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.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Passengers: A bumpy ride

Passengers (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexuality and brief chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.16

Science-fiction authors figured this out a long time ago: Trans-galaxy “sleeper ships” need functioning human crew members — in some cases, generations of same — in order to handle the dire emergencies that inevitably occur.

Trying to make the most of a bad situation that seems likely to last for the rest of their
lives, Jim (Chris Pratt, center) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) briefly distract
themselves by chatting with an amiable android bartender (Michael Sheen).
That said, and given a current corporate climate that values human life on a par with plumbing fixtures, I’m willing to believe that a huge colony transport would be sent to its light-years-distant destination with 5,000-plus hibernating passengers, monitored solely by ship-wide computers. Cost-efficiency, y’know. Don’t want to waste all the money and resources necessary to feed and house attentive crewmembers.

Passengers is an old-style sci-fi pulp adventure constructed with top-drawer, 21st century movie-making pizzazz. The latter does its best to obscure the hoary melodramatic clichés that run rampant through Jon Spaihts’ original screenplay; for the most part director Morten Tyldum delivers an engaging outer space escapade, with enough momentum to keep viewers entertained.

That’s assuming we can forgive an eye-rolling climax on par with Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, back in the days of TV’s original Star Trek, shouting “Ya canna change the laws of physics ... she’s gonna blow!”

Actually, that’s the lesser of the two key issues that must be overcome in Spaihts’ script. The first is a major plot point, and a deliberate moment of character development; based on the reactions from Monday evening’s preview audience, some viewers won’t be able to get past the moment in question.

All of which I hint at with deliberate vagueness; this film builds suspense by slowly teasing its various revelations.

Our first glimpse of the space-bound Avalon is appropriately awesome, the huge ship’s rotating drive system and passenger quarters protected by a forward-mounted shield array, slowly crossing the screen in an introductory scene that evokes fond memories of the similar first view of the Discovery, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Visual effects gurus Erik Nordby and Greg Baxter have fabricated a golly-gosh magnificent vessel: equal parts opulent luxury liner and bad-ass interstellar convoy craft.

The autonomous shields precisely deflect all stray space debris, until — giving us barely enough time to absorb the vessel’s splendor — encountering an asteroid field surrounding a daunting, moon-sized body. The shields hold, but the impact nonetheless resonates.

Why Him? — Why bother?

Why Him? (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for sexual candor, vulgarity and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

A modest holiday-themed comedy lurks in the bowels of this wildly uneven movie, but it doesn’t escape very often.

Stephanie (Zoey Deutch, left) is more than a little nervous while introducing boyfriend
Laird (James Franco) to her family: from left, parents Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb
(Megan Mullally), and younger brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck).
As has become typical of far too much of today’s “lighter” fare, this flick’s infrequent delights — the story credited to Jonah Hill, John Hamburg and Ian Helfer — are buried beneath an avalanche of profanity and vulgarity.

But that’s clearly a generation gap in the classic sense, very much like the behavioral impasse that separates the characters played here by Bryan Cranston and James Franco. The juvenile, foul-mouthed conduct that prompts long-suffering sighs from many (likely older) viewers, is embraced gleefully by the intended target audience (likely millennials).

And so it goes.

In fairness, director John Hamburg draws quite a few genuine laughs throughout his film, thanks mostly to Cranston’s masterful comic timing. He handles long-suffering and put-upon with hilarious panache, as he demonstrated during his numerous seasons on television’s Malcolm in the Middle (before becoming a “serious actor” in big-screen projects).

Why Him? is a comic homecoming for Cranston, and he maximizes the project’s potential. Not since Father of the Bride’s Steve Martin — or Spencer Tracy, depending on one’s preference — has a Dad become so flummoxed over his daughter’s transition to full independence.

Granted, poor Ned Fleming (Cranston) has a lot more to process.

A web-cam 55th birthday greeting from daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) — completing college courses in California, far from her Michigan home town — is marred by the revelation that she has a guy in her life: the hitherto undisclosed Laird Mayhew (Franco), who bursts into Stephanie’s apartment and proceeds to strip.

Laird’s spontaneous disrobing notwithstanding, the presence of a boyfriend isn’t a shock per se; after all, Stephanie is a responsible, self-sufficient 22 years old. But the fact that Ned and wife Barb (Megan Mullally) haven’t heard about this fellow is a bit distressing, particularly since Ned has long enjoyed a mutually close relationship with his only daughter.

Wanting to make up for this gaffe, Stephanie invites her family to Palo Alto for the impending Christmas weekend, so that everybody — which includes her 15-year-old brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) — can “get acquainted.” This seems a reasonable olive branch, until Ned, Barb and Scotty actually meet Laird.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: Plenty of thrills in this Star Wars entry

Rogue One (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.16

The Force is strong with this one.

Rogue One is a crackling entry in the Star Wars canon, perhaps most accurately subtitled Episode 3.95. It takes place immediately preceding 1977’s original Star Wars, and in fact can be viewed as the events abridged in that film’s opening text crawl.

Once Jyn (Felicity Jones) agrees to join Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find
and rescue her father from the evil Empire, she's startled to discover that her new
partner's companion droid, K-2SO, is a former Imperial Enforcer Droid ... with a
distinct inferiority complex.
The fast-paced script — credited to John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy — is equal parts heist thriller and down ’n’ dirty war film: a fairly grim escapade, by this series’ usual standards, taking place at a time that finds the severely overmatched rebel Alliance without much of the “new hope” promised by the eventual arrival of Luke, Han and the many others destined to enter the fray.

This film’s essential place in series continuity notwithstanding, director Gareth Edwards and his scripters manage the neat trick of making it a solid stand-alone adventure, for the benefit of any first-time Star Wars viewers (assuming such individuals still exist). This adventure builds to a terrific climax, while also delivering an unexpected degree of emotional gravitas.

The prologue and first act are a bit top-heavy with exposition and the need to introduce a lot of new characters, but — once beyond the information dump — it’s smooth sailing.

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), once a respected scientist with the evil Empire, became appalled by the weapons of mass destruction he’d been fabricating for his masters; he fled to an outworld planet with his wife Lyra (Valene Kane) and their young daughter Jyn, hoping to remain beneath the Imperial radar. As the film opens, they’ve just been found by Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a former colleague, and now an implacable enemy determined to put Galen back to work on a massive new project.

From the moment we meet him, Mendelsohn oozes the “foul stench” that has characterized the best of the Star Wars middle-management villains. His curled-lip sneer and quietly condescending tone make him the pluperfect martinet.

Krennic succeeds in his task, but little Jyn manages to escape and hide in a bolt-hole, where she’s eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a rebel guerrilla fighter given considerable exposure in TV’s animated Clone Wars series. (It’s nice to put a live-action face to this character.)

Collateral Beauty: Only mildly appealing

Collateral Beauty (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for thematic elements and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Overt sentimentality is a tough sell in this cynical era, so director David Frankel is to be congratulated: For the most part, his film manages to be sincerely poignant, without sliding too much into eye-rolling schmaltz.

While trying to finish a quiet, isolated dinner, Howard (Will Smith) is surprised — and
quickly annoyed — to be confronted by the personification of Love (Keira Knightley),
unaware that she's actually an actress hired to deceive him.
Allan Loeb’s original script is an audacious blend of It’s a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, reconfigured for modern times. That’s risky for all sorts of reasons, most notably because “borrowing” from such beloved classics invites comparisons that make most such endeavors fall short. Whether this update succeeds will be up to each viewer’s tolerance for Frank Capra-style melodrama (known as “Capra-corn,” back in the day).

This also is an unusual effort from a writer best known for slapstick moron comedies such as The Switch, The Dilemma and (God help us) Here Comes the Boom. But Loeb apparently has a more serious side, and he wrestles with some fairly weighty concepts here. It’s easy to see why the result piqued the interest of star Will Smith, who has demonstrated a fondness for holiday-timed melodramas such as The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds.

Smith is very good at morose angst; he suffers persuasively, radiating anguish with an intensity that can be painful to watch. We definitely feel for the guy, in such storylines, and — as a given narrative progresses — we become invested in his search for salvation, closure, relief or whatever else seems just beyond his reach.

He stars here as Howard, a charismatic New York advertising executive with a flair for inspiring both clients and staff. We meet him giving a warm pep talk to the employees of his successful firm: a moment enjoyed equally by his longtime business partners — and friends — Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña).

But that was then. Flash-forward a few years later, as the story actually begins, and personal tragedy — the death of his young daughter — has reduced Howard to a disheveled, morose and perpetually silent shadow of his former self. He shows up to work each day solely to build elaborate domino mazes, ultimately knocking down each creation, then starting another. The business, left without its captain, has been sliding into oblivion.

Whit, Claire and Simon don’t know what to do. Every means of engaging Howard has been ignored or rebuffed, and — because he owns controlling shares of their company — they can’t even act on a friendly takeover offer. (We assume it’s friendly. Loeb’s script is a bit sketchy on certain important details: a failing that becomes more noticeable as the story proceeds.)

La La Land: (Mostly) breathtaking magic

La La Land (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.16

Ten minutes into this film, giddy with excitement, I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Ninety minutes in ... the enthusiasm had waned.

When Mia (Emma Stone) insists that she doesn't care for jazz, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling)
takes her to his favorite club, in order to demonstrate why true jazz can't just be heard,
but must be seen emanating from those who perform it.
At its best, La La Land sparkles with true magic. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s romantic, music-laden fantasy is a true “sense of wonder” movie akin to Moulin Rouge! or Hugo: a dazzling tour de force that takes full advantage of the medium’s many elements.

It’s also an exhilarating throwback to classic American and French movie musicals, particularly Gene Kelly’s athletically graceful dance spectaculars: Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and (most particularly) the sort of terpsichorean legerdemain he wove into a creaking floorboard and a stray section of newspaper, in Summer Stock.

Coupled with the luxuriously romantic atmosphere of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Chazelle obviously loves all of these classics, just as he includes more than a few nods to Bob Fosse’s aggressively gymnastic choreography. Chazelle also understands music’s ability to transport us to ethereal elsewheres, and he lives and breathes the toe-tapping, finger-snapping intensity of jazz; he demonstrated that with his mesmerizing directorial breakout, in 2014’s Whiplash.

That film was a grinding endurance test for its young protagonist, as he clashed with a brutal mentor en route to becoming a master drummer. La La Land is a much gentler saga of dreams and dreamers: of young people drawn to Southern California in pursuit of fame and/or artistic satisfaction (not necessarily in that order).

The simple core story is told with the heady, tongue-tickling sparkle and fizz of expensive champagne, Chazelle masterminding a squadron of associates who operate on full throttle: from Linus Sandgren’s opulent cinematography to David Wasco’s enchanting production design, from Tom Cross’ whip-cracking editing to Mary Zophres’ retro-stylish costume design, and Mandy Moore’s breathtaking choreography.

Jackie: A fascinating character portrait undone by directorial excess

Jackie (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief strong violence

By Derrick Bang

A few iconic women have become popular staples in Hollywood dramas; consider the number of actresses, over the years, who’ve portrayed Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I and Marilyn Monroe.

Having decided upon a lavish funeral procession that she feels will suitably honor her
late husband, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) suddenly has last-minute doubts,
which she shares with brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard).
And, more recently, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Previous Jackies have been played by Blair Brown, Jacqueline Bisset and Katie Holmes, none of whom comes close to the ferocious intensity and shattered vulnerability depicted here by Natalie Portman. Her performance is so painfully raw that, more than once, we feel like uncomfortable voyeurs, intruding on a grief-stricken woman’s privacy during the worst few days of her life.

Portman’s starring role is by far the best part of Jackie, which marks the mainstream American debut of famed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. His approach is known to be uncompromising, with a grim, take-no-prisoners approach certain to raise eyebrows ... or, in some cases, unapologetically offend.

Many viewers will feel that he has done the latter here.

Noah Oppenheim’s script is unusual, even challenging, in its depiction of Jackie Kennedy during the turbulent few days immediately following her husband’s death: specifically, from the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, to the massive funeral and procession that took place the following Monday morning. The details in between unfold in a blur of flashbacks and cross-cutting, Larraín and Oppenheim deftly conveying the confusion and shock that followed this national tragedy.

Jackie essentially tells her own story via a series of narrative devices: during a lengthy — and at times quite brittle — interview with a never-named journalist (Billy Crudup), who does his best to suss out the “real” Jackie; during a confessional conversation with a priest (John Hurt) just prior to the state funeral; and during anguished conversations with the only two people she trusts, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).

These revelatory exchanges are blended further with re-created clips from the TV special A Tour of the White House, with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, hosted by CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood, and broadcast on Feb. 14, 1962: the first-ever First Lady-led, televised tour of the White House — Jackie recently having renovated and restored the mansion — which was seen by 80 million viewers in 50 countries.

The latter sequences — given fuzzy, black-and-white authenticity by cinematographer Stépane Fontaine — show an entirely different Jackie: nervous, stiff, camera shy but determined to share (and justify) the $2 million spent to bring this presidential palace back to its original luster.

It’s also the narrative touch that establishes the film’s theme. Jackie clearly viewed that TV special as emblematic of her legacy as First Lady, just as she obsesses over details — immediately following the President’s assassination — in order to  properly preserve his legacy.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Miss Sloane: Superbly written political drama

Miss Sloane (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and occasional sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.9.16

Abraham Lincoln tried — and failed — to abolish lobbyists.

“Lobbyists have more offices in Washington than the President,” Will Rogers famously observed. “You see, the President only tells Congress what they should do. Lobbyists tell ’em what they will do.”

Having decided to take a shot at persuading senators to back a bill enhancing gun
background checks, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, foreground) gains the support
of junior lobbyists, from left, Franklin (Noah Robbins), Lauren (Grace Lynn Jung), Alex
(Douglas Smith) and Ross (Al Macadam).
Ayn Rand was somewhat more blunt: “Lobbying ... is the result and creation of a mixed economy: of government by pressure groups. Its methods range from mere social courtesies and cocktail party or luncheon “friendships,” to favors, threats, bribes, blackmail.”

One cringes at the thought of what lobbyists will be able to accomplish, dealing with a president who apparently stalled at fifth grade.

Director John Madden’s Miss Sloane would have been a provocatively charged political drama at any time; given the current circumstances, it’s also quite chilling. First-time writer Jonathan Perera’s electrifying script positively sizzles in the hands of star Jessica Chastain, who tears into the pungent dialogue with the ferocity of a starving lion. She doesn’t merely portray the title character; she charges into the role with messianic fervor.

Perera’s personal saga is just as compelling as his debut screenplay. He was 30 years old, working as an elementary school teacher in South Korea, when he began the project. Once finished, he solicited Hollywood industry reps via cold online queries; his script made the rounds, placing No. 5 on 2015’s celebrated “Black List” of most-liked but as-yet unproduced screenplays.

FilmNation Entertainment picked it up; Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) signed on to direct; Chastain agreed to star.

Perera’s dialog has the rat-a-tat intensity of Aaron Sorkin’s best work, with similar hot-button political relevance. It’s compelling, fascinating, suspenseful and crazy-making, lifting rocks and shining a light on slimy Capitol “business as usual” practices much the way The Big Short indicted behind-the-scenes banking shenanigans.

Perera retained sole scripting credit: almost unheard of, these days, for a newcomer. He’s guaranteed to garner an Academy Award nomination, as will Chastain.

Her title character, Elizabeth Sloane, is a high-powered lobbyist heading a team for a well-established “white shoe” firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). She’s brilliant, ruthless and utterly unscrupulous; she also has no life outside of her work. It’s telling that we never see her eating breakfast, changing clothes, watering plants or doing anything else that would suggest a home life.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Manchester by the Sea: Drowning in an ocean of grief

Manchester by the Sea (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.16

Some films are constructed so beautifully, and lensed so crisply, that they seem to glow. Life of Pi is a recent example, and it brought cinematographer Claudio Miranda a well-deserved Academy Award.

After being brought back to his home town by the sudden death of his brother, Lee (Casey
Affleck, left) is left with the question of what to do about his now parentless teenage
nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Manchester by the Sea has the same radiant allure, its northern Massachusetts fishing village setting portrayed with such luxurious sparkle that it literally feels like heaven on Earth. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes deserves equal recognition, come Oscar time.

The same can be said for just about everybody connected with this poignant drama. This luxurious, rustic setting is juxtaposed against star Casey Affleck’s heartbreakingly persuasive, all-encompassing depiction of grief. This is one of those assignments that transcends acting; within 10 or 15 minutes, we simply accept the fact that Affleck is Lee Chandler, an estranged native son brought back to his hometown under tragic circumstances.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has an ear for the way people actually talk to each other: true conversation, which often erupts in short-tempered bursts, as opposed to the carefully sculpted “movie talk” that generally passes for dialogue. He’s a methodical and unhurried filmmaker; this is only his third big-screen feature, beginning with 2000’s similarly impressive You Can Count on Me, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo shining in the poignant saga of a woman’s awkward reunion with her younger brother.

It has become clear, with time, that Lonergan is adept at coaxing superlative, quietly lifelike performances from his stars. Affleck is by far the standout here, but he’s in good company; co-stars Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler complete the core ensemble, together enacting a story that illustrates the crippling, pervasive impact of guilt and anguish.

We meet Lee during his daily routine as a Boston-based janitor, solemnly dealing with clogged toilets, recalcitrant radiators and persnickety light fixtures. Some of the lonely tenants in question welcome his presence; others flirt awkwardly; still others are rude. Lee is uniformly stoic, to the point of appearing discourteous; we initially wonder if he’s on the spectrum, unable to properly process social niceties.

But then we realize no, it’s more a case of a man lost in a swamp of despair, and no longer able to navigate. Affleck moves with uncertainty, as if worried that the very ground might trick him into placing a foot wrong. His sleepy eyes fail to register friendly overtures, as if he’s perpetually stoned, yet he takes no drugs. He does, however, drown the remnants of a gray day with a few too many beers at the local tavern, at which point he may become a short-fused, belligerent drunk: picking fights as a means of securing a punishing beat-down.

All of this emerges in a deft, superbly assembled introductory montage; Lonergan is a master of small, character-establishing details.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Allied: Does love bind?

Allied (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, fleeting nudity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.16

At first blush, this feels like an old-style WWII espionage drama of the sort whose absence is lamented by longtime moviegoers — such as my parents — who often grouse that They Don’t Make ’Em Like This Anymore.

Shortly after adopting his cover identity as the devoted husband of Marianne (Marion
Cotillard), Max (Brad Pitt) fears that he may have been recognized by a Nazi officer: a
potential catastrophe that requires a quick solution...
Given the French Moroccan setting, stars with the wattage of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and a swooningly romantic script that even name-checks Casablanca, one almost expects Bogie and Bacall to come strolling in from the surrounding desert.

Steven Knight is a terrific screenwriter, with solid experience in the crime and espionage genres; his highlights include 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises. No surprise, then: He delivers a corker of a first act for Allied, and then swings the plot into an unexpected direction that cranks up the suspense.

Unfortunately, things get messy during an contrived third act, which piles eye-rolling coincidence atop unrealistic behavior, the latter from characters who’ve previously been depicted as far too intelligent, to suddenly turn brainless. Cut to a positively eye-rolling epilogue, and the film squanders the considerable good will that it has built.

Seriously, Steven ... what were you thinking?

In fairness, such climactic, over-the-top melodrama also is old-school, so Knight and director Robert Zemeckis obviously knew precisely what they were doing. I’m simply not sure that today’s savvier viewers will be as willing to forgive such theatrical excess, as was the case back in the 1940s and ’50s.

And it’s a shame, because the first 90 minutes are thoroughly compelling, and — yes — luxuriously atmospheric.

The year is 1942, and the film opens as Canadian airman Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes into the desert outside of Casablanca. His emergency mission, orchestrated by the British Special Operations Executive (BSOE): to assassinate Germany’s visiting ambassador. The groundwork for this mission has been established by undercover French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), who has spent weeks among her Nazi “friends,” waxing eloquent about the beloved husband soon to visit from Paris.

The handsome and affable Max looks and sounds the part ... to a point. As Marianne immediately notices, his carefully rehearsed accent is more Québécois than Parisian, which is a problem: French Moroccans wouldn’t know the difference, but he’d never fool Nazi officials who had spent any time in France.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Rules Don't Apply: Chaos reigns

Rules Don't Apply (2016) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Oh, my.

This may not be Warren Beatty’s worst film — Ishtar and Town & Country still arm-wrestle for that distinction — but it runs a close third.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), hoping to become a Hollywood star, finds herself spending
lots of time with driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who seems a poor substitute
for potential mentor Howard Huges. Initially, anyway...
Much has been made about the “sudden” appearance of this new Beatty project: the first time he has appeared on screen since 2001 (in the aforementioned Town & Country), and the first film he has written, directed, produced and starred in, since 1998’s Bulworth (also far from a classic).

Warren, you shoulda stayed retired.

Alas, too many artists cannot resist the itch to create, long after common sense should have removed them from the stage.

In fairness, even at its worst — and there’s plenty of “worst” to go around — Beatty’s new film reveals traces of the idiosyncratic sparkle that bloomed to perfection in classics such as Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. And, at 79 years young, Beatty himself remains a master of the roguish twinkle and droll double-takes that made him such a memorable screen presence, back in the day.

But Rules Don’t Apply remains a mess.

It’s the worst sort of self-indulgent vanity project: a bloated, bewildering, pointless excuse to shovel several dozen high-profile guest stars into meaningless, ill-defined and under-developed parts. The so-called story is a muddle — Beatty sharing scripting credit with Bo Goldman — and the limply executed result commits the entertainment world’s most unpardonable sin: It’s boring.

Turgid, mind-numbingly dull, I’d-rather-endure-root-canal-surgery tedious.

It’s also superfluous. While Beatty is the right age to deliver his interpretation of Howard Hughes’ tragic final years, there’s no reason to do so. This film’s script offers no information, no character analysis, that wasn’t covered far better by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2004’s The Aviator.

On top of which, the whole Howard Hughes riff apparently is intended as mere framing device for a stuttering courtship between two young lovers caught in the eccentric industrialist’s disintegrating orbit. It’s a clumsy narrative device, and it fails utterly. Those who grimly slog through this film’s interminable 126 minutes still won’t care a whit about any of these characters.

I’m surprised that Goldman returned to this particular well, having won an Academy Award for writing 1980’s far more successful Hughes project, Melvin and Howard. Now, that was a clever, precocious, charming and thoroughly entertaining lark.

All of which are qualities sorely lacking in Beatty’s newest — and undoubtedly final — misfire.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them: A roaring good time

Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.16

Daniel Radcliffe was a great Harry Potter, but Eddie Redmayne is a fantastic Newt Scamander.

When Agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) brings Newt Scamander (Eddie
Redmayne, left) to the Magical Congress USA's Wand Permit Office, they're met by the
Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who regards this newcomer
with obvious suspicion.
Newt is the pluperfect misfit researcher — magizoologist, to be precise — who is far more comfortable with his beloved “fantastic beasts,” than he is with fellow human beings. Redmayne is appropriately disheveled, like an absent-minded professor who dressed in the dark; his bashful gaze is concealed beneath a mop of unruly hair, and he often rushes in blindly where mages fear to tread.

At the same time, he’s puppy-dog adorable, with an aura of vulnerability that proves deceptive, under certain circumstances. He may not be able to look a woman in the eye, but he’ll stop at nothing when one of his critters is involved.

More to the point — and just like the trouble-prone Harry Potter — Newt thinks nothing of breaking the rules, if he honestly believes the reasons are valid. Much to the dismay of the higher-ups at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA).

J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them in 2001, in between the fourth and fifth installments of her Harry Potter series. It actually was one of Harry’s textbooks: required for first-year Hogwarts students, in its 52nd edition when Harry, Ron and Hermione are assigned to read it, and complete with an introduction by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

This “faux” research tome, compiled by Scamander, describes his research into magizoology, and provides detailed descriptions of 85 magical creatures found throughout the world. As an added droll touch, the pages includes scribblings, doodles and often snarky comments by Ron, who apparently suffered through its pages.

The book was a lark on Rowling’s part — something of a “bonus” for her readers — but not a trivial endeavor. More than 80 percent of the cover price of each copy sold benefited the charity Comic Relief, aiding poor children throughout the world.

Flash-forward to 2013, following the conclusion of the Harry Potter film cycle, at which point Warner Bros. announced that “Fantastic Beasts” would serve as a template for a new five-film series, depicting the many adventures and encounters experienced by Newt, as he developed the data that would lead to the debut publication of his textbook.

And the films would be scripted by Rowling herself.

Moonlight: A heartbreaking coming-of-age saga

Moonlight (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for drug use, frequent profanity, sexuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

Some rare, special films — such as this one — are made with a degree of raw intimacy that’s both compelling and painful.

After finding Chiron (Alex Hibbert, right) hiding from bullies in a condemned apartment
building, Juan (Mahershala Ali) tries to get the frightened boy to open up, by treating him
to a meal. The effort is only partically successful, but it is a significant first step.
Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is profoundly difficult to watch at times, its depiction of contemporary inner city black life achingly sad, with its focus on one young man’s struggle to surmount his upbringing, his environment and the crushing realization that the world expects him to accomplish absolutely nothing. Can it be true, in the modern United States, that one is doomed from birth?

And yet Jenkins’ intriguing storytelling method — co-scripted with Tarell Alvin McCraney — offers glimpses of, if not hope, at least peace and acceptance. Although coming-of-age sagas are a familiar cinema staple, this one takes an intriguing approach; it was conceived as a drama school project in a class run by McCraney, a playwright and 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.

Jenkins’ big-screen adaptation is divided into three distinct chapters, reflecting seminal moments in the young protagonist’s life, and with different actors — who resemble each other to an uncanny degree — playing the character as he ages. The film’s atmosphere of authenticity is no accident; both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the South Florida Liberty City housing project where much of this story unfolds.

The picture isn’t pretty, the experience on par with 2009’s Precious, and graced with similarly powerful performances.

There’s another, equally revealing comparison. 1996’s Sling Blade remains famous as the film that turned its star, director and writer — Billy Bob Thornton — into a household name. That film got much of its power from the narrative’s multiple punches. After its protagonist’s first soliloquy, delivered early on, we thought, Damn, Billy Bob peaked too quickly; there’s no way anything else will come close to that scene’s dramatic intensity. And yet, later, Thornton did top it. And we marveled.

Jenkins achieves the same intensity here.

We meet Chiron at age 9, played by Alex Hibbert: a cowed, withdrawn child bullied by schoolmates because of his small size. This earns him the pejorative nickname of “Little,” and classroom torment isn’t even his major problem; at home, he’s alternately coddled and demeaned by his mother, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a crack addict whose parental instincts flicker erratically, at best.

Little is “rescued” one day, in a sense, by Juan (Mahershala Ali), an essentially compassionate man who — unfortunately — happens to be the neighborhood drug dealer. But the boy doesn’t know this, and their developing relationship is the first demonstration — with several more to come — of Jenkins’ skill at building a sensitive character dynamic under unlikely circumstances.