Friday, April 21, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Fails to find its rhythm

The Lost City of Z (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, violence, disturbing images, nudity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.21.17

Toward the end of this ambitious historical drama, a key character observes that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.

As Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, front) guides their boat ever deeper into uncharted
Amazonian waters, his companions — from left, Manley (Edward Ashley), Murray
(Angus Macfadyen) and Costin (Robert Pattinson) — warily watch for unfriendly tribesmen.
Sadly, that’s precisely the case with director/scripter James Gray’s disappointing The Lost City of Z. He’s simply unable to wrap his arms around the enormity of this saga.

The film’s subject, Lt. Col. Percival Harrison Fawcett, certainly deserves to be brought to the attention of modern audiences. The early 20th century British geographer, artillery officer and explorer, most famous for his eight mapping and archaeological expeditions to Brazil’s Amazon region, was fictionalized by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle, in a series of Professor Challenger novels and short stories published between 1912 and ’29.

Much more recently, Fawcett is rumored to have inspired a certain Indiana Jones.

By all accounts, Fawcett took his work more seriously than these pop-culture counterparts, but that’s no excuse for Gray to deliver such a grim, dreary and bloodless depiction of the man’s exploratory career. Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal of Fawcett is withdrawn and stoic; even the man’s moments of triumph feel muted, as if Hunnam can’t figure out how to depict genuine excitement.

His Fawcett simply isn’t very interesting.

This can’t be Hunnam’s fault; he has demonstrated plenty of charisma and thespic talent in projects that range from his lead role in 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, to his popular Jax Teller in TV’s Sons of Anarchy. The blame for Hunnam’s subdued performance here belongs fully to Gray, who obviously wished Fawcett to be presented in what often seems a trance-like state.

Actually, much of the film feels like a fever dream, thanks in great part to Darius Khondji’s shimmering cinematography and Christopher Spelman’s understated, almost hypnotic orchestral score. Both contribute to the film’s atmosphere of surreal obsession: a Joseph Conrad/Heart of Darkness tone that was captured far better by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo).

Despite Gray’s passive depiction of Fawcett, at least we learn something about the man, and what drives him ... although it could be argued that our knowledge mostly springs from what we observe during his interactions with his progressive wife, Nina, played with spunk and effervescence by Sienna Miller. She gives the film some desperately needed emotional vigor.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: Over-revved

The Fate of the Furious (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for relentless, excessive violence and destruction, and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.14.17

Well, here’s a reason not to get a car with computer-controlled ignition and navigational systems.

Dismayed by the realization that their buddy Dominic has gone rogue, the rest of the
gang — from left, roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Little Nobody
(Scott Eastwood), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and
Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) — ponders the next move.
You just never know when an evil megalomaniac bent on world domination might hack the vehicle, to crash it — and hundreds of others — into a Russian ambassador’s armor-plated limousine, in order to steal a suitcase containing the launch codes for all of his country’s nuclear missiles.

(Hey. It could happen.)

Although there’s some vicarious delight to be experienced from this and the many other big-ticket sequences in director F. Gary Gray’s newest installment in this franchise, The Fate of the Furious is a textbook example of wretched excess: too little substance, too much spectacle.

Way too much. At 136 minutes, this gas-guzzling behemoth is at least one spectacular action set-piece too long. Probably the final one, which races on and on and on.

Something important also has been lost, since this series debuted in 2001. Back then, the stunt driving was awesome, the gear-shifting thrills delivering plenty of accelerated excitement. But the newer films — and particularly this one — make it difficult to admire the efforts of stunt director Spiro Razatos.

It’s patently obvious that all the vehicular skirmishes have been sweetened (or perhaps fabricated entirely) by CGI wizards. The spectacle feels no more real than the outer space battles in the Star Wars franchise. Granted, the result remains suspenseful ... but it’s a lot more fun to be impressed by golly-gee-wow stunt drivers, than by a gaggle of artists hunched over computer keyboards.

The adrenaline-laden thrill has been lost.

As has some of this series’ humanity. As several characters in this new film repeatedly remind us, the most important thing — the only important thing — is family. That means characters interacting with each other, at something beyond a superficial level. The banter may be droll in Chris Morgan’s script, but Gray too frequently cuts away from potential emotion, in order to showcase yet another vehicular chase or smack-down fist fight.

The one exception is poor Dominic (Dom) Toretto, who gets put through the wringer this time. To the credit of star Vin Diesel, we definitely feel the guy’s anguish; even within his limited acting range, he’s adept at quiet despair and seething, barely repressed fury.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gifted: A thoughtful cinematic present

Gifted (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

Stage parents aren’t confined to Broadway theaters.

Indeed, they’re cropping up everywhere these days: from AYSO fields to reality TV shows — Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson’s parents really should be jailed, for child abuse — and from Suzuki music institutions to public school “gifted child” programs stalked by hyper-obsessive mothers and fathers.

When the obsessive/possessive Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) meets granddaughter Mary
(McKenna Grace) for the first time, she immediately tries to bribe the little girl with a
laptop computer: a gesture that her son Frank (Chris Evans), Mary's uncle and guardian,
finds all too familiar.
Somehow, in far too many cases, the child becomes either a commodity, a cash cow, or the instrument by which the parents live out their unfulfilled dreams. Either way, a tragedy.

All of which makes Tom Flynn’s charming, astute and frequently heartbreaking original script for Gifted quite well-timed. It feels authentic, with the perceptive savvy of somebody who has Been There. Indeed, he acknowledges — in the film’s press notes — growing up with a sister who was “the most unassuming, ridiculously smart person you’ve ever met. When she was 5, everyone in the family was afraid of her, she was so determined.”

Director Marc Webb must’ve been on the same wavelength, because he has coaxed an extraordinary performance from young Mckenna Grace.

We meet 7-year-old Mary Adler (Grace) on the opening day of first grade, as she reluctantly boards a bus after considerable coaxing by Frank (Chris Evans). He’s not her father, as we soon discover, but her uncle; they live modestly in a tiny community along the Florida coast, where he repairs boats for a living. They share their home with a one-eyed, orange-and-white cat named Fred.

Best. Movie. Cat. In. Years. (Just sayin’.)

Mary is no ordinary child, which becomes apparent to teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), during a math segment tailored for children accustomed to the basics of 3 plus 3.

No big deal, Frank hastily insists, when Bonnie later asks him about Mary’s ability to multiply large numbers in her head. It’s a trick; she uses the Trachtenberg System.

But Mary’s precocious nature — her best friend, aside from Frank, is their landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer) — also comes to the attention of the snooty school principal, Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel). Annoyed by Frank’s unexpected insistence that Mary remain in this school, as opposed to being transferred to a high-profile academic institution that’ll “better suit her gifts,” Ms. Davis digs into their past.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Going in Style: A stylish romp

Going in Style (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for drug content, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.7.17

Remakes rarely live up to their predecessors.

This is one of the exceptions.

Once Jesus (John Ortiz, second from right) realizes that his three new "friends" — from
left, Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) — are serious
about their desire to rob a bank, he does his best to save them from rookie mistakes.
Director Zach Braff’s re-booted Going in Style charms from beginning to end, thanks to scripter Theodore Melfi’s savvy update of the 1979 original. That film seriously misled audiences with an advertising campaign that promised droll hijinks from its veteran cast — George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg — when, in fact, it was a serious downer that became progressively more depressing.

Braff and Melfi learned from that mistake. Their new Style makes ample comedic use of its fresh trio of veteran scene-stealers — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin — while supplying some trenchant social commentary, which was absent the first time around.

It’s also obvious, in the wake of the Wells Fargo scandal and other recent examples of greedy, soulless financial skullduggery, that banks — and bank officers — are likely to spend the next several years competing alongside Nazis, as go-to movie villains. I can’t imagine a more fitting punishment.

Best friends Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) live across the street from each other in a fading Brooklyn neighborhood. Willie and Albert share one home, their combined pension and Social Security payments just enough to keep them in modest comfort. Joe has taken in his daughter and beloved granddaughter, Brooklyn (Joey King); his monthly pension check is barely enough to meet the mortgage.

Or it was, back when the checks still arrived. They’ve been absent of late, thanks to “restructuring” by the company that has absorbed Semtech Steel, where the three men spent their working careers.

The first body blow comes with a warning notice that the bank holding Joe’s mortgage is about to foreclose; the killing punch follows quickly, when a (very brave) Semtech flack gathers employees and retirees, and announces that the new corporate owners have moved all operations overseas. And that all pensions will be dissolved in order to help cover outstanding debt.

Adding insult to injury, this heartless financial rape will be overseen by the very bank holding Joe’s mortgage.