Monday, December 25, 2017

The Shape of Water: Flows exquisitely

The Shape of Water (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Truly adult fairy tales may be the rarest of movie treasures, given how almost everything these days — particularly what emanates from corporate Hollywood — is designed for all-ages audiences.

When things start to go awry in the top-secret facility where they all work, paranoid
government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) interrogates everybody, including
cleaning women Elisa (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer, center right).
We need look elsewhere for thoughtful, intelligent and provocative alternative fare: the cinematic equivalent of, say, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (far more disturbingly graphic — but just as imaginative — as his Coraline or The Graveyard Book).

France’s Marc Caro comes to mind, with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the latter co-directed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, equally adept at the genre, as evidenced by Amélie and Micmacs. Spain’s Alejandro Amenábar gave us The Others.

But they all pale alongside Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, whose intriguing early efforts in this rarefied environment — Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone — were but a prelude to the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth: by far one of the most unsettling and provocative blends of fantasy and real-world horror ever brought to the big screen.

Until now.

The Shape of Water is an entirely different sort of Del Toro masterpiece: a richly detailed parable of lonely people coping with extraordinary circumstances, while confronting the monsters in our midst. The narrative — co-written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor — has the lyrical quality of a gently poignant fable, which nonetheless conceals the sort of savagely ironic message beloved by Rod Serling.

It feels like one thing, upon entry: becomes something entirely different, before we’re allowed to exit.

Best of all, the film is powered by a truly stunning starring performance by Sally Hawkins, who in a few short years has emerged as one of the world’s finest and most sensitively nuanced actresses. She has enjoyed a remarkable year: This film follows her delicately crafted work in summer’s Maudie, and her unforgettable portrayal of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Nobody could have expected a second, equally transcendent performance in the same year. Her character here is similarly disenfranchised, and yet entirely different: a lonely, quietly withdrawn woman who blossoms — like a flower unveiling luminescent colors in bright sunlight — under highly unusual conditions.

The setting is Baltimore; the time is the early 1960s. On the one hand, this is recognizably our reality, as evidenced by familiar clothes, cars and (frequently intolerant) attitudes. People amuse themselves, at home after work, with soporific sitcoms such as Mr. Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Lurid news reports are a daily reminder of post-atomic Cold War paranoia.

And yet other aspects quickly signal that this isn’t quite our world, but in fact a closely related parallel reality.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — Fast-paced fun

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action, mild profanity and considerable blue humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

When it comes to the action comedy genre, the pitfalls awaiting careless directors and scripters are far more dangerous than anything faced by the characters in this film.

Too many dumb jokes. Relentless mugging by unrestrained cast members. Too much slapstick. Eye-rolling vulgarity. Gratuitous property damage. The list goes on.

Conquering one difficult task merely leads to a harder challenge, as this saga's reluctant
gamers repeatedly discover: from left, Dr. Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Jefferson
"Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr. Smolder
Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
Happily, director Jake Kasdan sidestepped all those miscalculations, which is a surprise — frankly — given that his résumé is littered with disposable junk such as Sex Tape, Bad Teacher and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Much-deserved credit also goes to writer Chris McKenna, whose initial story was deftly fine-tuned with help from Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner. And, of course, they all borrowed a bit from the 1995 Robin Williams version, which in turn was adapted loosely from Chris Van Allsburg’s popular 1981 children’s picture book. (Got all that?)

However the gestation played out, this new film is a very welcome surprise: droll, clever, fast-paced, exciting and laden with enough gender-based humor to fuel the next half-dozen relationship comedies. I can’t quite call the result family-friendly, because the PG-13 rating is well earned by risqué one-liners ... but they’re all quite funny, and crisply delivered by a quartet of practiced scene-stealers.

This’ll be a popular repeat-viewing experience, because half the fun is zeroing in on everybody else’s expression — not possible, the first time through — as each verbal zinger is unleashed.

While it’s true that veteran video gamers will most enthusiastically embrace (and understand) the core premise, the learning curve is gentle enough for uninitiated mainstream viewers, who will return home well-versed in jargon such as “game lives” and NPCs (non-player characters).

As those familiar with Van Allsburg’s book know, Jumanji is a “haunted” board game with the disorienting ability to amaze — and endanger — players by bringing actual jungle environments and animals into the real world. No surprise, then, that such a game would adapt to changing times — in order to remain seductively enticing — by re-inventing itself as a late 20th century-style home video game.

The new roster of unsuspecting victims, initially associated solely by their presence in the same high school, includes Spencer (Alex Wolff), a smart but neurotic hypochondriac; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), an overly cocky jock too “busy” to do his own homework; Bethany (Madison Iseman), the school’s condescending, self-obsessed queen bee-yatch; and the outspoken but socially awkward Martha (Morgan Turner). Only after-school detention could bring this quartet together, at which point a make-work assignment to clean up an unused classroom takes a sinister turn, when Spencer finds a dusty, long-unused video game console.

With you-know-what stuck in the game slot. Which we already know is dangerous, thanks to an intriguing prologue set 20 years early.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Greatest Showman: An apt superlative

The Greatest Showman (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for bits of dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

This lavish, opulently stylish musical, based very loosely on the early life and career of Phineas Taylor Barnum, is a slice of magic realism in the style of last year’s La La Land.

First-time director Michael Gracey delivers this splashy romp with a degree of razzle-dazzle that would have delighted Barnum himself. Given Gracey’s earlier credits as a visual effects artist and supervisor, we shouldn’t be surprised by the often stunning production and dance numbers, many of them powered by Ashley Wallen’s breathtaking choreography.

When shameless promoter P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, right) decides to gain some
respect from New York City's aristrocratic elite, he seeks out respected author and
playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). But will this writer of failed plays be willing to
descend from his lofty perch?
As is true of many musicals, some of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s original songs are Barnum-style show-stoppers; others ... sorta-kinda just hang there. The power anthems attached to the best sequences, however, will be remembered long after the lights come up: most notably the title song and “This Is Me,” the latter a triumphant statement of personal dignity, on behalf of the colorful but publicly shunned members of Barnum’s performing troupe.

The film also maintains its momentum thanks to Hugh Jackman’s vibrant performance as Barnum: a role that allows the actor to exercise the singing and dancing chops he displayed so magnificently in the stage musical The Boy from Oz (a side of his talent likely overlooked by those familiar only with various Marvel superhero movies).

Casting directors Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey took care to avoid the mistake made in La La Land, which would have been vastly superior with two stars who actually could sing and dance. Jackman’s spellbinding performance is ably supported by a similarly adept roster of co-stars, beginning with the equally enthusiastic Zac Efron, returning to the genre that made him a star in the High School Musical trilogy.

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script plays fast and extremely loose with Barnum’s actual life, although they certainly get the tone right: a masterpiece of style over substance, with the same wink-wink-nudge-nudge hokum that the celebrated showman practiced himself.

A brief childhood prologue suggests that young Barnum’s impossible ambitions — as the only son of a poor, working-class father — get their momentum from his immediate devotion to Charity, the aristocratic girl who catches his eye, and grows up to become his wife. Their younger selves are played charmingly by Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn, and they share a touching ballad — “A Million Dreams” — that carries the narrative to adulthood and marriage (Michelle Williams taking over as Charity).

Now ensconced in the whirlwind of mid-19th century New York City, frustrated by a series of clerking jobs, Barnum hatches a mad scheme financed by a bald-faced bank swindle: a museum of the unusual and unseen. But it’s primarily a static waxworks show that proves of little interest to passersby.

“You need something living,” his young daughters Caroline and Helen insist (the two girls winningly played by Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Galaxy-spanning excitement

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.15.17

The newest installment in the Star Wars franchise certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is by far the longest chapter in George Lucas’ originally conceived three-trilogy ennealogy. (I had to look that one up.)

Having been sent on a desperate mission to the obscenely opulent gambling planet of
Canto Bight, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) have decidedly different
views on how to locate their quarry.
It’s also the grimmest, with an emphasis on the word “Wars” that echoes last year’s Rogue One. The middle chapter of a trilogy inevitably is the most dire, as was established in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. This new film’s solely credited writer/director, Rian Johnson, clearly took that precedent seriously. We hit the ground running, with few pauses for breath.

But they’re important pauses. Johnson understands the value of dramatic highs and lows, and — most crucially — of leavening dire doings with well-timed dollops of humor.

When last we left our various heroes, the Nazi-esque First Order — having risen from the ashes of the evil Galactic Empire — was eradicating the peaceful New Republic, world by world. Aside from wishing to dominate the universe, the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) employed the Darth Vader-esque Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to seek out and destroy all traces of the Jedi order.

The plucky Rey (Daisy Ridley), imbued with the mysterious Force, has journeyed to the remote oceanic planet Ahch-To, in order to find and train with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Former Stormtrooper-turned-good guy Finn (John Boyega), badly injured during a lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren, lies comatose in a medical stasis bed. Impetuous pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid, BB-8, joined the Resistance forces commanded by Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), as they celebrated the destruction of First Order’s massive Starkiller Base.

If all this seems a voluminous information dump, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg; subplots and sidebar characters reference everything back to 1977’s very first film. Four decades later, it’s extremely difficult for new viewers to jump into this saga, and even longtime fans may need an Internet refresher course.

(This being the era of binge viewing, I suppose the tried-and-true are expected to power-watch the previous seven films before embracing this one. That’s asking a bit much.)

Darkest Hour: A shining achievement

Darkest Hour (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and war sequences

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.29.17

Even knowing the outcome, thanks to the obvious historical record and ongoing pop culture reminders, director Joe Wright and scripter Anthony McCarten maintain a remarkable level of stomach-clenching suspense during every moment of this enthralling drama.

As Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) pauses attentively, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman)
parses words in order to place the desired emphasis on what will be one of the most
important speeches of his career.
Scene by scene, amid political clashes and confrontations, we endure palpable panic: Are our memories faulty? Will it all go wrong?

No, of course not. But the total, we-are-there immersion is quite impressive.

Darkest Hour takes place during a tempestuous several weeks in the spring of 1940: from May 10, when 65-year-old, hard-drinking Winston Churchill is named to replace Neville Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister; to June 4, in the aftermath of the Dunkirk miracle that gave additional weight to Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons.

Fans of this period in British history are enjoying an embarrassment of riches; we’ve now experienced these events from strikingly different points of view, thanks to summer’s Dunkirk, television’s The Crown and now Wright’s Darkest Hour.

As depicted by McCarten — a double Oscar nominee, as scripter and producer of 2014’s The Theory of Everything — Churchill’s rise to that galvanic speech was anything but assured, and Chamberlain was far from disgraced and impotent, after being shunted aside. He and Viscount Halifax (née Edward Frederick Lindley Wood) remained relentless in their quest for appeasement by offering a treaty to Hitler, even as — particularly as — Western Europe’s countries fell, like a row of dominoes, against the Nazi assault.

And Chamberlain’s influence was considerable, as he still controlled the Conservative half of the House of Commons, all of the members fully prepared — in blinkered, knee-jerk fashion — to vote party over conscience, thereby stripping Churchill of his new position. (And boy, doesn’t that resonate these days, on this side of the pond!)

The political infighting is both fascinating and horrifying, but the film’s true power comes from Gary Oldman’s sublime portrayal of Churchill: one of those rare performances that is so thorough, so all-consuming, that it ceases to be acting. As far as I’m concerned, Wright and McCarten somehow found the means to resurrect Churchill, so he could star in his own story.

Wonder Wheel: Far from wonderful

Wonder Wheel (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Toward the conclusion of Woody Allen’s newest dive into the pool of mid-century nostalgia, Kate Winslet’s Ginny — having descended into full-blown Norma Desmond madness — responds to an accusation by petulantly whining, “Oh, God; spare me the bad drama.”

My feelings precisely.

As the summer progresses, Mickey (Justin Timberlake) begins to realize that Ginny
(Kate Winslet) is placing far too much emotional weight on their clandestine affair.
Wonder Wheel is Allen’s homage to shrill, over-the-top melodrama: a contrived piffle that seeks to outdo the likes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Boulevard, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and their ilk. On top of which, the story is told by a character who — having informed us that he’s a budding poet and playwright given to florid exaggeration — clearly is an unreliable narrator.

Even allowing for all that, Allen’s film wallows in a swamp of soggy excess that surpasses the worst afternoon television soaps.

Which is a shame, because there’s much to recommend Wonder Wheel, starting with Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography and Santa Loquasto’s impeccable period production design, which deliver a level of visual opulence rarely seen since Douglas Sirk’s lavish 1950s melodramas (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and others).

Even though all these characters recognize that their Coney Island home is past its prime, things still look terrific, in a fading-glory sort of way. The film takes its title from the massive Ferris wheel always standing vigil in the background, like a silent Greek chorus.

Ginny, pushing 40 and prone to migraines, works a dead-end job as a waitress in the Boardwalk clam shack. She’s married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a recovering alcoholic who manages the merry-go-round in the amusement arcade. They live in a ramshackle apartment directly above the shooting gallery, the incessant pop-pop-pops frequently aggravating her debilitating headaches.

They bicker, snipe, squabble and quarrel in the manner of Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners — also very 1950s — but with very little mitigating affection. It’s the second marriage for both, and we sense they’ve remained together mostly due to weary resignation.

They do a poor job of managing her bratty adolescent son, Richie (Jack Gore), a bad-seed monster and budding pyromaniac who loves setting fires below the wooden boardwalk. Everything concerning this little twerp seems to have migrated in from an entirely different film; his presence adds nothing to the core narrative, and his dangerous “hobby” is just sorta cast adrift during the third act ... rather sloppy, even for Allen.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird: Truly soars

Lady Bird (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Well into writer/director Greta Gerwig’s accomplished filmmaking debut, the story’s protagonist is complimented — by her high school counselor — on the depth of feeling she expresses, in a college application essay, for the city in which she has grown up: a city from which she’s eager to escape.

As the high school senior prom approaches, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, left) brings her
mother (Laurie Metcalf) along when she tries out a series of dresses: an excursion that
takes place amid the organized clutter of Sacramento's massive Thrift Town store.
The city is Sacramento, where Gerwig herself grew up, and her film exhibits the same reverence. Indeed, I doubt Sacramento ever again will be the subject of such a heartfelt cinematic valentine.

Lady Bird can’t help feeling semi-autobiographical; Gerwig’s characteristic personality shines throughout, easily recognized from her starring roles in quirky indie dramedies such as Lola Versus, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Her filmmaking debut is both an engaging and painfully raw coming-of-age saga, and a respectful appreciation for the environment that shaped her as an artist.

A kiss on Sacramento’s cheek, and an earnest Thank You.

But that’s merely the narrative portion of Gerwig’s film. She also deserves credit for coaxing persuasively intimate performances from her stars: most notably Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who deliver one of the most tempestuous, complicated and deeply loving mother/daughter relationships ever depicted on camera.

The year is 2002, as the United States enters a new national mindset in the wake of 9/11. We meet Ronan’s Christine McPherson on the eve of her senior year in high school, which she’s horrified to discover will be spent at a Catholic school. She’s a rebellious young adult, with strikingly dyed hair and an insistence that everybody — even family members — refer to her as “Lady Bird”: a name she has given herself, as opposed to the one that was thrust upon her.

She has little use for her post-college brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), both of whom share the small, cramped house which is all that Lady Bird’s parents — Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) — can afford. Lady Bird is deeply ashamed of living on “the wrong side of the tracks”; it’s one of the innumerable “slights” that she takes personally, and for which she — unjustly, and immaturely — blames her parents.

She’s a teenager, in every horrific sense of the term: stubborn, selfish, shallow, spiteful and short-tempered.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: He deserves better

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Denzel Washington’s work here is sublime: absolutely one of the finest — if not the finest — roles of his already impressive career.

It’s a shame writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film isn’t worthy of such talent.

In his own mind, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is
one of the finest legal minds ever to stride Los Angeles'
mean, inner-city streets. And he's right ... but he's also
inherently unable to wield such talent.
Gilroy’s résumé is dominated by action-oriented popcorn flicks such as Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Island. Nothing indicates he has the sensibilities for a quiet, deeply intimate drama of this nature ... and, in fact, he doesn’t. Worse yet, his story gets its momentum from a plot contrivance that is blindingly unbelievable: an event we simply cannot accept when it happens, and which taints everything that follows.

Washington, brilliant as he is, cannot overcome such a narrative blunder.

He stars as the title character, a lawyer and legal scholar with a savant’s gift for tireless research and perfect recall: the “unseen half” of a two-man firm headed by celebrated civil rights attorney William Henry Jackson. The latter is the front man, who for nearly four decades has garnered all the fame for meticulously precise courtroom arguments that Roman prepared behind the scenes.

This has been sufficient for Roman, who has greatly valued the voice that Jackson has given to their shared passion for defending the disenfranchised.

We never meet Jackson; the film begins as he suffers a fatal heart attack one morning, off camera, leaving Roman with the necessity of handling the day’s case load. Just show up and request continuances, instructs the firm’s devoted secretary, Vernita (Lynda Gravátt). Don’t do — or say — anything else.

This seems an odd request, although not for viewers who’ve been paying attention. Roman’s attire is decades out of date, his manner of walking awkward and ungainly, his head bobbing slightly like a nervous bird. He’s never without the massive, battered briefcase that bulges with his most prized accomplishment: the career-long construction of a class action lawsuit with the potential to establish federal precedent ... if only somebody will co-author and file it for him.

He uses far too many words to answer simple questions, his attention forever wandering, his gaze — in the presence of other people — oddly unfocused.

I find it intriguing that this film’s press notes avoid the use of the terms autistic or spectrum, because there’s absolutely no doubt that Roman is such an individual. He has no filter and is blunt — and truthful — to the point of cruelty: self-righteously idealistic to a degree that prevents compromise on any level. Small wonder Jackson carefully kept him in a back office.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco: A tasty treat

Coco (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.17

This one’s deceptive.

At first blush, Pixar’s Coco feels like the saga of a little boy who desperately wants to embrace melody and song, but is thwarted by parents and relatives with a deeply rooted aversion to music.

As his faithful dog Dante watches attentively, Miguel prepares to receive a blessing from
his long-deceased Mamá Imelda: a necessary ritual, lest the boy be forced to remain
forever in the Land of the Dead. Alas, the blessing will come with strings attached...
That’s accurate enough, but merely the entry point to this wildly imaginative, gloriously colorful and unexpectedly poignant saga of family bonds. Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina — who also co-scripted the story, alongside Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich — have ingeniously employed Mexico’s annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration to illustrate the importance of honoring — and remembering — past generations.

The narrative takes place during a single fast-paced day and night, and is laden with gentle messages that range from To Thine Own Self Be True, to There’s No Place Like Home.

In the tradition of Pixar’s best films, the tone veers between droll comedy and heartbreaking pathos, and from larkish excitement to edge-of-the-seat suspense. At the same time, we’re dazzled by the animated equivalent of phenomenal production design, and charmed by some cleverly integrated songs, including an endearing ballad written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Academy Award-winning team behind the power anthem “Let It Go,” from Frozen.

The rather complex narrative defies an elevator pitch, and opens with a prologue that cleverly establishes back-story via Día de los Muertos paper-cut flags. We then meet 12-year-old Miguel (voiced with earnest sincerity by young Anthony Gonzalez), who chafes at the limitations imposed by a jovial clan of shoemakers.

This family business has become the pride of Santa Cecilia: a calling that began with Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda, as a means of survival when her husband abandoned the family — including toddler daughter Coco — in order to follow his dream of becoming a famous musician. Mamá Imelda’s subsequent ban on music has been enforced strictly by subsequent generations, much to Miguel’s dismay.

He dreams of growing up to be a celebrated musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, who became the most famous musician in Mexican history: conquering pop charts, movies and concert stages.

But thanks to the disciplinarian edicts of his grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor), the frustrated Miguel believes that he’s backed into an either/or corner: He must choose between his passion for music, and his love for his family. Efforts at persuasion merely harden Abuelita’s position, and so Miguel — having accidentally stumbled upon a family secret — yields to an ill-advised impulse, as night falls on Día de los Muertos.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: Clever take on a holiday chesnut

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

This is a droll bit of seasonal mischief.

Les Standiford’s scholarly, quasi-biography of Charles Dickens — 2008’s The Man Who Invented Christmas — seems an unlikely source for a mainstream, holiday-themed film; scripter Susan Coyne deserves credit for an unusual (if hardly original) approach.

As Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, seated) struggles to work his way through the five
"staves" of his new book, he's helped — and hindered — by his imagined personification
of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
The result proceeds briskly under the capable guidance of British film and TV director Bharat Nalluri, perhaps best known on these shores for 2008’s charming Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Nalluri and Coyne similarly concentrate on whimsical character dynamics here, presenting us with a 31-year-old Dickens — played with agreeably feverish anxiety by Dan Stevens — beset by all manner of troubles.

The film begins with a brief prologue in 1842, with Dickens celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, his stage readings standing-room-only sell-outs in the wake of his wildly popular novels Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Flash-forward a year and change, and Dickens is in dire financial straits after three published flops, including — most particularly — the unloved Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens is at wit’s end: unable to pay the craftsmen appointing his luxurious new home; forever harried by his spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce, as John Dickens); and newly panicked by the news that his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) is expecting their fifth child. Worse yet, he’s months into a ferocious case of writer’s block, the public disdain for his recent output having paralyzed his creative juices.

Best friend and sorta-kinda agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) isn’t much help, his advice limited to little beyond “Well, just write another book.” Dickens’ publishers — Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage) — are similarly useless: actually worse than useless, when they reject the pitch for his next book.

They hardly can be blamed, as it’s a crazed notion: a vaguely defined story about Christmas. Nobody writes about Christmas; nobody cares about Christmas. As the boorish husband of one of Dickens’ aristocratic readers sniffs, Christmas is “just an excuse to pick a man’s pocket once a year.”

If that line sounds familiar, you’ve recognized one key element in Coyne’s script.

The narrative conceit here is that Dickens overhears and jots down names, comments and possible plot contrivances from family, friends and random strangers. (Young Irish housemaid Tara — winningly played by Anna Murphy — helps him come up with the name “Scrooge.”) It’s a delightful notion, particularly for those well-versed in A Christmas Carol’s characters and quotable lines.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying: Long may it wave

Last Flag Flying (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude remarks

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.17.17

This may be the most unusual road film I’ve ever seen.

The genre is characterized by a trip undertaken by two (sometimes more) individuals who initially don’t get along, and often bond — if only to a degree — by journey’s end. “Great truths” about the travelers are revealed along the way; the more thoughtful scripts also include perceptive social commentary, sometimes speaking to the human condition.

When another snag interrupts their melancholy journey, Sal (Bryan Cranston, right)
naturally drags his companions — Richard (Laurence Fishburne, left) and Doc (Steve
Carell) — to the nearest bar.
The approach can be straight drama, high comedy or a combination of the two. The best examples employ gentle laughter to illuminate human foibles.

Director Richard Linklater has co-scripted — with Darryl Ponicsan — a deeply moving road film that builds to an almost unbearably poignant conclusion. Last Flag Flying has much to recommend it, starting with a clever narrative that is punctuated by often hilarious dialogue. Linklater also draws deeply moving performances from his three stars, and equal mention must be made of the two key co-stars.

But the film is too long at 124 minutes, the pacing too deliberate, many of the slow takes too lingering. Whether in cars, bars, restaurants or trains, this is essentially a “talking heads” experience, and — no matter how well sculpted the drama — that’s hard to sustain for two full hours.

Which is a shame. Tightened by even 10 to 15 minutes, this film might have been a classic for the ages.

The story, set in 2003, begins when soft-spoken New Hampshire family man and former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) unexpectedly shows up at the Norfolk, Va., bar owned by alcoholic former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Three decades removed from their shared tour in Vietnam, Sal doesn’t immediately recognize his former buddy; once past that snag, smiles abound.

Doc asks a favor; Sal doesn’t hesitate a blink before accepting. Doc drives them a few hours away, where they’re just in time to catch a church service led by Pastor Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a mutual comrade-in-arms remembered as an unrestrained Marine tear-away. The unexpected dichotomy is almost more than the giggling Sal can stand.

Later, sharing a sumptuous meal prepared by Richard’s wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), Doc confesses the purpose for this reunion. He has just learned that his only son, a young Marine, has been killed in Iraq; Doc hopes that his two friends will accompany him on a road trip to attend the 21-year-old Larry Jr.’s burial at Arlington Cemetery. They agree.

This process begins with a brief “coffin ceremony” at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, where military coffins are de-planed clandestinely, to avoid the public glare (a shameful media blackout orchestrated at the time by the Bush administration, in an effort to recast the Iraqi conflict as a “good news” story).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Signs of the Times?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s savagely dark assault on mainstream sensibilities is both a blistering burlesque and a painfully raw depiction of despair, frustration and unchecked rage. Much of this film obviously cannot — should not — be taken seriously; unfortunately, quite a lot also feels excruciatingly real.

Although troubled by the rather drastic step that Mildred (Frances McDormand) has taken,
in an effort to achieve closure regarding her daughter's long-unsolved murder, Police
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) checks his emotions while explaining the
frustrating circumstances behind the case.
And not all that unlikely.

The film is powered by Frances McDormand’s sensational starring performance, an acting tour-de-force even more persuasive — more believably, subtly grounded, even within exaggerated circumstances — than her Academy Award-winning work in 1996’s Fargo. And I never, ever expected to write those words.

Her Mildred Hayes is wracked with grief and unresolved anger: a single mother pushed to the edge by her teenage daughter’s gruesome rape/murder, which remains unsolved after seven months. Fed up with what she perceives as investigative apathy, Mildred purchases messages on three long-unused billboards standing alongside the quiet road leading to her home.

The three-part message is a direct and controversial challenge to local police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Many of the residents in bucolic Ebbings regard Mildred’s provocative act as profoundly unfair. Tellingly, Willoughby isn’t all that bothered. But second-in-command Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature, racist, violence-prone mama’s boy who wouldn’t know prudence if she kissed him, gets ugly. Repeatedly.

The subsequent unraveling of McDonagh’s vicious narrative is laden with revelations, which is much of the fun: You simply cannot anticipate the twists and U-turns, and there’s no sense trying.

Casting is the first surprise, because Harrelson has built his career — in great measure — on a series of unbalanced and even dangerous misanthropes; we naturally expect the same here. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Willoughby is the story’s most rational, thoughtful and level-headed character: a decent man who wins our respect, because he responds to Mildred not with hostility, but kindness and sympathy.

It’s an absolutely cold case, he gently explains, after the billboards go up. No telling evidence. No DNA hits. Nada.

Harrelson exudes good-natured pragmatism and intelligence; he’s genuinely endearing. We all should be so lucky, to have such a thoughtful police chief.

Mildred is unconvinced; Willoughby acknowledges this as her right.

Justice League: And so it begins...

Justice League (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

Seeing director Zack Snyder’s name attached to this film was not happy news, given the degree to which he ruined both 2013’s Man of Steel and last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Having responded to the bat-signal illuminated by Police Commissioner Gordon (J.K.
Simmons, far left), the newly formed Justice League — from left, Wonder Woman (Gal
Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Batman (Ben Affleck) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) —
learn that Gotham City is, once again, in serious trouble.
Snyder has much in common with director Michael Bay, similarly notorious for the Transformers franchise. Both favor bloated, soulless, humorless slugfests that wreak havoc on landscapes and cityscapes, while casually snuffing hundreds (thousands?) of civilian bystanders. Their films are the very definition of mindless product over art.

On the other hand, I was cheered to note Joss Whedon as co-scripter on Justice League. As the writer/director of 2012’s The Avengers, Whedon established the template for solid, successful superhero epics. Fans have recognized Whedon’s gift since television’s Buffy slayed her first vampire, back in 1996: He has an unerring talent for blending action fantasy with a (frequently droll) human element, which eases our suspension of disbelief.

And is a helluva lot more fun.

It’s easy to spot Whedon’s touch in Justice League, which is most successful during its first and second acts, as the stage is set, and the players assembled. It’s equally easy to see that the third act belongs to Snyder ... but not entirely. Even here, we get the vicarious relief of the unmistakable Whedon touch.

Justice League picks up in the immediate wake of Batman v Superman. The latter is dead, having perished at the hands of a Kryptonian monster genetically engineered by the villainous Lex Luthor. The country (the world?) is sliding quickly into anarchy, humanity apparently having abandoned hope after losing its gallant symbol for truth, justice and the American way.

(Ah ... but is Big Blue really, truly dead?)

Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Diana Prince (the Amazon Wonder Woman) are doing their best to stem the lawless tide, but they operate in the shadows; they’re not “living symbols” in the manner of Superman. Worse yet, Batman has been encountering winged “parademons” — very hard to kill — that seem to be seeking something.

Mindful of the need for additional super-powered allies, in order to hold off whatever comes next, Bruce and Diana reach out to three promising individuals: Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a twentysomething nerd transformed by a lightning strike into The Flash; Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), dubbed Aquaman, and heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a once-promising college football player nearly killed in a horrific accident, and “saved” when his scientist father Silas (Joe Morton) employed alien tech to transform his son into the biomechanical Cyborg.