Friday, March 31, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife: Holocaust heroine

The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief sexuality, nudity and moments of extreme dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.31.17

I marvel at the wealth of previously undisclosed stories that continue to emerge from the Holocaust, particularly with respect to the bravery of ordinary citizens who risked their lives while defying Nazi oppressors.

As Antonina (Jessica Chastain, seated on the stool) and her son Ryszard (Timothy Radford)
enjoy a rare peaceful moment with the Jewish refugees concealed in their basement —
from left, Magda (Efrat Dor), Urszula (Shira Haas) and Regina (Martha Issova) —
they're startled by an unexpected knock at the front door, upstairs.
New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose thoughtful and sensitive films have included The Whale Rider and North Country, has delivered an equally compelling adaptation of poet/naturalist Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The resulting drama, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s luminescent starring performance, is touching, suspenseful and at times flat-out horrific, revealing yet another layer of atrocities committed in pursuit of Nazi “cleansing” and “species enhancement.”

Ackerman’s book was constructed primarily from the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska (played here by Chastain), who with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) directed Poland’s unexpectedly progressive Warsaw Zoo during the years leading up to World War II. Most of the animals were kept not in cages but in habitats resembling their natural environments; numerous critters also wandered among or even lived in the spacious, cheerfully chaotic on-site home with Antonina, Jan and their young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford).

The fascinating complexity of Chastain’s performance is immediately apparent. On the surface Antonina seems vulnerable, slightly withdrawn and oddly fragile: a woman not quite comfortable with the trappings and protocols of so-called refined society. But in the company of the zoo’s wildlife she blossoms into something transcendent: an empathetic “animal whisperer” practically capable of communicating with all the birds and beasts.

We eventually learn the reason for Antonina’s wariness: She’s a Russian-born Pole, and as a child saw her parents killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Trust does not come easily, which also explains her greater comfort among animals.

The Żabińska’s social life is lively, varied and bohemian, their circle of friends including artists, professionals and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. The subtle viper in their midst is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a colleague who visits frequently in his capacity as director of the Berlin Zoo. Even in these early scenes, there’s something predatory about Heck’s gaze, particularly when it lingers on Antonina; it feels as if Brühl’s eyes turn reptilian and beady.

Antonina makes the rounds of the zoo each morning on a bicycle, a young camel trotting alongside enthusiastically. Should a particular critter appear to desire company or need assistance, Antonina will kick off her shoes before entering the habitat barefoot, like some sort of forest-born wild child.

None of this is the slightest bit affected or risible under Caro’s careful guidance, and Angela Workman’s finely tuned script. Nobody here channels the childish fantasy of Doctor Dolittle; if Antonina has any cinematic ancestor, it would be Audrey Hepburn’s mysterious Rima, in the 1959 adaptation of William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions.

Ghost in the Shell: Lacks the proper spirit

Ghost in the Shell (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, dramatic intensity and chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang

The tantalizing nature of identity — of soul —  has again become a hot sci-fi topic, particularly in the wake of HBO’s recent expansion of Michael Crichton’s Westworld concept.

After her cyborg body is slightly damaged during a skirmish with nasty assassins,
Major (Scarlett Johansson, right) patiently waits while new artificial skin is grafted onto
her left arm, listening as Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) reminds her that, cyber-
enhancements notwithstanding, she's not invulnerable.
Since art so often mirrors life, it’s tempting to relate the current revival to the rampant insecurity, paranoia and uncertainty sweeping our nation: the rising doubt over what it truly means to be “American.”

Be that as it may, this new Western adaptation of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is quite timely, although I can’t help wondering what took so long. Masamune Shirow’s original manga graphic novel debuted in 1989, followed quickly by several sequels, a wildly popular 1995 animé adaptation (and several big-screen follow-ups), and a 2002 animé TV show (again with several continuation series).

All of them explored and expanded upon Shirow’s thoughtful observations about social evolution and its philosophical consequences, and particularly the manner in which rapidly advancing technology affects our concepts of consciousness and humanity.

Director Rupert Sanders’ new live-action film covers the same high-falutin’ philosophical territory, but this ho-hum Jamie Moss/William Wheeler script mostly resurrects a question that nagged at me, back when Ghost first materialized: I’ve always wondered to what degree Shirow might have been influenced by Robert Ludlum.

Because there’s no question that the core storyline is a cyberpunk spin on Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, and the many books and films subsequently spawned by that 1980 novel.

Which explains why — despite this new film’s dazzling depiction of our mid-21st century future — the action-packed plot seems so familiar. To paraphrase a famous song from an equally famous musical, Looks: 10, originality: 3.

The story takes place in a Pan-Asian metropolis that feels like a cross between the cityscapes of Blade Runner and Minority Report: opulent high rises and corporate towers jostling for space alongside blocky apartment complexes whose futuristic lines cannot conceal the dilapidation that speaks of their overcrowded, working-class residents.

The most striking visuals are the massive holographic advertisements that fill every millimeter of available space: a shrewdly prophetic — and frankly terrifying — depiction of what we could expect, if the corporate thugs behind our already distracting LED billboards continue to bully (or bribe) city council members into compliance.

The Boss Baby: Goo-goo-good!

The Boss Baby (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Many of Hollywood’s sharpest, wittiest scripts continue to be written for animated features, and The Boss Baby is no exception.

After discovering that his new baby brother has the voice, comprehension and experience
of an adult, Tim is warned not to reveal this information to their parents ... lest his new
sibling really turn the screws during some ramped-up sibling warfare.
Scripter Michael McCullers uses Marla Frazee’s popular 2010 children’s “board book” as little more than inspiration, for a laugh-a-second saga with the rat-a-tat pacing of a classic Road Runner cartoon. Although plenty of savvy humor is milked from the obvious premise — the tsunami-scale chaos that a newly arrived infant inflicts on an unprepared household — McCullers boldly takes this notion where no baby has gone before.

Director Tom McGrath and editor James Ryan keep the action fast and furious; although things sag a bit during the third act — 97 minutes might be a tot too long — all concerned have built up enough good will to surmount potential viewer restlessness. Besides, the story’s characters are cleverly conceived and well cast, with shrewdly selected voice actors: particularly the scene-stealing Alec Baldwin. It’s fun simply to spend time with them.

The story is narrated by an adult Tim (Tobey Maguire), looking back on his long-ago days as a 7-year-old only child who enjoyed his doting parents’ full attention, up to the multiple hugs, stories and songs requested each evening at bedtime. Life couldn’t be better.

It’s important to note, up front, that Tim (now voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi) has a hyperactive imagination worthy of Bill Watterson’s comic strip star Calvin, and therefore qualifies as a wholly unreliable narrator. You’ll not want to forget that crucial detail, as the droll and quite clever story progresses.

The news that he’s able to have a baby brother sends Tim into a tizzy: on the one hand fearful that his stranglehold on parental affection might be compromised; on the other hand genuinely curious about where babies “come from.” Cue the first of the film’s genius montages, as Tim envisions a heavenly assembly line process that progresses through numerous stages — the application of diapers, booties and binkies, and so forth — before a final shuttle-gate separates the infants into two categories.

Most swoop downward into the loving arms of waiting parents. A select few, however, are judged to have a greater desire for business than nurture, and therefore wind up in functionary or management positions at Baby Co., which runs the entire operation.

Which explains, when Tim rises the next morning, why his new baby brother arrives via taxi, wearing a three-piece suit (details that don’t seem to bother his parents).

Friday, March 24, 2017

Life: Terminate all support

Life (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, gore and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.24.17

Director Daniel Espinosa opens his sci-fi chiller with an absolutely stunning sequence: a vertigo-inducing montage that tracks through the narrow, weightless chambers of an orbiting International Space Station, showing each of its six astronaut crewmembers at work.

With a rapidly growing and ferociously hostile alien whatzit close behind, David (Jake
Gyllenhaal) and Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) "swim" through the corridors of the
International Space Station, hoping to trap their pursuer in a single compartment.
The verisimilitude is uncanny, with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey heightening the cramped, claustrophobic environment while tilting this way and that, his camera completing full 360-degree turns as the crew members drift and pull themselves, weightlessly, through every wholly realistic detail of production designer Nigel Phelps’ meticulously constructed corridors and modules.

This is golly-gee-whiz filmmaking at its finest: a prologue clearly intended to one-up Alfonso Cuarón’s equally mesmerizing opening sequence in 2013’s Gravity. This one runs at least five spellbinding minutes, and it’s all — even more amazingly — a single shot, with no cutaways. (Or let’s put it this way: If camera trickery somehow feigned the single shot, the effect is seamless.)

This spectacular preface complete, the action ceases briefly in order to present the film’s title — L – I – F – E — in a somber, sinister font.

At which point, you should get up and leave, because things go downhill from there.

Quite rapidly.

Scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have delivered another textbook example of the so-called “idiot plot,” which lurches from one crisis to the next solely because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times. Our real-world ISS astronauts should sue for character assassination.

Although at its core a shameless rip-off of Alien — with superior, up-to-the-nanosecond special effects — there’s a major difference between this film and that 1979 classic. Sigourney Weaver and her comrades weren’t blithering idiots, and — important distinction — the biologically fascinating critter they faced may have been powerful and dangerous, but it was mortal.

The whatzit foolishly unleashed in Life has the unstoppable fantasy omnipotence of Jason Voorhees or Freddie Krueger. Much worse, these supposedly intelligent, vigorously trained scientist-astronauts are just as foolish, foolhardy and emotionally immature as the slasher fodder in those doomed teenager flicks.

It’s therefore impossible to root for them, or care about them, because Espinosa and his writers treat them like disposable meat-bags. And, given the extraordinary production detail against which this imbecilic story is told, that’s a crushing disappointment.

Wilson: Unwatchable

Wilson (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for sexuality and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

Some films are so relentlessly unpleasant, that it’s impossible to imagine what the folks involved were thinking.

Take Wilson. (Please.)

Determined to compensate for 17 years of absent fatherhood, Wilson (Woody Harrelson)
takes ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern, right) and their adopted-out daughter Claire
(Isabella Amara) to a kiddyland play-park. Interesting choice.
Is it supposed to be enlightening? Instructive? Philosophical? Emblematic of the human condition? A statement of where we are, at this point in time?

Director Craig Johnson and scripter Daniel Clowes must’ve had something high-falutin’ in mind, because the result certainly isn’t anything as basic as entertaining. Or amusing. Or witty, poignant, endearing or any of scores of other experiences we anticipate, when plonking down hard-earned cash for a night at the movies.

Ironically, I suspect that Johnson and Clowes genuinely believe that what they’ve wrought is a little bit of all those things.

Hardly. In baseball terms, Wilson is a whiffout. It’s clumsy, tedious and deadly-dull boring, with generous dollops of misanthropy, casual cruelty and contrived so-called tragedy. It is also interminable.

Honestly, I thought it’d never end. Entire generations were born, matured and died, during the time it took to endure this sad excuse for a movie.

Building a storyline around a thoroughly obnoxious curmudgeon is a delicate and precise art: On some level, we’ve gotta love the guy, or at least be amused by his antics. It’s not just a matter of screenplay finesse; the actor in question must be endearing, in spite of himself. Think Billy Bob Thornton, in Bad Santa; or Bill Murray, in St. Vincent. We forgive their mean-spirited behavior, because they’re so darn ... well ... irresistible.

Woody Harrelson’s Wilson is resistible. He’s boorish, confrontational, obnoxious, profane and spiteful, and never in a good way. He’s a neurotic loner with a deeply rooted loathing of civilized society, and a malicious craving to ruin everybody else’s day. He’s the sort of guy who, upon boarding a bus with only one other passenger, will sit right next to that innocent victim, just to annoy her.

And then, when said individual politely requests some space, Wilson reacts in high dudgeon, unable to believe the degree to which he has just been offended.

Five minutes with this guy, and we’re desperately scanning for the theater exits.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Stick to the original

Beauty and the Beast (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.17.17

This is a curious beast.

Try as she might, Belle (Emma Watson) cannot dissuade Gaston (Luke Evans) from
attempting to win her hand in marriage. Sadly, this dynamic will become quite
uncomfortable, once Gaston becomes vengeful.
Every frame of director Bill Condon’s film looks terrific. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is breathtaking, from the gingerbread quaintness of Belle’s adorable town of Villeneuve; to the Lovecraftian opulence of the Beast’s labyrinthine castle, with all of its brooding corridors and shambling minarets; to the darkly spooky, wintry forest that separates the two.

Visual effects producer Steve Gaub seamlessly integrates the live-action characters with their enchanted comrades, and the voice acting is superlative: Ewan McGregor as the ever-gracious candelabra, Lumière; Emma Thompson as the kindly teapot, Mrs. Potts; Ian McKellen as the blustery mantel clock, Cogsworth; Stanley Tucci as the defiant harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza; Audra McDonald as the operatic, overly enthusiastic wardrobe, Madame de Garderobe; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the coquettish feather-duster, Plumette.

The primary characters are equally well cast, their performances admirably suited to the story’s fairy-tale atmosphere. Luke Evans steals the show as the arrogant, boorish Gaston, determined to wed Belle by any means necessary; the always impish Josh Gad — apparently Disney’s new secret weapon — gets all the best lines as Gaston’s snarky sidekick, LeFou.

Kevin Kline is sublime as Belle’s doting father, Maurice: a role that easily could slide into cliché, with all of the aging gentleman’s quirks, eccentricities and easily flustered nature. But Kline surmounts such stereotyping with a persuasive blend of dignity, devotion and vulnerability; he sets a new standard.

It’s difficult to determine how much credit Dan Stevens deserves, as the Beast, given that he’s completely concealed beneath Jenny Shircore’s extraordinary make-up. But we’re seeing plenty of evidence of Stevens’ extensive acting chops, on TV’s Legion, so I’m willing to believe that he deserves plaudits for the credibility of the Beast’s complex emotional swing. And Stevens certainly does a lot with his eyes and voice, giving us the very definition of a tragic, doomed character.

And then there’s Belle, the story’s anchor, played with pluck, sincerity and resourcefulness by Emma Watson. Belle is delightfully bookish and ingenuous as the story begins, and yet bold enough to reject Gaston to his face; Watson’s early scenes with Evans are marvelous, as Belle struggles to remain polite while her eyes convey utter disgust for this boastful creep.

The Last Word: How do we wish to be remembered?

The Last Word (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for blunt profanity

By Derrick Bang

Once the characters are introduced, and the core premise established, most folks will be able to anticipate all the plot beats coming in Stuart Ross Fink’s script.

Doesn’t matter. The execution is charming, from start to finish.

Small-town newspaper reporter Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried, left) is astonished when
take-charge Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine) barges into the publisher's office and
insists on commissioning — and fine-tuning — the obituary that'll run after her death.
Actors lucky enough to achieve milestone birthdays often are rewarded with the opportunity to play eccentric and/or cantankerous oldsters who leave a trail of shell-shocked victims in their wake: a stereotype that rarely fails to entertain. Indeed, such character portraits often result in nominations and awards. (Just for starters: Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van; Rolf Lassgård, A Man Called Ove; Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Grumpy Old Men; Art Carney, Harry and Tonto.)

Which brings us to tart-tongued, obsessive/compulsive Harriet Lauler: a once successful advertising executive whose world has contracted to the confines of her spacious, beautifully appointed — but empty — house, and who now marks the passage of each grindingly slow day with boredom and frustration. And who is played, with waspish delight, by Shirley MacLaine.

The Last Word — terrific title, by the way — finds Harriet adrift in a lonesome existence of her own making: completely isolated from the family members, former friends and colleagues that she has annoyed, offended, insulted or merely exasperated. Whether this seclusion is deserved, is beside the point; our heartbreaking introduction to Harriet finds her at low ebb, MacLaine wordlessly conveying the woman’s hushed despair during a somber montage accompanied solely by soft notes from Nathan Matthew David’s score.

This is by no means the first film to preface its narrative by mining gentle chuckles from a character’s ill-conceived suicide attempt. Goldie Hawn won an Oscar for doing so, back in 1969’s Cactus Flower; poor Lassgård’s similar efforts kept getting frustrated, in the aforementioned A Man Called Ove. The worst part for Harriet, after hospital treatment, is that she’s embarrassed to have revealed a weakness in her unswerving refinement.

But the act also prompts an epiphany, when she happens to glance at a random obituary in the local newspaper. Suddenly concerned about how she’ll be remembered in a few similarly short paragraphs, after her passing, Harriet impulsively decides to control the situation. She therefore hires the young journalist in question — Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) — to write her obituary. Now, while she’s still alive.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island — Plenty of thrills!

Kong: Skull Island (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and a bit generously, for intense fantasy violence and action, and fleeting strong profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.10.17

Every generation has its Tarzan, its Three Musketeers, its Sherlock Holmes.

And its King Kong.

Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Weaver (Brie Larson) discover — quite unexpectedly —
that Kong isn't the only massive creature to worry about, on Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island is a rip-snortin’ monster movie in the old-fashioned mold: a thrill-a-minute B adventure that boasts A-level action and special effects. Sure, the script — by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly — is formulaic and familiar, but it delivers on all counts; you really couldn’t expect more from this sort of roller coaster ride.

And, as befits 21st century sensibilities, we also get a gentle reminder of the importance of bio-diversity and species management, and the crucial role played by a top predator. Rather heady stuff for an exhilarating monster flick, and certainly welcome.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and editor Richard Pearson waste little time; they hit the ground running with a clever prologue, and then — after introducing the primary characters just long enough so we can bond — drop everybody into utter chaos.

Mention also must be made of the slick title credits sequence: always a good sign. (I’ve long believed that a director who insists on clever credits, will pay equal attention to all other aspects of his film.)

The action is set in 1973 in Southeast Asia, as the Vietnam war is winding down, leaving dedicated soldiers such as Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) somewhat adrift. Irritated by having been pulled out of a war that he views as “abandoned,” Packard — who commands a helicopter military unit — is delighted to receive one last mission: to escort a team of scientists who wish to chart a hitherto-undiscovered South Pacific landmass glimpsed by NASA’s orbiting Landsat 1.

Packard’s loyal, battle-hardened and tough-as-they-come “sky devils” include Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Slivko (Thomas Mann) and Reles (Eugene Cordero).

They’re the most visible of several dozen soldiers, but we don’t get to know any of the others. Which, yes, is suggestive...

Friday, March 3, 2017

Before I Fall: A thoughtful little fantasy

Before I Fall (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, dramatic intensity and considerable bad behavior by teens

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.3.17

This could be subtitled Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day.

The party is going well, which means that Lindsay (Halston Sage, far left) and her posse —
from left, Sam (Zoey Deutch), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) — already
have humiliated a fair number of peers. Sadly, the worst is yet to come.
But while there’s considerable truth to that mash-up designation, Maria Maggenti’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel is reasonably inventive in its own right; the narrative doesn’t succumb to potential pitfalls, and a third-act twist is a clever surprise. Director Ry Russo-Young draws credible performances from her young cast, and the result is a solid improvement over her earlier efforts (the little-seen Nobody Walks and You Won’t Miss Me).

But Russo-Young and Maggenti partially sabotage their efforts with superfluous voice-over narration and a wholly unnecessary flash-forward framing device, both of which imply that we dumb viewers aren’t savvy enough to follow the story on its own merits. While this likely is an effort to replicate the inner thoughts of the central character in Oliver’s book, film is a different medium. Contemplative narration that works on the page falls flat on the screen, feeling too much like a New Age sermon. (“Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow...”)

All concerned should have more faith: The core gimmick isn’t that hard to follow, and Zoey Deutch’s heartfelt performance easily anchors the action.

She stars as Samantha (Sam) Kingston, who wakens on what she assumes will be an average day ... which is to say, another opportunity to behave like the other condescending, insufferably spoiled bee-yatches in her posse: Ally (Cynthy Wu), Elody (Medalion Rahimi) and most particularly the hateful Lindsay (Halson Sage). All four wear upper-class entitlement on their designer sleeves. (Indeed, everybody in this community seems to have more money than God.)

This particular day is marked at the local high school with a pre-Valentine’s Day celebration dubbed Cupid Day, when single roses are sent by secret admirers. Alas, this is just another cruel exercise in marginalization: The most popular kids compete to see who can amass the biggest armload of roses, while those left out feel even more unloved.

Which, in turn, gives Lindsay another opportunity to taunt those she despises: notably “weird girl” Juliet (Elena Kampouris) and punkish lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson). Sam, Ally and Elody go along with such spiteful behavior because, well, that’s what friends do.

Everything about this day is difficult to endure — for us, as viewers — because of the relentless, self-centered arrogance. It begins when Sam wakes up, and contemptuously dismisses a sweet gesture by little sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay), and is scheduled to conclude after an unsupervised, late-night party, when she loses her virginity to boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley), a self-centered lout in his own right.

Logan: Beneath contempt

Logan (2017) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rated R, and generously, for relentless profanity and strong, brutal violence

By Derrick Bang

Discussing the big-screen adaptation of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, back in late 2014, gave me the excuse to indict Suzanne Collins’ reprehensible source novel as a complete betrayal of her characters, and of her readers: a needlessly nasty finale that cruelly (and pointlessly) killed major supporting characters while turning resourceful Katniss Everdeen into a sniveling victim.

When their attempt to enjoy one restful night is interrupted by a squadron of gun-toting
killers, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Laura (Dafne Keen) do their best to survive.
It was the most senseless, deliberately mean-spirited betrayal of a heroic franchise — by its original author, no less — that I’d ever encountered.

Until now. This film is even worse.

Logan doesn’t merely trash the long-beloved character of Wolverine, played here (for the ninth time!) by Hugh Jackman; director James Mangold and his gaggle of co-writers defecate all over the entire X-Men franchise and, by extension, the broader Marvel superhero universe. All this, with the apparent blessing of the parent company, given the familiar pre-credits Marvel Entertainment logo.

Shame on everybody involved.

Whereas 2014’s exciting X-Men: Days of Future Past cleverly employed backwards time travel as a means of re-booting the franchise — with smiles all around during the unexpectedly happy ending — Logan takes the opposite approach, moving the action forward to 2029. The tidings are grim: All of Logan’s X-Men comrades are dead, via some horrific event that apparently involved both Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and an evil scientific genius named Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant).

I say “apparently,” because while the film repeatedly references this ghastly occurrence, we never get details.

A despondent Logan, his once-invulnerable body being poisoned by the adamantium enhancements to his skeletal frame, is drinking his days away while earning chump change as a limo driver. His lair, across the border in Mexico, also serves as a hideout for Xavier, stricken with Alzheimer’s, senile dementia or some other brain disorder. Their sole companion is the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who fears that he’s doing little but watching his two friends die. Slowly.

Unlike the rival DC universe, which occasionally indulges in such canonical mischief by branding the results “imaginary stories” or “elseworlds tales,” Mangold makes no such reassurances here. This is the way things are ... and they’re about to get worse.

Table 19: Book elsewhere

Table 19 (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity, drug use, sexual candor and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

Wedding guests often receive inconsequential little favors: tchotchkes that may draw a smile or two in the moment, but are quickly forgotten.

This movie is just such an item.

The misfits at Table 19 wonder what they've done, to be abandoned in the wedding
reception's far corner: clockwise from left, Bina and Jerry Kemp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig
Robinson), "Nanny Jo" (June Squibb), Walter Thimple (Stephen Merchant), Rezno
Eckberg (Tony Revolori) and Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick).
Filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass are known for modest, character-driven comedies — such as Baghead and Jeff, Who Lives at Home — that feature eccentric folks who don’t quite inhabit the real world. They’re somewhat familiar, in a that-quiet-guy-next-door manner, but you’d probably avoid them in a social situation.

Table 19, alas, is so insubstantial that it would blow away during a soft breeze. The premise is droll but cramped, barely able to drag its way through a mercifully short 85 minutes. Indeed, the film pretty much runs out of gas after the first act, leaving its cast adrift in uncharted waters.

Maybe that’s why the Duplass boys, who generally helm their own material, farmed this one off to director Jeffrey Blitz. Who, to be fair, does the best with what he’s got. Individual moments of Table 19 are quite funny — co-star Stephen Merchant is hilarious throughout — and the core plotline builds to a an unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

But the film too frequently struggles and flounders through awkward silences, much like the half-dozen strangers thrust together at the “misfit table” during a wedding reception that pretty much ignores them.

Until the last moment, Eloise (Anna Kendrick) was the maid of honor for best friend Francie (Rya Meyers), eagerly helping with all wedding and reception details. Eloise also was in a steady relationship with Francie’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), serving as best man. But that was then; after being dumped by Teddy — via text, no less — Eloise was relieved of her duties and transformed into an instant persona non grata.

(Which, just in passing, seems shallow on Francie’s part ... just as it seems weird that the best man would be her brother. But I digress.)

Defiantly determined to attend the blessed event anyway, Eloise duly arrives to find herself consigned to the Siberia of reception regions: the dread, distant corner Table 19.