Friday, January 29, 2016

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts: Grim tidings

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, but akin to a PG-13 for strong war themes and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.16

While the rest of the country kvetches about racial disparity in the recently released Academy Award nominations — a “problem” that has everything to do with what is and isn’t put into production by Hollywood studios, and nothing at all to do with Academy voters — those who anguish about such things will find solace in one direction.

The short subjects categories are, and always have been, a richly international affair.

That’s particularly true with the 2015 nominees, which come from Palestine, Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, Austria, Kosovo, Ireland and even Russia.

In terms of quality and storytelling, the live-action nominees are uniformly excellent. They’re also politically heavy and, in three cases, quite grim and emotionally upsetting: as far as could be imagined from the cotton candy often found in Hollywood features.

I’ve always been drawn to short films, for the same reason that I seek out short stories: Bloated, 800-page novels forgive considerable authorial excess, whereas every single word must be perfect in an 12-page story.

Just as every frame must count, in a 12-minute short film.

The jewel in this year’s live action quintet is director Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, which takes an unexpectedly light-hearted look at one of the world’s worst geo-political hot spots. The story opens on the silent routine of five Palestinian nuns who live in a convent in the West Bank wilderness; their worship is interrupted by the arrival of a nervous Israeli settler family, whose car breaks down just outside the convent door.

A potentially tense situation — the elder Israeli woman immediately fears being killed — is stressed further by the Sabbath’s arrival, at which point the nuns are forbidden speech.

It’s difficult to imagine anybody successfully mining a gentle comedy from this premise, but that’s precisely what Khalil has accomplished. (He co-wrote the droll script with Daniel Yáñez Khalil.) The narrative moves in a marvelous direction, in great part due to the unexpectedly resourceful involvement of young Sister Marie (Maria Zriek).

It’s a perfect little package, right up to the final scene. And, let it be said, richly enlightening.

The Finest Hours: Waterlogged

The Finest Hours (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

I’ll never understand Hollywood.

The actual account of one brave Coast Guard crew’s mission to rescue survivors of the maimed T2 oil tanker SS Pendleton, undertaken during a raging nor’easter off the New England coast on Feb. 18, 1952, is the stuff of unbelievable legend: a saga of bravery, luck and utterly amazing persistence.

With Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster, left) scanning into the darkness, Coast Guard
Boatswain's Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) struggles to control their small
rescue vessel amid a raging nor'easter, as they try to find the remnants of a
shattered tanker.
Give it to Disney, and it turns into an overcooked, eye-rolling, melodramatic mess.

Granted, the ocean-bound storm sequences are awesome and persuasive, the depiction of the crippled SS Pendleton — literally torn in half by the storm — grimly unsettling on all sorts of levels.

The problem is with character behavior and interpersonal dynamics, as concocted by scripters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Rarely have so many people behaved so childishly, so stupidly, so TV soap opera-ishly.

And so bewilderingly.

For starters, it’s impossible to get a bead on our primary hero, Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), who overplays a blend of shyness, uncertainty and self-censure to the point that he seems incapable of completing a sentence, let alone piloting a vessel. A failed previous mission apparently has left him riddled with guilt, but that scarcely explains the degree to which he’s belittled, teased and dismissed by both the local veteran fishermen, and his Coast Guard colleagues at the Chatham, Mass., Lifeboat Station.

Then there’s his feckless boss, Daniel Cuff (Eric Bana), assumed to be incompetent because his accent brands him as having come from “somewhere else.” The accusation likely has merit, because Bana plays the role with utter bewilderment, as if Cuff doesn’t even understand how to use the station equipment. We’re supposed to believe this?

But nobody can top the childish histrionics of Holliday Grainger’s Miriam, who frequently behaves like a 5-year-old having a temper tantrum. A confrontation between Miriam and Cuff is so howlingly awful, orchestrated so poorly by director Craig Gillespie, that it must be seen to be disbelieved.

We can’t really fault Grainger, who’s obviously limited to her scripted lines, and the “guidance” from Gillespie. Miriam nonetheless remains the worst “devoted gal left behind” that I’ve seen in many, many years.

Kung Fu Panda 3: Still kicking up lots of fun

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

For a franchise that began with a one-joke premise — a roly-poly panda, as a kung fu master? — this series has shown remarkable resilience.

Once Po, left, meets his equally mischievous biological father, the two pandas embark on
a spirited "play date" that almost destroys the venerable jade palace.
Considerable credit obviously goes to scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who’ve been on board since 2008’s first film. They’ve nailed just the right blend of goofy physical comedy and witty dialog (gotta keep the adults entertained!) while including a virtuous moral or two.

The voice talent also is first-rate, starting with the always amusing Jack Black, as the frequently flustered title character; ample assistance comes from supporting players performed by Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and particularly James Hong. They and others have remained involved from the beginning, and such continuity definitely helps the franchise.

Mostly, though, these films are fun, in the silly, good-natured manner that also has kept the Ice Age series running strong for so long.

As Kung Fu Panda 3 opens, our hero Po’s beloved teacher, Shifu (Hoffman), decides to step down as the local kung fu master. On his way out, Shifu assigns Po the next challenge in his evolution as the local Dragon Warrior: to become the instructor of his warrior colleagues, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

The first training session ... leaves much to be desired.

Recriminations and self-doubt are cut short, however, by the arrival of an unexpected visitor: another dumpling-devouring panda, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who bears a striking resemblance to Po ... and claims to be our hero’s actual father. This doesn’t sit well with Mr. Ping (Hong), the goose who runs the village noodle shop and has been Po’s adoptive father, lo these many years.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Carol: Nothing to sing about

Carol (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for nudity and intimate sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.16

Intimate dramas work best when we understand and empathize with the primary characters: when we feel like we know them.

Even during their first meeting, Therese (Rooney Mara, left) can't help noticing the
smoldering, come-hither gaze that Carol (Cate Blanchett) delivers with a shameless
lack of subtlety.
Despite the scrupulous care with which director Todd Haynes has assembled his new film, it’s almost impossible to become involved with the storyline. The narrative is slow, the tone is sweepingly luxurious, and the performances are overstated: all intentional, since Haynes is imitating the opulent 1950s melodramas made by director Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and many others).

Which would be fine, if playwright Phyllis Nagy had done a better job with her adaptation of The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel on which this film is based.

Granted, Cate Blanchett delivers another of her carefully sculpted performances as protagonist Carol Aird (although I’d argue that Blanchett did the “anguished socialite” shtick much better in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).

But despite the film’s title, Carol isn’t the most important character in this story, as Highsmith made abundantly clear in her novel. That would be the younger Therese Belivet, who remains an utter cipher as portrayed by co-star Rooney Mara. It’s not entirely her fault; she hits the higher emotional notes reasonably well. But Mara’s Therese has too much “down time,” when she simply stares vacantly toward the camera, as if waiting for Haynes’ next instruction.

More to the point, we know nothing about Therese: her background, the reason she’s so arbitrarily bitchy toward longtime boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy, who does his best in a thankless role), or — most crucially — why she’s so suddenly infatuated with Carol. We get none of the essential back-story present in Highsmith’s novel.

OK, fine; Therese is trying to “find herself.” But that isn’t good enough; Mara doesn’t sell her half of the dynamic, and therefore the entire film sinks beneath the weight of its own flamboyantly breathy ambiance.

Anomalisa: A conundrum wrapped in an enigma

Anomalisa (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, graphic nudity and strong sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.16

This may not be the most pointlessly weird movie ever made, but it’ll do until that one comes along.

Everybody in the world sounds exactly the same to Michael, until a chance encounter with
Lisa, who speaks in a voice that is uniquely her own. Alas, this film makes very little use
of this intriguing notion, and devolves into an incomprehensible mess.
Charlie Kaufman has built his reputation on strange, way-out-of-the-box projects ever since he scripted the deliciously wacky Being John Malkovich for director Spike Jonze. Kaufman was less successful with Human Nature, alongside director Michel Gondry, but once again delivered the goods — and earned an Academy Award nomination, alongside his “fictitious twin brother” Donald — after re-uniting with Jonze for Adaptation.

Kaufman’s magnum opus, however, came with 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s bizarre, challenging and at times self-indulgently irritating, but it’s also ferociously clever, poignant and, in its own unusual way, one of the most insightful love stories ever written. (To give credit where due, Kaufman based his script on a story co-written with Gondry and Pierre Bismuth.)

The past decade, however, hasn’t been nearly as kind to Kaufman. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is an unwatchably pretentious slog; and I’m not certain anybody even saw his 2014 TV movie, How and Why.

Which brings us to Anomalisa.

To be fair, it isn’t really long enough to be boring. But it’s nonetheless inane and meaningless, and an utter waste of the gorgeous, replacement/stop-motion puppet animation that has been employed to bring this story to the big screen (and which just earned the film an Academy Award nomination).

If this film hoped to duplicate the success of Wes Anderson’s similarly animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kaufman needed a much sharper script: for openers, one that could sustain its 90-minute length. Anomalisa offers about 15 minutes’ worth of story, along with a few trivial (and rather sexist) observations about human mating habits. 

Yes, Kaufman tries for some social analysis, but you’ll go crazy trying to determine the point he’s attempting to make.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Revenant: Grim survival drama

The Revenant (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong gory violence, dramatic intensity, sexual assault and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.16

Rarely has the rugged American West been portrayed with such grim, unforgiving brutality.

Hollywood seems to view the holiday season as the time for historical sagas of astonishing survival. Unbroken opened on Christmas Day 2014; In the Heart of the Sea occupied movie theaters during much of this past December. To their company we now add The Revenant, based in part on the gruesome event that defined the life — and legend — of early 19th century American fur trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Seasoned frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) understands that he can't
necessarily trust some of his human companions. He also understands that far more
dangerous creatures roam the wilderness ... and none more volatile than an enraged
mother bear trying to protect her cubs.
This incident, and its aftermath, first hit the big screen in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, with Richard Harris starring as “Zachary Bass” (the sort of dumb name-shift that made eyes roll, back in the day). Author Michael Punke subsequently employed Glass’ experiences as the backdrop for his fictional 2002 “augmentation” of the trapper’s life, The Revenant; director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith have based this new film on that novel.

While the bloodthirstier elements of Glass’ saga have been heightened here (and in Punke’s novel) for greater melodramatic impact, that isn’t as unreasonable as it might seem. Glass was guilty of exaggerating his exploits during his own lifetime, so we really aren’t able to separate fact from fancy ... except with respect to the seminal incident.

As the film begins, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guiding a fur-trapping expedition led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), commander of the trading outpost Fort Kiowa, located on the Missouri River in South Dakota. The group is ambushed by an Arikara war party — once-peaceful Native Americans who, at this point in their history, are thoroughly fed up with having been repeatedly displaced by white settlers — that decimates Henry’s company.

The fleeing survivors regroup, with Henry accepting Glass’ suggestion of the safest — but hardest — route back to the fort. This decision doesn’t sit well with the outspoken John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), mostly because he neither likes nor trusts Glass. The latter doesn’t regard Fitzgerald as worthy of concern, which of course enrages our de facto villain even further.

Fitzgerald also is a vicious racist who despises the presence of Glass’ half-Native teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Although father and son are devoted to each other, the boy is withdrawn and fearful: forever traumatized by a childhood event that claimed his mother’s life (and which we experience, in brief chunks, via flashback).

The remaining trappers also include young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a name that should be familiar to those who remember their grade-school American history; Bridger would become one of our foremost mountain men and guides.

The Forest: Can't see anything for the trees

The Forest (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for disturbing images and content

By Derrick Bang

We must hear it half a dozen times, from various characters: You shouldn’t visit the forest, because it’s a bad place. But if you’re gonna explore it, then — no matter what — stay on the path.

So, naturally, at first opportunity, our numb-nuts heroine — and her small search party, led by a supposedly experienced guide — stray from the path.

Having ventured into the spooky Aokigahara Forest in order to find her missing twin sister,
Sara (Natalie Dormer) isn't entirely surprised when their guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa,
left) spots something potentially unpleasant. Journalist Aidan (Taylor Kinney) is less
concerned; one way or another, he expects to get a great story out of their little adventure.
It’s difficult to endure movie characters who behave with such unrelenting stupidity.

It’s also difficult to endure movie scripts that are so sloppy and ill-conceived. Three people apparently were required to write this laughable excuse for a chiller: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai. Antosca and Ketai have a minor string of TV credits; this is Cornwell’s scripting debut. To put it kindly, she’d be smart to keep her day job. Her colleagues should stick to the small screen.

Their clumsy narrative for The Forest is yet another example of the idiot plot: a story that lurches from one scene to the next, only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times. I’m guessing Antosca & Co. were inspired, in part, by the New Asian Horror Wave that produced The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water and their many imitators; The Forest occasionally, fitfully, achieves that level of atmospheric unease.

But director Jason Zada, in an unimpressive feature debut, has only one unimaginative nail to hit as this saga proceeds, and he hammers it relentlessly:

Our heroine, Sara (Natalie Dormer), hears or sees something unusual. She s-l-o-w-l-y walks toward it, cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup framing her face in an ever-tighter close-up. Then, smash-cut to a whatzit that leaps out at her — which is to say, at us — accompanied by an orchestral shriek from Bear McCreary’s score.

Every. Single. Time.

Is it just me, or are horror movies getting more tired, more predictable ... and more dumb?

The story, such as it is:

The U.S.-based Sara wakens, late one night, knowing — thanks to their shared bond — that something has happened to her identical twin. Jess, forever in search of herself, is living in Japan and teaching English to schoolchildren. During a few frantic and unsatisfying phone calls, Sara learns that Jess ventured into the Aokigahara Forest, at the base of Mr. Fuji, where people often go to commit suicide.

As a result, the forest has become infested with yurei, the restless and angry spirits of these suicides, who “encourage” despairing visitors to join their ranks.

Stuff and nonsense; Sara knows that Jess is still alive, thanks to their connection. Sara therefore hops a plane to Japan, and soon makes her way to a rustic hotel adjacent to the Aokigahara Forest. She strikes up a conversation with expat journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a fellow stranger in a strange land; his connection with an experienced forest guide — Yukiyoshi Ozawa, as the pensive and brooding Michi — turns them into an expedition of three.