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.

The Edge of Seventeen: Endearing teen-scene traumas

The Edge of Seventeen (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, vulgarity and some bad teen behavior

By Derrick Bang

Aside from the cool kids — the ones never short of friends and flunkies, and who never seem to embarrass themselves — everybody else, up through high school, inevitably goes through a period of misfit insecurity.

After committing the worst possible blunder, in an era when a single click can expose an
ill-advised comment to the entire world, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) bares her soul to history
teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who'd clearly prefer to enjoy his lunch break in peace.
(In truth, it probably happens to the cool kids, as well. But they never let on.)

In Nadine’s case, it started shortly after birth. By the time she hit second grade, at age 7, she already knew that life — God — had dealt her a rotten hand, and that she’d be a loser her entire life. Taunted by classmates. Plagued by a hopeless clothes sense. Forever in the shadow of an all-too-perfect older brother, the apple of their mother’s eye.


Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen comes with one of the best tag lines I’ve seen: “You’re only young once ... is it over yet?” It’s an apt description: Craig has an unerring ear for the catastrophes of a disenfranchised high school girl in the modern world, whose outsider status is a quabillion times worse, in this age of social media status.

This film is endearing, embarrassing, poignant and cringe-hilarious: hard to watch for all the ways in which it looks, sounds and — worst of all — feels familiar. We’ve been there. Experienced the end of the world. And, yet, endured. (That which doesn’t kill us...)

The last bit is what worries Nadine, who genuinely fears that her life Never. Will. Change.

Craig’s savvy script fuels the narrative, but the film gets its heart from star Hailee Steinfeld’s adorable, heartbreaking lead performance. Now grown into a high school junior, Nadine is an angst-laden, long-suffering tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, who manages to be both vulnerable and insufferably self-absorbed. That requires deft acting chops, and Steinfeld delivers.

On the home front, the sibling situation has become worse. Older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a senior, has matured into a muscled hunk adored by all ... including their mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who continues to display a streak of favoritism. But it’s clearly a chicken/egg dynamic: Is Nadine massively insecure because of her mother’s bias, or has Mona gravitated toward Darian because his sister is such a handful?

Nadine has survived this long solely because of longtime BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who became an inseparable companion back in second grade (the two girls bonding over a caterpillar). They do everything together, Krista keenly aware of — and willing to sympathize with — Nadine’s anxiety and lack of confidence.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival: They're here!

Arrival (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.16

Michael Crichton’a The Andromeda Strain pretty much invented the modern sci-fi techno thriller, and it was made into a crackling 1971 thriller by director Robert Wise.

After confronting the alien spacecraft that has terrified the entire United States, linguist
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are garbed in
protective haz-mat suits, prior to their first meeting with the ship's inhabitants.
The tone was pure procedural, with a gaggle of scientists researching and conferencing in labs, to determine why a highly lethal microorganism killed everybody in a small Arizona town, except for a geriatric Sterno addict and a relentlessly cranky baby.

Few films since then have successfully duplicated that formula, because it’s a difficult tightrope walk: too many talking heads, and the result is boring; too much contrivance and coincidence, and audiences roll their eyes in contemptuous disbelief.

Director Denis Villeneuve gets the balance just right with Arrival, easily one of the most intelligent “first contact” movies Hollywood ever has delivered. Scripter Eric Heisserer embraced the challenging assignment of adapting sci-fi author Ted Chiang’s  2000 Nebula Award-winning novella, and the result is impressively faithful: fascinating, clever and suspenseful, with an out-there finale certain to fuel debates as impassioned as those that greeted the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story also boasts one of the most truly unusual alien cultures ever conceived, the depiction of which is likely to forever change most viewers’ perception and understanding of language.

Finally, the film is an uncomfortably timely reminder of the dangerous levels of nationalism and xenophobia currently running amok throughout this country and the globe, and the consequences of failing to recognize that — at the end of the day — we’re a single species sharing this planet, and that it behooves us to behave accordingly.

To cases, then:

Northeastern university professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an internationally respected linguist, is surprised one day to discover that her huge, entry-level language class is almost empty. The reason becomes clear as breaking news reports interrupt all radio and television broadcasts: A disturbingly large something has landed in a deserted Montana meadow.

Actually, “landed” is the wrong word; the semi-cylindrical object hovers about 20 feet off the ground.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge: A cut above

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for graphic war action, gore and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.4.16

Factual war dramas often are remembered for seminal sequences: the badly outnumbered British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, who withstood the final onslaught by native warriors, in 1964’s Zulu; George C. Scott’s electrifying opening speech, in 1970’s Patton; and the Omaha Beach assault that kicked off 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, to name a few.

Once word spreads that Desmond (Andrew Garfield, right) refuses to wield or even touch
a weapon, Smitty (Luke Bracey, left) is the first to register contempt and hostility: How can
he — or anybody else in their division — trust a man who smacks of cowardice?
Indeed, the latter set a new bar for gripping, ghastly, battlefield intensity.

Until now.

Director Mel Gibson’s impressive Hacksaw Ridge is another reminder that, even with a long string of inspiring World War II dramas stretching back to the 1940s, fresh stories remain to be told. The best are those able to personalize the ordeal, by focusing on a few unforgettable individuals, or perhaps just one.

Hacksaw Ridge is the first dramatic depiction of American Army medic Desmond T. Doss’ experiences in the war: specifically his actions with the 77th Division — dubbed the “Statue of Liberty Division” — when it was ordered to take the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, as part of the Allied push to mainland Japan.

Frankly, I can’t understand what took Hollywood so long; Doss’ story screams for big-screen treatment.

Scripters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan didn’t even have a mainstream biography on which to base their film treatment (although an obscure small-press book — Booton Herndon’s Unlikeliest Hero — was published in 1982). They were able to draw from Terry Benedict’s award-winning 2004 documentary, The Conscientious Objector. That title cuts to the core of Doss’ unique status: He was the only American soldier in World War II to fight on the front lines without a weapon.

As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss believed strongly that killing was against God’s Sixth Commandment. But he also insisted on serving his country in a meaningful way —obtaining a deferment, due to his employment at a naval shipyard, seemed cowardly — and therefore viewed a role in the army medical corps as a logical compromise.

It wasn’t to be that simple.

Gibson opens with a brief flash-forward to the chaos on Okinawa — a pointless foreshadowing of the carnage to come — and then takes us back to Desmond’s youth and young adulthood. He came of age in a household terrorized by his alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving): a man unable to forgive himself for surviving his WWI service, when so many of his friends and fellow soldiers died. Weaving makes Tom a forlorn and unstable — even dangerous — wreck, but not an entirely unsympathetic monster. In fact, Tom gets his shot at redemption, later in the story.

A couple of seminal events harden Desmond’s decision never to wield a gun, or take a life by any other means. We don’t doubt his resolve.

Doctor Strange: Needs life support

Doctor Strange (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for nonstop fantasy violence and a nasty crash scene

By Derrick Bang

As a card-carrying member of the original Merry Marvel Marching Society, I kept waiting for Dr. Strange to employ one of his favorite signature phrases: “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”

The Western-educated Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, right) resists the
possibility of actual magic, until the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) whips up a few quick spells
that remove all doubt. And suddenly Stephen wonders: What else doesn't he know?
Never happened.

Here’s what else never happened: any flicker of emotional involvement with this pinball machine of a movie.

Magic-laced fantasy is much more difficult than creators often assume. Rigorous rules must be set in place, and the supernatural realm carefully conceived, with a comprehensible balance between good and evil: something that J.K. Rowling — as a recent successful example — understands full well.

To get sloppy with such strictures — or ignore them completely — results in a “story” of make-it-up-as-we-go chaos. When no limits are placed on heroes and villains, any conflict becomes meaningless. If a bad guy can bend reality to his will, well, there’s always a sentient magic cloak to help the good guy at a dire moment. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Toss in the potential for an instant re-boot, given the ability to manipulate time, and the result is even more inane.

And b-o-r-i-n-g.

This was the insurmountable problem with late spring’s most recent X-Men adventure, where the über-villain Apocalypse could re-shape the material world with a wave of his hand. That made him effectively unbeatable, until ultimately defeated by some “tricks” that didn’t make any sense, in light of his inherent abilities. Meanwhile, we endured an hour’s worth of meaningless, time-wasting, thud-and-blunder nonsense.

Same here.

Happily, Doctor Strange isn’t laced with the sort of landscape-leveling melees that cratered entire landscapes, in early spring’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (another soulless disappointment). Physical mayhem rarely played a part in this second-tier Marvel character’s various adventures. The “master of the mystic arts” instead battled his adversaries with spells and counter-spells, often in fantastic parallel dimensions of unreality that were an excuse — in the hippy-dippy 1960s and early ’70s — for comic book panels laced with eye-popping, psychedelic visuals.

They were the four-color, printed equivalent of the LSD-influenced “star gate” sequence in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which dazzled substance-altered viewers for decades.

But no matter how hard Marvel’s writers tried — and this remained an ongoing issue — it was hard to identify with Dr. Stephen Strange. He and his opponents were too powerful, too indefinable, too weird. And too blandly impassive.

Trolls: Hair today, gone tomorrow

Trolls (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and needlessly

By Derrick Bang

Occasional successes such as The Lego Movie notwithstanding, Hollywood’s track record with respect to designing films from toys has been spotty, at best.

After several of their friends are kidnapped by the evil, Troll-chomping Bergen chef, the
eternally cheerful Poppy, left, tries to persuade the eternally gloomy Branch to join her
on a rescue mission.
Anybody out there remember GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords? Or Bratz: The Movie? Kit Kittredge: An American Girl? Clue? Battleship? Jem and the Holograms? Or — God help us all — The Garbage Pail Kids?

Contrary to what is assumed by far too many of today’s Tinseltown deal makers, good movies rarely spring from 15-word concept pitches, regardless of the source material. At the beginning, middle and end of the day, it always comes down to story, story, story.

Which is the ingredient most sorely lacking in DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls.

To be sure, the film’s “fuzzy immersion” look is fabulous, with everything given a luxurious, yarn-like quality. The color palette is equally pleasing: bright pastel hues that favor rich blues, greens, pinks and purples. No question: It’s a razzle-dazzle delight, populated by adorable animated characters that are certain to please very young viewers.

Anybody over the age of 6 or 7 ... not so much.

Adults ... not at all.

The derivative, threadbare script aside — Erica Rivinoja, Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel couldn’t have spent much time on it — this film’s insufferable, gooey-sweet tone is guaranteed to send diabetics into sugar shock. It’s syrupy overkill on par with the slushy, mushy movies based on the Care Bears, Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony.

Ya gotta worry about a movie that promises to help viewers Find Their Happy Place.

So. This vividly multihued realm is inhabited by fuzzy, barefooted Trolls of various shades (and a few unusual sizes). All possess the ability to expand and manipulate their hair, with the skill of Spider-Man and his web-shooters. By and large, though, the forever cheerful Trolls are much too busy with “hug attacks” every 30 minutes, and their tendency to burst into song at random moments.

Alas, the Trolls share this kingdom with the much larger, uglier and nastier Bergens: dour, pessimistic creatures who look much more like the actual trolls of ancient myth, than the little Trolls themselves. The Bergens yearn to be happy, and learned long ago that the only way to achieve such bliss ... was by devouring Trolls. Baked, fried, sautéed, fricasseed or simply popped into the mouth and chomped, like a gumball.

Even if the Troll is still alive and protesting.

(Like, seriously? That’s a rather grim concept for such a family-friendly endeavor.)