Friday, February 24, 2017

A United Kingdom: A stirring, heartfelt drama

A United Kingdom (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for racial epithets and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.17

This film’s arrival couldn’t be more timely.

We need it. Desperately. And others like it.

Having met only recently, but nonetheless mutually smitten, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)
and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) spend every free moment together ... despite the
knowledge that responsibilities soon will force him to leave England.
Director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is a sensitively handled, deeply moving account of the turmoil that erupted in 1948, when Seretse Khama, the new young king of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), had the ill-advised audacity to fall in love with — and marry — Lloyd’s of London office clerk Ruth Williams.

It’s a helluva story. Their union became a headline-making scandal in both his homeland and Britain, despite the latter’s (somewhat) more tolerant attitude toward the color barrier. But broadmindedness had nothing to do with the British government’s reaction, which was shaped solely by nervous anxiety over South Africa’s decision, that same year, to implement apartheid ... which, among many other cruel decrees, banned interracial marriage.

South Africa viewed the existence of just such an interracial couple, directly across its northern border, as a provocative insult. Britain, deeply in debt following the war, desperately needed to maintain the influx of cheap South African gold and uranium, and also worried about the havoc and economic ruin that would result, should South Africa choose to invade its smaller neighbor.

Guy Hibbert’s screenplay — adapted from Susan Williams’ 2006 book, Colour Bar — certainly doesn’t shy from the political and economic issues that prompted such bad behavior by so many individuals in the British government, up to and including Winston Churchill, when he began his second term as prime minister in 1951. At the same time, the new young king faced equal censure from his own people, already chafing under intrusive British “guidance,” and therefore deeply resentful of this white female interloper who knew nothing of their culture, history or deeply rooted national pride.

But Asante never allows such controversy and international fallout to overwhelm the two people at the heart of this saga, and that’s where this film gets its core strength. Stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are both terrific, depicting their respective characters with dignity, grace, intelligence and firm resolve. Rarely have two people been forced to confront such harsh barriers to the peace and happiness they shared, in each other’s company.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ma Vie de Courgette: A poignant charmer

Ma Vie de Courgette (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

The Academy Award nominees in the Best Animated Film category always include one or two obscure surprises, and this year’s roster is no exception. American viewers well acquainted with Zootopia and Moana are apt to raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Ma Vie de Courgette, which is unlikely to achieve wide release in the States ... and more’s the pity.

Smitten by the captivating girl who has just joined the rest of the children at the orphanage,
Courgette makes a card that he hopes will express his feelings.
Indeed, the closest venues to the Sacramento market appear to be in Berkeley and San Francisco, where venues are scheduled to open the film on March 3. Check the official web site for details.

Animated films, as with any other genre, are a rich and varied international affair; the annual Oscar contenders are a timely reminder of this fact, even if American viewers are loathe to embrace such diversity. I still mourn the lamentable fate of 2012’s Ernest et Célestine, a French charmer that absolutely deserved to win the year that everybody went crazy for Frozen. Even with the publicity generated by its nomination, Ernest et Célestine couldn’t crack our market.

I’d hate to see the same thing happen to Ma Vie de Courgette. Aside from celebrating the patience and artistic skill with which Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras has created this film, via stop-motion animation, we also must applaud the narrative — adapted by Céline Sciamma from Giles Paris’ 2002 novel, Autobiographie d’une Courgette — as a deeply moving saga of children who fall through society’s cracks.

Indeed, the genius of this film lies in the very animated medium employed to tell its story. A live-action presentation, with actual children living these roles, would have been quite difficult to endure. By “distancing” us with colorful stop-motion puppets, Barras makes the same telling points in a kinder, gentler — but no less powerful — manner.

Barras even employed untrained children to voice these characters, which adds considerable intensity to the drama. These young performers deliver the same sweet, natural sincerity and stumbling uncertainty that characterized the kids hired to voice Charlie Brown and his friends, when A Charlie Brown Christmas became the first prime-time Peanuts TV special, back in 1965. (Using children was innovative then, when animated characters always were voiced by adults.)

Unfortunately, the English-language dub of Ma Vie de Courgette — released here as My Life as a Zucchini, a somewhat misleading translation — clearly involved veteran voice performers, which somewhat diminishes the film’s magic. Try, if possible, to catch the film in its original form.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall: Great fun!

The Great Wall (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang

According to report, this film cost $150 million.

Rarely will you see money spent so well. Every dollar is visible on the screen.

As a monstrous assault threatens to overwhelm the Great Wall's resident army, Lin Mae
(Jing Tian) and her most trusted warriors — from left, William Garin (Matt Damon),
Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and an Imperial Guard soldier (Cheney Chen) — lead a
small unit in a stealth mission, hoping to out-flank the creatures.
Mayes C. Rubeo’s costumes alone probably stretched the budget to the limit. If she doesn’t win the 2017 Academy Award for costume design, there is no justice.

The Great Wall is one of the fabled “cast of thousands” sagas that we’ve not seen for decades. Director Zhang Yimou’s period adventure is a stylish, rip-snortin’ thrill ride that hits the ground running and never lets up: an exciting and thoroughly entertaining blend of Aliens and 1964’s Zulu, with the athletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It is, and well deserves to be called, a true epic. And we also don’t get those very often, these days.

Granted, the deliberate inclusion of Western actors — apparently essential, to court the all-important American market — is a bit of an eyebrow-lifter. Placing Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal in 12th century China, with little more than a token explanation of how their characters could have gotten there, is quite contrived; no surprise that this film’s six (!) credited scripters didn’t try hard to explain it.

But once beyond that hiccup, the story zips right along; Zhang paces and choreographs the complex action sequences with the authority of a master conductor. That’s no surprise, coming from the director who similarly entertained us with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, along with equally compelling “straight” dramas such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Flowers of War.

Even the establishing tableaus are breathtaking, as cinematographers Stuart Dryburth and Xiaoding Zhao traverse the expanse of John Myhre’s production design. We’ve not seen world-building on this scale since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

That comparison is apt for another reason, since Damon’s amazing bow-and-arrow skills can’t help evoking fond memories of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.

The story begins with a prologue of sorts, as William Garin (Damon) and his quintet of battle-scarred mercenaries attempt to outrun a much larger desert tribe. Our mercenary heroes (?) have come to Northern China in search of a fabled “black powder” that is capable of making great weapons.

They successfully escape, camping down for what they hope will be a restful night. But they’re suddenly attacked by an unseen something that quickly eviscerates all but William and Pero Tovar (Pascal). William manages to hack a limb off the beast, which then plunges to its doom down a deep canyon. But the severed claw is terrifying in its own right: huge, reptilian and unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

The Red Turtle: Peculiar and lifeless

The Red Turtle (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

This one’s a head-scratcher.

It’s important to note that The Red Turtle is only sponsored by Japan’s Studio Ghibli; the film is directed and co-written by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Thus, the style and palette are nothing like the vibrant, watercolor fantasies made famous by Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki; the texture and atmosphere here are much more subdued, and the detail work is noticeably sub-par.

When the man finally confronts the mystical beast that has been foiling his attempts to
leave the island on which he has been marooned, their initial confrontation is pregnant
with implication ... none of which the film addresses to any degree.
Indeed, Dudok de Wit’s figure composition strongly evokes the Tintin works of Belgian cartoonist Hergé (Georges Remi).

It’s essential to fall in love with the look of The Red Turtle — not an easy task — because that’s the film’s primary allure. Dudok de Wit is concerned primarily with mood and appearance; the actual narrative — which is exasperatingly vague — is of lesser consequence.

There’s also no dialog: none at all, aside from a few shouted protests or wordless exclamations of concern. Everything in this 80-minute film is conveyed via context, inference and body language. While Dudok de Wit can be congratulated for the occasional plot points that do emerge, solely via visuals, this technique does contribute to a tedious viewing experience.

The film’s numerous accolades and Academy Award nomination notwithstanding, I can’t see it becoming a much-viewed classic.

The story begins as a lone man is washed ashore on a deserted island. We never get his name, nor do we learn anything about him, aside from the reasonable survival skills that suggest he’s a sailor. Of the circumstances that dumped him into the ocean, we know nothing.

The partially forested island provides sufficient food and fresh water; the man quickly sets about constructing a raft from downed tree wood. But his effort to sail beyond a surrounding reef is scuttled when some large, unseen, undersea something whomps against the raft and scatters it into scores of pieces.

Undeterred, the man builds another raft, and tries again. Same result.

Something doesn’t want him to leave. Something in the sea? The spirit of the island itself?

Get used to such questions, because this film is full of them. None gets answered.

A Cure for Wellness: Worse than any disease

A Cure for Wellness (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for graphic nudity, rape, profanity, violence and highly disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

File this one under You’ve Got To Be Kidding.

Successful directors with runaway egos are to be feared. Sooner or later, many of them succumb to self-indulgent, often “long-nurtured” vanity projects that defy reason and emerge as ludicrously bloated and self-indulgent. Some badly dent or even ruin careers; others bankrupt studios.

Having been injured under suspicious circumstances, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) decides
to explore the mysterious sanitarium where none of the resident clients show any
desire to leave.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas stumbled badly, respectively, with 1941 and Howard the Duck. Andy and Lana Wachowski blew their Matrix profits on Speed Racer. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman still get taunted for Ishtar. Eddie Murphy simply didn’t survive the fallout from The Adventures of Pluto Nash; director Renny Harlan suffered the same fate, after Cutthroat Island. Joseph L. Mankiewicz nearly took down Fox, with Cleopatra. Michael Cimino did destroy United Artists, with Heaven’s Gate.

There are many, many more ... and to their company we now can add Gore Verbinski, the arrogant driving force behind A Cure for Wellness.

Savvier Hollywood types should have known better, given that Verbinski already demonstrated his tendency toward wretched excess, with his recent update of The Lone Ranger. But the fact that he also helmed the first three wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean installments apparently blinded Those In Charge to all the red flags that should have been waving, from their first glimpse of this new project’s misbegotten script.

I’ve a theory that “high-class horror” is an oxymoron. Successfully scary movies, by their very nature, seem to demand modest (even microscopic) budgets and the exhilarating momentum that results from ground-level, guerrilla-style filmmaking; this has been true ever since producer Val Lewton chaperoned his B-unit shockers for RKO Pictures, back in the 1940s.

Commercial success for such endeavors often is a happy surprise, rather than a specific goal.

But the moment an A-list director, armed with a prestige budget, tries to make a “serious” fright flick ... the resulting flop almost is inevitable. See Exhibit A: Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Oh, it’s beautiful to look at, and Kubrick gets points for instilling a creepy atmosphere ... but scary? Hardly. Unintentionally funny, perhaps, but not terrifying; it’s too antiseptic and soulless to induce nightmares.

Which brings us to A Cure for Wellness, and its ponderous, insufferably calculated pretense of horror. Verbinski didn’t merely direct this bloated travesty; he also co-wrote the original script with Justin Haythe, who also collaborated on The Lone Ranger. (Ahem.) The result gets off to a reasonably promising start — to be fair — but quickly succumbs to laborious, overwrought theatrics and self-indulgently arty tableaus.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The 2016 Oscar Shorts: Little treasures (for the most part)

The 2016 Oscar Shorts (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, although the live-action entries include profanity, nudity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have an almost xenophobic tendency — for the most part — to limit feature film nominees to American productions. The entire wealth of overseas entries are forced to duke it out in the single Best Foreign Film category.

Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) and Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) embark on an unlikely
relationship, in Silent Nights.
Granted, exceptions exist; Back in 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pulled a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, winning four. But that’s rare; an average year generally fields only one or two token foreign nominees. That’s certainly the case with the 2016 contenders: Isabelle Huppert is a Best Actress nominee for France’s Elle, and Sweden’s A Man Called Ove pulled a nod for Best Makeup. And that’s it.

As Garfield has been known to observe, Big, fat, hairy deal.

How refreshing, then, that the two short film categories usually are a gloriously international affair.

An impressive 137 live-action short films qualified for the 89th annual Academy Awards, of which 10 were short-listed back in late November. Those subsequently were winnowed to the final five contenders, which — as has become an annual tradition — currently are touring the country as part of an Oscar Shorts package. They’re showing locally at Sacramento’s Crest Theater, between now and the end of the month.

Voters apparently favored European sensibilities this year, with the five finalists — every one of them thoughtful, provocative and/or delightful — hailing from France, Switzerland, Denmark, Hungary and Spain.

I only wish the voters in the animated short film category had displayed similar taste, judgment and imagination. Ten titles were short-listed, again in late November, from an initial 69 submissions; they subsequently were narrowed down to the five remaining nominees. To my surprise and disappointment, they’re all English-language: three from the States, and the remaining two from Canada.

And at the risk of offending our Northern neighbor, both of the Canadian entries leave much to be desired.

I simply cannot believe that none of the other 64 contenders, no doubt from all sorts of different countries, weren’t better than those two nominees. The mind doth boggle.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie: A delightfully sassy genre mash-up

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.10.17

This film doesn’t merely break the fourth wall; that invisible structure between viewer and on-screen action is virtually shattered ... into thousands of little LEGO bricks.

When newly minted Gotham City Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon suggests teaming
up with Batman, the resolutely lone-wolf vigilante is at a loss for words ... but only
brieftly. His answer: "No."
Rarely have a genre, franchise and stable of characters so cheekily, hilariously and relentlessly indulged in winking, nudging and self-parody. In its own gleefully warped way, this may be the best big-screen Batman movie ever made. It’s certainly the funniest and most consistently entertaining.

That said, the approach taken here by director Chris McKay — and a veritable army of scripters — is vastly different than the gentler touch that characterized 2014’s The LEGO Movie. That first film charmed audiences, in great part, because of its unexpected innocence and sense of discovery: a tone that was essential to the story’s climactic “surprise reveal.”

The first film also was instructive, in the sense of establishing its LEGO universe, the structural rules therein, and the unexpected quest that gave humble construction worker Emmet Brickowoski his opportunity for greatness.

This sequel takes all that for granted ... meaning, for starters, that you’d better already know the significance of being a “master builder.” More to the point, aside from the chuckles constantly prompted by the brick-y look of these characters and their surroundings, McKay and his writers don’t really exploit the “LEGO-ness” to any significant degree; this film probably would have been just as much fun in any animation style.

The first film was more intimate, at an individual brick level, which made it rather sweet. This sequel is more cinematic, operating on a much larger scale that frequently obscures its LEGO qualities.

Instead, the story gets its momentum from colorful pizzazz, warp-speed editing, self-referential gags, bad puns and an irreverent sense of humor: all qualities that I’d expect from an animation director who made his rep on snarky Adult Swim TV shows such as Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum.

The result is akin to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature, if mocking commentators Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy were, themselves, part of the film they were dissing.

On top of which, this film’s primary story credit goes to novelist Seth Grahame-Smith, who was responsible for the genre-mangling mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. About which, no more need be said.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Comedian: Can't work the crowd

The Comedian (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.3.17

Portions of this film possess the buoyant, effervescent spontaneity of the sublime jazz score by celebrated trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

But only portions.

When Jackie (Robert De Niro) is invited to his niece's wedding, he impulsively asks new
friend Harmony (Leslie Mann) to tag along, little anticipating her questionable taste in
attire. Worse yet, he fails to foresee that his doting niece will expect him to "say a few
words" ... never a good idea for Jackie, in front of a conservative crowd.
Lengthy chunks of the wildly uneven screenplay — Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman obviously having been too many scripting cooks in the kitchen — ring entirely false. The core relationship isn’t credible for a moment, and the rest of the story can’t rise above that shortcoming.

Nor can Taylor Hackford pull things together. The one-time A-list director of hits such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Against All Odds has stumbled lately, with 2004’s Ray being his most recent success. Love Ranch and Parker did nothing for his résumé, and this new effort doesn’t improve matters. It won’t make a dime.

Other films have covered this ground more successfully, from 1969’s The Comic to 1988’s Punchline and 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. For that matter, Robert De Niro himself did far better back in ’82, in Martin Scorsese’s acid-hued The King of Comedy.

The Comedian is the familiar story of a once-great talent grown embittered by the fact that people only recognize him for something he did 20 years earlier. In this case, it’s insult stand-up comic Jackie Burke (De Niro), who back in the day lucked into a wildly popular TV sitcom, Eddie’s Home.

Two decades later, fans haven’t the slightest interest in his current material; they only want to hear him shout that show’s signature line — “AR-leeeeeeeeeen!” — delivered every time his blue-collar character was exasperated by his ditsy wife. (The echo of Jackie Gleason’s similar bellow, in TV’s long-ago The Honeymooners, seems deliberate.) Worse yet, people insist on calling him Eddie.

That might be tolerable, if Jackie still could command headlines. But these days he’s relegated to the likes of the tiny, half-empty Long Island club where the story begins: a miserable fate that he has helped create, in part because of his spiteful, intolerant tendency to diss people offstage, they way he insults them from behind a microphone.

Much to the ongoing dismay of his loyal but long-suffering manager, Miller (Edie Falco).

The Space Between Us: Keep it far, far away

The Space Between Us (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for minor sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

This film isn’t merely bad; it’s impressively, defiantly awful.

The silliest TV soap operas aren’t this eye-rollingly overwrought.

With Genesis corporate guards and lackeys hot on their heels, Gardner (Asa Butterfield)
manages an improbable escape in a rickety crop-duster piloted by his newly introduced
best friend, Tulsa (Britt Robertson). One has to wonder why an ancient biplane still would
be used for such agricultural work, at a point in the future when space missions are
hopping back and forth to Mars.
The acting is wildly uneven. The writing is dreadful. The direction is beyond clumsy. The use of music — and the score itself — are thunderously flamboyant. The applications of science — this is, after all, a futuristic adventure — are repeatedly, recognizably faulty.

I’ve never seen a film with such a brazen display of grandiosity, as if every artificially portentous, laughably embroidered line of dialog deserved to be chiseled as the 11th Commandment.

My mental warning klaxon began shrieking 30 seconds into the very first scene: a press conference led by Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), founder of Genesis Space Technologies, who intends to solve Earth’s many geological, climate-induced and socio-political crises by establishing a human settlement on Mars. (As if spending gazillions to eventually put a few dozen people on Mars would mitigate such issues?)

Oldman, in by far the worst performance of his lengthy career, puts such pompous weight onto each syllable, that I’d not have been surprised if a celestial choir had descended from the heavens.

Shepherd introduces the six-person crew, led by mission head Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery); they field a few questions and then board the rocket that whisks them to the orbiting Genesis Magellan-61 spacecraft, for their months-long journey to the Red Planet.

Shortly into this trip, Sarah is discovered to be pregnant.

We pause, for the first of many reality checks:

Head of the mission, the public-relations fate of an entire corporation on her shoulders, and Sarah imprudently has unprotected sex shortly before she departs for Mars? Given that she’s the only woman in the crew, that’s not merely narratively stupid; it’s a grossly insulting and sexist contrivance on the part of scripters Allan Loeb, Stewart Schill and Richard Barton Lewis. And it’s merely the first of countless, groaningly awful plot hiccups.

Please, somebody: Take away their keyboards before they commit writing again.