights ... as long as we’re willing to risk the unexpected.

Back in the day, the “Flatbush Four” were inseparable best friends: scrappy kids convinced that anything was possible, as long as they looked out for each other. Director Jon Turteltaub conveys this dynamic with a charming photo booth montage that plays behind the opening credits: a giddy burst of youthful energy that defines relationships and, yes, reveals that two of these boys are sweet on the same girl.

Flash-forward to the present day, and — ennui being inevitable — that enthusiastic youthful fire has dimmed to a flickering spark. Pulsating embers, if any still exist, are buried beneath graying ash. These former friends stay in touch, but only fitfully.

Archie (Morgan Freeman), following an “episode” that sent his adult son into a panic, has been put under well-meaning but soul-draining lockdown, constantly cautioned against doing anything more strenuous than picking up a book. Sam (Kevin Kline), although boasting a long and happy marriage with Miriam (Joanna Gleason), spends his days surrounded by elderly friends who reaffirm his own vanishing vitality.

A senior center regimen of swimming pool exercises is both hilarious and tragic, the misery evident in Sam’s resigned expression. Resigned, but never quiet; Sam isn’t one to suffer silently ... which makes his despair that much more obvious to Miriam.

Paddy (Robert De Niro) has become a virtual recluse, refusing to budge from the apartment he shared for so long with his own adored wife, dead now for a year; the home has become a photograph-laden tribute to her memory. A well-meaning young neighbor regularly brings soup, probably as an excuse to verify that he’s still alive; Paddy grumpily insists she shouldn’t bother.

Billy (Michael Douglas), the most financially successful of the quartet, has remained single all this time, perhaps hoping that youth can be retained by surrounding himself with a lifetime’s supply of willing young women. Now, however, he has impulsively popped the question to his current girlfriend, Lisa (Bre Blair); she has accepted.

Their striking age difference — she’s in her early 30s — raises eyebrows. So do the circumstances under which the proposal emerges.

About Time: Needs more ripening

About Time (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for fleeting profanity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

At first blush, this fantasy rom-com seems to be about young love, and finding the perfect soul-mate.

Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale about missed opportunities.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, left) can't begin to grasp what his father (Bill Nighy) has just
confessed: that the men in their family have the ability to travel backwards in time.
Very soon, though, Tim will realize that he does indeed share this incredible talent ...
and he'll have plenty of fun — and not a little heartbreak — trying to get a handle
on what he can and cannot do.
No, wait, it might be a parable on the importance of embracing every single moment of life’s precious gift.

In the final analysis, though, writer/director Richard Curtis’ deeply personal film focuses on the indestructible — and loving — bond between fathers and sons. And alla that other stuff mentioned above.

One can’t help feeling that this is a valentine to Curtis’ own father: either a celebration of a happy relationship with the elder Curtis (who recently died), or a heartfelt wish that they could have enjoyed the affectionate bond that links this story’s Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) and his father (Bill Nighy).

Which is interesting, since this bittersweet film is being marketed as a sweet, whimsical love story between Tim and Mary (Rachel McAdams). One gets the sense that Universal Pictures is approaching this publicity campaign very warily, not quite certain whether this creature is fish or fowl.

About Time is about all the elements cited above, of course, which is both its greatest virtue and underlying curse. As often is the case with a filmmaker’s long-gestating pet project, Curtis can’t quite get a handle on how best to articulate this unusual saga; as a result, his film wanders a bit, even stumbles at times.

This slightly unfocused approach is surprising — and disappointing — given that Curtis so unerringly kept a few dozen infatuated characters spinning quite successfully in his 2003 masterpiece, Love, Actually. This new film, in contrast, offers dozens of sparkling little moments, all charming in their own right, which wind up being greater than the sum of their parts.

And once we reach the climax, complete with a moral delivered with all the formality of a fable from Aesop, Curtis doesn’t know how to conclude; he stutters his way through a lengthy, didactic epilogue that dilutes much of what came before. We’re clearly intended to be left with a sense of radiant joy over life’s endless possibilities, but instead — at best — we part with Shakespeare’s sweet sorrow.

At worst, with deep regret over our own missed opportunities. Probably not the mood Curtis intended.