Friday, October 30, 2015

Truth: None to be found

Truth (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.30.15

This film is quite intriguing, in part because its title reflects great irony: Almost no “truth” emerges here.

Having finally put their investigation to bed, the 60 Minutes team — from left, Lucy Scott
(Elisabeth Moss), Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lt. Col.
Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) — watch their colleague Dan Rather deliver the story to
TV viewers. Sadly, that won't be the end of it...
Director/scripter James Vanderbilt’s politically charged drama is based on the late 2004 events that later came to be known as “Rathergate”: the CBS 60 Minutes news piece that cast doubt on the details of then-president George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

The questions that initially fueled the journalistic investigation — whether strings had been pulled to get Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, as opposed to service in Vietnam; and whether he had, in fact, honorably completed said National Guard service — quickly were submerged beneath a rising tide of questions regarding the legitimacy of the investigation’s sources and “smoking-gun documentation.”

This script is based on Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, the 2005 book by Mary Mapes, who produced the CBS News piece, but Vanderbilt is an unlikely candidate for such an assignment. His previous résumé is limited to crime dramas and high-octane action epics such as The Amazing Spider-Man and White House Down, and his dialog here too frequently sounds like amateur efforts to imitate Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

The performances are robust, and Vanderbilt has done reasonably well with this directing debut; he knows how to guide his actors through their scenes. No question, as well, that this is an important story, and one with lessons to be learned. But the narrative is frequently clumsy, the timeline occasionally confusing, and we’re ultimately left with more questions than answers (which, although almost certainly intentional, is nonetheless irritating).

On top of which, Vanderbilt makes a few glaring rookie mistakes, starting with his opening scene, wherein Mapes (Cate Blanchett) begins an intense first meeting with ... somebody. We’re inclined to assume he’s a shrink; we eventually learn, much later, that he’s a lawyer. Either way, he’s a gimmick that allows Mapes to recount her story while it’s still happening, which is simply daft.

The narrative proper begins in the spring of 2004, just as CBS broadcasts Mapes’ breaking-news story of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. It’s a moment of triumph — and a piece that would go on to win CBS and Mapes a Peabody Award — but, in the demanding environment of a news studio, just another assignment completed, with many more to go.

Our Brand Is Crisis: The result is distasteful

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

This seems to be the season for transforming well-regarded documentaries into starring vehicles for Hollywood A-listers.

Jane (Sandra Bullock) watches smugly as her candidate picks up steam in the upcoming
Bolivian presidential election, which prompts rival campaign "fixer" Pat Candy (Billy Bob
Thornton) to whisper another round of Sun Tzu-esque imprecations in her ear.
But whereas Freeheld mostly retains the soul and warmth of its 2007 nonfiction predecessor, while highlighting sensitive work from stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, Our Brand Is Crisis is an awkward, bewildering mess that benefits not at all from Sandra Bullock’s presence.

She barely tries, falling back incessantly on the half-amused sidelong glance that has become her go-to expression in far better projects. Much of the time, in fact, Bullock appears to have forgotten her lines, and instead attempts to “cover” by flailing aimlessly.

This doesn’t speak well of director David Gordon Green, apparently unable to handle his leading lady. Or maybe Bullock didn’t like him. Whatever the reason, she just isn’t present ... even when lovingly framed, front and center — and too frequently in tight close-up — by cinematographer Tim Orr.

Bullock is far from this film’s only problem. Peter Straughan’s script is a mess: His effort to transform this serious premise into a satire is half-assed at best, but most often just clumsy. And when satire fails — particularly if the topic is based on actual events — the result becomes tasteless. And offensive.

Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same title tracks the jaw-dropping degree to which the American consulting firm of Greenberg, Carville and Strum (GCS) did its best to rig the 2003 Bolivian presidential election on behalf of its client, Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, who’d held that top spot from 1993-97, but had come to be seen as arrogant and out of touch with the common people.

Yep, you read that correctly: American political consultants plying their dirty tricks to affect the outcome of a presidential election in a foreign country. Clandestine U.S. involvement in foreign politics is nothing new, of course; what made this particular case so egregious was the degree to which GCS made little or no effort to conceal its activities. Hell, these guys were proud of their work.

The charismatic James Carville was the beaming public face of GCS; that’s the role assigned here to Bullock, playing burned-out campaign fixer “Calamity” Jane Bodine. Anxiety and a series of high-profile failures sent her into isolated retirement; as this film begins, she’s tempted back into the game by the opportunity for one more match against her longtime professional nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, who apparently based his look on Carville).

Burnt: Overly scorched

Burnt (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

We’re supposed to root for this guy — and it shouldn’t be difficult; we are, after all, talking about Bradley Cooper — but his character is too damn mean.

Dragged against her will into joining Adam (Bradley Cooper) in the kitchen of his
restaurant-to-be, Helene (Sienna Miller) almost immediately is the target of a belittling
tirade by her new boss. Which she tolerates, thereby losing all of our respect for her.
Redemption stories get their juice from the intensity of atonement: The deeper the downward spiral, the more we cheer the dogged climb back to salvation and forgiveness.

That said, this story’s protagonist is such a temper tantrum-throwing bully — such a relentless prick — that viewers likely will write him off as unworthy, long before he tries to get his act together. Scripters Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko give him too many unpalatable virtues, and — as directed by John Wells — Cooper obligingly delivers too many thoroughly persuasive rages.

Matters probably aren’t helped by the fact that this story takes place in the world of London and Paris’ haute cuisine restaurants, where screaming enfant terrible chefs browbeat their staffs into delivering the perfect artistic touch to dishes with portions so small they wouldn’t satisfy a mouse, which then are served to über-rich snots who smack their lips and roll their eyes over imagined sensory marvels.

We live in a post-Gordon Ramsey world, where — rather weirdly — boorish behavior by celebrity chefs has come to be synonymous with gastronomic perfection. I ain’t buyin’ it. Frankly, this film’s most interesting moments come during the occasional montages that find our hero (?) exploring food carts, back-alley stalls, bodegas, street markets and even fast-food restaurants, while searching for intriguing spices, sauces or seasonings.

Once back in his high-end kitchen, applying said discoveries to laughably over-decorated menu items ... not so much.

But maybe I’m just not enough of a foodie.

All that said...

We meet Adam Jones (Cooper) at an oyster shack in New Orleans, where he has spent the past few years doing self-prescribed penance for previous bad behavior. His path to spiritual salvation: the shucking of one million oysters, a task he has recorded meticulously in a pocket notebook. He reaches this goal as the story begins, and then he’s off to Paris, scene of his previous extremely bad behavior.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Steve Jobs: A tarnished Apple

Steve Jobs (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.15

The ensemble cast is strong, impeccably directed and well-suited to each role.

The dialog is rat-a-tat enthralling: classic Aaron Sorkin arguments and badinage, with verbal zingers and snarky rejoinders landing like physical blows, recipients wincing in pain or retreating behind wary glances. It’s the stuff that made The Social Network and TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom so spellbinding: the intelligent, sharp-edged and fast-paced discourse that we’re neither clever enough, nor quick-witted enough, to deliver in real life.

Struggling to find some way to connect with the young daughter whose paternity he denies,
Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) encourages Lisa (Makenzie Moss) to play with a
spanking-new Macintosh computer. "You can't break it," he promises.
It feels more like an intimate, minimalist stage play, and in fact Sorkin has structured it that way, with three distinct acts. I was reminded, more than once, of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, made into a similarly mesmerizing 1992 film.

But those characters were fictitious, if familiar archetypes that we’d likely find in the rapacious atmosphere of a high-end, nail-the-deal-no-matter-what real estate office.

Steve Jobs, in contrast, profiles the actual Apple guru, with ample attention paid to the close advisors circling his incandescent star. (He doesn’t appear to have any actual friends.)

And not once, not for a second, did I feel that Sorkin and director Danny Boyle had come anywhere close to capturing the actual Steve Jobs. This relentlessly distracting fact ruins the entire film. Although clearly a sort of “truthiness” — the script is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s thoroughly researched biography of Jobs — this drama seems to exist in a parallel universe where Sorkin has indulged in his own myth-making.

Goodness knows, Jobs was highly skilled at crafting and stage-managing the persona he displayed in public. And, in the interest of full disclosure, Sorkin has described this film as an “impressionistic portrait” of Jobs: an abstraction concocted to surround the Apple guru with the same six characters, at three crucial points in his career, and let them “bang on each other.”

A “heightened version of real life,” Boyle adds, in the press notes.

Balderdash. Those quotes sound like a defensive excuse: an effort to get ahead of the negative publicity destined to emerge — and it definitely has — after Jobs’ actual associates begin to complain, quite noisily, that Sorkin’s so-called portrait is pure hooey.

The degree to which this does or doesn’t prove off-putting will depend on each viewer’s allegiance to truth, and/or a sense of the real-world Jobs. Taken purely on its own merits, Boyle and Sorkin’s film deserves all the descriptive accolades cited in my opening paragraphs; it is riveting.

But even if we give Boyle and Sorkin the benefit of that particular doubt, we cannot escape one glaringly obvious problem: The Steve Jobs depicted here is a relentless, abusive, unapologetic bully. Michael Fassbender’s nuanced performance notwithstanding, there’s no trace of the persuasive, charismatic futurist who inspired and demanded greatness from his associates and staff.

This big-screen Jobs is just a cruel bastard. He couldn’t inspire anybody to change a light bulb, let alone deliver the miracles that routinely emerged from Apple. And all viewers, even clueless tech luddites, will understand the utter wrongness of this dynamic.

That said, one cannot argue with Sorkin’s clever narrative structure.

Rock the Kasbah: The day the music died

Rock the Kasbah (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, violence, drug use and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Bill Murray has been Hollywood’s magic bullet for a little over than a decade now, ever since delivering such a memorable performance in 2003’s Lost in Translation.

See anything you like? Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is unsurprisingly awed by his first glimpse
of Merci (Kate Hudson), little realizing that she'll soon become a business partner.
His presence automatically enhances the quality of a given film, no matter how small the role. As a star, he can elevate familiar and otherwise mediocre material (as with, say, St. Vincent); as a supporting or bit player, his scenes are standouts. (Olive Kitteridge and Zombieland come to mind.)

There’s something about Murray’s deadpan expression that speaks volumes, but defies ready description. World-weary but not defeated. Smugly condescending, but not to the point of cruelty. Skeptical but, nonetheless, open-minded.

His characters always seem on the verge of saying something along the lines of “Show me what you’ve got; I’m ready to be amazed” ... even as his glance implies serious doubt that the person in question has anything, let alone anything amazing.

In short, Murray is a guaranteed treat.

But not even he can save this film.

A closing-credits text blurb explains that Rock the Kasbah honors Setara Hussainzada, the “girl who danced” during her 2008 performance on Afghan Star, Afghanistan’s answer to our own American Idol. Merely singing on live TV in that country is highly dangerous for women; to do so brands them as blasphemers in the eyes of fundamentalists, who are inclined to view killing such “transgressors” as wholly justified.

But to compound the felony by dancing? Unthinkable.

Okay, Hussainzada’s courageous act definitely demands a story, and scripter Mitch Glazer has embraced that challenge. But rather poorly, as it turns out. Rock the Kasbah hasn’t the faintest idea what it wants to be — comedy, drama or rock-hued homage — and not even a director as talented as Barry Levinson can create a pearl from this tone-deaf grain of sand.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge of Spies: Riveting Cold War thriller

Bridge of Spies (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.16.15

Atticus Finch lives.

Harper Lee is known to have based the iconic hero of To Kill a Mockingbird on her own father, Alabama lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee, who — like the book’s character — represented unpopular defendants in a highly publicized (and politicized) trial.

As the trial that might send Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, left) to the gas chamber proceeds,
defense attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is surprised to see his client remain so
calm. "Aren't you worried?" Donovan asks. Abel's response becomes the film's best
signature line.
How ironic, then, that at the same time Harper Lee was fine-tuning the novel that would make her famous, newspaper headlines across the United States pilloried the country’s most-hated lawyer, James Donovan, who had bravely accepted the assignment to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

I can’t help wondering if any of Donovan’s characteristics wandered into Lee’s depiction of Atticus.

Donovan’s name and historical significance have remained buried for decades, although Abel might ring a few bells. Sirens are likely to go off, however, when both men are linked to American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was captured after his U-2 spy plane was blasted out of the sky during a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.

The interlinked saga involving Donovan, Abel and Powers has been resurrected and transformed into a thoughtful, fascinating and thoroughly absorbing period drama by director Steven Spielberg and scripters Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s Cold War-era spyjinks right out of John Le Carre, except that these events actually took place: yet another reminder that truth can be far stranger than fiction.

(The film credits make no mention of Donovan’s well-received 1964 memoir, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, which I find odd; it’s impossible to imagine that Charman and the Coen brothers didn’t read that book.)

Spielberg’s film is anchored by a commanding performance from Tom Hanks, who channels every dedicated and deeply honorable character ever played by Henry Fonda and James Stewart. At the same time, Hanks brings his own wry, subtle humor to this depiction of Donovan: a capable and hard-working family man caught up in events far beyond his imagining.

(Or so we’re led to believe. Given Donovan’s WWII service as General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services, he may not have been as “ordinary” as this film suggests. But this portrayal makes for a better story.)

Crimson Peak: The pinnacle of failure

Crimson Peak (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and gory violence

By Derrick Bang

When the mighty fall, they fall hard.

Steven Spielberg and 1941. Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate. George Lucas and Howard the Duck. Warren Beatty and Ishtar, Bruce Willis and Hudson Hawk, Kevin Costner and The Postman.

Even after the already strange Lucille (Jessica Chastain, left) starts behaving in a clearly
menacing manner, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) remains blandly complacent, like a lamb
awaiting slaughter. Obviously, this young woman was absent when common sense
was handed out!
And now, Guillermo del Toro and Crimson Peak.

The deliciously moody writer/director/producer’s career has proceeded smoothly along two parallel and somewhat related paths: extravagantly baroque, comic book-style action sagas, as with Pacific Rim and the two Hellboy entries; and splendidly eerie chillers, as with Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and his Academy Award darling, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Even at their most outrageous — and Pacific Rim really stretched the credibility envelope — you could be certain of one thing: A Guillermo del Toro film wasn’t boring.

Until now.

Crimson Peak isn’t merely boring. It’s leaden, insufferably slow, wearily overblown, monotonous, humdrum and butt-numbingly, makes-you-want-to-scream dull.

At best, it’s a 25-minute Twilight Zone episode s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a plodding 119-minute trial by tedium. But even that comparison gives far too much credit to the sluggish script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, which feels like an unholy love child spawned by Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Friday the 13th.

Yep. It’s that clumsy.

Star Mia Wasikowska has made a career, of late, playing tortured young heroines in period and/or “heightened reality” melodramas, from Madame Bovary and Stoker to, yes, the title character in Jane Eyre. I guess del Toro figured that she was the perfect choice to play this film’s Jane Austen-esque Edith Cushing, heroine of the director’s unabashed attempt to re-create the classic Gothic romances of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

With ghosts thrown in, of course. We are, after all, dealing with Guillermo del Toro.

And yes, Wasikowska certainly looks the part of the naïve and overwhelmed young “spinster” at the heart of this story, which echoes and even name-checks Austin, the Brontë sisters and films such as Rebecca and Great Expectations. But although production designer Tom Sanders and art director Brandt Gordon have a field day with their meticulous re-creation of 1901 New York, and particularly the vast gothic mansion in England’s remote hills, this is a classic case of being all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Because the storyline is pathetic in its stupidity, agape with glaring plot holes, and unable to remain consistent even within its own ludicrous premise. This is a classic example of the idiot plot, which is to say that the narrative lurches from one random contrivance to the next, only because each and every character behaves like a total idiot at all times.

Friday, October 9, 2015

He Named Me Malala: Girl on a mission

He Named Me Malala (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for grim images and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.9.15

The original plan, as envisioned by producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, was to turn Malala Yousafzai’s saga into a big-screen drama.

Parkes and MacDonald had plenty of experience with such films, having shepherded (among others) Gladiator, The Kite Runner and Catch Me If You Can, the latter also based on a real-world individual whose exploits were larger than life.

During a visit to a rare African school that caters to girls, Malala Yousafzai asks her new
friends what they wish to do in life: become doctors, historians, lawyers? Her proud
father, Ziauddin, can be seen at the far right.
But a funny thing happened, when Parkes and MacDonald met Malala in Birmingham, England, where she and her family have moved for their safety.

“No actor could possibly portray Malala,” Parkes later admitted. “She’s just so singular.”

As a result, Parkes and MacDonald decided that a documentary approach would be a vastly superior means of allowing viewers to meet Malala on her own terms, and in her own environment. They turned to veteran documentarian Davis Guggenheim, well respected for the thoughtful, absorbing approach he has taken to earlier projects such as It Might Get Loud, Waiting for Superman and his Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

Smart choice.

Malala Yousafzai is an amazing young woman; she’s also an endearing and captivating screen presence who is quite capable of telling her own story. At the same time, she’s a fascinating bottle of contradictions: at one moment a bubbly teenager clearly embarrassed by her girl-crushes on hunky cricket stars, and then — in the blink of an eye — a ferociously intelligent presence quite capable of delivering a powerful speech to the assembled body at the United Nations.

She’s Mother Teresa, Jane Goodall, Aung San Suu Kyi and Amelia Earhart, all rolled up into one precociously charismatic package. And to think: We almost lost her before learning about the work she’d already done in Pakistan’s Taliban-infested Swat Valley ... let alone the impact she continues to have after surviving a heinous assassination attempt.

Malala was 12 when she began writing an impressively detailed — and, of necessity, anonymous — blog for the BBC, expressing her very personal reaction as the initially welcomed Taliban disciples gradually revealed their true colors: banning music, television and any hint of Western culture; severely curtailing schooling for girls; and insisting that women remain shuttered in their own homes.

It didn’t stop there. When Taliban thugs began bombing police stations and schools, and naming “infidels” during much-feared radio broadcasts, Malala bravely abandoned her anonymity and began speaking out, highly visibly, in the international press. She was awarded Pakistan’s inaugural National Youth Peace Prize in 2011.

Shortly thereafter, the Taliban marked her for assassination.

Pan: Soaring adventure

Pan (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang

Old-style, kid-centric adventure films — those akin to Disney’s In Search of the Castaways or Richard Donner’s The Goonies — have become rare.

Today’s studio heads too frequently taint the formula with coarse humor and/or needlessly unpleasant violence, either (giving them the benefit of the doubt) in a misguided effort to court parents, or (more cynical, but more likely) to obtain the “tougher” PG-13 rating that generally does better business than a family-friendly PG.

Peter (Levi Miller, right) anticipates certain doom once he's forced off the ship's plank by
the dread Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, in black). But although the boy doesn't yet know
it, he possesses a magic talent that will surprise everybody...
Which makes director Joe Wright’s Pan something of a minor miracle. It’s a throwback to kinder, gentler times, when young champions relied on pluck and resourcefulness, rather than sarcasm and potty humor. Scripter Jason Fuchs’ imaginative fantasy is a thrilling ride from start to finish: laden with stalwart heroes and opulently dastardly villains, wildly imaginative locales and a high-spirited adolescent hero who could have stepped from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel (with a detour that L. Frank Baum would have appreciated).

Fuchs’ story speculates on a question that might have occurred to young fans of Scottish novelist/playwright J.M. Barrie’s celebrated “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” It’s a tantalizing query: How did Peter Pan become himself?

Fuchs, making a respectable big-screen solo scripting debut, plays with elements of Barrie’s original mythos, while borrowing scenarios and character archetypes from other fantasy sources. The crazy-quilt result is a bit uneven at times, but Wright and editors William Hoy and Paul Tothill keep things moving so rapidly, that you’re not likely to mind.

The action begins at London’s bleak Lambeth Home for Boys, during the height of the WWII blitz, where 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller, doing an excellent job in his feature debut) and his fellow youngsters are routinely terrorized by Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the imperious and just-plain-mean nun who runs the place. Peter has long suspected that Mother Barnabas has been hoarding all the tasty food rations while forcing the children to subsist on gruel, but in truth her perfidy is much, much worse.

Aside from these suspicions regarding the orphanage provisions, the bigger issue concerns the ongoing — and unexplained — disappearances of a few boys each night. The answer to that question proves calamitous, when Peter is among those snatched the next time around. He finds himself on (of all things) a pirate ship floating high above, which “sails” air currents the way an ordinary vessel would navigate the seven seas.

Freeheld: Sentiment over substance

Freeheld (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, mild profanity and discreet sensuality

By Derrick Bang

It seems such a reasonable request.

You work a job for 23 years, building up a respectable pension, and then — tragically — a health crisis strikes. Death now will come much sooner, as opposed to the “later” we all hope for. One therefore assumes that you’d be allowed to assign your pension funds to any loved one of choice: spouse, parent, child. Why should it matter?

Having made the brave decision to "out" herself and publicly acknowledge her relationship,
Laurel (Jullianne Moore, left) happily completes and registers the paperwork so that she
and Stacie (Ellen Page) can become official "domestic partners."
It mattered in New Jersey in 2005 — one short decade ago — when the requested recipient was a “domestic partner.”

Freeheld, director Peter Sollett’s heartfelt adaptation of those events, is anchored by compelling and deeply nuanced performances from Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Ron Nyswaner’s script deftly compresses the key events, while focusing on the touching interpersonal dynamic between the two principal characters.

The result is something in the way of social commentary and advocacy cinema: a narrative model with which Nyswaner is quite familiar, having been Oscar-nominated for his script to 1993’s AIDS drama, Philadelphia.

Moore, whose Hollywood career has been impressively varied, stars as Laurel Hester, a well-respected veteran of New Jersey’s Ocean County police force. She takes her job seriously, and — thanks to Moore’s carefully shaded performance — we detect a slight chip on Laurel’s shoulder, likely the hardened perseverance of a woman who has had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues, probably for half as much recognition.

It’s also clear that her private life is very private, her sexual preference having been concealed even from longtime partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). But Laurel isn’t a hermit. Most recently, while participating in a volleyball league across town, she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Page), who confidently acts on what she perceives as a possible shared attraction.

Stacie isn’t wrong; the spark is genuine, even if Laurel takes awhile to lower a career’s worth of defenses. The embryonic relationship is sweet, although not without setbacks; Laurel finds it difficult to be as openly expressive as her new partner. That’d be the age difference, at least in part; Stacie belongs to a generation that doesn’t feel quite the same need to hide.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian: Out-of-this-world suspense

The Martian (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

The most impressive aspect of 1995’s Apollo 13 lay in the tension that director Ron Howard generated, despite our certain awareness of the film’s outcome.

After all, history had spoken: Everybody knew that the astronauts got back safely. So, since Howard couldn’t concoct any suspense from the what, he concentrated on the how ... as in, how in the world did they survive?

Having realized that his only hope for survival involves the long-term rationing of his
supplies — along with figuring out some what of "creating" more food and water — Mark
(Matt Damon) begins a careful record of his days on Mars.
There’s something enticingly absorbing about watching engineers work a particularly difficult problem. In the realm of fiction, this is why caper thrillers and the Mission: Impossible franchise remain so popular: We love to see unworkable puzzles solved via triumphant bursts of ingenuity.

No surprise, then, that director Ridley Scott’s handling of The Martian is 141 minutes of nail-biting anxiety. Andy Weir’s 2011 novel (which has its own amazing history) is a crackerjack sci-fi thriller to begin with, and Scott and scripter Drew Goddard have pumped it up with an engaging blend of quiet agitation and gallows humor.

Best of all, this is smart science-fiction: a rigorously technical narrative that we rarely get from a Hollywood factory that equates the genre with the zap-gun antics of Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy (which, let’s face it, are — at best — equal parts sci-fi and fantasy). In the literary realm, Weir’s book is regarded as “hard” science of the sort written by Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Such stories are harder to bring to the big screen, because they don’t grant actors many opportunities for showboating or melodramatic interpersonal dynamics. But exceptions do exist — 2009’s Moon comes to mind — and if Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman can generate unease from plodding investigative journalism, then surely talented filmmakers can do the same with a clever sci-fi premise. Right?

Indeed. To give further credit where due, Scott has packed his film with an impressive cast, assigning strong actors to even the smallest of roles. Top marks go to star Matt Damon, who anchors most of the film with a compelling, deeply expressive, one-man performance on par with what we’ve seen from Tom Hanks (Cast Away) and Robert Redford (All Is Lost).

The story, then:

The time is an unspecified point in the near future, after NASA has successfully sent a six-person mission to Mars. The Ares 3 crew has established a good-sized working habitat within the Acidalia Planitia plain, and has spent some number of days collecting samples and conducting experiments.

Sicario: Bleak depiction of the failed war on drugs

Sicario (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, grisly images and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Mexico probably won’t think very highly of this film.

Indeed, a formal state department complaint wouldn’t be surprising.

When Kate (Emily Blunt) demands to know more about the increasingly complicated and
morally questionable government "mission" in which she has agreed to participate, she
gets only vague answers from Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, left) and Matt (Josh Brolin).
But first-time writer Taylor Sheridan can’t be blamed for responding to the increasingly grim headlines that keep erupting south of the border, and it’s not as if any of the events depicted in this drama exaggerate reality. The truth probably remains worse.

And Taylor’s “needs must” notion of a possible U.S. response is more than tantalizing; it feels utterly reasonable. And, frankly, scary.

Better still, Taylor has found the perfect colleague in Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who most recently mesmerized us with 2013’s scary kidnap drama, Prisoners. Villeneuve’s films aren’t merely suspenseful; they’re nervous-making to a degree that prompts disquieting nightmares for days (weeks?) to follow.

He applies the same touch to Sicario, a ripped-from-current-events drama that paints a discouraging portrait of the escalating narcotics border war between the United States and Mexico: a war that we’re clearly losing, as portions of Mexico slide ever closer to becoming failed states. Assuming they haven’t already failed.

We meet our protagonist, Arizona FBI agent and kidnap-response team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), during a raid on an outwardly ordinary suburban home in an average American neighborhood. Kate, steadfast partner/friend Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) and their colleagues encounter resistance and gunfire: an oddly protective response, given the apparently empty house.

But it isn’t empty, as Kate soon discovers. In fact, the residence — clandestinely owned by the leader of a Mexican drug cartel — is a shocking horror.

Back at base, Kate is surprised to find herself profiled by a pair of outsiders: Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), introduced as some sort of State Department task force leader; and a quiet, shadowy individual known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Both offer Kate the opportunity to join them in a bold operation designed to “make a statement” and truly do something about a situation that continues to escalate beyond control.

Think carefully before answering, Kate’s boss (the always reliable Victor Garber) warns her. The unspoken implication: The operation might exceed jurisdictional boundaries.

No matter. Kate’s in.